In the worst natural disaster to strike Mexico since a 1988 storm, Hurricane Pauline swept through this tourist mecca early Thursday, leaving at least 124 dead in the region--with some estimates twice as high--thousands homeless and untold millions of dollars in damage.
Most of the dead were counted in and around Acapulco, a port city usually filled with carefree Mexican and foreign tourists. The powerful storm left Acapulco “unrecognizable,” according to one report--strewn with uprooted trees, overturned cars and dead bodies.
Morning light revealed bodies and garbage floating in streets and along La Costera Miguel Aleman, a famous resort strip skirting Acapulco’s oceanfront. Roads were covered in ankle-deep mud and pocked with boulders, some the size of washing machines. By evening, many parts of the city remained cut off either by landslides or flooding. City officials said there were isolated incidents of looting, and soldiers were patrolling streets.
High winds and nonstop rain--20 inches in less than 24 hours--sent torrents of water rushing down the drought-parched hills surrounding Acapulco through poor barrios. Seven landslides were reported around the city.
Late Thursday, Pauline was downgraded to a tropical storm and was reported about 100 miles east-southeast of the coastal resort of Manzanillo, losing speed and strength. Flood warnings remained in effect.
No Americans were reported among the dead or missing, said a U.S. Embassy official in Mexico City.
Guerrero state prosecutor Antonio Hernandez said the death toll in Acapulco stood at 105 Thursday evening, but that number was expected to climb, perhaps to double. In neighboring Oaxaca state, state government spokesman Leandro Hernandez confirmed 19 deaths.
In the hills above rain-soaked Acapulco on Thursday evening, Alfredo Morantes, 25, and his wife, Blanca, 18, surveyed their neighborhood known as Colonia Morelos. A river of mud and rocks had swept across the road, now guarded by soldiers in rain ponchos.
The couple said they were in their tiny house about 5 a.m. when they were awakened by the noise of rain. Suddenly they heard a louder noise and looked outside to see a wall of mud bearing down on them.
“It looked like lava,” Alfredo said. “There was a huge noise. I grabbed my son and we ran.”
The Morantes’ house was destroyed. But they said many people died in their neighborhood because they could not escape in time.
Morantes said he also saw several people trapped in the swirling river of water and mud.
“I saw two boys. The current swept them away,” he said. “They didn’t realize how high the water was.”
A soldier standing guard nearby said 49 bodies had been identified in the neighborhood.
A mile away, 58-year-old Rafael Avila, a school administrator and resident of the Alto Progreso working-class neighborhood, gazed at a yawning gap in the hillside where his street had been.
He said a neighbor’s home was demolished by the flood of water and mud that cascaded through the area.
“The water and dirt just swept the wall of the house away. The furniture went flying,” he said.
Meanwhile, authorities were still trying to reach the most devastated areas to recover bodies and clear rubble. Several bridges in Acapulco and other coastal cities were reported to have collapsed, hampering rescue efforts.
At the entrance to the ritzy Punto Diamante neighborhood, home to some of Acapulco’s fanciest hotels, coffee-colored water swirled knee-high in the streets. Passersby could see brick houses half-submerged in flood waters, their occupants having apparently fled.
A soccer field grandstand in the same area had been torn apart, its aluminum seats crumpled like scrap paper. At the elegant Princess Hotel, where puddles spotted the huge stone-floored lobby, conventioneers and would-be beach-goers sat glumly in the open-air foyer.
A Mexico City veterinarian, 31-year-old Alfonso Ortega, said he was trapped, unable to attend a conference downtown because it was cut off by flooded roads. “Everything is flooded,” he said.
But damage to the dozens of high-rise hotels along Acapulco’s “Gold Coast” was described as minimal compared to that suffered by the rest of the city.
In Oaxaca state to the south, officials said Pauline’s winds destroyed two small villages, Puerto Angel and Zipolite, the latter a secluded getaway favored by nudists. About 40,000 residents of the state suffered damage to their homes, livestock or other possessions, a spokesman for the country’s Interior Ministry said.
Roads to Puerto Escondido, another beach town favored by tourists, and to Puerto Angel remained blocked off. And officials said downed power grids in Oaxaca could take days to repair.
Officials were still assessing how many people had been left homeless by the storm, though at least one said the number was in the thousands.
Airports at the cities of Acapulco, Ixtapa, Santa Cruz Huatulco and Oaxaca were all reported closed Thursday. Water and power were cut off in areas of Oaxaca state, though most neighborhoods of Acapulco reported service Thursday.
The Red Cross headquarters in Mexico City issued a plea for clothing, paper goods including disposable diapers, blankets, bottled water and soap. About 30 tons of goods were en route from the capital to the affected areas, spokesman Pedro Mucharroz said.
Weather officials blamed the storm and its harsh effects on El Nino, the meteorological phenomenon that has changed weather patterns in some parts of the world. El Nino first brought drought to the region surrounding Acapulco last summer and then helped create the conditions that spawned Pauline.
Officials at the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said Mexico has been hit previously by only one hurricane more powerful than Pauline--in 1959. And only Hurricane Gilbert, which killed more than 200 people and devastated the Yucatan Peninsula in 1988, may have been deadlier, even though it was not stronger.
But Mexican officials, who have seen four hurricanes threaten or assault their shores so far during the current storm season, say Pauline has been uniquely destructive. “We have never seen a hurricane like this, never with this kind of impact,” Interior Ministry spokesman Carlos Iriarte said.
President Ernesto Zedillo, on a state visit to Germany on Thursday, said in a statement that federal transportation, interior, housing and emergency relief officials will visit the storm zone today to assess damage and coordinate relief efforts.
Kraul reported from Mexico City and Sheridan from Acapulco. Times news assistant Robert Randolph in Mexico City contributed to this report.