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Massive Hurricane Patricia spares cities as it slams into Mexico's Pacific coast

Massive Hurricane Patricia spares cities as it slams into Mexico's Pacific coast

(Reuters) -- Hurricane Patricia, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, crashed into western Mexico with rain and winds of up to 165 mph, hammering coastal areas but causing less damage than had been feared as it skirted cities and major tourist resorts.

Mowing down trees, flooding streets and battering buildings, Patricia plowed into Mexico as a Category 5 hurricane on Friday evening before grinding inland. It rapidly lost power in the mountains that rise up along the Pacific coast and was downgraded to a tropical depression on Saturday morning as it headed through central Mexico.

Thousands of residents and tourists along the coast had fled the storm's advance and ended up in improvised shelters. But there were no early reports of deaths and many felt they had escaped lightly. It appeared major damage was averted because the powerful storm did not hit large population centers.

Patricia's edges brushed the major port of Manzanillo. Port director Jorge Bustos said the facility was still closed, but he expected it to be open again by Saturday afternoon.

"We didn't have any major damage," he said. "Sure, gates, doors, some windows, volatile or light roofs, that sort of thing, but nothing that was a risk to our operations."

Further north, around 15,000 tourists had been hastily evacuated from the busy beach resort of Puerto Vallarta. But many were able to leave shelters and return to their hotels on Friday night.

"I don't think there's going to be a big problem with the water," said Dario Pomina, manager of the Posadas de Roger hotel in the center of Puerto Vallarta. "Things are more or less okay."

The city woke to light rain on Saturday and workers removed boards from windows. Public buses were up and running.

But residents of Las Juntas, a village where the Ameca and Mascota rivers meet about 6 miles from Puerto Vallarta, were being evacuated on Saturday after a rapid rise in water levels overnight caused flooding, emergency services spokeswoman Veronica Diaz said.

Patricia's center hit land on Friday evening near the area of Cuixmala, located between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta and home to one of Mexico's most exclusive getaways, the U.S National Hurricane Center said.

The resort at Cuixmala was founded by Anglo-French financier Sir James Goldsmith and has played host over the years to a colorful assortment of world leaders, musicians and eccentric billionaires.

Maria Pavon, a Cuixmala reservations booker based in the inland city of Colima, said there were no guests staying when the storm hit as they all been evacuated. But there was no word yet on the state of the resort. She and colleagues had been unable to make contact as phone lines were down, Ms. Pavon said.

The area around Cuixmala is sparsely populated, but there are small towns, and it was not clear yet how much damage they had suffered.

At one point generating sustained winds of up to 200 mph, Patricia was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. Even though it lost some power before coming ashore, it was still a Category 5 storm, the strongest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Such storms are relatively rare and are capable of causing devastating destruction.

Patricia's ferocious core was relatively small, with hurricane force winds extending 35 miles from the center, the Hurricane Center said. This meant Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo were spared the worst.

In Puerto Vallarta, Brian Shelley, a tourist from Chicago, rode out the storm eating burgers with other guests at a boutique hotel on a hill.

After talking one of his panicked traveling companions into staying, he was glad Patricia turned out to be less punishing than was feared. "I've seen bigger waves on normal days," he joked.

In Manzanillo, Ramona Delgado who manages an apartment block, spent the night in darkness at home with her two children, but said on Saturday morning the lights were back on.

"It scared us a lot, we thought Manzanillo was going to disappear," she said. "There are only fallen trees on our block."

Once inland, Patricia rapidly lost power. By mid-morning on Saturday morning it had been downgraded to a tropical depression with its maximum winds down to about 35 mph, the Miami-based Hurricane Center said.

The storm was located about 95 miles northeast of the central city of Zacatecas, heading rapidly northeast at 24 mph, the center said.

However, Patricia could still pose a flood threat. It was expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 8 to 12 inches, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches, over the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan, and Guerrero through Saturday, the center said.

In a brief televised address on Friday, President Enrique Pena Nieto said that "initial reports confirm that damage has been less than would be expected of a hurricane of this magnitude." But he urged Mexicans not to lower their guard yet.

The government cautioned that ash and other material from the volcano of Colima, some 130 miles from Puerto Vallarta, could combine with heavy rainfall to trigger liquid cement-style mudflows.

Patricia became a tropical storm on Thursday and strengthened with stunning speed as it closed in on the Mexican coast. Meteorological authorities compared it to Typhoon Haiyan, which killed over 6,300 people in the Philippines in 2013.

The strongest storm on record was Cyclone Tip which hit Japan in 1979.