PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — Hurricane Patricia, one of the most powerful storms on record, struck Mexico’s Pacific coast Friday evening, threatening to inflict catastrophic damage as emergency teams scrambled to evacuate thousands of people from homes and popular beach resorts.
Packing winds of almost 165 mph, the Category 5 hurricane had western Mexico on high alert, including Puerto Vallarta and smaller resorts along the coast.
“The truth is, I’m very, very nervous. … This is going to get very ugly and I’m sad I’m not with my family,” said local hotel worker Fernando as he and other staff hunkered down in a room at the Hotel Estancia Dolphins in Punta Perula, locking the door and bracing for the storm’s arrival in near darkness.
Pamela Garcia, a spokeswoman for Mexico’s meteorological service, said Patricia made landfall near Punta Perula between Puerto Vallarta and the major cargo port of Manzanillo.
U.S. weather experts said Patricia was the strongest storm yet registered in the Western Hemisphere, and the World Meteorological Organization compared it to Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands in the Philippines in 2013.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said it was hard to predict what damage would be done by the massive storm, which could be seen barreling into Mexico from outer space.
“But one thing we’re certain of is that we’re facing a hurricane of a scale we’ve never, ever seen,” he said in a radio interview.
Mexican and U.S. officials said the unprecedented hurricane could wreak catastrophic damage.
Roberto Ramirez, head of Mexico’s federal water agency, said Patricia was so strong it could possibly cross the country and head over the Gulf of Mexico to the United States.
Writing from 249 miles above Earth on the International Space Station, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted an imposing image of the giant storm, blanketing a significant portion of the globe in white cloud, along with the message: “Stay safe below, Mexico.”
“If you are in the hurricane warning area, make preparations immediately to protect life and property,” the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
Still, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm should weaken once it hits western Mexico’s mountainous terrain.
In Puerto Vallarta, the heart of a string of resorts that range from low-end megahotels to exclusive villas attracting tech billionaires and pop stars, loudspeakers earlier blared orders to evacuate hotels. The streets emptied as police sirens wailed.
Officials said 15,000 domestic and foreign tourists were evacuated from Puerto Vallarta.
The government warned that ash and other material from the volcano of Colima, about 130 miles from Puerto Vallarta, could combine with massive rainfall to trigger “liquid cement”-style mudflows that could envelop nearby villages.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States was standing by ready to help Mexico.
Some visitors to Puerto Vallarta chose to adopt a more philosophical outlook.
“It’s natural to be worried, and then you breathe and it’s gone,” said Carolyn Songin, 52, a California resident visiting her friend Judith Roth, who owns a nearby yoga retreat.
Roth, a 66-year-old California native, said she would ride out the storm at Songin’s “bunkerlike” apartment. “We’re set up, we have our food and water, and we’re just going to be in meditation and sending prayers for the area.”
Patricia weakened somewhat before smashing into the coast. It had earlier packed winds of 200 mph.
Local schools closed on Friday and some business owners rushed to board and tape up windows. The Federal Electricity Commission said it was carrying out electricity shutdowns in the states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit.
Traffic stretched way out of Puerto Vallarta en route to Guadalajara, which is Mexico’s second-biggest city and around a five-hour drive inland.
“The winds are enough to get a plane in the air and keep it flying,” WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a U.N. briefing in Geneva, likening Patricia to Typhoon Haiyan.
That storm killed more than 6,300 people and wiped out or damaged nearly everything in its path as it swept ashore on Nov. 8, 2013, destroying around 90 percent of the city of Tacloban.
The strongest storm ever recorded was Cyclone Tip, which hit Japan in 1979.