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Hurricane Slams Into Mexico

About 40,000 people in a resort area flee ahead of the 140-mph storm, which injures 140 and causes millions of dollars in damage.

October 26, 2002|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — About 40,000 people fled their homes along Mexico's Pacific coast north of Puerto Vallarta on Friday as Hurricane Kenna battered beach areas, causing millions of dollars in damage and injuring at least 140 people.

The hurricane developed rapidly over the eastern Pacific on Thursday and took on potentially catastrophic dimensions. But it was downgraded from Grade 5, the most severe, to Grade 4 early Friday. Still, it was packing enough wallop -- with winds up to 140 mph -- that it prompted emergency alerts over a 200-mile stretch of coastline.

Kenna's northeasterly course meant that the storm's full brunt missed the Puerto Vallarta resort area and steered clear of Cabo San Lucas, in Baja California, where the leaders of Pacific Rim nations are due to meet this morning at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum gathering hosted by Mexican President Vicente Fox.

On Thursday, worries Kenna could develop into one of the most powerful storms of the last half-century prompted the Mexican government to prepare contingency plans to move the conference to an undisclosed site.

Fortunately, the storm didn't live up to its horrific potential. Early Friday, Kenna passed over the Islas Marias, site of an infamous Mexican prison, about 50 miles offshore. But it caused no injuries among the 1,500 inmates, prison workers and family members and only slight damage, federal officials said.

Kenna then slammed into the coast of Nayarit state, lashing the San Blas-Santiago Ixcuintla tourist and fishing area around 11 a.m.

In nearby Puerto Vallarta, about 40 miles south of the point of greatest impact, high winds, rain and waves crashing over seawalls tore up streets, tossed cars around and broke windows along the resort city's waterfront walkway, called the Malecon. Mayor Pedro Ruiz Higuera said damage may reach $10 million, much of it suffered by two major hotels.

Although various officials remarked that rain and flood damage was less than expected Friday, several roads into the beach areas were closed for much of the afternoon, as was a 170-mile stretch of Highway 15, a major thoroughfare that crosses Nayarit state.

Gov. Antonio Echevarria said in a telephone interview that the port area of San Blas and the city of Santiago Ixcuintla apparently sustained the greatest damage in his state. Telephone communication to San Blas, a quiet tourist town favored by foreigners, was still cut Friday afternoon.

Nayarit appears to have been well prepared for the storm's high winds and water, having opened 170 emergency shelters.

"The assessment of the material losses and the number of homeless will take several days to calculate, but until now we know of no human losses, which is the most important," Echevarria said. He added that rising waters in the San Pedro and Santiago rivers were the greatest concern late Friday afternoon.

Bracing for damage, and possible looting, the federal government sent army troops to maintain public security and said special funds would be made available from the federal budget for emergency and reconstruction efforts.

Homemaker Maria Elena Gonzalez Romero of Santiago Ixcuintla said the winds were strong enough to strip trees bare and knock over the brick walls of the local baseball stadium and preparatory school.

"Many houses with thatched and corrugated roofs now have no roofs," she said. "The trees on the central park look like the ants have been at them. Only the trunks are left."

Entire towns along the Nayarit coast, including Villa Juarez, Boca de Camichin and El Sesteo were emptied of residents moving to shelters.

Echevarria's office said 80% of the people in Nayarit's beach areas had been evacuated by Friday morning.

In addition to the 25,000 people evacuated in Nayarit, about 12,000 sought temporary shelter in Sinaloa state to the north, where the major coastal city of Mazatlan had girded for the storm.

Many local officials sought to reassure tourists, on whom the economy is heavily dependent, that the zone would soon return to normality.

"Apart from the alarm and the prevention measures, Mazatlan passed a normal day. None of the tourist infrastructure was damaged," said Felipe Guerrero, spokesman for Mazatlan Mayor Gerardo Rosete Ramirez.

After a visit of affected areas, Francisco Ramirez Acuna, governor of Jalisco state, which includes Puerto Vallarta, said no deaths were reported as of Friday afternoon. But he and Echevarria, the Nayarit governor, issued appeals for donations of clothing and bottled water for residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed.


Froylan Enciso in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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