Mexico Counts Up the Cost After Encounter With Hurricane Patricia
Updated 4:50 p.m. Sunday
EL REBALSE, Mexico — The town square in El Rebalse is now an island amid Hurricane Patricia's floodwaters, a place for Maria Santana Vazquez and her husband to rest Sunday after wading through water, at times chest-deep, trying to return home.
All around, kids swam, a dog paddled and just before noon two high-clearance army transport trucks arrived — the first outside help since Patricia, the hemisphere's strongest hurricane on record, roared in Friday night and washed out the only paved road into town.
While Mexico for the most part was relieved that the storm caused no fatalities and only marginal damage in the resort of Puerto Vallarta and the principle port of Manzanillo, the sparsely populated zone of Pacific coast where Patricia delivered its fury was only beginning to assess the full damage Sunday.
President Enrique Pena Nieto said Saturday that 3,000 to 3,500 homes were damaged and about 8,650 acres of farmland were affected. But that was before anyone from the government arrived in El Rebalse, a town surrounded by banana plantations that Associated Press journalists tried to reach on foot before hitching a ride on the army trucks.
Banana trees as far as the eye could see were snapped in half, and large bunches of the fruit moldered in the intense sun.
"They're going to lose a whole year," Santana's husband, Artemio Sanmeron Sanchez, said of the plantations where everyone in town made their living.
Then the couple slipped back into the water and waded off. Already they had slogged from the neighboring town, Cihuatlan, where they evacuated. They assumed their home of 15 years was destroyed.
In the surrounding Cihuatlan Valley, less than 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the Pacific, between 1,800 and 2,000 people depend directly on agriculture for livelihoods, said Narciso de Jesus Ramirez Rubio, a banana grower and president of the municipal small landowners association. That's not counting their families.
He was annoyed that, in his mind, Pena Nieto had played down the damage. He said that only with government help could the owners of the mango and banana plantations hope to get their fields producing again in a year's time. Work to build levees to contain the nearby Marabasco River began three years ago, but was not completed, he said.
"This is total destruction," Ramirez said, as he watched soldiers work to make a washed-out section of road passable. "Agriculture, along with tourism, is the principal source of employment."
The Mexican navy put out a statement Sunday that it had 5,791 sailors and marines, 192 vehicles, seven aircraft, three vessels and eight mobile kitchens working to reach those affected by the mega-storm.
Patricia made landfall as a powerful Category 5 hurricane, having peaked at sea with winds up to 200 mph, and then came ashore Friday evening with winds of 165 mph.
After the wind and rain subsided, the river entered through a gap behind the banana plantation where Martha Gutierrez and her husband had lived and worked for nine years. It was 1:20 a.m. and the family scrambled to another house with a second story. They hadn't evacuated before the storm because they wanted to care for their animals. In the end, five of their six pigs drowned, and their house was destroyed.
"We have nothing to eat," Gutierrez said.
In El Rebalse, Rosalinda Hernandez Murga stirred a pot of rice soup over a wood fire.
Her family and three others took shelter in a well-constructed, two-story house before Patricia struck. Its sloped driveway to an elevated parking area is now a landing area for boats.
All 16 people staying there crowded into a room on the second floor when the storm hit. The fiercest winds lasted about two hours, but strong winds blew for five or six hours shaking the house.
"It felt like it was going to lift off," Hernandez said.
Around 1 a.m. the water began rising around them. By Sunday it had gone down somewhat, but was still about chest-high in the street.
Out on the road leading to El Rebalse, mud-caked and breathing hard, Carmela Jeronimo Avalos heaved a big garbage bag of clothing off her shoulder and onto the pavement. She had just slogged about a mile into the flood zone with relatives to salvage what they could.
With the water subsiding to ankle-deep, they could haul out clothes, a small television and two electric fans. After catching her breath, Jeronimo turned around and began another trek to her ruined home to see what else could be saved.
Previous version of this story, also from AP's Christopher Sherman:
CHAMELA, Mexico — Only a day after menacing Mexico as one of history's strongest storms, Hurricane Patricia left surprisingly little damage in its wake Saturday and quickly dissipated into an ordinary low-pressure system that posed little threat beyond heavy rain.
The hurricane's most powerful punch hit a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's Pacific Coast before the system crashed into mountains that sapped its potentially catastrophic force. The popular beach city of Puerto Vallarta and the port of Manzanillo were spared the brunt of the violent weather.
