Slide victims recovered as Mexico storm toll rises

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By EDUARDO VERDUGO, Associated Press

LA PINTADA, Mexico (AP) — Rescuers fighting tons of slippery, wet mud at the site of this week's worst storm disaster unearthed the bodies of two women Saturday, possibly among the 68 people missing in a massive landslide that buried half of the remote coffee-growing town of La Pintada.

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 last weekend.

"As of today, there is little hope now that we will find anyone alive," said President Enrique Pena Nieto after touring the devastation, adding that the landslide covered at least 40 homes.

Pena Nieto told storm survivors that La Pintada, a town of 800, 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."

Authorities on Saturday also found the wreckage of a Federal Police helicopter that was working on the La Pintada rescue when it went missing nearby on Thursday. All aboard died, five federal police, according to local media. Security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said he could not confirm the number on board.

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."

Ingrid and Manuel simultaneously pounded both of Mexico's coasts, killing at least 101 people, not including the helicopter crash victims or 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 Guerrero state in 1997 and caused one of Mexico's worst storm disasters.

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 Acapulco, Pena Nieto told the resort city that the reconstruction phase has begun, and that the government will help address the hoteliers' concerns, including improving the main thoroughfare from Mexico City, the Highway of the Sun, which was closed by slides and damage in the storm, 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 hat reached waist-deep in some places in Culiacan, the Sinaloa state capital, including the city zoo.

Some 24 animals perished in the hurricane, according to Mexico's federal prosecutor for animal protection, including goats, sheep and a scimitar oryx, an antelope from Saharan Africa that is now extinct in the wild. The giraffe cages were flooded and the storm damaged the reptile exhibit.

Zoo director Diego Garcia Herredia said the animals had shelter, but that stress from the storm may have prevented some from seeking protection.

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 arriving 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.

Seventy-two key highways were damaged.

The investigations center, known as CIDAC for its initials in Spanish, said Mexico had not been hit by two simultaneous storms since 1958.

The editorial said that while rescue efforts and aid are indeed humanitarian, they also provide good images for opportunistic politicians.

Prevention "like that in developed countries, designed to avoid the negative impact of natural events on people, doesn't seem to sell advertising or create grateful constituents," read the editorial.

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Associated Press writers Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City and Martin Duran in Culiacan contributed to this report.

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