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Hurricane Iota rapidly strengthens as it targets Central America

Iota became a Category 2 hurricane Sunday night. It’s expected to get stronger.

Hurricane Iota formed in the south-central Caribbean Sea early Sunday, rapidly intensifying from a tropical storm into a Category 2 hurricane by evening that was expected to get stronger as it barrels toward storm-ravaged Central America.

Never before have two major hurricanes formed in the month of November. Hurricanes Eta and Iota are the first — and Iota was poised to wreak the same destruction on Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua already inflicted by Eta earlier this month.

The National Hurricane Center expected Iota to move across the southwestern Caribbean Sea on Sunday as it approaches the coasts of Nicaragua and northeastern Honduras. By then, Hurricane Iota is forecast to be an “extremely dangerous" Category 4 hurricane, generating maximum sustained winds exceeding 130 mph, according to the agency.

Already the storm is packing sustained winds around 100 mph with higher gusts, according to a National Hurricane Center advisory released at 7 p.m. Sunday. Iota was located about 330 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast, moving slowly west through the Caribbean Sea at 9 mph.

Related: After catastrophic Eta, millions of Hondurans brace for Iota

Still, Iota showed how fast it can intensify on Saturday — strengthening from sustained winds of 50 mph at 1 p.m. to 70 mph by 1 a.m. Sunday. Iota’s hurricane-force winds can be felt up to 25 miles from the storm’s center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward for another 115 miles, the National Hurricane Center said.

The forecast is grim news for Central America. The region is still reeling and rebuilding from the Nov. 4 landfall of Category 4 Eta, which caused the flooding, heavy rains, mudslides and wind damage blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people and mass destruction.

The forecasted path of Hurricane Iota, according to the National Hurricane Center's 1 a.m. Sunday advisory.
The forecasted path of Hurricane Iota, according to the National Hurricane Center's 1 a.m. Sunday advisory. [ National Hurricane Center ]

“These locations haven’t even recovered from the last storm, with flooding rains, washed-out bridges and landslides," said Spectrum Bay News 9 Meteorologist Diane Kacmarik on Saturday.

Kacmarik said the biggest threat Iota will pose to Nicaragua and Honduras is the torrential rainfall and storm surge it will generate. Hurricane warnings were issued to both country’s coastlines on Saturday. By Sunday morning, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center predicted that Iota could dump 8 to 16 inches of rain on Honduras, northern Nicaragua, Guatemala and Southern Belize, and it’s possible those regions could see isolated rainfalls totaling 20 to 30 inches.

“This rainfall would lead to significant, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with mudslides in areas of higher terrain,” the National Hurricane Center’s latest advisory warned.

While Eta turned toward Florida after making landfall with Central America, current models do not project Iota will do the same, Kacmarik said.

Sunday’s forecast from the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office predicted partially sunny skies throughout Tampa Bay, with a few light showers along the region’s coastline. The sporadic showers are expected to move inland Sunday evening as daytime heating combines with a decent amount of moisture trapped in the sea breezes moving across the region, making for a warm and humid start to the week, the forecast said.

Showers will give way to an approaching cold front that could bring temperatures in the mid to low 50s by Tuesday night, the forecast said.

Iota is the 30th named storm to form in 2020, which has become a record year for both the number of storms to form in the Atlantic and the rapid pace at which they have formed. Meteorologists used up all 21 Atlantic storm names when Tropical Storm Wilfred formed on Sept. 18, becoming the earliest “W” storm to form in modern history. Iota is the ninth Greek-named storm to form this year.

The 2020 Atlantic storm season broke the record of 28 named storms that formed during the catastrophic storm season of 2005. The hurricanes of that year are blamed for 4,000 deaths and nearly $160 billion in damage across the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and the United States, according to USA Today.

A record 15 hurricanes formed that year, including five major hurricanes. Four of those — Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma — reached Category 5 strength.

Iota is the 13th hurricane of this year and could become the sixth major hurricane of 2020.

Hurricane season officially ends Nov. 30, but forecasters say conditions could lead to more named storms to form through the end of the year.

• • •

2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC’s tips for this pandemic-hurricane season

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

Lessons from Hurricane Michael

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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