The Cutzamala River, Tierra Caliente, Mexico. All photos by the author
The hard rains of the storm that would become Hurricane Manuel hit southern Mexico on September 15. In the two weeks since Manuel made landfall, the storm and the resulting devastation have killed more than 100 people and displaced tens of thousands across the country. The damage has been especially severe in Tierra Caliente, a rural region spread across parts of Guerrero, Michoacan and Mexico State.
Last Tuesday, I drove out there from Mexico City with Juan Espinosa, a representative of the Federación Mexicana de Motonáuticas, a group that’s best described as an officially sanctioned bunch of guys who like to race speedboats hundreds of miles down rivers. Our destination was Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero. The 125-mile drive took about five hours over winding two-lane mountain highways in a white 12-passenger van. The van was stocked with 150-odd cardboard boxes filled with toothpaste, lentils, tuna, rice, oil, soap and other supplies for victims of flooding brought on by the hurricane.
Ciudad Altamirano is a small but spacious city of about 25,000 that’s a commercial hub for the surrounding towns. Because it sits on a plain between two rivers, Ciudad Altamirano is sometimes referred to as the Mesopotamia of Mexico. Its Euphrates and Tigris are the Balsas River, which wraps around the city to the southwest, and the Cutzamala River, which joins with the Balsas just north of the city. Over the years, Juan explained, the Federación Mexicana de Motonáuticas has held frequent races here and developed an attachment to the community and strong relationships with the residents.
A house by the Balsas River teetering on the edge of sinkhole.
When Manuel hit Tierra Caliente, officials from Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission decided to open four doors of the El Caracol dam, located about 60 miles up the Balsas from Ciudad Altamirano. If they hadn’t, they said, the dam might have broken. But the result was that the river expanded exponentially, rapidly overflowing its banks and washing away bridges, buildings and people – including some who were asleep in their homes. “They opened four doors and all the water that came over here was no longer the Balsas River, it was the sea,” Ignacio de Jesús Valladares Salgado, the mayor of nearby city Teloloapan, told the newspaper La Jornada.The Electricity Commission has since been criticised for failing to give sufficient warning to communities who lived along the river, as well as opening the dam too hastily in the first place.
Residents of Ciudad Altamirano were more focused on recovering what remained of their possessions and lives rather than apportioning blame. The water had receded, leaving behind only piles of mud and debris. But access to affected communities on the western side of the Balsas was still limited, thanks to the destruction of the bridges. Many towns had only just had their electricity and phone lines restored after five days in complete isolation. And there was still fear another storm would hit the region, causing the Cutzamala to spill over its banks too.
While Juan went off with some firefighter friends to look for a place to deliver the supplies that was both in need and accessible, I tagged along with two members of the local volunteer paramedic rescue service: Agustín Jaimes Salgado, who helped found the group 25 years ago, and Miguel Ángel Morales Benítez, all of 15 years old, who had just joined up. Neither had ever seen anything like this flood. Their base was run out of a tiny local mortuary, where Agustín’s Red Cross certificate in vehicle extraction hung above a small refrigerator next to a painting of Jesus and a coffin-display rack.
Our first stop was a community center that had become a combination volunteer base, shelter, kitchen, collection center and infirmary. Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest states, and its government is famously ineffective at everything from responding to natural disasters to fighting the drug cartels – so much so that people have taken up arms themselves to fight the narcotics trade. Volunteers I spoke to said that most of the food and supplies they’d received had come from private donations, some from as far away as the southern US. The federal government’s presence had been practically nonexistent. Many ambulances, rescue boats and inflatable hospitals had been sent from Mexico State, whose governor, Eruviel Ávila, was spoken of reverentially by everybody from victims who lost their houses to the director of the local disaster response organisation, Germán Portillo Vargas.
