The destruction Hurricane Otis caused along the scenic Pacific Ocean coastline of Acapulco is striking, but for the hundreds of thousands of people in the Mexican state of Guerrero living beyond the city’s wealthier hotel district, the storm’s wrath was catastrophic.
“There are no words” to describe the disaster, Enrique Hidalgo, a volunteer from Mexico City, told CBC News. He described the “smell of dead people” in the air and the heartbreaking pleas from children for food and water, in a state where Mexico’s government says more than 50 per cent of the population lives in poverty.
Otis struck with an intensity that caught forecasters off guard when it barrelled ashore on Oct. 25, growing into a Category 5 storm within 12 hours of becoming a hurricane and battering Acapulco and other parts of Guerrero with sustained winds of 266 km/h — and even stronger gusts hitting up to 330 km/h.
Although Otis moved out almost as fast as it arrived, it will take years and billions of dollars to recover from the devastation and the losses to the tourism industry, the backbone of the region’s economy.
Major aid operations have not yet reached many places outside Acapulco — smaller communities where the hurricane ripped wood and tin-roof homes to shreds. But even if survivors’ immediate needs are addressed, the long-term effects of Otis may push them further into poverty and leave them vulnerable to crime and exploitation.
The towns where Hidalgo dropped off supplies — including food, water, blankets and mattresses — are “completely destroyed” but have been forgotten in media coverage that has focused on the damage and losses in Acapulco’s tourist district, known as Zona Diamante (Diamond Zone), he told CBC News in Spanish, translated by Rosi Orozco, an anti-human trafficking advocate who organized the aid delivery.
He said no major agencies were present in the areas he visited on the weekend and that armed Mexican soldiers he saw were there only for security, not to provide relief.
WATCH | Survivors of Otis forced to start from scratch after homes destroyed:
Featured VideoResidents of Acapulco, Mexico, are sifting through what remains of their homes and belongings after Hurricane Otis battered the area. Many have no option but to rebuild using what’s left, with one man likening it to ‘starting life from scratch’ as he sat perched above the wreckage of his home.
Path to destruction
Ivonne Piedras, the campaigns manager for Save the Children Mexico, said it’s been very difficult for aid groups to respond to the disaster.
Otis damaged or destroyed nearly 400 hotels, according to the Mexican government, so there is little accommodation for relief workers. As well, communication and electricity were cut off after the storm and still aren’t fully restored nearly two weeks later.
The organization was able to deliver aid over the weekend to Acapulco and the municipality of Coyuca de Benítez, another tourist locale about 35 kilometres up the coast, where a combined 250,000 families have been affected by Otis.
Save the Children’s workers saw damaged schools and hospitals, while stores had been picked clean of food and other supplies by looters, Piedras said, highlighting the urgent need for assistance.
But she said reaching the hard-hit, poorer areas on the outskirts of these urban centres — let alone the communities further inland — is even more challenging due to the state of damaged and debris-covered roads.
The longer people wait for assistance and for vital services like water and sanitation to be restored, the more likely they will be at risk for water-borne illnesses and other health concerns such as malnutrition, which can impact people — especially children — for years, said David Sislen, a practice manager for urban, disaster risk management and land at the World Bank.
A family that doesn’t have access to financial protections can end up suffering “very long-term impacts from an event that only lasts a day,” he said.
WATCH | Otis strikes Acapulco with unexpected force:
Featured VideoAcapulco and Mexico’s surrounding southern Pacific coast have been devastated by Hurricane Otis’s unexpected force. At least 27 people are dead after what’s being called the worst storm to ever hit Mexico.
Risks to children, families in aftermath
The loss of homes and income could leave many families — especially children — vulnerable to crime, human trafficking and sexual exploitation, said Rosi Orozco a former member of Mexico’s congress who works with a U.S.-based non-profit organization called Called that assists trafficking survivors.
Even before Otis, there were “two different Acapulcos,” she said of the divide in wealth disparity and quality of life outside Zona Diamante.
Acapulco’s tourism industry has long fuelled child sexual exploitation and human trafficking in the state of Guerrero, with organized crime groups largely operating with impunity.
“Children [face] such a huge risk now,” Orozco said. She fears some families may be left without work indefinitely and become desperate enough to “sell their own children” into slavery or that gangs will recruit young people to carry out violent crime.
Save the Children’s Piedras said the risk of being lured into organized crime also highlights the urgent need for mental health care, especially for young people.
Children suffering from depression and trauma can develop aggressive attitudes that can make them susceptible to recruitment into organized crime, something she said has been seen after other emergencies.
But parents can be perfect targets for criminals as well, Piedras said, because of the stress and increased demands of trying to earn enough money to support their families through adversity.
“Desperation can push people to make bad decisions,” she said, and organized crime groups can offer easy solutions to meet financial needs.
Reducing future risks
While the needs of the marginalized population are acute, the World Bank’s Sislen said the reconstruction of the tourism sector is also a priority — considering how many people in and around Acapulco are employed by hotels, restaurants and related businesses and are now without any source of income.
The Mexican government unveiled a plan last week to assume half of the interest rates on bank loans to help rebuild the 377 hotels that were destroyed or heavily damaged by Otis, although it did not offer direct loans for the reconstruction.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also announced an aid package equivalent to $4.8 billion Cdn that includes money for rebuilding homes, although early estimates put the cost of recovery at four to five times higher than that.
But the Mexican government — and all governments facing the increased risks of extreme weather events brought on by human-caused climate change — need to spend the same amount of time and resources on reducing risks ahead of time as they do on recovery, Sislen said.
“Our [World Bank] analysis shows that for every dollar invested in prevention, you save four dollars in [disaster] response,” he said.
Another World Bank study from 2015he said, projected a worst-case scenario of 122 million people being pushed into poverty by 2030 because of climate change. A later report raised that projection to 131.5 million people.
To avoid future disasters pushing people into long-term “poverty traps,” Sislen said, building resilient infrastructure and housing is “imperative for all of us.”