The Western Hemisphere’s most powerful hurricane on record roared into Mexico on Friday, knocking down trees and light posts, closing schools and airports, and sending people fleeing the popular resorts and small fishing villages that dot the country’s central Pacific coastline.
There were reports of flooding and landslides as Hurricane Patricia swept into Jalisco state early in the evening, bringing lashing rain, crashing waves and winds as strong as a tornado. But there was no immediate information on possible casualties or severe damage. Air transport was being readied to perform search and rescue operations Saturday, authorities said.
The center of the extremely dangerous Category 5 storm made landfall in a relatively sparsely populated area about 55 miles northeast of the nearest major city, Manzanillo, and was expected to dissipate as it moved inland over a mountainous region with isolated hamlets.
By late Friday, Patricia had been downgraded to a Category 4 storm, but hurricane warnings remained in effect along the western coast, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
“It’ll take some time for the winds to spin down,” he said. “Don’t get fooled. Right now this is a very dangerous hurricane. It’s not gone. It’s just inland.”
On Twitter, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said the country had never seen a hurricane this strong.
“Do not go outside. Protect yourselves and follow instructions from the Civil Protection. I am thinking of you all,” he said.
The storm grew at “an incredible rate” over a 12-hour span from Thursday night to early Friday, according to the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. By Friday morning, Patricia’s power was comparable to that of Typhoon Haiyan, which displaced millions of people and left more than 7,300 dead or missing in the Philippines in 2013.
Record-setting wind speeds of more than 200 mph had weakened slightly when the storm hit land about 6:15 p.m. But the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was still carrying sustained winds of 165 mph and was considered dangerous.
Tens of thousands of people along the coast were evacuated into shelters and out of the danger zone. Some left on government-provided flights and ground transportation, while others piled into cars and buses.
“Everything in the street, such as cars, are going to turn into projectiles, so it’s very important that people seek shelter,” said Ricardo de la Cruz, director of civilian protection.
Residents stocked up on food and boarded up buildings in preparation.
Alma Aguirre, who works at the Viatore pizza restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, said she had turned off everything in the kitchen, disconnected gas and electricity, and placed sandbags in the doorways to keep water out.
“All that leaves is for us to pray to God that it’s not going to be too strong,” Aguirre said by phone. “People here are very frightened.”
States of emergency were declared in Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco states, which include the tourist resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.
About 3,000 soldiers and more than 800 federal police officers were dispatched to the area. More than 1,200 shelters were set up, able to accommodate 240,000 people. Schools were closed, and three airports shut down: in Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Tepic.
As the storm approached, television video showed federal police pickup trucks driving through the streets of Puerto Vallarta with sirens blaring. Beaches that are usually teeming with local and international tourists appeared deserted.
When Jesus Anguino Salazar arrived Thursday at a hotel in Puerto Vallarta, employees told him that he wasn’t a guest but a refugee. So he headed to a bus station Friday to make his way back to the city of Guadalajara, about 125 miles to the east.
“I got a bus ticket but everything was full, and I had to wait in a really long line,” he told a Mexican newspaper. When he finally got onto a bus, he said, all the passengers could talk about was the storm and what it might do to their homes.
Martin Tapia, head of civil protection in Nayarit, said most electricity service had been suspended as a precaution and warned residents that they could expect to be without power for at least 24 hours.
Tourism Secretary Enrique de la Madrid told Milenio TV from Nayarit that about half of the 15,000 tourists there would have been evacuated to Guadalajara by the time the storm hit. About 10,000 others were evacuated from the coast of Jalisco.
Lee Gonzales, an American missionary, said he was hunkering down with family and friends on the second floor of his nonprofit organization in Manzanillo called Hope Fan.
Early in the afternoon, residents hurried through the streets to pick up food and water from suppliers who were quickly running out, said Gonzales, a Texas native reached by phone. A few hours later, with the rain slashing down and waves pounding the beaches, hardly anyone was outside except for the occasional passing police truck or Red Cross vehicle.
“Pretty much the streets are empty now,” Gonzales said.
President Obama wrote on Twitter: “Our thoughts are with the Mexican people as they brace for Hurricane Patricia. USAID disaster experts are on the ground and ready to help.”
Tens of thousands of Americans are believed to be living or vacationing in areas likely to be affected by the storm, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
He said U.S. officials were coordinating with Mexican officials and advising U.S. citizens to follow guidance from the local authorities.
Bri Kromm, a registered nurse from Olympia, Wash., got word Thursday that a storm might hit. On Friday morning, staff at the Grand Mayan Nuevo Vallarta hotel told guests that the situation had gotten much worse and that everyone would have to take cover.
When the storm hit, Kromm was sheltering in the hotel parking garage with hundreds of other guests. It wasn’t ideal, she said, but the staff had moved all the pool chairs into the garage and handed out blankets and pillows.
“We are incredibly lucky,” Kromm said in an exchange over Facebook. “We have nice bathrooms here and running water.… Everyone is in good spirits given the circumstances.”
Despite fears, Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta appeared to have escaped the worst of the storm. Patricia was expected to be a tropical storm by Saturday morning and a tropical depression by afternoon, Feltgen said.
Heidi Jones-DiSaia, who works for a telecommunications company in Pittsburgh, spent her Friday holed up in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Punta Mita with several hundred other guests.
“They played movies on a projector, some played cards & read books,” Jones-DiSaia said via Facebook. “Four Seasons has been wonderful — providing food & drinks & periodic updates.”
The thing that touched her, Jones-DiSaia said, was that “everyone who was here was a ‘volunteer’ who chose to spend their day with us instead of being with their families.”
David Wilkins, a sound and lighting production professional on vacation in Puerto Vallarta from Sunriver, Ore., tried to make it out of the city before the storm hit but couldn’t get onto the last flight. So he was evacuated with his wife to a college in the hills.
“They fed us!” Wilkins said in an interview via Facebook. “Class rooms were clean ... desk style chairs around ... there were about 25 to 30 [people] in each room. Water ... blankets ... ham sandwiches ... we were well cared for by the support teams.”
Overall, Wilkins wrote, the mood was “calm,” with “lots of kids playing games with some of the staff.”
He and his wife planned to try again to leave Saturday. But not every visitor was trying to get out of town. Wilkins said he was sharing a room with a couple who planned to go ahead with their wedding ceremony at the hotel on Saturday.
“Patricia can’t stop love!” Wilkins wrote.
Special correspondent Bonello reported from Mexico City and Times staff writers Zavis and Pearce from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Cecilia Sanchez in Guadalajara, Mexico, contributed to this report.