In a one-two punch, Hurricane Iota roared ashore along almost exactly the same stretch of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast recently devastated by an equally powerful hurricane and then weakened as it tore across the northern part of the country.
Iota had intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 5 hurricane on Monday, but the US National Hurricane Center said it weakened as it neared the coast later in the day and made landfall with maximum sustained winds of 250kmph (155mph). It hit the coast about 48km (30 miles) south of the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, also known as Bilwi.
On Tuesday morning, Iota still carried hurricane-force winds as a Category 1 storm, moving inland over northern Nicaragua with maximum sustained winds of 120kmph (75mph). It was moving westward at 19kmph (12mph). The storm was forecast to cross southern Honduras late on Tuesday.
Guillermo Gonzalez, director of Nicaragua’s emergency management agency, said on Tuesday morning that preliminary reports from the coast included fallen trees, electric poles and roofs stripped from homes, but no deaths or injuries.
More than 40,000 people were in shelters. He said one hotel in Bilwi had lost its entire roof.
As the storm moved westward, flooding became the concern. The Tola River had topped its banks and western Nicaragua, along the Pacific coast, were forecast to receive the most rain. Nicaragua’s meteorology director Marcio Baca said the area was forecast to receive 150-180mm (6-7 inches) of rainfall and soils were already highly saturated.
People had hunkered down in Bilwi even before the hurricane arrived, already battered by screeching winds and torrential rains.
Business owner Adan Artola Schultz braced himself in the doorway of his house as strong gusts of wind and rain drove water in torrents down the street.
“It is like bullets,” he said of the sound of metal structures banging and buckling in the wind. “This is double destruction,” he said, referring to the damage wrought by Hurricane Eta just two weeks earlier. “This is coming in with fury,” said Artola Schultz.
Iota came ashore just 24km (15 miles) south of where Hurricane Eta made landfall on November 3, also as a Category 4 hurricane. Eta’s torrential rains saturated the soil in the region, leaving it prone to new deadly landslides and floods, forecasters warned.
“The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Iota is making landfall in almost the exact same location that category 4 Hurricane Eta did a little less than two weeks ago,” the Hurricane Center said in a statement.
Eta killed more than 130 people in the region as torrential rains caused flash floods and mudslides in parts of Central America and Mexico.
“This hurricane is definitely worse” than Eta, Jason Bermudez, a university student from Bilwi, said as winds roared before Iota came ashore. “There are already a lot of houses that lost their roofs, fences and fruit trees that got knocked down,” said Bermudez. “We will never forget this year.”
Cairo Jarquin, Nicaragua emergency response project manager for Catholic Relief Services, was just in the area last Friday where Iota made landfall.
He said the primary concerns for people trying to survive after Eta were drinking water and shelter.
Eta left no structure in the coastal community of Wawa Bar untouched. “We can’t talk about partial damage, but rather total,” he said.
Many families depend on captured rain, but Eta destroyed their systems catching and piping the rainwater. Those who had wells have seen them contaminated by seawater and sewage from primitive latrines. Families had tried to repair their roofs after Eta, even in a temporary way, to escape the regular tropical rains, but Iota would finish with all of that, he said.
Iota now moves towards Honduras, a country still reeling from Eta with tens of thousands of homeless.
Following Eta, Honduras had reported 74 deaths and nearly 57,000 people in shelters, mostly in the north.
Iota is the record 30th named storm of this year’s extraordinarily busy Atlantic hurricane season. It is also the ninth storm to rapidly intensify this season, a dangerous phenomenon that is happening increasingly more often. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.
The official end of the hurricane season is November 30.