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Mexico's storm devastation raises questions

Critics suggest authorities were too slow in evacuating key areas in the eye of the storm.

Last Modified: 19 Sep 2013 15:36
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A collapsed bridge in Guerrero state after heavy rains and landslides hit the region [EPA]

Mexico City, Mexico - Political recriminations are underway in Mexico as the death toll, devastation and economic cost from two simultaneous storms escalated on Thursday.

At least 80 people have died in 10 states since Sunday amid widespread flooding and landslides caused by Hurricane Ingrid on the Gulf coast and Tropical Storm Manuel on the Pacific coast. It is the first time Mexico has been battered by two tropical storms within 24 hours since 1958.

Further misery and destruction seemed inevitable after tropical storm Manuel was upgraded to a category grade 1 hurricane as it approached Sinaloa with 120kph (75mph) winds. The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) warned of "life threatening flash floods and mud slides" in the northwestern states of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Baja California, with up to 38 centimetres (15 inches) of rain and gusts of 128kph (80mph) forecast for the next 24 hours.

The fact is the National System of Civil Protection failed; if the system had operated correctly, then Acapulco would not have been full with tourists.

- Congressman Manuel Huerta, Worker's Party (Partido de Trabajo)

The death toll is expected to rise Thursday with dozens of people still trapped within flooded areas as marooned communities and emergency services battle against the adverse weather and inaccessible roads.

In just one incident, 58 people were confirmed missing in the mountainous village of La Pintada, Gurrero after a landslide crushed 30 homes. The local mayor said 15 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage, but rescue efforts were being hindered by a collapsed bridge that had left the coffee-growing community inaccessible by road.

"It doesn't look good, based on the photos we have in our possession," said Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

Tourism woes

As communities in high-risk areas of Sinaloa were sensibly evacuated to safe shelters Wednesday night, there was growing criticism about the failure to evacuate coastal and riverside communities in Guerrero, before the floods and landslides left tens of thousands stranded.

Guerrero has suffered 48 deaths and some of the country's worst damage so far, prompting the Economic Minister Ildefonso Guajardo to pledge MXN100 million ($8.3m) in support for affected small and medium-sized businesses. The storms have undoubtedly added to the woes of the embattled state, which has become Mexico's most deadly with more than 1,400 murders since President Enrique Nieto Pena came to power in December 2012.

The coastal resort of Acapulco in Guerrero, once a favourite with Hollywood stars, has degenerated into Mexico's most murderous city. But significant resources have been invested to rebuild the tourist industry and clean-up the city's image by making the resorts no-go areas for the drug cartels and other criminal groups.

It was a big blow, therefore, when 40,000 angry tourists were left stranded as major floods closed the airport and many roads. The army - with the help of commercial airlines - began airlifting tourists to Mexico City on Tuesday, but more than half still await a route out. No foreign nationals are among the dead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, however the looting and chaos over the past few days will have done nothing to bolster current re-branding efforts. Acapulco's roads are expected to re-open Friday.

A riot policeman in Cancun, Mexico shields the rain [AP]

On Wednesday, several national newspapers started to suggest that authorities had neglected evacuation plans in Guerrero because they were too caught up in public holiday festivities. The two storms initially struck land as the nation prepared to celebrate the War of Independence on Monday, with extra events - and resources - also planned to mark the 100th anniversary of the army.

The first official storm warnings were issued by the National Coordinator of Civil Protection via Twitter on Saturday, when it was still more concerned about Ingrid than Manuel. The risks posed by Manuel to Guerrero were clear by Sunday morning, but still no evacuations were carried out.

Military and civil protection experts interviewed by the respected Mexican newspaper La Jornada accused authorities of "underestimating tropical storm Manuel" and a "lack of coordination", which could at least partly be blamed on officials being distracted by the independence day celebrations.

Opposition politicians in the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico's lower legislative house) also accused the federal government of issuing warnings too late.

Congressman Manuel Huerta, from the Worker's Party (Partido de Trabajo), said: "The fact is the National System of Civil Protection failed; if the system had operated correctly, then Acapulco would not have been full with tourists. In Cuba there are more challenging meteorological phenomena, but people do not die because they have the correct measures in place."

Pointing fingers

Meanwhile, Congressman Victor Manuel Jorrín directed blame at the National Commission for Water (CONAGUA). "Conagua knew which areas should have been cleared when the Savannah River and lagoon [in Acapulco] had too much water, but it did not do this in time."

More than 1.2 million people have been affected by the storms so far this week as three-quarters of the country suffered heavy rainfall. This is already Mexico's most deadly tropical cyclone season since 2005, with a month-and-a-half still to go.

Residents wait for help in Acapulco [AFP]

While most eyes are now on hurricane Manuel, further dangerous floods are also forecast for parts of eastern and southern Mexico. Low pressure just west of the Yucatan Peninsula has a 70 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone within the next 48 hours, the NHC said.

The two-pronged sustained weather assault is threatening to overwhelm emergency services. The Red Cross has so far delivered 80,500 kilos of aid to Guerrero, Veracruz and Tamaulipas on military planes, but it renewed an appeal for donations and volunteers on Wednesday.

The government has refused to put a figure on the economic costs of the storms, but more than 30,000 homes, hundreds of roads and bridges have suffered significant damage during the past few days. Farmers in Tamaulipas and Veracruz have reported catastrophic damage to seeds and crops.

Finance Minister Luis Videgaray confirmed MXN12bn ($1bn) in federal disaster funds would be released, of which half could be made available almost immediately, he said. However, Videgaray admitted the final reconstruction costs would be "very substantial" and it was "too early" to say whether the disaster fund would prove adequate.

Reconstruction

Irrespective of the money, only time will tell how the embittered power struggles between state and federal governments, endemic corruption and cartel violence, affects the reconstruction efforts.

Nieto, the first Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) president in 12 years, said on Wednesday he would cancel his attendance at this weekend's United Nations General Assembly, if the country needed him. This came hours after he insisted the storms would not slow down Mexico's development, and called on citizens to be strong in the face of climate adversity.

Thursday marked the 28th anniversary of another natural disaster, which had manifold political and social ramifications. In 1985 the autocratic PRI government was significantly weakened and civil society hugely strengthened after an 8.1 magnitude earthquake devastated Mexico City, killing more than 10,000 people.

The government and presidential response was widely considered incompetent and authoritarian, and corrupt officials were blamed for allowing the construction of thousands of unsafe buildings that duly collapsed. It was considered by some as the beginning of the end of PRI's one-party rule in Mexico.

It's too early to know what the political fallout form these storms will be, but the president knows his response will be closely scrutinised as this disaster continues to unfold.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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