Mexico is accustomed to devastating earthquakes,
volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. But Tropical Storm Noel, which later
became a hurricane, was one of the worst natural disasters the country
had ever experienced. In October 2007, torrential rains fell on the
low-lying, swampy Mexican state of Tabasco. The normally placid Grijalva
River burst its banks, and its floodwaters inundated the state capital
of Villahermosa with up to eight feet of foul, muddy water. Before long,
nearly the entire state, which borders the southern Gulf of Mexico, was
A bad situation was made worse by the federal
electric utility’s decision to begin releasing water from the lake
behind the Peñitas hydroelectric dam. But the officials said that they
had no choice: If the dam had burst, it would have devastated the entire
At the height of the flooding, more than
four-fifths of Tabasco was submerged, and the homes of nearly a million
people were damaged. Villahermosa was flooded for more than a week.
Two-thirds of the largely agricultural state’s farmland was flooded,
wiping out Mexico's largest banana crop and wrecking the livelihoods of
thousands of local people.
Despite the devastation, just 25 people were killed
during the flooding, nearly all of them in a single incident in the
neighboring state of Chiapas when a landslide buried a remote village. A
less intense deluge in Tabasco in 1999 killed more than 600 people.
The reduction in fatalities was no mere
happenstance, as I learned in my visit there shortly after Tropical
Storm Noel wreaked its devastation. “We’ve been perfecting our plans for years,” Marco Franco, a member of the Mexican Red Cross team in Villahermosa, told me.
The lesson they have learned from the past is this:
“We live in a country that has a high risk for natural disasters, and
we always have to be prepared for something like this,” he explained.
“We have stocks prepositioned that are ready to go. We have vehicles. We
have our teams. We use the intranet and e-mail to monitor and manage
these resources for maximum efficiency.”
In this particular case, because the flooding took
place over several days, government agencies had time to put their plans
into action, and when the moment arose, federal and state emergency
services responded quickly and efficiently.
The Mexican armed forces swiftly swung into action
as the government sent 12,000 troops and federal police to the state.
Navy personnel in boats fanned out across the city and the interior
rescuing people and delivering supplies.
The Mexican Red Cross, as Franco noted, was also
ready with teams that flew in from Mexico City; The International
Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent in relief
supplies that had been prepositioned in Panama.
A rapid immunization campaign carried out as part
of the first response to the crisis and a well-organized emergency
health program run by the local government with the armed forces warded
off a feared epidemic of infectious disease. Emergency medical centers
staffed by civilian and military doctors tended to the sick and injured.
The most common problem: fungal infections picked up by wading in fetid
The private sector also responded with offers of
assistance. “We wanted to contribute to the recovery and to mark our
presence there,” says Eduardo Jiménez Granados, corporate security
manager for northern Latin America at Procter & Gamble Mexico. Other
companies, such as Coca-Cola, also took similar opportunities to help
the local population.
As soon as the roads reopened, tractor-trailers
loaded with food, water, and emergency supplies began pulling into
Villahermosa. Air force cargo planes flew shuttle flights into the
normally quiet airport, ferrying in urgently needed supplies and
To handle the donations that poured in from all
over Mexico, Andrés Granier, Tabasco’s governor, turned the elegant
gardens surrounding his immaculate white mansion into a makeshift
logistics center. Trucks disgorged their loads onto the lawns, creating
hills of food, clothes, and medicine. Volunteers sorted through the
piles, which would be distributed to crowds of people lined up patiently
outside. Watchful troops were on hand in case people became unruly, but
the crowds were calm as they inched forward under a blazing sun.
In addition, throughout the region, mobile army
kitchens handed out thousands of warm meals a day to those in need.
Soldiers guarded major installations and intersections as well.
To help people locate missing family members and
neighbors, the government installed electronic kiosks outside of the
palace. The kiosks provided a way for people to use a touch screen to
access a Web-based listing of the estimated 80,000 people in official
and unofficial shelters. A state employee was there to assist anyone
unfamiliar with touch screens or navigating Web pages.
