Hurricane Iota becomes first Category 5 storm of 2020 season

Courtney Spamer
·7 min read

Thirteen days may be all the time between multiple humanitarian crises in Central America. For the second time this month, a dangerous tropical threat looms large across the region. Areas still working to recover from the deadly Hurricane Eta are now under threat from an equally powerful tropical system -- Hurricane Iota.

Iota reached Category 5 strength -- the first storm of the season to reach the highest status on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale -- when its winds peaked at 160 mph on Monday morning. Just hours earlier, the record-breaking 30th named storm of the season had strengthened from a Category 2 storm to a Category 4 major hurricane within an hour's time.

Iota strengthened so quickly that its intensification ranks among three other historic hurricanes​​​​​​​ - Gilbert in 1988, Rita in 2005 and Wilma in 2005. Also, Iota became the only storm to rapidly strengthen with its central barometric pressure dropping by 1.8 inches of mercury (61 mb) in 24 hours in November.

At 10 a.m. EST Monday, Iota was generating its whipping winds about 25 miles northeast of Isla de Providencia, Colombia, as it continued moving west at 10 mph. AccuWeather meteorologists are forecasting the powerful system to come ashore either late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, potentially just miles away from the area where Eta made its catastrophic landfall less than two weeks earlier. Hurricane watches and warnings were in effect for much of the coast.

The above animation shows a visible satellite and infrared view of Hurricane Iota on Monday morning, churning in the western Caribbean Sea (NOAA/GOES-East).

Besides Iota, the most recent major hurricane in the Atlantic was Hurricane Eta. Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on Nov. 3, in Nicaragua, which was among the top five strongest storms to ever hit the nation. Eta also carved a path of destruction through Honduras and Guatemala, unleashing feet of rain, tremendous flooding and killing more than 100.

Central America is still facing a humanitarian crisis following Eta's deadly blow. Millions are enduring dangerous conditions in the storm's wake -- with concerns over waterborne diseases and COVID-19 complicating recovery. And the situation is likely to become even more dire as Iota approaches the coast.

"With Eta having gone through less than two weeks ago, Hurricane Iota will place another devastating blow to the region. No amount of words can describe the problems this system will add to the crisis already occurring in the area," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Matt Rinde said.

Iota is forecast to pick up some forward speed and as it continues to move westward toward the border of Honduras and Nicaragua on Monday. Along the way, heavy rainfall will inundate northern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela, as well as southern Jamaica.

In addition to widespread rainfall, Iota will continue to move through an area of low wind shear and warm water -- around 84 degrees Fahrenheit -- in the western Caribbean Sea, allowing the storm to strengthen even further still.

"Iota is expected to strengthen through Monday and make landfall over the northern coast of Nicaragua Monday evening as a Category 4 hurricane," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll said. "Landfall will occur north of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, north of where Eta made landfall."

The exact track it takes, the strength and forward speed as it plows onshore in Central America will determine how grim the situation will become.

"The chance is low, but Iota could become a Category 5 hurricane (maximum sustained winds of 157 mph or higher) on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale," Doll added.

Should Iota make landfall in Nicaragua as a hurricane, it would be only the second time in history the country would be hit by two hurricanes in one season. The last time it occurred was in 1971, when Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Edith hit Nicaragua.

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In Central America, building seas were the first impact, beginning Sunday evening. Next will be the outer bands of Iota, that will bring heavy rain to Nicaragua and eastern Honduras as early as Monday morning, then gusty winds.

The exact strength of Iota at landfall will dictate the wind gusts experienced by the storm. If Iota makes landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 130 mph (209 km/h) or greater, the effects could be devastating.

"Massive damage to structures is likely and some will be destroyed. Some areas will be uninhabitable for months," Doll warned.

In addition to the strongest, most distructive winds being found at the coast near landfall, so too will be the most impactful storm surge from Iota.

Storm surge of 1-3 feet (0.3-1 meter) will stretch from near Claura in Honduras to Haulover, Nicaragua, with the most severe surge, 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) between Puerto Cabezas and Nina Yari. This same area experienced coastal inundation from Eta earlier this month.

Even still, the most widespread and greatest threat to lives and property from the new cyclone is expected to be dealt by serious flooding caused by feet of rainfall. Major river flooding and flash flooding could occur with a vast area of 12-18 inches (300-457 mm) across the mountainous terrain of Honduras, the most likely location for the AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 30 inches (762 mm).

Even more widespread amounts of 2-4 inches (50-100 mm) are forecast from Guatemala to central Nicaragua, worsening ongoing flooding and clean-up efforts.

With all of the mountainous terrain and the very saturated ground following Hurricane Eta, mudslides are a definite concern with the new tropical threat.

Given the threat posed by devastating storm surge, catastrophic flooding inland and devastating winds, Iota will be a 5 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes over Central America. This is based on the life-threatening heavy rainfall that will lead to catastrophic flooding, damaging winds, storm surge and a number of other economic factors.

The AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes is a 6-point scale with ratings of less than 1 and 1 to 5. In contrast to the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, which classifies storms by wind speed only, the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes is based on a broad range of important factors. In order to better communicate a more comprehensive representation of the potential impact of a storm to lives and livelihoods, the scale covers not only wind speed, but also flooding rain, storm surge and economic damage and loss. Some of these hazards, such as inland flooding and storm surge, in many storms result in more deaths and economic loss than wind.

Tropical Storm Iota developed Friday afternoon in the central Caribbean just hours after the system had become Tropical Depression 31. Iota strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane early Sunday morning and officially became the 13th hurricane of the season. 2020 is now just two shy of the record number of hurricanes to churn in the Atlantic in one season held by 2005.

In fact, this is the first time the NHC has ever gotten this far into the Greek alphabet during a tropical season.

Iota strengthened into a the sixth major hurricane -- Category 3 or greater -- of the season early Monday morning. Five other major hurricanes churned in the Atlantic this season: Laura, Teddy, Delta, Epsilon and Eta.

According to Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University, 2020 is now in a seven-way tie for the second-most major hurricanes in an Atlantic hurricane season. Other years that have had six major hurricanes include 1926, 1933, 1950, 1996, 2004 and 2017. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season holds the record for the most major hurricanes, with seven total so far.

Possibly even more impressive is how rapidly Iota managed to strengthen over less than 12 hours. On Sunday at 4 p.m. EST, Iota had sustained winds of 90 mph and was considered a Category 1 hurricane. By 1:40 a.m. EST Monday, Iota was a dangerous Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 140 mph.

2020 set the record for the most tropical storms to be named in one Atlantic hurricane season as Theta became the 29th tropical storm of the season last week. Theta has since lost wind intensity and has dissipated, after swirling between the Azores and the Canary Islands Sunday morning.

This image, taken on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 12, 2020, shows Tropical Storm Theta spinning over the eastern Atlantic. Portugal appears near the upper right and Africa appears on the far right. (CIRA at Colorado State/GOES-East)

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