Hurricane Eta slowed to tropical storm speeds on Wednesday morning even as it pummeled Nicaragua, killing two people there and one in neighboring Honduras, while unleashing fierce winds and heavy downpours.
The storm had hammered impoverished indigenous communities along the coast when it made landfall a day earlier and caused heavy rains throughout much of Central America.
“Quite a lot of trees have fallen and traffic has been badly affected”, said Nicaraguan infrastructure minister Oscar Mojica.
Eta uprooted trees and ripped roofs off homes in Bilwi, the biggest town on the northeastern coast and also known as Puerto Cabezas.
“We spent the whole night with strong gusts of wind, accompanied by rain,” Kenny Lisby, head of a local radio station, told AFP. “It’s possible there will be quite a lot of destruction.”
Winds tore down the concrete perimeter walls of the town’s baseball stadium, and left a trail of fallen trees as dazed cattle and other animals wandered through the streets.
Giovany Nelson, 34, said his family was “locked in a room listening to the wind destroying the roof.”
Two Nicaraguans died after they were buried in a landslide while working in a mine in the municipality of Bonanza, the director of the local Red Cross, Auner Garcia, told Channel 10 television.
Authorities in Honduras said a child died in a collapsed house there, bringing the death toll in the region to three so far.
The National Hurricane Center warned the effects of Eta could be catastrophic for the region.
But it said the storm’s winds had slowed to 70 miles (110 kilometers) per hour on Wednesday morning, about half the speed at which Eta made landfall.
The storm is forecast to continue moving inland over northern Nicaragua and central Honduras through Wednesday and into Thursday.
At least 20,000 evacuated
At the request of the government, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it had sent 80 tonnes of food for distribution in the region.
Some 100,000 people live in Bilwi and adjacent communities along the coast, mostly inhabited by indigenous Miskito and Mayagna people who are among the poorest in Nicaragua.
“Bilwi has been badly affected, there are surrounding neighborhoods and bridges that are flooded, many houses are without roofs,” said Kevin Gonzalez, a community volunteer helping with the relief effort.
“It was a terrifying night because the strong gusts of wind generated a sound like a tractor demolishing everything in its way,” Joel Quin, 35, a Bilwi resident, told AFP.
The hurricane is likely to have a devastating effect on the communities’ main livelihoods of fishing and agriculture, the WFP said.
As the surface layer of oceans warms due to climate change, hurricanes are becoming more powerful and carrying more water, posing an increasing threat to the world’s coastal communities, scientists say.
Storm surges amplified by rising seas can be especially devastating.
In the coastal community of Prinzapolka, winds tore the zinc roofs from simple wood-framed dwellings, local teacher Kevin Lacwood told AFP.
The government said it had evacuated 20,000 people from the coast to shelters inland.
The governments in Nicaragua, with more than six million people, and neighboring Honduras, with more than nine million, had warned populations in the path of the hurricane to prepare as best they could.
Heavy rains lashed the Caribbean ports of La Ceiba and Tela, where authorities evacuated more than 100 people, as water levels rose dangerously in local rivers.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele said on national radio and television that more than 100,000 people from the government, relief organizations, the police and army were ready to help the population during and after the hurricane.