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"We’re afraid of what’s coming." Vulnerable Honduras braces for Category 5 Iota, second hurricane in two weeks

Many people who lost their homes to Hurricane Eta are seeking higher ground and shelters run by churches and non-profits. (Leer en español)
15 Nov 2020 – 05:07 PM EST
Luz Rivas with her husband. The family lost everything in the flooding caused by Hurricane Eta to weeks ago and has been living in the median of a highway near San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras. Crédito: Jeff Ernst

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - Two weeks after Hurricane Eta made landfall in Central America as a category 4 storm – causing widespread destruction and hundreds of thousands to lose everything – an unprecedented second major hurricane is forecast to hit Monday night in almost the exact same spot off the north coast of Nicaragua.

The news of Hurricane Iota’s imminent arrival - as a monster Category 5 storm with 160 mph winds - has sparked panic and fear, particularly in Honduras, which bore the brunt of Eta’s wrath and is expected to again be the hardest hit.

“With this news you feel devastated, without words,” said Luz Rivas, who after losing everything in the flooding caused by Eta has been living in the median of a highway near San Pedro Sula. “We’re afraid of what’s coming," she added.

Rivas, 39, was rescued along with her husband and child from that very same median just ten days ago while clinging to a tree as the water rose to her shoulders.

“We went through hell on the fifth day of November. I was resigned to death,” said Rivas, recalling the desperation of that day as tears dripped down her sun-scarred cheeks.

She and her family were rescued just in time, but many in her neighborhood weren’t so lucky.

“What we lived through was terrifying. To hear people dying, who were carried away by the storm and not being able to help them,” said Rivas, who is haunted by the cries for help of those who weren’t as fortunate.

Iota's winds are forecast to strengthen from 90 mph to 140 mph in just 36 hours, according to the National Hurricane Center forecast, making it the first Atlantic hurricane season ever to record two major hurricanes in November.

According to the Red Cross, 2.5 million people across Central America, including 1.7 million in Honduras were affected by Eta. With Iota expected to hammer more parts of the region, that number is expected to grow exponentially.

The dramatic scenes that played out across Honduras are leading hundreds of thousands to seek higher ground. For some, that means packing everything they can into their vehicles and heading to the home of relatives or friends in safer areas. For many like Rivas who lost everything, that means a higher point along the highway or one of many shelters being run by churches and nonprofits.

But 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 in 1998 – one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit Central America and second-most lethal Atlantic storm in record history – 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 days after a landslide buried part of the rural community of Queja.

Inside a church converted into a shelter in the Rivera Hernández neighborhood of San Pedro Sula that sentiment is shared by many. The floodwaters from Eta reached within a block of the church, but those who’ve taken refuge here are anxious this time could be worse.

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“It makes me afraid because what if it hits us by surprise and we can’t swim,” said Maria Rodriguez, 31, who along with her husband, three children and about 150 others, is staying in the shelter. “We already lost everything we own and if this happens again then we could lose what’s left of our home.”

Despite the ominous forecasts and the devastation suffered over the past two weeks, some still manage to cling to hope.

“My dad says that when the flooding comes, there’s fish,” said Jose Euceda, 9, who lamented that his fishing pole was lost along with everything else in his home.

At first glance, it would appear that Euceda is able to see the silver lining as sometimes only a child can. But the happy-go-lucky boy is a miracle in his own right.

Two years ago, he and his family were shot when driving in their car near their home in the Rivera Hernández neighborhood – a gang infested neighborhood that is one of the world’s most dangerous places to live.

“[The bullet] entered here and came out here,” said Euceda, pointing first to a halfmoon scar on the left side of his hide and then another scar near the hairline on his neck. He then pulled up his superman shirt to reveal another long scar across his abdomen where he was struck by a second bullet.

Euceda and his family were shot by Honduran police who had confused their vehicle with that of some of the gang members who terrorize the neighborhood. After three days in a coma on life support, doctors gave him only 24 hours to live. When the doctors were ready to disconnect life support, Euceda suddenly showed signs of life. About two weeks later he was released from the hospital, part of his skull reconstructed with titanium.

Having already come back from dead once – and hardened by the realities of living in a neighborhood ruled by gangs – Euceda attributes his optimism ahead of the looming threat of Hurricane Iota to his faith in God.

“With God nothing is impossible,” said Euceda. “He’s going to destroy [the hurricane].”