Agatha intensifies into strong Category 2 hurricane as it bears down on Mexico

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May 29 (UPI) — The East Pacific’s first named storm of the year — Agatha — strengthened into a strong Category 2 hurricane Sunday afternoon as it closed in on the southern Mexico coastline.

Agatha remains on track to stamp its mark in the weather history books, following in the footsteps of only two other May hurricanes in the East Pacific basin — and forecasters warn of high risk to life and property as the rapidly strengthening storm moves onshore.

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AccuWeather meteorologists have rated Agatha a 2 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes in Mexico as a result of the storm’s damaging winds and significant flooding threat.

The National Hurricane Center hoisted hurricane warnings from Salina Cruz to Lagunas de Chacahua, Mexico, and a hurricane watch from Salina Cruz eastward to Barra De Tonala, ahead of impact. Winds within the center of the storm had reached 75 mph Category 1 hurricane strength at 7 a.m. CDT Sunday, a little over 24 hours after Tropical Storm Agatha formed. By 10 p.m. CDT, Agatha had strengthened to a Category 2 110mph storm and was moving northeast at 6 mph.

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In the update, Agatha was about 140 miles southwest of Puerto Angel, Mexico.

Additional strengthening is expected over the next 12 to 24 hours and it is forecast to become a major hurricane before reaching the southern coast of Mexico on Monday, it said, adding that the storm is expected to bring “an extremely dangerous storm surge and life-threatening winds” to southern Mexico before hand.

If the storm makes landfall at Category 2 or higher intensity, it would be the strongest May hurricane to ever make landfall in the eastern Pacific basin. Only two hurricanes in recorded history have made landfall in Mexico during the month of May — Barbara on May 29, 2013, and Agatha on May 24, 1971 — both of which were Category 1 hurricane strength.

AccuWeather meteorologists cannot rule out the potential for Agatha to make a run at Category 3 major hurricane strength (maximum sustained winds of 111-129 mph), especially if it continues its slow movement and spends more time over warm water.

Forecasters say that preparations should be rushed to completion as conditions will deteriorate as soon as Sunday night and early Monday morning as Agatha approaches the coastline and bands of wind and rain begin to work their way onshore in Oaxaca and Chiapas.

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“Hurricane-force winds [maximum-sustained winds of 74 mph or greater] are expected near where the storm makes landfall along Mexico’s southern coast, which can lead to downed trees and power lines, and structural damage,” Pydynowski said.

An AccuWeather Local StormMax™ wind gust of 115 mph is forecast near where the center of Agatha moves onshore. Anyone without adequate shelter from these fierce winds will be subject to flying debris.

These strong winds can also kick up dangerous surf along the entire southern coast of Mexico, making it dangerous for swimmers to enter the water and for boaters to venture offshore.

Large and destructive waves will not be the only coastal hazard. Strong onshore winds will cause water to pile up at the coast, with a storm surge of up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) expected to cause inundation near and to the east of where the center of Agatha moves onshore.

“Flooding rainfall is expected to be one of the biggest impacts across southern Mexico and parts of Central America,” said Dan Pydynowski, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather who regularly issues tropical outlooks for the Atlantic and East Pacific basins.

Heavy rain is likely to pour down from Acapulco to Oaxaca and Tehuacán, Mexico, from late Sunday into Tuesday, posing a significant risk to life and property.

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“The heaviest rain will fall across the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, causing flash flooding, mudslides and road closures,” Pydynowski said.

Residents living in and around mountainous areas will be at the highest risk to experience these life-threatening dangers, as the steep slopes can easily give way once the ground becomes extremely saturated. Mudslides can occur with little warning, making it vital for people to be aware of rapidly changing conditions and have an emergency plan in place.

Rain amounts of 6 inches or more are expected to be widespread across southern Mexico during the life span of the storm. Coastal portions of Oaxaca and Chiapas can expect the highest rain amounts of 8-12 inches. Mountainous areas will be most likely to reach the AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 28 inches.

“Additional heavy rainfall is expected after the storm which can lead to additional flooding and hamper cleanup efforts,” Pydynowski said.

The 2022 East Pacific tropical season is off to a quick start after beginning on May 15. AccuWeather forecasters are predicting a normal to above-normal season with 15-19 named storms and the possibility of six to eight of them reaching hurricane force. The normal count of named storms in the basin is about 15 storms, with eight achieving hurricane status.

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AccuWeather meteorologists will be closely monitoring the leftover energy from Agatha as it crosses Mexico and enters the Bay of Campeche during the first days of June. There is a chance it could redevelop into the Atlantic basin’s first named storm.