Hurricane Iota powers toward parts of Central America that Eta pummeled

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Managua, Nicaragua — A fast-strengthening Hurricane Iota swept over the western Caribbean and became a major Category 4 storm as it headed for the same part of Central America battered by a similarly powerful Hurricane Eta just over a week ago. Forecasters feared a steep death toll from Iota since Eta left structures weakened and ground saturated.

Evacuations were being conducted from low-lying areas in Nicaragua and Honduras near their shared border, which appeared to be Iota’s likely landfall area, probably Monday night, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, in Miami. Winds and rain were already being felt on the Nicaraguan coast Sunday night.

Iota became a hurricane early Sunday and rapidly gained power and was expected to pass over or near or over Colombia’s Providencia island during the night. It became a dangerous Category 3 hurricane early Monday and quickly became a Category 4 as it approached the Central America mainland late Monday.

CBS News weather producer David Parkinson said Iota could be wallop land with 155 mph winds and flirt with becoming the season’s first Category 5 hurricane — the most powerful one. That threshold is 157 mph.

Hurricane Iota off Central American coast at Nicaragua-Honduras border early on November 16, 2020.

National Hurricane Center

The hurricane center said Iota had maximum sustained winds of 145 mph early Monday. It was centered about 170 miles southeast of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border and moving westward at 10 mph.

Iota was forecast to drop 8 to 16 inches of rain in northern Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize, with as much as 30 inches in isolated spots. Costa Rica and Panama could also experience heavy rain and possible flooding, the hurricane center said.

In addition, the center said a “life-threatening storm surge” would raise water levels as much as 10 to 15 feet above normal in some places along the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras.

Iota was already a record-breaking system, being the 30th named storm of this year’s extraordinarily busy Atlantic hurricane season. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger, more frequent and more destructive storms.

In Honduras, compulsory evacuations began before the weekend and by Sunday evening, 63,500 people were reported to be in 379 shelters just in the northern region, while the whole country was on high alert.

Nicaraguan officials said that by late Sunday afternoon about 1,500 people, nearly half of them children, had been evacuated from low-lying areas in the country’s northeast, including all the inhabitants of Cayo Misquitos. Authorities said 83,000 people in that region were in danger.

Wind and rain were beginning to be felt Sunday night in Bilwi, a coastal Nicaraguan city where people crowded markets and hardware stores during the day in search of plastic sheeting, nails and other materials to reinforce their homes, just as they did before Hurricane Eta hit on Nov. 3.

Several residents of Bilwi expressed concern that their homes wouldn’t stand up to Iota so soon after Eta. Local television showed people being evacuated in wooden boats, carrying young children as well as dogs and chickens.

Authorities warned that the risk was high because Iota would probably come ashore over areas where Eta’s torrential rains left the soil saturated with water and more prone to new landslides and floods.

Eta wreaked havoc, hitting Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane and killing at least 120 people as torrential rains caused flash floods and mudslides in parts of Central America and Mexico. Then it meandered across Cuba, the Florida Keys and around the Gulf of Mexico before slogging ashore again near Cedar Key, Florida, and dashing across Florida and the Carolinas.

Eta was the 28th named storm of this year’s hurricane season, tying the 2005 record for named storms. Theta, the 29th, was far out in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and became a remnant low Sunday.

The official end of hurricane season is Nov. 30.

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