This article is from the November 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Digging Out from Hurricane Kenna

by Bernie Santos 

Bernie Santos, a frequent contributor to Mexico File, lives in Puerto Vallarta and witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Kenna on October 25, 2002. Visit Bernie’s website at www.pvconnect.com  

Things were normal around Puerto Vallarta – gossip here and there, a clink of glass and drinks upon drinks. The skies were clear and the air very humid. It was abnormally hot for this time of year. But with ‘El Nino’ and ‘La Nina’ floating around the oceans, the weather was always a hodgepodge of chatter. 

Someone somewhere mentioned the word ‘hurricane’ and one would look up with the amount of  interest generated in whether to order blue cheese or roquefort dressing. It was instilled in the fiber of the inhabitants that major storms just did not happen in these parts. After all we were on the west coast, we were insulated by the mountains and the bay, and never before had a major storm of any magnitude ever entered the calm waters of the Bay of Banderas, home of the quiet and polite Mexicans who inhabit the area, home to hundreds upon hundreds of North American expatriates who have settled here mostly for the great weather. One could easily survive the stifling summers, but one never gave much thought to hurricane country, which was for the east coast. 

So it came to pass that on October 24th  the first words of a category 4 hurricane named ‘Kenna’ was going to hit the west coast of Mexico somewhere between Manzanillo and Matzalan, a distance of 1000 miles. Not much attention was given to it. My friend John bellowed “Ah shit, that damn tornado is going to hit!” 

Later the same night the word among the folks at the local pub went out that the hurricane was a category 4 and the forecasts were still not sure whether it might head inland, if at all. The gaiety continued as it  normally does, but some places even had a ‘Hurricane’ party in honor of ‘Kenna.’ In between the drinks and the merriment and the food, the word somehow got around that the hurricane had been upgraded to category 5, the highest level in hurricane magnitude. Everyone breathed a sober concern, but the party went on. Some people said that the hurricane might hit about midnight. Others said not until 4 am in the morning. Still others said some people were securing their homes and businesses, and/or preparing to evacuate. In all cases everyone went to bed peacefully and without concern. Strangely enough during all this calamity, not much information was available via TV or radio. CNN seemed more concerned with the current sniper issue and even the Weather Channel gave it very little exposure. 

It wasn’t until the morning of October 25th  that things picked up serious speed (no pun intended). We were awakened at 8 am by a neighbor’s phone call. “It’s now a category 5. The people of Conchas Chinas and Los Muertos are evacuating. Where are you going? Where is your shelter? I can come over and help tape your windows. Do you have tape? We’re getting out of here.” My neighbor lived just across the street on the bluff above. He was a bit prone to panic, which didn’t help my wife’s mentality. “Let’s move!” she roared. Pictures started disappearing from the walls and were tucked under the bed. Items were swifted off the counters. As she moved she murmured “It’s coming. It’s the big one.” 

Then came the second phone call at about 9 am. “Its going to hit here about noon. It’s big, the biggest ever. My boss is bringing his car over from Bucerias because it might get flooded in the basement. We can’t handle this. What are you guys doing.” “We’re having breakfast. We’re watching what’s going on. So far not much. Some wind and some rain.” The electricity went out. Later we heard that a transformer was down in Mismaloya and as a precaution they had shut off the power in town. Other than that, things seemed normal. The ocean waves were a bit high, but not that much higher than usual. The wind blew and the rain fell, but not all that much. So far, so good.

Then about 10 am the wind picked up and the rain started to sweep in horizontal waves. There were more whitecaps and we could see the waves getting bigger. We watched and continued with our mini-party. Occasionally we’d view things through our telescope or binoculars and all seemed well. We’d call neighbors and chat more about any updates that people had heard and nothing more was said. We still had no idea where or when it might hit, if at all. Off in the distance we could hear sirens going and somewhere below a loud speaker was spewing what we believed to be a warning in Spanish. More phone calls informed us that the impact time was still expected at noon. We continued to watch. At about 11 am the skies got very clear and it seemed all had passed. I assumed we were in the eye as it was very quiet, nary a breeze or wet drop – and as it turned out we were. 

About 11:45 am there appeared a luminous curtain of rain and clouds that stretched across the entire bay, leaving the mountains quite majestic. A strange quiet. I was in awe. At the same time one could see the ocean action increasing. The whitecaps were now churning as far as you could see and their height was building up near shore. From our vantage point it seemed the waves were as tall as the six story Los Arcos hotel. Almost on cue, at noon, our windows began to shake and we wondered if we had put enough tape on them, if we had secured the outside furniture enough,  if we had any first aid supplies on hand and what would we do if we needed immediate help. Many ‘what ifs’ went through our minds. What if our house came crashing down?  What if there was a tidal wave? What if the hurricane wiped out the entire hillside, destroying property, life and limb? 

