Powerful Hurricane Eta threatens flooding in Central America

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Dangerously powerful Hurricane Eta churned toward Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast with potentially devastating winds, while heavy rains thrown off by its storm bands already were causing rivers to overflow across Central America.

The Category 4 hurricane had sustained winds of 240km/h, and the United States (US) National Hurricane Center warned that Eta could strengthen further, perhaps reaching Category 5, before making landfall. It was centred about 50 kilometres east of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, around 2.30am and moving west-southwest at 9km/h. Hurricane-force winds were already blowing on land.

Authorities in Nicaragua and Honduras 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 specialised in search and rescue to Bilwi, the main coastal city in an otherwise remote and sparsely populated area.

The navy on Monday ferried residents of coastal islands to shelters in Bilwi, also known as Puerto Cabezas.

The government said more than 3,000 families were taken to shelters from the most at risk areas.

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 on Monday, Nicaragua Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo said the country would apply lessons learned from previous storms.

“How many hurricanes have come and we have moved on,” she said.

Along Honduras’ northern Caribbean coast, torrential rains from Eta’s outer bands caused some rivers to overwhelm their banks on 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 into much of Honduras could get 15 to 25 inches of rain, with 35 inches in isolated areas. Heavy rains also were likely in eastern Guatemala, southern Belize and Jamaica.

Storm surge up to 4.5 metres above normal tides was possible for the coast of Nicaragua, forecasters said.

The quantities of rain expected 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.