On the Ground in Chetumal - August 24-27, 2007

The International Fund for Animal Welfare deployed two staff members to join up with existing on the ground staff in Chetumal, Mexico in an effort to asses the extent of the damage caused by the landing of Hurricane Dean, at the time a catagory 5 storm...the largest since 1992. IFAW's Chris Cutter provided this detailed update a yesterday.

August 24, 2007 Chetumal Zoo

Our team visits the zoo in Chetumal. It is absolutely destroyed. Completely. 80% of the trees were damaged in the storm and most seem to be laying on the ground, uprooted, or crashed into bent and broken animal enclosures. The animals are okay, for now, but the zoo is completely decimated. IFAW talks about helping the animals with vaccines and medicine immediately. We also plan to talk with other animal welfare groups to discuss a plan for rehabilitating the zoo in such a way to benefit the animals. The zoo has lions, deer, a hippopatumus, jaguars, birds, pigs and more. All these animals will need some kind of help.

On a more positive note we travel out to CIVS. As promised the government has sent a team to clear the road. Several kilometers are now passable. A team is at the CIVS center tending to the animals, it looks like they will recover.

We have recieved updates from several other groups that IFAW is networking and collaborating with. Everything in Quintana Roo seems to be okay for the moment. We make arrangements to fly to Mexico City the following day to continue to assess the path of Hurricane Dean as it moved through central Mexico.

August 26, 2007

Driving out of Mexico City to Puebla

We gather the supplies we will need for the day: water, granola bars, peanuts, and warmer clothes. We are driving several hours out of Mexico City, to the mountains, in the Mexican state of Puebla and the weather is colder in the higher elevations. We buy jackets, sweaters, and long pants at WalMart in Mexico City. As Hurricane Dean moved through the Mexican mainland it dumped torrential rains in the Sierras. Mudslides are a concern. The day prior we tried, unsuccessfully, to find a 4x4 vehicle in Mexico City. Instead we are going in a red, Volkswagon Jetta.

As we drive Eduardo Santurtun, who works in IFAW’s Latin America office, tells us that the Jetta is the most commonly stolen vehicle in Mexico City. This leads to a story about one of our colleagues, Joaquin de la Torre Ponce. Joaquin also works in our Latin American office and about a year ago he was kidnapped and robbed. Two men with guns carjacked Joaquin and his friend one night. The thieves mistakenly thought Joaquin came from a wealthy family because he was driving a new Toyota RAV-4. Blindfolded, Joaquin and his friend waited in terror until the robbers realized that Joaquin would not command a large ransom. They drove Joaquin to an ATM machine and emptied his accounts, stole his car, and then let Joaquin and his friend go, shaken but unharmed. The car was never recovered. He is still paying off the loan today.

In the mountains

Out of the hustle and pollution of Mexico city, the horizon opens up and the view becomes infected with every variation of green. Hills roll up to mountains which stretch across the horizon. We pass makeshift taco stands, open air restaurants, and Catholic roadside shrines. We see signs for Teotihuacan, the famous Aztec pyramids. I am reading a magazine excerpt from a memoir by the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar about a 480 mile trip he took from Paris to Marseilles in a camper. It reads, in part:

“It’s always like this: you gradually enter a zone of pleasure and security that dissipates the feeling of precariousness always latent on the street, in the car, out in the open, and in crowds. … No: the freeway is precisely what’s lacking. For us it’s nothing more than a background noise that habit reduces day by day, that we’ve effortlessly likened to an agreeable echo of the Caribbean Sea in Martinique or Guadeloupe. There are the same intervals of silence, the approximation and crescendo of the next break, that diastole and systole of a waving, breathing, sometimes unbearable resounding volume such as we’ve known on Marinique’s beaches and in the rest areas.”

Somehow this seems appropriate.

Stuck

The mission for today was to travel to the highlands of Puebla where there is a high population of donkeys and horses. Continued rain, mudslides, and flooding are concerns for the animals there. Reports indicate that many may need attention. We drive the switchback roads that weave through the mountains and see signs of mudslides frequently: brown scars in the green hills, rocks and mud pushed to the side of the road, water flowing down through culverts and crevices and across the road. About 20 kilometers from our destination we come around a curve to a line of stopped cars. A traffic jam in this remote area almost certainly means a mudslide or traffic accident has blocked the road ahead. We walk to the front of the line of cars and find a huge mudslide. The Mexican Army has dispatched a unit called DN3 to clear the road. DN3, which is deployed specifically for disasters, has heavy earth-moving equipment and is using a front end loader and a grader to clear the road. It is an enormous job. The mudslide buried three cars and a truck. A cadre of soldiers clears smaller debris with shovels. Local villagers stream by the line of cars in each direction, cutting a shortcut through the hills around the mudslide.

In the traffic jam we discover a team from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) which has also come to check on the donkeys and horses. The UNAM team, two veterinarians and a ferrier, have information from local contact that the animals have fared well in the storm thus far. We verify this information with the police and Army at the site. A sergeant from the Army also tells us that once the current mudslide is cleared the Army is not letting any vehicles through because there is a much larger mudslide ahead that needs to be cleared. Beyond that, between our position and our destination, there may be additional mudslides as well. No one knows. We have been waiting two hours already and a slight drizzle has begun. We confer with the team from UNAM and jointly decide that it is best to turn back. Later we will check on donkeys when the roads are passable. UNAM turns back to Mexico City and we turn toward the Mexican state of Veracruz.

The drive to Veracruz is slow because of the damage from the hurricane. We must also travel slowly through the villages which all have frequent speed bumps to slow passing traffic. The speed bumps are prominent enough that we are forced to come to a near-complete stop at each one. Because of this women and children congregate near the speed bumps and try to sell fruit and drinks to passing motorists.

We drive through the night and stop in the town of Martinez de la Torre Ponce past 11pm and check into a hotel, find an open restaurant for a late dinner and collapse into bed.

August 27, 2007

Veracruz

The main goal of the assessment team is to, along with our partner NGOs, personally check the entire swath Hurricane Dean tore across the Caribbean and Mexico. In the case of IFAW (IFAW partners are providing assessments of the Caribbean) we started from where Hurricane Dean hit the east coast of Mexico as a Category 5 Hurricane, north of Chetumal. We’ve assessed that area, in the state of Quintana Roo, the areas of concern west of there in Puebla, and need only to check on the state of Veracruz, all the way down on the Gulf of Mexico, to complete a survey of the entire path of Dean through Mexico.

We wake in the morning and head to a research farm run by UNAM called El Clarin. UNAM acts as a local environmental agency for the state of Veracruz. We meet with Dr. Jose Luis Espino Hernandez, the director of the office, to get an update on the area. Agriculture is a major industry in Veracruz and Dr. Espino tells us the despite some flooding, which has since receded, the area’s animals, mainly livestock, are healthy. Similar to what the team found on the coast the concern is other environmental and ecological impacts. Orange, coffee, and banana crops have been destroyed. We thank Dr. Espino and start off for the coast. On the way we also, via phone, speak with the local SEMARNAT (Mexico’s environmental protection agency) office which gives us an update similar to Dr. Espino.

In the towns of Casaitas and Nautla, both on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, we see the now familiar remnants of Hurricane Dean. Dean hit these towns as a much-weakened Category 2 Hurricane but still held enough force to rip the roofs off houses and businesses and crumple smaller wood structures. The most troubling damage it to the banana fields. We pass acre upon acre of destroyed fields – thousands and thousands of banana trees snapped in half. The blue bags full of ripening fruit lay on the ground and workers scavenge what they can from the crop. It will be years before the agriculture in this area recovers.

Our assessment complete we head back toward Mexico City. Back in the mountains we again are delayed by another mudslide. On the way we get a call from Marco, our contact in Chetumal, who would like some help with a Howler Monkey injured in the storm. The monkey has something wrong with its back and Marco wants to know if IFAW will pay for diagnostic x-rays. Of course, we say, of course.

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