At the local Red Cross headquarters, weeks after
the disaster first struck, a three-man team was coordinating the
organization’s relief effort. Leading the team was Isaac Oxenhaut
Gruzko. He had arrived from California, where he had just been assisting
in the American Red Cross relief efforts for people displaced by the
wildfires then threatening southern California.
When I saw him, he was utterly exhausted, surviving
on nervous energy and packs of Marlboros. Working from a bare,
smoke-filled room, the men were linked to teams in the field and to the
international Red Cross network by cell phone and wireless laptops
connected to the organization’s intranet.
Gruzko fielded call after call from aid workers.
His orders were swift and decisive. His fury when instructions were
disobeyed or misunderstood was terrifying: “Who on this earth told you
to deliver those things to the Palace?” he thundered over his cell phone
at one helpless volunteer in language ripe with Spanish insults.
Although the death toll was relatively light, the
economic impact of the disaster was immense, and Tabasco will probably
take years to recover. The state government at the time estimated the
disaster’s impact at $5 billion.
The extent of the damage became visible as the
floodwaters receded. The stench of dead animals and rotting vegetation
was unbearable. People piled garbage, wrecked furniture, and debris in
the streets. City workers removed 10,000 tons of trash daily from
Villahermosa. More than 20,000 vehicles had to be junked.
The struggle toward recovery that lies ahead can be
illustrated on a personal level through one man’s eyes. Before the
flood, retiree Daniel Rincón used to survive by running a tiny corner
store. But the flood wrecked his store, leaving a layer of stinking
sludge from floor to ceiling.
“I have lost everything I had,” he says, fighting
back tears. “All my stock has gone, and it wasn’t even mine. I bought it
all on credit. Who’s going to help me now?”
President Felipe Calderón said he would make sure
that no resources would be spared in getting Tabasco back on its feet.
He pledged $670 million in federal money to start a reconstruction fund.
In addition, the government is deferring tax payments, and local
businesses received financial handouts to tide them over.
Calderón realized that sound crisis management
would shore up his legitimacy. He was elected by a hairsbreadth over his
Planning for Disasters
Mexico first began to take crisis management
seriously after an earthquake devastated Mexico City more than 20 years
ago. That earthquake, which measured 8.1 in magnitude, killed between
5,000 and 10,000 people—no precise death toll could be calculated.
“The 1985 earthquake was a tragedy that we were not
prepared for. I helped dig children from the debris. People were
working with their bare hands,” recalls Tom Gottlieb, CPP, president of
Von Gosslar Consulting, and an ASIS International regional vice
“We have become much less amateurish in handling
disasters since 1985. The earthquake was a great wake-up call for us,”
says Jorge Septien, who is the head of security for Citibank in Mexico.
“It helped to make security into a serious career for professionals.”
In the wake of that disaster, the armed forces drew
up detailed national disaster recovery plans to ensure that for future
incidents, there would be adequate emergency relief supplies, search and
rescue teams, medical centers, earthmoving equipment, and troops to
maintain law and order. The government also established a national
coordinating committee to bring together federal agencies, the armed
forces, utilities, health services, and private-sector representatives
to coordinate responses to an emergency.
The government also required that banks resume
operations as quickly as possible to get cash circulating and avoid
looting or violence, as had happened in previous disasters. “People
don’t think to bring their ATM cards or money with them when they are
trying to save their families,” says Septien. “[P]eople who are honest
had to steal food and water to survive, because they had no money. We
wanted to avoid this happening again in Villahermosa.”
The sooner cash began coursing through the economy,
the faster the state could start recovering from the disaster. State
officials say 14 of the city’s 16 supermarkets were functioning normally
again three weeks after the incident.
While the most recent response was a vast
improvement over the way the government reacted in 1985, some first
responders and businesses still point out problems with the way this
disaster was handled.
One criticism is that the government did not respond quickly enough in terms of advance warnings and evacuations.
