In under 12 hours, Hurricane Otis rapidly progressed through all five hurricane phases, ultimately reaching Category 5, the most severe of these natural occurrences. It set its course for the Guerrero coast, leaving a trail of severe destruction in its wake. Infrastructure suffered extensive damage, material losses were reported, and tragically, there were significant human casualties. According to the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the hurricane left over half a million people without electricity, while its powerful winds brought down 58 high-voltage structures in the state. This resulted in power outages in numerous municipalities and disrupted telecommunications services.
The unexpected and violent arrival of Hurricane Otis caught President AMLO off guard. Just hours before the storm made landfall, he issued warnings about its severity on social media. Nevertheless, the hurricane rapidly escalated, ultimately becoming the most powerful to hit Mexico in decades. Now, as the nation grapples with a disaster that has claimed the lives of at least 43 people, with many others still missing, AMLO faces one of the most formidable challenges of his presidency.
AMLO did venture to the Mexican tourist centre ravaged by the hurricane, but his visit was marred by a significant mishap. As he attempted to reach the disaster area, his vehicle became stuck in the mud. The 69-year-old president, wearing heavy boots, laboriously trekked through the mud to reach a military vehicle, which also got stranded just meters away. The image of AMLO struggling through the mire serves as a poignant irony. Throughout his presidency, he has consistently criticised previous administrations, highlighting what he perceived as their inadequate responses and commitment to the people. Yet, in this moment of crisis, both he and support for the hurricane’s victims appear conspicuously absent.
Regrettably, AMLO’s visit was brief and lacked meaningful engagement. He did not visit the hurricane victims, assess the damages, or participate in photo ops related to hurricane relief efforts. Instead, he swiftly departed by helicopter, returning to Mexico City, where he has remained ever since. With less than a year left in his single six-year term and the 2024 elections approaching, his popularity, which hovers around 60%, is crucial for the electoral prospects of his protégé, former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. The impact of this hurricane may have serious consequences for the 2024 elections, particularly in Acapulco, where the hardest-hit individuals are likely to be working-class people living in precarious conditions, highly dependent on the devastated tourism sector.
AMLO’s delayed response, along with his swift exit from the disaster site, has raised concerns among the public. Although he cited unfavourable flying conditions and communication disruptions in the city, his absence may tarnish his government’s image in the lead-up to the elections. Rebuilding Acapulco presents a daunting logistical challenge, especially for a government known for project delays and budget overruns. The delay in releasing the death toll is already an alarming sign.
Hurricane Otis underscores a sensitive issue for AMLO, as Acapulco was already emblematic of political and security failures. Once a Hollywood hotspot, the city has since transformed into one of the world’s most dangerous places, situated in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states, heavily influenced by drug cartels. Reconstructing in a region where cartels hold sway over the economy presents a formidable obstacle.
While some reconstruction may be funded by private insurance in the tourism sector, the famously frugal AMLO may need to seek government credit lines. Estimates peg the damages at $10 to $15 billion, a sum far exceeding the meager resources in the National Fund for the Attention of Natural Disasters (FONDEN), a fund that has dwindled by 67% during his administration. The government’s capacity to respond effectively to future disasters is seriously compromised, and it may struggle to assist those in need, leading to increased poverty and inequality.
Mexico has experienced a rising frequency and intensity of natural disasters, attributed to climate change, rapid urbanisation, and deforestation. FONDEN’s diminished resources will hamper the government’s ability to respond to such calamities promptly. Without substantial funds in FONDEN, the government will have to rely on other sources of funding, leading to delays in disaster response. The consequences will disproportionately impact the poor and marginalised, exacerbating their struggles in the aftermath of disasters. AMLO has even gone as far as minimising the number of deaths: “There were not many, only 27”.
AMLO’s adeptness in navigating past scandals and crises with political finesse may not suffice to mitigate the fallout from Hurricane Otis. The disaster’s management will likely be seized upon by opposition parties as evidence of government incompetence, potentially influencing the 2024 elections. In the realm of high-stakes presidential elections, a government’s response to national disasters can be a critical determinant of its electoral prospects. Ineffectual crisis management can lead to perceptions of ineptitude and a lack of concern for citizens, which can have a lasting impact on a political party’s reputation and electoral success.
The mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had a profound impact on the election results for Republicans in the USA. The federal response to the disaster, characterised by delays, inefficiency, and inadequate support for the affected residents of New Orleans, eroded public trust in the Bush administration. This mismanagement not only revealed the government’s shortcomings but also highlighted issues of race and class disparities in disaster relief efforts. The perception of the federal government’s failure to respond effectively led to a loss of confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to govern competently, which had broader repercussions for their popularity. It played a role in weakening Republican support in the 2006 midterm elections and contributed to a decline in approval ratings for President George W. Bush. The public perception of the Bush administration’s failure in the face of a major disaster significantly contributed to the shift in support towards Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In this way, Hurricane Katrina’s mismanagement helped pave the way for Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election.
In the case of Mexico in 2024, a similar failed response to natural disasters by AMLO’s administration could lead to a loss of confidence in his leadership, potentially impacting the popularity of his party. It might also create an opportunity for opposition parties to gain support and influence, much like what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States. Hurricane Otis has not only left a trail of destruction but has also placed the spotlight on the challenges of disaster management and the potential political consequences for AMLO and his administration as Mexico heads towards a pivotal election. It underscores the critical importance of a government’s response to national disasters, with implications for both public perception and the nation’s future.