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Hurricane Patricia: Why a record storm did surprisingly little damage

Photo by Scott Kelly/NASA via Getty Images

Last week, meteorologists were (rightly) cranking the sirens over Hurricane Patricia. In the span of just 30 hours, an ordinary tropical storm had mutated into the most powerful hurricane ever measured, with ferocious 200-mile-per-hour winds. And the cyclone was barreling right toward Mexico's southwestern coast.

But then ... Patricia didn't end up causing anywhere near as much devastation as feared. The hurricane hit Mexico's coast at around 7 pm on Friday, a Category 5 storm with winds reaching upward of 165 mph. Within a day, the storm had weakened considerably, chewed up by mountainous terrain. So far, six deaths have been reported — far fewer than that from many other major hurricanes — and much of Mexico's major infrastructure has survived intact.

So what happened? It'd be wrong to say Patricia was overhyped. A similar-size typhoon hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,300 people. Rather, chalk it up to luck and readiness. Patricia ended up passing through a lightly populated area. And, crucially, Mexico is getting much better at dealing with tropical storms. In the past, the government had been slow to respond to hurricane threats. This time around, orderly evacuation efforts likely saved lives.

It's a good reminder that "natural disasters" are never entirely natural. Smart preparation and effective response can often make all the difference.

Hurricane Patricia missed the most heavily populated areas

Every hurricane is different, and Patricia had quirks that — thankfully — blunted its impact.

For starters, Patricia made landfall in one of the least populated parts of Mexico's Pacific coast, near Cuixmala, an eco-resort surrounded by an ocean reserve. Had the storm veered just a little bit farther north (toward the tourist hub of Puerto Vallarta, population 250,000) or a little bit farther south (toward Manzanillo, pop. 150,000), it could have been much deadlier.

Here's a great map from Michael Lowry of the Weather Channel, showing the storm's romp through the countryside. Note the population densities:

(Michael Lowry/The Weather Channel)

Also fortuitous: Despite its strength, Patricia was an unusually compact storm, with its most powerful Category 5 winds only extending about 15 miles out from the eye. And because it developed so rapidly, it didn't have time to create a powerful storm surge and cause severe flooding inland.

After making landfall on Friday, Patricia wended its way inland through sparsely populated rural areas and soon hit mountainous terrain full of dry air that quickly chopped up the hurricane. Within 24 hours, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

To be clear, Patricia still did plenty of damage in the areas where it did strike. Mexican authorities said that the storm's powerful winds damaged at least 3,000 homes and left more than 250,000 people without power. The hurricane ravaged local banana crops, at a cost of millions of dollars. For residents in the affected areas, it could take years to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

Hurricane Patricia Slams Into Mexico's Pacific Coast Photo by Brett Gundlock/Getty Images

The storm also ended up killing a few people. Two women out camping were crushed by trees toppled by the high winds. Four other people died in an automobile accident. We may hear about additional casualties in the coming days.

Still, there's no question that things could have been much, much worse. The last Category 5 hurricane to hit the region, back in 1959, made landfall near the major port city of Manzanillo and killed 1,800 people. Nearly half the homes in the area were destroyed. Up in the hills and mountains, major mudslides ended up killing hundreds and wiping out roads that hindered the aid response. (The mudslides also, weirdly, unleashed hordes of venomous scorpions and snakes that added to the death toll.)

The Mexican government responded quickly to Patricia

One of the factors that made that 1959 hurricane so deadly was that it snuck up on Mexico. Forecasters thought the storm was veering out to sea — before it quickly slammed inland. Residents were caught completely off-guard.

Patricia, for its part, also shocked people, growing unusually fast into a Category 5 storm between Wednesday and Friday. But this time around, the Mexican government responded far more diligently.

After a major earthquake in 1985, Mexico developed a nationwide emergency response system to warn local residents of impending dangers through TV and social media. That proved effective, with officials issuing repeating warnings to find shelter or stay inside during the storm:

Meanwhile, the Mexican states lying in the path of the storm were opening storm shelters that could hold more than 250,000 people in all. Authorities evacuated thousands of people from the most vulnerable places. Cities like Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo began plopping down sandbags and preparing for storm surges.

And, after the storm hurtled through, knocking over trees and power lines, clean-up crews moved fast to bring back electricity and clear access roads. The New York Times reported from the scene: "Around midday on Saturday in Cihuatlán, a town in one of the hardest-hit areas, government crews in orange vests were aided by local residents in removing fallen branches and trees. Others were sweeping the streets. Telephone workers were repairing damaged lines."

Hurricane Patricia Slams Into Mexico's Pacific Coast Photo by Brett Gundlock/Getty Images

It's a striking contrast with the Philippines' response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. There, authorities also tried to warn people beforehand that a major tropical cyclone was coming. But many residents simply refused to move to safer ground, out of fear that the government wouldn't be able to protect them (or their homes from looters). Then, after the storm had passed, poorly paved roads and armed groups hindered aid responders.

How authorities prepare and react to a natural disaster is often utterly critical, so it's encouraging to see that Mexico is getting much better at it. They're not alone: elsewhere in the world, Bangladesh has steadily reduced the number of deaths from tropical cyclones since the 1970s through early warning systems, evacuation plans, and coastal embankments. India, too, has been stepping up its forecasting and evacuation capabilities. Back in 1999, a tropical cyclone hit the Indian state of Odisha and killed 10,000 people. In 2013, a similar-sized storm hit the same region, but the local government was better prepared, moved nearly a million people to safety, and managed to limit the death toll to just 44. This stuff matters.

Was Hurricane Patricia "overblown"? Not really.

There was, understandably, a lot of hoopla around Patricia on Friday. It was the strongest hurricane ever seen in the Eastern Pacific or Atlantic basins. It featured 200-mile-per-hour winds. The National Hurricane Center warned that landfall could be "potentially catastrophic." (The potential global warming context undoubtedly piqued interest, too.)

But after Patricia slid through Mexico without a major catastrophe, some media outlets wondered if the whole thing was "overblown," as the Associated Press put it. The backlash seems absurd. Marshall Shepherd, the director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, puts it well:

Are you kidding me? How can you overhype a record-shattering hurricane, packing EF-5 tornado winds, and approaching a major country? I have seen this before. It almost seems like some would rather see carnage and destruction to justify the call of alarm or make for a better story. I have often pondered the obsession that we have preparing for a major hazard, and then being critical if the destruction doesn’t meet some level of expectation. The "better safe than sorry" rule works.

If there is a lesson to glean here, it's that there's a lot more to a tropical storm than sheer size. Hurricanes are typically rated on the strength of their winds, under the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. A Category 1 storm has winds between 74 and 95 mph. A Category 5 storm has winds that exceed 157 mph.

But that's never the end of the story. Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005 with Category 3 winds. But it swept near New Orleans, a major population center, it induced a spectacular storm surge, the city's levees famously failed, and the government was slow to evacuate residents. The result? 1,200 people died. By contrast, Patricia made landfall with Category 5 winds, but it didn't hit a major metropolis, it didn't induce a major storm surge, and the evacuations were far more orderly. It's not always the record-breakers that do the most harm.

Further reading:

  • At BuzzFeed, Karla Zabludovsky is writing excellent dispatches on the aftermath of Patricia. "To have even the bare basics again," one resident tells her, "it will take years."
  • The New York Times has a good piece on the lessons Mexico has gleaned from past disasters.

VIDEO: Recovering from devastation