The day of April 10, 2012 started off like any other day of Zihuatanejo’s peak holiday season during Semana de Pascua (Easter week). Tourists were enjoying the beaches and frolicking in the sand and the surf, even though the ocean water temperature has been extremely cool along the coast for the past few weeks, around 24-25° C (75-77° F). Many people had just arrived for the beginning of the second week of the annual traditional Semana Santa-Semana de Pascua vacation period. The beaches were filling up at Playa La Ropa, Playa Las Gatas, Playa La Madera and Playa Principal all around Zihuatanejo’s bay.
Suddenly around 11:00 a.m. phone calls started arriving to the offices of the police and the fire department, reports of a fire, though no one could specify exactly where it was. Some folks thought it was a warning sign for a tsunami, and there were even a few calls by folks frightened that it was the arrival of a UFO.
Photos by Jorge Luis Tomás García
At first the reports of a strange white cloud only came from Ixtapa, where Playa El Palmar was suddenly enveloped in dense white cloud spilling in from the ocean and between the low hills from Playa Linda and Playa Quieta.
A maid at one condominium project in Ixtapa thought it was the end of the world, thanks to all the media hysteria over the Mayan calendar and so-called predictions by Nostradamus and the fictional movie “2012”, and she started to walk off the job to go home so she could spend her “final moments” with her children. Her co-workers eventually convinced her that it was only fog and she returned to her job.
While we have seen fog in Zihuatanejo on rare occasions over the years, no one could recall ever seeing such a dense and low fog bank like this roll in during the middle of the day. Like a white version of the smoke monster from LOST, the fog bank seemed to reach into the bay like a long finger and touch part of La Ropa Beach and the small hill between La Ropa and La Madera before dissipating upward. The eerie effect was enhanced because it looked like a low cloud rolling along the surface of the ocean reminiscent of a popular horror movie.
Photos by Judith Whitehead
Photos by Michael Hackett
All around the bay the folks on beaches were standing around watching the unusual fog bank and taking videos and photos as it blew in from the ocean and tumbled over the low parts of the hills along the coast.
I guess it was around Thursday or so that the weather map first hinted that a tropical storm was forming in the Bahía de Tehuántepec off the coast of Oaxaca, and news reports showed that they were getting some rain. By Saturday things had shaped up and it became apparent our first real rain of the season was on its way.
We had only received 2 or three short showers and a few sprinkles beginning in late May, but no real groundsoaking rains. Our last real rain was in October, 2010. We had been having some extremely hot and humid weather, the kind where you break out sweating before even drying off after a shower, and where no fan at any speed was able to cool you down but only stir up the heavy hot and humid air. So rain in any way, shape or form was looking like the relief we needed and the answer to many prayers.
Sunday began damn hot and humid like we had been suffering for over a month, often without any city water to bathe or cool down with. But something different happened on Sunday: the clouds moved in and the skies became overcast. The shade was welcome, but it was still damn hot and humid. However, the weather forecast looked promising: we were definitely going to get a visit from the then Tropical Storm Beatriz. Whether a direct hit or a near miss, the promise of some real soaker rains was an added bonus to Father’s Day, and by Sunday evening a few sprinkles and brief showers blew through.
[click on images to enlarge them]
During the wee hours of Monday morning a few more rain showers passed through, so we awoke to wet streets and dripping trees. Just before 8 o’clock we noticed classes had been cancelled at neighboring Vicente Guerrero school and the well-dressed children were walking back home, most accompanied by their parents. Shortly after 8 o’clock the rain started, first as a drizzle, then a sprinkle, then a downpour. It rained steadily hour after hour at varying intensities, and by around 10 o’clock the wind began to gust a little, blowing over a large plant on our rooftop.
It rained and rained and rained, and around 5pm the weather services announced that Beatriz had become a hurricane. Oh boy! We’re having some fun now!
