MAZATLAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Thousands of people were evacuated, buildings were boarded up and schools closed on Mexico’s Pacific coast on Tuesday as Hurricane Willa threatened to pummel tourist resorts with high winds and heavy rains.
Residents had sealed windows and doors with wooden planks on hotels facing the historic downtown boardwalk of Mazatlan, a popular coastal city in the northwestern state of Sinaloa.
Willa, which weakened to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale on Tuesday morning, was blowing maximum sustained winds of about 120 miles per hour (193 kph) with higher gusts, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
It had reached rare Category 5 status on Monday with winds near 160 mph (260 kph) before weakening.
Forecast to be one of the most powerful hurricanes to enter Mexico from the Pacific in recent years, Willa was due to weaken further before striking the land Tuesday evening.
On Tuesday afternoon the storm was about 105 miles (169 km) south-southwest of Mazatlan, the hurricane center said.
A light, steady rain fell on Mazatlan’s main tourist strip on Tuesday afternoon. Only a few tourists were out as small red flags planted in the sand indicated the beach was closed.
On sidestreets people were boarding up windows while some young men surfed the higher-than-usual waves.
“I’m sure my house is going to flood,” university professor Ignacio Osuna said on the boardwalk on Tuesday morning as he watched the surfers. He noted large parts of the city are below sea level.
“This is going to get ugly,” he said.
The city’s main convention center was designated as a shelter but only a few people had taken refuge as of Tuesday afternoon. A fleet of trucks owned by state electricity company CFE stood in the parking lot, ready to repair any fallen powerlines.
Several other tourist getaways in the state of Nayarit, as well as the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco state, also lie near the path of the storm, which is forecast to bring a life-threatening storm surge of ocean water, wind and rainfall, the hurricane center said.
Howard Petty, a sport fishing enthusiast from Chevy Chase, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, said he had no idea the storm was coming.
“There’s nowhere else for us to go so we’re just going to stay put here,” he said in the lobby of a hotel in Mazatlan.
Mexico’s civil protection agency said on Twitter that families should move into nearby temporary refuges if necessary.
Up to 18 inches (45 cm) of rainfall could pummel parts of the storm zone, the hurricane center said. Even buildings up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the coastline could lose power and suffer physical damage, Mexico’s National Meteorological Service said.
In some states, Willa’s menace is compounded by the remnants of Vicente, a post-tropical cyclone moving over the state of Michoacan on Tuesday morning, causing rain in parts of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero.
Nayarit Governor Antonio Echevarria said more than 10,000 people were being evacuated and schools would be closed. He warned locals not to defy the storm.
“Let’s not play the macho,” he said. “Let’s not act like superheroes. It’s a very strong hurricane, very potent, and we don’t want any tragedies.”
Reporting by David Alire Garcia, Dave Graham and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Bill Trott