Hurricane Otis kills at least 27, hammers Acapulco as damage seen in billions

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A woman walks through floodwaters in Acapulco, where a Category 5 hurricane killed at least 27 people. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Hurricane Otis claimed the lives of at least 27 people, Mexico’s government said on Thursday after one of the most powerful storms to hit the country hammered the beach resort of Acapulco, causing damage seen running into billions of dollars.

Otis, which struck Mexico on Wednesday as a Category 5 storm, flooded streets, ripped roofs off homes and hotels, submerged cars and cut communications, road and air access, leaving a trail of wreckage across Acapulco, a city of nearly 900,000.

Four people are still missing, the government said.

“What Acapulco suffered was really disastrous,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told a press conference in Mexico City tallying the damage from the storm, which ripped into southern Mexico with winds of 165 miles per hour (266 kph).

Otis, which intensified unexpectedly rapidly off the Pacific coast, was so powerful it tore large trees up by the roots, scattering debris all over Acapulco. It flooded hospitals, and hundreds of patients had to be evacuated to safer areas.

The government declared a state of emergency in the region, but has given scant details about how the 27 people died, or how many others were injured.

Erik Lozoya, a professional magician, said he endured “three hours of terror” with his wife and two baby daughters in an Acapulco hotel room as the hurricane smashed through the windows and swept through the building with a deafening intensity.

“It literally felt as though our ears were going to explode,” said the 26-year-old Lozoya, who barricaded himself in a bathroom with his family and four others. “We saw mattresses, water tanks flying. The ceiling began to cave in.”

The family left the bathroom, but the eighth-floor room soon began to flood, and Lozoya had to stand carrying his daughters with water up to his ankles for two hours because the wind was so strong they could not open the door to get out.

The hurricane peeled off sections of buildings in downtown Acapulco. Some Mexican media posted videos of looting in the city. Reuters could not immediately confirm their veracity.

The government has so far not estimated the cost of Otis, but Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage, saw it “likely approaching $15 billion.”

The people still missing are believed to be members of the navy, said Lopez Obrador, who went to Acapulco on Wednesday by road, changing his vehicle more than once as the storm caused stoppages, according to pictures published on social media.

One showed him sitting in a military jeep stuck in mud.

On Thursday afternoon, the government said the air traffic control tower of Acapulco’s international airport was up and running again and that an air bridge enabling tourists to reach Mexico City would be operating from Friday.

SHOCKING POWER

Mexican authorities said Otis was the most powerful storm to strike Mexico’s Pacific coast, although Hurricane Patricia, which slammed into the resort of Puerto Vallarta eight years earlier, whipped up even higher wind speeds out at sea.

Nearly 8,400 members of Mexico’s army, air force and national guard were deployed in and near Acapulco to assist in cleanup efforts, the defense ministry said.

The destruction wrought by Otis has added to concerns about the impact of climate change, which many scientists believe will lead to more frequent extreme weather events.

Acapulco is the biggest city in the southern state of Guerrero, one of the poorest in Mexico. The local economy depends heavily on tourism, and Otis caused extensive damage to some of the most famous hotels on the city’s shoreline.

Calling the storm “totally devastating,” Guerrero state Governor Evelyn Salgado said 80% of the city’s hotels had been hit by the storm and that authorities were working to restore electricity and reactivate drinking water pumps.

School classes were canceled in Guerrero for a second day and opposition politicians criticized the government for a lack of preparedness.

Magician Lozoya said he and his family were not alerted by the hotel about the approach of the hurricane until about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, barely 1-1/2 hours before Otis came ashore.

Lopez Obrador had issued a warning about two hours earlier on social media about the impending arrival of Otis.

State power utility CFE had over 1,300 employees working to restore power it said on Wednesday evening, when some 300,000 people remained without electricity.

Telmex, the telecommunications firm controlled by the family of tycoon Carlos Slim, said it had restored its network in Acapulco by Thursday morning. Local cell phone service was gradually being restored, but remained patchy.

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