Managua, Nicaragua — Hurricane Iota roared ashore as a dangerous Category 4 storm late Monday along almost exactly the same stretch of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast that was devastated by an equally powerful Hurricane Eta 13 days earlier. It then quickly weakened.
Iota had intensified into an extraordinarily dangerous Category 5 storm during the day. But the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it lost some punch as it neared the coast and made landfall with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, just shy of the 157 mph needed to be a Category 5, the most powerful ranking a hurricane can have.
Iota hit the coast about 30 miles south of the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, also known as Bilwi.
As of 4 a.m. EST, Iota was some 65 miles west-southwest of Puerto Cabezas and moving west at 9 mph with top sustained winds of 105 mph, according to the hurricane center. That made it a Category 2 storm.
Iota was expected to move farther inland across northern Nicaragua Tuesday then across southern Honduras Tuesday night and Wednesday.
The hurricane center said Iota could bring “life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, flash flooding and landslides across portions of Central America.”
Forecasters said Iota’s storm surge could reach 5 to 10 feet above normal tides and it could dump 10 to 20 inches of rain in some areas and 30 inches in isolated spots.
People hunkered down in Bilwi even before the hurricane arrived. They were already being battered by screeching winds and torrential rains.
Business owner Adán Artola Schultz braced himself in the doorway of his house as strong gusts of wind and rain drover water in torrents down the street. He watched in amazement as wind ripped away the metal roof structure from a substantial two-story home and blew it away like paper.
“It is like bullets,” he said of the sound of metal structures banging and buckling in the wind. “This is double destruction,” he said, referring to the damages wrought by Eta just 12 days earlier. “This is coming in with fury,” said Artola Schultz.
Iota came ashore just 15 miles south of where Hurricane Eta made landfall Nov. 3, also as a Category 4 storm. Eta’s torrential rains saturated the soil in the region, leaving it prone to new deadly landslides and floods, forecasters warned.
“The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Iota is making landfall in almost the exact same location that category 4 Hurricane Eta did a little less than two weeks ago,” the Hurricane Center said in a statement.
Eta killed more than 130 people in the region as torrential rains caused flash floods and mudslides in parts of Central America and Mexico.
“This hurricane is definitely worse” than Eta, Jason Bermúdez, a university student from Bilwi, said as winds roared before Iota came ashore. “There are already a lot of houses that lost their roofs, fences and fruit trees that got knocked down,” said Bermúdez. “We will never forget this year.”
Cairo Jarquin, Nicaragua emergency response project manager for Catholic Relief Services, visited Bilwi and smaller coastal communities Friday.
In Wawa Bar, Jarquin said he found “total destruction” from Eta. People had been working furiously to put roofs back over their families’ heads, but Iota threatened to take what was left.
“The little that remained standing could be razed,” Jarquin said. There were other communities farther inland that he couldn’t reach due to the condition of roads.
Evacuations were conducted from low-lying areas in Nicaragua and Honduras near their shared border through the weekend.
Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also the first lady, said the government had done everything necessary to protect lives, including the evacuation of thousands. She added that Taiwan had donated 800 tons of rice to help those affected by the storms.
Limborth Bucardo, of the Miskito Indigenous ethnic group, said many people had moved to churches in Bilwi. He rode out Eta with his wife and two children at home, but this time decided to move in with relatives in a safer neighborhood.
“We hadn’t finished repairing our houses and settling in when another hurricane comes,” Bucardo said. “The shelters in Bilwi are already full, packed with people from (surrounding) communities.”
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 increasingly more often. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger, more frequent and more destructive storms.
Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said Iota is the latest Category 5 hurricane on record, beating the Nov. 8, 1932, Cuba Hurricane.
The official end of the hurricane season is Nov. 30.