Hurricane Willa weakens to tropical depression, still brings rain

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Hurricane Willa weakens to tropical depression, still brings rain

Hurricane Willa weakened rapidly into a tropical depression on Wednesday after slamming into a stretch of beach towns, fishing villages and farms along Mexico's Pacific coast as a Category 3 storm, though it continued to dump torrential rains over west-central Mexico.

Damage assessments were scanty before dawn due to darkness and poor communications, but federal officials said power had been knocked out in some spots and there were early reports of flimsy structures with tin roofs sustaining damage from the 120 mph (195 kph) winds.

Before hitting the mainland near Isla del Bosque in the state of Sinaloa, Willa swept over an offshore penal colony about 60 miles (100 kilometers) out in the Pacific. Authorities declined to comment on precautions that were taken at the prison, citing security concerns, but said the safety of inmates was a priority.

The storm was rapidly losing punch over northern Mexico and was down to tropical depression status before dawn, with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) - down from its Category 5 peak of 155 mph (250 kph) over the Pacific on Monday.

Still, concern about the rains led Durango state to say it was evacuating 200 people threatened by possible spills from the Santa Elena dam.

Willa was centered about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east-northeast of Durango, Mexico, and heading to the northeast at 25 mph (41 kph). It was expected to dissipate later in the day, despite dumping heavy rains.

Willa came ashore about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Mazatlan, a resort city that is home to high-rise hotels and about 500,000 people, including many U.S. and Canadian expatriates.

Although hotels, restaurants and stores were boarded over, people ventured onto Mazatlan's coastal boulevard to watch a spectacular sunset as the hurricane obscured the sky to the south.

Alberto Hernandez, a hotel worker in the town of Teacapan, close to where the storm made landfall, expressed confidence before it hit that the building would hold up. He and his son, who also works at the hotel, stayed on the job, though the rest of his family had left the area.

"We've had rain all day. There is nobody in the streets. Everything is closed," Hernandez said. "But not everyone wanted to leave, even though authorities made it clear that he who stays does so at his own peril."

Torrential rains began in the afternoon, and emergency officials said they had evacuated more than 4,250 people in coastal towns and set up 58 shelters ahead of the dangerous storm. Schools were ordered closed.

As Willa neared, the beach in Mazatlan almost disappeared, with waves slamming against the coastal boulevard under looming black clouds. A few surfers enjoyed the big waves while the streets onshore were nearly deserted except for workers boarding up windows at hotels, shops and homes.

Some families took shelter at the Mazatlan convention center, spreading out blankets along the walls to wait out the storm.

"The house we're living in is not well built," said Sergio Ernesto Meri Franco, who rents a studio apartment.
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