As devastated Acapulco rebuilds, she urges other Mexican resorts to heed the lessons learned

As devastated Acapulco rebuilds, she urges other Mexican resorts to heed the lessons learned

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Hurricane Otis not only devastated Acapulco, it also exposed deadly weaknesses in aging infrastructure, teaching difficult lessons that coastal cities across Mexico must learn from.

As Acapulco rebuilds after the deadly Category 5 hurricane, climate experts, architects, engineers and politicians have recommended steps Mexico should take. These measures include stricter building standards, improved floodwater management, and enhanced storm detection to avoid a repeat of the death and destruction caused by Otis on October 25.

Growing concerns about climate change and the increasing prevalence of extremely powerful storms have put pressure on Mexico, a major global tourist destination, to provide better protection, especially as coastal areas grow in population.

“Because these hurricanes will keep coming,” said former Mexican Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid, these tasks lie ahead: “How do we build smarter, and also how do we adopt policies to combat climate change?”

He noted that after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that killed thousands, the capital imposed stricter building standards. As a result, the damage was much less 32 years later when another major earthquake struck the capital.

While Mexico City must update its structural design standards every six years, Mexico allows other individual municipalities to issue their own building regulations. They lack national rules, unlike their regional counterparts.

A 2019 government map showed vast swaths of the coastal states of Oaxaca, Tamaulipas and Guerrero — Acapulco’s home state — without any regulations at all. Acapulco has its own.

After Otis, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for an analysis of the city’s buildings. His office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Adrian Pozos, a structural engineer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said Otis showed that construction and design standards were no longer up to the job.

He studied the impact of Hurricane Odile, a Category 4 storm that destroyed tourist resorts in Baja California in 2014.

He added that while Acapulco suffered much more damage, Odell also did short work on light construction materials including drywall, and destroyed communications towers.

When these parts separate, the interior remains exposed, causing further damage. Pozos said the debris could turn into dangerous projectiles that hit other buildings.

After Odell, building standards in Baja California reflected new guidance on identified areas of vulnerability, such as roofs.

To avoid disasters, he added, it is important that other beach cities, including Zihuatanejo, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, pay special attention to metal structural elements. He explained that it is susceptible to corrosion in salty air, which reduces wind resistance.

He added that buildings need input from structural engineers to improve safety, and urged authorities to update wind regulations in coastal areas, especially for buildings more than 10 years old.

Pozos said new buildings should be built to withstand winds like the 329 kph (204 mph) winds that whipped Otis.

Commercial buildings such as hotels and condos on parts of the Pacific coast should be built to absorb winds of at most 214 kilometers per hour, and in Acapulco 141 kilometers per hour, according to recommendations in a 2020 design guide issued by Mexico’s state electric utility. In Miami, the American Society of Civil Engineers calls for similar structures to withstand winds of 290 kilometers per hour.

President Lopez Obrador unveiled a $3.4 billion Acapulco recovery plan and said the city should notice a difference by Christmas.

Some experts fear that a full recovery could take years. David Wagner, of the architecture firm Wagner & Ball in New Orleans, which was hit by the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said disaster zones could emerge stronger.

Wagoner helped design a water infrastructure system to relieve pressure on pumps and dams in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he said studies should evaluate how Acapulco handles water.

His plan, which has been rolled out in parts of New Orleans, is to retain and store water rather than pump it out.

Implementing Acapulco’s improvement plan will only be half the battle, Wagoner said. Significant commitments are needed to maintain coastal city protection systems.

“To support the mechanism, the levees, the pumps, all the things related to the hurricane defense system, you have to have more money,” Wagner said. “Because it’s constant reinvestment.”

(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison and Dave Graham – Prepared by Muhammad for the Arabic Bulletin) Additional reporting by Dina Beth Solomon; Edited by David Gregorio

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Mexico-based reporter focusing on climate change and businesses with an emphasis on communications. Previously based in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, he covered the Argentine debt crisis, the US-China influence struggle in Latin America and the coronavirus pandemic.

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