Recovering From Odile



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By Les Carmona

On Sunday the 14th of September, the public was informed of the impending impact of Hurricane Odile.

It made landfall at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, passing directly through the town of Cabo San Lucas, and continuing up through the mountain towns of San Bartolo, San Antonio and El Triunfo before reaching La Paz. Continuing up the spine of Baja California, it eventually crossed the Sea of Cortez and dissipated after breezing across Sonora Mexico, 125 miles south of Arizona.

Formed earlier in the week Wednesday morning, the much-watched computer forecast tracking had the storm zig-zagging its way north. In the 24-hour period between Saturday night and Sunday night the meteoro, a Spanish slang word for meteorological phenomenon, intensified from Category one to Category four and then diminished back to a Category three hurricane before striking Los Cabos around 10:45 p.m. local time. As late as Saturday 3:45 p.m., odds had favored the hurricane missing land completely. Odile now holds the record for the strongest storm to hit the peninsula, with winds of up to 125 mph and barometric pressure of 922 millibars. Only two other storms with such low pressure have formed in the East Pacific region in recorded history, Olivia in 1967 and Kiko in 1989 and only Kiko hit the Baja, coming up the Sea of Cortez and roaring across La Paz in a northwesterly direction.

Damage was significant. Odile delivered some 6 inches of rain to Cabo and La Paz. Over 2800 power poles were downed and instead of fireworks celebrating Independence Day Monday night, transformers exploding lit the sky as the storm made its way northward early Monday morning.  The greatest damage to the electrical grid occurred at the several transmission sites or nodes that direct power to the colonias. It is said that approximately 135 persons suffered injuries that required medical attention and the death toll stands at 6. Some 30,000 tourists were in town during the storm and were eventually evacuated via military transport planes and non-scheduled commercial flights. Both international airports were closed and their public spaces including the parking areas were locked down.  At the La Paz airport there was no information to be had from airport officials as to flight schedules or anything else. No one was allowed access to bathrooms and there was no food service. The public areas of the SJD airport were ripped open by the force of the winds. Full service is expected to be restored by November 24th.

The availability of basic services was disrupted. The cellular network came, went, came again and remained sporadic. Although Telmex claims that local landline service was still available, very few were able to make calls since almost no one owned an analog telephone. Long-distance service was unavailable. There was no electricity to power the water pumping stations so no water transmission was possible nor was there any way to pump gasoline from the underground storage tanks. Food stock began to run low as the days wore on.

In the Cabo area, looting and plundering took place on a grand scale. Major chain stores were entered by force and stripped of anything of value. A Bancomer and a Banco Azteca had their strongboxes forced open. Many convenience stores were stripped as well. Some La Paz businesses that had doors or windows blasted open by the force of the storm were also visited by people intent on helping themselves.

Government response to the problems presented by the passage of Odile was slow to begin, according to some critics. Most notably was a statement made over the radio during the popular morning show Panorama Informativa hosted by MiguelAngel Ojeda on fm 96.7. A representative  for the office of  Federal Civil Defense, during an interview, apologetically observed that well before the start of the hurricane season his office personally met with the 5 Mayors of Baja California Sur and gave them a 20 point list of areas needing attention, such as removal or reinforcing of billboards, highway signs and the like, inspection of transmission lines, trimming of trees, clearing arroyos of debris and relocating residents of low-lying areas. In Spanish, he said, “with much love and respect for the people of Baja California Sur,” I warned you and you didn’t do what needed to be done.

President Peña Nieto made three visits in the 10 days following the hurricane. All available technicians from the CFE made their way down to Los Cabos. The military was dispatched to aid local police efforts and give manpower to the cleanup efforts. The CFE sent helicopters for flyovers to ascertain the extent of the damage and once the Ferry was up and running again, technicians and supplies began rolling in. Some 1600 technicians and over 78 vehicles plus private contractors came over. Flatbed trucks with concrete posts and/or transformers could be seen caravaning up to staging areas. The power company also sent over portable power plants so that water could begin flowing again. Portable water treatment plants also arrived and the local government set up free water filling stations at city hall and mobilized delivery of water to outlying areas. With the arrival of the power plants and generators, the cell phone companies quickly repaired their microwave towers and went back online. The newly created federal police force, the Gendarmería, set up indefinite residence in BCS. A curfew was ordered for the Cabo area and police checkpoints were established along the highway to catch looters.

Boxes of food, known as dispensas, began arriving. Usually containing flour and corn flour for tortillas, cooking oil, diapers, sugar and canned tuna, these relief supplies were at first given out at centros de acopio or foodbanks, then later delivered door-to-door.

A number of stores, facing spoilage of perishables, made gifts of their stocks to locals.

In La Paz, a mere 36 hours after the storm, several supermarkets were able to re-open. The roof on the Mega Comercial was so badly damaged it could not open for some days. Aramburo and Chedraui had limited hours of operation but maintained refrigeration thanks to power plants.

Also in the first few days after the storm, the hotel sector found itself accommodating several thousand ‘refugees’ from Cabo as well as work crews from the utility companies. All schools were closed by order of the state Secretary of Education including the universities. La Paz schools re-opened September 29. Cabo schools didn’t reopen until October 6th,

In health and sanitation issues, any ban on taco stands and food vendors was quickly lifted, partly because of only isolated cases of raw sewage contamination of streets and partly because the authorities wanted to get everyone working again. Grants have been made to the city to fund temporary hiring for clean-up activities. Mosquito borne dengue is a major health issue with 234 new cases reported in the aftermath of the storm. Cases of stomach flu from amoebas are also common. In the days following the storm, warnings went out that it was possible that pure water vendors might not have all contamination safeguards in place and it was recommended to add bactericide to drinking water.

Several economic recovery measures have been implemented. The car tax known as tenencia has been eliminated until the end of the year. The monthly fee imposed by the city for renting sidewalk spaces is waived until the end of the year. There are several grant programs available to micro and small businesses as well as low cost loans for small and medium businesses. Business tax contributions have been postponed until the end of the year and the hotel tax has been temporarily suspended.

Banks had waived their ATM fees for withdrawals made by non-customers. Telmex had been giving free calls and established a phone and internet pavilion at the city hall. Movistar customers could also make free calls for a limited time and Telcel  gifted free saldo or airtime. Major CFE customers are now permitted to buy electric futures.

Returning to the subject of shady activity, 20 persons have been arrested for possessing stolen goods obtained during looting. Once arrested, they will not be granted bail and if convicted will spend three to fifteen years behind bars. There have been at least three allegations of misappropriation or politicizing of dispensas. The residence of the CSL civil defense director was searched after anonymous tips were received and several items looted from Cabo stores were found there and recovered. He has been arrested. In total, 59 people have been detained but not arrested for being in possession of new boxed goods that may or may not have been taken without being paid for. They join the dozens of people who have voluntarily presented themselves to return stolen items to the management of the stores looted during the spontaneous celebration of having survived Odile.

In the spirit of love and goodwill towards members of the communities affected, the nation of Mexico and its northern neighbors have embraced Baja California Sur, sending our way food, medicines, clothing, water, baby items and gifts of cash. Recovery is well under way and the spirit that makes Mexico great lives on.

Contributing writer Les Carmona bakes artisan breads and pastries for his shop Pan D’Les bakery while assimilating to the pace of La Paz. The bakery is on Madero between Constitucion and 5 de Mayo.

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