On Tuesday morning, there was no Hurricane Otis. Instead, there was just a tropical storm carrying winds of about 50 miles per hour. Every single model used to predict the behavior of such storms called for Otis to remain a tropical storm. Instead, it blew up over a period of just nine hours, becoming a raging Category 5 hurricane that struck the coast of Mexico just south of Acapulco overnight with sustained winds of 165 mph.
Not only was the storm unprecedented in its behavior, it’s also by far the most powerful storm in this region going back over 50 years. The last severe storm to strike along this coast was a Category 2 storm in 1968, which remains one of the deadliest storms in Mexican history. Expectations are that nothing, absolutely nothing, in the region has been built to meet a storm like Otis.
At this hour (8 AM ET) Hurricane Otis has moved completely over land and top winds have slowed to 130 mph. Power is out across the whole Acapulco area and information is sparse. Hope for the best, but expect a large and immediate need for international assistance as more than 1 million people face a nightmare scenario.
In addition to the central tourism areas with their glitzy resorts and towering hotels, the Acapulco region includes the homes of hundreds of thousands of workers who support those businesses. Many of these homes are built in the region surrounding the city that visitors never see, with little in the way of any construction standards. Even a far less powerful storm might be expected to cause widespread damage in such conditions.
The center of Hurricane Otis actually hit the coast about 30 miles south of Acapulco at around 1 AM local time, but hurricane-force winds have been felt across the region and the storm has continued to move northeast. It can be expected to lose power as the eye of the hurricane is forced over higher ground. Otis will likely break up over foothills this afternoon or evening.
What damage has been done to the region—both by wind and by storm surge—remains unclear. The few videos that have currently emerged on the internet were mostly during the hours of the storm’s approach.
To give a sense of how unexpected this storm was, on the graph below, all the solid lines are the predictions for tropical storm Otis. The dotted line shows what actually happened.
Much of the coast in the region is made up of fishing villages and smaller resort towns, none of which are prepared for a storm like Otis. Nowhere is prepared for a storm like Otis.
The last hurricane to make landfall near Acapulco was Hurricane Pauline in 1997. That storm reached Category 4 levels while offshore before making landfall as a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph.
No storm above a Category 2 has made landfall within 50 miles of Acapulco since records have been kept. It’s not possible at this hour to predict the level of damage. However, all governments—not just that of Mexico—should be preparing for a major international effort to assist the over 1 million people facing this storm.