In Mex­ico, a peace­ful coast fol­low­ing a feared hur­ri­cane

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA, JOSHUA PART­LOW AND NICK MIROFF manuel.roig-franzia@wash­post.com joshua.part­low@wash­post.com nick.miroff@wash­post.com Roig-Franzia re­ported from Mex­ico City.

Res­i­dents clear de­bris out­side a beach restau­rant on the out­skirts of Man­zanillo, Mex­ico, af­ter Hur­ri­cane Pa­tri­cia made land­fall to the north of the Pa­cific port town. The fierce storm, which was at one point the strong­est hur­ri­cane ever recorded in the Western Hemi­sphere, slipped neatly be­tween two pop­u­la­tion cen­ters and weak­ened quickly af­ter it passed over the Sierra Madre Oc­ci­den­tal range.

PUERTO VAL­LARTA, MEX­ICO — Hur­ri­cane Pa­tri­cia, a storm of record-set­ting fe­roc­ity, proved no match for the Sierra Madre Oc­ci­den­tal.

Con­fronted by the moun­tain range’s high peaks, Pa­tri­cia crum­pled, rapidly shrink­ing from a Cat­e­gory 5 beast to a trop­i­cal de­pres­sion as it limped east­ward across Mex­ico, leav­ing be­hind a per­fect beach day and a touch of swag­ger among those who chose not to evac­u­ate.

“The moun­tains pro­tect us,” de­clared Pa­tri­cia Puerner, 47, an Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate who lives in Puerto Val­larta and spent the day af­ter the storm sun­bathing at the beach.

Pa­tri­cia smashed ashore Fri­day night at al­most the per­fect lo­ca­tion, me­te­o­rol­o­gists and Mex­i­can of­fi­cials said Satur­day, mak­ing land­fall with 160-mph winds on a sparsely pop­u­lated stretch of Pa­cific coast­line and then col­lid­ing with a tall, rugged moun­tain range that dis­rupted its swirling mo­men­tum and sapped its strength. The storm up­rooted trees and tore the roofs off some houses in the coastal states of Jalisco and Colima, but it was not even close to the catas­tro­phe that had been feared.

Mex­i­can of­fi­cials stayed cau­tious through­out the day, re­fus­ing to “de­clare vic­tory.” But with no deaths re­ported and only mi­nor dam­age, Ger­ardo Ruiz Es­parza, Mex­ico’s communications and trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary, said that “there was, let’s say, good for­tune.”

The no­tion that luck can mean every­thing on Mex­ico’s vul­ner­a­ble Pa­cific Coast was not lost on Na­cho Ruiz, the owner of small re­sort in Sayulita, a tiny beach town north of Puerto Val­larta. A mas­sive storm, Hur­ri­cane Kenna, dam­aged Ruiz’s house in 2002, flooded his prop­erty and al­most killed him. This time, he took refuge in his brother’s hill­side ho­tel with fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing a 5-month-old grand­daugh­ter, and the storm missed them.

“I’m re­lieved, sure, but also a lit­tle quiet to­day,” Ruiz said Satur­day. “I’m not cel­e­brat­ing. I’ve lived all my life here, next to the ocean, and I have re­spect for na­ture. We were just for­tu­nate this time.”

From the be­gin­ning, Pa­tri­cia was an un­usual storm. It grew as­ton­ish­ingly quickly at sea, at one point reg­is­ter­ing 200-mph winds — mak­ing it the strong­est hur­ri­cane recorded in the Western Hemi­sphere. But, in some re­spects, it was puny.

When Pa­tri­cia ar­rived in Mex­ico, its winds ex­tended only 35 miles from its cen­ter, and its eye was only five miles across, lim­it­ing the area it im­pacted, said Den­nis Felt­gen, a spokesman for the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in the United States, which closely tracked the storm.

The storm also slipped neatly be­tween two pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, miss­ing both — the re­sort town of Puerto Val­larta to the north, and the port town of Man­zanillo to the south.

“Had some­thing like that hit a pop­u­lated area like Puerto Val­larta, you would be look­ing at cat­a­strophic de­struc­tion and prob­a­bly fa­tal­i­ties,” Felt­gen said in an in­ter­view. “We were very for­tu­nate. It could have been much worse.”

Mex­i­can of­fi­cials praised the pub­lic for heed­ing warn­ings about tak­ing pre­cau­tions. On Satur­day, some rivers and creeks swelled and a few crested their banks, caus­ing scat­tered mi­nor flood­ing and some prop­erty dam­age in the high­lands of Jalisco, east of Puerto Val­larta. A creek called the Ar­royo de Po­chote flooded and swept away piles of bricks dry­ing along the bank. “We lost 20,000 bricks,” said Os­car Noe So­tor, a 19-year-old la­borer.

Yet, for the most part, the re­gion looked more as if it had been re­freshed af­ter a healthy rain than crushed by a mas­sive storm.

Pa­tri­cia bounded into Mex­ico’s coast at 6:10 p.m. Fri­day, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. By 4 a.m. Satur­day, it was a Cat­e­gory 1 hur­ri­cane, and as the morn­ing pro­gressed, it with­ered to a trop­i­cal storm and then a trop­i­cal de­pres­sion, and it was ex­pected to dis­si­pate late Satur­day.

It hit near the re­sort area of Cuix­mala, 110 miles south of Puerto Val­larta, one of Mex­ico’s most pop­u­lar va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tions, and 580 miles west of Mex­ico City. The re­gion is known as the Costa Ale­gre, which trans­lates to the Joy­ful Coast, but it’s also of­ten re­ferred to as the Vir­gin Coast.

The area is known for sev­eral high-end re­sorts, in­clud­ing swanky spots once fre­quented by bold­face names such as Richard Nixon and former sec­re­tary of state Henry Kissinger. But large swaths of land in the area are pro­tected coastal forests and are un­de­vel­oped or only lightly de­vel­oped.

By early Satur­day, 15 inches of rain had been recorded in the small town of Ne­vado de Colima in Jalisco, ac­cord­ing to the Mex­i­can na­tional me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal ser­vice. In the neigh­bor­ing state of Colima, Pa­tri­cia dumped 11½ inches on the town of Sierra Manant­lan.

Less than 24 hours af­ter the storm made land­fall, the skies were blue and Leonard Geringer, a tourist from Wy­oming, was lean­ing back in a floppy lounge chair on the beach in Sayulita.

“We sur­vived a Cat 5!” he said, hoist­ing a bot­tle of beer and laugh­ing about the de­ci­sion to ig­nore evac­u­a­tion warn­ings.

Geringer’s wife is named Gale — as in “a mighty wind,” she said. “We felt per­fectly safe.”

‘We were just for­tu­nate this time,’ res­i­dent says about feared hur­ri­cane

OMAR TOR­RES/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

BRETT GUNDLOCK/GETTY IMAGES

Work­ers clean up the dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Pa­tri­cia at a restau­rant in Me­laque. The storm was quickly weak­ened by coastal moun­tains.

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