Environment: Killer floods cause havoc in Acapulco

El Nino, the climatic phenomenon that distorts weather the world over, is reaping a bitter harvest in Mexico. Floods in Acapulco have killed over a hundred.

She disappeared as quickly as she had come but left Mexicans and foreign tourists in a state of shock. No one will forget the day Pauline came to Acapulco.

As the hurricane winds died to an eerie whisper yesterday, residents of the popular Pacific resort faced the gruesome task of trying to find the bodies of missing relatives among the hundreds of corpses recovered after Thursday's disaster. Holding handkerchiefs over their noses, they walked between rows of deformed, flood-bloated bodies, including several children in pyjamas or nightdresses, laid out on the concrete floor of the Acapulco municipal morgue.

Mexican officials confirmed at least 122 dead, mostly in Acapulco. Also badly hit were the rest of the state of Guerrero and the neighbouring state of Oaxaca. More than 250 were injured and dozens were still missing. One report spoke of three German tourists missing from a nudist beach resort at Zipolite.

Meteorologists warned that although Pauline had faded from a Category 3 hurricane to a mere tropical depression yesterday over southern Mexico, she could stage a revival farther north, closer to the US border, over the weekend.

Experts at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami said the suddenness and unexpected fury of Pauline, as well as the speed with which the hurricane dissipated, appeared to be the result of the so-called "El Nino" (The Christ Child) weather phenomenon. Under the phenomenon, warm Pacific currents off the west coast of South America are pushing farther north than usual, changing weather patterns along the coast.

"It's a normal hurricane season in the eastern Pacific. We've had 16 named storms, eight of which developed into hurricanes," said Frank Lepore, a National Hurricane Centre spokesman. "But typically, if they start off Mexico, they head west-north-west out into the open ocean. With the warmer waters, they are now tending to go north and north-east on to land, including the south-western United States."

That is what happened last month when Hurricane Linda - the most intense hurricane ever recorded, while it was over the eastern Pacific - caused widespread flooding in south-west Arizona. Hurricane Nora also dumped unprecedented rainfalls on Arizona.

El Nino has also been blamed for recent floods in Peru, off whose coast the phenomenon originates, and Chile, where tens of thousands of people have lost their homes and floodwaters have brought a worrying upsurge in the virus-spreading rat population.

The Hurricane Centre in Miami expressed surprise that El Nino, which had not been expected to reveal major effects until around Christmas, had shown itself so early. They said the phenomenon could be followed by the reverse effect - dubbed La Nina (The Little Girl) - as the warm currents that had moved north shift back southwards. That could bring serious drought to Mexico and the southern US, they said.

In Acapulco, a partying and gambling mecca for the Hollywood stars of the Forties and Fifties, and more recently a haven for Mexican politicians and millionaires, the effects of Hurricane Pauline served as a reminder of Mexico's wealth gap. The American-style high-rise chain hotels along the beach emerged unscathed but for eroded beaches and flooded cellars, while the shanty towns above, on the 3,000-ft ridge behind the city, were devastated by landslides.

Mexican peasants from inland Guerrero or other states flock to Acapulco and build simple homes while looking for work as waiters or maids, or other jobs serving those who sip pina coladas in the hotels or night-clubs below.

Most of the dead were swept away, many while still in their wooden homes, as driving rains turned normally dry river beds into raging torrents and mudslides. Boulders the size of cars were swept downhill, crushing homes. Horrified neighbours watched as one stone house plunged downhill as though it were a raft negotiating rapids. Bodies could be seen protruding from mud, arms outstretched as though they had been desperately trying to grab something solid.

"We were asleep when the water came smashing through our living-room. We all got out alive except for my sister," Rafael Diaz Servin, a 35-year- old waiter, told a Reuters reporter as he stood over his sister Laura, covered by a sheet of blue plastic, in the morgue.

Cars and bodies littered Acapulco Bay, ever known as the world's cleanest zone. The city had been trying to clean up the bay, traditionally polluted by direct sewage from the city, but most tourists preferred to stick to their seafront hotel swimming pools. In the newer tourist resort of Huatulco, the Sheraton hotel appeared to have lost its entire beach yesterday. And in Puerto Escondido, where surfers from around the world flock to ride a breaker known as "The Tube," beachfront restaurants and bars were swept away.

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