During the passing of Hurricane Otis, Estela Sandoval Díaz found herself in a state of panic, seeking refuge in her small concrete bathroom. As the storm tore off her tin roof, she feared it could be the end for her.
Along with it were lost clothing, savings, furniture, photos, and 33 years of Sandoval’s life that he had carefully built on the neglected outskirts of Acapulco, Mexico.
Sandoval was one of many individuals who experienced devastation when the most rapidly intensifying hurricane in the Eastern Pacific caused severe destruction in the coastal city of 1 million. The Category 5 hurricane destroyed a majority of Acapulco’s homes, resulting in at least 45 fatalities. The storm also caused bodies to wash up on the shoreline and left much of the city struggling to find food.
As officials focused on bringing stability back to the tourist hub of Acapulco, they were also busy clearing trees and restoring electricity to the area’s towering hotels. However, residents like Sandoval, who are among the city’s poorest, expressed feeling neglected. Along with hundreds of thousands of others, they endured two hours of fear last week and now must confront the daunting task of rebuilding their already vulnerable lives.
Sandoval expressed frustration that the government is unaware of our existence. They prioritize the resort areas and neglect the less attractive parts of Acapulco.
The feeling has been brewing in the city for a while, but it has intensified as numerous people accuse the government of abandoning them to take care of themselves in the aftermath of Otis.
The aftermath of the hurricane is being addressed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has sent out over 10,000 soldiers and 1,000 government employees to assess the situation. He also mentioned that there are 10,000 packages containing essential items such as refrigerators, stoves, and mattresses that have been gathered and are prepared to be distributed to affected families.
Last week, he promised that everyone will receive support and can rely on us.
However, only a small number of the many individuals interviewed by The Associated Press reported receiving assistance from the government and did not have high expectations for future aid.
Over many years, Sandoval and her family have resided in close proximity to the beachfront skyscrapers and upscale shops located in Acapulco’s most fashionable area, known as the Diamond Zone.
Despite their unfortunate living conditions in a two-room concrete house with no access to clean water and unpaved roads, the residents of Viverista never experienced any glamour. Known as the “sunken neighborhood” among locals, this area is consistently affected by natural calamities.
Three years prior, Sandoval felt immense joy and satisfaction as she finally had enough savings to install a concrete floor and a metal roof on her home to prevent it from flooding during rainstorms. However, that moment now feels like a distant memory as Sandoval and her children sift through their waterlogged possessions on Friday.
“I was overjoyed to have a strong roof and a beautiful home. However, for the first time, I am at a loss and don’t know what to do,” the 59-year-old expressed. “I doubt I will live another 20 years to be able to repair it.”
The area around their residence was filled with foul-smelling water up to their ankles. Sandoval, along with her spouse and two nearby residents, were sleeping under a makeshift shelter made of metal leaned against the house. She searched through her bedroom, assessing the damage and strategizing how to conserve water and gas for cooking.
The Mexican government has recorded a minimum of 220,000 houses that have been damaged and reports that 47 individuals are still unaccounted for. Many citizens anticipate an increase in the number of fatalities, citing the government’s sluggish reaction and the widespread destruction. A prominent business leader in the city estimates that the death toll will surpass 100.
Officials from the military, public security, and forensics departments informed the AP that they are not authorized to disclose information on the number of deaths or the ongoing efforts to locate bodies. In the meantime, numerous distressed relatives frantically searched for their missing loved ones.
On Saturday, López Obrador blasted critics of his hurricane response, saying journalists and the political opposition had exaggerated casualties. He said Mexico’s security minister would provide an update on the human toll “without lying.”
López Obrador expressed that their focus is not on the well-being of others, but rather on causing harm. Their ultimate goal is to create chaos and place the blame on us by causing a large number of fatalities.
In just a few hours, Otis rapidly grew from a tropical storm to the most powerful hurricane to strike the Eastern Pacific region, catching people off guard. Numerous specialists believe that the unexpected surge in intensity was caused by the impacts of climate change, as rising ocean temperatures provide energy for storms such as Otis.
