Mexico braced itself on Friday for the arrival of Hurricane Patricia, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, that was projected to barrel into the country's Pacific coast in the afternoon or early evening.
The US National Hurricane Center said the Category 5 storm had sustained winds of about 200 miles per hour on Friday morning, while the World Meteorological Organization compared the storm to Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands in the Philippines in 2013.
Mexico's communications and transport minister, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, said the hurricane is of "colossal" proportions, and urged people to protect themselves. "It's a danger to the coastlines, and a danger to the population," he said.
The authorities closed airports and suspended classes at schools in the coastal states of Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit. The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) said it was planning electricity shutdowns in all three states, and state-owned oil company Pemex said it would stop selling gasoline in the area.
The storm's center was projected to hit land somewhere between the resort city of Puerto Vallarta and the port of Manzanillo, located 177 miles to the south. A patchwork of exclusive getaways favored by tech billionaires and pop stars are also in its path, as well as many modest fishing villages.
The government also warned that ash from the volcano of Colima, about 130 miles from Puerto Vallarta could combine with massive rainfall to trigger "liquid cement"-style mudflows that could envelop nearby mountain villages.
"The hurricane is so strong that it could cross the country's two Sierra Madre mountain ranges and come out the other side of the country along the Gulf of Mexico and head to the United States," said Roberto Ramírez, the head of federal water agency, Conagua.
The US government issued an advisory urging its nationals to steer clear of beaches and rough seas and to take shelter as instructed by Mexican officials.
The Mexican authorities said they had set up nearly 1,800 shelters in the hurricane's path and were evacuating people from vulnerable buildings and communities along the coast.
Aristoteles Sandoval, the governor of Jalisco, told reporters that he expected about 15,000 people would be spending the night in shelters in Puerto Vallarta alone. Long lines of traffic stretched out from the resort en route to the major city of Guadalajara, around a 5-hour drive inland.
Loudspeakers along the shore of the resort, that is popular with US and Canadian tourists, blared orders to evacuate hotels, and the streets emptied as police sirens wailed. But with the evidence of Patricia's arrival still limited to a light rain and an unthreatening breeze, there was little immediate sign that the designated shelters were filling up.
Walking his pitbull along the Puerto Vallarta boardwalk, Jesús López, 60, knew how bad things could get, having lived through Hurricane Kenna, a category 4 storm which led to evacuations of more than 20,000 people in the resort when it crashed into Mexico's Pacific coast in 2002.
"We're worried," he said, pointing out the low-lying areas where many of the city's inhabitants live. "We know what can happen, and it's nothing good," he said.
Hurricane Patricia grew at "incredible rate" in the past 12 hours, the World Meteorological Organization said. "The winds are enough to get a plane in the air and keep it flying," WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.
Nullis likened the storm's destructive capacity to Typhoon Haiyan that killed more than 6,300 people when it swept ashore in November 2013, destroying around 90 percent of the city of Tacloban. The strongest storm ever recorded was Cyclone Tip that hit Japan in 1979.
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