Hurricanes—Not Just for Meteorologists

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Silly me. I used to think that there were hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, cyclones in the Pacific, typhoons usually aimed themselves at Japan, and then there were the monsoons, which had a lot of rain and were hot and steamy, and they all stuck to their geography like glue.   Living in the northeastern U.S., kids found those Atlantic hurricanes exciting—when a hurricane actually made it all the way to Maine, my father would drive us around on my brother’s paper route in case there were any downed electric lines we wanted to play with.

How Hurricanes Work

All those big storms roaring in off the ocean are “tropical cyclones,” and yes, the different names are generally attached to the regions where they originate. Tropical cyclones are large-scale storm systems with a low pressure center (the “eye” of the hurricane), spiraling bands of rain, and strong winds.   They begin over warm tropical and subtropical waters—hurricanes need water that is at least 80ºF (27ºC) to get started. A warm ocean is constantly evaporating water off its surface (what goes up) and when it gets far enough up to cool off, it returns (must come down) as clouds and rain. To come back down, the water vapor rising from the ocean condenses, releasing the “latent heat of condensation,” (the energy required to condense back into water), into the atmosphere, warming up the air. As air warms, it becomes less dense, i.e., it becomes a low-pressure area, which draws up more water vapor from the surface of the ocean. If this heat exchange continues, it creates a circular wind pattern that forms the eye, throwing off the bands of rain by means of the rotating winds.

The wind patterns are “promoted” because when warm air rises, cooler air blows in under the warm air, hitting the rising warm air and pushing it to rise more rapidly; at the same time, above the low pressure area, cooler winds are also hitting the rising warm air, thus pulling it up more rapidly. If this “pressure gradient” is not moderated, the hurricane just goes faster and faster. Hurricanes are classed by wind speed—a Category 1 hurricane has winds from 74 to 94 miles per hour, while a Category 5 hurricane has wind speeds exceeding 155 miles per hour.   However, if the upper winds start moving at different speeds and angles (wind shear), the hurricane “mechanism” disorganizes and the hurricane dissipates. Wind shear keeps most thunderstorms from turning into hurricanes; anything that interrupts the cyclone of whirling and rising most air, particularly hitting land, will eventually bring the storm to its end.   (Not soon enough for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy . . . )

Since warmth of the oceans and atmosphere is a factor in generating hurricanes, should we expect more hurricanes as a result of global warming? Researchers don’t yet agree on this, but observations have shown that the frequency and intensity of hurricanes has increased, and that rising sea levels have made recent hurricanes more destructive.   This is correlated with an increase in the surface temperature of the ocean, but of course correlation is not causation.

Mexican Hurricanes

As a kid, I was generally right about where different versions of tropical cyclones occur, but not about Mexico. Even though the Spanish conquistadores adopted the word ‘huracán’ (god of evil, god of storms) from the Caribbean Tainos, and they probably got it from the Mayan god Hurakan, it never crossed my mind that Mexico had hurricanes.

Oh, but they do, and they come at Mexico from both the western Atlantic (mostly the Gulf of Mexico) and the eastern Pacific. Not only that, Mexico has had hurricanes that cross the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa.   In 2013, a weakened Hurricane Ingrid came ashore at La Pesca (Tamaulipas) at the same time Tropical Storm Manual made landfall at Manzanillo (Colima); weak as they might have been, 24 people died in flooding and mudslides.

In terms of conditions, somewhat more than half of Mexico lies in the tropics—the Tropic of Cancer crosses the states of Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, with everything below that line being tropical; most of the states above the line are considered subtropical—so the water temperature conditions are ideal for hurricane formation.