At just about five minutes past noon, we were somewhat relieved. We had suffered no real damage and neither had our neighbors. But then we noticed that the waves were extremely high, some high enough to strike the third or fourth floor level of the hotel we could see across the bay. Major hotels such as the Sheraton, as well as Los Tules and Los Pelicanos, were being hit without mercy – water as high as twelve feet over normal, waves as high 30 feet, all spewing water, sand and  hazard in their wake. It was evident that the storm had indeed bypassed the south rim (hills) of Vallarta, but the brute force was directed toward the central zone, the hotel zone and points north. We watched as wave upon wave unrelentingly struck these areas. The southbound bridge was mysteriously devoid of vehicular traffic. And there seemed to be a large gathering of people at the north end of that bridge. Why? 

All was well here, so at about 2 pm we decided to drive closer and investigate. There are only two bridges in Vallarta, one heading south out of town and one north into town. There was a lot of congestion on the northbound bridge, but we made it across and parked adjacent to the old flea market. One could sense the somberness in the air as we walked a couple of blocks due west. Passage became slowed by gawkers and more so by the accumulating debris – first bogs of sand, then sludge, tree bark and entire huge branches.

At some streets there were appliances, refrigerators, clothing, stuffed toys, and building material spewed outside for several blocks.  

The damage only got worse. Reaching the plaza area, not only was the Bodega missing much of its roof, but further west one could see that the entire “Los Arcos” was gone. This was a cement structure of

three arches which provided many a night of special events for many years. Off to the right we observed the Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral which seemed unscathed. We also learned that the city had been prepared by having heavy equipment, such as caterpillar tractors, at the ready every other block on standby just in case. This proved a good move since just about every nook and cranny were filled with sand and water. The ocean had enough force to sweep easilyl over the Malecon and beaches, and the waves carried by high winds channeled their force into the nearby hotels. Not just businesses, but homes and small merchants were at stake.

All of the shops on the Malecon had their windows shattered. Many more had all their inventory (if any) razed with sand and water. City property, such as the Malecon itself, was in a serious state of damage. The waves uprooted brick paving and peeled it back like a sardine can. The storm took heavy iron bench chairs and tossed them like loaves of bread, some of them wrapped around palm trees. The force of the barrage handily lifted up huge bronze Colunga sculptures and tossed them like a pair of dice, all the while leaving mountains of sludge and sand. Large sections of the Malecon itself were in a state of upheaval –  enormous sink holes, large chunks of wall tilted every which way and mountains of sand everywhere. 

The waves shot through a store in a blink, taking what it encountered at the front end and driving it all, furnishings included, to the opposite end where it would blast out the remainder windows. This is what happened with the department store, Coppel. Unfortunately, widespread looting took place. When the windows of Blockbuster gave way quickly, all of its movie contents disappeared. Our good friends who own PV Realty suffered greatly as well. They were in the office when a large wave broke through the large front windows and flooded all the contents inside. Everyone narrowly missed injury. “They did not warn us enough,” Silvia shouted the next day. “They should have told us more, evacuated the town. They did nothing.” 

Just about everything along the coast and beach area got hammered. Many of the smaller businesses are really in trouble because they have no insurance and are not able to continue. Many of these places are thatched palapa-type roofs. To their credit, one just does not expect storms of such magnitude. The history of PV is devoid of these beasts, but that was not the case this time. Los Muertos beach had just about everything wiped out. The same thing happened to La Palapa, Fedencios, some of San Marino, some of Tropicana, El Dorado, Blue and Green Chairs and many more businesses further south. The little seahorse statue disappeared completely. Other establishments to the north, such as Daquiri Dicks and Los Arcos, will clean up and easily survive. Further north it will take a matter of time. Places like Molino de Aqua, the Malecon and hotels north such as the Rosarita, Beunaventura, Sheraton, Los Tules, and Krystal have much digging out to do before getting on their feet. It shouldn’t take long, perhaps a minimum of one or two weeks. The Rio Caule swelled to ten times its normal size and the fast moving current swept away the river banks along with items nearby. Mud, sand, debris and damage were everywhere. 

An Army of city officials, police, troops and volunteers set up quickly to block off areas of hazard. Eventually the entire downtown would be blocked off, starting in the north at Megasuperstore and all the way south to the bridges. No vehicular traffic and limited foot traffic were allowed. Property just south of the Sheraton was wiped out, including Hector’s and the flattened home of Lucy and Gil. Anything on or very near the beach was devastated, especially the Malecon and the Hotel Zone (mainly the lobbies and pool area). 

Were we ready for this natural monster?  Perhaps not enough. It was very difficult to obtain information prior and during the storm. 

At this moment the Bay is absolutely gorgeous – clear blue water, bright sky, people sailing, and life seems normal. The Malecon, however, remains closed as repairs are quickly being made. The hotels will clean up and life will continue. 

Bernie Santos

www.pvconnect.com