Hurricane Iota expected to hit Nicaragua as a catastrophic Category 5 storm

Hurricane Iota rapidly strengthened Monday into a Category 5 storm that is likely to bring catastrophic damage to the same part of Central America already battered by a powerful Hurricane Eta less than two weeks ago.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm had maximum sustained winds of 260 km/h by midafternoon. It was centred about 90 kilometres east-southeast of the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, also known as Bilwi, and moving westward at 15 km/h. 

Iota was lashing the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras with torrential rains and strong winds while its eye was still several hours from making landfall in northeastern Nicaragua.

Authorities warned the storm would probably come ashore over areas where Eta’s torrential rains saturated the soil, leaving them prone to new landslides and floods, and that the storm surge could reach a shocking 4.5 to six metres above normal tides.

Cairo Jarquin, Nicaragua emergency response project manager for Catholic Relief Services, visited Bilwi and smaller coastal communities Friday.

This satellite image made available by NOAA shows Hurricane Iota on Monday. The storm is expected to make landfall in Central America as a Category 5 hurricane. (NOAA via The Associated Press)

In Wawa Bar, Jarquin said he found “total destruction.” People had been working furiously to put roofs back over their families’ heads, but now Iota threatened to take what was left.

“The little that remained standing could be razed,” Jarquin said. There were other communities farther inland that he was not even able to reach due to the condition of roads. He said he heard that Wawa bar was evacuated again Saturday.

Evacuations were being conducted from low-lying areas in Nicaragua and Honduras near their shared border.

Nicaraguan Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who is also the first lady, said Monday the government had done everything necessary to protect lives, including the evacuation of thousands. She added that Taiwan had donated 800 tons of rice to help those affected by the storms.

30th named storm of season

Iota is the record 30th named storm of this year’s extraordinarily busy Atlantic hurricane season. It’s also the ninth storm to rapidly intensify this season, a dangerous phenomenon that is happening more often. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.

Iota is stronger, based on central pressure, than 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and is the first storm with a Greek alphabet name to hit Category 5, Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said. It also sets the record for the latest Category 5 hurricane on record, beating the record set by the Nov. 8, 1932, Cuba Hurricane.

Iota was forecast to drop 250-500 millimetres of rain in northern Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize, with as much as 750 millimetres in isolated spots. Costa Rica and Panama could also experience heavy rain and possible flooding, the hurricane centre said.

The prospect of more rain was raising the anxiety of those still homeless after Eta.

Wendy Guadalupe Contreras who was left homeless after the last storm hit the area, comforts her son Monday. Hurricane Iota is expected to bring catastrophic damage to the same part of Central America already battered by a powerful Hurricane Eta less than two weeks ago. (Delmer Martinez/The Associated Press)

Grew faster than usual

On Monday, Carmen Isabel Rodriguez Ortez, 48, was still living inside a government shelter with more than 250 people in La Lima, Honduras, just outside San Pedro Sula. Devastated by Eta’s destruction, she quickly broke into sobs as she contemplated the torrential rains of another storm.

“We’re living a real nightmare,” Rodriguez said. The Chamelecon river flooded her Reformada neighborhood as Eta passed, submerging their homes. “Now they announce more rain and we don’t know what’s going to happen, because our homes are completely flooded.”

Over the past couple of decades, meteorologists have been more worried about storms like Iota that power up much faster than normal. They created an official threshold for this rapid intensification — a storm gaining 56 km/h in wind speed in just 24 hours. Iota doubled it.

Earlier this year, Hannah, Laura, Sally, Teddy, Gamma, Delta, Zeta and Iota all rapidly intensified. Laura and Delta tied or set records for rapid intensification.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate and hurricane scientists studied the effect and found “a lot of that has to do with human-caused climate change.”

The official end of the hurricane season is Nov. 30.