Tropical Storm Iota strengthens as it approaches Central America

·2 min read

By Sofia Menchu and Gustavo Palencia

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Iota is strengthening as it barrels toward Central America, with authorities urging communities to evacuate before it unleashes "life-threatening" flooding across a region still recovering from Hurricane Eta's devastation.

Iota is expected to intensify to major hurricane strength or just short of it by the time it smashes into the jungles of the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras on Monday.

As of 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT), Iota was packing maximum sustained winds of 60 miles (97 km) per hour, according to the U.S. National Weather Center (NHC), as it gathered force over the southern Caribbean Sea about 480 miles (770 km) east-southeast of the Nicaraguan-Honduran coast.

The storm comes as Central America is still coping with the massive destruction wrought by Hurricane Eta, which slammed into the region two weeks ago, causing flooding and mudslides that have killed scores of people across a huge swath stretching from Panama to southern Mexico.

On Saturday morning, Guatemalan authorities said a mudslide buried 10 people in the state of Chiquimula near the border with Honduras. Emergency workers have rescued two people and recovered three corpses so far. Five people are still missing.

Saturday's mudslide follows last week's partial collapse of a mountain onto the village of Queja, in the central Guatemalan region of Alta Verapaz, which killed and buried alive dozens of residents.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Saturday expressed concern about Iota's approach, saying he has ordered evacuations for areas expected to be affected.

"We are concerned about the area of ​​Alta Verapaz and Quiché. We believe that they are the areas where we could have the greatest impact," said Giammattei. "We hope God helps us."

In Honduras, where Eta killed 64 people and damaged roads, bridges and crops, President Juan Orlando Hernández on Saturday urged people in Iota's path to evacuate to the nearest shelters.

"Iota is going to put our lives and our economy at risk again," he said.

Residents of the community of Cruz de Valencia in northwestern Honduras have begun evacuating.

"We have to get out, we have to save our lives," said resident Erick Gomez, who said he only survived the flooding from the last hurricane by clinging to a tree to avoid being swept away by the rushing water.

"We are afraid of what we just suffered with Eta, and we do not want to go through the same thing again," he added.

The NHC is warning Iota could bring flash flooding and mudslides across northern Colombia and Central America as early as Monday.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Additional reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City, Nelson Rentería in San Salvador, Álvaro Murillo in San José and Ismael Lopez; Writing by Diego Ore and Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Jonathan Oatis)