There were no reports of deaths or injuries, said Roberto Lopez Lara, interior secretary for the state of Jalisco. It was a remarkable outcome, considering that Patricia had been a Category 5 hurricane with winds up to 200 mph before it came ashore with slightly less power in an area dotted with a few upscale hotels.
Hours later, as the storm spun inland, it collapsed into fast-moving bands of rain aimed at already sodden Texas.
Officials were still trying to reach some of the hardest-hit areas that were blocked by downed trees, and residents of towns nearest the strike said they had endured a terrifying night.
"Those were the longest five hours of my life," said Sergio Reyna Ruiz, who took cover between the shaking concrete walls of a neighbor's home when Patricia passed over the hamlet of La Fortuna, about 2 miles from the ocean. "Five hours riding the monster."
Before the storm hit, Reyna tried to secure the shingles of his roof with metal cables. But looking up from the inside Saturday, the ceiling was a patchwork of old tile and blue sky. He and family members next door tried to clean up, sawing through a downed tree and putting waterlogged mattresses and books into the sun to dry.
Still, all were thankful that everyone survived: "It's something to tell the grandchildren," Reyna said.
Down the road in Chamela, people picked through boards, tree limbs and other refuse for anything salvageable. All 40 families that live there rode out the storm at a shelter in nearby San Mateo. When they returned, they found little that was recognizable.
Arturo Morfin Garcia wielded a machete trying to clear debris from around his home, which was reduced to a jumble of bricks and beams. The only part left standing was a concrete bathroom at one end.
"It wasn't hard to leave. It was hard to come back and find this," Morfin Garcia said. "So much work to build something. It makes me very sad, but what can we do with these natural phenomena?"
In Manzanillo, high winds and waves blew out windows and damaged some buildings. Trees and utility poles were toppled. An enraged sea battered the Hotel Barra de Navidad in a nearby town, scooping sand away from the foundations.
All the streets were full of downed trees, hotel watchman Domingo Hernandez said, calling Patricia the strongest storm he's seen in a quarter-century living on the coast.
Puerto Vallarta, home to some 200,000 people, including thousands of U.S. residents and visitors, was largely unscathed.
People snapped selfies next to a sculpture overlooking the sea Saturday, and business owners swept sidewalks as they would on any morning. Puddles dotted the downtown district, but no more than a passing thunderstorm might leave.
Patricia plunged ashore about 65 miles southeast of Vallarta, which was protected from much of the fury by mountains.
"We were fortunate as to where it made landfall. It was not a densely populated area," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "You and I would be having a very different conversation if this went over the top of Puerto Vallarta."
He said the lack of fatalities was probably the result of the storm's narrow footprint. Category 5 winds extended 15 miles out on either side of the eye, and hurricane-force winds extended for 35 miles from the center of the storm.
By midday, Patricia had dissipated and had maximum sustained winds of 30 mph, according to the hurricane center. Its remnants were expected to feed into existing rain hitting southern Texas.
"There's an area of low pressure that'll be forming along the Texas coast, and that will be about the time that moisture from Patricia will be arriving," Feltgen said. The wet weather was forecast to spread from Texas to the central Gulf Coast by early next week.
On Saturday afternoon, the remains of Patricia were about 45 miles southwest of the Mexican city of Monterrey, and moving to the northeast at 22 mph.
That such a monster storm could inflict so little harm seemed wondrous. Patricia formed suddenly Tuesday and quickly strengthened to a hurricane. Within 30 hours it had zoomed to a record-beating Category 5 storm, catching many off guard with its rapid growth.
By Friday it was the most powerful hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere, with a central pressure of 880 millibars, according to the hurricane center.
Patricia's power while still out at sea was comparable to that of Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 dead or missing in the Philippines two years ago, according to the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization.
Hurricane experts praised Mexico's expertise at storm preparations and credited good fortune.
The mountains in the area quickly weakened the storm, and the coastal landscape did not offer the right conditions for a storm surge that could have become a devastating wall of water.
The most affected part of the coast did not have a large area of shallow water "conducive for piling up a huge storm surge," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.
The storm was also moving fast enough at landfall — about 20 mph (35 kph) — that its heavy rains "did not stay in place long enough to generate the kinds of devastating floods we've seen in the past from Mexican hurricanes," Masters noted.
Mexico's transport secretary, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, put it another way: "Nature was good to us."