Hurricane Patricia weakened further Saturday, hours after it roared into southwestern Mexico, sending thousands fleeing as it hit luxury resorts and impoverished villages with equal ferocity.
The strongest hurricane ever recorded struck land Friday evening as a Category 5 storm, the fiercest, with sustained winds of 165 mph, the U.S. National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center said.
By Saturday morning, it was a Category 2 — packing winds of 100 mph.
Despite the downgrade, Patricia remained “a strong hurricane,” the National Weather Service warned.
The hurricane barreled into an anxious nation, lashing the coast with whistling rain and winds, bending palm trees and turning debris into small projectiles.
As the night wore on, Mexican officials expressed cautious optimism as they waited for Saturday morning to get the full scale of the destruction.
“The first reports confirm that the damages have been minor to those corresponding to a hurricane of this magnitude,” President Enrique Peña Nieto said.
“Nonetheless, it is very important that the population stays in the shelters, the security forces will be patrolling to protect their homes. I repeat, we still can’t let our guard down.”
‘The rain is intense’
Patricia landed 55 miles west-northwest of Manzanillo, home to the largest container port on Mexico’s Pacific seaboard.
In Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, tourists and residents alike sought shelter. It struck land near Cuixmala, a 25,000-acre private estate of beach, jungle and nature reserves.
“I’m a little worried,” said Carlos Cisneros, an estate worker staffing the phones Friday night. “The rain is intense and the wind picks up at times for about five minutes, then subsides. It comes and goes.”
Cisneros said there were mandatory evacuations in nearby communities where landslides were possible, but he and others at the sprawling estate had to come to work.
“It’s not so bad right now,” Cisneros said. “I took a risk.”
Patricia will be a huge challenge for the nation, said Anthony Perez, a representative of Save the Children in Mexico City.
“We have these wonderful luxurious tourist destinations, but then there’s half the population that’s living in different degrees of poverty,” he said.
“A lot of these homes, especially in the rural areas, are made of flimsy materials. With the wind being so strong and then there being so much rain … many of these families will probably be losing everything.”
The excessive wind speeds could make it the most dangerous storm in Mexico’s history, according to the head of the Mexican agency that includes its national weather service.
“The hurricane is so big and so intense that it has the capacity to pass over both the Sierra Madres in our country — that is, through our most mountainous ranges — and then exit the country on the other side into the north part of the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the United States,” CONAGUA director Robert Ramirez de la Parra said.
The closest contender to its size might be Hurricane Camille, which battered the U.S. Gulf Coast in 1969. Patricia appears more powerful than that storm. It’s also stronger than Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Katrina in 2005 and many others.
Patricia’s intensity is comparable to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, the World Meteorological Organization tweeted. More than 6,000 people died in Haiyan, due largely to enormous storm surges that rushed through coastal areas. Haiyan had 195 mph sustained winds when it made landfall.
Dangerous surf, flash floods
In addition to powerful winds, there are fears of dangerous storm surges like those that overran the Filipino city of Tacloban during Haiyan.
“Residents in low-lying areas near the coast in the hurricane warning area should evacuate immediately, since the storm surge could be catastrophic,” the National Weather Service said.
Rainfall of 8 to 12 inches — and possibly 20 inches in some spots — “could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” it said.
It means millions of people are under threat.
Banks, airports shut down
Mexican officials said over 1,780 shelters had been set up for more than 240,000 people.
In addition, a 50,000-strong force had been mobilized in Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit, and at least 4,000 Mexican navy officers dispatched to at-risk areas.
All flights to and from the airports in Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo were suspended, and all banks in certain areas shut at noon, according to Mexico’s civil protection agency.
Some gas and electric companies suspended services as a precaution. Boards went up on windows in some areas. So did sandbags along beaches in places such as Manzanillo.
Ramirez de la Parra, the Mexican official, warned people not to get complacent as the storm passes.
“The heaviest damage is after the hurricane passes,” he said. “We must wait until (the passage of) the entire body of the hurricane in order to call off the preventive (measures).”
El Nino adds to woes
Patricia is special, in part because of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño.
Among other effects, El Niño has contributed to ocean waters off Mexico being 2 to 3 degrees warmer than usual.
“That warm water from El Niño probably just pushed this slightly over the edge to be the strongest storm on record,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Much of the system’s precipitation could roll on into the Gulf of Mexico before making its way up to Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, states already hit by heavy rains from another system.
While Patricia will leave significant rainfall in the United States, it pales to what people in Mexico will experience.
Our thoughts are with the Mexican people as they brace for Hurricane Patricia. USAID disaster experts are on the ground and ready to help.
— President Obama (@POTUS44) October 23, 2015
— National Hurricane Center (@NWSNHC) October 23, 2015
— WMO | OMM (@WMO) October 23, 2015
— National Hurricane Center (@NWSNHC) October 23, 2015
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) October 23, 2015