Beneath the shattered windows of downtown Acapulco’s skyscrapers, people walk along towering hills of garbage bags filled with rotting food and debris, from mattresses to Christmas decorations. Volunteer firefighters from distant states clean up the waste, sweeping swarms of cockroaches from their arms.
Miles from the coastal beach towns, Elizabeth Del Valle, 43, listened to her teenage daughter Constanza Sotelo describe the “mountains of trash” that still block many streets around their home.
“We have no way to find face masks that will keep us healthy,” Del Valle said. “We expect that we will get an infection from the smell, from the garbage.”
Weeks after Hurricane Otis shocked meteorologists and government officials by rapidly intensifying into the strongest storm to hit Mexico’s Pacific coast and devastated much of Acapulco, residents say they now face an ongoing public health disaster .
Many locals, public health officials and emergency workers say they believe the uncollected trash is linked to stomach infections, diarrhea, skin rashes and other remedies that people have complained about since the storm.
Local business groups last week called on federal and state officials to declare a health emergency citing “the accumulation of waste, construction material, lack of potable water and the presence of harmful insects and wildlife,” including human remains.
As thousands of troops descended on Acapulco after Otis made landfall, authorities first prioritized clearing debris and restoring electricity in tourist areas, according to city officials, local business owners and residents. Some hotels in that area have since reopened.
But people who live outside the city’s beachfront tourist neighborhoods say they have to navigate so many piles of trash and debris that in some places it is difficult to reach hospitals and health centers.
Even as authorities respond to Acapulco’s many needs — providing water to residents, restoring power and finding missing people — federal and local officials are sounding the alarm about the hurricane’s long-term health consequences and say it will Waste disposal must be a priority.
The city’s largest estimate is that 666,000 tons of trash are piled up across Acapulco. Under normal conditions, local officials say, 700 to 800 tons of waste are collected every day.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised a quick recovery, saying families in Acapulco would be “happy by Christmas.”
The eldest, Abelina López Rodríguez, believes that it will take much longer. “To say that in a month or five we will rebuild Acapulco would be a lie,” she said.
The president’s support is vital, López Rodríguez said, “because garbage is unforgiving.” The situation could soon become “a health crisis,” he added.
Since Otis devastated Acapulco, killing at least 50 people and leaving 30 missing, sanitation brigades made up of federal workers have cleaned and disinfected just over a third of the city’s 507 neighborhoods, disposing of hundreds of pounds of rotting food. He said.
Natural disasters can often trigger the outbreak of infectious diseases, public health experts say. Piles of garbage left outside can attract mosquitoes and rats, which can then spread infectious diseases. Lack of energy can also lead to contaminated food, increasing the risk of stomach infections and diseases.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported skin lesions, diarrhea and pneumonia between bowel movements.
Health problems related to uncollected waste are “more common than we expected,” said Amber Mehmood, an associate professor of public health at the University of South Florida who focuses on global health and disaster management. Debris and waste, she said, can become a “breeding ground for mosquitoes that can carry malaria and Zika viruses.”
“There are many reasons to be concerned,” added Ms. Mehmood.
Leslye Solís Mireles, 31, a firefighter and paramedic leading a team of more than 50 firefighters from another Mexican state, said his crew in Acapulco has helped treat people with various illnesses that he believes stem from from the accumulation of waste.
“It’s literally a source of infection,” she said, adding that she and many of her firefighters were now suffering from stomach infections and skin rashes.
Ms. López Rodríguez said her government should expand the city’s landfill and find more equipment to dispose of the huge amount of waste. Acapulco needs 500 trucks to clear debris; The city currently has about 150 available, she said.
So far, more than 211,000 tons of waste have been collected, according to the Guerrero state government.
Otis also destroyed 12,500 light poles in the city, the mayor said, although the electricity commission said Friday that 89% of Acapulco customers had their power restored. But thousands of people who had their homes severely damaged are still without electricity, most of them in poor or rural neighborhoods, city officials said.
Ms. López Rodríguez asks for patience from her frustrated constituents. By the end of the year, she will focus “on making sure at least our streets are clean, our homes are clean, and our water and electricity systems are up and running.”
“I appeal for understanding, because a natural phenomenon of this magnitude surpasses any rapid effort,” added Ms. López Rodríguez. “I don’t want to say it can’t be done, but it can’t be done overnight.”
W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama, said clearing debris from roads is also critical to allowing access for vehicles carrying supplies.
In addition to the health threat, Acapulco also needs to make sure it is ready to welcome tourists, he said. “The last thing I want if I open anything,” Mr. Fugate said, “is the smell of rotten garbage on my street. “It’s a nuisance, potentially a public health risk, but it’s also an eyesore.”
But some residents in rural Acapulco say they have waited long enough.
On a recent afternoon, Maricruz Balboa ran down from her hilly neighborhood when she heard that businessmen from out of state were giving away supplies from a truck parked on the side of the road. A crowd of desperate residents grabbed soap, hand sanitizer, food and sneakers.
“So far we have received almost no help here,” said Ms. Balboa, 48, showing off the precious items she had been given: a couple of bottles of water, fruit, vegetables, shampoo and sanitary pads.
Ms. Del Valle made sure to get hand sanitizer from the same truck when she parked near her neighborhood. She said it was the first time anyone had come to deliver food and supplies to her community.
“The government is giving everything it can,” he said. “But it’s not enough.”
There are some signs of return. Several businesses – al pastor restaurants, barber shops and fruit stands – have reopened.
Residents cleared debris outside their homes themselves. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, children played with a kite in an area of a grassy field otherwise full of trash.
“Whether you are a government official or not, whether you have money or not, there is support,” said Octaviano Roque Ruiz, 75, a retired teacher, as he emerged from a tent where government officials were handing out salaries to the elderly. to help them recover from the storm.
Already diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes before the storm, Mr. Ruiz said he now had intestinal pain and what appeared to be conjunctivitis. He had recently tried to go to hospital, but was told that his capacity was beyond him and that he would have to come back another day.
Other residents said conditions in Acapulco have made it impossible to live there for now.
Nicolás Linares, 59, left Acapulco briefly after Otis landed to join his brother in Zihuatanejo, a coastal town about 150 miles north, but returned this month after hearing rumors that services had been restored.
“And I arrive and it’s not true,” he said, adding that the room he rents in the city had no electricity or water.
Mr. Linares tried to return to Zihuatanejo one recent afternoon, but there were no more tickets at the bus station. He said he would be back the next day.
“Now I have to go back to my neighborhood,” he said. “I have no other choice.”