Heavy rain and landslide warning as Hurricane Iota hits Nicaragua
By The New York Times
Stretches of Central America braced for heavy rain, strong winds and flooding Tuesday morning as Hurricane Iota bore down on the region, the latest hurricane to strike the area in less than two weeks. Even as Iota weakened after making landfall overnight, the National Hurricane Center warned that it could have an outsized impact as it batters areas still recovering from Hurricane Eta this month.
Iota made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua at 10:40 p.m. Eastern time Monday as a Category 4 storm, with wind speeds of up to about 155 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. With waters rising in the northeastern Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, hundreds of families evacuated from coastal communities as the storm ripped roofs from homes and hotels.
By Tuesday morning, Iota’s maximum wind speed had decreased to 85 mph and the storm had weakened to a Category 1 hurricane, although the hurricane center still warned of the storm’s danger. No major incidents or loss of life had been reported by Nicaraguan authorities as of early Tuesday, although infrastructure was damaged in some locations.
Even as the storm was expected to weaken further as it makes its way across Nicaragua, the hurricane center warned of “life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, flash flooding and landslides” across parts of Central America.
Aid workers are struggling to reach communities that were cut off by washed-out bridges, downed trees and flooded roads from Eta, which made landfall this month about 15 miles from where Iota struck.
“Flooding and mudslides across portions of Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala could be exacerbated by Hurricane Eta’s recent effects there, resulting in significant to potentially catastrophic impacts,” the hurricane center said in an early morning advisory.
Iota was expected to move inland across Nicaragua during the morning and across southern Honduras by the evening. On Tuesday morning, the storm’s eye was about 15 miles northwest of El Pía, Nicaragua.
Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University, said on Twitter that Iota was the strongest November hurricane on record to make landfall in Nicaragua.
Even before Iota made landfall, its winds blew the roof off a makeshift hospital in Puerto Cabezas that had been set up to treat people affected by Eta. Much of the city has been without power since 3 p.m. Monday.
Iota, which became a hurricane Sunday, is expected to produce up to 30 inches of rain as it moves farther inland across northern Nicaragua and into southern Honduras overnight into Wednesday.
It is also expected to raise water levels “as much as 5 to 10 feet above normal tide levels” along the coasts of both countries, the hurricane center said. Iota is forecast to dissipate over Central America by Wednesday night.
Dozens of Indigenous communities were evacuated throughout the weekend in Nicaragua and Honduras, where the military shared pictures on Twitter of soldiers helping people out of stilted wooden homes and carrying them to safety. One soldier stood in knee-deep water, holding a resident’s pink backpack in the same arm as his service weapon.
The storm is hitting a region still reeling from Hurricane Eta.
Forecasters have warned that Iota could compound the destruction caused by Eta, which killed at least 140 people throughout Central America after making landfall as a Category 4 storm in Nicaragua.
In Puerto Cabezas, a Nicaraguan city where houses are cobbled together by wood, nails and zinc sheets, families have been sleeping amid the rubble left from the earlier storm. As waters rose Monday evening, hundreds of families were evacuated. On the eastern side of the city, high winds blew the roofs off some structures.
One resident, Maria Williams, 64, said that after Eta reduced her modest home to rubble, her children improvised a shelter in the same spot. But it was practically on the beach and directly in Iota’s line of fire. So she evacuated again, walking through debris left by the last storm to reach her sister’s home.
“This Hurricane Iota is a monster,” Williams said. “I no longer think I can survive if I stay in this house. I am afraid for myself and my grandchildren.”
Another resident, Rodolfo Altunes, said that he had planned to stay put while Iota hit, but that he and his wife had decided Monday night to evacuate, with their children in tow, because the wind and storm surges were so powerful.
Two hours after leaving, he learned that his home had been destroyed.
“I am fortunate,” he said. “God loved me.”
Iota leaves flooding behind in Colombia.
Before sweeping into Nicaragua, Iota clipped two Colombian islands that lie east of Central America’s coastline.
Photos taken on the islands, San Andrés and Providencia, showed trees bending under fierce winds. Colombian officials and news reports said that both islands had suffered electricity blackouts.
President Iván Duque said Monday that communication with Providencia had been “very bad” because of failures in the telecommunications network, and that the Colombian military was among the agencies helping with the relief effort.
Video footage from Cartagena, a city on the country’s Caribbean coast, showed people wading cautiously through flooded streets alongside half-submerged boats.
Speaking from Cartagena, Duque said that relief workers would set off for Providencia on Tuesday if conditions allowed, and that rescue personnel planned to distribute 15 tons of humanitarian aid to the archipelago that includes San Andrés and Providencia.
“We’re here with a committed team of brave and patriotic Colombians who are working to deal with this emergency,” Duque said, flanked by relief workers in surgical masks and matching jackets.
As of Tuesday morning, a tropical storm warning was in effect for both islands.
The storm complicates efforts to combat the coronavirus.
The responses to Iota, and Eta before it, have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic as people fleeing unsafe conditions make their way into crowded shelters where the disease can easily spread.
While outbreaks in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras have been smaller than those elsewhere in the region, the hurricane could lead to an uptick in transmission. Natural disasters, paired with the ongoing pandemic response, have proved challenging elsewhere this year, and the impact could be more severe in underserved rural communities.
Sofía Letona, director of Antigua to the Rescue, an aid group in Guatemala that has distributed food and medicine to hundreds of people displaced by Eta, said that her group had set up makeshift clinics in remote areas. But aid workers found widespread illness among those who had fled their homes, including gastritis, fungal infections and infected mosquito bites. Some said they had headaches, a cough and flu-like symptoms — all possible signs of the coronavirus.
The hurricanes may intensify the spread of the virus as people crowd into shelters and interact for the first time with aid workers and others from outside their isolated villages. The government provided masks in some shelters, aid workers said, but many others offered no form of protection against the virus.
“More than a risk, it’s a certainty that there will be some kind of massive contagion in rural shelters,” Letona said.
As Iota moves inland, communities scramble to prepare.
Iota is expected to produce up to 30 inches of rain in some areas of Nicaragua and Honduras through Friday, and intense rainfall could lead to significant flash flooding and mudslides in higher elevations.
The storm is also expected to raise water levels in some places by as much as 15 to 20 feet above normal levels, and large destructive waves are expected to accompany the surge. As the storm moved west Tuesday, patches of both nations’ coastlines were under hurricane or tropical storm warnings.
Dozens of Indigenous communities were evacuated throughout the weekend in Nicaragua and Honduras.
President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras said Monday that soldiers were among many personnel in the country, including firefighters and police officers, who had been activated to prepare for Iota’s arrival. He added that people in the storm’s path would receive cellphone messages advising them of risks and evacuation plans.
“The first and most important thing is to save lives,” he said.
The most active hurricane season on record is not over yet.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which is set to end Nov. 30, has had 30 named storms, 13 of them hurricanes. And six of those hurricanes were considered “major”— Eta and Iota among them — meaning Category 3 or higher.
Meteorologists, having exhausted the 21-name list prepared for each hurricane season, turned to the Greek alphabet to name the further new systems. The last time the Greek alphabet was used was in 2005, when 28 storms were strong enough to be named.
This year, storms began two weeks before the Atlantic hurricane season officially kicked off, with the formation of Tropical Storm Albert in mid-May.
In August, midway through the season, scientists upgraded their outlook to say that 2020 would be “one of the most active seasons” and that they expected up to 25 named storms by the time it was over.
By November, even that upgraded expectation was exceeded.
Before Iota hit Nicaragua on Monday, there was Theta, the season’s 29th named storm. It broke the annual record set in 2005, the year that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.