ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) – Emergency flights began arriving in Acapulco Tuesday to evacuate some of the tens of thousands of tourists stranded in the resort city by flooding and landslides that shut down the highway to Mexico City and swamped the international airport.
The death toll rose to 38 from the combined punch of Tropical Storm Manuel, which hit Acapulco and hundreds of miles of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and Hurricane Ingrid, which battered the Gulf Coast over the weekend. Though Ingrid was a hurricane offshore, it weakened to a tropical storm as it made landfall.
As many as 60,000 tourists, many of whom traveled from Mexico City for a long holiday weekend, found themselves stranded in Acapulco, with the airport flooded and highways blocked by landslides and flooding caused by Manuel.
While many hotels were operating normally, many of the outlying neighborhoods of the city were without water or power service, and floodwater was knee-deep around the check-in counters of the city’s airport.
Federal officials said it could take at least another day to open the main highway to Acapulco, which was hit by more than 13 landslides from surrounding hills, and to bring food and relief supplies into the city of more than 800,000.
Two of Mexico’s largest airlines, Aeromexico and Interjet, began running flights to and from the still-swamped international airport.
Those with already purchased tickets were being given first priority, then families with small children or elderly members, officials said. Interjet’s director told Milenio TV that his airline’s first flight had landed just before 11 a.m., and was taking 150 passengers back to Mexico City.
The operation was slowed by flooding that had shut the terminal and rendered its radar inoperative. So passengers had to board directly from the runway. Airline director Jose Luis Garza said the airline hoped to run between four and six such flights Tuesday.
The Guerrero state government said 40,000 tourists were stuck in the city, while the head of the local chamber of business owners said reports from hotels indicated the number could be as high as 60,000.
Many emerged from their hotels for the first time Tuesday morning after days of pelting rain.
“We realized the extent of the disaster for the first time because we were closed in and only saw rain and flooding,” said Alejandra Vadillo Martinez, a 24-year-old from Mexico City who was staying with seven relatives in the Crowne Plaza hotel overlooking the Bay of Acapulco.
The main coastal boulevard was open Tuesday morning and most hotels appeared to have power, water and food, though that was little consolation to tourists unable to get home.
“We’ve realized that it was a mistake to come to Acapulco because all we saw was rain, rain, rain,” said Guadalupe Hernandez, a 55-year-old housewife from Mexico City.
The situation was far more serious on the low-income periphery of the city, where steep hills funnel rainwater into neighborhoods of cinderblock houses.
City officials said some 23,000 homes, mostly on Acapulco’s outskirts, were without electricity and water. Stores were nearly emptied by residents who rushed to stock up on basics as the dimension of the storm damage became clear. An unknown number of homes were badly damaged by landslides and flooding.
Natividad Gallegos, who lives in a poor section of Acapulco, said she returned from shopping Monday to find house buried by a landslide from a neighboring hill.
“When I got home I saw a lot of strangers with picks and shovels, digging where my house used to be,” she said, weeping.
She said she lost six members of her family in the landslide, including her two children.
The coastal town of Coyuca de Benitez and beach resorts further west of Acapulco – including Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo – were cut off after a river washed out a bridge on the main coastal highway.
Marcela Higuera, who runs a bread stall in the Coyuca market, said the only aid that had arrived so far was a helicopter that rescued stranded flood victims.
“Flour’s already run out. There isn’t any in Coyuca,” she said. “This is the worst storm that I’ve seen.”
“There are hundreds of people in shelters and they’re begging for clothes and blankets because everything they have is wet. They had to leave without taking anything.”
She said the Coyuca River had not only swept away the bridge, but also riverside restaurants, and had flooded low-lying neighborhoods.
Remnants of Manuel continued to drench Mexico further up the Pacific coast and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said there was a chance it could regain force near resorts at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula.
Mexico’s Gulf Coast states meanwhile were trying to recover from Hurricane Ingrid, which drove tens of thousands of people from their homes and blocked highways. That storm was dissipating over northeastern Mexico on Tuesday.
The Mexican government said the country had not seen a similar weather crisis since 1958, when it was simultaneously hit by two tropical storms, also on separate coasts.
The governor of the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz announced that 12 people died when a landslide smashed into a bus traveling through the town of Altotonga, about 40 miles northwest of the state capital.
More than 23,000 people fled their homes in the state due to heavy rains spawned by Ingrid, and 9,000 went to emergency shelters. At least 20 highways and 12 bridges had been damaged, the state’s civil protection authority said.
Source: Associated Press