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Acapulco Still Feels Pauline Effect

March 9, 1998

ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) _ Alicia Ayala Martinez’ home of 38 years became an island six months ago Monday, when boulders and muck unleashed by Hurricane Pauline tore away the homes of her neighbors.

Ayala Martinez is still scooping sand with a battered green bucket from her house, dumping the contents in the 8-foot-deep trench that the flood gouged out of her street.

Slowly, she is rebuilding.

Her two refrigerators, her stove and many of her clothes are piled in the living room. She is still trying to flatten out a dirt floor in the middle of what once was a comfortable middle-class home.

She doesn’t know how she will pay for repairs to the house she moved into with her late husband when they wed nearly four decades ago. She says the government has yet to help.

``The river should have taken me too,″ the 66-year-old said, tears streaming down her wrinkled face. ``What can I do? It’s bad how life treats you sometimes.″

But below the hard-hit hillside communities, Acapulco remains Acapulco.

Although tourism is down since the hurricane, thousands of tourists still flock here each weekend for the beaches, restaurants and nightlife.

A major banking convention last weekend filled major hotels almost to capacity. And Acapulco’s famous discos were packed as spring breaks at U.S. universities began.

``I can’t even tell a hurricane passed through,″ Tim Daley, a 29-year-old student from Bloomington, Illinois, said over thumping music at the Palladium nightclub. ``Then again, I haven’t done much except drink, eat, sleep and drink some more.″

But in the hills above the glitzy seaside avenue, damage is still evident from the morning of Oct. 9, when hurricane-powered floodwaters tore through long-dry riverbeds, sweeping away cars, houses and at least 150 people.

``There’s a sign down there: `Acapulco is back on its feet,″ Ayala said. ``I don’t see it. Do they ever bring the tourists up here? Never.″

Acapulco city spokesman Jose Luis Avila said the government made tourist areas its first priority because most residents survive on tourism.

``You can’t do everything at once,″ he said. ``And as for priorities you have to rebuild the facade so we can all get back to work.″

In the hillside Progreso neighborhood, piles of rubble still surround empty, half-tumbled houses with waterlines still etched two-thirds of the way up their walls. Shoes, bottles, and dog-eared books still lie among the dirt paths that have replaced washed-out roads.

Many Acapulco residents remain in mourning, still shedding tears over tattered photographs of their fathers, sisters, babies and neighbors who were carried toward the sea in a fetid river of muck and death.

Above her bed, Alicia Alvarez Gutierrez has hung blown-up ID photos of her father, mother and sister swept into the river along with her.

Alvarez Gutierrez was saved by a power cable that wrapped itself around her neck. She used it to drag herself to safety. A day later she found her family’s bodies in the city morgue.

Since then, Alvarez Gutierrez has built a one-room structure to replace the house where her family lived. She is waiting for the government to help her move away from the death and destruction she remembers so vividly.

``I can’t lie to you; I owe money,″ she said, sobbing. ``Everything you see here I’ve done myself. What can I do? I’m alone and my family isn’t with me anymore.″

The government offered Alvarez Gutierrez a small rowhouse on the city’s outskirts, but she would not accept the condition that she give her own plot in exchange.

``I’m not going to lose the spot where my parents lived all their lives,″ she said. ``I have already lost my family, and I don’t want to lose their land as well.″

Avila, the government spokesman, said the city needs to move people away from riverbeds to prevent another disaster. But he conceded that the resettlement is going slowly, and that only about 100 people have moved into new houses.

``Our lesson was very tough,″ he said. ``And we have ourselves to blame for not having respected nature.″

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