Hurricane Iota now a Category 5 storm near Central America

Hurricane Iota rapidly strengthened Monday into a Category 5 storm that is likely to bring catastrophic damage to the same part of Central America already battered by a powerful Hurricane Eta less than two weeks ago.

Iota has intensified over the western Caribbean on approach to Nicaragua and Honduras. U.S. Air Force hurricane hunters flew into Iota’s core and measured maximum sustained winds of 260 km/h, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Authorities warned that Iota would probably come ashore over areas where Eta’s torrential rains saturated the soil, leaving them prone to new landslides and floods, and that the storm surge could reach a shocking 3.6 to 5.5 metres above normal tides.

Evacuations were being conducted from low-lying areas in Nicaragua and Honduras near their shared border, which appeared to be the likely site of Iota’s landfall. Winds and rain were already being felt on the Nicaraguan coast Sunday night.

Navy members help evacuate people from the Karata and Wawa Bar communities ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Iota in Bilwi, Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, on Sunday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Iota became a hurricane early Sunday and rapidly gained more power. The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned it would probably reach the Central America mainland late Monday.

As of 10 a.m. ET, the centre said Iota was located about 65 kilometres west of Isla De Providencia, Colombia. The hurricane, which had maximum sustained winds of 260 km/h, was moving west at 15 km/h, the most recent public advisory said.

30th named storm of season

Iota is the record 30th named storm of this year’s extraordinarily busy Atlantic hurricane season. It’s also the ninth storm to rapidly intensify this season, a dangerous phenomenon that is happening more often. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.

All of Honduras was on high alert, with compulsory evacuations that began before the weekend. By Sunday evening 63,500 people were reported to be in 379 shelters just in the northern coastal region.

Nicaraguan officials said that by late Sunday afternoon about 1,500 people, nearly half of them children, had been evacuated from low-lying areas in the country’s northeast, including all the inhabitants of Cayo Misquitos. Authorities said 83,000 people in that region were in danger.

Wind and rain were beginning to be felt Sunday night in Bilwi, a coastal Nicaraguan city where people crowded markets and hardware stores during the day in search of plastic sheeting, nails and other materials to reinforce their homes, just as they did when Hurricane Eta hit on Nov. 3.

Nicaraguan officials said that by late Sunday afternoon about 1,500 people, nearly half of them children, had been evacuated from low-lying areas in the country’s northeast. (AFP/Getty Images)

Several residents of Bilwi expressed concern that their homes would not stand up to Iota, so soon after Eta. Local television showed people being evacuated in wooden boats, carrying young children as well as dogs and chickens.

Eta already wreaked havoc. It hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, killing at least 120 people as torrential rains caused flash floods and mudslides in parts of Central America and Mexico. Then it meandered across Cuba, the Florida Keys and around the Gulf of Mexico before slogging ashore again near Cedar Key, Florida, and dashing across Florida and the Carolinas.

Iota was forecast to drop between 200 and 400 millimetres of rain in northern Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize, with as much as 750 millimetres in isolated spots. Costa Rica and Panama could also experience heavy rain and possible flooding, the hurricane centre said.

Eta was this year’s 28th named storm, tying the 2005 record. Remnants of Theta, the 29th, dissipated Sunday in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

Eta hit Central America and Mexico hard, killing at least 120 people in flash floods and mudslides. Above, a man looks on near a destroyed car and sofas covered in mud after the passage of Hurricane Eta on Nov. 9 in Planeta, municipality of La Lima, in the Honduran department of Cortes. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past couple of decades, meteorologists have been more worried about storms like Iota that power up much faster than normal. They created an official threshold for this rapid intensification — a storm gaining 56 km/h in wind speed in just 24 hours. Iota doubled it.

Earlier this year, Hannah, Laura, Sally, Teddy, Gamma, Delta, Zeta and Iota all rapidly intensified. Laura and Delta tied or set records for rapid intensification.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate and hurricane scientists studied the effect and found “a lot of that has to do with human-caused climate change.”

The official end of the hurricane season is Nov. 30.



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