Handling of storms spawns public fury in Mexico

Critics cite substandard construction, officials' failure to heed warnings

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A soldier carries cartons of canned vegeatables Friday as part of the humanitarian aid bound for storm victims of Tropical Storm Manuel, in Mexico City. Federal police and soldiers have been helping move emergency supplies and aid victims of massive flooding caused by Manuel, which washed out bridges and collapsed highways throughout the Mexican state of Guerrero, cutting Acapulco off by land and stranding thousands of tourists.

EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT - Soldiers remove a body recovered from the site of a landslide in La Pintada, Mexico, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. The village was the scene of the single greatest tragedy in destruction wreaked by the twin storms, Manuel and Ingrid, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico's coasts. Using picks and shovels, soldiers and farmers removed dirt and rock from atop the cement or corrugated-metal roofs of houses looking for bodies in this town north of Acapulco, where 68 people were reported missing following Monday's slide. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Rescue workers walk over mud at the site of a landslide in the village of La Pintada, Mexico, Sunday Sept. 22, 2013. The Mexican army's emergency response and rescue team continued searching for victims and assessing the damage Sunday from the one-two punch of storms Manuel and Ingrid in La Pintada where a landslide wiped out half of the town and 68 people remained missing. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Villagers load belongings into a pickup truck Sunday in a flooded street in Tixtla de Guerrero, Mexico. Tropical Storm Manuel and Ingrid affected 24 of Mexico's 31 states and 371 municipalities, which are the equivalent of counties. More than 58,000 people were evacuated, with 43,000 taken to shelters. Nearly 1,000 donation centers have been set up around the country, with nearly 700 tons of aid delivered so far.

CORRECTS LAYS TO LIES-A car lies buried in mud after flooding triggered by Tropical Storm Manuel as residents try to clean up their neighborhood in Chilpancingo, Mexico, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Manuel, the same storm that devastated Acapulco, gained hurricane force and rolled into the northern state of Sinaloa on Thursday before starting to weaken. (AP Photo/Alejandrino Gonzalez)

MEXICO CITY — As the death toll continues to rise from twin storms that flooded much of Mexico, government officials are coming under intense criticism for their handling of the crisis, for failing to act on warnings and for allowing shoddy construction that exacerbated the destruction.

Angel Aguirre, governor of Guerrero, the hardest-hit state, has been singled out for chastisement since it was revealed that he was at an all-night party with other politicians as the storm bore down on his state’s tourism gem, Acapulco, and numerous mountain villages that would be cut off for days and where the most people died.

“It rained and it rained, and the governor drank and drank,” read one particularly harsh headline in Proceso magazine, which carried a photograph of Aguirre arm in arm with his party partners before a festively decorated table and with a full mariachi band in the background.

Aguirre has taken pains to make himself highly visible in rescue efforts and the distribution of aid. One photo showed him being interviewed by a journalist while standing waist-deep in floodwater.

Mexico was hit nearly two weeks ago by two storms that pounded its eastern and western coasts simultaneously: Tropical Storm Manuel, which did major damage to impoverished Guerrero and other Pacific states, and Hurricane Ingrid, which lashed the Gulf Coast, including Veracruz state.

According to the most recent figures released Wednesday by the federal government, 139 people were killed nationwide and at least 53 remained missing, most of these in the tiny village of La Pintada, in Guerrero, where a mudslide tore through the modest homes, burying everything and everyone in its path. Bodies are slowly being pulled from the mud, which is pushing the death toll higher days after the worst rains stopped.

Officials said September was on course to being the rainiest month in Mexican history. The twin storms spawned damage in 26 of Mexico’s 31 states; 312 “municipios,” or counties, were declared in a state of emergency and 250 in a state of disaster. The storms destroyed or crippled highways, bridges, tunnels, schools and airports.

But the storms were not entirely to blame. Years of corruption, politically expedient building in geographically dicey locations, illegal logging that deforests much of the countryside and other abuses have rendered parts of Mexico especially vulnerable to the extreme whims of weather.

Plus, through generations of Mexican calamity, governments at all levels have routinely ignored or downplayed warnings, opting instead to take advantage of high-profile disaster relief operations that look good on camera.

No surprise there, columnist Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez wrote this week, echoing a common refrain.

“We develop in unbuildable zones; we build with garbage; we design without planning,” he said. “Some do business, others die.”

The Mexican Senate demanded an investigation of the action officials took in preparing for and responding to the storms.

Aguirre, speaking this week at a nationally televised accounting of storm damage, broadcast from the National Palace in Mexico City, accepted no personal responsibility for failures.