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Mexico storms: An unnatural disaster

Mexico is counting the cost of tropical storms Manuel and Ingrid. But the reasons they’ve wrought such devastation are man-made.

MEXICO CITY — Another storm season has brought a fresh spate of death-dealing “natural” disasters to Mexico.

Simultaneously punching the Pacific and Gulf coasts this week, storms Manuel and Ingrid together have tallied nearly 100 deaths so far, with the body count certain to rise as isolated communities dig out and count their victims.

Though the weaker of the two cyclones, Manuel has been the far costlier. Hitting the Pacific resort of Acapulco and isolated mountain communities nearby as a tropical storm, it killed scores of people and destroyed many millions of dollars worth of property. Ingrid, a category 2 hurricane, claimed its own share of lives and wealth, but hit eastern lands long accustomed and adaptable to tropical fury.

As a tropical country Mexico is fated to endure such torments each year. But there is little natural in the extent of their impact.

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Leave aside the debate whether global warming intensifies the weather of the age. These storms ranked among the weakest of their kind. But local human folly provided more than enough cause for calamity.

Houses, hotels and stores have been built on flood plains and wetlands, in highland canyons and riverbeds. Mountainsides have been cleared of forests to feed illicit sawmills, making way for coffee plantations and fields for crops. Shoddy materials and poor engineers too often have built roads, bridges and tunnels.

“There is a shared responsibility,” Gustavo Alanis, executive director of CEMDA, a leading Mexican environmental group, told GlobalPost. “These types of things accumulate and create a greater tragedy. Greed prevails over other concerns.”

Manuel killed at least 18 people in Acapulco, a relatively light toll overshadowed by widespread damage to buildings and roads. The storm claimed far more lives in the rural mountains northwest of the city, where mountainside forests have been stripped bare by illegal logging or cleared to plant coffee trees and other crops.

The storm’s worst flooding in Acapulco concentrated near the city’s airport, a low-lying area bracketed by the sea and a brackish bay that has endured a construction boom in the past decade. Storm-shielding mangroves and wetlands have been destroyed, rain-absorbing soil paved over.

Hard hit was a teeming new working-class neighborhood called Colosio, one of hundreds of hastily and poorly constructed housing projects that have sprung up nationwide in the past decade. Entire families streamed out of their homes in often chest-deep water, dodging snakes and crocodiles from the lagoon.

“There have been land invasions… political deals,” Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre admitted at a Tuesday night press conference in Acapulco. “There are plenty of corrupt acts that have created a series of housing developments that never conformed to regulation or planning.”

Tens of thousands of tourists remained trapped through the week in the hotels along Acapulco Bay. Many had driven undeterred into the storm last Friday for a long weekend celebrating Independence Day on Sept. 16.

Landslides and mud-choked tunnels closed the glitch-plagued toll expressway to Mexico City as well as other roads out of the coast. Flights were saturated, their frequency slowed by flooding on several of the airport’s runways.

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Rescuers continued digging into a landslide that buried multiple houses in the village of La Pintada, in the socially explosive mountains 25 miles inland from the coast northwest of Acapulco. Eighteen bodies have been recovered and nearly 60 people remain missing.

Peasant activists have been fighting illegal logging and other land-clearing schemes in those mountains for decades. A number of them have been murdered for their effort, the latest of them a mother and her son gunned down last December.

Deforestation continues unabated. And this week’s heavy rains have washed away much of the near harvest-ready corn and bean fields that replaced the trees.

La Pintada’s dead and missing attracted much national attention. But others of the largely indigenous communities in the mountains “have been invisible” in Manuel’s wake, complainedTlachinollan, a human rights group based in the mountains southeast of the resort. “Up to now government actions haven’t been implemented to tend to the damages.” 

As the communities were digging out from the storms, President Enrique Peña Nieto led Thursday’s commemoration for victims of the 1985 earthquake that claimed as many as 30,000 lives in the Mexican capital.

The quake response by city and federal governments was inept and rife with corruption. Both governments were controlled by Peña Nieta’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The public’s fury over the relief efforts helped bring an end to the PRI’s 71-year iron grip on Mexican politics.

That lesson hasn’t been lost on Peña Nieto and his aides this week.

Sleeves rolled up, they’ve been touring the stricken areas, promising aid, coordinating relief efforts, offering words of encouragement, hugging women and patting men’s backs.

“This emergency is a priority for the government,” Peña Nieto said Wednesday in a visit to a community hit by Ingrid’s rains. “For that reason I’ll be personally involved in… visiting the areas of major impact and informing public opinion to what is happening.”

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Reborn as a weak hurricane, Manuel slammed Thursday morning into the northern state of Sinaloa, where heavy flooding was reported in the region’s mountains.

Meanwhile, yet another tropical front gathered strength in the lower Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters say it’s likely to become a cyclone of some strength within days, and will eventually target northeastern Mexico. 

Seeking pardon, Acapulco’s mayor has described Manuel as the worst storm in five decades. But landslides and flooding from 1997’s Hurricane Pauline killed as many as 500 people there, scraping entire neighborhoods down the mountain hillsides into Acapulco Bay.

The city, and Mexico, have had plenty of warning.

“Flooding and landslides have affected mountain and coastal populations for decades. Yet construction in high risk areas with low-quality materials and a lack of procedure continues in vulnerable areas,” El Universal, a leading Mexico City newspaper, points out in a Thursdayeditorial.

“Today more than ever it’s urgent to plan.”