But apart from the rain, which had intensified by the evening, and the surf, which had steadily grown louder and higher, there still were no heavy winds in the downtown Zihuatanejo area, probably owing to the fact that the surrounding hills of our bay form a near perfect shelter. A friend of mine near Barra de Potosí, which faces open ocean, said they had been having some heavy winds and that they were getting pretty tired of them, but he said the beach was still okay even though the big waves were taking some of the sand. I imagine some of the beachfront restaurants out there had water in them, and probably some of those beachfront condo and home owners were thinking maybe they had built too close to the beach (which of course they had most certainly done).
Though Hurricane Beatriz was literally brushing our coast, it soon became obvious that it was continuing on a northwesterly track and that we appeared to have been spared any hurricane strength winds and the serious damage they can cause.
But there was still the ocean to worry about, and just after 10pm a quick walk over to the beach in front of downtown Zihuatanejo during a lull in the rain revealed the waves were washing completely up the beach to the walkway. Fishermen were nervously keeping an eye on their beached pangas, and all the beachfront restaurants were empty and closed. Muddy water was rushing out of Canal “La Boquita” next to the museum, but waves were also rushing about a hundred meters up into the canal. The beach was suffering some erosion and a few restaurants were in danger of losing the land they lease from the federal government (which they shouldn’t be able to lease in the first place).
Of course, the all night long rain and cool temperatures brought by the storm made for terrific sleeping weather!
As dawn broke it became obvious that the storm had passed us. The rain stopped and gave the cleaning crews a chance to clean the garbage off the beaches. Not nearly as bad as in past years.
As I write this late Tuesday morning it’s sprinkling again, and the weather forecast calls for more intermittent rains as the remains of Beatriz are dragged past us, but we finally got our long awaited ground soaking rain! The heat spell has been broken! And Life is Good!
Taking a morning walk with my wife and one of the other regular morning walkers asks me if I knew if we were going to have a tsunami. Tsu what? Whatsup? First I heard about any possible tsunami. Why am I always the last one to know these things? Why did I not get the MEMO?
So there went the morning walk as Lupita and I rushed back home and turned on the news and the computer. Dang, unplug yourself from the world for a night and all hell breaks loose!
So the first thing I do is find is a graph estimating the arrival time. Then I told everyone it might start arriving around 11:00 or 12:00 because I forgot to notice the PST time indicator. Oops. Drink more coffee. Go back and fix error. Ahem!
On the radio a lady calls in to the morning talk show program asking if a wave and an earthquake were going to strike her home high on the hill at El Hujal. Looks like I’m not the only one having a morning brainfart…
So after finding out the estimated arrival time was actually shortly after 2:30 p.m. and getting my computer set up upstairs just in case, I grabbed my camera and walked down the waterfront towards the pier. A friend of mine said he thought the water was just starting to run out of the Las Salinas lagoon, so I hurried over to the bridge crossing the lagoon at El Almacén to get a good spot. Turns out I got there just in time as the show was getting started at 3:20 p.m.
There were three surges that I witnessed, but I heard there were more. Each cycle lasting about 10 minutes and each one just a little more intense than the last. Fishermen were out minding their boats, and lots of people came to the bridge and shores of the lagoon to watch and film the eerie event. Surprisingly, no real stench arose from the swirling waters of lagoon. It smelled mostly like old mud. Nevertheless, folks were almost cheering as they watched the black water run out of the lagoon, hoping it would get a much needed flushing out. Unfortunately, the water that ran back in seemed to be the very same water that ran out. Oh well. Guess it’ll take more than a tsunami…
The birds were squawking and chirping and flying about quite agitated, and fish in the lagoon weren’t sure which way they should be fleeing to. Since we don’t see too many of these, folks were excited and enjoying the entertainment. Yes, even a tsunami can be fun, as long as it’s just a little one.
As I headed back towards the pier and the Playa Del Puerto, folks were giddy and chattering with excitement. We’d just had a tsunami! Everyone was talking about it. Even tourists were enjoying the added attraction.