Because hurricanes in the eastern Pacific are generally pushed westward, away from Mexico, by the prevailing winds, the Pacific coast of Mexico has suffered less destruction overall than the Atlantic coast. The only Pacific hurricane to make landfall at Category 5 intensity happened in 1959, when the “Mexico” hurricane screamed ashore at 160 mph (260 km/h), killing over 1,800 people—making it the deadliest Pacific tropical cyclone ever—and devastating the states of Jalisco and Colima, wreaking $260 million U.S. in damage (about $2.111 billion U.S. today).

There have been three Atlantic hurricanes that made landfall at Category 5: Janet (1955), Gilbert (1988), and Dean (2007) all hit the Yucatán Peninsula at 175 mph (280 km/h) or more. Together, they killed 1,354 people and caused $15.242 billion in damage (in today’s U.S. dollar).

The Hurricanes of Oaxaca: Pauline and Carlotta

While Oaxaca gets one or more hurricanes every season, 1997’s Hurricane Pauline was probably the worst. Pauline started as a “tropical wave” from Africa; a tropical wave is a low-pressure north-south trough that moves from east to west, usually generating thunderstorms that easily turn to hurricanes. The wave crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific over Panama; it strengthened to a tropical storm south and a little east of Salina Cruz, and to hurricane strength (Category 4) aimed straight northeast at Salina Cruz about 250 miles away. Pauline turned to follow the Oaxacan coast from Salina Cruz northwards, and made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane at 110 mph (175 km/h) in Puerto Angel.

Because Pauline attacked some of Mexico’s poorest regions, the death toll is only an estimate—somewhere between 230 and 400 people were killed outright or swept away in mudslides; the Mexican Red Cross estimated another 1,900 people to be missing.   The monetary estimate was $447.8 million U.S. (about $663 million U.S. today). Pauline also wrought tremendous damage to infrastructure and the environment. Flooding wiped out bridges, electric lines, and telecommunication capabilities. About 500 Oaxacan communities—Zapotec, Mixtec, and Chatino—were wiped out entirely, and a quarter of a million people were left homeless.   Pauline damaged over 200 square miles of selva seca (the dry jungle that surrounds Huatulco) and low-lying rainforest. Losses to the coffee harvest were enormous. The hurricane also caused beach erosion so severe that it destroyed 40 million Olive Ridley turtle eggs and 10 million baby turtles in Mazunte.

Hurricane Carlotta and a Community

On June 12, 2012, Carlotta started as a tropical wave off Costa Rica. The U.S. National Hurricane Center promoted it to a tropical depression on June 14—the wave had generated thunderstorms and winds had developed a circular pattern. Later the same day, Carlotta’s rain bands increased and she became an official tropical storm. By the next day, June 15, the eye had developed, and Carlotta headed for Puerto Escondido as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of up to 114 mph (about 183 km/h). Directly and indirectly, Carlotta killed 7 people, including two Pluma Hidalgo sisters aged 13 and 7 whose clay house collapsed on them, and caused about $12.4 million U.S. in damage (about $12.9 million U.S. today). Still, hardly on the same scale as Pauline.

But Hurricane Carlotta also destroyed a community dream. The village of Zapotengo, home to perhaps 65 people, about 30 of them children, sits on a beautiful beach between Cuatunalco and Puerto Ángel, west of the beaches of Pacheco and Tahueca, about ten minutes before Pochutla.   Before Carlotta, there was a road to Zapotengo at km 217 on Route 200 at the east end of Puente Aguacate (Avocado Bridge). Now there’s a detour sign, but no indication of where to go to detour.

In 2004, villagers decided to start a Cooperative Society called “Zapotengo Pacheco” to promote a “Flora and Fauna Eco-tourism Project.” They sought to emulate the cooperative at Ventanilla, which gives boat tours of the lagoon to visitors who want to see mangroves and crocodiles. At Zapotengo, the lagoon was about a mile long, and the tour lasted about two hours. The lagoon boasted mangroves and other trees, crocodiles (occasionally), and numerous species of birds and plants (flowers included). The cooperative encouraged you to make reservations for lunch at waterfront palapas upon your return.

