Hurricane Gilbert slammed into sparsely populated northeastern Mexico 120 miles south of the U.S. border with peak winds of 143 mph and torrential rains Friday, spawning floods and dozens of tornadoes that caused heavy damage northward to Texas' Rio Grande Valley.
But there were no early reports of new loss of life in the final assault of what only two days before had been the Western Hemisphere's most powerful hurricane on record."There were no deaths that we know of," said Juan Carlos Padilla, coordinator of the Civil Protection Agency of the Interior Ministry in Mexico. "There are a lot of makeshift houses that will be damaged or destroyed but in the areas where the hurricane hit hardest, practically the entire population has been evacuated."
Some 350,000 people on both sides of the border fled the storm, blamed for 85 deaths on a 2,000-mile rampage through the Caribbean, where it was born Saturday and became the strongest Atlantic storm recorded before it lost punch over the Yucatan Peninsula Wednesday.
Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Gilbert's eye passed over the Mexican coast at 4:35 p.m. CDT about 120 miles south of Brownsville and about 20 miles north of the fishing village of La Pesca, which was wiped out by Hurricane Anita in 1977.
Gilbert was expected to surge toward Monterrey and the Tamaulipas mountains of central Mexico, then turn northwesterly on a path that would take it through central Texas and Oklahoma in the next 48 hours, dumping up to 20 inches of rain as it moves. Floods and the tornado threat became the most dangerous continuing aspects of the storm.
"We have roofs torn off buildings and demolition caused by tornado activity," said Bill Card, mayor of Harlingen, a Rio Grande Valley town inland from Brownsville. He estimated damage in his city at $500,000 to $1 million.
Brownsville, which forecasters Thursday said the most likely destination for the hurricane, was spared the worst of its fury. But Acting City Manager Steve Fitzgibbons asked 7,500 people in city shelters to stay put until Saturday morning because of the threat of tornadoes and floods.
"We don't wish it on anyone else, but we are glad the hurricane missed us," he said. "We would think that by Saturday people could come out of their shelters and go home."
Damage appeared less than expected in Brownsville, he said, although there were some roofs blown off and trees on top of cars. Flooding was minor although squalls continued to blow through the city.
At 11 p.m. CDT, the center of the storm was near latitude 24.6 north, longitude 98.6 west, 115 miles southwest of Brownsville or 120 miles southeast of Monterrey, Mexico. It was moving west-northwest at 12 mph with sustained winds of 105 mph in the portion of the storm still over water.
Forecasters said the eye was beginning to fill in and was no longer well-defined on radar - a sign of weakening.
The National Weather Service at 11 p.m. also downgraded the hurricane warning along the Texas coast to a high wind warning, although it remained in effect from the U.S. border southward to Tampico, Mexico.
Gilbert's sustained winds at landfall in Mexico were 120 mph, with gusts to 143 mph. Ten- to 15-inch rains were expected along the coast, and 20-inch rains were expected inland.
"My house is built of cement but everything began falling," said Rosario Cardenas Castro, 40, who fled to a shelter in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, after the storm hit. "The kitchen collapsed and everything began to fall. I left everything there, all my possessions, but I came here with my three children."
Sheets said hurricane-force winds would continue until early Saturday in northern Mexico. Tropical-storm force winds were expected to continue in northern Mexico through most of Saturday, he said.
"It's like a spinning top. It will take some time to spin down," Sheets said.
In Texas, a gust of 114 mph was reported at Brownsville and 82 mph winds whipped Padre Island. At 8:30 p.m., 5.28 inches of rain had fallen at Brownsville, 7 inches at Boca Chica at the mouth of the Rio Grande, and 8.71 at Lamar. Serious beach erosion was reported.
As it closed in on land, the storm lashed Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, and other cities along the Rio Grande Valley with flood tides at the coast and, by late afternoon, with 24 tornadoes inland. Widespread damage and power outages were reported from the twisters, 80-mph winds and flooding of streets and low-lying areas. Four minor injuries were reported.
Three tornadoes struck the valley Friday morning, and then in the afternoon they snaked from the clouds in rapid succession. The twisters, meteorologists in Brownsville said, were of the "rope" variety, thinner and of a shorter duration than the "funnel" variety seen in the spring.
The National Weather Service said flooding was expected throughout South Texas into Saturday morning. As the storm pushed up the Rio Grande, heavy rains were expected to cause more flooding as far inland as Austin, Texas.
Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, 60 miles inland from the coast, was swept by gale-force winds that crushed the roof of a gymnasium and shattered the dome of the governor's palace, raining shards of glass on the statue of the ancient Indian Goddess of the Underworld in the lobby.
"Light posts and trees have fallen, and there is no electricity in the region," said Raul Flores Moran, minister of public safety for Tamulipas statein Ciudad Victoria. "The government is delivering food and water."
Flores said the main north-south highway between the Mexican towns of San Fernando and Matamoros had been closed by flooding.