Hurricane Patricia, packing the strongest hurricane winds ever recorded, smashed Friday evening into Mexico’s southwestern coast, a region best known for its beaches and the resort city of Puerto Vallarta.
In the tense hours before the storm landed with 160 mph winds, schools closed and temporary shelters opened from Puerto Vallarta to Manzanillo along the Pacific Coast. Ships were ordered to return to port, and airports were shuttered.
People were plunged into darkness, too, as Mexico’s state-run electric utility announced it was cutting power ahead of landfall as a precaution. The storm came ashore about 55 miles west-northwest of Manzanillo, a commercial seaport.
With the Category 5 storm bearing down, social media filled with video snippets of foamy surf and empty beaches being lashed by high winds.
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, many of them vacationers, were hunkering down or had evacuated, according to the U.S. State Department.
Patricia was described as “potentially catastrophic” by the U.S. National Hurricane Center, which measured top wind speeds at 200 mph using its Hurricane Hunter plane, which took measurements within the fierce storm. That speed approached what many scientists consider the theoretical limits of a hurricane’s power.
Later, the hurricane center said it appeared the storm had weakened somewhat while off the coast, to winds of 190 mph and then 160 mph.
At its peak, Patricia’s strength was off the charts at 8.3 on the 8.0 Dvorak storm intensity scale. Anything at 7.0 or above on the Dvorak scale is a Category 5 storm.
In addition to winds strong enough to strip bark from a tree, the hurricane packed the potential for an “extremely dangerous storm surge” and rainfall that could reach 20 inches in some places, according to the hurricane center.
Forecasters noted the destruction could be contained by the fact that the storm’s strongest winds were in a narrow band around its center, extending just five or 10 miles. Heavy rainfall was expected to be more widespread — 8 to 12 inches along the coast, with more in isolated spots — in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero, leading to worries of flash floods and mudslides.
The hurricane is expected to weaken over the mountains of Mexico and could be a small tropical storm by Sunday.
In Acaponeta, Mexico, retired schoolteacher Enrique Jimenez Lopez sat tight with his family in his home 15 miles from the beach as they awaited the storm Friday evening. He had bought candles, as instructed by local authorities, in preparation for losing power. But, he said, people did not seem panicked or even overly worried about the fearsome storm.
“We know there are people in the street,” he said. “People just aren’t aware.”
The scene was calm, too, at a Red Cross shelter set up in an auditorium in Puetro Vallarta, where nearly 90 people waited for the storm.
“We have prepared a hot dinner, it’s not cold,” said Ali Nunez, a Red Cross medical worker, to illustrate the relaxed nature of emergency preparations. “I think people are a bit surprised about what they’ve heard about the hurricane.”
The Puerto Vallarta municipality is home to 255,000 people.
Patricia began taking shape late Wednesday, morphing with historic speed from a series of thunderstorms into an unprecedented hurricane. In little over a day, it went from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4, and soon hit the top of the scale.
Hurricane records are a little cloudy because similar storms in the western Pacific — called cyclones and typhoons — are not as closely monitored. But it appears Patricia is a record-setter at 200 mph. In 2013, super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with peak winds estimated at 195 mph.
Patricia is certainly tops in North America or the Caribbean, the domain of the National Hurricane Center, besting the previous record of 190 mph winds from Hurricane Allen, which hit the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico in 1980.
Mexico is no stranger to hurricanes. In September 2014, Hurricane Odile smashed into the Baja California peninsula, causing several deaths, damaging hotels and cutting off water and electricity to tens of thousands of people. The government sent in the army to evacuate American and other tourists who were stranded by damage to the local airport.
A year earlier, Hurricane Ingrid and Tropical Storm Manuel socked Mexico’s gulf and Pacific coasts, causing flooding and landslides. At least 34 people died.
Patricia is the ninth storm to reach Category 4 or 5 in the northeast Pacific Ocean this year, beating the record of eight in 1997, according to Phillip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University.
The ingredients needed for a superstorm like Patricia are present. This year, there is a strong El Niño weather pattern, the periodic warming in sea surface temperature. That generally leads to hyperactive hurricane activity in the Eastern Pacific basin, Kerry Emanuel, an MIT hurricane expert, said by e-mail.
Pinning a single hurricane to a long-term trend such as global warming is more difficult, but record-setting hurricanes are consistent with predictions by climate researchers about the consequences of a warming world. Rising ocean temperatures should strengthen these storms. But the issue is beset by data-related difficulties, since storm measurement techniques are continually improving and highly variable.
The oceans heating up due to climate change will have consequences, said Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Penn State University. “Hurricane Patricia and her unprecedented 200 mile-per-hour sustained winds appears to be one of them now, unfortunately.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Niraj Chokshi in Washington contributed to this report.