But what struck me as really odd was seeing tourists swimming at the beach. It was clear even to folks away from their TV sets and news sources that something was going on, even though the bay appeared calm and the waves were gently lapping the beach.
Fortunately it was an extremely low tide when the tsunami hit at about 3:20 p.m. The height looked like it was just a about a meter in sea level height between the high water mark and the low water that I saw. Thank goodness it appears there’s no damage to report. Surges were still being reported at 11:00 p.m. that night and we noticed them still happening for several days afterwards.
As the world awoke to the tragic news of an 8.8 earthquake in Chile on the morning of Saturday, February 27, 2010, here in Zihuatanejo we also awoke to a tsunami warning. It turned out that the best local source of information regarding the pending tsunami was my Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa Message Board where folks were finding and posting data from a variety of sources and keeping everyone else up to date. My family and I checked the radio and the television, but only CNN had any related news albeit not very specific to our region. No local or national media that we could find reported any helpful info until well past the event. Even the information we received by phoning the Capitanía del Puerto showed they didn’t have as much info as was available on my Message Board.
At various times between about 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM my wife and I both went to check the situation along the bayfront at the Playa Del Puerto (aka Playa Municipal aka Playa Principal) since the reports from NOAA had estimated that the tsunami could arrive as early as 10:45 AM. The cruise ship “Carnival Spirit” sat anchored in the bay offloading passengers like during any other visit. Water taxis appeared to be running passengers back and forth to Playa Las Gatas. Sport fishing boats were coming and going. Sightseeing boats full of tourists were cruising around the bay. The singer at a beachfront restaurant played without missing a beat, though he did mention something about the tsunami between songs. But most folks neither saw nor heard from any authorities until the event itself had long passed.
Apparently, around 10:30 AM local folks started hearing about a possible tsunami. The artists displaying their paintings in the Plaza del Artista began removing their works and more people seemed to show up on the beach to watch the bay. A news videographer filmed up and down the beach. Nothing unusual was to be seen, but the rumor mill was at work in town and neighbors gathered here and there to catch up on the latest info.
Around 12:15 PM I headed off to spend the day at my mother’s place in Ixtapa. Apparently right after I left reports started showing up on my Message Board describing what effects of the tsunami people had observed. Here’s what was posted:
We have a good view of the bay and have been watching the bay to see how it reacts so if you are interested: As of 1:15 p.m.
Muddy swirls on both sides of the Puerto Mio jetty and that side of the town bay.
A little while ago the shore line dropped considerably and you could see about one third of the Las Gatas bay bottom. Now the waters have risen again. But Las Gatas water inside and outside the reef water looks as if it contains quite a bit of sand and debris. And murky swirl to the south of Las Gatas jetty.
One small boat was too close to shore and was “beached” when the shore line dropped.
Still people walking and swimming and sunning and parasailing on La Ropa.
The water in the bay has lowered enough that the water in the lagoon is running into the bay. Looks and smells really bad. Other than that all seems the same as any other day.
Shortly afterward Dianne posted:
My husband was just at the beach in Ixtapa this morning. At about 2:00 the hotel he was sitting in front of asked all people on the beach to leave, as a safety precaution. He said people all over the beach were being asked to leave.
And a little later Marty wrote:
“Tsunami Surge at La Ropa”
We sat on Playa La Ropa and watched the ocean level slowly go out about 50 feet and then came back with a 5 to 6 foot high surge. Just pushed water up high on the beach.
No damage, but interesting to sit there and watch.
And TJ added:
“Kudos to the Pacifica Resort Re: Tsunami”
We were at the Pacifica Resort in Ixtapa yesterday had heard about the earthquake in Chile and were well informed about the potential tsunami that may affect the area. At about noon the lower pool area and beach were vacated of all furniture and chairs and people were advised to go up to the next level or higher. The next level up (20-25 feet above sea level) consists of the reception area, a bar, restaurant and an infinity pool. At about 12:30 they brought out small sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads deserts and began serving what ever you wanted to drink, all at no charge. Overall a excellent example of plan for the worst, hope for the best and make your customers feel appreciated and safe.
