A massive and powerful hurricane bore down on Mexico’s central Pacific coast Friday but its off-the-chart winds fell to 165 miles per hour, still extremely powerful but no longer the mightiest storm in the record books.
By late afternoon, the Category 5 storm known as Hurricane Patricia was sending massive waves and lacerating winds at the central Mexican states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit. Life-threatening flash flooding appeared imminent.
President Enrique Peña Nieto warned Mexicans to hunker down in shelters in the face of an “extremely dangerous” storm.
A bulletin from the National Hurricane Center in Miami in the early evening said top winds of Hurricane Patricia were at 165 miles per hour at landfall, down from a record 200 miles per hour earlier in the day.
Thousands of U.S. citizens, some of them on a beach holiday at the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta, were believed to be in peril. Thunderous civil defense alarms sounded in the city at noon to urge people to evacuate.
Some international experts consider this hurricane the most powerful hurricane that has ever existed on the planet.
Roberto Ramírez de la Parra, Mexican official
U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark C. Johnson said diplomats had set up “an emergency hotline . . . to respond to inquiries about American citizens in the affected area.” The U.S. number is 888-407-4747.
Johnson said he couldn’t say how many U.S. citizens reside in the path of the storm or may be visiting there, but U.S. citizens comprised more than half of the 28 million foreign visitors to Mexico last year, and Puerto Vallarta is the fourth most popular destination for U.S. visitors to Mexico.
President Barack Obama said U.S. disaster experts from the Agency for International Development “are on the ground and ready to help.”
Thousands of Americans are likely to be affected by the storm. Family members seeking information should call 888-407-4747.
“Our thoughts are with the Mexican people as they brace for Hurricane Patricia,” he tweeted.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami described Hurricane Patricia as “potentially catastrophic.” A photo taken by astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station showed the terrifying 620-mile radius of the gyrating weather system.
“Stay safe below, Mexico,” Kelly tweeted from the space station.
Patricia was barely a tropical storm Thursday but mushroomed into a Category 5 hurricane in little more than half a day. Its winds hit 200 miles per hour, but a 5 p.m. bulletin from the National Hurricane Center said the wind speed had dropped to 190 mph and a new bulletin at 6:25 p.m. reported a further drop to 165 mph.
When at its peak at mid day, the storm’s strength appeared greater than any hurricane that had hit North America in modern times, including Wilma in 2005 and Gilbert in 1988, both of which had 185 mph winds. Hurricane Katrina, which broke levees and flooded New Orleans in 2005, had winds of 175 mph or less.
The hurricane’s force caught Mexican authorities off-guard. Coastal evacuations began Thursday night, but authorities closed highways Friday afternoon, telling citizens to find shelter in sturdy buildings. Airlines canceled all flights from Puerto Vallarta. In much of the path of the storm, authorities cut power, worried about downed power lines.
Patricia’s landfall, preceded by waves up to 13 feet tall, occurred near Playa Pérula on the Jalisco coast.
“Some international experts consider this hurricane the most powerful hurricane that has ever existed on the planet,” said Roberto Ramírez de la Parra, head of the National Water Commission, which oversees the meteorological agency.
Transport and Communications Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza warned that huge sustained winds would convert loose objects into lethal projectiles.
“They can easily move cars and trucks,” Ruiz said, adding that even poorly constructed buildings not made of concrete and steel would be blown down.
Authorities declared a state of emergency for 56 municipalities in the storm’s path in Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco states.
Police warned of possible landslides in mountainous coastal regions in the wake of heavy rains, forecast at more than seven inches. The U.S. Embassy warned that some areas might receive as much as 20 inches of rainfall.
“These rains could produce life-threatening flash floods,” the embassy statement said.
Mexican authorities alerted citizens who did not evacuate to get off the streets and remain indoors throughout the three states, which have a combined population of 9 million people.
An American travel writer and blogger, Jeana Shandraw, was among thousands of evacuees streaming from Puerto Vallarta area toward inland safety.
“There is a lot of congestion and going is extremely slow,” she said in an email. “Lots of cars headed out, but also a steady stream of emergency and government vehicles coming in.”
Some residents did not appear to be taking the storm seriously, she said.
“Everyone is calm, almost too calm. As we were leaving the heart of the city, I was surprised by many locals who seemed to be going about business as usual. There didn’t seem to be much urgency to leave,” said Shandraw, whose website is surfandsunshine.com.
A handful of guests refused to leave the Marriott Casa Magna resort in Puerto Vallarta where she had been staying, Shandraw said.
Authorities closed most ports in Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca states to small boat traffic, including at the major ports of Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas.
Jalisco Gov. Aristóteles Sandoval warned citizens to “secure the windows of your homes and take shelter in safe places.”
Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is still recovering from powerful Hurricane Odile, a Category Four storm that hit in September 2014, killing 11 people and stranding some 26,000 tourists for days before they could be evacuated.