Hurricane Iota powers up in new threat to Central America

Evacuations are being conducted in Iota’s likely landfall area near the shared border of Nicaragua and Honduras.

Satellite image that shows Hurricane Iota in the North Atlantic Ocean. [NOAA via AP]

Fast-strengthening Hurricane Iota, the strongest hurricane yet in this record-smashing season, became very dangerous Category 4 on Monday as it approached the same part of Central America battered by a similarly powerful Hurricane Eta just over a week ago.

Hurricane Iota gained 112 kilometres per hour (70 mph) in strength in 24 hours, going from 140 km/h (85 mph) on Sunday morning to a monstrous 245 km/h (155 mph) on Monday morning. Forecasters predicted it would become an even more catastrophic Category 5 hurricane by the time it reaches the coast.

Authorities warned that Iota would probably come ashore over areas where Eta’s torrential rains saturated the soil, leaving it prone to new landslides and floods, and that the storm surge could reach a shocking 3.6 to 5.5 metres (12 to 18 feet) above normal tides.

Iota, which this morning intensified to become a hurricane, is approaching Nicaragua and Honduras, countries recently hit by Hurricane ETA [Ricardo Maldonado Rozo/EPA-EFE]

Evacuations were being conducted from low-lying areas in Nicaragua and Honduras near their shared border, which appeared to be Iota’s likely landfall. Winds and rain were already being felt on the Nicaraguan coast on Sunday night.

Iota became a hurricane early on Sunday and rapidly gained more power. It was expected to pass over or near Colombia’s Providencia island during the night, and the US National Hurricane Center warned it would probably reach the Central America mainland late on Monday.

The hurricane centre said Iota was centred about 35 km (20 miles) off Isla de Providencia, Colombia, and 235 km (145 miles) southeast of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border, and moving westward at 17km/h (10 mph).

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 increasingly often. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.

All of Honduras was on high alert, with compulsory evacuations that began before the weekend. By Sunday evening 63,500 people were reported to be in 379 shelters just in the northern coastal region.

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.

Several residents of Bilwi, a coastal Nicaraguan city, expressed concern that their homes would not stand up to Iota, so soon after Eta [Civil Defense Handout/EPA-EFE]

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 when Hurricane Eta hit on November 3.

Several residents of Bilwi expressed concern that their homes would not 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.

Eta already wreaked havoc. It hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, 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.

Iota was forecast to drop 200-400 millimetres (8 to 16 inches) of rain in northern Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize, with as much as 750 millimetres (30 inches) in isolated spots. Costa Rica and Panama could also experience heavy rain and possible flooding, the hurricane centre said.

Eta was this year’s 28th named storm, tying the 2005 record. Remnants of Theta, the 29th, dissipated Sunday in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

Residents walk past inundated vehicles in the flooded streets of Planeta, Honduras, in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta [Delmer Martinez/AP Photo]

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 (35 mph) 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”.

This is the first time on record that the Atlantic had two major hurricanes, with winds exceeding 177 km/h (110 mph), in November, with Iota and Eta, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. When Iota’s top winds reached 250 km/h (155 mph), they tied with 1999’s Lenny for the strongest Atlantic hurricane this late in the calendar year.

The official end of hurricane season is November 30.

Source: AP