* Expected to hit Mexico's Pacific coast on Tuesday evening
* Forecast sees "life-threatening" storm surge, wind, rainfall (Updates storm position, adds details)
By David Alire Garcia
MAZATLAN, Mexico, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Hurricane Willa closed in Mexico's Pacific coast on Tuesday with winds of over 100 miles per hour (160 kph), threatening to batter buildings and dump torrential rain on popular tourist resorts where thousands of people were moved to safety.
Willa, which weakened to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale on Tuesday, was blowing maximum sustained winds of about 120 miles per hour (193 kph) with higher gusts, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
It had reached rare Category 5 status on Monday with winds near 160 mph (260 kph) before it weakened.
Forecast to be one of the most powerful hurricanes to enter Mexico from the Pacific in recent years, Willa was due to weaken further before striking land on Tuesday evening.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, the storm was about 70 miles (113 km) south of Mazatlan, a popular coastal retreat in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, the center said. It was heading north-northeast at 10 miles per hour (16 kph).
Steady rain fell on Tuesday afternoon in Mazatlan, where hotels facing the boardwalks had sealed windows and doors with wooden planks. Only a few tourists were out as small red flags planted in the sand indicated the beach was closed.
On side streets people were boarding up windows while some young men surfed the higher-than-usual waves.
"I'm sure my house is going to flood," university professor Ignacio Osuna said on the boardwalk on Tuesday morning as he watched the surfers. He noted large parts of the city are below sea level.
"This is going to get ugly," he said.
The city's main convention center was designated a shelter but only a few people had taken refuge there by Tuesday afternoon. A fleet of trucks owned by state electricity company CFE stood in the parking lot, ready to repair any fallen powerlines.
Several other tourist getaways in the state of Nayarit, as well as the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco state, also lie near the path of the storm, which is forecast to bring a life-threatening storm surge of ocean water, wind and rainfall, the hurricane center said.
Howard Petty, a sport fishing enthusiast from Chevy Chase, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, said he had no idea the storm was coming.
"There's nowhere else for us to go so we're just going to stay put here," he said in the lobby of a hotel in Mazatlan.
Mexico's civil protection agency said on Twitter that families should move into nearby temporary refuges if necessary.
Up to 18 inches (45 cm) of rainfall could pummel parts of the storm zone, the hurricane center said. Even buildings up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the coastline could lose power and suffer physical damage, Mexico's National Meteorological Service said.
In some states, Willa's menace was compounded by the remnants of Vicente, a post-tropical cyclone moving over the state of Michoacan on Tuesday morning, causing rain in parts of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero.
Nayarit Governor Antonio Echevarria said more than 10,000 people were being evacuated and schools would be closed. He warned locals not to defy the storm.
"Let's not play the macho," he said. "Let's not act like superheroes. It's a very strong hurricane, very potent, and we don't want any tragedies." (Reporting by David Alire Garcia, Dave Graham and Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Bill Trott and Sandra Maler)
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