As water rose to the roof of his home – nearly covering it as it has covered 80 percent of the Mexican state of Tabasco – Oscar Durango says there was nothing else to do but pitch in.
"I lost everything," he says, standing in the hangar at the airport of Tabasco's state capital, Villahermosa, before loading baby food and bottles of water into military helicopters for the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans displaced by the nation's worst flooding in 50 years. Mr. Durango is surrounded by a dozen other volunteers. All have lost their homes. "The only thing you can do is help others," he shrugs.
It's estimated that half of the 2.2 million residents of this southern, oil-rich state have been turned out by the floods. From the air, the state looks like a single lake with roofs and treetops poking out of the brackish water like islands. Most of the capital is submerged, and tens of thousands of Mexicans are still stranded, a scene suggestive of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Military officials say they're trying to rescue some 300,000 Mexicans still left stranded in their homes, including many on their rooftops.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who flew over the flood-hit state Friday, called it one of the worst natural disasters the country has ever seen. He was schedule to visit again Sunday. Potable water is scarce, and electricity is off in many parts of the state. There have been some reports of looting. But many Mexicans here remained calm, lining up patiently for food supplies and to place calls from local phone booths. Cellphone service is spotty. Many say the volunteer effort here – from Mexicans across the country – is among the largest they've seen.
"The solidarity has been overwhelming," says Norma Cardenas, the director of the state's Institute of Culture who now is in charge of Villahermosa's largest refugee shelter.
Flooding began last week after nonstop rain caused several area rivers to overflow. Tabasco is a low-lying region prone to flooding, but Gov. Andres Granier, who compared it to New Orleans, said it was the worst inundation the state has seen in 50 years. While the floods have reportedly claimed only one victim in Tabasco, on Sunday seven other deaths were attributed to the flooding in the neighboring state of Chiapas.
Officials say many challenges lie ahead, particularly disease prevention once the water recedes. The economic toll has not been tallied, but officials say that all the state's crops, including its famous Tabasco peppers, have been ruined.
Streets leading out of Villahermosa were packed as residents headed for shelters in neighboring Veracruz. There are more than 450 shelters operating throughout the state, according to Max Romero, a spokesperson with the Red Cross in Tabasco.
At the largest one here, set up in the parking garage of an upscale local department store, there are more than 4,600 people – a quarter of whom are children, says Ms. Cardenas. .
On Saturday evening, families at the shelter were coming in for medical attention, watching television, and sprawled across sleeping mats that pack the parking garage. Garments hung from clotheslines. Two clowns walked around entertaining children. During the day, says Cardenas, many of the men left to fill sandbags. The shelter is full, so she says she's been turning away people.
While the atmosphere is generally calm, some are desperate for word of their loved ones. Damari Geronimo says that the last time she spoke with her mother, father, and little brother, they were on the roof of the elementary school, an hour from Villahermosa. But since the cellphone service went out, she has heard no news. "We have no idea where they are," she says. "I just need to talk to them."
Volunteers from across Mexico have come to help. Raul Toledo Dehesa, who works for the government of Mexico City, arrived Saturday and immediately went to a relief center. He says Mexico City has donated firemen, medical teams, and 60 tons of water, food, and medicine collected from residents there since the flooding started. "We are here to help. Tabasco is confronting what is truly a tragic situation," says Mr. Toledo Dehesa. Some banks in Mexico City stayed open on Friday, a national holiday, to receive donations. "I have never seen this kind of solidarity."
Villahermosa was largely paralyzed this weekend. Cellphone service was restored for many users, but lines formed around food distribution areas. Hordes of residents lined the gates that enclose the central command center of the Mexican Marines, asking for help finding their families and for supplies. Many parts of the city were made inaccessible. "For the most part it is calm here now, because people are outside the danger zone," says one marine, who was not authorized to speak on the record, as he drove through the streets of the capital.
Many organizations are still focusing on those who are still in their homes, a process they admit is slow, as those stranded are plucked from their roofs via helicopter or boat. "We are still rescuing a lot of people," says Mr. Romero.
The acts of kindness are many, as Mexicans spontaneously help man refugee shelters and take in family members and strangers. Petrona Cruz, a single mother, lost her home and had enough time only to take one suitcase. She could not find space in a shelter, she says, so the employer of her son, a security guard for a local newspaper, allowed her family and two others to stay in a vacant office space. "Thank God for him," says Ms. Cruz. "Otherwise we would have no place to sleep."
Like others, she says she isn't thinking about the future or what she has lost, but is focusing on survival. For many that means focusing on the many who are still much worse off. "We are going to have to start rebuilding everything, from the bottom up," says Durango. "But for now, we are going to help those who have not been as fortunate as we are. We are here."