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Monday, December 11, 2023

Hurricane Otis Shatters Acapulco’s Nautical Backbone


On the night Hurricane Otis barreled into Acapulco, Mexico, Saúl Parra Morales received a video that only hours before would have seemed unbelievable.

For days, forecasters had predicted little more than a tropical storm. But Mr. Parra Morales watched in horror as his brother filmed the deafening gusts of wind and waves cracking against the deck of the Litos, the yacht where he worked and that proved no match for what became the most powerful storm to hit Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

“This is getting more intense,” Mr. Parra Morales’s brother, Fernando Esteban Parra Morales, said in the video. “We are nervous, but we are safe.”

He wasn’t. Fernando, a machinist, is one of the many mariners on the front lines of this tourist destination who have been missing since the Category 5 hurricane brought destruction to Acapulco last month, shocking forecasters and government officials alike.

While Mexican authorities have not released details of the 49 people killed and 26 others left missing by the storm, relatives, business leaders and the Mexican Navy say many were captains, sailors and other boat workers caught in the hurricane’s devastating path. Some say the number of missing may be far higher.

Weeks after Otis made landfall, the ferocious storm’s painful toll is coming into sharper focus: Acapulco’s large mariner community, a foundation of this tourist magnet for decades, has been left shattered.

Beaches that attracted tens of thousands of visitors annually have been turned into a graveyard of wrecked ships. Yacht captains, diving instructors, hostesses and others who earned their paychecks on the water have had their livelihoods upended.

Compounding the pain, relatives of the missing say they have been denied closure as they navigate a bureaucracy of authorities to try to find the remains of their loved ones.

“We’ve been doing their work,” Mr. Parra Morales said outside the Acapulco Naval base, where he waited with the families of three other missing crew members of the Litos.

Mr. Parra Morales and other relatives had searched beaches and a nearby island, finding random debris from other boats and even a bloated corpse.

“Our emotions have been going up and down,” he said. “If we, the relatives, have found all this, then why don’t they find anything?”

Mexican Navy officials said they had dispatched a team of 40 people to help look for missing mariners, as well as divers to help recover sunken ships.

“All of these efforts are about search and rescue,” Capt. Rogelio Gallegos Cortés of the Mexican Navy said in an interview aboard a naval ship.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed the questioning of the Mexican government’s response to Acapulco as political attacks against his administration.

Acapulco’s nautical labor force plays a critical role in a destination known globally as a glamorous vacation spot for deep-sea fishing, cliff diving and boating.

Known as the “Riviera of Mexico,” Acapulco’s beaches have long attracted celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt and Salma Hayek. John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, honeymooned in Acapulco. And the city was immortalized in the 1963 Elvis Presley song and movie “Fun in Acapulco.”

A sharp increase in violence over the past decade in Guerrero, the state that includes Acapulco, has led Mexico to deploy thousands of soldiers to its beaches. In recent months, brutal violence has erupted in some municipalities nearby, including the killing of more than a dozen law enforcement officers days before Otis hit the area.

But Acapulco has remained a tourist draw — nearly 830,000 tourists visited the city in 2022, spending more than $368 million.

Behind the luxury hotels and yachts was a largely invisible work force toiling long hours under a blazing sun, providing spearfishing and diving lessons, staffing yacht parties or leading tours.

“They are the heart of the city,” Abelina López Rodríguez, the mayor of Acapulco, said in an interview. “They lost everything.”

Mexico’s Navy has pulled 67 of the 614 boats damaged by Otis to shore, according to a spokeswoman, Lt. Liz Barojas.

One challenge, officials said, has been competing interests between relatives of the missing and yacht owners. For days, owners asked the Navy not to move some vessels until insurance companies could complete damage assessments, Captain Gallegos Cortés said, while families of the missing pleaded for the Navy to recover the boats — and any potential clues about their relatives.

Another point of contention has been the number of missing. While the Guerrero state prosecutor’s office stands by the official count, Alejandro Martínez Sidney, who leads Acapulco’s chamber of commerce and tourism, said that based on relatives who had reached out to his group, the figure could be closer to 100.

“There’s a lot of people asking for their family,” he said.

Hours before Otis made landfall, María Cristina Jiménez’s husband, Felipe Castro de la Paz, the captain of a famous yacht, the AcaRey, and his crew boarded the vessel, which was docked at a marina. They knew a storm was bringing rain and wind, but their bosses wanted to ensure the vessel was taken care of.

“They likely never heard something that big was coming,” said Ms. Jiménez, 56.

Forecasting models failed to predict that the storm would intensify — in less than 24 hours — into a hurricane packing sustained winds of more than 165 miles per hour, tearing walls and roofs from buildings and severing power and communication in much of Acapulco.

The next day, the remains of the AcaRey were littered throughout the marina. Five of its six crew members on board have been found dead; Mr. Castro de la Paz remains missing.

The company that owns the AcaRey did not respond to calls, emails or text messages requesting comment.

In the days since, Ms. Jiménez and her daughter, Maura Castro, 37, have scoured the city trying to find information about Mr. Castro de la Paz. The two women have visited the naval base and searched beaches looking for any sign of him.

After some fishermen told them that Mr. Castro de la Paz’s body had been recovered, they rushed to Acapulco’s morgue and took a DNA test.

But the result did not match any of the dead. More recently, they visited a yacht club that has updated families of missing mariners on efforts to find them.

“We are looking for my father, the captain of AcaRey,” Ms. Castro told a guard at the club.

But the club had no information.

“We want to look for him, rent a yacht and go out on our own,” Ms. Castro said. “The boat was lost. I know that. But I want the body of my father.”

Outside the naval base with other family members of the Litos crew, Mr. Parra Morales made a similar plea to Lt. José Alberto Demuner Silva, the commander of the Navy search and rescue mission in Acapulco.

His family, he said, had been left to deal with a deluge of false information, including strangers reaching out to him online with tips about the body of his brother if he was willing to pay a fee.

On a tablet displaying an electronic map of the Acapulco bay, Lieutenant Demuner Silva showed Mr. Parra Morales the different routes his search teams had traveled while searching, so far unsuccessfully, for the Litos.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Parra Morales told the officer. “I mean, with the experience you have, you don’t know anything?”

Standing next to them was Mei-li Chew Irra, 26, whose husband, Ulises Díaz Salgado, 43, was the captain of the Litos.

On the night Otis hit, someone on the yacht activated a GPS system that sent her the coordinates of the boat, she said, which she sent to the Navy three days later. But she said she did not hear back for more than a week confirming that officials had received the information.

“Our hope continues and our fight goes on and we will not stop until we find them all,” Ms. Chew Irra said.

She recalled the passion her husband had for the sea and said she was not surprised he stayed on the yacht, even as Otis descended on Acapulco.

“He would have given his life for all his crew,” Ms. Chew Irra said. “He loved them as if they were his family.”

With much of their fleet destroyed and Acapulco’s tourism industry struggling to recover, many mariners cannot return to work. But they have still been gathering at the beach.

Surrounded by a cemetery of vessels — some in pieces on the beach, others sunken and barely poking above the surface — Fernando Vargas, 64, and dozens of other mariners were trying to pull a damaged glass-bottom boat from the water.

They placed logs in front of the boat while a truck, tied to the boat’s bow with a rope, pulled the vessel over the wood and onto the beach, prompting cheers from those watching the effort.

Mr. Vargas, who worked on a different glass-bottom boat that was destroyed, said they were a popular tourist attraction. He hopes to receive government support while he looks for a new job.

“I am very hard-working,” he said. “I am the example for my children.”

He then rushed back to join the others pushing the ship back to shore.



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