Megastorm inflicts less damage than feared; Texas braces for impact
PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico (AP) - Only a day after menacing Mexico as one of history's strongest storms, Hurricane Patricia left apparently little damage Saturday as the once-fearsome system spun inland and quickly weakened to a tropical depression that posed little threat beyond heavy rain.
The hurricane's most powerful punch hit a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's Pacific Coast before the system crashed into mountains that sapped its potentially catastrophic force. Hours later, the storm had dissipated into fast-moving bands of rain aimed at already sodden Texas.
There were no reports of deaths or injuries, said Roberto Lopez Lara, interior secretary for the state of Jalisco. It was a remarkable stroke of luck, considering that Patricia packed winds up to 200 mph (325 kph) when it struck an area dotted with a few upscale hotels.
Officials were still trying to reach some of the hardest-hit areas that were blocked by downed trees, and residents of towns nearest the strike said they had endured a terrible night.
"You feel fear, being in the middle of something that big," said Luis Valdez, a cook in the port city of Manzanillo, who said waves destroyed the doors, knocked down walls and blew out windows at the restaurant where he works.
Closer to where Patricia made landfall, watchman Domingo Hernandez described an enraged sea that battered the Hotel Barra de Navidad, where he works, and scooped beach away from foundations. Howling winds toppled trees and telephone posts.
"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.
The resort of Puerto Vallarta, home to some 200,000 people, including thousands of U.S. residents and visitors, was largely unscathed.
People snapped selfies next to a sculpture overlooking the sea Saturday, and business owners swept sidewalks as they would on any morning. Puddles dotted the downtown district, but nothing more than a passing thunderstorm might leave.
Patricia plunged ashore about 65 miles (110 kilometers) southeast of Vallarta, which was protected from much of the fury by mountains.
"We were fortunate as to where it made landfall. It was not a densely populated area," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "You and I would be having a very different conversation if this went over the top of Puerto Vallarta."
He said the lack of fatalities was probably the result of the storm's narrow footprint. Category 5 winds extended 15 miles out on either side of the eye, and hurricane-force winds extended for 35 miles from the center of the storm.
By midday, Patricia had weakened to a tropical depression with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph), according to the hurricane center. Its remnants were expected to feed into existing rain hitting southern Texas.
"There's an area of low pressure that'll be forming along the Texas coast, and that will be about the time that moisture from Patricia will be arriving," Feltgen said. The wet weather was forecast to spread from Texas to the central Gulf coast by early next week.
On Saturday afternoon, Patricia was centered about 95 miles (155 kilometers) northeast of Zacatecas and was moving to the northeast at 24 mph (39 kph).
That such a monster storm could inflict so little harm seemed wondrous. Patricia formed suddenly Tuesday and quickly strengthened to a hurricane. Within 30 hours it had zoomed to a record-beating Category 5 storm, catching many off guard with its rapid growth.
By Friday it was the most powerful hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere, with a central pressure of 880 millibars, according to the 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.
Hurricane experts praised Mexico's expertise at storm preparations and credited good fortune.
The mountains in the area quickly weakened the storm, and the coastal landscape did not offer the right conditions for a storm surge that could have come ashore as a devastating wall of water.
The most affected part of the coast "did not have a large area of shallow water offshore conducive for piling up a huge storm surge," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.
The storm was also moving fast enough at landfall - about 20 mph (35 kph) - that its heavy rains "did not stay in place long enough to generate the kinds of devastating floods we've seen in the past from Mexican hurricanes," Masters noted.
Mexico's transport secretary, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, put it another way: "Nature was good to us."