Hurricane Eta, an unusually powerful storm, slammed into Nicaragua on Tuesday, bringing disastrous flooding to one of the country’s poorest regions.
The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said the storm packed maximum sustained winds of 145mph, and passed about 30 miles south-southeast of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. On Tuesday Eta was moving slowly west-southwest at only 5mph towards Honduras and Belize.
The head of the storm began to move inland on Tuesday, wrenching roofs off houses and causing rivers to overflow. In Puerto Cabezas on the Atlantic coast, trees were torn down and power lines were severed, plunging much of the city into darkness. About 10,000 people were in shelters in the city and an equal number in smaller towns across the region, according to city officials.
It is too far away to affect the Cayman Islands but many Caymanians have connections in Honduras and its neighbouring countries.
Torrential rain, and resulting flooding and landslides were the consequence of Eta’s passing. The wind and storm surge was diminishing by Tuesday afternoon but heavy rain persisted which will last for some days.
A dangerous storm surge of up to 21 feet above normal tide crashed onshore in parts of Nicaragua. "This rainfall will lead to catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with landslides in areas of higher terrain of Central America," the NHC said.
The storm is a Category 4 hurricane and is gradually losing strength as it moves inland. The storm’s wind speed more than doubled over the Caribbean from Sunday evening to Monday evening. It is the latest in an active Atlantic hurricane season.
As the 28th named storm in the Atlantic this season, it ties the record for the number of named storms in a single season, set in 2005. It is the fifth named major storm of the year.
“We’re really afraid, there are fallen poles, there’s flooding, roofs torn off, some of the zinc on my house fell off,” Carmen Enríquez, a Puerto Cabezas resident, said.
“This city of 70,000 people is very vulnerable. We have houses made of wood and adobe. The infrastructure of the residential houses is our main vulnerability,” Javier Plat, a Catholic priest in Puerto Cabezas, said.
The current forecast has the storm meandering the mountains of Nicaragua and Honduras before heading north toward Belize as a depression by Friday. The track and intensity of the storm remains uncertain after Friday.
The storm has the potential to be one of the worst flooding events Nicaragua has seen since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed more than 10,000 people.
The northern indigenous regions directly in Eta’s path are some of Nicaragua’s poorest. Many people nearby live in flimsy homes that stand little chance against such a powerful storm.
Authorities in Nicaragua and Honduras had moved people on Monday from outer islands and low-lying areas to shelters. Residents scrambled to shore up their homes, but few structures along Nicaragua’s remote Caribbean coast were built to withstand such force.
Nicaragua’s army moved red-helmeted troops specialised in search and rescue to Puerto Cabezas. Along Honduras’s northern Caribbean coast, torrential rains from Eta’s outer bands caused some rivers to overwhelm their banks Monday, forcing evacuations.
On television on Monday, Nicaragua’s vice-president and first lady, Rosario Murillo, prayed for God to protect the country. She said Nicaragua would apply lessons learned from previous storms. “How many hurricanes have come and we have moved on, thanks to God,” she said.