PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico (AP) — Record-breaking Hurricane Patricia pushed rapidly inland over mountainous western Mexico early Saturday, weakening to tropical storm force while dumping torrential rains that authorities warned could cause deadly floods and mudslides.
Patricia, which peaked as the strongest hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere, made landfall Friday on a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico’s Pacific coast as a Category 5 storm, avoiding direct hits on the resort city of Puerto Vallarta and major port city of Manzanillo.
There were reports of some flooding and landslides, but no word of fatalities or major damage as the storm pushed across inland mountains while bypassing the metropolis of Guadalajara overnight.
Residents of the coast where Patricia came ashore last night described an enraged sea that crashed into hotels, scooping beach away from their foundations, and howling winds that toppled trees and telephone posts.
“The waves were coming into the hotel,” said Domingo Hernandez, a watchman at the Hotel Barra de Navidad in the resort village of the same name in Jalisco state.
“All the streets here in town are full of downed trees all over the place,” said Hernandez, who described Patricia as the strongest storm he’s seen in a quarter century of living on the coast. “You have to make your way around all the downed telephone poles, the power lines, the trees.”
Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, Enrique de la Madrid, said major tourist resorts like Puerto Vallarta had had “extraordinary luck” in avoiding damage from the once immensely powerful storm.
“There are some mountains that served as a barrier, and that at the end of the day is what prevented the winds from having to come through here,” he said of Vallarta.
President Enrique Pena Nieto issued a taped address late Friday, noting that while initial reports indicate damage has been less than those expected, “We cannot yet let our guard down.”
Patricia weakened to tropical storm force by dawn Saturday with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph) and was expected to dissipate over Mexico’s inland mountains, becoming a tropical storm later in the day. Its center was about 35 miles (55 kilometers) northeast of Zacatecas. It was moving toward the north-northeast at 21 mph (33 kph).
Tourist Brandie Galle of Grants Pass, Oregon, said she had been sheltered with other guests in a ballroom with boarded-up windows at the Hard Rock Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. When the city was not feeling any major effects from the storm two hours after landfall, workers let them out to eat at a hotel restaurant.
“They said it looked like the storm had hit below us,” she said. “Everyone is starting to perk up a little bit but still kind of on edge waiting to see what’s going to happen with the storm.”
Galle said some guests desperate to leave had earlier paid $400 for taxis to drive them the 120 miles (200 kilometers) to the inland city of Guadalajara.
The airports in Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Tepic were closed Friday, but officials announced an air bridge Saturday to ferry stranded travelers out of areas hit by the storm.
Residents and tourists had hunkered down in shelters and homes along a coastal stretch dotted with sleepy fishing villages and gleaming resorts. In Puerto Vallarta, residents had reinforced homes with sandbags and shop windows with boards and tape, and hotels rolled up beachfront restaurants.
The Sokols, a family of five from suburban Detroit, were supposed to fly out of Puerto Vallarta on Friday but ended up for hours in a shelter at a university after their flight was canceled. By night they were back where they began: at their hotel, and no worse for wear.
“It’s amazing it went from the worst in history to just some heavy rain,” Susanna Sokol said, noting that at least the hurricane gave her daughter a birthday to remember.
“It was pretty stressful for a while,” Tom Sokol said. “I felt guilty for taking my kids here.”
Patricia formed suddenly Tuesday as a tropical storm and quickly strengthened to a hurricane. Within 30 hours it had zoomed to a Category 5 storm, catching many off guard with its rapid growth.
By Friday it was the most powerful recorded hurricane to hit the hemisphere, with a central pressure of 880 millibars and maximum sustained winds of 200 mph (325 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center.
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 U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization. More than 4 million people were displaced by Haiyan and over 1 million houses were destroyed or damaged in 44 provinces in the central Visayas region, a large cluster of islands.
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.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said tens of thousands of American citizens were believed to be vacationing or living in areas likely to be affected by the storm.
Patricia also threatens Texas with forecasters saying that even after the storm breaks, up its tropical moisture will likely feed heavy rains already soaking the state.
The U.S. 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.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.