Hurricane Jova eases ahead of Mexico's Pacific coast

PUERTO VALLARTA/BARRA DE NAVIDAD, Mexico Tue Oct 11, 2011 6:38pm EDT

PUERTO VALLARTA/BARRA DE NAVIDAD, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Jova eased on Tuesday as it was about to reach Mexico's Pacific coast, threatening one of the country's busiest cargo ports and tourist resorts with high waves, heavy rainfall and flooding.

Downgraded to a Category 2 storm, with top winds reaching 100 miles per hour, Jova was about 85 miles southwest of the port city of Manzanillo at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The Miami-based hurricane center said Jova would reach the Mexican coast on Tuesday night, to the northwest of Manzanillo on a stretch of coast dotted with beaches south of Puerto Vallarta. Mexico has no major oil installations in the Pacific.

In the popular resort town of Puerto Vallarta, people were preparing for the biggest storm in nine years by boarding up shops and staying at home.

"People think it's not going to do anything, but it's moving slowly and it's going to be dangerous," said Jose Avila, who was boarding up the windows of the shorefront bank branch where he works. "They thought that last time and it destroyed everything."

At step two on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, Jova is considered likely to cause extensive damage and a dangerous storm surge could produce bad flooding along the coast when Jova makes landfall, the center said.

Avila, 55, who has lived in the tourist destination for 30 years, said the waves were unusually high. The city is bracing for waves up to 13 feet high.

Puerto Vallarta's last big hurricane was Kenna in 2002, which hit with top winds of 144 mph and flooded streets close to the shore, causing damage that took authorities days to clear.

Authorities in Jalisco state have prepared 70 shelters for 11 municipalities. There were no evacuations yet in Puerto Vallarta but south of the beach resort, people were evacuating from the towns of Zihuatlan and Melaque near Barra de Navidad, where businesses were closed and windows shuttered.

Local officials and state social workers arranged for several migrant worker families to stay the night in a brick warehouse in Pino Suarez near Tomatlan, south of Puerto Vallarta, passing out foam mattresses and blankets for toddlers and a newborn baby.

"They said (the storm) would be strong, and we were sleeping under nylon," said Angel Martinez, 22, who came to the state to harvest papayas and took shelter with his four children.

FEARS OF LANDSLIDES, RAIN

Even as the storm weakened slightly, locals were worried the hurricane would cause heavy rains and landslides.

"I offered to let some families that live up there in the mountains come down and stay with me because of the risk of landslides, but at the moment they're staying in their homes," said a woman in the small town of Boca de Tomatlan. Her brick home near the coast is surrounded by steep lush mountains where houses are perched precariously.

Jova could produce up to 12 inches of rainfall over four states, with isolated rainfall of up to 20 inches, the hurricane center said. "These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides over mountainous terrain," it added.

Manzanillo, Mexico's main point of arrival for cargo containers, has been closed since late Sunday and about 13 container ships are stuck in the port.

The port handles about 750 containers of cargo a month and ships goods including cars, car parts, cattle, minerals and tequila to Asian and North American markets.

Beachfront hotels were deserted and many shops were closed by lunchtime on Tuesday. "We are putting bags out so that the water does not come into the lobby if there is a very big wave," said a worker at the Camino Real hotel.

Depending on conditions, the port will reopen on Wednesday or Thursday, the official said. Puerto Vallarta's port was also closed.

The storm had picked up its advance and was moving toward the north-northeast near 6 miles per hour.

Puerto Vallarta Mayor Salvador Gonzalez said the resort was preparing shelters for residents that would be evacuated.

"There will be a lot of constant rain, which could hit the mountainous region around Puerto Vallarta," raising the danger of deadly landslides, Gonzalez said.

"But after a couple days of rain we'll be ready for the Pan-American Games," he said.

The games bring together athletes from across the Americas in Guadalajara, and some competitions will be held in Puerto Vallarta.

(Writing by Elinor Comlay; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)