ACAPULCO, Mexico — In a city without water, electricity or gasoline, where desperate people have been allowed, even encouraged, to take essential goods from damaged stores since Hurricane Otis smashed Acapulco, state police officer Raúl Gallardo stood guard over a mountain of excess.
Gallardo explained the distinction authorities have been making — in some cases — between what people can take and what would end up in his pile.
People can take “what you can consume — water, tuna, mayonnaise, that you can take,” he said. What isn’t allowed is big-ticket items — “appliances, for example,” he said, swiveling to point at the refrigerators behind him. “What’s not within the basket of basic foodstuffs, you can’t take.”
Despite government promises that aid was on the way in a big way, people did not wait.
Acapulco’s desperate residents cleaned out the city’s largest stores in three days. It was not isolated to any particular neighborhood or carried out under cover of darkness, but widespread and in full view of authorities, who have conceded they do not have the resources or in most cases the will to intervene.
It is in part the result of a government reaction delayed by the historically fast strengthening of a storm that no one forecast to go from tropical storm to catastrophic Category 5 hurricane in 12 hours. It is also a continuation of a government strategy that addresses problems — drug violence, natural disasters — with personnel, but not necessarily the tools to resolve the situation.
At least 27 people died in the storm, but hundreds of people were still searching Friday for loved ones.
Gallardo was evasive about whether the goods he and other police and National Guard troops were guarding in a parking lot at an intersection on a main boulevard had been seized or just abandoned because of their weight.
There were cases and cases of beer, a big purple recliner, a rolling desk chair, a pink loveseat, and bottles and bottles of scotch whisky.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gently chided people to not overreach Friday.
“That those who always take advantage, those who always loot or look for personal advantage, don’t let it happen and be sure that everyone will be helped,” the president said.
Across Acapulco large stores were cleaned out. Shelves were not only bare, but in some cases the shelves themselves and the ladders that allowed employees to stock them were gone.
Throughout the city, people could be seen pushing shopping carts full of goods. Large items were strapped to the roofs of cars. One man on a motorcycle was pulling an improvised sled full of what appeared to be bedding as it fishtailed down a muddy street.
Gasoline has been unavailable, not because there isn’t any, but because there is no electricity to operate the pumps. On Friday, a line of hundreds of people ran outside a supermarket in a seaside working class neighborhood where men had broken open a gas pump and were filling up people’s empty plastic bottles.
Most families anxiously hunted for water, with some saying they were rationing their supplies. The municipal water system was out because its pumps had no power.
All the way down the city’s main coastal boulevard, department and grocery stores were left gutted, first by the hurricane and then by residents.
“If I were the owner of those stores, I would never reopen them,” Eduardo Ahedo said as he worked to repair his small eco-hotel, Wayahnb’al, near the avenue.
Ahedo’s cone-shaped adobe rooms appeared to have fared fairly well, but Otis blew out windows and the solar panels that had powered his business and turned his pool an uninviting green.
If government aid, in the form of loans, doesn’t materialize soon, businesses like his may have to close.
“We’ll close completely, we’ll disappear. That’s the most likely thing” Ahedo said.
López Obrador said Friday that a government commission would meet with Acapulco’s tourism sector. There would be an evaluation of which businesses had insurance.
“We’re going to speak with insurers so they don’t delay the paperwork, that they act fast,” he said. “Those who don’t have insurance, we’re going to look for how they can get cheap credit.”
The president was resolute, though he offered few details: “We have to get Acapulco on its feet as soon as possible. That is the plan in general: Help the people affected, and at the same time have tourism get back to normal in the beautiful port of Acapulco.”
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