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Humanitarian emergency in Central America

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Hurricane Iota is one of the strongest storms in history

The coast of Nicaragua has just experienced a direct hit by Hurricane Iota, one of the strongest storms in recorded history — less than two weeks after a direct hit by Hurricane Eta, one of the strongest storms in recorded history.

The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and Honduras is at the front lines of climate change, a primarily Indigenous region known as the Miskito Coast where people have struggled for autonomy for centuries. The region’s major city, Bilwi (known in Spanish as Puerto Cabezas, pop. 70,000), took a direct hit from both hurricanes.

It’s unheard of for two hurricanes so strong to strike the same place so close together, anywhere in the Atlantic basin, at any time of the year — let alone Central America in mid-November.

Over the past two days, Iota has grown from a tropical depression into a horrific Category 5 hurricane and made landfall just 15 miles south of where Eta, a high-end Category 4 hurricane, made landfall on November 3rd.

For a few days, Eta was the strongest hurricane of this record-breaking 2020 hurricane season, until Iota. Iota is now one of the strongest and most rapidly-intensifying hurricanes in recorded history, stronger than Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 landfall in New Orleans.

Iota will bring 20-30 inches (50-75 cm) of rain to a region with still-high water levels after Hurricane Eta's 30-40 inches (~1 meter) of rain less than two weeks ago, creating "life-threatening flash flooding" across nearly the entire country of Honduras and most of northern Nicaragua.

On top of that, Iota’s sustained winds of 155mph (250 kph) and coastal storm surge flooding could produce a rise in the level of the ocean as high as 15-20 feet (5-6 meters), bringing an unsurvivable storm surge miles inland.

This is a “catastrophic situation”, according to the National Hurricane Center:

This is a catastrophic situation unfolding for northeastern Nicaragua with an extreme storm surge of 15-20 ft forecast along with destructive winds and potentially 30 inches of rainfall, and it is exacerbated by the fact that it should make landfall in almost the exact same location that category 4 Hurricane Eta did about two weeks ago.

The meteorologist who wrote that sentence is Eric Blake, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

“Today was the kind of day with that pit in your stomach feeling,” Blake told me this morning in a Twitter DM. “There’s a helpless feeling really. I’ve had that feeling way too often this season.”

Iota and Eta are hallmark storms of a warming climate

The incredible strength of Eta and Iota is closely linked to human-caused climate change. Warmer ocean waters have long been linked to the potential for stronger storms, but Caribbean waters have rarely been as warm as they are now so late in the season — essentially extending the peak conditions of hurricane season by a month near Nicaragua compared to 30 years ago. The warmer tropical atmosphere can also hold more water vapor now, which is creating a more moist environment that’s a supercharged fuel for high-end hurricanes to rapidly intensify.

Iota is the record-breaking 30th named storm of the 2020 hurricane season, and the record-breaking 10th hurricane to rapidly intensify. Iota’s extreme strength means that the Atlantic basin has now recorded at least one Category 5 hurricane in each of the past five years for the first time in history. The Greek-alphabet-named storms alone have generated enough accumulated cyclone energy to equate to an entire second-hurricane season. This year is the first year in history that two major hurricanes have formed in November, and both of them have hit Nicaragua. Only one other time in history — 49 years ago — did two hurricanes of any strength hit Nicaragua in the same season.

This season has been horrible for the mainland United States, with a tropical storm or hurricane landfall in each of the past seven months, including five hitting Louisiana alone. But Latin America has also been hit especially hard, especially the Yucatan Peninsula, and now Central America.

Central America and the Yucatan have endured more strong hurricanes in the past two months (Delta, Eta, Iota) than in the previous ten years combined. Before 2020, only eight hurricanes have intensified by 100mph in 36 hours or less. This year, Delta, Eta, and Iota all achieved that mark.

The trauma of rapidly-intensifying hurricanes can’t be underestimated for those in their path. Imagine going to bed with a tropical storm, and waking up to a Category 4 just hours from landfall. It inhibits our ability to prepare, and it hampers government-led evacuations.

In Nicaragua, already on the front lines of climate change, it has created a humanitarian emergency.

I spoke with Indira Hall, an English teacher in Bilwi, who said that Hurricane Eta left her family without a roof.

It was really really really something we were scared of. Iota has a lot of us very worried. Coming out of the damage of Eta, the water is just going down. It’s kind of scary to hear that we have another one coming over us.

All over the region, evacuations from Hurricane Eta:

…have had to be repeated for Hurricane Iota:

Nicaragua and Honduras are in a humanitarian emergency

In the 169 years of weather records before 2020, only five hurricanes of Category 4 strength or stronger have made landfall in Honduras or Nicaragua. Having two in two weeks is bringing a level of catastrophe to Central America that defies comprehension, and an overwhelming need for support and mutual aid from the rest of the world.

Early estimates are that Hurricane Eta created damage equivalent to 20% of Honduras’ annual GDP, destroying dams and flooding lakes and ripping the roofs off of countless homes. Almost 3 million people were directly affected by Eta, according to the UN Refugee Agency. A CNN report said that Eta alone “could leave the region scarred for generations.”

The overlapping tragedies of COVID-19 (which the hurricanes could worsen), an extractive and colonial economic relationship with regional governments, and the climate emergency have pushed largely Indigenous subsistence farmers into severe food insecurity. There are also reports of violence, especially against women, in hurricane shelters.

This is the Choluteca River in the middle of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, just after Hurricane Eta:

In Nicaragua, people have risked their lives to protect their family. This man frantically tried to hammer his zinc roof back on his house in the middle of Hurricane Eta:

The Miskito people deserve a chance to thrive

The people of Nicaragua and Honduras did almost nothing to cause climate change, yet they are bearing terrifying floods from a record-breaking hurricane. Honduras contributes 0.03% of global carbon emissions, Nicaragua about 0.02%.

In recent years, national governments and powerful industries in Central America have cracked down on dissent and even killed environmental activists in an attempt to further marginalize Indigenous people and steal their land, even as the land is being radically transformed by climate change. In Guatemala, Indigenous people have launched their own hurricane relief efforts, after years of marginalization by their own governments. Since Hurricane Eta, Indigenous people along the Nicaragua coast have resorted to a traditional form of mutual aid called “pana pana”, where neighbors give what they have to those in greater need.

A better world is possible, and we must demand it. That starts with securing land rights for Indigenous people.

If you’d like to help directly support hurricane recovery in the Indigenous regions of Nicaragua and Honduras, in a way that’s directed by the communities themselves, please support the Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques.