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Hurricane Patricia Gives the Mexican President a Rare Chance to Look Good

Monster storm gives President Enrique Peña Nieto a rare chance to counter constant criticism for his handling of crises and scandal and bask in praise for his government's quick response.

by David Agren
Oct 26 2015, 11:30pm

Photo via National Hurricane Center

Hurricane Patricia promised to pack an unprecedented punch as it hit Mexico's Pacific coast last Friday evening with winds of more than 160 miles per hour, but the storm petered out quickly after crashing into the steep western Sierra Madre mountains.

The damage, in the end, was largely limited to a few coastal communities, jetsetter hideaways and coconut groves along a thinly populated stretch of the Costa Alegre, or Happy Coast. The official death toll stayed suck on zero.

"The damage done was nothing like what was expected," President Enrique Peña Nieto said on Monday. "The absence of lives lost owes much to the faith of Mexicans in themselves, and in the way we united to produce the strength that helped avoid disaster."

The president's unusually buoyant tone reflected the accolades his government received for rapidly mobilizing soldiers and civil protection agencies, opening shelters and evacuating thousands from coastal areas.

The praise contrasted with the intense criticism that has followed inept responses to natural phenomena in the past. The misery Tropical Storm Manuel brought to the resort city of Acapulco two years ago when working class barrios were flooded out — and later revealed to have been built by developers with improper permits — was one such case.

Hurricane Patricia also provided a rare chance for the president to gloat at the expense of some of his most committed opponents who struggle to view him outside of the widespread distrust in his administration — plagued by his aloof response to past crises ranging from the disappearance of 43 students after they were attacked by police to evidence of conflict of interest scandals involving his own family

Peña Nieto took to Twitter on Friday morning soon after Hurricane Patricia morphed into a Category 5 monster. "No hurricane of this magnitude has impacted the Mexican Pacific," he wrote.

In later tweets he echoed advisories from the National Hurricane Center in Miami that called Patricia the strongest ever storm in the Western Hemisphere as he urged the population to heed the instructions of the civil protection agencies.

The president also sent top officials to key points in the projected course of the hurricane ready to coordinate operations, at the same time as federal and state officials issued alerts that appeared uncommonly well coordinated.

Roberto Rodríguez, president of the National Water Commission, calmly explained in a widely shared video that the storm was stronger than some of the most destructive hurricanes hitting Mexico in past years. Those included Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which wreaked havoc in the northern metropolis of Monterrey and Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which dumped record rains on the resort city of Cancún in 2005.

People listened, too, and evacuated – with many seeking safety in the more than 1,200 government shelters.

"It has to be recognized that they've learned lessons," said Ilan Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University. "There have been advances."

Related: Mexicans Outraged — But Not Surprised — After Crony Clears President in 'White House' Scandal

In the end experts also stressed that the lack of deaths and limited damage done by the hurricane had as much to do with geography and luck as the quick reactions by the various levels of government in advance of the storm that had been expected to cause widespread flooding and trigger mudslides.

Hurricane Patricia made landfall near Cuixmala, a fishing outpost and site of a luxury lodge, and part of a narrow and thinly populated coastal plain between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta that quickly runs into high mountains behind.

"Nature was kind," Communications and Transportation Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza said in a press conference. "It made the hurricane go straight into the mountain."

Jaime Albarran Ascencio, meteorologist with Mexico's National Meteorological System, told the newspaper La Jornada that the maximum winds were concentrated in a band about 30 miles wide. This compared with the 300-mile-wide band of strong winds brought by Hurricane Gilbert, he said.

"People paid more attention probably because of past experiences," said Father Rafael Rico, director of charities for the Diocese of Autlan, which serves the hardest hit coastal communities.

The government message also resonated, "because it was in line with what the U.S. media was telling," said Rodolfo Soriano Nuñez, sociologist in Mexico City. "We Mexicans perceive Peña [Nieto] as extremely cynical."

But some opponents found it hard not to assume that there must be some kind of hidden dirty trick behind anything that made President Peña Nieto look good.

Related: Mexico's Official Independence Day Fiesta Was a Disaster

No sooner had Hurricane Patricia petered out on Saturday than the accusations began that the president had ginned up a crisis and exaggerated the strength of the storm for political purposes, turning disaster management into a media-made spectacle — not the first time such charges have been tossed at Peña Nieto who is one of Mexico's most image-conscious politicians.

"Peña Nieto's media-made Hurricane," screamed a headline from leading news weekly Proceso. "If #HurricanePatricia is as they say it is, it will be massively deathly. In hours we will know if it is only a Peña media show," ran author Álvaro Delgado's much retweeted comment on Saturday afternoon. 

Meanwhile, Peña Nieto has been taking advantage of the rare opportunity to appear ahead of the crisis-management game. On a visit to a flooded zone in the state of Colima the president noted the presence of an opposition politician and called out to him. "José Luis, are you here to help with the reconstruction or to do some politicking," he said, "because I am here to work for the reconstruction. No politics involved."

It was one of the few public appearances in a long time in which the president seemed to be enjoying himself.

"Their eagerness to deny every government achievement comes across as petty," Fernando Dworak, an independent political analyst, said of the president's critics. "He came out of this a winner." 

Related: A Mexican Town Mourns Its Missing, One Year After Being Engulfed by Mud

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero