Hurricane Willa roared over an offshore penal colony and closed in on Mexico's Pacific coast with 120-mph winds Tuesday, threatening this major resort area along with fishing villages and farms.
Emergency officials said they evacuated more than 4,250 people in coastal towns and set up 58 shelters ahead of the dangerous Category 3 storm, which was expected to blow ashore late Tuesday near Mazatlan, a popular tourist spot of high-rise hotels and about 500,000 people, many of them U.S. and Canadian expatriates.
By midafternoon, Willa was bringing torrential rain.
The storm battered the Islas Marias, a group of Mexican islands about 60 miles off the mainland that include a nature preserve and a federal prison. Federal authorities declined to comment on precautions taken at the prison, citing security concerns.
As Willa closed in, the beach in Mazatlan all but disappeared, with waves slamming against the coastal boulevard under looming black clouds. A few surfers took advantage of the high waves even as workers boarded up windows on hotels, shops and homes. Schools were closed and the streets nearly empty.
Some families went to a Mazatlan convention center, which opened its doors as a shelter. They spread out blankets along the walls and waited for the storm.
"The house we're living in is not well built," said Sergio Ernesto Meri Franco, who rents a studio apartment.
The federal government issued a decree of "extraordinary emergency" for 19 municipalities in Nayarit and Sinaloa states.
Bob Swanson, who is from Saskatchewan, Canada, and spends two to six months of the year in his house in the Cerritos neighborhood near the shore in Mazatlan, said he filled his washing machine with water, filled his home fuel tank and gassed up his car in case he needs to head into the mountains for safety.
"I'm kind of waiting with bated breath," he said over the phone, adding that he was sitting on his porch and smoking a cigarette.
Hurricane-force winds extended 35 miles from Willa's center, and tropical-storm-force winds were felt up to 115 miles out.
Forecasters said the hurricane could bring 6 to 12 inches of rain — with up to 18 inches in some places — to parts of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa states, with flash flooding and landslides possible in mountainous areas.
Farther south, the remnants of Tropical Storm Vicente continued to bring heavy rain that caused deadly flooding and mudslides. Federal disaster agency chief Luis Felipe Puente said 11 people died as a result of Vicente. Local officials earlier put the figure at 12.