RECORD-breaking Hurricane Patricia pushed rapidly inland over western Mexico early yesterday, weakening to tropical storm force while dumping torrential rains that authorities warned could cause deadly floods and mudslides.
Patricia, which peaked as the strongest hurricane on record in the western hemisphere, made landfall on Friday on a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico’s Pacific coast as a category 5 storm, avoiding direct hits on the resort city of Puerto Vallarta and major port city of Manzanillo.
There were reports of flooding and landslides, but no word of fatalities or significant damage as the storm pushed across inland mountains while bypassing the metropolis of Guadalajara overnight.
Residents on the coast where Patricia came ashore on Friday night described high seas that crashed into hotels, scooping beaches away from their foundations, and howling winds that toppled trees and telephone posts.
“The waves were coming into the hotel,” said Domingo Hernandez, a watchman at the Hotel Barra de Navidad in the resort village of the same name in Jalisco state. “All the streets here in town are full of downed trees all over the place,” said Hernandez, who described Patricia as the strongest storm he’s seen in a quarter century of living on the coast. “You have to make your way around all the downed telephone poles, the power lines, the trees.”
Enrique de la Madrid, Mexico’s secretary of tourism, said tourist resorts such as Puerto Vallarta had had “extraordinary luck” in avoiding damage from the powerful storm.
“There are some mountains that served as a barrier, and that at the end of the day is what prevented the winds from having to come through here,” he said of Vallarta.
Milenio Television carried footage of cars and buses being swept along by floodwaters in the state of Jalisco.
“The first reports confirm that the damage has been less than expected from a hurricane of this magnitude,” president Enrique Pena Nieto said late on Friday. He added, however, that “we cannot yet let our guard down”.
Patricia weakened to tropical storm force by dawn yesterday, with maximum sustained winds of 50mph, and was expected to dissipate over Mexico’s inland mountains. Its centre was about 35 miles northeast of Zacatecas. It was moving towards the north-northeast at 21mph.
Tourist Brandie Galle, from Grants Pass, Oregon, said she had been sheltered with other guests in a ballroom with boarded-up windows at the Hard Rock Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. When the city was not suffering any major effects from the storm two hours after landfall, workers let them out to eat at a hotel restaurant.
“They said it looked like the storm had hit below us,” she said. “Everyone is starting to perk up a little bit but still kind of on edge waiting to see what’s going to happen with the storm.”
Galle said some guests desperate to leave had earlier paid $400 for taxis to drive them the 120 miles to the inland city of Guadalajara.
The airports in Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Tepic were closed on Friday, but officials announced yesterday that they would fly stranded travellers out of areas hit by the storm.
Residents and tourists had hunkered down in shelters and homes along a coastal stretch dotted with sleepy fishing villages and gleaming resorts. In Puerto Vallarta, residents had reinforced homes with sandbags, and shop windows with boards and tape. Hotels had rolled down shutters at their beachfront restaurants.
The Sokols, a family of five from suburban Detroit, were supposed to fly out of Puerto Vallarta on Friday but ended up stuck for hours in a shelter at a university after their flight was cancelled. By that night they were back where they began: at their hotel, and no worse for wear.
“It’s amazing it went from the worst in history to just some heavy rain,” Susanna Sokol said, noting that at least the hurricane gave her daughter a birthday to remember.
“It was pretty stressful for a while,” Tom Sokol said.
“I felt guilty for taking my kids here.”
Patricia formed suddenly last Tuesday as a tropical storm and quickly strengthened to a hurricane.
Within 30 hours it had been raised to a category 5 storm, catching many off guard with its rapid growth.
By Friday it was the most powerful recorded hurricane to hit the western hemisphere, with a central pressure of 880 millibars and maximum sustained winds of 200mph, according to the National Hurricane Centre.