Hurricane Iota powers up in new threat to Central America

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — A fast-strengthening Hurricane Iota is sweeping over the western Caribbean and predicted to become a very dangerous Category 4 storm as it heads for the same part of Central American battered by a similarly powerful Hurricane Eta just over a week ago.

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 power, and was expected to pass over or near Colombia's Providencia island during the night. It became a dangerous Category 3 hurricane early Monday, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center warned it would probably reach Category 4 strength as it approached the Central America mainland late Monday.

The hurricane center said Iota had maximum sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) early Monday. It was centered about 190 miles (310 kilometers) east-southeast of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border and moving westward at 10 mph (17 kph).

It was already a record-breaking system, being the 30th named storm of this year’s extraordinarily busy Atlantic hurricane season. Such activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.

In Honduras, compulsory evacuations began before the weekend and by Sunday evening 63,500 people were reported to be in 379 shelters just in the northern region, while the whole country was on high alert.

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.

Authorities warned that the risk was high because Iota would probably come ashore over areas where Eta's torrential rains left the soil saturated with water and more prone to new landslides and floods.

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 (200 -400 millimeters) of rain in northern Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and southern Belize, with as much as 30 inches (750 millimeters) in isolated spots. Costa Rica and Panama could also experience heavy rain and possible flooding, the hurricane center said.

Eta was the 28th named storm of this year’s hurricane season, tying the 2005 record for named storms. Theta, the 29th, was far out in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and became a remnant low Sunday.

The official end of hurricane season is Nov. 30.

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Associated Press writer Marlon González in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this report.

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