The death toll in massive flooding in southern and central Mexico rose to 57 on Wednesday as desperation mounted in the cut-off resort of Acapulco, where residents looted a store and thousands of exhausted, despondent tourists waited to be ferried out by air.
Gun-toting state police guarded the entrance to a Costco store in Acapulco, hours after people looted the partly flooded outlet on one of the city’s main boulevards, carting off shopping carts full of food, clothing, and in some cases flat-screen TVs.
Hundreds of people waded through waist-high brown water in the store’s parking lot on Wednesday, fishing out anything — cans of food or soda — that looters might have dropped. Others shouted for the now-shuttered store to be re-opened.
“If we can’t work, we have to come and get something to eat,” said 60-year-old fisherman Anastasio Barrera, as he stood with his wife outside the store. “The city government isn’t doing anything for us, and neither is the state government.”
Mexico was hit by the one-two punch of twin storms over the weekend, and Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said 57 storm-related deaths had occurred.
The country could get another double blow by week’s end. A tropical disturbance formed over the Yucatan Peninsula on the country’s eastern tip and Tropical Depression Manuel — the same storm that battered Acapulco — regained force in the Pacific. It was expected to hit Baja California on the country’s far west as a renewed tropical storm.
With the twin roads from Acapulco to Mexico City closed down, at least 40,000 tourists saw a long holiday beach weekend degenerate into a desperate struggle to get weeping children, elderly parents and even a few damp, bedraggled dogs back home.
Two of Mexico’s largest airlines were running about two flights an hour from Acapulco’s still-flooded international airport Tuesday, with priority for those with tickets, the elderly and families with young children.
Everyone else who couldn’t wait for the government’s promise to reopen the roads within two days flocked to Air Base 7, about 20 minutes north of Acapulco, where a military air bridge made up of barely more than a dozen aircraft ferried tourists to Mexico City. The normally quiet beachfront installation was transformed into a scene from a conflict zone.
Families in shorts and sandals waited for as long as eight hours outside the gates of the base, held at bay by rifle-toting soldiers until they were allowed to drag suitcases, pet carriers and red-eyed children across the tarmac, where they jostled furiously for a chance at one of the 150 seats on the next departing Air Force Boeing 727.
Military officials said only two of the passenger planes were in service, although a few hundred people got seats on one of the five helicopters or seven cargo planes also pressed into emergency duty.
Many told of spending the weekend trapped by torrential rains inside their hotels, emerging to discover there was no way back home.
“It’s probably one of the worst holidays I’ve ever been on,” said David Jefferson Gled, a 28-year-old from Bristol, England, who teaches English at a private school in Mexico City. “It wasn’t really a holiday, more of an incarceration.”
By the end of Tuesday, 24 hours after most vacationers were supposed to be back, about 2,750 people had been flown out of Acapulco, the Guerrero state government said. But many still waited miserably on the runway or, worse, with thousands of other sweating, blank-eyed people in a roughly quarter-mile-long line outside the base.
“It’s horrible. We haven’t eaten anything since nine in the morning,” said Lizbeth Sasia, a 25-year-old teacher from Cuernavaca. “They keep telling us we’ll be on the next flight, but the next flight never comes.”
Adding insult to injury, a few immaculately dressed families skipped the line and were escorted to private jets by soldiers, to the incredulous stares of the sweltering masses.
“We’re cooking here, burnt. We’re tired, desperate,” said Irma Antonio Martinez, a 43-year-old housewife from suburban Mexico City who came to celebrate the three-day Independence Day weekend with 12 relatives. “We just want to get home to our poor house. Our families are waiting for us.”
Asked how she felt, Juana Colin Escamilla cradled her toddler daughter and was able to get out one word, “bad” before she burst into tears.
Some cash machines along Acapulco’s coastal boulevard were low on bills, but most of the city’s tourist zone appeared back to normal, with roads clear, restaurants and hotels open and brightly lit and tourists strolling along the bay in an attempt to recover some of the leisure time lost to three days of incessant rains.
Gavin McLoughlin, 27, another teacher at Mexico City’s Greengates School, said he went to Acapulco on a late-night bus Thursday with about 30 other teachers at the school, many of whom are in their 20s.
“We had no idea of the weather,” the Englishman said. “We knew there was a hurricane on the other side but not this side.”
Federal officials said it could take at least another two days to open the main highway between Mexico and Acapulco, which was hit by more than 13 landslides, and to bring food and relief supplies into the city of more than 800,000 people.
City officials said about 23,000 homes, mostly on Acapulco’s outskirts, were without electricity and water. Stores were nearly emptied by residents who rushed to stock up on basic goods. Landslides and flooding damaged an unknown number of homes.