LA PINTADA, Mexico — Fourteen hours per body.
That’s how long rescue crews with shovels, hydraulic equipment, anything they can muster, are averaging to find the victims of a massive landslide that took half the remote coffee-growing village of La Pintada, leaving 68 people missing.
The Mexican army’s emergency response and rescue team slogged in pouring rain and several feet of mud with five rescue dogs on Saturday, recovering two women who were buried in the same area near a kindergarten, the second body under more than four feet of dirt. At least two children are believed to be nearby.
Lt. Carlos Alberto Mendoza, commander of the 16-soldier team, said it’s the most daunting situation he’s seen in 24 years with the Mexican army.
“They are doing unbelievable work, hours and hours for just one body,” he told The Associated Press. “No matter how hard the day is, they never get tired of working.”
La Pintada was the scene of the single greatest tragedy in destruction wreaked by the twin storms, Manuel and Ingrid, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico’s coasts a week ago, spawning huge floods and landslides across a third of the country. The death toll stands at 101, not counting five federal police who died on a rescue mission Thursday when their Blackhawk helicopter crashed as they were leaving La Pintada. The wreckage wasn’t found until Saturday. The toll also excludes the 68 missing.
Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong told Mexican media the death toll could go as high as 200 in the coming days, nearing that of Hurricane Paulina, which hit the same Guerrero state in 1997 and caused one of Mexico’s worst storm disasters.
Houses were filled to their roofs with dirt, and vehicles were tossed on their sides when the hillside collapsed Monday afternoon after several days of rain brought by Tropical Storm Manuel, which along with Hurricane Ingrid gave Mexico a one-two punch.
“As of today, there is little hope now that we will find anyone alive,” President Enrique Pena Nieto said after touring the devastation, adding that the landslide covered at least 40 homes.
Survivors staying at a shelter in Acapulco recounted how a tidal wave of dirt, rocks and trees exploded through the center of town, burying families in their homes and sweeping wooden houses into the bed of the swollen river that winds past the village on its way to the Pacific
The scene by Saturday was desolate, a ghost town. One man remained to care for abandoned goats, pigs and chickens that seemed disoriented as they roamed the rescue site.
When the rains get too hard, the crew has to stop for fear of being buried, too, by another slide, Mendoza said.
By Saturday the team had been on site for 48 hours, he added. They had been ready to go two full days earlier, but bad weather conditions delayed their ability to reach the mountainous area northwest of the resort city of Acapulco.
Pena Nieto told storm survivors that La Pintada would be relocated and rebuilt in a safer location as officials responded to a wave of criticism that negligence and corruption were to blame for the vast devastation caused by two relatively weak storm systems.
“I will come to inaugurate a new La Pintada,” he said. “That’s a promise I’m making today to this community, which has undergone such a misfortune.”
All week in Mexico City, editorials and public commentary said the government had made natural disasters worse because of poor planning, lack of a prevention strategy and corruption.
“Governments aren’t responsible for the occurrence of severe weather, but they are for the prevention of the effects,” wrote Mexico’s nonprofit Center of Investigation for Development in an online editorial criticizing a federal program to improve infrastructure and relocate communities out of dangerous flood zones. “The National Water Program had good intentions but its execution was at best poor.”
Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre publicly confirmed that corruption and political dealings allowed housing to be built in dangerous areas where permits should have been rejected.
“The responsibility falls on authorities,” Osorio Chong said in a press conference earlier in the week. “In some cases (the building) was in irregular zones, but they still gave the authorization.”
Both the federal and Guerrero state administrations are new and cited cases in the past, though Osorio Chong said that going forward, he is sure that Aguirre and the mayor of Acapulco will not allow flooded-out victims to return to high-risk areas.
In a meeting with hotel owners in hard-hit Acapulco, Pena Nieto told the city that the reconstruction phase has begun, and that “Acapulco is standing.” The government will help address the hoteliers’ concerns, he added, including improving the main thoroughfare from Mexico City, the Highway of the Sun, which was closed by slides and damage, cutting off access for days.
The highway reopened Friday, albeit with many detours skirting stretches damaged by flooding and landslides. As of Saturday, all of the thousands of stranded tourists had been able to leave Acapulco.
Pena Nieto said he would visit the northern state of Sinaloa on Sunday, where Manuel hit with hurricane force Thursday morning.
Three people were reported dead in Sinaloa. Flood waters had reached waist-deep in some places in Culiacan, the Sinaloa state capital, including the city zoo.
The storms affected 24 of Mexico’s 31 states and 371 municipalities, which are the equivalent of counties. More than 58,000 people were evacuated, with 43,000 taken to shelters. Nearly 1,000 donation centers have been set up around the country, with nearly 700 tons of aid delivered so far. Nearly 800,000 people lost power across the country, though the Federal Electricity Commission said 94 percent of service had been restored as of Saturday morning.
Associated Press writers Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City and Martin Duran in Culiacan contributed to this report.