Experts say Mexico learned from past disasters.
MEXICO CITY — Meteorologists called Hurricane Patricia one of the most ferocious ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, a monster bearing down with unprecedented energy on the Pacific Coast of Mexico on Friday as residents and tourists evacuated or hunkered down in fear.
But just hours later, the storm had passed over and, despite uprooted trees, damaged or destroyed homes and some landslides blocking roads, there were no immediate reports of any deaths or damage to major infrastructure.
Experts said the result was a combination of luck — the storm, for instance, passed between two cities but hit neither directly — and capable planning in a country that had learned from past disasters.
Mexico learned a great deal, in the 1980s in particular, “and I think the succeeding governments understood that there were political costs to a poor response,” said Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University in Miami, referring to the government reaction after a catastrophic earthquake in Mexico City in 1985.
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Mexico now has a national emergency-response system that reaches from the central government down to the local level. “There was a strong learning curve, and they put resources into it,” Olson said, although he said the system was not able to prevent deaths in Hurricane Ingrid, which hit Acapulco two years ago.
With Hurricane Patricia, Olson said, Mexican authorities had done a good job of warning local residents, through announcements on radio and television and social media. He said they had also done good work in evacuating people — a process that began hours before the storm blew up into a Category 5 hurricane with winds measured at 200 mph.
Authorities then were effective in moving some of those who remained in the area into shelters and persuading others to stay in their homes. In some cases, emergency-management workers took to the streets with bullhorns to warn people of the coming storm.
“The important thing is that people responded,” Gerardo Ruíz Esparza, secretary of communications and transportation, said in a televised news conference Saturday. “If we hadn’t had that response, I’m sure we would be talking about other incidents.”
R. David Paulison, who took over the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States after the much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out parts of New Orleans in 2005, said, “It looks like they did a really good job of evacuating people.”
He said that had been a critical failing in the Katrina response, “when evacuations did not take place, and we had 1,800 people killed.”
After the storm, the Mexican authorities moved quickly to clean up debris and clear highways of landslides or fallen trees.
Around midday Saturday in Cihuatlán, a town in one of the hardest-hit areas, government crews in orange vests were aided by local residents in removing fallen branches and trees. Others were sweeping the streets. Telephone workers were repairing damaged lines. An occasional convoy of soldiers drove by.
But for all the preparation, the results could have been much worse if the storm had not lost force quickly once it hit land or if it had hit a city. Instead, it made landfall in a less populated area between the tourist destination of Puerto Vallarta and the port city of Manzanillo.
Esparza said Mexico was lucky because the storm had changed course as it approached land. “Who can control that?” he said. “We have had hurricanes that parked themselves on a city, staying there an entire day, destroying it. Fortunately, that did not happen.”
And despite the massive spiral of thick white cloud shown from the International Space Station, the storm’s most violent winds were contained within a small radius around a small eye, said David Nolan, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami. So as the storm made landfall, only a small area was affected by the strongest winds, those that classified Patricia as a great threat.
“The area of the high winds was unusually small,” Nolan said.
In contrast, both Katrina and Hurricane Sandy covered vast areas.
But in the end, it is not the wind that typically inflicts the most damage in a hurricane, said Jeff Weber of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. It is the storm surge, the huge wall of water that rises as the storm churns toward land, pushing the sea before it.
Patricia soared in strength over a very short period and only when it was fairly close to land.
“It was born so quickly and so close that it didn’t really have time to build up the storm surge,” Weber said.
Mexico’s Pacific Coast also has a topography that quickly breaks up hurricanes. The mountains that rise dramatically above the coast are accompanied by dry air that quickly saps force from humid hurricanes. “Once it came onshore, it really shut down very quickly,” he said.
At the same time, however, when a hurricane slams into the mountains, it can produce more rain, which raises the possibility of mudslides.
The effective evacuation of people from those high-risk areas to shelters reduced the threat to human life. Still, experts cautioned that heavy rains could still cause flooding or landslides and that parts of Mexico were not out of danger.
“In this business, you always look for the places that are silent, the places you haven’t heard from,” Olson said.
Luis Felipe Puente, director of Mexico’s civil-protection agency, marveled at how the coastal mountains helped protect the area from greater damage.
“This isn’t in the hands of man. It’s in the hands of nature,“ he said.
But Roberto Sandoval, governor of Nayarit state, said it was more than mere nature.
“I could say it was our civil-protection agency, our organization and protocol, our security, and we did all those things,” he said. “But this was a work of God.”
He added, “God did not want Mexico to have more poverty and backwardness. Today we are lifting our faces and saying thank you to God.”