MEXICO CITY (AP) — Hurricane Willa grew into a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm and swept toward Mexico’s Pacific coast with winds of 160 mph (260 kph) Monday, threatening a stretch of high-rise resort hotels, surfing beaches and fishing villages.
Hotels started taping up their windows, and officials began evacuating thousands of people and shuttered schools in a low-lying landscape where towns sit amid farmland tucked between the sea and lagoons.
The hurricane was expected to pass over or near the Islas Marias — a set of islands about 60 miles (96 kilometers) offshore that include a nature preserve and a federal prison — early Tuesday.
Forecasters said Willa would then blow ashore in the afternoon or evening along a 140-mile (220-kilometer) stretch extending from the resort town of Mazatlan to San Blas.
It was projected to weaken somewhat before hitting land but was still expected to be extremely dangerous.
The governments of Sinaloa and Nayarit states ordered coastal region schools to close and began preparing emergency shelters.
Enrique Moreno, mayor of Escuinapa, a municipality of about 60,000 on Willa’s track, said officials were trying to evacuate everybody in the seaside village of Teacapan. He estimated 3,000 would be moved but expected some would try to stay.
“The people don’t want to evacuate, but it’s for their security,” he said.
About 60 miles (100 kilometers) up the coast in Mazatlan, with a metropolitan-area population of about 500,000, Mayor Jose Joel Boucieguez said officials prepared shelters and were closely monitoring low-lying areas. Mazatlan is a popular vacation spot and home to a large number of American and Canadian expatriates.
As of midday Monday, Willa was centered about 120 miles (190 kilometers) southwest of Cabo Corrientes and was moving north at 7 mph (11 kph).
Hurricane-force winds extended 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the storm’s center, and tropical storm-force winds were up to 105 miles (165 kilometers) out.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned that Willa could bring 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain — with up to 18 inches (45 centimeters) in some places — to parts of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa states, with flash flooding and landslides possible in mountainous areas.
Farther to the south, Tropical Storm Vicente weakened but was still expected to produce heavy rainfall and flooding over parts of southern and southwestern Mexico.