View of a street in Manzanillo, Colima state, Mexico on October 23, 2015, during hurricane Patricia.  (Jonathan Levinson, AFP PHOTO)

Patricia was a meteorological marvel, the winds at its core increasing by 120 mph in 24 hours as it became the strongest hurricane ever recorded. Yet, when it roared ashore Mexico’s west coast at Category 5 intensity Friday night, it claimed few lives according to initial reports.*

[Ten unsettling views of Patricia, the strongest hurricane in recorded history]

The storm’s impacts on life and property were less than feared because the storm weakened some before landfall, was small in size, and passed through a lightly populated area, all while Mexico was well-prepared.

In other words, what might have been a natural disaster is a human success story, with some good fortune mixed in.

Let’s take a more detailed look at each of the factors that reduced the storm’s toll…

Pre-landfall weakening

The most devastating hurricanes and typhoons typically are strengthening or peaking in intensity when they make landfall. While Patricia came ashore as a fierce Category 5 storm, its maximum sustained winds decreased about 35 mph in the hours prior to landfall from 200 mph to 165 mph. A 165 mph-hurricane is still extremely dangerous, but as a storm’s potential destructiveness increases exponentially with wind speed, the last second weakening took an edge off the storm.

[How and why Patricia stands above the four other most severe hurricanes in history]

You could visibly watch Patricia become less organized on approach to land as its eye became less distinct.


Hurricane Patricia approaches land, October 23, 2015 (Brian McNoldy)

Once Patricia moved inland, the weakening process accelerated as dry air and Mexico’s high terrain decimated the storm’s circulation. It was downgraded to a tropical storm within about 12 hours – spinning down even more quickly than it spun up.

Size matters

The fact that Patricia was a relatively compact hurricane both reduced the territory covered by its extreme winds and its storm surge, or rise in coastal waters known to cause devastating flooding in some storms.

The core of Patricia’s most extreme winds was small.  When the storm bore down on Mexico Friday, I wrote: “Patricia’s most intense Category 5 winds extend just five to 10 miles from the center, limiting the real estate subject to the worst destruction.”

Patricia’s storm surge was reduced both because it was small – which meant it was collecting water from a smaller portion of the ocean, and because it was a relatively young storm, limiting the time it had to build up a wall of water. The geography of the coastline also played into the relatively minor surge effects, as the land sloped upwards about 1,000 feet in five miles where Patricia moved inland, reducing the area vulnerable to flooding.

Coordinated preparations

The LA Times and NY Times both penned fine pieces lauding the preparations Mexico made ahead of the storm. The effort was particularly impressive given the breakneck pace at which Patricia intensified, providing very little lead time to launch and implement this effort.

“In the hours before and after the storm, warnings blared on radio and television broadcasts across the region,” the LA Times reported. “Government pickups with loudspeakers circulated through neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of people evacuated their homes. More than 1,200 shelters were set up.”

The NY Times said the effective response followed some less successful efforts in the past:

The Mexican authorities “learned some hard lessons” from botched or inadequate responses to earlier catastrophes, said Richard Olson, the director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University in Miami. “It looks like they got this one right.”

Mexico now has a national emergency response system that reaches from the central government to the local level. “There was a strong learning curve and they put resources into it,” Mr. Olson said…

While meteorologists were blown away by how quickly the storm intensified (highlighting the need to advance the science on forecasting such incredible leaps), they should also be credited for informing the preparation effort.

Little in harm’s way

Two populated areas were in the “warning” zone where it was plausible Patricia would strike: the vacation hotspot of Puerto Vallarta and seaport town of Manzanillo. But Patricia split the difference, traversing over a sparsely populated area of west central Mexico.

Luck often looms large in determining how much damage a hurricane does. Just over a year prior, Mexico was far less fortunate when Hurricane Odile slammed the tourist destination of Cabo San Lucas as well as the city of San José del Cabo. “Odile’s size, strength, and track was and is a worst case scenario for this region,” I wrote. Odile caused 5 deaths and about $1.2 billion in damages in the Baja Peninsula.

[Odile ravages Cabo San Lucas, strongest known hurricane to hit Baja Peninsula]

Storm wasn’t over-hyped

Some wonder if the danger posed by Patricia was overplayed given its relatively minor effects, but I don’t think so.

The National Hurricane Center continuously headlined ‘potentially catastrophic’ in its outlook for the storm based on just that, potential. Had the storm not weakened at the last moment, and had the storm hit either Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo head-on, we would be having a different conversation.

The storm’s violent wind core, while small, presented a clear and present danger to everything in its possible path. Consider this terrifying account from U.S. storm chaser Josh Morgerman, who experienced the core firsthand, very near the site of landfall in Emiliano Zapata:

All I can say is: terrifying storm…

At 6:34 p.m. the wind shifted sharply and a wall of wind and rain swept in, engulfing the hotel with a howling, whistling sound. There was a complete whiteout. The building trembled. Things were crashing– big crashes as the hotel started to blow apart. Erik [a storm chaser with Morgerman] and I retreated to our room. A frightened hotel worker joined us and we stood in the dark, not sure what to do. We heard a terrific explosion and assumed the roof had blown off. (We were right.) Minutes later a man burst into the room– a family across the hall was in trouble– their room had torn open– roof, ceiling, and all had blown away. Erik rushed across the hall– which was now a wind tunnel– and helped them into our room. Then all of us– six adults and two children– crammed into the tiny bathroom: the family around the toilet, Erik and me in the shower stall, two hotel workers next to the sink, all of us pressed against each other in the darkness like trapped animals. Roaring. Crashing. The mother wept– she was freaked out. I told her not to worry– told her (in broken Spanish) we were totally safe– but I was talking nonsense, telling a lie. More crashing. We put pillows and blankets over the children, and Erik and I put computer bags over our heads and got low. Water was streaming from the ceiling and we expected it to blow away any second. So Erik and the two workers and I pulled the mattress off the bed and squeezed it into the bathroom. We tore the shower doors out to make room, then lifted the mattress up over everyone and wedged it in to make an extra ceiling. And we waited.

Riding Out Hurricane Patricia Huddled in a Hotel Bathroom“The whole building started to tremble and then it just started to blow apart.”This Storm Tracker rode out Hurricane Patricia huddled in a hotel bathroom!

Posted by AMHQ on Monday, October 26, 2015

You can read Morgerman’s full story on his Facebook page: ICyclone.

Weakening, small, or whatever, this was a historic, powerhouse storm.  Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Georgia and weather columnist at Forbes.com, answered the ‘was it overhyped’ question this way:

Are you kidding me? How can you overhype a record-shattering hurricane, packing EF-5 tornado winds, and approaching a major country? . . . It almost seems like some would rather see carnage and destruction to justify the call of alarm or make for a better story. I have often pondered the obsession that we have preparing for a major hazard, and then being critical if the destruction doesn’t meet some level of expectation. The “better safe than sorry” rule works.

This timelapse video shows Hurricane Patricia and it's eye as the International Space Station​ flew over the Category 5 storm Friday. (NASA/Youtube)

* According to USA Today: “By Sunday afternoon, six people were reported dead: two struck by a falling tree in the town of Tapalpa in southern Jalisco state and four others killed in a vehicle accident, according to the Spanish news agency EFE in Mexico.”