Authorities rushed to evacuate low-lying areas and set up shelters as an "extremely dangerous" Hurricane Willa with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph headed toward a forecast Tuesday afternoon or evening landfall along a stretch of Mexico's Pacific coast dotted with high-rise resorts, surfing beaches and fishing villages.
Willa briefly reached Category 5 strength Monday, then weakened somewhat back to a Category 4. But the National Hurricane Center warned it was still likely to bring "a life-threatening storm surge, wind and rainfall" to parts of west-central and southwestern Mexico.
"While gradual weakening is forecast today, Willa is expected to be a dangerous major hurricane when it reaches the coast of Mexico. Rapid weakening is expected after landfall tonight and Wednesday," the hurricane center said.
Workers taped up windows in hotels and officials ordered schools closed in a low-lying region where towns sit amid farmland tucked between the sea and lagoons. A decree of "extraordinary emergency" was issued for 19 municipalities in Nayarit and Sinaloa states, the federal Interior Department announced.
Officials said 7,000 to 8,000 people were being evacuated from low-lying areas, mostly in Sinaloa state.
The hurricane was expected to first pass over or near the Islas Marias, a group of islands about 60 miles offshore that include a nature preserve and a federal prison. Forecasters said Willa would then blow ashore somewhere along a 140-mile stretch from the resort city of Mazatlan to San Blas.
Enrique Moreno, mayor of Escuinapa, a municipality of about 60,000 people lying on Willa's potential track, said officials were trying to clear out everyone in the seaside village of Teacapan. He estimated 3,000 people were affected but he expected some would try to stay.
"The people don't want to evacuate, but it's for their security," he said.
About 60 miles up the coast, in Mazatlan, with a metropolitan-area population of about 500,000, Mayor Jose Joel Boucieguez said officials prepared shelters and were closely monitoring low-lying areas. Mazatlan is a popular vacation spot and home to a large number of American and Canadian expatriates.
As of 5 a.m. EDT, Willa was centered about 75 miles southwest of the Islas Marias and 175 miles south-southwest of Mazatlan. It was moving north at 5 mph.
Hurricane-force winds extended 35 miles from the storm's core, and tropical storm-force winds were up to 125 miles out.
The hurricane center warned that Willa could bring 6 to 12 inches of rain - with up to 18 inches in some places - to parts of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa states, with flash flooding and landslides possible in mountainous areas.