The strongest hurricane to ever assault the Western Hemisphere slammed into Mexico’s southwest Pacific coast on Friday evening, transforming hotels into makeshift shelters, shuttering schools, closing airports and sending inhabitants racing to bus stations to flee inland.
The hurricane, Patricia, was packing winds of about 165 mph, having slowed considerably from earlier speeds of about 200 mph as it moved closer to the coastline, which is dotted with a mixture of tiny fishing villages and five-star resorts in cities like Puerto Vallarta.
The government of Mexico declared a state of emergency in dozens of municipalities in the states of Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco. Residents stacked sandbags in front of properties and rushed to grocery stores to stock up on supplies.
Patricia was expected to touch down around by early evening, according to Mexico’s national weather service, with the eye passing along the small beach towns of Playa Perula and Playa Chamela, both in the state of Jalisco.
A range of officials took to the airwaves to urge residents to leave the area or prepare for Patricia, which transformed suddenly from a tropical storm Tuesday evening into a Category 5 storm – the fiercest – overnight.
“Wind speeds in a hurricane of this nature, what they do is toss up every loose object in their path,” said Roberto Ramírez de la Parra, the director of Mexico’s National Water Commission, which oversees the nation’s weather service. “The risk to people’s physical safety and to their lives is very high. In the next couple of hours, everybody must seek shelter.”
The American Embassy in Mexico City issued its own warning to citizens in-country, urging those in threatened areas to “make preparations immediately to protect life and property.”
The storm was expected to dump anywhere from 6 to 20 inches of rain in the affected states, and could result in flash floods and mudslides in mountainous areas.
The sudden escalation of the storm also caught tourists off guard. Many scrambled to catch buses since airports in several towns were closed. Cecilia Rangel, a marketing consultant from Mexico City on vacation with four friends near Puerto Vallarta, had no such luck.
As news of the approaching storm spread, she and her friends looked for a way to escape the city. But with the airport closed and buses filled, they braced to wait out the storm out at the Grand Mayan, a luxury hotel complex at the northern tip of Puerto Vallarta’s majestic bay.
“Everybody knows that there are hurricanes in October but you never think it’s going to hit you,” she said by phone. “The hotel told us to leave if we could, but if not don’t worry.”
The guests were told to report to the hotel’s windowless service building at 1 p.m., carrying only valuables. Throughout the morning, guests – many of them older Americans – filled the hotel’s tiny supermarket to stock up on supplies. Other hotels also reported staff and guests stocking up on water and other nonperishable goods.
“First there is the news, then you look for a way to get out, then there’s fear,” Rangel said. “At the end you follow everything the hotel tells you.”
Patricia is the third serious storm to hit Mexico’s Pacific coast in recent years, but by all appearances seemed to be shaping up to be the worst. Although the government is well-prepared to handle hurricanes, both Hurricane Ingrid, which cut off Acapulco for a week in 2013, and Hurricane Odile, which wreaked widespread damage on the coastal resort of Los Cabos, tested the government’s ability to repair infrastructure and restore basic services.
Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in the United States, said that as a Category 5 storm, Patricia was likely to inflict catastrophic damage and leave stricken areas uninhabitable for weeks or months.
In the United States, only three Category 5 storms that made landfall have been recorded, Feltgen said: a 1935 hurricane that killed more than 400 people; Hurricane Camille, which hit Mississippi and killed 244 people in 1969; and Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, killing at least 10 people there and three in the Bahamas. But Hurricane Patricia is “uncharted territory,” Jim Cantore, a meteorologist with the Weather Channel, said on Twitter.