Mexico Life
Devastation left by last week's fire in Zihuatanejo. Devastation left by last week's fire in Zihuatanejo.

Zihuatanejo fire victims may come out ahead with better living conditions

Community, government respond quickly to needs of nearly 300 victims of huge fire

Once again Zihuatanejo shines.

Fire broke out high above the city of Zihuatanejo in the Buena Vista and Linda Vista neighborhoods on December 23, affecting some 150 homes and approximately 290 people.

I climbed to the top of the mountain to view the devastation first-hand and was met by friendly neighbors whose homes had not been touched. Climbing higher still I saw people not so fortunate, but already hard at work clearing their land of debris and charred household belongings in anticipation of rebuilding their homes.

Municipal government workers were also on site, with heavy equipment to level the ground and remove some of the larger piles of garbage and remains of lost homes lost. It seemed to me that much had been accomplished in just five short days.

Later, I had the opportunity to interview Zihuatanejo’s first lady, Lizette Tapia Castro, head of the DIF family services agency and wife of Mayor Jorge Sánchez.

With so many rumors flying as to the cause of the fire, I hoped to find a definitive answer to the question on many people’s minds. Officially, the cause has not yet been determined until the authorities make their final report. Unofficially however, it is believed and reported by neighbors in the area to have been caused by young children playing with firecrackers.

Millions of pesos in damage on the hill overlooking Zihuatanejo.
Millions of pesos in damage on the hill overlooking Zihuatanejo.

Regardless, efforts to contain the fire seemed to me to be swift and efficient. Led by the municipal government and coordinated by the DIF, people were housed and organized in the Municipal Auditorium of Zihuatanejo near the central part of town within hours. In the first few days, 400 volunteers from the community assisted victims to make sure they were given food, water and clothing, and that their animals were rescued and cared for.

Families carved out space on the floor of the auditorium and were immediately tended to by Red Cross workers, as well as DIF staff of 10 and a small army of volunteers. Supplies such as blankets, inflatables mattresses and sheets and personal hygiene products, to name a few, were distributed by the Red Cross as well another kit containing pots and pans, dishes and cleaning supplies.

Over the next couple of days, I spent a few hours sorting through mounds of clothing that poured into the shelter, chatting with other volunteers and recipients while they tried to get some semblance of order. For the most part, people were upbeat and cheerful, surprising considering the trauma they had just experienced. Of course, the numerous children seemed unfazed as they played together.

Inside the municipal building, several long tables laden with pharmaceuticals and personal hygiene items were set up and manned by pharmacists and medical personnel who dispensed what was needed.

Lizette Tapia also explained that within the week the state of Guerrero will supply families with construction materials including galvanized metal roofing, a sturdier option then the tar paper roofs they had before. As well, each family will receive a brand-new mattress, including a base to set it on, a refrigerator and a full stove.

Red Cross workers with aid for victims.
Red Cross workers with aid for victims.

The state has pledged 2,500 pesos (US $127) to each family immediately and an additional 2,500 pesos a week later so they can begin construction of their homes. The plan is to have the municipal building vacated by the first week of January.

Before the fire, many of the victims lived in houses made of cardboard and plastic and cooked on tiny two-burner stoves or even open fires. Some had never owned a mattress or fridge. For everyone, 5,000 pesos is a lot of money, and there will be opportunities down the road to apply for grants to continue to build with concrete.

The foreign community pulled together, as they always do in Zihuatanejo.  Various groups and individuals started fundraising, including the organization known as Por Los Niños, which raised over 153,000 pesos (US $7,800) in less than two days with the promise of more to come.

The money is earmarked for school supplies, uniforms, backpacks and shoes, while other cash donated will purchase propane tanks and water storage tanks. These, too, are luxuries not everyone owned before the fire. Additional cash, if any, will be used on an ongoing basis as people struggle with health issues from the contaminants that polluted the air during the fire.

There were many takeaways that have resulted from the tragedy. Perhaps the best for me is how the community and government have pulled together in an obviously well run and professionally executed manner that all can be proud of.

Children play at the municipal shelter.
Children play at the municipal shelter.

And I for one couldn’t help but think that for many people affected, this could well be a blessing in disguise.

If you wish to donate, you may do so directly with the DIF. The account name is Municipio de Zihuatanejo de Azueta DIF Municipal Apoyo, Bancomer account number 0112356473.

To help with educational supplies you can donate through Por Los Niños.

The writer is a Canadian who has lived and worked in Mexico for many years.

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