Hurricane Willa bears down on Mexico

Hurricane Willa bears down on Mexico

ESCUINAPA (MEXICO) - Mexico braced Tuesday for the impact of Hurricane Willa as it began unleashing a powerful storm surge on its Pacific coast, hours from what forecasters warned would be a potentially deadly landfall.

Businesses have been piling up sandbags to protect themselves from Hurricane Willa -- as seen here in Mazatlan on Mexico's Pacific coast on October 23, 2018

Willa was a maximum Category 5 hurricane on Monday, but weakened to a Category 3 as it moved toward the coast -- where it was expected to strike early Tuesday evening, the US National Hurricane Center said in its latest update.

Nevertheless, the NHC warned, "an extremely dangerous storm surge is occurring along portions of the coast of southwestern Mexico."

The hurricane was on course to slam into Mexico between the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, somewhere south of the resort town of Mazatlan.

It first swept over the Marias islands, where Mexico has a federal prison.

The interior ministry did not immediately respond to questions on whether it had evacuated the 1,000 inmates housed there or what other emergency measures were in place for the penal colony.

"We do not have any reports of damages there so far," the head of Mexico's emergency services, Luis Felipe Puente, told a press conference.

More than 4,250 people have been evacuated from high-risk areas, including tourists who were on vacation at the beach, he said.

They are being housed in 58 temporary shelters.

- 'Up against nature' -

At a shelter in Escuinapa, a town of 30,000 people that sits in the middle of the storm's likely path, residents waited nervously and fretted over their houses.

"Let's just hope this is over soon so we can go home," said Epigmenio Cardenas, 44, a farmer who was among the 2,500 people huddled there.

"You feel bad leaving everything behind, but what can you do? We're up against nature," he told AFP.

Many residents had boarded up their windows with plywood.

"They told us it was going to hit hard, and that we had to come here" to the shelter, said Maria Virginia Cardenas, 59, a cook.

"God, please just let us go back home unharmed."

The Mexican army has deployed troops to roll out a disaster response operation in the area.

In Mazatlan, a tranquil beach town with turquoise waters, the hotels that line the coast were largely empty as workers nailed plywood over the windows and built sandbag barriers to keep out the flood waters.

Residents were stocking up on food and water, but there were no signs of shortages so far.

- State of alert -

Willa has maximum sustained winds of 195 kilometers (120 miles) per hour, the NHC said.

It is expected to dump 15 to 30 centimeters (six to 12 inches) of rain on parts of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco states, with some areas getting up to 45 centimeters.

"This rainfall will cause life-threatening flash flooding and landslides," the NHC warned.

The Hurricane Center said that large storm swells off the coast are also "likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions."

Willa was located 110 kilometers south of Mazatlan, churning north-northeast at 17 kilometers per hour.

The states of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco declared a state of alert and cancelled school state-wide.

In the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco Governor Aristoteles Sandoval on Monday ordered the evacuation of hotels and coastal areas, warning the storm could have "very destructive consequences."

In Michoacan state, also on the Pacific coast, heavy rain caused a freight train to derail Monday in the town of La Goleta, injuring at least two workers for the Kansas City Southern rail line, authorities said.

Adding to the weather chaos, the remnants of Tropical Storm Vicente were moving over Michoacan on Tuesday, bringing more heavy rainfall.

Mexico's Pacific coast has already been hit by deadly storms and rains this hurricane season.

In September, at least 15 people were killed when flash floods hit the states of Sinaloa and Michoacan. Last week, 11 more people died in Oaxaca, including seven children.

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