Who Sends Help When Hurricanes Strike? – Home, Interrupted

When Hurricane Otis devastated the resort city of Acapulco in October 2023, Mexican authorities struggled to respond to the disaster. Producer Greta Díaz González Vázquez reports on how families divided by the US-Mexico border faced challenges in surviving Otis.

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Climate change created Hurricane Otis. Here’s how cross-border migrant organizations pivoted

by Greta Díaz González Vázquez

When Juvenal Santamaría Contreras started his organization Guerrero Migrante, he never imagined he would end up helping immigrant families after natural disasters. Guerrero Migrante, was created in 2021, primarily to connect Mexican families separated by immigration. They have distributed donations from Mexicans living in the U.S. and they have helped build schools and pave streets in Mexico. The organization’s name has a double-meaning: “immigrants from the state of Guerrero,” and “migrant warrior.”

After a Category 5 hurricane hit the Pacific coast of Mexico in October 2023, Juvenal’s organization had to quickly shift its focus to respond to the disaster. Hurricane Otis hit Acapulco with winds up to 165 miles per hour, becoming the strongest Pacific hurricane on record to make landfall. Its rapid intensification left people with very little time to prepare. Experts say that Otis is part of a trend where climate change will continue to increase the intensity and severity of hurricanes to come. 

The effects of Otis were so devastating that the Mexican federal government had trouble sending aid  after the storm Roads to the coast were severely damaged. There was no electricity and phone lines were down. People were desperate for food and water. When federal aid finally did make it to Acapulco the day after, it wasn’t enough. Local organizations were forced to step up and help, even those, like Guerrero Migrante, whose work had nothing to do with disaster relief.

Juvenal’s cousin Pamela Contreras Franco has lived in Acapulco her whole life.  The day after the hurricane, she sent him an audio message through Whatsapp asking him for help. Juvenal, who lives an hour away from the coast, was able to bring supplies to his family. After two attempts he finally got to Acapulco and realized the magnitude of the catastrophe. He knew more help would be needed, so he sent pictures to migrant communities in the U.S. asking for assistance.

Members of Guerrero Migrante buy food to deliver in Acapulco days after Hurricane Otis. Photo courtesy of Juvenal Santamaría Contreras

Soon donations to Guerrero Migrante began arriving, which the organization distributed among the most vulnerable communities. But the migrants in the U.S. who were making the donations needed help too. Since there were no phone lines, most of them didn’t know what had happened to their families in Acapulco. Guerrero Migrante helped bridge the communication gap by going to Acapulco, finding displaced people, and sending messages back to their family and friends in the U.S.

One of the people who came to Guerrero Migrante for help was Saila Contreras Mendoza, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Atlanta for over 20 years. Saila was worried about her mom, whose home was heavily impacted by the storm. “My mom was sleeping on a couch and her back was hurting,” said Saila. Saila went online and bought food, clothes and even a mattress—all things that Juvenal himself helped deliver to Saila’s mom in Acapulco. Later Saila got a video of her mom gratefully receiving those items.

For some immigrant families, the struggles after Otis have raised new questions. Vero Ocampo, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Minnesota, realized that her parents who live in Acapulco aren’t safe anymore. She also realized that, since she has been away from Mexico for so many years, helping them is not that easy. “Me being on the other side of the border, it’s incredibly frustrating,” Vero said. “I wish I could say ‘relax, I’ve got this,’ but I don’t know how to do [things].”

The Ocampo family has had many uncomfortable conversations since then. Vero would like her parents to migrate to the U.S., where she can make sure they are safe. But her parents insisted on repairing their home and remaining in Acapulco. “We are Mexicans”, they said. “We worked our whole life to be able to live in Mexico.”

Alejandro (right), Pamela’s husband, supervises repairs to their house. After Hurricane Otis, they decided to make their house more hurricane proof by taking down windows and building a wall instead. Photo courtesy of Pamela Contreras Franco

Despite the destruction caused by Hurricane Otis, the Mexican government recently cut the federal program for aid after natural disasters. Mexico’s senate is expected to soon pass a bill that will put local authorities in charge of relief response. Critics of the bill say that individual Mexican states don’t have the resources to respond to disasters like Otis. As a result many believe that l citizens, companies and grassroots organizations will have to take the lead in responding to climate disasters.

Guerrero Migrante is already preparing to be of greater help to the immigrant community if another natural disaster strikes. They plan to  become trained as  first responders, and they have started to create a database to help connect immigrant families more quickly following disasters.

Despite these preparations, for some living through a natural disaster will force them to move to a safer place. But, the feeling of wanting to return home will always linger, just as it does with Saila.  She is constantly questioning if life is better on the other side of the border. She would like to go back to Acapulco, “my dream is to go back and be with my mom, Saila says. “I want to be able to enjoy just a little bit of what I have worked for in the U.S.”


Hosted by Iggy Monda

Story Produced by Greta Díaz González Vázquez

Edited by John Rudolph, Quincy Surasmith, and Iggy Monda

Fact Checking by Julie Schwietert Collazo

Engineering by Jocelyn Gonzales

Theme music by Fareed Sajan

“Home, Interrupted” show logo by Daniel Robles

Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Fernandez Pave the Way Foundation, an anonymous donor, and contributors to our annual NewsMatch campaign.

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AboutGreta Díaz González Vázquez
Greta Díaz González Vázquez is an international multimedia journalist with experience reporting in Mexico and the U.S. She tells bilingual narrative stories through audio, video and photography with a focus on gender violence, science and marginalized populations. Originally from central Mexico, Greta has worked in public radio and has freelanced for nonprofit newsrooms. Her work has been recognized with numerous national and state awards in her home country.