Iota destroys the island of Providencia, on the north coast of Nicaragua
Hurricane Iota, the strongest storm on record in the Atlantic Basin at the end of the year, crashed in Central America on Monday evening as Category 4, causing massive havoc to the indigenous town of Puerto Cabezas and to surrounding towns in northeastern Nicaragua. It also passed through a small Colombian archipelago along the way, leaving behind almost total destruction.
Iota’s Central American record remained unclear on Tuesday as officials rushed to help. However, Colombia has confirmed at least one death.
The National Hurricane Center predicts that torrential rains and life-threatening gusts will continue in the region until later this week, increasing the risk of catastrophic landslides, storm surges and flooding.
Following a trajectory almost identical to Hurricane Eta, Iota only made landfall about 15 miles hence its double storm touched down on November 3, just 13 days before, with winds of around 155 mph.
On Monday, the Honduran government reported that Eta had affected more than 3 million people and killed at least 77 people. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan authorities said more than 1,000 homes were affected and to at least two people were killed.
A mother still looking for her son in Nicaragua
Puerto Cabezas woke up on Tuesday to sheets of zinc flying over rooftops, rainwater flooding roads and homes, and the rustle of utility poles and palm trees. The port city over 60,000, on the edge of the Atlantic coast, is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the North Caribbean Coast. The power has been cut since Monday afternoon and cell phone signals were non-existent or erratic after Iota. However, reports of ruin started circulating on Tuesday evening.
On Monday evening, two residents of Puerto Cabezas told the Miami Herald that the storm had destroyed shelters in the city and people were trying to survive outside as Iota raged around them. A temporary hospital, installed at a local school after Eta, was also evacuated when Iota tore off the roof.
Indigenous communities from surrounding areas and as far as Cabo Gracias a Dios, on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua, had evacuated to Puerto Cabezas and other places in the autonomous region.
“There is no safe shelter here because the government has never bothered to create or build a safe hurricane shelter,” said Jairo Henriquez, a resident of Puerto Cabezas. “We are completely abandoned.”
Henriquez, who helped residents evacuate before Eta and Iota, said many people resisted relocation to government shelters. In a live video he shared on Facebook Monday morning, Henriquez captured the gray skies and muddy waters of the coastline in the Sandy Bay Sirpy neighborhood of Puerto Cabezas. Uprooted palm trees lay by the seashore.
“Before [Iota], after Eta, ”said Henriquez while filming the beach. “Later we will film after Iota if we are still alive.”
By the time Monday night fell, Henriquez was out of visibility, his home becoming a devastated island. In a video taken around 10 p.m., he filmed from his balcony. Rainwater flew horizontally. In a video sent thirty minutes later, zinc sheets from the roof slammed against his house, curling like a caterpillar in the furious winds.
On Tuesday morning, Nancy Elizabeth Henriquez, Henriquez’s mother, said the hurricane took off from the roof of their home.
Before Iota arrived, Matriarch Henriquez, a leader of Miskito, decided with other community leaders that she would travel to Managua to bring back resources and relief after Iota. Early Monday afternoon, she walked through heavy rain, debris and fallen trees blocking the roads. She said she didn’t know how she got there, but spent the night with a friend in the Nicaraguan capital.
She estimated that more than 60 people took refuge in her concrete house during Iota. When the house was flooded, she could hear their screams as she spoke with her son. She hasn’t heard from Jairo since 1 a.m. Tuesday.
“He told me, Mom, Bilwi is being destroyed… and the hurricane is stronger than ever. Never in my life have I seen a hurricane like this, ”she said. “And from there, we didn’t communicate.” Bilwi is the native name of Puerto Cabezas.
Henriquez worries about the fate of her family and Puerto Cabezas, but is convinced that her son is safe and is helping their community overcome the consequences. Until then, she will stay in Managua for the next week or so, or until she can provide assistance in her hometown.
“If we had all stayed there,” she said, “who was going to seek support for our people?”
Colombia: destruction on the island of Providencia
Unlike Eta, who didn’t attack the area as hard, Iota crashed into the Colombian archipelago of San Andrés, located about 230 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. The storm mainly hit the island of Providencia, demolishing scarce infrastructure, including thousands of homes and the local hospital.
President Iván Duque sent a Colombian navy ship with 15 tons of humanitarian aid as well as rescue teams to the island on Monday evening. On Tuesday morning, he said he spoke with the mayor of Providencia, Norberto Gari Hooker, who said at least one person had died.
Duque then flew over the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina and landed on the island of San Andrés to assess the damage. He reported that Iota has wiped out up to 99% of Providencia and said storms rarely reach the west Caribbean coast of the Andean country, especially large hurricanes.
“Never in the history of this country have we faced a Category 5 hurricane,” he said. “But here is Colombia united, telling Providencia that we are going to help.”
Juliana Escobar, cultural manager in Antioquia, Medellín, said her family had had a house in Providencia since 1971, where they had lived for around 5 years in the 2000s.
On Tuesday afternoon, Escobar said the last time she heard anyone on the island was at 3 a.m. on Monday, when a neighbor told her that a group of them had rushed into Escobar’s house because their own houses had been flooded.
She said the island had lost electricity. Without it, the cell phone towers ceased to function.
“It’s part of my family and I don’t know anything about them,” she said. “Uncertainty is killing me.”
Difficult days ahead in Honduras
Although it entered Honduras as a tropical storm, Iota still ravaged the eastern rainforest area and brought massive rains to the northern town of San Pedro Sula.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández warned people on Tuesday evening that the storm would affect the country until later this week, when experts predict it will dissipate over El Salvador.
“We must be vigilant and warned, be disciplined,” he said. “A lot of rain is expected and this will cause the rivers in their course to flood.”
Danilo Trejo Posadas, a farmer from La Lima, northern Honduras, said he rushed out of his home earlier this month during Eta, carried his five children one by one and placed them in atop a mango tree. He then moved them to the third floor of a local school, still taking each of them in turn as only he can swim. They all had a rash from the contaminated water.
The family suffered at school for five days, along with around 300 other people, watching newly buried coffins float as the rain dug up in the nearby cemetery floated down. After seeing the children cry from hunger, Trejo Posadas and others decided to fight the current to find a half-dead cow. They finished killing him with a machete, prepared him and ate him.
Trejo Posadas eventually went to his father’s house, located on a hill near Santiago Pimienta. Still recovering from Eta, they hoped to have better luck with Iota. But on Monday afternoon, the water rose and they all ran to a neighbor’s house further up the hill, where they expected to sleep.
“We are waiting for the water to flow,” he said. “At least we’re not wet this time around, at least not yet.”