Caritas establishes ‘humanitarian bridge’ for hurricane-stricken Acapulco

People stand near street stalls damaged by Hurricane Otis near the entrance to Acapulco, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, Oct. 25, 2023. Hurricane Otis tore across Mexico’s southern Pacific coast as a powerful and dangerous Category 5 hurricane, unleashing massive flooding in the resort city of Acapulco and setting off looting as desperate residents grew tired of waiting for help to arrive. (OSV News photo/Henry Romero, Reuters)

by David Agren

(OSV News) — The morning after Hurricane Otis stormed through Acapulco as a Category 5 monster, Father Leonardo Morales surveyed the damage and saw total destruction.

“It looked like a war zone,” Father Morales, archdiocesan Caritas director, said in WhatsApp messages shared with OSV News. “It hit everyone.”

People in Acapulco have been left to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Otis battered the already down-on-its-luck tourist destination. The storm made landfall Oct. 25 as the strongest hurricane to hit Mexico’s Pacific Coast with winds reaching 165 mph.

Caritas chapters across Mexico have established collection centers and sent donations to Acapulco, which was left incommunicado after the storm and so badly battered that electricity still hasn’t been fully restored.

CoreLogic, which models catastrophic risks, estimated the insurable damage in Acapulco at between $10 billion and $15 billion, while some 63% of buildings on the city’s tourist strip were damaged, according to a satellite analysis by Copernicus Emergency Management System.

Many of Acapulco’s residents lived in poor neighborhoods of self-built dwellings, which were obliterated in the storm, according to clergy familiar with the city. The situation has been aggravated by businesses being unable to open amid shortages of water and electricity — and many stores having been looted after the storm.

As of Nov. 6, the death toll stood at 47 with 56 missing, according to the Mexican government.

The Archdiocese of Acapulco has provided spiritual support and started celebrating Mass daily, though main parish churches remain damaged. It also has established three collection centers for receiving supplies from other parts of Mexico — including the Cristo Rey Cathedral, which had its roof ripped off — along with nine parish soup kitchens.

“Help is arriving from Caritas chapters in other states,” said Father Morales.

At least 100 tons of aid have been delivered to the Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, some 65 miles north of Acapulco, according to Father José Filiberto Velázquez, diocesan director of social ministries. In the touristy city torn into pieces, every basic necessity is urgently needed, including clean water.

But getting assistance into Acapulco is no easy task. Father Velázquez traveled to Acapulco the morning after the hurricane struck — a journey that took eight hours rather than the normal 90 minutes as mudslides had closed the highway — to contact his Caritas colleagues and determine a plan of action.

Caritas donations arrive first in Chilpancingo, capital of Guerrero state, due to a lack of storage space in Acapulco, then are taken to the port city in small vehicles to avoid security issues such as looting and the difficulties of entering the area with large vehicles.

“Chilpancingo-Chilapa has become a humanitarian bridge for everything en route, volunteers, supplies, all of it,” Father Velázquez told OSV News.

The needs in Acapulco are enormous, he added, explaining, “It’s a port city and its main source of employment is tourism. None of that is functioning now. Many people have already left.”

Mexico’s bishops have called for solidarity with Acapulco and urged generosity.

“In Mexico, we have always shown solidarity after cyclones and earthquakes. People participate,” Bishop Salvador Rangel told OSV News from Acapulco, where he was helping with relief efforts. Bishop Rangel led the Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa prior to his retirement in 2022.

The response comes amid criticism of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has yet to visit Acapulco and used his morning press conference the day after the hurricane to speak of a poll purportedly showing him having a high approval rating.

“It’s as if Acapulco has been orphaned,” Bishop Rangel said. “The storm hit everyone, rich and poor.”

López Obrador has announced a relief plan of 61 billion pesos (roughly US$3.4 billion), though his party in Congress has declined to approve additional funding for Acapulco in the 2024 budget. The president also announced plans to have the military deliver all assistance — to the exclusion of civil society, which he criticized in his press conference — though assistance from nongovernmental groups has arrived in Acapulco.

“A stronger, firmer response is needed” with the government and civil society working together, Bishop Rangel said. “The government isn’t going to do everything.”

A Nov. 5 editorial in the Archdiocese of Mexico City publication Desde la Fe urged for the rebuilding of Acapulco to include a reconstruction of the social fabric — in a city rife with drug cartel violence and sharply divided between glitzy tourist districts and impoverished and ignored “barrios,” neighborhoods.

“Within the tragedy, the opportunity opens to carry out a comprehensive reconstruction of our beloved Acapulco, which restores the tourist shine of yesteryears and also allows its inhabitants to access better living conditions,” the editorial read.

“[It’s] a strategy in which we are called to participate: all, without political colors, without privileging a few and without benefiting only some social sectors,” it added.

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