Saturday 24 October 2015

Hurricane Patricia makes landfall and wekens bringing downpours

Hurricane Patricia: fears of deadly landslides in Mexico as storm brings downpours
Storm is weakening but the worst is yet to come, warns Mexico’s president as reports of flooding and landslides come in before nightfall

24 October, 2015

Hurricane Patricia hit Mexico’s Pacific coast on Friday evening, bringing downpours, surging seas and cyclonic winds, but has since weakened, with the main concern moving to fears of landslides caused by heavy rain.

Four hours after making landfall in a relatively unpopulated stretch of Pacific coast, Patricia was downgraded to a category four hurricane and then to a category two storm. It moved past Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-biggest metropolis, late on Friday night, with strong winds and heavy rain bringing trees down and causing flash flooding across the city.

At 10pm the National Hurricane Centre said: “Now that Patricia has moved inland, while the coastal threat is decreasing, strong and damaging winds, especially at higher elevations, will persist through Saturday morning.

Very heavy rainfall is likely to cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides in the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero through Saturday.”

Mexican authorities received reports of some flooding and landslides but there was no immediate word of fatalities or major damage as the storm moved over inland mountains after nightfall. Mudslides are a big concern now as the torrential rain continues. The latest weather alerts warn of heavy rains as far inland as Mexico City. Dozens of people were killed by mudslides in Guerrero during hurricane Manuel in 2013.

The president, Enrique Peña Nieto, led a cabinet meeting late on Friday to discuss safety measures. He warned people to stay alert to the dangers and urged the thousands seeking shelter in refuges to stay put and not go home yet. 

The worst is yet to come, he said.

Guadalajara’s government set up 12 shelters for residents of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods and warned people to stay indoors until the hurricane had passed. Guadalajara’s mayor, Enrique Alfaro, hailed the “good news” that the city was not hit as badly as some had feared.

Mexico’s transportation secretary, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, said officials had been bracing for the worst and were “not declaring victory” just yet.

Patricia’s centre made landfall in an area of Jalisco state with few towns. The nearest big city, Manzanillo, was outside the extent of the storm’s hurricane-force winds.

Record wind speeds peaking at 200mph (320kph) measured earlier in the day reduced to 165mph (270kph) upon landfall, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said, but it warned Patricia was still an extremely dangerous storm.

Earlier, Hector Castro, a 31-year-old biologist from the town of Bucerías just north of Puerto Vallarta, told the Guardian he had seen no signs of damage or casualties two hours after hurricane Patricia made landfall, although he feared the worst was yet to come.

A little while ago not a leaf was shaking, then suddenly everything started moving. The wind is up and the rain is heavier,” he said. “There’s absolutely no one in the streets. People are really scared here.”

Kristina Villacorta, a 35-year-old hotel safety consultant from Spain who works in the Banderas Bay where Puerto Vallarta is located, said she had spent the evening holed up in an apartment with friends after boarding up the windows and stocking up on water and canned goods.

We’re fearing the worst but we’re trying to make the best of things,” she said more than an hour after the storm made landfall to the south. “At the moment we’re calm but we know it could get worse. We’re waiting because it seems like the eye of the storm still hasn’t passed through this zone.”

Most of the tourists at local hotels have been evacuated, Villacorta said, with the remainder taking refuge in improvised shelters in hotel basements and conference rooms decked out with pillows and mattresses. “I think all the hotels here have followed the appropriate protocols and have everything under control.”

Villacorta also praised the Mexican authorities, stating: “The truth is they’ve done a very good job keeping us informed over the last three days about the precautions we have to take.”

Hurricanes and tropical cyclones frequently pummel the coasts of Mexico and Central America between June and December each year, and the worst-affected areas are often mountain communities which are most vulnerable to floods and mud slides.

The most deadly storm in recent years was hurricane Manuel which battered the Pacific coast in September 2013. It left 123 dead, most as a result of heavy rains, especially in mountainous areas. At least 97 were killed in the poor southern state of Guerrero, including 71 by a mudslide which destroyed nearly half of the village of La Pintada. Seventeen deaths were reported in the popular beach town of Acapulco.

Manuel also destroyed tens of thousands of homes and 46 rivers burst their banks. The total economic impact was an estimated $4.2bn (pdf).

In neighbouring Guatemala, almost 300 people were killed by a mudslide in the village of El Cambray Dos – just nine miles (15km) from the capital.

