Hurricane barrels into Mexico, president urges people to shelter

A lifeguard watches the surf in Boca del Rio, in the Veracruz state of Mexico, Aug 20, 2021. (FELIX MARQUEZ/AP)

TECOLUTLA, Mexico – Hurricane Grace barreled into the oil-producing Mexican state of Veracruz with howling winds on Saturday, threatening coastal areas with flooding from the ocean's storm surge.

Grace was a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale when it made landfall near the resort town of Tecolutla on the Gulf of Mexico coast in the early hours. It was carrying top sustained winds of near 200 kilometers per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.

The Miami-based center warned of a dangerous storm surge, with water levels as much as 1.8 to 2.7 meters above normal tide levels along the immediate coastal area where the storm made landfall.

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The hurricane was expected to weaken as it moved west inland and over mountainous terrain later on Saturday.

Through Sunday, the NHC forecast Grace would dump 15-30 cm of rain over large swaths of eastern and central Mexico, and up to 45 cm in some areas. The heavy rainfall would likely cause areas of flash and urban flooding, it said

Before Grace made landfall, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador urged people in five states to seek shelter.

Thousands of civil protection forces, the defense ministry and the navy, as well as state utility Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE) were prepared, he said on Twitter.

"I ask the people of the regions of Veracruz, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Hidalgo to seek refuge in high places with relatives and in shelters that are being set up," Lopez Obrador wrote.

Through Sunday, the NHC forecast Grace would dump 15-30 cm of rain over large swaths of eastern and central Mexico, and up to 18 inches in some areas. The heavy rainfall would likely cause areas of flash and urban flooding, it said.

In Tecolutla, residents spent hours on Friday afternoon taking hundreds of boats on land to keep them safe.

"Here in Tecolutla, we've had a culture of prevention for many years," said Ricardo Pardinas, who offers boat tours to tourists. "These weather phenomena have caused damage."

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Veracruz and its waters are home to several oil installations, including Petroleos Mexicanos' Coatzacoalcos port and Lazaro Cardenas refinery in Minatitlan in the south of the state. Grace hit land well to the north of these cities.

Earlier in the week, Grace pounded Mexico's Caribbean coast, downing trees and causing power outages for nearly 700,000 people, but without causing loss of life, authorities said.

It also doused Jamaica and Haiti, still reeling from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, with torrential rain.