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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Agatha moves across southern Mexico as a tropical storm

Seeking protection from the rain as Hurricane Agatha approaches southern Mexico, in Tuxtla Chico, in Chiapas State.

By Maria Cramer

Agatha, the year’s first named storm in the eastern Pacific region, was moving across southern Mexico on Tuesday morning as a tropical storm, hours after making landfall as a Category 2 hurricane.

Agatha came ashore Monday afternoon just west of Puerto Angel, a fishing town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, with heavy rains and winds of nearly 105 mph — strong enough to uproot trees, cause major power losses and rip roofs off well-built homes. It was downgraded to a tropical storm on Monday night.

As of 4 a.m. local time, the storm was moving northeast at 8 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. Parts of Oaxaca state could receive as much as 16 inches of rain later in the day, with isolated amounts of 20 inches, the center said. Five to 10 inches were expected in Chiapas state, it added, and 2 to 4 inches in the states of Tabasco and Veracruz.

But Agatha’s maximum sustained winds had already decreased to about 45 mph and the storm was expected to dissipate over Mexico by Tuesday afternoon, the Hurricane Center said.

Agatha’s arrival marked the first time that a Category 2 storm had made landfall in the eastern Pacific in the month of May, said Dan Pydynowski, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.

Before Agatha, only two Category 1 hurricanes had made landfall in the region: Hurricane Barbara on May 29, 2013, and, coincidentally, Hurricane Agatha on May 24, 1971, Pydynowski said.

Home to surfing hot spots, the coast of Oaxaca has long attracted tourists from around the world who are drawn to the golden sand beaches and laid-back vibes of the Pacific region. The beach town Zipolite, near where Agatha made landfall, has become an increasingly popular tourism destination, particularly for the LGBTQ community.

The industry has been an important driver for the state’s economy. In 2019, before the pandemic decimated tourism in the region, more than 200,000 foreign tourists traveled to Oaxaca state, largely visiting the colonial capital city of Oaxaca. But more than 80,000 foreigners also chose the beaches of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido.

The industry generated more than 159,000 jobs that year, according to government figures, and yielded more than $29 million in income across those three destinations, an important economic boost for one of the poorest states in Mexico.

Given the importance of tourism to Oaxaca, the arrival of a potentially devastating storm could be catastrophic for the more than half a million people who call the coastal region home.

Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, governor of Oaxaca, said the country’s national defense, the military, the Mexican national guard and the navy had been deployed to respond to the hurricane.

Classes had been canceled along the coast Monday and Tuesday, he said.

Images shared on social media Monday morning showed residents of the Oaxacan coast preparing for the worst, including boarding up buildings. Videos showed winds beginning to pick up, tossing palm trees back and forth as waves crashed with increasing ferocity.

Before the storm, the head of the Huatulco Hotel and Motel Association, Pia Overholzer, said the city had an occupancy of around 60% with some 3,500 tourists.

Julián Herrera Velarde, representative of the Oaxaca tourism ministry in Puerto Escondido, said the town had some 2,700 visitors, of whom only 40 had been transferred to a temporary shelter.

Although not as prone to hurricanes as the Caribbean, the Pacific Coast of Mexico is no stranger to deadly storms. In 1997, Hurricane Pauline slammed into the coasts of Oaxaca and neighboring Guerrero, leaving more than 200 people dead and some 300,000 homeless.

More recently, in 2017, Tropical Storm Beatriz wreaked havoc across the state, provoking widespread flooding and mudslides. At least two people were killed and hundreds of families saw their homes damaged.

Agatha formed off the Mexican coast and was named Saturday, not long after the official start of the eastern Pacific hurricane season, which runs from May 15 to Nov. 30.

The Atlantic hurricane season — the term used for storms that form in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean — runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Those regions account for the severest hurricanes that have struck the United States, Feltgen said.

This year is on track to be the first since 2014 that a hurricane has not formed in the Atlantic before the official start of the season. However, the season generally does not peak until mid-August to late October, and forecasters predict above-average Atlantic activity this year, with six to 10 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week.

If the prediction comes true, this year will be the seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season.

The causes for the predicted intensity of hurricanes cited by NOAA include the climate pattern known as La Niña, which affects the speed and direction of wind, and a particularly intense West African monsoon season, which produces waves that can lead to powerful and long-lasting hurricanes.

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