Rincón, like many in Villahermosa, says official
warnings came too late and gave no indication that the flooding would be
A foreign official at the Red Cross International
Federation says, “We could tell the situation was getting bad well
before the government started warning people. We could get our warnings
just by monitoring the NOAA Web site and watching the Weather Channel.
There was no mystery or surprise about what would happen, that there
would be a lot of flooding.”
A government enquiry found that six official alerts
were given, the first on October 13, two weeks before flooding began.
But few paid any attention. The federal water and electric utilities
allowed water to rise to critical levels at the Peñitas dam despite the
The problem may be the way alerts were worded. “If
one looks at the bulletins from the national meteorological service,
they never said anything about the magnitude of the [forecasted] rains,”
says Víctor Magaña Rueda, a researcher at Mexico’s National Autonomous
University’s atmospheric sciences center. “By tradition, it errs on the
safe side, using ranges that are very wide. Before Tabasco, it just
warned people that it would rain a lot, giving a rainfall range of
Another criticism concerned how slowly basic
services were brought back online as the flooding eased. Private sector
managers say they were let down by the poor performance of
government-owned utilities and private telecommunications networks.
Companies had most of their IT infrastructure—PCs,
monitors, servers, cabling, and telephone gear—destroyed by the
floodwaters. When the waters receded, they were able to bring in
replacement equipment and hook it up to corporate networks, but they
could not get operations fully up and running until power and
communications systems returned to normal.
One cellular carrier’s main transmission center in
Villahermosa was almost completely submerged. Comisión Federal de
Electricidad, the government-owned electric company, cut off supplies to
the city for safety reasons. It only restored partial power days after
the rain stopped and the waters began to recede. This hampered the
ability of banks and other critical businesses to resume normal service.
The head of security at one Mexican company says,
“Avantel, which is our cellphone carrier, and Telmex, which is the
landline provider, were underwater, literally, and they could not
provide service even once we were back and ready to operate. So what
kind of contingency planning do they have?”
Poor communications made it hard to reach out to
staff, says Juan Carlos Camacho Martínez, head of physical security and
civil protection at Citibank in Mexico City. “The immediate priority was
to locate our employees in Villahermosa. We needed to make sure
everyone was okay, see who needed help, maybe to rescue them from their
homes or to provide food and clothing.”
Not all the blame rests with the government or
major utilities. Private companies other than banks had few plans in
place. They had to improvise their responses and took longer to recover.
“The roads from Mexico City out to the Yucatán
peninsula were cut for days, and we could not get through. We redirected
our trucks through the south, which disrupted deliveries and increased
delays,” says Jorge Uranga Valdez, corporate security coordinator at
Mexican-owned logistics company Unipack. Fortunately, Villahermosa is
not a major economic center, and Unipack only operates a distribution
center and a warehouse in the city.
Carlos Pineda, a Unipack employee, says, “I’d say
our emergency plan was pretty focused on preserving our IT systems but
that was as far as it went. I’d say that apart from that, we basically
made it up as we went along. We were improvising the whole time.”
It was especially important for Unipack to recover
quickly, because it had a critical logistical role to play. It had to be
ready to distribute some of the emergency supplies flowing in from
Mexico City and the rest of the country. To that end, as soon as the
roads were open, a group of Unipack workers was sent from Mexico City to
help local employees. They rescued those who were cut off by the water
or who needed help in obtaining basic supplies. Once their immediate
needs were met and missing employees had been located, Unipack workers
began cleaning up their offices and warehouse.
A clear lesson from the most recent incident was
that companies need to audit their suppliers and service providers more
carefully when they claim to be able to provide service rapidly after an
emergency, says Walter M. Farrer, corporate security manager at 3M
Citibank’s Camacho says it also now recognizes the
need to better analyze what it will need to have on hand to handle a
disaster. “We didn’t have any boats in Villahermosa. That seems obvious
now. We have boats at other locations, but not in Villahermosa.”
