Hurricane Patricia is now a “potentially catastrophic,” scale-topping category five hurricane with maximum winds of 185 MPH. This is a rare scenario in which it cannot be hyped or overstated how much danger this storm poses to communities on Mexico’s west coast, including Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, and the numerous small towns between the two.

(This post and the above map were updated just after 1:30 AM EDT with a new NHC forecast that bumps Patricia’s winds up to 185 MPH with a central minimum pressure of 892 millibars. In terms of air pressure, this makes Patricia the most intense storm ever recorded in the eastern Pacific.)

This storm is likely (hopefully) the explosive capstone to an El Niño-fueled Pacific hurricane season from hell. The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center puts Patricia at the top of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale as it draws closer to a Friday evening landfall somewhere between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, likely closer to the latter.

There aren’t too many people in the likely landfall zone between these two heavily-populated cities, but even the best, most prepared city is ill prepared for the full fury of a category five roaring ashore, let alone these small towns and villages that couldn’t stand up to the might of a storm half this strong.

Puerto Vallarta in particular—a city that’s home to at least a quarter of a million residents and tourists—is perilously close to the predicted track of the center of the cyclone, and solidly within the cone of uncertainty, which accounts for the average errors forecasters have made in the predicted tracks of previous storms. Any westward wobble in this hurricane’s ultimate path could devastate this popular tourist destination.

One of the greatest risks with Patricia at the moment is catastrophic winds that will shred well-built buildings, demolish trees, and severely cripple local infrastructure for weeks if not months. Thankfully, this is a storm with a relatively small hurricane force wind field, so the extent of the extreme wind damage should be limited to a small area. Hopefully that small area turns out to be unpopulated woodlands.

A storm surge is likely along the coast, but the direction of the storm compared to the angle of the coastline could spare the region from the worst case scenario.

However, I’m very concerned about a small town called Pérula, which sits at the apex of a cove-like twist in the coastline about 70 miles south of Puerto Vallarta. The storm’s right-front quadrant (the most dangerous part) will pass very close to this town, and the shape of the land here could collect a storm surge and amplify it much higher than it would have grown otherwise, putting the town’s residents in a very dangerous situation.

In addition to the extreme winds and storm surge, flash flooding from very heavy rainfall will be a significant hazard anywhere in the path of this storm, even after it begins to weaken. More than a foot of rain is possible in many spots as Patricia (and its eventual remnants) work inland, and rough terrain will exacerbate these rainfall totals. Life-threatening flash flooding is a given, especially in inland and mountainous areas. Landslides and mudslides are also an ever-present danger in this part of the world.

If the hurricane manages to maintain its current strength through landfall, Patricia could be the first category five to hit this part of Mexico in more than half a century, and the first to hit North America since Felix struck Nicaragua in 2007.

The rate at which Hurricane Patricia strengthened is jaw-dropping even to seasoned weather geeks. The storm exploded from a tropical storm on Tuesday night to the full-scale fury of evaporated paradise in just 24 hours, which, according to the National Hurricane Center, ties 1997’s Hurricane Linda as the most explosive strengthening ever recorded during the satellite era.

Veteran hurricane chaser (and a friend of mine) Josh Morgerman is stationed along Mexico’s west coast—in Pérula, in fact—waiting for the arrival of this storm. His powerful updates during and after these storms are riveting; you can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

[Hurricane Map: Author | Map of Pérula: Google Maps | Satellite Images: NASA]

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