Though the closest city escaped catastrophic damage from Hurricane Dean, the storm ravaged the livelihoods of a people so isolated that...
SALAMANCA, Mexico — Though the closest city escaped catastrophic damage from Hurricane Dean, the storm ravaged the livelihoods of a people so isolated that the only hint of modernity comes from the jetliners that fly overhead.
They are not indigenous Mayas. They are Mennonites, 800 descendants of 16th-century European Protestant reformers, who mostly shun the modern world but boarded buses and found shelter from the storm inside the city of Chetumal.
Now, as Dean made its final landfall Wednesday near Tuxpan and weakened inland, they inspected their settlement in the Yucatán Peninsula — accessible only by a precarious mud road through an otherwise impenetrable swamp — and confronted this reality:
Ninety percent of their homes were destroyed. Their corn crop lay flattened. Their horse-drawn buggies leaned to this side and that, battered beyond repair.
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“There’s nothing. Now we have nothing left,” said Isaac Dick, 27, whose one-room wood-and-tin home near the Caribbean coast imploded as though it were balsa wood and aluminum foil crushed by a child’s thumb.
Six hundred miles away, along Mexico’s Gulf Coast, Dean re-strengthened to Category 2 intensity with 100 mph winds as its core slammed the nation for the final time, making landfall near Tecolutla, 40 miles south-southeast of Tuxpan.
Then it moved inland, weakened and was demoted to a tropical storm.
Widespread flooding and modest damage were reported along the coast, and officials expressed deep concern about the possibility of flash floods and mudslides inland as Dean’s still-abundant rain worked through Mexico’s mountains.
Floods and landslides in that area killed hundreds in 1999.
Dean’s death toll in the Caribbean already stood at 20 before it reached Mexico, rising by seven as Haitian officials reported more death. Thus far, no reports of storm-related death or serious injury have emerged from Mexico.
Along the country’s Caribbean coast, where a much stronger version of the storm made its first Mexican landfall, the Quintana Roo state capital of Chetumal escaped catastrophic damage.
Not so in Mahahual, a small, up-and-coming beach resort that thrived mostly on money from the cruise industry and its tourists.
Now, it’s known as the coastal spot first hit by Dean’s eye wall and its most powerful, 165-mph winds.
On Wednesday, authorities allowed business owners and residents back into Mahahual, an hour’s drive from the main highway through a biological preserve.
Even then, the view of the Caribbean was stunning — except on the beach, where it appeared that an invasion fleet had bombarded the white sand.
Rows of tourist shops stood blown out. Three small fishing boats lay entwined in thick trees 200 yards from the beach. At a ruined outdoor market, wind chimes usually sold to tourists still hung, now clinking against the fallen slabs of a tin roof.
“It looks like Iraq,” said Jose Rogelio Juarez, 46, who found his gift shop emptied by the winds, with a layer of sand and coconuts inside. “It looks like a beach in here.”
The town’s fledgling tourist infrastructure was gone. The vital dock for cruise ships suffered extreme damage.
The details were different but the outcome much the same in Salamanca, the 5,000-acre farming settlement of Mennonites seven miles from the nearest paved road.
Their ancestors fled persecution in Holland hundreds of years ago, first to Germany, then Russia, Canada, Chihuahua in Mexico, Belize and finally, four years ago, the swamps of Salamanca.
Mostly blond and light-eyed, they still speak a mix of German and Dutch, travel by horse-drawn cart and use kerosene lamps to light their homes. Few speak Spanish.
Amid the bustle outside the shelters in Chetumal, they were distinguished by their attire: plaid dresses and bonnets for the women; dark trousers, suspenders, long-sleeved shirts and straw hats for the men.
The government provided buses for them, to and from the farms.
But the devastation was amplified by their humble lifestyle. Strict Mennonites believe modern technology taints their faith.
They do not use running water or electricity. Most learned of the storm from Mexicans who came to buy goods. Tropical storms had brushed Belize in the past, but nothing on the scale of Dean.
Said Jacobo Dick, no relation to Isaac: “I don’t even have 50 pesos. Now we have nothing.”
Few Mexicans even know of the community. The Mennonite men weren’t sure how to ask for government help.
For Isaac Dick, the damage was nearly complete.
Dean reduced his one-room home to a tangled pile of pillows, dolls, blankets and empty Cup-O-Noodles containers. Fortunately, his horse, Dal, survived the storm without injury.
Several months ago, Dick had begun building a cinder block house to replace his one-room home. A tanned father of three with sad blue eyes, he works 12-hour days tending six acres of corn, now uprooted and killed by the storm.
Dean stole the tin roof of the new home, leaving it crushed in the cornfields, Dick said as a blue butterfly landed on his right shoulder. He shooed it away, without smiling.
He pointed to distant patches of land.
“Houses used to be there,” he said. “Now they’re all gone.”
That night, his family would sleep in the usual pitch black of the farmland.
But with no roof overhead.