Monster Hurricane Patricia roared, but quickly lost its strength over Mexico

Published October 24 2015
Updated October 25 2015

AMECA, Mexico — Hurricane Patricia, a storm of record-setting ferocity, proved no match for the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains.

Patricia smashed ashore at almost the perfect location, meteorologists and Mexican officials said Saturday, making landfall with 160 mph winds on a sparsely populated stretch of Pacific coastline and then colliding with a tall, rugged mountain range that disrupted its swirling momentum and sapped its strength.

Confronted by those mountains, Patricia crumpled, rapidly shrinking from a Category 5 hurricane to a tropical depression as it limped inland. Still wary of possible flooding and landslides, Mexican officials were reluctant to "declare victory," Transportation Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza said at a Saturday news conference. But with no deaths reported and only minor damage, he said, "there was, let's say, good fortune."

From the beginning, Patricia has been an unusual creature. It grew astonishingly quickly at sea, at one point registering 200 mph winds — making it the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. But, in some respects, it was puny.

When Patricia arrived in Mexico, its hurricane force winds extended only 35 miles from its center and its eye was only five miles across, limiting the area impacted by its strongest force, said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Weather Service in the United States, which closely tracked the storm.

The storm also slipped neatly between two population centers, missing them both — the resort town of Puerto Vallarta to the north, and the port town of Manzanillo to the south.

"Had something like that hit a populated area like Puerto Vallarta, you would be looking at catastrophic destruction and probably fatalities," Feltgen said in an interview. "We were very fortunate. It could have been much worse."

On Saturday, rivers and creeks swelled and some crested their banks, causing scattered minor flooding and some property damage in the inland highlands of Jalisco state, east of Puerto Vallarta. In spots, trees and boulders lay across roads where few vehicles other than phone utility trucks and the occasional military Humvee could be seen.

Yet, for the most part, the region looked more like it had been refreshed after a healthy rain than crushed by a massive storm.

The rain began on Friday morning and continued for a full day. In the town of Ameca, motorcycles and cars splashed through knee-high waters.

"There was wind but not as strong as they were expecting, as if it would destroy everything," Luis Bernal, a 55-year-old cattle farmer, said.

A creek called the Arroyo de Pochote flooded and swept away piles of bricks drying along the bank. Their owner, Jose Luis Solis, 58, estimated he'd lost $2,000 worth of materials.

"It took away all our bricks," said Oscar Noe Sotor, a 19-year-old laborer. "We lost 20,000 bricks."

Even as the storm was still at hurricane strength late Friday, Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto, struck cautiously optimistic notes in an update from a federal emergency center. He warned people to stay in shelters, but added that "with the information we have, and taking into account that the phenomenon is continuing, the damages have been minor for a hurricane of this magnitude."

On the coast, Jorge Aristoteles Sandoval Diaz, the governor of the state of Jalisco — where Patricia made landfall Friday — said high winds knocked out power to several small communities and forced more than 1,000 people to take refuge in shelters.

But, "fortunately, I repeat, we don't have irreparable consequences such as the loss of human life," Sandoval Diaz said.

Mexican officials praised the public for heeding warnings about taking precautions prior to a storm that, while less devastating than feared, still knocked out power lines, toppled trees and caused some minor flooding.

Patricia smashed into Mexico's coast at 6:10 p.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service. By 4 am Saturday, it was a Category 1 hurricane, and as the morning progressed it withered to a tropical storm and, then a tropical depression and was expected to completely dissipate later on Saturday.

It hit near the resort area of Cuixmala, 110 miles south of Puerto Vallarta, one of Mexico's most popular vacation destinations, and 580 miles west of Mexico City. The region is known as the Costa Alegre, which translates to the Joyful Coast, but it's also often referred to as the Virgin Coast.

The area is known for several high-end resorts, including swanky spots once frequented by Americans such as Richard M. Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But large swaths of land in the area are protected coastal forests and are undeveloped or only lightly developed.

The storm kicked up 19- to 26-foot waves, Mexican authorities said. Recent rains had softened the ground, and Mexican officials warned of the serious danger from landslides. By early Saturday, 15 inches of rain had been recorded in the small town of Nevado de Colima in Jalisco, according to the Mexican national meteorological service. In the neighboring state of Colima, Patricia dumped 111/2 inches on the town of Sierra Manantlan.