Hurricane Iota barreled into Nicaragua on Monday night as a Category 4 storm, as parts of Central America prepared for an onslaught of heavy rains, winds and flooding.
Iota made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua at 10:40 p.m. Eastern time on Monday with maximum wind speeds of near 155 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
By early Tuesday, Iota’s maximum wind speed had decreased sightly, to 130 miles per hour, but the hurricane center warned that it was still “extremely dangerous.” The storm was expected to move inland across Nicaragua during the morning, and across southern Honduras by the evening.
Central America is still reeling from Hurricane Eta, which struck less than two weeks ago and made landfall about 15 miles from where Iota did. Aid workers are still struggling to reach communities cut off by washed-out bridges, downed trees and flooded roads.
On Tuesday morning, the storm’s eye was about 40 miles southwest of Puerto Cabezas, a city on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said on Twitter that Iota was the strongest November hurricane on record to ever make landfall in Nicaragua.
Even before Iota made landfall, its winds blew off the roof of a makeshift hospital in Puerto Cabezas that had been set up to treat those affected by Hurricane Eta.
The heavy winds also tore off the corrugated metal sheets atop houses in the city as torrential rains pummeled palm trees and flooded buildings, according to local news reports. Much of the city has been without power since 3 p.m. on Monday.
Iota, which became a hurricane on Sunday, is expected to produce up to 30 inches of rain in some areas of Nicaragua and Honduras through Friday. The intense rainfall could lead to significant flash flooding and mudslides in higher elevations, the hurricane center said.
The storm is also expected to raise water levels “as much as 15 to 20 feet above normal tide levels” along the coasts of both countries. Large and destructive waves are expected to accompany the surge.
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 of the soldiers stood in knee deep water, holding a resident’s pink backpack in the same arm as his service weapon.
Iota hits a region that’s 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 previous hurricane.
As sea levels rose on Monday evening, hundreds of families in Puerto Cabezas were evacuated. On the east side of town, high winds were blowing the roofs off some structures.
Maria Williams said that her modest home had already been reduced to rubble by Eta. Her children improvised a shelter in the same spot where her home had stood, but it was practically on the beach and directly in Hurricane Iota’s line of fire.
So Ms. Williams, 64, evacuated again, walking through debris left by the last storm to reach her sister’s home.
“This Hurricane Iota is a monster,” she 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 decided on Monday night to evacuate their home, 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 hurricane leaves flooding behind in Colombia.
Before it swept 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.
President Iván Duque said on 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, Mr. Duque said 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,” Mr. 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.
Central American leaders point a finger at climate change.
The leaders of Honduras and Guatemala called Monday for an increase in international funding to combat the effects of climate change and to aid their recovery efforts amid recent natural disasters.
“Central America is not the producer of this climate change situation,” the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, said at a news conference. “Instead, we are the most affected.”
Mr. Orlando called on the United Nations to declare Central America as the region most affected by climate change worldwide. Honduras and Guatemala were hammered by Hurricane Eta earlier this month, and both nations are expected to be hard hit by Hurricane Iota.
“Hunger, poverty and destruction do not have years to wait,” said Alejandro Giammattei, the Guatemalan leader. “If we don’t want to see hordes of Central Americans looking to go to countries with a better quality of life, we have to create walls of prosperity in Central America.”
Scientists have found that climate change affects how hurricanes form and strengthen, and that rising ocean temperatures linked to global warming can lead storms to weaken more slowly and remain destructive for longer.
In a recent study, scientists found that 50 years ago a typical storm would have lost more than three-quarters of its intensity in the first 24 hours. Now it would lose only about half.
Guatemala, already battered by storm damage, girds for more.
Battered by the pandemic and a once-in-a-lifetime economic recession, beleaguered Guatemala was scrambling to prepare for its second hurricane in short succession.
As of early Tuesday, a tropical storm warning was in effect across a part of the Honduran coastline that stretches to the Guatemalan border. Up to 20 inches of rainfall were also expected in southeast Guatemala, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Guatemala is still digging out from Eta, which left hundreds of towns underwater and displaced close to 200,000. Entire villages have lost access to potable water, food and medicine, aid groups said.
“If Iota hits with the strength they’re forecasting, it will be chaos,” said Francisco Muss, a retired Guatemalan army general who is coordinating rescue efforts. “I don’t think we have begun to comprehend the impact of this crisis, in terms of the humanitarian disaster.”
Mr. Muss said the government had not even been able to gain entry to about 100 villages hit hard by Eta, and noted that about a quarter of those are in critical conditions “because of a lack of food, because of hunger, thirst, and illness.”
Now, as Hurricane Iota bears down, teams of rescuers are rushing to reach towns left stranded by Hurricane Eta.
“We are racing the storm in order to get supplies to these people, because now they can’t leave, they have nowhere to go,” said Sofía Letona, director of Antigua to the Rescue, a local aid group that has distributed food and medicine to hundreds of people displaced by Eta. “They left their houses in the middle of the night, abandoned everything, got soaked, carried their children. And now another one is coming.”
Ms. Letona said her group had set up makeshift clinics in remote areas where people sought cover from Eta, and 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,” Ms. Letona 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 they were Category 3 or higher.
Meteorologists, having exhausted the 21-name list that is prepared for each hurricane season, had to turn to the Greek alphabet to name the new systems that just kept forming. The last time the Greek alphabet was used was in 2005, when there were 28 storms 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 said 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, Johnny Diaz, Natalie Kitroeff, Oscar Lopez, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Neil Vigdor, Allyson Waller and Mike Ives.