The Mexican government is urging residents to prepare for Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded by the National Hurricane Center, which was churning off the country's Pacific coast Friday.
The storm is expected to make landfall s a powerful Category 5 hurricane. As it approached, Mexican authorities appealed to residents to take precautions and stay indoors and away from windows.
"We ask everyone to stay calm, to take care of their families, their lives, we all have a high responsibility,” said Luis Felipe Puente, the director of civil protection, according to Mexican news reports.
Authorities evacuated several coastal communities and set up dozens of hurricane shelters in the areas that were likely to be affected.
Classes were also canceled in many schools, airports and ports were shut down, and electricity and gas sales were temporarily suspended in some areas.
Patricia's maximum sustained winds were near 190 mph after having "weakened a little" during the past few hours, the National Hurricane Center said in a Friday advisory.
"On the forecast track, the center of Patricia should make landfall during the next several hours on the coast of Mexico between Manzanillo and Cabo Corrientes," National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. "After landfall, the center of Patricia is expected to move quickly north-northeastward across western and northern Mexico."
According to the National Hurricane Center, some "fluctuations in intensity" were possible, but Patricia was still expected be an "extremely dangerous" Category 5 storm when it made landfall. It was also, however, expected to quickly weaken over the mountains.
"Well, in a word, it's catastrophic," National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. "There's no other way to put it. It is a potentially catastrophic hurricane."
The Mexican government has declared special emergencies in dozens of cities throughout Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima, the cluster of southwestern coastal states where the hurricane is expected to make landfall.
Enrique Jimenez Lopez, a 66-year-old a retired schoolteacher, hunkered down with his family in their Acaponeta home near the coast in the state of Nayarit. He said they experienced some light rain in the morning that has since intensified.
"We have had prior experience with cyclones. We know that there is calm before, the worst part, but I haven’t seen panic," Lopez said. "I think the government is worried about this, by the fact that people are so calm -- as if they weren’t expecting anything bad, with people walking in the street."
The resort city of Puerto Vallarta, among those with a declared emergency, has set up shelters, urging residents to avoid the outdoors starting at 2 p.m. Friday.
By early evening, more than 80 people gathered in the only Red Cross shelter established in the city, said Ali Nuñez, an urgent-care medical worker. The organization has also established a temporary medical facility.
"We can’t hold any more people" in the auditorium-shelter, Nuñez said, adding that the residents were comfortable, and electrical power remains on in the area.
Hector Gonzalez, a manager at Comercial Mexicana, a large supermarket in the Puerto Vallarta área, said the atmosphere was calm at the store located about 30 minutes from the beach.
"We have evacuated. There are no clients, and the personnel will stay here, inside the store," Gonzalez said. "There weren’t that many people who came to shop, nor was there panic or much alarm, actually, because everyone was advised in time, and took precautions."
The national government called the hurricane the most intense recorded in the Pacific in the last half-century and warned citizens living in the affected states to monitor water levels and beware of possible mudslides and landslides.
Commercial flights out of the Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta airports are suspended. A federal electric utility plans to cut power to municipalities in the affected region starting at 1 p.m., while a state-owned petroleum company said it would suspend sales in some areas starting then as well.
The hurricane was expected to dump six to 12 inches of rain in the most affected region, according to government estimates.
If there was a silver lining to the storm, Feltgen said, it was that Patricia's strongest winds were close to its center. That means that catastrophic winds wouldn't be spread over a wide area.
"It's like a ballerina on stage or an ice skater out to ice," he said. "When he or she draws her arms in, what happens? Spins faster and faster. And that's what happens here."
If anyone remained in Patricia's path Friday, Feltgen said, they needed to stay put — "hunker down, as we say."
"It's too late," Feltgen said. "It's too late to start running away from it."
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Elahe Izadi in Washington contributed to this report.