A postcrisis analysis of lessons learned carried
out for Hugo Raúl Montes Campos, the bank’s regional executive director
for security, included the following recommendations: The bank should
ensure that its Villahermosa branches be equipped with a launch,
four-wheel drive vehicles, and individual first-aid kits for employees.
The bank’s medical department should improve its emergency health
support, such as providing immunizations for staff. The bank should also
improve the resilience of its communications network as well, since its
Villahermosa branches all relied on a single carrier.
A final recommendation was that the bank should
strengthen relations with local and federal government emergency
agencies, such as civil defense and the armed forces, to reduce response
times in a crisis.
Many issues require government action. The Grijalva
is one of Mexico’s most important rivers. Its hydroelectric dams
generate about one quarter of the country’s electricity. Yet federal and
state governments have invested little to protect residents from
flooding or to enforce zoning regulations to prevent people from
building in areas prone to flooding. Indeed, money earmarked after the
1999 floods to pay for flood protection programs either went missing or
Raúl Fraga, who heads investigative reporting at
Mexican business daily El Financiero, said, “Tabasco had a corrupt
political system, although Granier is somewhat different from the
others, and he was governor for barely a year when the flooding began.
It’s very obvious that money from the federal government to prevent the
effects of the flooding on the population has not been spent according
Local environmentalists charge that the federal
government did not fully implement a flood control plan that had been
announced with great fanfare in 2000.
Elías Sánchez, a member of Asociación Ecológica
Santo Tomás, says, “There were a series of meetings in which it was
agreed to improve the security of the people. In 2003, a flood control
plan was announced which would be implemented through 2007 with money
from the federal government. But the money did not arrive in time, and
the program was extended to 2008. The implementation of some projects
was done badly, a few were done well, and others were not done at all.”
Many people are dreading what will happen as the
handouts, goodwill, and tax breaks come to an end. “Mexicans are very
emotional and respond generously in an emergency,” says Salvador
Alcantara, CPP, a consultant based in Villahermosa.
But dealing with long-term recovery issues and
preventing future disasters is another thing. “For instance, we need to
have a policy that discourages people from building in high-risk areas,
which does not really exist at the moment,” says Alcantara.
One resident who did not want to give his name
said, “The problem is what comes after everyone has forgotten about
Tabasco and all the things that happened to the people of Villahermosa.
What will happen to us when the help ends? People are spending this
money on surviving, and they cannot prepare for the time when there will
be no more help. The owners of businesses will not be able to keep
employees if no one is buying their products. And don’t forget that
Tabasco is a poor state. We were poor before, and now we have become
The state government so far has indicated that it
will stay the course, providing assistance until the area is back on its
feet. Almost 22,000 small firms registered with the state for financial
support, and officials have promised $430 million in soft loans to
companies that qualify for aid. It has also promised $8 million in
financial assistance for 10,000 local companies. Federal officials say
they will invest in tourist promotion and to rebuild the state’s hotel
and transportation infrastructure to kickstart the state economy.
Ariel Cetina Bertruy, head of Invitab, the state
government’s housing agency, told a Tabasco newspaper that he would
rebuild 300,000 homes affected by floods at a cost of about $600
The state government conducted
a census in December to identify those most at risk, and it has started
to relocate about 40,000 families away from areas most exposed to
flooding. It also plans to purchase 600 hectares of private land in a
safer area where homes can then be built to house the people being
relocated. The first homes were meant to be ready in March 2008, but
Alcantara says that by August work had not begun.
About 1,000 people were still living in shelters
while others had built makeshift homes on the floodplains, areas at risk
of further floods in the future.
Alcantara says private companies and the public
sector must take crisis planning more seriously. For example, government
agencies should improve early warning and communications capabilities.
In addition, power and telecommunications providers need to improve the
resilience of essential systems, and companies need to consider how
vulnerable their supply chains and basic services are in an emergency.
John Barham is a senior editor at Security Management.