SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - After making landfall as a category 4 hurricane off the north coast of Nicaragua, Iota weakened to a tropical storm Tuesday as it moved southwest toward Honduras, where it’s expected to pass near the capital Tegucigalpa en route to the Pacific Ocean.
Hurricane-force winds snapped trees and ripped off roofs in Nicaragua, damaging much of what was left after another major hurricane, Eta, hit the same spot just two weeks ago.
The double blow of two major hurricanes hitting the same spot within two weeks is unprecedented in the Atlantic, and particularly astonishing so late in the hurricane season, according to metereologists.
Much larger than Eta, Iota is producing heavy rainfall across Nicaragua and Honduras, where rivers and creeks are already overflowing to the point that several bridges are under the threat of being washed away. It made landfall late Monday about 30 miles south of the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, also known as Bilwi, and just 15 miles south of where Hurricane Eta made landfall two weeks ago.
"In records going back to 1851, it is unprecedented for two Atlantic category 4 hurricanes to make landfall so close together, just two weeks apart," wrote Jeff Masters, a metereologist with Yale Climate Connections. "That they did so in November, when category 4 hurricanes are rare, is truly extraordinary," he added.
Iota’s large extension of tropical force winds and rain bands extending 175 miles from its center mean that it will impact large swaths of Nicaragua and Honduras, two countries with a topography of mountains and rivers. The effects of illegal logging and deforestation leaves many rural communities vulnerable to flash flooding and mudslides.
Overflowing rivers, roofs ripped off
Local media reports on Tuesday morning already showed rivers bursting their banks from the north of Nicaragua – the Bocay and the Coco rivers – to the Tocoa river in northern Honduras. The city of Rivas in southwest Nicaragua also suffered heavy flooding after the Ochomogo river burst its banks.
The media outlet, NotimaTV, in Matagalpa, northern Nicaragua, reported severe flooding in Waslala after the Iyas river flooded.
The Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, reported that two children were killed when the Conquista river overflowed in Carazo province, south of the capital, Managua.
Guillermo González, director of Nicaragua’s emergency management agency, said Tuesday morning that preliminary reports from the coast included fallen trees, electric poles and roofs stripped from homes, but no deaths or injuries. More than 40,000 people were in shelters. One church lost part of its roof in Puerto Cabezas.
Memories of Mitch (1998)
Iota posed a similar risk to Hurricane Mitch in 1998 which killed about 7,000 people in Honduras after flash floods cut off the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa and engulfed entire villages and parts of the southern city of Choluteca where homes were covered in mud up to their rooftops. Another 3,000 died in Nicaragua after landslides on the slopes of the Casita volcano.
After Hurricane Eta, the conditions are now much more favorable for flash flooding. The rivers remain higher than usual and, in many places, there is still standing water as high as the rooftops. Many of the levees that were built following the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch have been damaged or completely washed away.
Furthermore, the ground is completely saturated, which is not only favorable for flooding, but also landslides, which were responsible for countless deaths during Mitch. In Guatemala, as many as 100 people are feared dead after a landslide buried part of the rural community of Queja.
There was little immediate news on Tuesday morning from Nicaragua’s east coast due to loss of electricity and cellphone communications. “We have not been able to speak to anyone today. We don't know what Bilwi and the people in general woke up to,” said Reverend Mateo Collins, a Miskito priest from the Atlantic coast, who spoke to Univision from the capital, Managua. "It is very difficult to have information given that people are in the refugee centers and cannot go out into the streets," he added.
Iota had intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 5 storm before landfall on Monday, but the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it weakened as it neared the Nicaraguan coast, arriving with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph.
Iota is the record 30th named storm of this year’s record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season. It’s also the ninth storm to rapidly intensify this season, a dangerous phenomenon that is happening increasingly more often.
Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said Iota is the latest Category 5 hurricane on record, beating the Nov. 8, 1932, Cuba Hurricane.
David Adams in Miami contributed to this report.