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Hurricane Iota powers up in new threat to Central America

The storm gained 70 mph in strength in 24 hours, going from 85 mph Sunday morning to a monstrous 155 mph Monday morning.

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Fast-strengthening Hurricane Iota, the strongest hurricane yet in this record-smashing season, became very dangerous Category 4 on Monday as it approached the same part of Central America battered by a similarly powerful Hurricane Eta just over a week ago.

Hurricane Iota gained 70 mph in strength in 24 hours, going from 85 mph Sunday morning to a monstrous 155 mph Monday morning. Forecasters predicted it would become an even more catastrophic Category 5 hurricane by the time it reaches the coast.

Authorities warned that Iota would probably come ashore over areas where Eta’s torrential rains saturated the soil, leaving it prone to new landslides and floods, and that the storm surge could reach a shocking 12 to 18 feet above normal tides.

Evacuations were being conducted from low-lying areas in Nicaragua and Honduras near their shared border, which appeared to be Iota’s likely landfall. Winds and rain were already being felt on the Nicaraguan coast Sunday night.

Iota became a hurricane early Sunday and rapidly gained more power. It was expected to pass over or near Colombia’s Providencia island during the night, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center warned it would probably reach the Central America mainland late Monday.

The hurricane center said Iota was centered about 20 miles (35 km) off Isla de Providencia, Colombia, and 145 miles southeast of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border, and moving westward at 10 mph.

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 and more destructive storms.

All of Honduras was on high alert, with compulsory evacuations that began before the weekend. By Sunday evening 63,500 people were reported to be in 379 shelters just in the northern coastal region.

Nicaraguan officials said that by late Sunday afternoon about 1,500 people, nearly half of them children, had been evacuated from low-lying areas in the country’s northeast, including all the inhabitants of Cayo Misquitos. Authorities said 83,000 people in that region were in danger.

Wind and rain were beginning to be felt Sunday night in Bilwi, a coastal Nicaraguan city where people crowded markets and hardware stores during the day in search of plastic sheeting, nails and other materials to reinforce their homes, just as they did when Hurricane Eta hit on Nov. 3.

Several residents of Bilwi expressed concern that their homes would not stand up to Iota, so soon after Eta. Local television showed people being evacuated in wooden boats, carrying young children as well as dogs and chickens.

Eta already wreaked havoc. It hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, killing at least 120 people as torrential rains caused flash floods and mudslides in parts of Central America and Mexico. Then it meandered across Cuba, the Florida Keys and around the Gulf of Mexico before slogging ashore again near Cedar Key, Florida, and dashing across Florida and the Carolinas.

Iota was forecast to drop 8 to 16 inches of rain in northern Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize, with as much as 30 inches in isolated spots. Costa Rica and Panama could also experience heavy rain and possible flooding, the hurricane center said.

Eta was this year’s 28th named storm, tying the 2005 record. Remnants of Theta, the 29th, dissipated Sunday in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

Over the past couple decades, meteorologists have been more worried about storms like Iota that power up much faster than normal. They created an official threshold for this rapid intensification -- a storm gaining 35 mph (56 kph) in wind speed in just 24 hours. Iota doubled it.

Earlier this year, Hannah, Laura, Sally, Teddy, Gamma, Delta, Zeta and Iota all rapidly intensified. Laura and Delta tied or set records for rapid intensification.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate and hurricane scientists studied the effect and found “a lot of that has to do with human-caused climate change.”

This is the first time on record that the Atlantic had two major hurricanes, with winds exceeding 110 mph, in November, with Iota and Eta, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. When Iota’s top winds reached 155 mph, they tied with 1999′s Lenny for the strongest Atlantic hurricane this late in the calendar year.

The official end of hurricane season is Nov. 30.

- Marlon González

• • •

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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