It’s not clear that Ávilawas providing help out of a purely altruistic impulse, however – he’s a member of president Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and is considered by some to have presidential ambitions himself. Assisting the state of Guerrero, which is governed by Ángel Aguirre Rivero, a member of the rival leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), is, among other things, a fine way to highlight his competence and win votes away from his opposition. While the infusion of aid by Mexico State into Guerrero is welcome, it might also be considered an act of political gamesmanship.
Two volunteer paramedics taking a break in a garage that doubles as a fire station.
Not that it particularly mattered to those on the ground. Germán had the look of somebody operating on pure adrenaline, ordering volunteers from disparate responder groups about as if by reflex. He said that this municipality (Pungarabato, which includes Ciudad Altamirano) was lucky to be on the side of the river with access to Mexico State by highway. He spoke into my tape recorder without pausing to be asked questions, like he was delivering a radio announcement.
“Emergency response groups were alerted immediately and the municipal plan for extreme climate events was activated here in Pungarabato,” he said. “But as everyone knows, this overwhelmed our competencies, locally, and at the state level. Now finally, the federal government is intervening.”
That federal intervention was slow to be felt. The food supplies and kitchen were managed by Yolanda García Eriza, whose day job was being secretary to the wife of the municipal president. The biggest challenge, she said, was bringing food out to the more isolated locations where smaller shelters and kitchens were feeding people who had returned to attempt to clean up their homes, or who had been unable to leave in the first place. Packages of ramen and canned foods were piled up on the floor. As I left, the kitchen was serving a late breakfast of tuna, tortillas and black beans to a group of architects in town to help inspect building damage.
We set off down Ciudad Altamirano’s main street for what was left of a bridge across the Balsas to the nearby town of Coyuca de Catalán. As we drove, we passed a point where storefront businesses operating regularly – soda and chips for sale, handcrafted wood furniture on display – gave way to ruined ones. Workers shoveled mud out of inundated businesses and onto the streets; gas stations stood empty, their pumps having been completely ripped away by the river. Before we reached the bridge, we were stopped by a police blockade where there were hundreds of people milling about and minibuses and taxis crowding along the edges of the road.
At its highest point, Agustín said, the river had reached some 2,600 feet inland. We went by a building uprooted from its foundations and teetering on the edge of a massive sinkhole. Pieces of the bridge were visible floating downstream, concrete jutting above the waterline like small islands. Work crews had replaced a missing segment of the bridge with dirt and scaffolding so pedestrians could cross from Coyuca de Catalán into Ciudad Altamirano to buy food and supplies and responders could cross the other way. Those running the taxis and buses, meanwhile, were happy to capitalise on the carlessness of Coyuca de Catalán residents, who came back over the river with brooms and paper towels and bags of peppers. As I snapped a photo of a large yellow building sitting precariously on the banks of the river, Agustín told me it had been a restaurant located about where we stood, a ways inland. “It had a dance floor,” he said.
The yellow building had been picked up and tossed hundreds of yards by the storm.
Agustín also wanted to show me a neighbourhood that had been totally swamped. We drove back through the center of town and caught another road upriver. He pointed out an ambulance parked outside a mechanic’s shop – it was one of just two such vehicles owned by the local paramedics, and it had been sitting in the shop for three months because they were short 8,000 pesos ($605) to repair it. The paramedics got no kind of help from the government, he reminded me.
Colonia Timangaro was located along a bend in the Balsas. I say was because the residents I spoke to there think much of the neighbourhood will now be a shell of its former self. The flood sped up the natural erosion process so much that the homes nearest the river have been rendered uninhabitable, too vulnerable to rising water. The men of the neighbourhood were out in the street cleaning up what they could while the children wandered around, exploring the new shoreline and searching for buried treasures among the debris. The three women I spoke to – Amalia Bernacho Pérez, her mother and her daughter-in law – didn’t seem to know what to do.
“Ya no sirve para vivir,” Amalia kept repeating, wandering aimlessly through what remained of her property. “It’s no longer fit for living.”
