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Iota weakens, but risk of landslides and flooding remains high.
Hurricane Iota’s winds slowed as it moved across Nicaragua toward Honduras on Tuesday, though the storm threatened to bring heavy rainfall that could cause widespread damage in Central American nations soaked by Hurricane Eta just two weeks ago.
The rainfall could lead to “significant, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding” as well as mudslides, the National Hurricane Center said.
With wind speeds dropping to 65 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said, Iota was expected to become a tropical depression by Tuesday evening. But even weakened, Iota will most likely inundate northern Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala with 10 to 20 inches of rain — a scenario that could be deadly in areas where the soil is already saturated with water from the last hurricane.
In Guatemala, the authorities fear that about 100 people were buried by a mudslide that slammed into the village of Quejá when Hurricane Eta hit the side of a mountain. Now, at least 10 communities in Guatemala remain flooded, and with Iota on the way, there is a “high possibility” of landslides, falling rock, mudslides and road closures, the country’s meteorological agency said on Tuesday.
In San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, battered by Hurricane Eta just weeks ago, videos on social media showed streets turned into rivers after hours of heavy rain.
The threat of flooding and landslides loomed across the region.
In Colombia, the storm’s first death was reported on the island of Providencia, where Hurricane Iota struck as a catastrophic Category 5 overnight before weakening as it approached Nicaragua.
Nicaragua reported two deaths linked to Hurricane Iota on Tuesday afternoon. The country’s vice president said that two children had drowned in the La Solera river, near the Pacific Coast.
Iota made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua at 10:40 p.m. Eastern time Monday as a Category 4 storm, with wind speeds up to about 155 miles per hour, according to the hurricane center. 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.
Nicaraguan authorities reported that more than 48,000 families were being housed in 250 shelters across the country. So far the damage remains limited, authorities said, but the tropical storm is continuing to batter the country, with rivers overflowing, houses damaged, and trees and electricity poles felled by heavy winds.
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 Hurricane Eta.
Aid workers struggled to reach communities that were cut off by washed-out bridges, downed trees and flooded roads left by Hurricane Eta, which made landfall about 15 miles from where Iota struck.
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.
Dozens of Indigenous communities were evacuated over 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.
Colombia reports the first casualty of the storm.
Colombia reported the first casualty of the hurricane on Tuesday morning, with authorities saying that at least one person died and one went missing overnight when Iota struck the island of Providencia.
It was a Category 5 storm when it hit the island — the highest category.
President Iván Duque of Colombia said Providencia had sustained severe damage, with 98 percent of its infrastructure affected. Mr. Duque arrived at the nearby island of San Andrés on Tuesday morning after flying over Providencia to assess the damage.
“Today Colombia is united to address this calamity,” Mr. Duque said at a news conference in Cartagena on Monday night. “Never in the history of our country have we faced a Category 5 hurricane.”
Mr. Duque said ships from the Colombian Navy were anchored off Providencia and waiting for weather conditions to improve to deliver aid. The authorities on the island were working to clear debris from the runway of its airport.
On Monday, Mr. Duque said that communication with Providencia was “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.
Before sweeping into Nicaragua, Hurricane 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.
In Nicaragua, relief that the hurricane weakened gives way to sorrow.
When Nicaragua awoke on Tuesday after a night of relentless winds and heavy rains, much of the nation clung to a small victory: Hurricane Iota had not yet claimed any lives, the authorities said. The storm, once a catastrophic Category 5, had weakened to a less dangerous Category 1.
But in a poor nation battered by two hurricanes in two weeks, the storm’s impact was still severe. As Iota slammed into Nicaragua’s coast late on Monday, its winds flattened palm trees, ripped off roofs, flooded buildings and downed electricity poles. Heavy flooding inundated roads and homes in the city of Rivas, near the border with Costa Rica, after three rivers overflowed, according to reports on local news and social media.
About 40,000 people were evacuated into shelters, the government said. Residents in the port city of Puerto Cabezas, which bore the brunt of the hurricane’s arrival, spent the night in terror, crammed with their extended families into homes and shelters.
Daisy George West, 61, took shelter with her husband, two siblings and 94-year-old father in the same room in the middle of her house where the family had weathered Hurricane Eta two weeks earlier.
“It’s destroying everything,” she said. “We’re asking the Lord for mercy — mercy, that’s all we have left.”
Dozens of patients in a makeshift hospital set up in Puerto Cabezas for people affected by Hurricane Eta had been evacuated overnight, including three intensive-care patients and three women in labor, Vice President Rosario Murillo said.
Yader Tejada, a 24-year-old student in Puerto Cabezas, took shelter with his family and said the storm had felt like “a nightmare from which I can’t escape.” The hurricane took off part of their roof, which, like most of the homes in the area, is made of flimsy corrugated metal sheets.
“The gusts are like whip lashes, the zinc sheets don’t stop ringing, the trees hit the walls,” Mr. Tejada said. “We haven’t been able to sleep.”
Several of his family members’ homes were destroyed by the storm. “It’s an awful, sad and very painful experience,” he said. “I feel tired, scared, but I’m waiting for this to end soon.”
The storm is hitting a region still reeling from Hurricane Eta.
Forecasters have warned that Hurricane Iota could compound the destruction caused by Hurricane 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 on 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 Hurricane 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,” Ms. 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 on 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.”
The storm complicates efforts to combat the coronavirus.
The responses to Hurricane Iota, and Hurricane Eta before it, have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic as people fleeing unsafe conditions made their way into crowded shelters where the disease can easily spread.
While outbreaks in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras — the countries expected to be the hardest hit by the storm — 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, the 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 flulike 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,” Ms. 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.
As the storm moved west on Tuesday, patches of both nations’ coastlines were under tropical storm warnings.
President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras said on 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 on 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.
Reporting was contributed by Alfonso Flores Bermúdez, Natalie Kitroeff, Yubelka Mendoza, Oscar Lopez, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Mike Ives, Megan Specia and Nic Wirtz.