ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) — Hurricane Otis ripped across Mexico’s southern Pacific coast as a powerful Category 5 storm early Wednesday, tearing through buildings in the resort city of Acapulco, sending sheets of earth down steep mountainsides and leaving large swaths of the southwestern state of Guerrero without power or cellphone service.
While little is known about possible deaths or the full extent of the damage — the main highway into Acapulco was impassable — experts are calling Otis the strongest storm in history to make landfall along the Eastern Pacific Coast.
By midmorning, Otis had weakened to a tropical storm, yet many on the coast were left reeling.
Flor Campos had been trudging through mud for more than an hour along a highway outside Acapulco before she peeled off her shoes, worried she’d lose them in the muck.
The domestic worker from a small town in Guerrero was among dozens of families, women and children who clambered over tree trunks and other debris left by landslides in the mountainous terrain. It was a daunting escape, but people were desperate to get out.
“We had been waiting since 3 in the morning to get out, so we decided to walk. It was more dangerous to stay. There are trees knocked down, power lines down,” Campos said.
On Wednesday, Otis took many by surprise when it rapidly strengthened from a Category 2 hurricane to a powerful Category 5 as it tore along the coast. The record-breaking storm comes at a time when climate change has greatly exacerbated devastating weather events like this one.
The beachside city of Acapulco, Costa Grande and Técpan in the state of Guerrero were hit hard, said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
López Obrador said conditions were so bad that communication with the area had been “completely lost” and also confirmed property damage, landslides and blocked roads.
By midmorning, the weakened storm was located about 88 miles (140 kilometers) north-northwest of Acapulco, with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph), and was moving at 10 mph (17 kph).
While authorities predicted that the storm would dissipate by Wednesday night, Campos and others in Guerrero were shocked by the depth of the damages.
“There are children back there, 2 or 3 years old, with no water, nothing,” Campos said.
Photos and video shared by Mexican news outlets from Acapulco after dawn showed the walls of buildings ripped off, flooded hotel rooms with collapsed ceilings, and rubble and downed trees lining the streets.
Acapulco is a city of nearly 1 million people at the foot of steep mountains. Luxury homes and slums alike cover the city’s hillsides with views of the glistening Pacific. Once drawing Hollywood stars for its nightlife, sport fishing and cliff diving shows, Acapulco has in more recent years fallen victim to competing organized crime groups that have sunk the city into violence, driving many international tourists to the Caribbean waters of Cancun and the Riviera Maya or beaches farther down the Pacific coast in Oaxaca.
Between the internationally known resorts of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo are two dozen small towns and villages.
On the outskirts of Acapulco on Wednesday, highway workers looked on helplessly without the heavy machinery needed to clear debris from the roadway, which it warned could give way at any time because of the rain-softened ground beneath. Bridges in some areas had collapsed, and trees leaned almost horizontally across the highway, not because they were uprooted, but because the earth they grew on had slid down the slope.
Damage to the local military airport made it hard for authorities to access the region, López Obrador said. He said high-ranking members of his government would travel to Guerrero to help.
A long convoy of trucks from the national electric company moved through the Guerrero state capital, Chilpancingo, toward Acapulco before dawn Wednesday.
Otis is stronger than Hurricane Pauline that hit Acapulco in 1997, López Obrador said. Pauline destroyed swaths of the city and killed more than 200 people. Hundreds of others were injured in flooding and mudslides. Otis’ arrival came just days after Hurricane Norma struck the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula to the north.
While many were caught by surprise, Acapulco still was able to open two dozen shelters in the hours before Otis made landfall.
“We’re on maximum alert,” Acapulco Mayor Abelina López said Tuesday night as she urged residents to hunker down at home or move to the city’s shelters.
Videos from hotel guests in Acapulco posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, as the storm came ashore showed blinding horizontal rain and howling winds.
In one, white towels danced high above a hotel’s cavernous courtyard like sheets of paper and bed mattresses trembled on balconies, apparently an effort to blunt the storm’s winds. Another showed wind and rain howling unimpeded down hotel hallways. In still another, a family huddled inside a hotel room shower to escape breaking windows and fierce wind.
In the Atlantic, Hurricane Tammy moved northeast over open water with winds of 100 mph (155 kph) after sweeping through the Lesser Antilles over the weekend. Tammy was about 540 miles (870 kilometers) south-southeast of Bermuda. The storm was expected to become a powerful extratropical cyclone by Thursday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
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Associated Press writer María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.