Zapotengo was very clear about the benefits of the project: The eco-tourism project would protect flora and fauna species, and create jobs that meant villagers would not have to send family members to the U.S. as “illegal laborers f0r surviving.” It might also prevent the construction of large resorts by foreign investors, thus avoiding the environmental damage, water pollution, and migration of foreigners into the village.

We had a hard time finding the road to Zapotengo in February 2015. It was clear the “detour” sign at Puente Aguacate was serious, as what passed for a road ended in a sandy riverbed that seemed to go nowhere. Back out on Route 200, looking for the detour, we saw a road going towards the ocean but it had no sign. We reached a shop where there was some discussion about whether anyone knew where Zapotengo was. An older gentleman did recall Zapotengo, but was not sure there was anyone left there. We all finally agreed that the gringos should try the unmarked road, because although it might not go to Zapotengo, it was a good road for driving.

The road started off paved, turned into a good-quality dirt road. and reached the beach. We got out and said to each other, “Well, this can’t be it. There’s nothing here.” But then we saw the remains of one of the brightly painted boats. Then an information sign about the lagoon, which was reduced to a small area of shiny green wetland plants much invaded by sand. We walked along the road at the side of the lagoon, and picked out the remains of what must have been the palapa restaurants. Carlotta had breached and drained the lagoon, destroying the eco-tourism project.

Another Kind of Hurricane?

Pieces of a different story come up in news reports on,, and public records. It would appear that Carlotta is not completely to blame for the abandoned project. On November 29, 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States requested that Mexico take what’s called “precautionary measures” to determine what happened to ten members of the Zapotengo Pacheco cooperative who had set off by bus on July 12, 2010, to Matamoros to purchase equipment and parts for the ecotourism project, or possibly vehicles for resale in the Pochutla area. One of the ten sent a text message indicating they had arrived in Matamoros, and would call later.

Then, according to the Commission, these ten men were “forcibly disappeared” on July 14, “allegedly by members of the Federal Investigation Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigaciones, AFI), an agency of the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR).” On July 23, the missing men’s families began the preliminary investigations for forcible disappearance. Eight months later, on March 18, 2011, the Attorney General’s office said that the men had been arrested on October 6, 2010, “without accusation,” and were being held in Morelos, jail not specified. With no further response from any level of the state, families demonstrated in Pochutla in February 2011 and Oaxaca de Juárez in July 2011; on July 15, they made their way to the office of the Morelos Attorney General located in Cuernavaca. “In that meeting the official said that it had been an error in the collected data, since at no time they were arrested and detained there.”

By the spring of 2012, the lagoon project was reinaugurated as “Women of Zapotengo crystallize the ecotourism dream of their husbands.” (“Cristalizan sueno ecoturistico iniciado por sus esposos, mujeres de Zapotengo.”) The wives of the men who had started the ecotourism project had restarted the cooperative; they received $5,216,585 mxn (almost $350,000 USD) from the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas) to build nine cabanas, a reception area with a kitchen, restaurant, and other facilities. At the inauguration on March 29, they announced plans for at least three more cabanas and a pool. On June 12, Carlotta struck.

On July 12, 2013, las mujeres de Zapotengo were back in Oaxaca de Juárez, publicizing the fact that the government had done nothing to help locate the ten disappeared. When we visited in February 2015, the ecotourism project did appear abandoned, but there was ample agriculture.   On the morning of Saturday, May 2, the Mar el Fondo (in this case, a wave about 3-4 meters deep) washed over Zapotengo, destroying banana and coconut plantings and once again, slashing the beach, what little was left of the lagoon, and obliterating any progress that might have been made on the ecotourism project.

Zapotengo, however, is not giving up. Celerina Santos Santiago, president of the Zapotengo Pacheco cooperative, said “The key now is the immediate help. We need tools, water, antibiotics, and materials to make our way through the rubble and build again what has been destroyed.”