MAZATLAN, Mexico -- The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Wednesday that Hurricane Willa has weakened to a tropical depression but torrential rains will continue in west-central Mexico.
The meteorologists said that Willa was moving toward the northeast at speeds near 20 mph, movement expected to continue during the next 12 hours. The Hurricane Center added that the government of Mexico has discontinued all coastal tropical cyclone warnings for the country.
"Continued rapid weakening is forecast during the next 12 hours, and Willa is expected to dissipate by this afternoon," the Hurricane Center said.
Willa began losing power overnight after roaring over a stretch of beach towns, fishing villages and farms on the Pacific coast of Mexico's Sinaloa state as a Category 3 storm.
Damage assessments were scanty during the night because of darkness and poor communications, but federal officials said power had been knocked out in some spots and there were early reports of flimsy structures with tin roofs sustaining damage.
Before hitting the mainland near Isla del Bosque with 120 mph winds Tuesday night, Willa swept over an offshore penal colony about 60 miles out in the Pacific. Authorities declined to comment on precautions that were taken at the prison, citing security concerns, but said the safety of inmates was a priority.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's forward movement had sped up to 17 mph late Tuesday and it was expected to rapidly weaken. It warned, however, that the storm could still cause heavy rains in portions of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa states, with flash flooding and landslides possible in mountainous areas.
Willa came ashore about 50 miles southeast of Mazatlan, a resort city that is home to high-rise hotels and about 500,000 people, including many U.S. and Canadian expatriates.
Although hotels, restaurants and stores were boarded over, people ventured onto Mazatlan's coastal boulevard to watch a spectacular sunset as the hurricane obscured the sky to the south.
Alberto Hernandez, a hotel worker in the town of Teacapan, close to where the storm made landfall, expressed confidence before it hit that the building would hold up. He and his son, who also works at the hotel, stayed on the job, though the rest of his family had left the area.
"We've had rain all day. There is nobody in the streets. Everything is closed," Hernandez said. "But not everyone wanted to leave, even though authorities made it clear that he who stays does so at his own peril."
Torrential rains began in the afternoon, and emergency officials said they had evacuated more than 4,250 people in coastal towns and set up 58 shelters ahead of the dangerous storm. Schools were ordered closed.
As Willa neared, the beach in Mazatlan almost disappeared, with waves slamming against the coastal boulevard under looming black clouds. A few surfers enjoyed the big waves while the streets onshore were nearly deserted except for workers boarding up windows at hotels, shops and homes.
Some families took shelter at the Mazatlan convention center, spreading out blankets along the walls to wait out the storm.
"The house we're living in is not well built," said Sergio Ernesto Meri Franco, who rents a studio apartment.
Bob Swanson, a Canadian who spends two to six months of the year in his house in the Cerritos neighborhood near the shore in Mazatlan, said he filled his washing machine with water, topped up his home fuel tank and gassed up his car in case he needed to head into the mountains for safety.
"I'm kind of waiting with bated breath," he said over the phone, adding that he was sitting on his porch and smoking a cigarette.
Hurricane Willa weakens to tropical depression, torrential rain to continue
EYE ON THE GULF