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Mexico’s President Ernesto Zedillo Vows Government Assistance to Areas Hit by Hurricane

October 12, 1997

Mexico’s President Ernesto Zedillo Vows Government Assistance to Areas Hit by Hurricane Pauline; Storm Killed at Least 183 PeopleBy MARK STEVENSON

ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) _ Distraught residents shoveled through deep mud for missing relatives and laid out their dead for burial Saturday while President Ernesto Zedillo visited Pacific Coast shantytowns shattered by Hurricane Pauline two days earlier.

Zedillo flew by helicopter into Acapulco’s hardest-hit communities, cutting short a visit to Germany to view the widespread destruction and send words of encouragement to victims of the disaster, which has claimed at least 183 lives in two states.

``Stay in the shelters. Don’t go back to your damaged homes,″ Zedillo, with his wife and Mexico’s defense secretary at his side, told hundreds of homeless who had fled to a high school.

Promising to rebuild this popular resort city with government aid, Zedillo remarked, ``We can bring back houses, but not lives.″

Meanwhile Saturday, U.S. forecasters warned that tropical depression Olaf, which caused 18 deaths in Central America and southernmost Mexico early this month, could dump more heavy rain on the southwest Pacific Coast.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said two states spared from Pauline _ Colima and Jalisco farther up the coast _ could be hit within a day or two by heavy rains, deadly flash floods and mudslides.

Pauline, at one point a powerful 130-mph hurricane nearly as fierce as south Florida’s Andrew of 1992, churned up hundreds of miles of coastline _ toppling homes and driving battering 30-foot waves.

Acapulco was caught off-guard Thursday when the hurricane skirted the city but unleashed rains that set off widespread flash floods, sweeping people, cars, even boulders down hills toward the city’s famed beaches.

At least 183 people have been reported killed in Guerrero state, which includes Acapulco, and in neighboring Oaxaca. At least 150 of the deaths were in Acapulco.

The death toll was expected to rise as neighbors and rescue workers pulled more bodies from thick mud and farmers trudged from distant mountains to report their dead.

Under a hot, hazy sun Saturday, about 200 mourners sang hymns and threw handfuls of dirt into burial plots during funerals for hurricane victims at Acapulco’s Valley of Light Cemetery.

One mourner, Maria Concepcion Osorio Ramirez, buried her husband’s cousin at the cemetery Friday and returned to bury a close friend Saturday. ``Many funerals,″ she said, ``and what’s worse, there are many more to come.″

Moments after Zedillo left Acapulco for other hard-hit areas of the Guerrero and Oaxaca coasts, a woman’s body was spotted about 1,000 yards from where he had spoken.

People shouted and pointed to the now-bloated body, stripped of clothes, its legs poking from beneath mud and tree branches.

It was one more body for a morgue that was full. Bodies, singly or in small groups, were laid out in schools and funeral parlors to be identified and buried.

``People are pulling out their dead, burying them, without notifying anyone. We’ll never know how many really died,″ said Guadalupe Avila Herrera, who saw a muddy torrent of water cut her hillside neighborhood in half.

Soldiers sunk in knee-deep muck shoveled into entombed houses for more victims _ part of a contingent of 6,500 soldiers Zedillo ordered to the coast.

As muddy waters receded Saturday, the flood’s fury was evident in grungy waterlines reaching nearly to the tops of concrete homes. Some homes had gaping holes through which water, sand and mud roared.

Eighteen people were arrested for looting damaged houses and shops in Acapulco, the Mexican government news agency Notimex reported.

Many of the 289 survivors gathered at the high school relayed with horror how the raging waters had ripped men, women and children from their tarpaper shacks.

``About 6 a.m. Thursday, there was a horrible sound. ... My husband woke up, grabbed my arm and said, `There’s a helicopter coming over.′ But that was the water rushing down,″ said 23-year-old housewife Rosa Maria Garcia, who lived in a dirt-floor shack whose roof blew away.

Some said the haste of poor Mexicans to build anywhere on the slopes _ even in normally dry gulches _ was a recipe for disaster.

``Over the years we have been strangling the gulches,″ said Alejandro Jimenez, 36. ``And now, without asking permission, the rivers have come back to reclaim their place.″

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