The impact of heavy rains on the dozens of isolated communities living in the Sierra Madre mountains in western Mexico will not be clear until morning.

In Puerto Vallarta, residents had reinforced homes with sandbags and shop windows with boards and tape, and hotels rolled up beachfront restaurants. The airport was closed to flights and all but deserted, but lines formed at a bus station as people sought to buy tickets to Guadalajara and other inland destinations

The hurricane was boosted by the El Niño cyclical weather pattern, which has warmed the Pacific waters and whipped up the extreme winds.

The strongest category five winds were swirling in a relatively small radius of five to 10 miles out from the eye of the storm but can still have a devastating effect.

By Friday it was the most powerful hurricane on record in the western hemisphere, with a central pressure of 880 millibars and maximum sustained winds that peaked at 200mph (325 kph), according to the US National Hurricane Center.

With this type of wind the damage is catastrophic. There are very few structures that withstand this,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said on Friday.

At a Red Cross shelter, 90 people waited anxiously in the heavy, humid air, including senior citizens in wheelchairs and young children snuggled between their parents on mattresses on the floor.

Carla Torres and her family sought refuge there in the afternoon, fearful of what Patricia might do to her home just two blocks from a river in an area vulnerable to high winds. “Here we are with those who can give us help,” Torres said.

People wait for the arrival of hurricane Patricia at a shelter in the Pacific resort city of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Friday. Facebook Pinterest
People wait for the arrival of hurricane Patricia at a shelter in the Pacific resort city of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Friday. Photograph: Cesar Rodriguez/AP
Patricia formed suddenly on Tuesday as a tropical storm and quickly strengthened to a hurricane. Within 30 hours it had grown to a record-beating category five storm, catching many off guard with its rapid growth.

Patricia’s power while still out at sea was comparable to that of typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 dead or missing in the Philippines two years ago, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization. More than 4 million people were displaced and more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged in 44 provinces in the central Visayas region, a large cluster of islands.

Officials earlier voiced concerns that the current system would be followed by the soaking outskirts of hurricane Patricia after it made landfall in Mexico.

NWS meteorologist Kurt Van Speybroeck said as the hurricane moved inland, the mountains of Mexico “would shred Patricia apart”, but the weakened system would continue moving north and eventually bring another round of rain to Texas before moving into Arkansas, Louisiana and beyond.

It’s definitely going to be beneficial when it comes to the drought and fire concerns we’ve had over several weeks in Texas,” Van Speybroeck said.

For emergency officials a primary concern was the anticipated widespread flooding. Five months ago, torrential spring storms caused at least 30 deaths.

The Memorial day weekend brought more than 20in of rain to some outlying areas and many homes were either damaged, cut off or swept away by river water south-west of Austin. About 1,500 homes in the Houston area sustained flood damage.

Little rain has fallen since then.

The US National Weather Service said a flash flood watch would be in effect through Sunday morning for Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

A coastal flood warning was in effect through Friday night in Corpus Christi. Galveston was under a coastal flood advisory until Saturday night.

Mexican officials declared a state of emergency in dozens of municipalities in Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco states, and schools were closed. Many residents bought supplies ahead of Patricia’s arrival. Authorities opened hundreds of shelters and announced plans to shut off electricity as a safety precaution.

According to the 2010 census, there were more than 7.3 million inhabitants in Jalisco state and more than 255,000 in Puerto Vallarta municipality. There were more than 650,000 in Colima state, and more than 161,000 in Manzanillo.

One of the worst Pacific hurricanes to ever hit Mexico slammed into the same region, in Colima state, in October 1959, killing at least 1,500 people, according to Mexico’s National Center for Disaster Prevention.

Earlier in the day, Roberto Ramirez, director of Mexico’s National Water Commission, which includes the nation’s meteorological service, said Patricia’s winds could be powerful enough to lift cars, destroy homes not sturdily built with cement and steel, and drag anyone caught outside.

Jim Kossin, an atmospheric scientist for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called Patricia “a three-pronged hazard” that would likely wreak havoc with high winds, saltwater storm surge and inland freshwater flooding from heavy rains.

Jose Manuel Gonzalez Ochoa was one of the residents who decided to get out of Puerto Vallarta, to a town about 30 minutes from the coast. His family lives in their ground-floor chicken restaurant, Pollos Vallarta, and neighbors told them water was five feet deep in the street the last time a hurricane came through. “The whole government is telling us to leave,” he said. “You have to obey.”

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