Climate scientist Jim Kossin stated that there has been a significant increase in occurrences of rapid intensification events, which are quite remarkable. He also mentioned that this aligns with our expectations as the climate continues to warm.
The aftermath of the storm has once again highlighted the unequal impact of the climate crisis on impoverished communities and nations.
Sandoval and her spouse were awoken at midnight by the strong winds reaching speeds of 165 mph (266 kph) and the sound of trees falling. They quickly ran out of their home and sought shelter in a square-meter bathroom made of concrete. They held onto the plastic doors as the hurricane threatened to rip them off.
At 2 a.m., when she came out and looked through the consistent rain, Sandoval noticed that her furniture was wet and her fridge, stove, and other belongings were ruined. She described being able to sense a feeling of sadness in the air.
Due to a lack of food, water, and gasoline, and the absence of cellphone reception, Sandoval and her family were limited to scavenging for necessities in empty supermarkets. As devoted followers of López Obrador, they hoped he would fulfill his pledge. However, after waiting for several days, the only indication of government assistance was the sight of navy helicopters flying above.
She stated, “When you’re fully consumed by something as delicate and chaotic as this, you can’t help but wonder when they will arrive.”
Numerous other individuals encountered the identical inquiry.
After the storm, the city fell into chaos. Debris and fallen trees obstructed the main road and for a full day, the entire population of 1 million was disconnected from the rest of the world due to the lack of cellphone signal.
Sandoval and numerous others resorted to taking essential items such as food and toilet paper from looted stores, and extracting gasoline from damaged gas stations using tubes. People with ongoing health conditions desperately searched for the medication they required to stay alive.
On Saturday, individuals searching for food in warehouses reported waiting for hours under the hot sun for a government aid truck to arrive with supplies, only to discover that there was not enough for everyone.
Kids were seen on the side of the road holding up empty water bottles, while families cried out, “Please help us! We’re in dire need!” as they watched cars with broken windshields and military trucks drive by.
Natividad Reynoso, a resident whose plant-selling business to hotels was destroyed by the storm, is concerned that this could lead to the permanent collapse of Acapulco’s primary source of income.
“We are a city of Acapulco that thrives on tourism,” stated the 41-year-old.
Over the weekend, cell service was being repaired, assistance was being provided, and the army was removing debris and fallen trees from the central part of the city. This was in stark contrast to impoverished neighborhoods where disorder still prevailed.
Eleazar García Ramirez, a 52-year-old fisherman, was trying to process the destruction while working on a damaged boat on the beach, surrounded by debris from other boats and fallen trees.
He stated that he has been spending his time diving into the ocean to retrieve swollen corpses floating next to sunken boats.
He endured the rough weather while overseeing a fishing boat, as his boss had requested. He was afraid that declining would result in losing his job.
He stated that this is our source of sustenance, and there are not many job opportunities in Acapulco.
According to him, the deceased individuals that he and his team discovered were primarily fishermen who were afraid of losing their source of income, or yacht captains who were instructed by their owners to remain on the vessels. Officials stated that the majority of the corpses recovered in the past few days had died from drowning.
García Ramirez and his fellow fishermen brought their boats to the shore of Manzanilla Beach in the city as Hurricane Otis was categorized as a Category 2 storm. One of their friends stayed behind to keep an eye on a boat that was situated 20 meters (yards) away from the shoreline.
García Ramirez was on a boat that was being dragged by the waves. He heard someone shouting “help me!” while he held onto the metal poles of the boat.
After gazing into the dark night, he spotted his friend’s boat adrift in the sea. However, his friend was nowhere to be seen.
He expressed sorrow over the fact that numerous individuals were forced onto these ships against their will, as their employers deemed them insignificant. They showed no concern for the workers’ welfare, only prioritizing their own financial gain.
Seth Borenstein, a science writer for the Associated Press in Washington, and photographer Félix Márquez in Acapulco, Mexico, both contributed to this report.