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 / Updated 
By Reuters

Hurricane Willa slammed into Mexico's Pacific coastline on Tuesday evening packing winds of 120 mph, buffeting buildings and dumping torrential rain on tourist resorts where thousands of people had moved to safety.

Whipping palm trees, bending power lines and sparking floods, the center of Willa, which weakened to a Category 3 storm on Tuesday morning, struck the coast near the town of Isla del Bosque in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, where many coastal areas had been evacuated before the storm hit.

Image: Hurricane Willa
Puerto Vallarta residents protect their businesses before the arrival of Hurricane Willa in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Tuesday.Francisco Perez / EPA

Thousands of people were evacuated, buildings were boarded up and schools were closed as Willa closed in. Residents sealed windows and doors with wooden planks on hotels facing the historic downtown boardwalk of Mazatlán, a popular coastal city in Sinaloa.

Willa had reached rare Category 5 status on Monday with winds near 160 mph before weakening. By 11 p.m. ET, it was moving northeast at 17 mph with top winds of 115 mph, and it was expected to weaken rapidly overnight as it moved inland.

A light, steady rain fell on Mazatlán's main tourist strip on Tuesday afternoon. Only a few tourists were out as small red flags planted in the sand indicated that the beach was closed.

On side streets, people were boarding up windows while some young men surfed the higher-than-usual waves.

"I'm sure my house is going to flood," Ignacio Osuna, a university professor, said on the boardwalk Tuesday morning as he watched the surfers. He noted that large parts of the city are below sea level.

"This is going to get ugly," he said.

The city's main convention center was designated as a shelter, but only a few people had taken refuge as of Tuesday afternoon. A fleet of trucks owned by the state electricity company, CFE, stood in the parking lot, ready to repair any fallen power lines.

Several other tourist getaways in the state of Nayarit, as well as the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco state, also lie near the path of the storm, which is forecast to bring a life-threatening storm surge of ocean water, wind and rainfall, the hurricane center said.

Howard Petty, a sport fishing enthusiast from Chevy Chase, Maryland, said he had no idea the storm was coming.

"There's nowhere else for us to go, so we're just going to stay put here," he said in the lobby of a hotel in Mazatlán.

Mexico's civil protection agency said on Twitter that families should move into nearby temporary refuges if necessary.

Up to 18 inches of rain could pummel parts of the storm zone, the hurricane center said. Even buildings up to 1,650 feet from the coastline could lose power and suffer physical damage, Mexico's National Meteorological Service said.

In some states, Willa's menace is compounded by the remnants of Vicente, a post-tropical cyclone that was moving over the state of Michoacan, causing rain in parts of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán and Guerrero.

Nayarit Gov. Antonio Echevarria said that more than 10,000 people were being evacuated and that schools would be closed. He warned residents not to defy the storm.

"Let's not play the macho," he said. "Let's not act like superheroes. It's a very strong hurricane, very potent, and we don't want any tragedies."