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Hurricane Eta makes landfall in Nicaragua as a fierce Category 4 storm; flood disaster looms

“Catastrophic” wind damage and flooding forecast in Central America as storm plows inland

A fallen tree on a road due to intense rains and winds due to the passage of Category 4 Hurricane Eta on the north Caribbean coast of Bilwi, Nicaragua, Nov. 3. (Jorge Torres/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Hurricane Eta made landfall just south of Puerto Cabezas, on Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean coast Tuesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane, bringing catastrophic surge, rains and winds of up to 140 mph.

At 4 p.m. Eastern time, the center of Hurricane Eta was located about 15 miles south-southwest of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. The National Hurricane Center in Miami had predicted a storm surge of up to 14 to 21 feet near the coast; it appears that Puerto Cabezas took a direct hit.

Moving west at only 5 mph, Eta was set to batter much of the coast for an extended period. Sustained winds of 69 mph and a gust to 103 mph were measured at the Puerto Cabezas airport around sunrise Tuesday morning.

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Hurricane Eta, one of the most powerful storms to hit Central America in years, caused devastating flooding in Nicaragua on Nov. 3. (Video: Reuters)

The hurricane rapidly intensified from a tropical storm Sunday and neared Category 5 status Monday before reaching the coast. It could be one of the region’s most devastating hurricanes since Hurricane Felix in 2007 caused at least 130 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

During Felix, “there was so much death. You went to the sea and saw people floating who had drowned. It was horrible,” local Indigenous leader José Coleman told The Washington Post by phone Monday night from his home in Puerto Cabezas. “We hope that doesn’t happen.”

Ahead of landfall, Nicaraguan officials evacuated more than 3,000 people to more than 15 shelters, mainly to schools and churches in Puerto Cabezas. Many residents who live on islands off the Nicaraguan coast were evacuated by boat. The wood-paneled houses common in the area are not expected to withstand the strong winds.

Nicaragua and Honduras scrambled to evacuate the Atlantic coast on Nov. 2 as Hurricane Eta barreled closer to the region. (Video: Reuters)

Local stores soon faced shortages as residents scrambled to buy plastic to seal electronics and important documents and boards to hammer over windows. Local fishermen brought all their boats to shore.

On Monday, residents along the coast reported that rains and winds were already starting to pick up. Electricity was already spotty, and officials were bracing for up to two weeks of outages.

Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is home to the country’s Indigenous Miskito people and Afro-Nicaraguan population. These communities are some of the poorest in the country, cut off from many of the resources concentrated in the capital, Managua. Puerto Cabezas, a city of about 60,000 reachable after a 12-hour drive from the capital, is expected to be hit the hardest by the hurricane.

“Everyone takes care of themselves as best they can and with whatever resources they have,” said Coleman of the community’s preparations. But the limited resources in these communities mean that natural disasters are “devastating,” he added.

“We hope that’s not the case, that there is not much loss of life and material loss, and that they don’t lose hope.”

The hurricane hit Nicaragua at a time when these communities are already reeling from the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund predicts a 5.5 percent contraction of the Nicaraguan economy this year. 2020 marks the third straight year of economic downturn after a mass protest movement against President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, led to a nationwide sociopolitical crisis in 2018.

Food insecurity along the coast could also increase if the hurricane destroys the crops that families depend on. The government sent 88 tons of food to coastal communities in preparation.

Eta’s winds are expected to weaken as it moves inland toward Managua on Wednesday, then north toward Honduras. However, rainfall of up to 35 or more inches could cause landslides in Nicaragua and throughout Central America. Honduran media have reported the first death of a 13-year-old boy in San Pedro Sula when a wall fell because of a landslide.

A high-stakes forecast with increasing surge risk in Puerto Cabezas

On satellite imagery, Eta appeared to be beginning to suffer from the effects of land interaction Tuesday. It no longer retained its pinhole eye, and the storm’s cloud tops were not quite as tall and cold as they were Monday night. After forming a new new eyewall, however, the storm once again consolidated Tuesday afternoon, presenting ominous danger of storm-surge flooding and wind in Puerto Cabezas.

Eta’s winds were expected to weaken as it moved inland, but the storm’s most widespread threat — flooding rainfall — will be just getting underway. Widespread rainfall totals of 1 to 3 feet are possible, with an outside chance of higher amounts where the mountainous terrain enhances precipitation.

“This rainfall will lead to catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with landslides in areas of higher terrain of Central America,” the Hurricane Center wrote.

The flooding won’t be localized to Nicaragua, but rather is expected to affect Jamaica, Honduras, southeastern Mexico, El Salvador, Haiti and the Cayman Islands as well.

Rural communities in those nations are extremely susceptible to mudslides and flash flooding. In 1998, Category 1 Hurricane Mitch killed more than 11,000 in Central America after drenching the region with rainfall totals between 35 and 75 inches.

Farther down the road, Eta’s remnant circulation may reemerge over the northwestern Caribbean, and either re-form into a tropical storm or seed the formation of a new tropical storm. Based on some computer model projections, Eta has the potential to haunt forecasts for up to another week and a half.

Hurricane Eta in historical context

Eta, the 28th named storm of the 2020 season, ties the record for the most named storms ever observed in an Atlantic hurricane season. It also became the third most powerful November hurricane on record in the Atlantic, eclipsed only by Hurricane Michelle in 2001 and the Cuba Hurricane of 1932.

The hurricane also lurched from a 40 mph tropical storm to a 110 mph hurricane in 24 hours between Sunday morning and Monday, its rapid surge in strength doubling the pace needed to classify as “rapid intensification.” That’s unprecedented for November; in fact, only about a half dozen Atlantic hurricanes on record have matched or exceeded that rate at any time in a hurricane season.

Meanwhile, the risk of Eta redeveloping over the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico was increasing. It may become a hazard to Cuba or even South Florida by the weekend.

Matthew Cappucci reported from Washington.