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Hurricane Patricia weakened to a Category 2 storm early Saturday, after slamming into southwestern Mexico Friday evening with lashing winds and heavy rainfall.
The hurricane, which was once clocking 200 mph winds and being called the strongest storm ever recorded, was "rapidly weakening," according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, which downgraded the storm after its maximum sustained winds decreased to near 100 mph as of 1:15 a.m ET.
Hurricane Patricia was a category 5 and had 165 mph winds when it made landfall near Cuixmala, west-northwest of Manzanillo, at 6:15 p.m. local time (7:15 p.m. ET). Palm trees bent and rain whipped in sideways as the storm made its first appearance on land.
"The winds are really strong. It's amazing, even the cars are moving," Laura Barajas, a 30-year-old hotel worker from the major cargo port of Manzanillo near where the storm hit, told Reuters.
Patricia's "potentially catastrophic landfall" would affect a stretch of coast between the popular tourist destinations of Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, the World Meteorological Organization said. Hurricane force winds covered 35 miles, while tropical storm force winds extended 175 miles, according to the NHC.
More than 7 million people were in the storm's path. Authorities said early Saturday there were reports of flooding and landslides, but no word of fatalities or major damage.
About 3,500 people were evacuated from the state of Jalisco, which encompasses Puerto Vallarta and the Guadalajara metro area, ahead of the storm, the government said. Aircraft were prepared to rescue people from the region on Saturday.
Jalisco Gov. Aristóteles Sandoval said Friday night that 6,333 people were in shelters.
Rainfall amounts of up to a foot in a short span of time between Friday night and Saturday over the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán and Guerrero could trigger "life-threatening flash floods and mud slides," according to the hurricane center.
A strong storm surge, accompanied by massive waves, near the coast could intensify the flooding. The Mexican national water commission, CONAGUA, said waves could swell to up to 40 feet.
Hurricane Patricia quickly grew in intensity Thursday, and on Friday data from Air Force planes measured wind speeds of more than 200 mph, making it the strongest storm ever recorded.
At that point, the World Meteorological Organization compared the storm to Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,300 people in the Philippines in 2013.
The storm weakened as it made landfall, but it was still the strongest to ever hit Mexico’s west coast. Patricia is the third strongest storm in Mexico’s history, said NBC meteorologist Bill Karins.
The U.S. Department of State called the storm "extraordinarily dangerous" and urged the tens of thousands of U.S. citizens visiting or living in the hurricane warning area to avoid the coast and heed all evacuation warnings.
"If you are in the hurricane warning area, make preparations immediately to protect life and property," said the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
Three airports in Patricia's path were shut down, according to The Associated Press, meaning those who wished to flee to safety were forced to board buses amidst heavy evacuation traffic.
Kristie Castellini and her fiancé Josh Rodenbush, from San Francisco were with family and friends Puerto Vallarta before they planned to celebrate their wedding in Guadalajara. They didn't learn of the hurricane until late Thursday.
"I was half-asleep when the hotel GM called," Castellini said. "He said we have to evacuate, that all of Puerto Vallarta was being evacuated."
The St. Regis hotel guests boarded a bus on Friday morning and were still on that bus on Friday evening. "We have been on here for seven hours. It's been horrific traffic," Castellini said.
Others were staying put and riding out the storm. Atlanta-born Ian Hayden Parker, who founded the Vallarta Daily News in Puerto Vallarta hopes to continue to inform locals about the storm's impact.
"We live in a resort town, but outside of the tourist zone, there is still a lot of poverty and people without computers, Internet or phones," Parker said.
Many followed advice to urgently begin storm preparations on Thursday and "are now just playing the wait-and-see game," Parker said.
Rain was lashing Ixtapa Friday, which is more than 300 miles south of Puerto Vallarta.
Louise Gutierrez and John Miele, from Long Beach, California, were on a plane heading home Friday when the flight was cancelled due to the storm. They were making the best of it in a hotel Friday night, texting friends back home to let them know where they are.
"We're worried about the storm surge," Gutierrez said. "We’re on the first floor, and we’re hearing reports of rising water."