Images of filthy water engulfing Mexico's southern city as residents clung to the rooftops were reminiscent of the flooding that devastated New Orleans in 2005. But in the desolation of Villahermosa, there has been no widespread breakdown in law and order or four-figure death tolls. On the contrary, observers here say that Mexico's rapid response to its worst flooding in recent history was a factor in averting a catastrophe on the level of Katrina.
Amid heavy rains, President Felipe Calderon ordered in thousands of soldiers, marines, pilots and federal police on Oct. 29, two days before the most damaging flooding hit. When the riverbanks finally burst, inundating some 70% of the city on Oct. 31, there were more than 60 helicopters buzzing through the skies carrying out nonstop rescue and relief missions. Calderon and half his cabinet then touched down in Villahermosa three times in five days, giving televised updates on everything from how to use satellite phones in shelters to the drop points of millions of bottles of water. "The reaction has been very impressive. If there were not such a fast and wide-scale response, the human cost of this tragedy would have been much higher," said Helena Ranchal, regional head of the European Commission's emergency relief fund.
There have been three confirmed dead in Villahermosa, although there are still dozens of people missing and many more have died in landslides unleashed by the rains in the nearby mountains of Chiapas. While some looters broke into Villahermosa's stores and houses, the robbery was on a relatively small scale as police handed out food, water and medical packages and contingents of rifle-wielding soldiers stood on every corner. Navy and marine boats also took rapid control of the waterways that sprung up on the engulfed streets that were infested by dog carcasses. "You never felt that the government had totally disappeared even though our homes and city had been destroyed. You saw that officials were here and some help was coming in," said Javier Mendoza, 43, who fled his house with his family of eight on a navy boat.
The relief efforts stand in stark contrast to how Mexico dealt with disasters during its 71 years of one-party rule that ended in 2000. Authorities were slow to react to a catastrophic earthquake in 1985, leaving much of the rescue efforts to the public while officials tried to underplay the casualties. The new culture of disaster response has centered around active civil protection agencies, preplanned shelters in every community and a lively media, giving minute-by-minute updates on the catastrophes.
However, Villahermosa's waterlogged streets have not shed all good light on Mexico's return to multi-party democracy. As in New Orleans, there are questions about whether this was a disaster waiting to happen and could have been avoided with the construction of better water management systems. The swampy state of Tabasco, where Villahermosa is situated, also suffered floods in 1999, prompting the federal government to award millions of dollars to strengthen the dam and pump system. That money has not been all accounted for. "Right now we have a crisis to resolve," Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna responded to TIME when asked about that project. "Afterwards, we can analyze what was done right and what was done wrong."
Calderon faces political pressure to show he cares about poor people in the south, where Tabasco is located. (Many of the devastated houses in the floods were built by squatters on riverbanks and low-lying areas, a problem that has long exacerbated natural disasters across Mexico.) He won last year's election by a razor-thin margin with a largely middle-class support base in the industrial north. His rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a Tabasco native who champions the poor and downtrodden, claims Calderon fixed the election and tours the country calling himself the "legitimate president."
In the aftermath of the flooding, Calderon announced that the entire state of Tabasco would have free electricity until February to help alleviate their problems. He will have to find a lot more aid to resolve the flood victims' problems. The rushing water damaged the homes of almost a million people, or about half of Tabasco's population. It also devastated crops of corn, bananas and beans that provide the livelihood for thousands. After water levels finally started receding this week, Jesus Hilario left his shelter in a schoolhouse on the outskirts of Villahermosa to find his patches of corn and bananas completely washed away. "I could be forced go and work in El Norte," Hilario said, referring to the United States, where 11 million of his countrymen labor. "Now I have nothing to live on here." With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas/Mexico City