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​The Most Powerful Hurricane in Recorded History Did Very Little Damage

How did Mexico escape total disaster?

by Daniel Oberhaus
Oct 25 2015, 5:20pm

Houses stripped of roofs by Patricia in Emiliano Zapata, Mexico. Image: AP

If you were semi-conscious at any point during the weekend, odds are you heard that Patricia, the most powerful hurricane in recorded history, was approaching the coast of southwestern Mexico and was slated to ruin everything for everyone who was unlucky enough to be in her path. Miraculously, that didn't happen.

Patty was an unprecedented beast of a storm: she clocked peak winds of 201 mph at sea, putting her (un)comfortably within the fifth and uppermost tier of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale.

We've only been able to accurately monitor hurricanes since 1970, but to put Patricia in perspective, the next most powerful storm in the last 45 years was Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Haiyan saw winds up to 195 miles per hour when it landed in the Philippines, and when the waves rolled back, they left at least 6,300 dead in their wake.

"We could hardly have been luckier."

Patricia was only a tropical storm on Wednesday, but according to the National Hurricane Center, it progressed to a category 5 hurricane within just 24 hours (some speculate that if the Saffir-Simpson scale didn't have an upper limit, calling it a category 7 storm would be more appropriate). Such a rapid increase in intensity has only been seen once before in the satellite era, a title claimed by Hurricane Linda in 1997.

Trish's eye made landfall Friday night on the coast of Jalisco, a state in western Mexico, at around 6 PM local time. Thousands of residents were evacuated as Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto made pleas to those who stayed, telling them to seek shelter and stay indoors. In the lead up to the landfall, the National Hurricane Center called the storm "potentially catastrophic." Everyone prepared for the worst.

By Saturday morning, reports coming out of Mexico claimed there was no major damage in terms of either infrastructure or human life. These reports were followed by declarations that the hurricane, which was quickly downgraded to a tropical storm just 24 hours after landfall, was still "extremely dangerous" according to the NHC.

Patricia as seen from the ISS. Image: Scott Kelly

As of this writing, it seems that the worst is over. Nearly 48 hours after landfall, the latest reports suggest that all residents of Jalisco have weathered the storm and lived to tell the tale. The coastal residents did not escape entirely unscathed, however. A few hundred people lost their homes and are slowly beginning to return to pick up the pieces, despite continued warnings of mudslides and flooding.

"I've lost everything, I don't even have anywhere to sleep," Roberto Gonzalez, a farmer from Jalisco, told Reuters as he picked through the rubble of his former home.

For those who lost their homes, the damage wrought by Patricia is far from negligible. Yet how did Mexico avoid the widespread infrastructural damage and loss of life that was expected from her landfall?

In this sense, Patty may have been a perfect storm.

When she arrived on shore, Patricia quickly lost power, her winds dipping to 165 mph (still a category 5 hurricane). This is enough to cause some serious damage, but a last minute shift in directions caused the storm to land in a rather uninhabited area of Jalisco. As luck would have it, the radius of the storm's maximum winds was only about 7.5 miles, which effectively allowed it to slide between the inland villages, causing minimum damage.

"The swath of these catastrophic winds were narrow. Had the core tracked over a heavily populated area such as Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan, the resulting damage, and possible fatalities, would have been catastrophic," a spokesperson for the NHC told Motherboard. "Fortunately, the eye and the category 5 winds came ashore over a sparsely populated location within the hurricane warning area, in between Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan. The result was no fatalities and less overall damage."

As the storm continued moving inland, it encountered a low pressure system extending from the north to the west of the country. This low pressure system further weakened the storm and sent it off in a northeastern direction toward the coastal mountains. As the storm continued moving northeast, it was traveling over largely uninhabited areas and steadily weakening until it was declared to be a tropical depression by Saturday afternoon.

As Pier Luigi Vidale, professor of climate system science at Britain's University of Reading, told AFP, "We could hardly have been luckier."

The 2015 hurricane season has been an especially busy one: Hurricane Patricia was the 9th hurricane to reach category 4 or 5 in the eastern Pacific, and the 22nd to do so in the Northern Hemisphere. Taken together this makes 2015 the most extreme hurricane season on record. The barrage of activity in the Pacific is largely due to a particularly strong El Niño event, the name given to the periodic warming of sea surface temperatures.

We may have gotten lucky this time, but everyone's luck runs out eventually. If Patricia and her sisters are any indication of what we have in store for our future under climate change, such monster storms may very quickly become the rule rather than the exception.