Latin America & Caribbean

Hurricane Patricia brings rare praise for Mexico's president

Rescuers help women near a flooded house in Mexico Image copyright AP
Image caption Some houses were flooded after Hurricane Patricia hit Mexico

As Hurricane Patricia bore down on Mexico last week people became very nervous.

There were warnings that the impact could be catastrophic and comparisons with Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which killed more than 6,000 people, made those in the path of Patricia fear for their lives.

But Patricia's strength weakened as quickly as it had built up.

In the space of three days it had gone from tropical storm to an intense category five hurricane, back to tropical storm again. The death toll was an almost unbelievable zero.

The hurricane's path changed and in the end hit a relatively unpopulated part of the coast, avoiding the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta and the busy port of Manzanillo, before heading into the mountains.

Storm in a teacup?

Inevitably, once danger had passed, the jokes started appearing.

One went like this: As soon as Hurricane Patricia entered Mexico, it was robbed of five categories - typical Mexicans!

And then there were the accusations that this was all just a storm in a teacup - that President Enrique Pena Nieto had exaggerated the potential catastrophe to make himself look good.

But even amid the teasing, for the first time in a long time, there was far more praise than criticism of Mr Pena Nieto's administration who's faced low approval ratings for quite some time.

Hurricane Patricia

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The city of Manzanillo experienced stormy conditions ahead of the hurricane's arrival
  • The strongest storm ever recorded in the Americas when it ploughed into Mexico but was later downgraded to a tropical depression
  • At its peak, Hurricane Patricia was a very rare category five hurricane, with winds of 325km/h (200mph)
  • The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) initially warned it could be like a "nuclear detonation"

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BBC Earth explains: What is a hurricane?

From the very start, as Patricia's winds started intensifying, television and radio bulletins warned people of the incoming storm. President Pena Nieto was on the television and radio.

He and every other government agency, it seemed, were tweeting about the coordinated effort between federal and state governments and warning people to get away from the coast.

In the end, catastrophe was averted. Mr Pena Nieto said that the shock of the hurricane had "brought together all Mexicans".

"The fact that there were no deaths was mostly down to the faith of the Mexican people," he said.

Well prepared

But experts have a different explanation.

"The federal government was effective in orchestrating the preventive measures in the build-up," says Lourdes Pintado of Control Risks in Mexico City, who said the co-ordination between state and federal agencies worked well.

"The strategy focused on setting up shelters, supplying security personnel and communicating both the level of the threat and the preventive measures to the individuals on the coastal areas that were most vulnerable," she says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mexican authorities evacuated people in vulnerable areas as the storm approached
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Residents of Puerto Vallarta were evacuated to shelters

"They got lucky," says Prof Richard Olson, the director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University in Miami.

"But they also have a reasonably strong civil protection system and so in this kind of an emergency and in this kind of event they are going to look pretty good."

'Never forget'

Lourdes Pintado thinks lessons have been learned - last year when Hurricane Odile hit Baja California, co-ordination between state and federal government was stronger after the hurricane than before. That hurricane also had a higher death toll.

For Prof Olson those lessons go back much further and date back to 1985 when Mexico City was hit by a massive earthquake that left at least 9,000 people dead and 30,000 injured.

"The entire Mexican system will never forget 1985 and how bad that made the entire PRI regime look," he said, referring to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which was in power at the time.

"After that, they really worked hard to build up from the municipal to the national level and a pretty robust system so that nobody would look that bad ever again."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The damage caused by rain and high winds has so far not been as bad as feared

While the government can be pleased with the outcome, every hurricane is different and this could have turned out very differently had the hurricane continued on its path to a major city or had there been major flooding.

Around 80% of hurricane deaths are caused by water, according to Prof Olson.

"The key is we have to keep this success in perspective because every event is a test," he says.

"They look pretty good on this one but I can run you an alternate scenario where this one could have been a disaster not just an emergency."

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