By Alexandre Meneghini and Josue Decavele
ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) -Looting ravaged the Mexican city of Acapulco after the iconic beach resort was hammered this week by Hurricane Otis, a record-breaking storm that killed at least 27 people and left thousands of residents struggling to get food and water.
Otis pounded Acapulco with winds of 165 miles per hour (266 km per hour) early on Wednesday, flooding the city, tearing roofs from homes, stores and hotels, submerging vehicles, and severing communications as well as road and air connections.
The cost of devastation left by the Category 5 storm was estimated at billions of dollars, and over 8,000 armed forces members were sent to help the stricken port recover.
“Right now, money’s no use to us because there’s nothing to buy, everything’s been looted,” 57-year-old Acapulco resident Rodolfo Villagomez said after Otis tore through the city. “It was total chaos. You could hear it here hissing like a bull.”
On Thursday evening, people carried off goods including food, water and toilet paper from stores. “We came to get food, because we don’t have any,” a woman told Reuters.
Reuters video showed people carrying boxes from a wrecked supermarket and loading up cars. Inside, shelves were bare.
“There were acts of looting in some places because there was an emergency,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Friday, urging residents not to take advantage of the situation.
Elsewhere, household detritus was littered among ruined deck chairs and jumbles of mangled trees outside wrecked homes.
Speaking at a regular press conference, Lopez Obrador said the government would help people in the city of nearly 900,000 in the southern state of Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest.
But many residents said the aid was insufficient.
“All the stores are closed or destroyed,” said Raul Busto Ramirez, 76, an engineer who works at Acapulco’s airport. He blamed looting on shortages and said ATM machines were out of action, leaving people with no cash.
The government has released little information about dead and injured, saying only that four people are also missing. Some officials privately express concern the death toll will rise.
Letitia Murphy said she began to worry when she lost contact with her ex-husband and father of her two children, 59-year-old Briton Neil Marshall, who was in Acapulco when Otis hit.
Murphy said she found out on social media he had died after residents discovered his body close to where he was staying.
“We can’t even get information about him,” she told Reuters by phone. “It’s horrible that we don’t know what to do.”
The Mexican and British governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Another weather front that could produce more heavy rain is expected to gain strength off Central America in the coming days, again moving toward southern Mexico.
‘WE WERE LUCKY’
Mexican authorities said Otis was the most powerful storm ever to strike Mexico’s Pacific coast. It caught forecasters by surprise, gathering strength with unexpected speed before it came ashore, and surpassed initial predictions.
Still, Lopez Obrador said: “We were lucky.”
“Nature, the creator protected us, even with the fury of the hurricane,” he added. “There’s a lot of material damage but luckily we’re not registering too many deaths.”
To evacuate tourists, an air bridge between Acapulco and Mexico City was being set up on Friday after authorities got the city’s battered airport back up and running.
The government has yet to estimate the cost of Otis, but Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage, saw it likely “approaching $15 billion.” Lopez Obrador urged insurance companies to speed up payouts.
Governments sent messages of solidarity to Mexico, and Pope Francis expressed his condolences on Friday.
U.S. President Joe Biden expressed his condolences for the hurricane’s victims in a brief statement on Friday evening, pledging “full support” to Mexico’s government as well as help ensuring U.S. citizens in the area are safe.
State power utility CFE said on Friday it had restored 50% of the electricity service in Guerrero and Mexican telecommunications company America Movil had re-established nearly 60% of cell service.
Jeff, a 65-year-old Canadian in Acapulco, said he was stuck in the city and worried how he would survive the coming days because “all the stores have been pillaged.”
“The disaster here is unbelievable,” he said. “We don’t see nothing happening except people trying to scavenge everything they can to survive for the next couple of weeks or months.”
(Reporting by Alexandre Meneghini, Jose Cortes, Quetzalli Nicte-ha in Acapulco; Diego Ore and Kylie Madry in Mexico City, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey and Natalia Siniawski in Gdansk; Writing by Dave Graham;Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot, Sandra Maler and Raju Gopalakrishnan)