Hurricane Patricia threatened to devastate southwestern Mexico as it barreled towards the coast at 200 miles an hour—the strongest storm ever recorded in the western hemisphere.
But the category 5 hurricane, which made landfall the evening of Oct. 23, was a mere tropical storm by the following morning. By Oct. 26, fewer than 10 people had been reported dead from the storm, according to the Mexican press (link in Spanish).
Typhoon Haiyan, which was comparable in strength to Patricia, killed more than 6,000 people when it hit the Philippines in 2013. Why did Patricia not cause the same ravages in Mexico?
Part of it was luck. The hurricane made landfall in a sparsely populated area. Had it touched down some 100 miles north or southeast, it would have hit Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo, which are major population centers, and the death toll likely would have been higher.
The hurricane also had a very small inner core, Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Quartz. That means that its path of destruction was narrow. It was also shortened by Mexico’s mountainous terrain, which helped weaken the storm as Patricia made her way inland, he added.
“We were very lucky,” he said.
Preparation also helped. Ahead of the storm, tens of thousands of residents of small coastal villages were evacuated to safe shelters. Leaders from president Enrique Peña Nieto down to small-town mayors urged people to take cover.
Others offered a different theory as to why the death toll wasn’t higher.
“Our god is bigger than a storm.”