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Hurricane Iota Aims for Still-Recovering Areas of Central America

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Areas still recovering from Hurricane Eta are now keeping an eye on what is now Hurricane Iota, which could stir up trouble early this week. Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category 4 (sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph) hurricane on the Saffir Simpson Wind Scale on Nov. 3, in Nicaragua, which was among…

Areas still recovering from Hurricane Eta are now keeping an eye on what is now Hurricane Iota, which could stir up trouble early this week.

Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category 4 (sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph) hurricane on the Saffir Simpson Wind Scale on Nov. 3, in Nicaragua, which was among the top five strongest storms to ever hit the nation. Eta also carved a path of destruction through Honduras and Guatemala, unleashing feet of rain, tremendous flooding, and killing more than 100.

Central America is still facing a humanitarian crisis following Eta’s deadly blow. Millions are enduring dangerous conditions in the storm’s wake — with concerns over waterborne diseases and COVID-19 complicating recovery. And the situation could become even more dire as Iota creeps toward the coast. 

“I am greatly concerned we may soon have another major disaster on our hands in Central America if this Caribbean tropical system pans out like we suspect,” AccuWeather’s top hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski said.

Early Sunday morning, Iota was found to have strengthened into the 13th hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). As of 7 a.m. EST, Iota was a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale with sustained winds of 85 mph. Iota continued to inch westward at 6 mph with its center located about 380 miles east of Cabo Gracias on the Nicaragua-Honduras border.

As the weekend comes to a close, Iota is forecast to pick up some forward speed and continue to move westward, or even northwestward toward the border of Honduras and Nicaragua. Along the way, heavy rainfall will inundate northern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela, as well as southern Jamaica.

In addition to widespread rainfall, Iota will be moving through an area of low wind shear and warm water — around 84 degrees Fahrenheit — in the western Caribbean Sea, encouraging the hurricane to strengthen into an even more powerful hurricane.

“Exactly how long Iota is able to to hang out in that favorable environment will ultimately determine how long it could be a major (Category 3 or higher) hurricane,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Rob Miller.

The exact track it takes, the strength and forward speed as it plows onshore in Central America will determine how grim the situation will become.

“It is possible that Iota could track north of Honduras, allowing the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Eta to be spared. But it is even more likely that Honduras and Nicaragua take a direct hit from Iota,” warned Miller.

Should Iota make landfall in Nicaragua as a hurricane, it would be only the second time in history the country would be hit by two hurricanes in one season. The last time it occurred was in 1971, when Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Edith hit Nicaragua.

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In Central America, building seas will be the first impact, coming on Sunday evening. Next would be the outer bands of Iota, that will bring heavy rain to Nicaragua and eastern Honduras as early as Monday morning, then gusty winds.

The exact strength of Iota at landfall will dictate the wind gusts experienced by the storm. If Iota makes landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 150 mph (241 km/h) or greater, the effects could be devastating. However, even a weaker, drenching tropical storm could unleash life-threatening impacts and catastrophic damage in Eta’s aftermath.

In addition to the strongest, most destructive winds being found at the coast near landfall so too will be the most impactful storm surge from Iota.

Storm surge of 1-3 feet (0.3-1 meter) will stretch from near Claura in Honduras to Haulover, Nicaragua, with the most severe surge, 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) between Puerto Cabezas and Nina Yari. This same area experienced coastal inundation from Eta earlier this month.

Even still, the most widespread and greatest threat to lives and property from the new cyclone is expected to be dealt by serious flooding caused by feet of rainfall. Major river flooding and flash flooding could occur with a vast area of 12-18 inches (300-457 mm) across the mountainous terrain of Honduras, the most likely location for the AccuWeather Local StormMax of 30 inches (762 mm).

Even more widespread amounts of 2-4 inches (50-100 mm) are forecast from Guatemala to central Nicaragua, worsening ongoing flooding and clean-up efforts.

With all of the mountainous terrain and the very saturated ground following Hurricane Eta, mudslides are a definite concern with the new tropical threat.

Tropical Storm Iota developed Friday afternoon in the central Caribbean just hours after the system had become Tropical Depression 31. Iota strengthened into a hurricane early Sunday morning and officially became the 13th hurricane of the season. 2020 is now just two shy of the record number of hurricanes to churn in the Atlantic in one season held by 2005.

In fact, this is the first time the NHC has ever gotten this far into the Greek alphabet during a tropical season.

2020 set the record for the most tropical storms to be named in one Atlantic hurricane season as Theta became the 29th tropical storm of the season earlier this week.

Theta has since lost wind intensity and has dissipated, after swirling between the Azores and Canary Islands into Sunday morning.

This image, taken on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 12, 2020, shows Tropical Storm Theta spinning over the eastern Atlantic. Portugal appears near the upper right and Africa appears on the far right. (CIRA at Colorado State/GOES-East)

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