'We're really afraid': fierce Hurricane Eta belts Nicaragua

MANAGUA (Reuters) – Hurricane Eta, one of the most powerful storms to hit Central America in years, pummeled Nicaragua on Tuesday in an impoverished region of its Caribbean coast, battering homes and infrastructure and threatening deadly floods.

FILE PHOTO: Hurricane Eta is seen churning in the Caribbean Sea toward Nicaragua in this satellite image taken November 2, 2020 over the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/Handout via REUTERS

Eta hit the shore near the port of Puerto Cabezas, pulling roofs off houses, knocking down trees and power lines, and causing flooding in the region, said Guillermo Gonzalez, the head of Nicaragua’s disaster management agency SINAPRED.

The storm had been pounding the coast with high winds and rain since around midnight, Gonzalez told a news conference.

“We’re really afraid, there are fallen poles, there’s flooding, roofs torn off, some of the zinc on my house fell off,” said Carmen Enriquez, a resident of Puerto Cabezas.

“We spent the whole night up worrying, it hasn’t stopped raining, and they say it’s just starting,” she added.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Eta is an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, bringing “catastrophic winds, flash flooding, and landlines” to Nicaragua and portions of Central America.

Around 1,227,000 people in Nicaragua, including nearly 500,000 children, were at risk from the storm’s fury, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement.

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By noon local time on Tuesday (1800 GMT), Eta was blowing sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (225 kph) as it slowly ground its way onshore south of Puerto Cabezas, the NHC said.

In neighboring Honduras, rivers burst their banks, towns and cities flooded on the Atlantic coast, and landslides hit roads.

Nicaraguan officials said there were still no reports of deaths or injuries. But in Honduras a 13-year-old girl died in a mudslide on her home in a barrio of the northern city of San Pedro Sula, which has been hammered by rain, authorities said.

The indigenous regions in Eta’s path in northern Nicaragua are some of the country’s poorest. Many people live in wooden homes that stand little chance against such a powerful storm.

Late on Monday, Javier Plat, a local Catholic priest, told Reuters there was a city-wide power outage in Puerto Cabezas and government-arranged shelters had reached capacity.

“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,” Plat said.

Nicaragua on Monday evacuated at least 3,000 families, including fishermen who live in the most vulnerable villages on the Atlantic coast, officials said. Some 20,000 people were taking cover in shelters, SINAPRED said on Tuesday.

The storm is forecast to move inland over northern Nicaragua through Wednesday afternoon and then hit central Honduras on Thursday morning. Once it collides with the mountains of Nicaragua and Honduras, it should weaken rapidly, the NHC said.

Ortega’s government issued red alerts in several regions facing the hurricane. On Monday, ports in Honduras, where the government carried out evacuations, were forced to shut.

El Salvador also evacuated citizens as a precaution.

Eta is the 28th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, tying an all-time record set in 2005, the NHC said.

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