When Hurricane Odile made a last minute sweep to the east, it wreaked havoc on the coastline and tourist infrastructure of the resort area in Baja California Sur. Five months after the storm, construction is ongoing and the economic recovery is going much better in some quarters than in others.
When Category 3 Hurricane Odile made a last minute sweep to the east last September, it wreaked havoc on the coastline of Los Cabos, Mexico.
What was supposed to be some rain and wind turned into a 125-mph tempest that decimated hotels, retail spaces and private homes. The greater part of the state of Baja California Sur was left without power and 30,000 tourists were stranded.
Looting ensued and the area remained without electricity, phone service and potable water as the Mexican authorities and U.S. State Department worked hard to airlift tourists from a damaged airport. Roads were flooded and the most gravely affected were the poor neighborhoods where homes had been swept away and schools were shut down due to damage.
What was left was an area in ruins, with the livelihood of the locals wiped away. Some of the less badly hit resorts immediately got to work cleaning up and their staff were pivotal in repairing damage, removing wreckage and drying out rooms – many of those hard-working souls no longer had homes themselves.
“Some people had very little happen to them – like me. I was lucky,” hotel worker Alberto Becerril told Fox News Latino. He pointed to a coworker and said, “But him, very bad things happened to his house. He still has nothing.”
At Casa Natalia, the staff reportedly removed 28,000 cubic feet of mud in 10 days, often using little more than their hands.
The owner of the hotel, Nathalie Buchler, and her staff were motivated to get up and running – with the idea that if people had jobs, then they would also have a way to come back from the loss of their own homes and property. According to Buchler, things haven't entirely worked out according to plan.
“I must say that the recovery on one side has been extremely quick," she said. "On the other hand, there are still so many big hotels that are closed. That means many, many people without jobs. This means much less tourists in the area.”
Five months after the storm, construction is ongoing and some hotels have used the forced shutdown to renovate or add buildings. In a sense, the hurricane created future commercial growth with insurance payoffs and an influx of corporate money helping to rebuild.
Not all resorts are open, but renowned properties such as Palmilla are slated to come back even better than before the hurricane. A pivotal early rebuild was the Los Cabos Mexico International Airport, which has a new, sleek design filled with food options and last-minute souvenir shops.
The Hacienda Encantada resort, one of the family-owned Mexico Grand Hotels, was up and running within four weeks.
A fund was started for its staff, and food and shelter were temporarily provided to help them get back on their feet, as well as the personal use of the property’s laundry facilities.
The sales and marketing manager for the hotel chain, Gabriel Ibarra Macias, told FNL, “At Mexico Grand Hotels, Hacienda Encantada and Marina Fiesta, we created a relief fund for our employees.... We had a very positive response, and the results were great. All the money collected as part of the fund was given to the employees who lost their homes due to the hurricane."
He added, "We are honored to be part of a community that during this very tough time showed solidarity, companionship, loyalty and support to one another.”
Mexico Grand Hotels is confident that tourism to the area will return to pre-storm levels. Hacienda Encantada is constructing new buildings, and Ibarra believes the rest of Los Cabos will follow suit.
“We have great projects coming up within Hacienda Encantada, and we see other great hotel chains growing in the area – such as Bellagio, Hard Rock, JW Marriott, Thompson – all to open here in Los Cabos.”
In the time being, many locals are waiting for the jobs to return.
Only 15 percent of Los Cabos residents are natives to Baja California Sur. The majority come from other areas of Mexico in search of work and a respite from the violence in their home states.
A large percentage of the transplants of have settled in flimsy shacks made of boards and tin along unnamed dirt roads inland from the coastal tourist areas – homes that were entirely vulnerable to the destructive power of Odile.
These neighborhoods, referred to as "colonias," have not recovered as quickly as the hotels, adventure companies, bars and restaurants.
Recovering from devastation like that wrought by Odile can be a much longer process when you have very few resources to begin with – and when all that you did have was protected just by a tarp roof.
Ercilia Medeiros, Marketing Manager for a Cabo San Lucas villa rental company, Earth, Sea and Sky Vacations, believes the recovery of the tourism industry is pivotal for the well-being of the entire community, especially the poorer neighborhoods,
“Because the local economy depends so heavily upon tourism, the recovery of the resort areas and tourism infrastructure has been crucial for the overall economic health of Los Cabos in general. Most locals work, either directly or indirectly, in the tourism economy whether in hotel service, tour operators, fishing charters or tourist-oriented services," Medeiros told FNL. "The rapid recovery we’ve seen in many major resorts ... has truly been inspiring. However, away from the resort areas, there is still much work to be done, especially in the poorer barrios that suffered extensive damage."
There are several charities set up to help Los Cabos and the other areas hit by Hurricane Odile, but the common thread among the locals is the need for the rest of the world to simply come and enjoy its beauty, even as the rebuilding continues.
Cynthia Cunniff is a freelance writer.