August 30, 2006

Hurricane John Nears Mexico

By Chris Aspin

MEXICO CITY -- Hurricane John grew into a powerful cyclone off Mexico's Pacific Coast on Tuesday, threatening to trigger dangerous flash floods and mudslides as it neared Acapulco and other tourist resorts.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said John turned into a dangerous storm in just a few hours, was now packing maximum sustained winds of almost 115 mph (185 kph) with higher gusts and could increase in strength overnight.

John, upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale which goes up to a top notch of five, is located about 120 miles southwest of Acapulco and is slowly moving northwest parallel to the coast.

Hurricane conditions are expected within 24-hours along a stretch of coastline northwest of Acapulco that includes the resort of Manzanillo -- popular with North American sailfish fisherman -- and the steel port of Lazaro Cardenas.

Category 3 hurricanes can create sea surges of 9 to 12 feet above normal, cause structural damage to small homes, blow down large trees and destroy mobile homes.

A storm warning was posted for an area covering Acapulco, although the hurricane was not expected to make a direct hit on the resort city where some 1 million people live.

"Some additional strengthening is forecast during the next 24 hours and John could become a category four hurricane," The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

Rainfall of 2 to 4 inches and isolated deluges of 8 inches were possible along the coast.

"These amounts could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides over areas of mountainous terrain," the hurricane center said.


Heavy sea swells and rain pounded Acapulco.

Dozens of coastal towns and cities were told to keep on alert, according to Mexico's civil protection agency. Ships and boats were warned to take extreme precautions.

"John is intensifying rapidly," the agency said in an early-warning note on its Web site.

The storm formed on Monday and quickly picked up power to become a Category 1 hurricane early on Tuesday before being upgraded two notches inside a few hours.

Nadya Velas, spokeswoman for civil protection in Guerrero state, home to Acapulco, said there were no plans for the moment to evacuate coastal fishing towns or mountain villages under threat from floods or mudslides.

"But since we heard it had become a hurricane we have stepped up the monitoring," Velas said.

John is expected to pound Acapulco with wind and rain and then batter other coastal resorts like Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos in the Baja California peninsula in coming days.

The port of Salina Cruz, which exports crude oil to Asia, was open but on alert, with the port authority reporting wind and choppy seas.

State oil monopoly Pemex also has a refinery at Salina Cruz, southeast of Acapulco, with refining capacity of 330,000 barrels per day. The hurricane was moving further away from the oil port.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer)