Mexico floods: quick response, not enough disaster prevention

Mexican soldiers have been lauded for their response after hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel caused flooding and mudslides. But can Mexico do more to prepare for disasters?

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
A civil defense member takes pictures of a collapsed bridge over the Papagayos River near Lomas de Chapultepec, Guerrero state, Mexico, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

Soldiers and civil protection officials have been hard at work rescuing the stranded and sheltering the homeless after severe storms battered both of Mexico’s coasts this week.

Mexican citizens have responded to the storms with an outpouring of generosity, setting up collection centers and stocking them with everything from blankets to bottles of water – putting a spotlight on the type of swift responses that are common after natural disasters here.

But given the extensive damage and rising death toll – which has reached 97 – some analysts say the devastation also shows the absence of a culture of disaster prevention, and others are asking what Mexico can do to avoid this kind of devastation in the future.

Tropical Storm Manuel dumped an estimated 24 inches of rain on the country’s southern Pacific Coast before traveling up the coast to soak Sinaloa state. The rains triggered mudslides that left hundreds of communities incommunicado. The storm also trapped an estimated 40,000 tourists in Acapulco for the independence holiday weekend. Hurricane Ingrid, meanwhile, hit the Gulf Coast – the first time in more than 50 years that storms simultaneously hit both sides of the country. President Enrique Peña Nieto called the rains the “most intense” the country has seen.

From poor home construction to local officials who pay little heed to zoning regulations to a lack of long-term planning, the damage in Mexico has been exacerbated by human actions – and inaction –  observers say, especially in hard-hit Acapulco.

“Acapulco is a symbol of the lack of urban planning and the absence of a culture of preventing disasters,” Gerardo Esquivel, professor at the Colegio de México, said via Twitter.

“What [the public] wants are prompt and efficient responses,” instead of prevention, says Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “We’re fatalistic in the country and like to believe that in the heavens the dice are loaded against us.”

He says most media and government attention is focused on emergency relief – not how the devestation could have been prevented.

Political expedience 

Mayoral administrations in Mexico only last three years with no re-election, meaning municipal leaders prioritize projects which can be completed prior to their leaving office and that are often ornamental in nature – making flood prevention or improving storm sewers unattractive options. Gubernatorial administrations last six years with no re-election, but the preference for more visible and short-term projects persists at that level, too.

“[New administrations] do not continue with projects that are not theirs," says Fernando Dworak, an independent political analyst. 

Government in Mexico “is characterized by disorganization and improvisation,” adds Sergio Aguayo, professor at the Colegio de México.

“These traits are aggravated more by the frequency that institutions turn over with each change of office holder,” Mr. Aguayo says. New administrations often bring completely new teams and little institutional memory is left behind.

Repeated problems have gone unresolved in parts of Mexico – even places such as Monterrey, an industrial city that has seen serious flooding twice in the past 25 years. Massive floods – most recently in 2007 – have inundated low-lying, but oil-rich Tabasco state on the Gulf Coast on multiple occasions. But past state and local governments have issued building permits for properties on flood plains anyway, failing to invest in long-term infrastructure, says Gerardo Priego, previously a gubernatorial candidate in Tabasco for the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN).

“In these five terrible floods that we’ve had [over the past 12 years] there’s not a single person guilty of anything,” Mr. Priego says.

What about solutions?

Priego says Mexico tends to respond to crises instead of taking precautions.

“Prevention is moving things to the second floor so they don’t get flooded out,” he says.

Mexico’s insurance industry is also not known for taking precautions: Insurance penetration only amounts to 1.83 percent of GDP, even though natural disasters cost Mexico more than $18 billion over the past decade, Mr. Peña Nieto said earlier this year.

Peña Nieto said Thursday that he ordered the National Water Commission to draw up protection plans for Guerrero state. But comprehensive solutions have been in short supply.

One exception is a deep drainage tunnel known as the Emisor Oriente – started during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón – which is expected to prevent any potentially catastrophic floods on the east side of Mexico City after its completion in 2014.

Rescue responses have come a long way, too – especially after the 1985 earthquake, when inept government response left millions to fend for themselves.

“Politicians know that if they don’t respond to natural disasters, a political one will follow,” says Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.

'Absurd urban development'

The Pacific-coast tourist destination of Acapulco, in Guerrero state, has drawn particular attention this week as images of tens of thousands of people – many of them tourists – trapped in flooded homes or wading through thigh-high water were disseminated worldwide.

“Acapulco is the best example of absurd urban development,” José Luis Luege Tamargo, former director of the National Water Commission told Sin Embargo on Wednesday.

More than 20,000 homes are without electricity, mainly on the outskirts of Acapulco in areas developed over the past 25 years that include new tourism and shopping complexes, city officials said.

Some inundated homes were built on flood-prone land, says Mr. Luege. Developers and squatters in search of land “have invaded all the high-risk vulnerable areas,” he says. 

The Mexico City-Acapulco highway has been blocked for days – preventing tourists from returning to the national capital, five hours north of Acapulco. Luege says poor practices made a highway closure inevitable.

“With the highway [closure] there are two factors: One is poor construction,” while the other is nearby “deforestation,” which brings mudslides, he says.

Some observers have called for radical change in Acapulco.

“Acapulco should not be rescued, rather it should be reconfigured first as a city and later as a destination,” Gustavo Gómez Peltier, an urban development consultant, wrote in the magazine Nexos last December. The costal tourist destination has been a hot spot for violence in recent years.

Risky business

Aside from politics or poor planning, some blame this week’s damage on something else: “In these tragedies there is always an ingredient that makes the damage caused by the force of nature even greater: corruption,” reads a Sept. 17 editorial in the online publication Sin Embargo.

Construction of some Acapulco neighborhoods were started because of “political business,” the governor of Guerrero state, Ángel Aguirre Rivero told reporters Sept. 18. 

“It must be said that these are largely acts of corruption that have come to light in a series of housing developments that never stuck to the rules or a plan,” Mr. Aguirre said.

The admission surprised few political observers, especially as Mexico has made building affordable housing a priority over the past decade. Homebuilders did well as the government extended credit to millions to buy small properties in subdivisions that sprung up in far-off suburban areas – which may not have been the best or safest land to build on.

“Popular housing is trapped in this problem of having high-cost land and, at the same time, this phenomenon of corruption,” says Mr. Muñoz.

“We’re in a vicious circle: We want quick public works’ projects at a reasonable price. This implies a risky area.”

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