Hurricane Willa weakens slightly, but remains major threat to Mexico's Pacific coast

- A potential catastrophic Hurricane Willa swept toward Mexico's Pacific coast with winds of 155 mph (250 kph) Monday, threatening a stretch of high-rise resort hotels, surfing beaches and fishing villages.

After briefly reaching Category 5 strength, the storm's maximum sustained winds weakened slightly to Category 4 at mid-afternoon.

But Willa remained "extremely dangerous" and was expected to bring "life-threatening storm surge, wind and rainfall" to parts of west-central and southwestern Mexico ahead of an expected Tuesday landfall, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The hurricane was expected to pass over or near the Islas Marias - a set of islands about 60 miles offshore that include a nature preserve and a federal prison - early Tuesday, then blow ashore in the afternoon or the evening somewhere along a 140-mile (220-kilometer) section extending from the resort town of Mazatlan to San Blas.

It was projected to weaken somewhat before hitting land but was still expected to be extremely dangerous.

The governments of Sinaloa and Nayarit states ordered coastal region schools to close and began preparing emergency shelters.

Hotel workers started taping up windows, and officials began evacuating thousands of people and shuttered schools in a low-lying landscape where towns sit amid farmland tucked between the sea and lagoons.

Mazatlan, with a metropolitan-area population of about 500,000, is a popular vacation spot. It is closer to the U.S. than most other Pacific resorts and home to a large number of American and Canadian expatriates.

The hurricane's projected track also included Esquinapa, a town a few miles inland with almost 60,000 people in and around it.

Hurricane-force winds extended 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the storm's center, and tropical storm-force winds were up to 105 miles (165 kilometers) out.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned that Willa could bring 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain - with up to 18 inches (45 centimeters) in some places - to parts of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa states, with flash flooding and landslides possible in mountainous areas.

Farther to the south, Tropical Storm Vicente weakened but was still expected to produce heavy rainfall and flooding over parts of southern and southwestern Mexico.

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