November 9, 2007

The Border Responds to Mexico’s Big Katrina

Stunned by the massive tragedy unfolding in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, US-Mexico border communities are pitching in to aid flood victims. In Tijuana newly-inaugurated Baja California Governor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan instructed state officials to coordinate a supply collection.

Stepping up to the plate, the state governments of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon sent three helicopters, medical brigades, water pumps and vital supplies. In McAllen, Texas, the Mexican consulate kicked off a collection drive for material goods needed by more than one million displaced people.

In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, the Medalla Milagrosa Church organized an aid drive that focused on gathering material support from residents of the working-class Colonia Hidalgo neighborhood. Up the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, the Red Cross set up a central collection point.

“This is the worst flooding that the Mexican Republic has experienced in modern times and it is important to stand in solidarity,” said Tamaulipas Governor Eugenio Hernandez Flores while seeing off an aid convoy on Saturday, November 3.

In Chihuahua, a state which suffers its own periodic bouts of flooding like the 2006 calamity that hit working-class neighborhoods in Ciudad Juarez, government agencies, political parties and non-governmental organizations urged citizens to extend a helping hand to Tabasco. In an initial gesture of solidarity, the state government dispatched a truck loaded with water and diapers for the flood zone. At intersections in Ciudad Juarez, state government employees were deployed to ask motorists for support.

Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza assessed the situation in Tabasco as dire. “To give us an idea, imagine 70 or 80 percent of Chihuahua City under water. That’s how it is in Villahermosa,” Gov. Reyes said.

On both sides of the US and Mexico border, government agencies and private aid organizations are urging people to donate goods as well as cash. Among the items most in need are bottled water, canned food, rice, flour, beans, diapers, sanitary napkins, soap, powdered milk, blankets, instant coffee, cookies, sugar, and clothes. As of November 4, about 300 tons of goods had arrived to the disaster zone. However, observers on the scene considered the amount far from sufficient to meet victims’ needs.

In the Paso del Norte region, the Roman Catholic archdioceses of El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, earmarked $2,000 for the office of Tabasco Bishop Benjamin Castillo. Las Cruces Bishop Ricardo Ramirez said he hoped more aid from the US would soon follow the initial $2,000 donation. Judith Bryan, spokesperson for the US Embassy in Mexico City, announced that the US government will donate $300,000 in funds via the United States Agency for International Development.

In the United States, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) opened two flood relief accounts in the Wells Fargo and BBV Bancomer USA banks.

“All the embassies and consulates of Mexico abroad have been instructed to maintain close contact with Mexican communities and to give punctual follow-up and attention to the aid offers that they receive,” said the SRE in a statement.

While border region residents are mobilizing to meet the most immediate needs of hundreds of thousands of displaced people, it’s certain that major outside assistance will be required for some time. Tabasco Governor Andres Granier estimates that approximately fifty percent of his state’s two million people have been driven from their homes. Health and other public officials worry about possible outbreaks of dengue, cholera and other diseases as the water recedes.

Economically, the flooding has largely wiped out Tabasco’s agricultural and livestock industries. Cattle, cacao, sugar cane, banana and coconut destined for the Mexico City and foreign export markets have been lost.

The National Campesina Confederation tagged the economic value of crop and livestock losses at nearly $500 million. To make matters worse, the Tabasco disaster comes at a time of rising food prices in Mexico and elsewhere. Overall damage estimates are currently in the $2 billion range.

Tijuana activist Esmeralda Siu Marquez, a representative of the Migrant Pro-Defense Coalition, predicted that many displaced Tabascans will be forced to find refuge in Mexico’s northern border.

“The signs are not very good for our fellow citizens, and it’s likely that once they are together with their families and find themselves without work and property they will have to look for a way of getting ahead,” Siu said.

The magnitude of the property destruction in Tabasco makes the disaster Mexico’s greatest one since the 1985 earthquake which devastated Mexico City. Six days after the flood waters struck, residents of the Tabasco state capital of Villahermosa are still being scooped up from rooftops; an estimated 80,000 people are still trapped in municipalities outside Villahermosa. No deaths have been officially reported, but Governor Granier acknowledged that bodies could be discovered once the water recedes more. Arriving in Mexico City, flood refugees from Villa-hermosa affirmed that people had been killed in the disaster.

“Yes, there are dead and many bodies,” said Villahermosa resident Nora Montes. “We will have to wait for the water to go down to remove the bodies that must be in the flooded houses of Colonia Gaviotas Norte. A relative of mine saw the bodies of four adults and three children.”

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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