BY JULIE WATSON
VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico -- Otilio Perez de la Cruz has always made
from the water. Now he lives in it. Sardines dart from his bedroom to his living
room. Sometimes they tickle his shins while he watches television.
For nearly a month, the second-generation fisherman-turned-fish-vendor
family of four have lived in thigh-high water in his one-story home.
Heavy rain and mudslides have caused massive flooding across southeastern
Mexico and this month alone have killed more than 400 people, according to
official figures -- and many more, according to unofficial accounts.
The damage has been especially heavy in Villahermosa, capital
of the state of
Tabasco, with 190,000 people displaced from this city of 465,000 since
But many, like the Perez family, have opted to stay in their homes
to fend off
looters. The Perez family now lives on a series of planks balanced on buckets.
The planks start at what was their porch and lead from room to room. Their
belongings are stacked on tables. Remarkably, they have electricity.
Authorities on Saturday opened the flood gates of the Penitas
dam in the
neighboring state of Chiapas because it was filled beyond capacity and in danger
of bursting from the weeks of heavy rain.
Water levels were expected to rise by as much as 20 inches in
areas and boost dangerously high rivers as a result. Authorities said the water
would be released gradually, and no major damage from the release was reported
But areas of Villahermosa already were sitting under as much as
6 1/2 feet of
Colonia La Manga II, a working-class neighborhood where Perez
lives, has spent
the past month under five feet of water -- before the flood gates were opened.
Residents said they were even seeing crocodiles that escaped after flood waters
swept over a nearby hatchery. One woman was surprised by two coral snakes as
she was doing dishes.
``If the water gets to here,'' said Perez, 40, pointing to his
chest, ``then we'll have
to go and call it a loss. But until then, I'm not leaving. There are too many thieves
Here in Colonia La Manga II, residents like Perez struggle to
maintain their daily
routine. Women lug shopping bags from the mall, kick off their high heels and hop
aboard dugout canoes to row home. Teenagers canoe to their friends' homes.
Neighbors yell greetings and exchange gossip as they float past each other.
``But you feel bad,'' said resident Laura Hernandez Martinez,
16. ``The water
stinks, and a lot of kids are starting to get sick. Sometimes I feel like it'll never go
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald