MANAGUA – Hurricane Iota, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic this late in the year, slammed into the Nicaraguan coast late Monday, bringing catastrophic winds and pounding rains to a swath of Central America still reeling from the destructive force of Hurricane Eta nearly two weeks earlier.
Also the most powerful storm of the extraordinarily active 2020 hurricane season, Iota made landfall at 10:40 p.m. EDT in the town of Haulover, before plowing into fishing and farming towns in northeastern Nicaragua. The storm slightly weakened from a Category 5 to an extremely intense Category 4 as it came ashore, with sustained winds of 155 mph.
Iota came ashore only 15 miles south of where Eta made landfall earlier this month, on Nov. 3.
In Puerto Cabezas, about 30 miles north from center of the storm, eyewitnesses said strong winds were bending coconut palms and lower lying areas had started to flood by late Monday afternoon, leading more residents to scramble toward overcrowded and undersupplied shelters in a poverty-stricken corner of the country. Parts of the port town of 50,000 had already lost power.
“The winds, the rain, are very strong, I can hear the sound of the sea surrounding us,” said Shira Downs, Puerto Cabezas resident and director of a woman’s rights organization, “This is going to be worse that Eta, and this is just the beginning. I just hope God has mercy on us.”
Jose Coleman, an indigenous activist in Puerto Cabezas, said winds had blown the wood siding off a neighborhood house, leaving it partially collapsed. His brother, Presly Coleman, said by Monday morning it was already too dangerous to leave the house.
“It’s very strong,” Presly Coleman said. “The winds are whipping.”
Thousands of people in the storm’s path had already evacuated from Eta, and were still sheltering inland when Iota hit. But thousands of others, many of them impoverished Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguans, remained on the ground and in Iota’s path, with hardest-hit areas forecast to receive up to 30 inches of rain.
The hurricanes hit the region at the time when it is already roiling not only from the aftermath of Eta, but from the socioeconomic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which is spiking poverty and food insecurity in the region.
Nicaraguan authorities estimated 80,000 families will be affected by Iota, both in coastal communities where the hurricane will hit directly and in other parts of the country that could experience flooding and deadly landslides.
The government has prepared nearly 1,300 shelters, according Nicaragua’s National System for the Prevention, Mitigation and Attention of Disasters (SINAPRED).
Some residents in areas previously hit by Eta told Nicaraguan media they didn’t want to evacuate their homes now because they feared looting if they abandoned them.
Vittoria Peñalba, director of sustainability for the aid group World Vision in Nicaragua, said 50,000 coastal dwellers had been evacuated over the weekend and on Monday, a process hampered by roads left washed out and bridges pulverized in Eta’s wake.
In Nicaragua, a troubled Central American nation of 6.5 million where the authoritarian government of Daniel Ortega has come under fire for poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, concern centered heavily on the destructive force of Iota in northeastern towns of Puerto Cabezas, Waspam, and, further south, Prinzapolka. There was overcrowding in shelters lacking in food, mattresses and personal protective equipment.
“The houses on the coast are mostly made from wood, they are of very fragile construction, so people are going to schools, shelters, anywhere they can be protected from the wind and rain,” Peñalba said. “But there are too many people in each shelter. The government is trying its best, but there’s too many people.”
Before making landfall, Iota pummeled the small Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia, located east of the Nicaraguan coast. Early Monday, communications went down on Providencia, a tropical island between Jamaica and Costa Rica with a population just over 5,000, according to Colombian news outlets. Colombian President Iván Duque said later Monday that regular communications had also been lost with San Andrés, population 80,000, leaving the government to rely on links via satellite phone.
The Colombian outlet Semana TV showed video footage of San Andres, with power lines downed on flooded roads and corrugated iron roofs blown off homes.
“This is a big challenge our country is facing,” said Duque said in televised comments. “As soon as the circumstances allows us to get there, we will do that with all our capacity.”
On the Colombian islands, Twitter became the main source of communication with media outlets and government institutions posting videos of the most affected areas. The Colombian Navy tweeted footage of a 67-year-old Italian sailor found adrift off the coast of San Andres.
“Thank you to the Colombian Navy,” says the man in the video, whose name was not disclosed.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami showed Iota losing strength into Tuesday while tracking toward more densely population centers in Honduras, where devastating mudslides from Eta have already left more than 100 dead.
Maite Matheu, Honduras director for the charity Care, said storm conditions had already begun hitting parts of that country. Concern centered on an estimated 100,000 people who were fleeing their homes, including in forced evacuations imposed on Monday by the government.
“The problem is the shelters are already full because of the Eta.
Matheu said groups were particularly fearful about the impact in the capital of Tegucigalpa, with high concentrations of people living in areas prone to flooding, and in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, where storm refugees from Eta were already living precariously on the streets.
“There have not really been preparations for everyone to go to shelters,” she said. “An emergency is coming.”
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Faiola reported from Miami. The Washington Post’s Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.