As Tabasco floodwaters recede, a spirit of recovery – and humor

Thousands are still living in shelters, but take boats back to retrieve valuables.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Down a street where the water has swallowed the cars and telephone booths, Eric Perez waits in a long line for a boat ride home.

The queue is for residents going to visit houses they were forced to abandon this past week, when floodwaters submerged most of the state of Tabasco. Their ferries are police or military boats or dinghies piloted by private citizens helping out. And they return not knowing what to expect.

Mr. Perez hops into a yellow raft with some family members and a few neighbors. Their boat is guided by volunteers from an adventure rafting team, who normally carry tourists in the neighboring state of Veracruz.

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Nearly a week into the worst natural disaster in Mexico's recent history, hundreds of thousands in the state of Tabasco remain homeless, living in shelters, in the living rooms of neighbors' homes, or on the second floors of their flooded homes. Some 80,000 people, say officials, are thought to be trapped in remote areas of the state, but as floodwaters begin to recede, government officials say the relief effort is shifting from rescue to recovery, and not unlike the recuperation that marked the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, this state is preparing for a long and difficult process.

"We are in Stage 2 now," says Mario Bustillos, a Tabasco government employee who is helping to manage this dock – about 10 blocks from where the river's edge would normally be. His work includes organizing the transport of goods to residents who refuse to leave their homes, and shuttling back residents who need to retrieve their belongings. "It is going to be a long stage," he says.

On Monday, the streets of the state capital, Villahermosa – which remain a grid of canals instead of streets – were filled with residents. Many are anxiously making their way back to their homes, or preparing to take out clothes, pets, and anything else they need. A canoe passesfilled with computer monitors and hard drives; other boats carry dogs and chickens. It is eerily quiet.

Some residents attempt to swim down the streets. But most turn to volunteers like those from the rafting company Mexico Verde. The tour operator sent five rafts and 16 volunteers from Vera Cruz on Saturday to help reunify families, rescue animals, and pitch in any way possible. Mr. Bustillos says at least 250 volunteers like them are participating in the relief effort.

Perez hops out of the Mexico Verde raft, and looks across at his home, a second-floor apartment. "It's not ruined," he says with an exhale of relief. "Still we can't live there." He wades waist-deep in water across the street, unlocks his door, and flashes a thumb's-up sign: Nothing is stolen.

Officials estimate that nearly 1 million of the state's population of 2.2 million have been left homeless, their homes either completely destroyed or unlivable because of water damage and lack of drinking water or electricity. Hundreds of shelters across the state are full. Many residents have been bused to neighboring states. Many volunteers from Mexico City arrived Sunday night to set up another refugee center here in front of government buildings.

President Felipe Calderón visited Tabasco on Sunday, promising generous relief aid from the government. "We are seeing one of the worst natural catastrophes in the history of the country," he said, on his third tour of the devastated area in the past week, "not only because of the size of the area affected, but because of the number of people affected."

A full mass on Sunday

Noon mass on Sunday at Villahermosa's cathedral was overflowing. Many had to stand in the plaza outside the church and listen to the service via speaker. The priest, at the end of mass, dedicated nearly a half hour to providing tips on how to prevent disease and ration food.

Maria del Carmen and her husband, Ranulfo Lopez, an elderly couple, brought food and medicine to the church, which is also doubling as a refugee shelter. Cotton sleeping mats and clothes were folded up underneath the pews. "It brings peace to be in church, and we are praying for our brothers," says Ms. del Carmen, nodding toward the man in front of her, Jose del Carmen. He's a bricklayer's assistant and father of two who lost his home and is sleeping in the church with his family.

While the fear of renewed flooding has dissipated, some residents are now turning to hard questions about their future. Rebeca Hernandez, who is staying in a refugee shelter, has been standing in line for an hour and a half to see her home for the first time. "I'm afraid we have lost everything," says Ms. Hernandez, a mother of two. "I'm not sure what we are going to do."

Many people are going back to their homes to retrieve their most valuable belongings. Perez, for example, pulls his gas oven from the house, and loads it into a motorboat. He is going to take all the clothes he needs, too. "I don't know when we'll be able to move back," he says.

Officials say that once the water fully recedes, the threat of disease lurks, and the economic toll on the state will be massive.

But for now residents seem patient, even upbeat. Victor Hugo Arias, who came as a volunteer with Mexico Verde, says that most people have shown enormous resolve. "They are so positive," he says, "even funny."

Wait, I'm in the shower!

On Saturday, he says, a man approached his group desperate, saying his friend was trapped. When they finally got to him, navigating the streets in rafts, they shouted up to his friend's window.

"Give me five minutes," came the reply. "I'm just finishing up a shower."

As the Mexico Verde boat turns the corner, another homeless resident, Carlos Garcia, looks incredulously at what used to be his street. "Oh my," he says.

And then his neighbor calls out to him from his house and hands him a bottle of oil and a note. It's from his wife, from whom he's been separated. A love note? Not quite.

It is a list of everything she wants him to do, he says, and rolls his eyes.

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