A ‘nightmare scenario’ hurricane batters Mexico’s western coast
By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Judson Jones and Derrick Bryson Taylor
Hurricane Otis exploded onto the southwest coast of Mexico earlier this week shocking forecasters as it emerged as one of the more powerful Category 5 storms to batter the region and create what one expert called a “nightmare scenario” for a popular tourist coastline.
Few meteorologists initially thought the tropical storm would make landfall as a catastrophic hurricane. Most models failed to predict that the storm would intensify over the Pacific Ocean, leading forecasters to believe it would be at most a weak hurricane.
But it strengthened with remarkable speed, and by Tuesday evening forecasters and Mexican officials were rushing to warn residents of its potential for destruction.
The hurricane made landfall at 1 a.m. Wednesday, bringing heavy rain, flooding and mudslides to the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, and cutting off power for more than 500,000 residents. The storm slammed ashore with sustained winds of 165 mph; just a day earlier, Otis had winds of 65 mph.
Communication was almost entirely cut off from the popular tourist destination of Acapulco, a large port city home to more than 852,000 people that the National Hurricane Center warned was in “an extremely serious situation.” Residents said powerful winds ripped the roofs from buildings and swayed packed hotels.
“Rarely has a hurricane developed so quickly and with such force,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his regular morning news conference, adding that armed forces had been dispatched to Guerrero state.
It was unclear whether Otis had caused death or injuries in the region, which suffered major outages. But the hurricane “had an atypical behavior,” López Obrador said, who was on his way to Acapulco on Wednesday afternoon. “This has not happened in decades.”
The storm also caused SkyAlert, a popular earthquake warning app, to go offline, even as a relatively minor magnitude 4.4 earthquake was detected Wednesday afternoon in Zihuatanejo, a city known for its luxury hotels and beaches in Guerrero.
Otis was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane as it made its way over Guerrero state later Wednesday morning, but it still unleashed “extraordinary rains,” dumping more than 10 inches across the state, according to Mexico’s national water commission.
That was particularly threatening to people living in the steep hills and ravines around Acapulco’s bay, which are susceptible to mudslides.
“This hurricane went directly over the fairly large city of Acapulco. That is not great news,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It was the worst possible timing given that there was little warning.”
Residents in Guerrero state face the challenge of rebuilding their community, a task made more difficult after López Obrador dissolved Mexico’s Natural Disaster Fund, a pool of federal money for emergency relief.
The move was part of López Obrador’s push for budget cuts across the federal government.
The fund was once considered one of the world’s most effective means of providing disaster relief, said Alejandro Del Valle, an economist at Georgia State University. The aid accelerated economic recovery after a disaster, Del Valle and his colleagues found, and quickly restored access to health services — decreasing the number of deaths and easing bottlenecks in delivering disaster aid.
By law, the fund received 0.4% of Mexico’s federal budget every year, and if the money went unspent then it rolled into the next year. Now the country no longer has a regulated percent of the federal budget meant for disaster relief. Instead, the budget is revised every year and fluctuates based on other priorities.
Over the coming days and weeks, scientists will also assess why their forecast models were not able to predict just how powerful Otis would become.
The storm began to organize itself Sunday morning, first as a tropical depression. At that time, computer models didn’t show much to be concerned about.
Forecasters with the U.S. hurricane center said that morning that “some slight strengthening” was possible over the following days. By Sunday evening, the computer forecast models were still not showing much.
By Monday afternoon, the models started indicating that the storm could become a hurricane, and forecasters believed that given the abundant moisture in the area and warm ocean temperatures, the storm would strengthen gradually.
On Monday evening, with Otis still a tropical storm, satellite images revealed what forecasters call a low-level structure, a common sign that the storm could intensify very quickly. But the models still weren’t showing this, so forecasters continued to predict that the storm would become a weak hurricane.
Even when Otis was still a tropical storm, there was enough evidence for Mexico’s government to issue a warning showing a stronger storm than the computer models were predicting.
On Tuesday afternoon, a hurricane hunter plane flew through the eye of the storm and found that its intensity was far stronger than the satellite estimates suggested.
That evening, with the storm clearly bearing down on Acapulco, the hurricane center issued a rare special advisory. “Rapid intensification observed earlier today has continued,” forecasters wrote. “The environment isn’t forecast to change much before landfall, and there are no signs of this explosive intensification stopping.”
Around that same time, the mayor of Acapulco, Abelina López Rodríguez, posted an alarming warning on Facebook. “If your house is safe, don’t go out at all,” she said, adding that if your “home is at risk, go to a shelter NOW.”
Wednesday, under constant rain in Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital, firefighters waded through brown water, while authorities shined flashlights on splintered buildings.
By Wednesday afternoon, Otis was no longer a hurricane and its remains were crossing the rugged terrain of southern Mexico.
But in the places the storm ravaged, the extent of the destruction had not yet come into clear view.