Strongest Storm of Hurricane Season Batters Central America

By Brian K. Sullivan | November 17, 2020

Powerful Hurricane Iota is lashing Central America after barreling ashore late Monday with ferocious winds and rain, threatening to trigger landslides and cripple a region already reeling from a deadly storm two weeks ago.

Iota, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a record-setting season, made landfall along Nicaragua’s northeastern coast as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 miles (249 kilometer) per hour. It hit just 15 miles south of where Hurricane Eta came ashore, killing more than 100 people and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate.

While Iota has weakened as it moves inland, it will likely trigger a humanitarian crisis.

“A life-threatening storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 5 to 10 feet” along the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Tuesday in an update at 7 a.m. New York time. “Winds will spread farther inland across northern Nicaragua during the next several hours.”

Local news outlets showed pictures of flooded streets and homes in the coastal city of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. Trees are down, and roofs have been torn off houses. At least one person died on the Colombian island of Providencia, where 98% of infrastructure has been impacted, President Ivan Duque Marquez said in a local radio interview.

Forecasters warn the devastation may grow worse in the coming days. Iota could dump up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain on the region, triggering deadly flash floods through Thursday, the Hurricane Center said. Iota is moving westward with winds of 85 miles an hour.

Iota is the 30th named storm in the Atlantic this year, a record. The hyperactive hurricane season is part of a string of natural disasters in 2020, including deadly wildfires in the western U.S. and a derecho that left wreckage from Iowa to Indiana. They’re further evidence that the Earth’s climate is changing, threatening to bring more widespread devastation.

“The storm should make us reflect on what is happening and what has become the most vulnerable region in the world to climate change due to the effects of large industrial nations, but we suffer the consequences,” Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei said at a meeting with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, calling for green funds for climate change. “It’s not fair for us to continue going into debt to rebuild our countries and repair damage to infrastructure and agriculture.”

This is the first time the Atlantic has produced two major hurricanes — Category 3 or stronger — in November, according to a tweet by Phil Klotzbach, lead author of the Colorado State University seasonal forecast. Iota earlier reached Category 5 strength, the first storm to do so this late in the year, he said

ota could create additional problems for coffee and sugar crops in the region, which were drenched by heavy rains and flooding from Eta, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar. Honduras is the top coffee grower in the region, followed by Guatemala, which is the biggest cane-sugar exporter in the area and a key global supplier of the sweetener.

Guatemala’s ports have already slowed due to heavy rains and an ongoing La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific, and Iota “could complicate” things, Michael McDougall, managing director for Paragon Global Markets, said in a note.

So many systems have formed in the Atlantic this year that the National Hurricane Center used up its official name list in mid-September and resorted to using Greek letters to designate tropical cyclones.

–With assistance from Andrea Jaramillo and Michael McDonald.

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