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Hurricane Iota, most powerful storm of 2020, aims for Nicaragua at Category 5 intensity

Nov 16. 2020
Hurricane Iota
Hurricane Iota
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By The Washington Post · Matthew Cappucci, Anna-Cat Brigida, Jason Samenow · WORLD, THE-AMERICAS

MANAGUA - The Nicaraguan coast prepared for Hurricane Iota Monday as it approaches as a "potentially catastrophic" Category 5 hurricane that will make landfall Monday night or Tuesday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Iota is expected to be even more devastating than Hurricane Eta, which ravaged Central America less than two weeks ago. It is the latest Category 5 hurricane to occur in the Atlantic on record, and the strongest storm to occur so late in the Atlantic Hurricane season.

"I'm really sad, to be honest, because it's not fair that after we experienced one storm, once again another threat arrives for our people," said Presly Coleman Alejandro, an activist with the Youth Indigenous Movement of La Moskitia, in an interview. "I don't know what we've done to deserve this treatment."

Nicaraguan authorities evacuated an estimated 30,000 people during Eta, which made landfall in Puerto Cabezas on the northern Nicaraguan coast on Nov. 4. Coleman Alejandro estimates less than half were able to return to their communities to check on their homes, crops and livestock, before having to prepare for this next hurricane.

Many never returned to their homes before the government issued a new hurricane alert to evacuate communities. They are staying in churches, schools and universities trying to wait out the storm. Coleman Alejandro said the shelters are not well coordinated, and lack some basic supplies, like mattresses and cooking utensils.

Hurricane Iota intensified at an extreme rate Sunday night into Monday morning.

Near the coastline, "extreme" winds and a "life-threatening" storm surge of 12 to 18 feet are expected where Iota's eye makes landfall, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, while "potentially catastrophic" impacts are expected inland across a wide swath of Central America due to rainfall measured in feet causing widespread flooding and mudslides.

Iota is likely to make landfall very near or in the same location as Eta did, its predecessor moving ashore with 140 mph winds and ravaging the community of Puerto Cabezas in northern Nicaragua. There's a chance Iota could equal or exceed that force as it makes landfall overnight Monday into Tuesday.

Hurricane warnings are up for the eastern coast of Nicaragua, eastern Honduras, and Providencia Island, where Iota's worst impacts are likely. Tropical storm warnings flank the hurricane warning, covering areas along Nicaragua's north central coast and the southern coast of Honduras. San Andres Island is also under a hurricane watch.

Iota is the 13th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, setting an all-time record. It's the first time on record that the Atlantic has had two major hurricanes in November. It's also the 10th named storm of season to rapidly intensify, a feat that atmospheric scientists link to warmer sea surface temperatures.

At 10 a.m., Hurricane Iota was centered 100 miles east of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. The storm's southern eyewall had just clipped San Andres island as the beastly storm churned west at 9 mph. Maximum winds, tightly coiled about the center, stood at 160 mph.

Iota surpasses Laura, which struck southwest Louisiana in late August, and Eta, which made landfall in Nicaragua 12 days ago, as the strongest hurricane of the 2020 season. Activity this strong so late in the season is virtually unheard of.

A marked increase in water temperatures off the coast of Nicaragua has been noted in recent years. 

Iota became a hurricane at 1 a.m. on Sunday, and had lurched to Category 4 strength just over 24 hours later. It has been rapidly intensifying nonstop since its early stages as a tropical storm, a rate of intensification that would be extreme even during the height of the hurricane season.

Hurricane Iota will make landfall in Central America late Monday night, likely near or directly over the town of Puerto Cabezas. The official Hurricane Center forecast calls for a landfall just 14 miles north of Eta's.

Winds of 140 to 150 mph are expected at the time of landfall, along with a 12 to 18 foot storm surge, the height that ocean waters could reach above ordinarily dry ground.

The overall environment favors maintenance or even subtle strengthening of Iota before landfall. The only possible avenue for weakening would be if the system internally experiences an "eyewall replacement cycle," which would briefly weaken winds by perhaps fifteen percent.

In preparation for the storm's arrival, residents boarded up the windows of the houses still left standing. Local fishermen's boats were once again brought to shore. The communities affected are mainly Afro-Nicaraguan and from the Miskito Indigenous community. Many communities have been without electricity since Hurricane Eta, which tore down wood-paneled homes and toppled palm trees. They are also without clean water after the storm contaminated their water sources.

Aid has been arriving throughout the week, according to Coleman Alejandro, but it's still not enough. On Sunday, the Nicaraguan government, with the support of the Nicaraguan Red Cross, sent an aid caravan with food and hygiene kits to communities in the northern Caribbean coast affected by Hurricane Eta, according to a statement from the National System for the Prevention, Mitigation and Attention of Disasters (SINAPRED).

The brigade included 39 volunteers.

"Our colleagues are going to try to arrive as quickly as possible, considering the other event that is approaching us, in order to be there before any circumstance," said Sinapred Director Guillermo González.

"The population experiences stress at a time of crisis, especially children, women and elderly people," he said. In a statement, president of the Nicaraguan Red Cross Oscar Gutiérrez, said getting clean water was the first priority. The second was psychological and social support for "people and kids who lost everything."

An estimated 80,000 Nicaraguans could be affected by Hurricane Iota, according to the Nicaraguan government.

Across Central America, more than 3 million people were affected by Hurricane Eta, with the most damage in Honduras where extreme flooding affected more than 2 million people, according to the International Red Cross.

At least 250 people died across the region after flooding reached to the roofs and landslides buried homes with residents inside. The World Food Program estimates millions in Central America need food assistance after Hurricane Eta in a region already suffering from the impacts of climate change.

"Eta arrived at the worst moment, making life more difficult for millions of people who have been affected for years by erratic climate and recently by the socioeconomic crisis caused by COVID-19," said Miguel Barreto, World Food Program Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a statement on Friday, Nov. 13. "It also worries us that rain and flooding could destroy the next harvest, which subsistence farmers depend on."

Hurricane Iota is the latest storm on record to attain Category 5 strength. It also ranks the second strongest November hurricane on record.Iota's peak winds leaped 40 mph in six hours Sunday night, quadrupling the criteria for hurricane rapid intensification, which is a 35 mph increase in 24 hours.

Its sudden strengthening was also reflected by a sudden drop in pressure, toppling 61 millibars in 24 hours, the fourth fastest rate on record, only trailing hurricanes Gilbert (1988), Rita (2005), and Wilma (2005).

This kind of rapid intensification is becoming more likely due to warming ocean waters from human-caused climate change. The water temperatures east of Nicaragua, where Iota has explosively strengthened, have warmed markedly in recent decades during November and December. Iota's intensity and rapid strengthening have helped make the 2020 season even more exceptional compared to past seasons:

- This is the first hurricane season on record featuring two major (Category 3 or higher) hurricanes on record, following Eta earlier this month.

- Iota is the 6th major hurricane of the 2020 season, tying six other seasons for the second most in a year

The latter half of the hurricane season has been particularly remarkable, as four of the last the six named storms to form, all named after Greek letter, have become major hurricanes. Storms named using the Greek alphabet have produced the equivalent energy of an average entire hurricane season. This year marks the fifth straight with a Category 5 forming in the tropical Atlantic, the longest stretch on record. Iota is the 7th Category 5 storm during that span.



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