Hurricane Otis destroys Acapulco’s nautical backbone

The night Hurricane Otis hit Acapulco, Mexico, Saúl Parra Morales received a video that would have seemed incredible just a few hours earlier.

For days, meteorologists had predicted little more than a tropical storm. But Parra Morales watched in horror as her brother filmed the deafening gusts of wind and waves crashing against the deck of the Litos, the yacht he worked on that proved no match for what became the most powerful storm to hit the Pacific coast of Mexico.

“The situation is becoming more and more intense,” Mr. Parra Morales’ brother, Fernando Esteban Parra Morales, said in the video. “We are nervous, but we are safe.”

It wasn’t. Fernando, a train driver, is one of many sailors on the front lines of this tourist destination, missing since the Category 5 hurricane brought destruction to Acapulco last month, shocking both meteorologists and government officials.

While Mexican authorities have not released details of the 49 people killed and 26 others missing from the storm, relatives, business owners and the Mexican Navy say many were captains, sailors and other boat workers caught in the hurricane’s devastating path . Some say the number of missing could be much higher.

Weeks after Otis landed, the painful toll of the ferocious storm is becoming increasingly clear: Acapulco’s large community of sailors, the foundation of this tourist magnet for decades, has been left shattered.

Beaches that attracted tens of thousands of visitors every year have been transformed into a graveyard of wrecked ships. Yacht captains, diving instructors, stewardesses and others who earned their wages on the water have seen their livelihoods upended.

Compounding the pain, relatives of the missing say they have been denied closure as they navigate authorities’ bureaucracy to try to find their loved ones’ remains.

“We did their job,” Parra Morales said outside the Acapulco naval base, where he waited with the families of three other missing Litos crew members.

Mr. Parra Morales and other relatives had searched the beaches and a nearby island, finding random debris from other boats and even a bloated corpse.

“Our emotions have been up and down,” he said. “If we relatives found all this, then why don’t they find anything?”

Mexican Navy officials said they had sent a team of 40 people to search for the missing sailors, as well as others to help recover the sunken ships.

“All of these efforts are about search and rescue,” the Captain said. The Navy’s Rogelio Gallegos Cortés said in an interview aboard a Navy ship.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed government questions about Mexico’s response to Acapulco as political attacks against his administration.

Acapulco’s nautical workforce plays a vital role in a destination known worldwide as a glamorous vacation spot for deep-sea fishing, cliff diving and recreational boating.

Known as the Riviera of Mexico, Acapulco’s beaches have long attracted celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt and Salma Hayek. John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline honeymooned in Acapulco. And the city was immortalized in the 1963 Elvis Presley song and film “Fun in Acapulco.”

A sharp increase in violence over the past decade in Guerrero, the state that includes Acapulco, has led Mexico to deploy thousands of soldiers on its beaches. In recent months, brutal violence has erupted in some nearby municipalities, including the killing of more than a dozen law enforcement officers days before Otis struck the area.

But Acapulco has remained a tourist attraction: Nearly 830,000 tourists visited the city last year, spending more than $368 million.

Behind the luxury hotels and yachts was a largely invisible workforce working long hours under a scorching sun, providing spearfishing and diving lessons, hosting yacht parties or leading tours.

“They are the heart of the city,” Abelina López Rodríguez, mayor of Acapulco, said in an interview. “They lost everything.”

According to an analyst, Lieutenant Liz Barojas, the Mexican navy brought 67 of the 614 boats damaged by Otis back to shore.

One challenge, officials said, was competing interests between relatives of the missing and yacht owners. For days, owners have asked the marina not to move some vessels until insurance companies complete damage assessments, Capt. Gallegos Cortés said, while families of the missing have asked the marina to recover the boats – and every potential clue to their relatives.

Another point of controversy was the number of missing. While the Guerrero State Attorney’s Office supports the official count, Alejandro Martínez Sidney, who heads the Acapulco Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said that, based on relatives who have contacted his group, the figure could be closer to 100 .

“There are a lot of people asking about their family,” he said.

Hours before Otis made landfall, María Cristina Jiménez’s husband, Felipe Castro de la Paz, captain of a famous yacht, the AcaRey, and his crew boarded the vessel, which was docked in a marina. They knew a storm was bringing rain and wind, but their leaders wanted to make sure the ship was protected.

“They probably never heard that something this big was coming,” said Ms. Jiménez, 56.

Forecast models failed to predict that the storm would intensify — in less than 24 hours — into a hurricane with sustained winds of more than 165 miles per hour, tearing walls and roofs off buildings and knocking out power and communications in much of Acapulco.

By the next day, the remains of the AcaRey were scattered throughout the marina. Five of the six crew members on board were found dead; Mr. Castro de la Paz is missing.

The company that owns AcaRey does not respond to calls, emails or text messages requesting comment.

Over the next few days, Ms. Jiménez and her daughter, Maura Castro, 37, scoured the city trying to find information about Mr. Castro de la Paz. The two women visited the naval base and searched the beaches looking for any trace of him.

After some fishermen told them that Mr. Castro de la Paz’s body had been recovered, they rushed to the Acapulco morgue and took a DNA test.

But the result did not match any of the deaths. Most recently, they visited a yacht club that updated the families of missing sailors on efforts to find them.

“We are looking for my father, the captain of AcaRey,” Ms. Castro told a guard at the club.

But the club had no information.

“We want to look for him, rent a yacht and go out on our own,” Ms. Castro said. “The boat was lost. I know that. But I want my father’s body.”

Outside the naval base with other family members of the Litos crew, Mr. Parra Morales made a similar appeal to Lieutenant José Alberto Demuner Silva, commander of the navy’s search and rescue mission in Acapulco.

His family, he said, was left to deal with a deluge of false information, including strangers contacting him online with tips about his brother’s body if he was willing to pay a fee.

On a tablet displaying an electronic map of Acapulco Bay, Lieutenant Demuner Silva showed Mr. Parra Morales the different routes his search teams had taken during the so-far unsuccessful search for the Litos.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Parra Morales told the officer. “I mean, with the experience you have, you don’t know anything?”

Next to them was Mei-li Chew Irra, 26, whose husband, Ulises Díaz Salgado, 43, was the captain of the Litos.

The night Otis struck, someone on the yacht activated a GPS system that sent her the boat’s coordinates, which she sent to the marina three days later. But she said she received no response for more than a week confirming that officials had received the information.

“Our hope continues and our fight continues and we will not stop until we find them all,” Ms. Chew Irra said.

She recalled the passion her husband had for the sea and said she wasn’t surprised he remained on the yacht, even as Otis went down to Acapulco.

“He would have given his life for all his crew,” Ms. Chew Irra said. “She loved them as if they were her family.”

With much of their fleet destroyed and Acapulco’s tourism industry struggling to recover, many sailors are unable to return to work. But they are still gathering on the beach.

Surrounded by a graveyard of ships — some broken to pieces on the beach, others sunken and barely breaking the surface — Fernando Vargas, 64, and dozens of other sailors were trying to pull a damaged glass-bottom boat out of the water .

They placed logs in front of the boat as a truck, tied to the bow of the boat with a rope, dragged them over the wood and onto the beach, drawing cheers from those watching the effort.

Mr Vargas, who worked on another glass-bottom boat that was destroyed, said they were a popular tourist attraction. He hopes to receive government support while he looks for a new job.

“I’m working very hard,” he said. “I am the example for my children.”

He then rushed back to join the others in pushing the ship ashore.