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Category 4 Hurricane Iota slams into Nicaragua

Hurricane Iota drenched Honduras and Nicaragua on Nov. 17 as flooded villages are still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Eta two weeks prior. (Video: Reuters)
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MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Hurricane Iota sliced deeper into Central America on Tuesday, as the strongest storm on record this late in the year weakened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph, leaving a deadly wake of inundated towns, damaged shelters and snapped trees and power lines in a region still reeling from Hurricane Eta earlier this month.

Iota's catastrophic winds and pounding rains made landfall as an intense Category 4 storm at 10:40 p.m. Monday in northeastern Nicaragua. Authorities announced the storm's first fatality after a death on the hard-hit Colombian island of Providencia, with a population of more than 5,000 about 140 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast.

The Nicaraguan press reported the deaths of two children who drowned south of the capital, but the leftist authoritarian government denied the deaths were linked to the storm. 

Iota came ashore only 15 miles south of where Hurricane Eta made landfall on Nov. 3.

Hurricane Iota: Images capture the Category 5 storm’s ferocity

Colombian President Iván Duque personally assessed the damage on the islands of San Andrés and, later, Providencia, which suffered extensive damage when Iota pummeled it as a Category 5 storm before hitting the Nicaraguan coast. Aerial photos showed debris fields where houses once stood.

"The damage, which we could appreciate from the overflight, is the destruction of practically 98 percent to 99 percent of the infrastructure," Duque told reporters.

Images in the Colombian press showed residents of San Andrés canoeing down flooded streets, inundated market stalls, homes turned into scrap heaps and roofs ripped off commercial buildings. Colombia's Disaster Risk Management Unit said power had been restored to 90 percent of consumers on the island who had outages.

Providencia appeared to suffer more catastrophic damage. The Colombian navy dispatched a frigate from the mainland carrying first responders and a helicopter for search-and-rescue missions, as well as supplies of tents, blankets, portable beds, food kits and water.

Nicaragua's Caribbean coast and inundated zones far inland awoke Tuesday to a pulverized landscape.

The Nicaraguan government estimated that 80,000 families would be affected by Iota, and it deployed 3,500 health workers, 2,350 police officers and 365 firefighters to the directly affected areas. Some residents in areas previously hit by Eta told local media that they didn't want to evacuate because they feared their abandoned homes would be looted.

Damage in and around the coastal commercial hub of Puerto Cabezas, 30 miles north of where the storm made landfall, included roofs ripped off homes and fallen trees and power lines, said Guillermo González, director of the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention.

Puerto Cabezas residents warned that packed shelters were running out of supplies and that transportation through the streets was impossible, according to local media reports. Telcor, the state telecom company, reported that Puerto Cabezas and the surrounding area were without cellphone service after its central command center was flooded. The roof came off a makeshift hospital, forcing authorities to move patients to a government building.

“The winds, the rain, are very strong. I can hear the sound of the sea surrounding us,” said Shira Downs, a resident. “This is going to be worse that Eta. . . . I just hope God has mercy on us.”

In Jinotega, about 180 miles west of Puerto Cabezas, the levels of the Rio Viejo grew, threatening to flood the urban center it flows through, according to the Nicaraguan media outlet La Prensa.

Images emerging on social media from Rivas, a southern Pacific coastal town far from the storm's center, showed devastating flooding and waist-deep waters from the overflowing Ochomogo River.

“Nicaragua is covered in rain, rivers are flooding, and we are afraid of landslides,” said Vittoria Peñalba, director of sustainability for the aid group World Vision in Nicaragua. “People are tired and shocked. We don’t know the extent of the damage because people are still too afraid to go out in the rain.”

In Nicaragua's southern Caribbean region, south of the eye of the storm, many communities reported damage, according to the media outlet News of the Caribbean Coast. In the tourist hub of Corn Island, homes and hotels lost their roofs. In Laguna de Perlas, a car was crushed by a fallen light post.

Waves nearly 20 feet high crashed down on the coast, flooding streets and filling them with debris.

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo said 40,000 people across the country were evacuated before the hurricane struck. In his first statement since Eta slammed into Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega issued a call for aid.

"Almost the entire country is in a national emergency, because it has been one hurricane after another, and this impacts all of Central America," Ortega said, according to state media.

Hurricane Iota: Images capture the Category 5 storm’s ferocity

Such powerful storms so late in the hurricane season are rare, and two back-to-back ones slamming into nearly the same spots is unheard of.

Leo Henriquez Romero, 24, a fisherman in the mainly Indigenous community of Wawa Bar, about 10 miles south of Puerto Cabezas, saw his wood-frame home washed away by Eta. His family lost their clothes, television and small savings. Late Monday, Romero, his wife and their young child were holed up with a local priest, who had turned his cement home into an impromptu shelter.

Even there, they were not safe.

“We can feel the wind,” he said by phone. “It wants to take the roof off. I can hear that it’s now loose.”

Thousands of people in the storm’s path had already evacuated from Eta and were still sheltering inland when Iota hit. But thousands of others, many of them impoverished Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguans, remained on the ground and in Iota’s path, with the hardest hit areas forecast to receive up to 30 inches of rain.

The hurricanes hit the region at a time when it is also struggling from the socioeconomic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which is compounding poverty and food insecurity there.

Dozens dead and villages submerged days after Typhoon Vamco pummels the Philippines

The National Hurricane Center in Miami showed Iota losing strength while tracking toward more dense population centers in Honduras, where mudslides from Eta left more than 100 dead. The risk is now centered on more inland parts of Central America, in areas where surging rivers could lead to flooding, according to a report by the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies.

In Honduras, the military evacuated 730 residents from the inundated community of Villeda Morales. Images posted on the army's official Twitter account showed soldiers carrying children and aiding the elderly through knee-deep waters.

Hurricane Eta makes landfall in Nicaragua as a fierce Category 4 storm

The Honduran Institute for Civil Protection reported multiple rivers at risk of overflowing, including the Rio Machigua, the Rio Cangrejal and the Rio San Juan.

San Pedro Sula, an industrial city in western Honduras, braced for potentially disastrous flooding just weeks after tens of thousands of people were trapped on their rooftops when rain from Eta flooded rivers. Images posted on social media by the grass-roots organization Honduras Solidarity Network showed brown water already flowing through the streets of the city’s Pedregal sector.

Pastor Óscar Henríquez said that some area shelters were filled up but that both the authorities and residents were more prepared this time after going through Eta. Families with sturdier homes were stepping in to offer refuge when shelters were full.

But some people didn’t want to leave because they feared it would be an opportunity for thieves to enter their homes.

“What worries me is how we are going to pick ourselves up after this and how we are going to help the people who lost everything,” Henríquez said.

Faiola reported from Miami. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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