Reports in local newspapers mentioned that a few boats in the lagoon suffered minor damages as the water ran out of the lagoon, but nothing else. Someone who was in the Dorado Pacífico Hotel in Ixtapa mentioned that at around 2:00 PM the hotel manager called all the guests in from the beach, and that other hotels did the same thing.
It took a day or two for everyone’s nerves to calm down, and for a couple of days afterwards some folks would joke with their friends and neighbors saying “viene la OLA” (the WAVE is coming).
Here is what some of the local newspapers reported:
Things appear to be improving and the responsible authorities seem to be taking their jobs a bit more seriously regarding the testing of the ocean water at our beaches for bacteriological content. The Secretario del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) announced that it is stepping up its monitoring program of our local beaches.
For the past 10 days SEMARNAT has been taking water samples in order to have a more realistic picture of the bacteriological conditions of the water at our local beaches, and they are reporting their findings in a more timely manner. They used to only take one sample a month and publish the findings a month or more later. Now findings for the same month can be found on the website for the Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios (COFEPRIS) and findings are being released to the press even sooner.
Additionally, the Sistema Sanitario Federal has applied the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and lowered the unacceptable risk level from 500 to 200 enterococcos per 100 milliliters of water. I definitely see this as a step in the right direction. Now the question is if signs will actually be posted at any beaches that surpass this new level, because this has been a problem in the past.
Our local wastewater treatment plants are being repaired and upgraded by our municipal government and new ones are also being built in nearby communities to lower the risk of potential pollution to our area’s beaches. Hopefully before the end of 2010 all three of Zihuatanejo’s wastewater treatment plants will be operating as they should and Playa Principal will finally be considered a safe swimming beach by locals. The current test results still show this as the only beach that poses a potential health risk. Thankfully all our other beaches are looking good.
Ixtapa’s Playa El Palmar is on the verge of receiving the important distinction of becoming certified as a “Playa Limpia”. This requires strict monitoring not only of the water quality but also of other factors including even the cleanliness of the sand. This certification should help the promotion of Ixtapa by travel agents and tourism professionals. And if things go as planned then beaches such as Zihuatanejo’s Playa La Ropa should not be far behind in meeting the criteria to become certified as a “Playa Limpia”.
The waves in Zihuatanejo’s bay washed almost all the way into the streets of downtown Zihuatanejo last night. We could hear them thundering all night long as Tropical Storm Andres churned past Zihuatanejo just a few miles off our coast. In some places they actually reached the top of the walkway and started to spill over, such as into the park called Plaza del Artista where the sand piled up even with the walkway as seen in the photo above.
The wind kept gusting much of the night, blowing trees and plants around as well as bringing rain through windows. The rain finally tapered down to an off-and-on sprinkle, letting up this morning. The sun has finally come out and revealed the aftermath of last night’s storm in all its living color.
La Playa Principal lost a lot of sand last night, and the waves washed into seating areas of several beachfront restaurants. The beach-soccer area that was set up for an ongoing tournament got torn apart as the waves rolled right through it. In the fishermen’s area boats were battered around like toys with some stacked on top of others. Only the wind blowing towards the shore kept many from being washed out to sea.
Downtown Zihuatanejo also awoke to no water this morning. Even so, people could be seen in front of their homes and businesses sweeping and picking up debris. No real damage could be seen except to a few plants. The downtown streets seems to have drained pretty well.
During the rain last evening I caught 3 kids who had stolen a large canvas banner from my neighbor as they ran away towards the museum. The kids returned it without any fuss after saying they had only wanted it for the roof of their house. I almost felt bad for stopping them, but my neighbor paid good money for it and she thanked me for my good deed. Of course my wife was angry that I could’ve been stabbed by the 3 kids, since times are desperate and life is cheap. She tends to worry like that a lot.