Deadly Iota lashes Nicaragua, Honduras after record-setting landfall

Brian Lada
·7 min read

Fifteen miles, or roughly the distance from Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan to JFK International Airport in Queens, is all that separates Puerto Cabezas and Haulover in Nicaragua. On Monday night, Hurricane Iota made landfall near the town of Haulover, becoming the second major hurricane in as many weeks to strike the area after Hurricane Eta came ashore in Puerto Cabezas on Nov. 3. Within 24 hours of landfall, officials had blamed at least three fatalities on the monster storm and there were reports of others who were missing.

Just as the coastal region began making strides in its recovery from Eta, Iota brewed up even stronger impacts and thrashed the same communities with 155-mph winds at Monday night's landfall, the strongest tropical cyclone of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. Making landfall at 10:40 p.m. EST Monday, Iota's maximum sustained winds were just 2 mph shy of Category 5 status.

By Tuesday night, as the center of Iota barged inland across Nicaragua and into Honduras, it had weakened to a tropical storm with sustained winds of 40 mph and was spreading heavy rainfall across Honduras, El Salvador and parts of Guatemala.

The pair of November hurricanes marked the first time on record that two major hurricanes made landfall in Nicaragua in the same season, further devastating the saturated nation that was still flooded from Eta, a storm that claimed at least 130 lives.

The humanitarian crisis that was set into motion after Eta's feet of rainfall will be severely compounded by Iota's torrential rainfall. AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers warned before Iota crashed onshore that the back-to-back hurricane landfalls may cause "one of the worst floods in some of these areas in a thousand years or more," since the ground was still saturated from Eta when Iota lashed the region. The mountainous terrain will further play into the disaster unfolding, adding to the dangers of significant flooding and mudslides.

Conditions deteriorated along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and Honduras during the day Monday as Iota approached as a Category 5 storm with lashing winds and rising storm surge.

As Iota approached, dozens of patients affected by Hurricane Eta were evacuated overnight from a makeshift hospital set up in Puerto Cabezas, including two women who gave birth on Monday, the government said. Reuters reported the powerful winds tore the roof off of the makeshift hospital.

Daisy George West, 61, and her family took shelter in the same room where they weathered Hurricane Eta two weeks earlier. "It's destroying everything," she told The New York Times. "We're asking the Lord for mercy - mercy, that's all we have left."

A 24-year-old student in Puerto Cabezas, Yader Tejada, told the New York Times the storm had felt like "a nightmare from which I can't escape." Iota's Category 4 winds ripped part of the corrugated metal sheet roof off their home. "The gusts are like whip lashes, the zinc sheets don't stop ringing, the trees hit the walls," Tejada said. "We haven't been able to sleep."

Siblings, an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl drowned trying to cross the swollen Solera River in the community of La Pinuela, Nicaragua Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo reported. The AP said there were reports of others missing in the same area. A third fatality was reported in Panama with another missing.

Late Tuesday night, up to 13 people had reportedly been buried by a landslide on the Peñas Blancas hill in the El Carmen Community in Nicaragua.

Around 40,000 people in Honduras' Gracias a Dios region took shelter as Iota barreled into the coast on Monday. "We are facing an incredible emergency. There is no food. There is no water," said Mirna Wood, vice president of the Miskito ethnic group in the region, according to The AP.

Evacuations had been enacted in some of the low-lying coastal areas of Nicaragua where "unsurvivable storm surge" was forecast to approach 20 feet and in Honduras in areas at the highest risk of flooding. However, fuel shortages were complicating evacuation efforts, Reuters reported.

"Some areas along the coast will be uninhabitable for months," warned AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

AccuWeather forecasters are projecting catastrophic damage across northern Nicaragua and throughout much of Honduras from Iota with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 30 inches of rain.

Shortly before landfall on Monday night, Iota lost a slight bit of wind intensity and became a strong Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph.

Iota's landfall marks only the second time in history that two hurricanes have made landfall in Nicaragua in one season. The only other time that this occurred was in 1971 when Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Edith crashed ashore.

AccuWeather has rated Iota as a 5 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes, which takes into account factors including wind speed, flooding rain, storm surge and economic damage and loss.

"This is a catastrophic situation unfolding for northeastern Nicaragua," the National Hurricane Center said. "Hurricane Iota's landfall location is approximately 15 miles south of where Category 4 hurricane Eta made landfall earlier this month." Eta made landfall near Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph on Nov. 3, 2020.

The back-to-back strikes could cause the humanitarian crisis in Nicaragua and Honduras to worsen, Myers said. "Some of these countries may not completely recover for five to 10 years."

Hurricane Iota Landfall
Hurricane Iota Landfall

The above animation shows a visible satellite and infrared view of Hurricane Iota on Monday night, approaching and ultimately making landfall in Nicaragua. (NOAA/GOES-East)

Before Iota neared Central America, heavy tropical downpours associated with the storm caused significant disruptions in Colombia. Homes were submerged in some communities, stranding residents on their roofs while waiting for help to arrive. At least three fatalities were reported in Colombia due to flooding and mudslides.

The substantial damage caused in Nicaragua and Honduras could lead to an uptick in the wholesale price of coffee as the two countries lead Central America in coffee production, accounting for around 8% of the world's coffee output.

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With Iota reaching Category 5 force on Monday, it makes 2020 the fifth consecutive year in which there has been a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic basin. Matthew began the pattern in 2016, and Irma and Maria continued the trend in 2017, followed by Michael in 2018, and Dorian and Lorenzo in 2019. This is the longest streak of consecutive years with a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic basin since records began.

Iota rapidly intensified over a 24-hour period to reach Category 5 status. In this 24-hour window, maximum winds spiked from 90 mph to 160 mph and the lowest barometric pressure in the eye of the storm plummeted a staggering 1.8 inches of mercury (61 millibars). The drop in pressure alone is more than twice what is required for a winter storm to be called a "bomb cyclone," which is usually a drop of 0.71 of an inch of mercury (24 millibars) in 24 hours. This is the fourth time that a hurricane this season rapidly intensified and one of the most extreme intensifications on record, according to meteorologist Sam Lillo.

Iota became the sixth major hurricane of the season, or a hurricane that has reached Category 3 status or greater on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, and it follows Laura, Teddy, Delta, Epsilon and Eta. However, it is not out of the question that another storm could make this exclusive list before the end of 2020.

"Another tropical wave will enter the southern and western Caribbean later this week and could become another named tropical system by the weekend before heading, once again, for Central America," AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski explained.

The next name on the Atlantic hurricane list, now well into the Greek alphabet, is Kappa.

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