The water had risen practically to the ceiling of their home of 60 years, and there were streaks still visible on the walls from the passage of the flood. The toilets and sinks had been torn away by the force of the water and were nowhere to be found. Amalia motioned to the barren strip of shore remaining between her home and the river. It had been lush with trees, she said, and the family had kept chickens and pigeons. Now there was only loose dirt, scattered cinderblocks, a single toppled-over brown tree. It was as if the water had stripped the colour from everything in its path.
Amalia was thankful that they had at least been able to get the refrigerator and beds out of the house and onto higher ground before the flood, and especially thankful, thank God, that nobody in the neighbourhood had been hurt. Even her 95-year-old bedridden father was now resting in relative comfort in the church, which had more or less dried out. She hoped for some help from the government finding a new place to live, but had little faith that it would actually come. “Todo se acabó,” she said. “It’s all over.”
Amalia Bernacho Pérez stands by the back door of her ruined home.
After checking on the supply of food and fresh water in Colonia Timangaro, Agustín drove me to another section of the riverbank, where I hitched a ride on a Mexico State police speedboat loaded with clear plastic bags of supplies. The officers had been there for about two days, they said – more police would be coming soon to work in shifts, sent by Ávila. Shortly, we arrived at a town of 2,500 called Changata, and one of the cops warned me to stick close to the shore or I’d be kidnapped. It may have been histrionic, but it was a reminder that law enforcement doesn’t have a good grip on Tierra Caliente, even in the best of times.
The shore was packed with police and lines of men of all ages passing supply bags up from the boats into piles a safe distance from the river, an operation that seemed at once spontaneous and perfectly ordered. The village had been submerged under 30 feet of water, said Simon Nicanor Damaso, a middle-aged resident working the line. Most of the houses were ruined completely and filled up with mud. People were sleeping in them anyway. There was nowhere else to go. The bridges had all been destroyed.
“The houses went. There’s no work,” said Simon. “There’s no nothing. Food is finally arriving thanks to Mexico State.”
Those on the beach said Changata got hit by the storm on Wednesday, September 18, and the first rescue boats didn’t arrive until Saturday. Electricity and telecommunications returned on Monday night. The schools were still closed, and many people had been injured. I asked if there had been any looting and they said no – perhaps they were safe because the town was so isolated.
Residents carrying food in from boats in Changata.
Other areas hit by the storm were less fortunate. Officials I spoke with acknowledged there had been looting and other criminal activity, but were resigned to it. They had bigger things to worry about. One volunteer told me he had just returned from the town of Nuevo Guerrero and compared the damage there to Iraq. “It was like bombs fell,” he said. He showed me pictures of what looked like Aztec artifacts, statuettes that had been found in people’s living rooms after the storm – unearthed from the bottom of the river. The story was confirmed by another volunteer who had more photos. The citizens who found the artifacts, however, were afraid to reveal their identities for fear they would be stolen.
That fear was part of a deep-seated mistrust of institutions common among those I met in Tierra Caliente. The government and its agents were presumed useless until proven otherwise. It didn’t matter if it was because they were too overwhelmed to help, as in the case of the Guerrero government, or seemingly uninterested in doing so, like the federal government. As Simonin Changato put it, “And from President Peña Nieto, nothing. He’s just posing for photos in Acapulco.” He spoke of Ávila admiringly, as others did, because by taking action, the governor of Mexico State was the exception that proved the rule.
That evening, I drove with Juan back to Mexico City in the van, now empty of supplies. Juan was contemplating making another run to Ciudad Altamirano in the following days. As we drove up into the mountains, he pointed out that we were in an area where law enforcement couldn’t show its face. It was controlled by narcos, he said. Soon after that, traffic began to slow. The highway was blocked by three men holding rifles. One wore a mask, another wore a soccer jersey. When we reached them, the third approached our window. Juan explained where we had been, where we were going. He waved us through.
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