Hurricane Otis roared ashore shortly after midnight on Wednesday with 165mph winds and torrential rainfall, slamming into the coastal city where residents had little time to evacuate or prepare.
At least 27 people are dead and four are missing in Acapulco, according to Mexican officials, although those figures were met with distrust after local media reported that bodies in the city had not been recovered.
Social media was awash in posts from people seeking information about missing loved ones.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s visit to Guerrero state on Thursday was somewhat symbolic of the communities’ struggles as his vehicle became stuck in mud outside of Acapulco.
The president, known as AMLO, began walking roughly three miles to the city as his staff asked journalists to stop following them, according to local media reports. He later returned to Mexico City by helicopter, Bloomberg reported.
Mr López Obrador admitted that the government response had been hampered by the hurricane’s impacts during his visit to the city on Thursday.
“When is the government ever going to look after the common people?” one resident asked, according to The Associated Press.
The disaster renewed criticism of López Obrador’s policies including the fact he canceled Mexico’s widely-admired Fund for Natural Disasters, known as Fonden, in 2021.
At the time, Mr López Obrador, a folksy, left-wing populist, justified his decision by claiming Fonden was “an instrument riddled with corruption,” whose funds did not “reach the people”.
Mr López Obrador furiously accused his critics of playing politics during a tragedy and insisting the entire public budget was there to support the Mexican people.
“Why are we talking about this if we haven’t even begun the [relief] activities?” he said, at his morning briefing. “We are clearing fallen trees, looking for missing people, and they have this politically motivated attitude.”
In Acapulco, much of the city lay in ruins. Rural villages had also been badly-hit in Guerrero state, one of Mexico’s poorest regions.
Flora Contreras Santos, who lives on the outskirts of Acapulco, told The Associated Press that a neighbour’s three-year-old daughter had been swept away from her mother in a mudslide that occurred during the hurricane.
“The mountain came down on them. The mud took her from the mother’s arms,” Ms Contreras said. “We need help, the mother is in bad shape and we can’t find the girl.”
Acapulco, a once glittering vacation resort, has fallen prey to cartels and ensuing violence in recent years. Around a million people live there, in both luxury homes and hillside slums, sandwiched between the mountains and the Pacific.
On Friday, large parts of the city remained without power or drinking water. While there was some looting of expensive items, many people were searching stores for food and toilet paper.
Photos and videos showed a jumble of smashed yachts in the marina. Apartment buildings and hotels had hundreds of windows blown out, facades stripped off and collapsed ceilings.
Approximately 80 per cent of the city’s hotels were damaged by the storm, according to president of the Mexican Hotel Association, Miguel Angel Fong. One estimate put the damage in Acapulco at a minimum of $10bn.
Otis is the strongest-ever storm to make landfall on Mexico’s west coast. The hurricane underwent explosive intensification from Category 1 to Category 5 in just 12 hours, catching forecasters by surprise. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) described it as a “nightmare scenario” for the region.
Despite this, there was widespread criticism of the government for failing to use what time remained to warn people of the danger.
Mr López Obrador issued a warning about the storm on his Twitter account only a few hours before Otis made landfall.
Political rivals balanced criticism of the administration with calling for unity to support Acapulco. Senator Xochitl Galvez, rival of Mr López Obrador’s chosen nominee in Mexico’s 2024 elections, ex-Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, called the government “irresponsible” for not warning residents.
“Now is not the moment to trade blame, it’s the moment for all Mexicans to close ranks, to end division and focus on Acapulco,” she added.
Ms Sheinbaum paused campaigning in order to organize donations for hurricane victims.
The Mexican press was swift in its criticism of the delay. “Otis was certainly an atypical hurricane, gaining strength suddenly in the face of an unusual temperature of 30 degrees above sea level in the Pacific. However, there were hours to act and the government did nothing,” wrote columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio in the daily financial newspaper, El Financiero.
On Friday, officials said that supplies and medical personnel were now getting into Acapulco and people were being evacuated.
Mr López Obrador also said a “house-to-house” census would begin on Friday. “Everyone will receive support, more than 400,000 houses will be visited,” he said.
Still on Friday, hundreds of people were posting digital posters of loved ones online and joining neighbourhood WhatsApp groups in a desperate hunt for the missing.
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