The heart of powerful Hurricane Eta began moving ashore in Nicaragua Tuesday with devastating winds and rains that had already destroyed rooftops and caused rivers to overflow.
The hurricane had sustained winds of 220 kilometres per hour, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, down from an overnight peak of 240 km/h.
While the eyewall of the Category 4 hurricane had hit shore, its centre was about 35 kilometres south-southeast of coastal Puerto Cabezas or Bilwi, and it was moving west at about six km/h.
Landfall came hours after it had been expected. Eta’s eye had hovered just offshore through the night and Tuesday morning. The unceasing winds uprooted trees and ripped apart roofs, scattering corrugated metal through the streets of Bilwi, the main coastal city in the region.
The city’s regional hospital abandoned its building, moving patients to a local technical school campus.
“It was an intense night for everyone in Bilwi, Waspam and the communities along the northern coast,” Yamil Zapata, local Bilwi representative of the ruling Sandinista Front, told local Channel 4 Tuesday.
Guillermo Gonzalez, director of the country’s emergency management agency, said in a news conference earlier that as Eta began to approach landfall there were reports of corrugated metal roofs flying off homes, downed trees, poles and power lines falling and rivers rising in the coastal area.
So far, he said, there were no reported injuries or deaths.
In Bilwi, the main coastal city in an otherwise remote and sparsely populated area, about 10,000 people were in shelters, and an equal amount were sheltered in smaller towns across the region, according to Gonzalez. The area had already been lashed with strong winds and heavy rain for hours as the storm’s eye hovered just offshore.
On Monday, authorities in Nicaragua and Honduras had moved people 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 specialized in search and rescue to Bilwi.
Dangerous storm surge forecast
At a shelter in Bilwi, farmer Pedro Down waited late Monday for Eta’s arrival.
“When it comes it can rip off all the [roof] and destroy the house, so you have to look for a safer place,” he said, cradling a baby in his arms. “So I came here to save our lives.”
On television Monday, Nicaragua’s Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who is also the wife of President Daniel Ortega, 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.
Along the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras, torrential rains from Eta’s outer bands caused some rivers to overwhelm their banks Monday, forcing evacuations.
This could be only the beginning of Eta’s destruction. The storm was forecast to spend the week meandering over Central America dumping rain measured in feet not inches.
Forecasters said central and northern Nicaragua and much of Honduras could get 38 to 63.5 centimetres of rain, with 89 centimetres in isolated areas. Heavy rains also were likely in eastern Guatemala, southern Belize and Jamaica.
A storm surge of around 4.5 metres above normal tides was possible for the coast of Nicaragua, forecasters said.
The quantities of rain expected drew comparisons to 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, one of the most deadly Atlantic hurricanes in history. An archival report from the National Hurricane Center said Mitch led to the deaths of more than 9,000 people.
Eta tripled in strength in about 24 hours from Sunday to Monday.
10 AM EST Tuesday, November 3 Hurricane <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Eta?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Eta</a> Key Messages: Extremely dangerous Eta expected to bring life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, flash flooding, and landslides across portions of Central America. <a href=”https://t.co/lQ8WhA2D3G”>https://t.co/lQ8WhA2D3G</a> <a href=”https://t.co/mW0ReBaBJw”>pic.twitter.com/mW0ReBaBJw</a>
It is the eighth Atlantic storm this season to hit the meteorologists’ definition for rapid intensification — a gain of 56 km/h in wind speed in just 24 hours. It’s also the fifth to reach major hurricane status. Over the past couple of decades, meteorologists have been increasingly worried about storms that blow up in strength.
Eta is the 28th named Atlantic storm this season, tying the 2005 record for named storms. It’s the first time the Greek letter Eta has been used as a storm name because after the 2005 season ended, meteorologists went back and determined a storm that should have been named wasn’t.
Hurricane season still has a month to go, ending Nov. 30.