The strongest hurricane in recorded history is heading right toward Mexico’s Pacific Coast — specifically the state of Jalisco, which includes the tourist haven of Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, the country’s second-largest city. Intensifying to a Category 5 storm Thursday evening, Hurricane Patricia currently has maximum sustained winds of 200 mph. The last time a Category 5 storm hit Mexico, in 1959, it made landfall in the same coastal region as Patricia is projected to. That storm took 1,800 lives.
Robert Ramirez de la Parra, head of Mexico’s national weather service, told CNN that Hurricane Patricia looked like it might be the “most dangerous storm in history.” Meteorologists have not been reticent about using terrifying adjectives to describe the impending storm, which is expected to hit land Friday evening.
So, what does, as the National Hurricane Center is projecting, a “potentially catastrophic landfall” look like? Residents of Jalisco, as well as the bordering coastal states of Colima and Nayarit, are bracing for 40-foot waves and an estimated 20 inches of rain that will set off flash flooding and mudslides. The winds are the equivalent of the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, except this will be, essentially, a 30-mile-wide version of that tornado.
The U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization says the storm is only 15 mph shy of besting the 215 mph winds of Typhoon Nancy, the largest storm of all time, which struck the Philippines in 1961. A spokesperson for the organization said Hurricane Patricia’s winds are strong enough “to get a plane in the air and keep it flying.”
The WMO added that this storm looked similar to Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in 2013, leaving more than 6,000 dead.
Although the storm is very strong, it is also somewhat tiny — meaning that many places not in the storm’s immediate path might avoid some of the more devastating possibilities imagined by weather experts. However, those places in the storm’s way will probably get hit very hard.
Mexican officials are rushing to evacuate nearly 50,000 coastal residents, while the nearly 8 million who live nearby and are expected to be most directly affected make frantic preparations.
In many of the regions about to be hit, last-minute traffic jams are making it hard for people to leave. In Puerto Vallarta, a Portland man planning to celebrate his birthday at the beach decided to wait out the storm at his hotel. All of his friends were staying at another hotel, leaving him with a huge birthday cake all to himself to use as emergency rations if necessary. An American couple on their honeymoon are hunkering down in a school that was turned into a shelter; plenty of other tourists were getting on buses headed to shelters. Most hotels have emptied out in the past few hours as tourists try to fly home before the storm hits.
Mexico, which declared a state of emergency, has set up more than 1,700 shelters in the region and is handing out sandbags to residents. Those who decided to stay in their houses have been boarding up windows.
One woman told The Wall Street Journal that she wasn’t sure how to evacuate, so she was preparing to stay in her house. “I removed all loose pots and chairs and everything that could fly. I think I’ll sit tight.”
Schools, banks, and businesses closed early on Friday, and toll booths were shuttered, too.
As the remnants of Hurricane Patricia move over central and northern Mexico this weekend, meteorologists are warning that the southern U.S. will be slammed as well. Texans will likely experience severe flooding on Monday when a storm front over southern Texas merges with what will be the hurricane’s dissipating rain bands.
Many crops are produced in the coastal area where the hurricane is headed — including corn, cocoa, sugar cane, mango, and agave — and many of them could be decimated by the wind and floods, hurting the country’s economy. One farmer told Bloomberg that he didn’t think a tequila shortage was about to happen. “This hurricane will be like a glass of water in the middle of the day for our beloved agave.”
This year’s particularly strong El Niño and the warm water that comes with it are partly to blame for the record-breaking storm — and the fact that we’ve had so many storms so far this year that we’re all the way up to naming a hurricane Patricia.