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Hurricane Iota Makes Landfall In Nicaragua, Region Braces For 'Catastrophic' Impact

Volunteer firefighters huddle in prayer before beginning a search and rescue operation in San Cristobal Verapaz, Guatemala, Nov. 7, in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta.
Moises Castillo
Volunteer firefighters huddle in prayer before beginning a search and rescue operation in San Cristobal Verapaz, Guatemala, Nov. 7, in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta.

Relief organizations are preparing for the second devastating storm in as many weeks in Central American as Hurricane Iota heads for Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and southern Belize, the same regions hit by Hurricane Eta earlier this month.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) says Iota, a Category 5 storm, will make landfall in Nicaragua Monday night, bringing with it catastrophic winds and torrential rainfall. As of 1 p.m. ET, Iota has maximum sustained winds of 160 mph and higher gusts.

The NHC's description of damage resulting from a Category 5 storm says "a high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, ... Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Conor Walsh, who manages Catholic Relief Services in Honduras, says the capital Tegucigalpa is highly vulnerable — as is the rest of the country.

"This storm is so big, it's going to go right across the whole country and we expect widespread damage and widespread suffering," he says.

Timothy Hansell, the manager of Catholic Relief Services in Nicaragua, says the charity is working to provide cleaning supplies and toilet paper to local residents, rebuild homes damaged in Hurricane Eta and help farmers recover from damage to crops.

Hurricane Eta hit two parts of Nicaragua hardest, Hansell says.

"One is the Caribbean [coastal] indigenous communities, and that's where we're getting the really strong winds and heavy flooding and houses destroyed," Hansell says. "The other area is the northern and central area of the country, which is where a lot of the farming areas are, and they're reporting ... 50% loss in the current season for beans [and] a lot of damage in rice and corn as well as in vegetables."

The storm's impact on farms extends throughout the region.

"These two storms are hitting at the worst possible time because ... farmers are just getting ready to harvest, and they lost massive amounts of beans and other basic grains to the storm," Walsh, in Nicaragua, says. "So we're going to have to think about their immediate food security and then the long-term recovery of the agricultural sector," .

In Guatemala, Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid organization, is also gearing up to respond to the storm.

In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, more than 50% of the population lives in extreme poverty, says Miriam Aguilar, a Mercy Corps representative.

If Iota maintains its projected track, it could be devastating, Aguilar says. Terrain in the region is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Eta, and Aguilar says 17,500 people in Guatemala are still living in shelters.

"Access to affected communities still remains a challenge. We have downed trees and flooded roads, washed-out bridges," she says. "With the arrival of Iota we are expecting additional flash flooding, overflowing rivers and maybe landslides, which could further inhibit our access."

This coming week, Mercy Corps plans to install water storage tanks at evacuation shelters in Alta Verapaz to ensure evacuees have access to clean water, Aguilar says. But she's anticipating flash flooding that may cut off her organization's access to the shelters.

The risk from COVID-19 and waterborne diseases will only increase as more evacuees seek shelter, Aguilar says.

"We are really concerned about the spread of COVID-19," she says. "In addition to formal shelters, including the ones that we have already been providing [personal protective equipment] and other urgent supplies ... there are also many informal shelters ... set up by communities themselves. They improvise the structures and they are lacking basic resources."

Hansell, in Nicaragua, hopes the international community can grasp the severity of Hurricanes Zeta and Iota.

"A lot of people [outside Central America] didn't even realize that Hurricane Eta came through and the devastation it made [in] ... Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, even back to Mexico, and so ... Realize that this is severely affecting the lives of a lot of people, destroying livelihoods, homes and families ... There is a need to help rebuild and help people get their lives back," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elie Levine
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.
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