Mexico waits to see damage after fierce storm strikes

The strongest hurricane ever recorded at sea struck land Friday evening as a Category 5 storm, the fiercest level, with sustained winds of 165 mph.

But by 7 a.m. CT (8 a.m. ET), it was no longer even a hurricane, broken up by mountainous terrain. All coastal warnings and watches had been called off at that point because now-Tropical Storm Patricia, which had 50-mph sustained winds as it moved north-northeast at 21 mph.

“Rapid weakening is expected to continue, and Patricia is forecast to become a tropical depression later today and dissipate tonight,” the National Weather Service said in in its latest advisory.

Mexican officials had expressed cautious optimism overnight, with President Enrique Peña Nieto saying “damages have been minor to those corresponding to a hurricane of this magnitude.”

But the full scale of the destruction won’t be known until daylight, and serious flooding and mudslide threats remain.

More than 11 inches of rain had already fallen by early Saturday near the inland Nevado de Colima volcano in Jalisco state, Mexico’s meteorological agency said, and forecasters said 8 to 20 inches of rain could fall in several Mexican states through Saturday.

“It is very important that the population stays in the shelters, the security forces will be patrolling to protect their homes,” Peña Nieto said. “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.”

Images from Patricia

‘Losing everything’

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.”

Ahead of landfall, Patricia spun in the Pacific with sustained winds of 200 mph — the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic or eastern North Pacific. By landfall the strongest sustained winds are estimated to have dropped to 165 mph — still stronger than 1992’s devastating Hurricane Andrew, which hit south Florida with estimated sustained winds of 145 mph.

Patricia’s intensity at landfall appears to have been lower than that of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013. 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.

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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.

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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.

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CNN’s Jason Hanna, Radina Gigova and Greg Botelho contributed to this report. – Top Stories

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