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Environment

Nicaragua braces for 'catastrophic' winds as Hurricane Eta nears coast

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Nicaragua on Monday scrambled to evacuate citizens from its Atlantic coast or put them in shelters as Hurricane Eta barreled closer, while the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned of flash floods and “catastrophic winds” in Central America.

Eta, a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, was gaining force and expected to slam into the northeast coast of Nicaragua early on Tuesday morning, the Miami-based NHC said.

According to the latest NHC forecast, winds could reach 160 miles per hour (258 kph) by the time Eta reaches land, NHC said. Once the storm clatters into the mountains of Nicaragua and Honduras, it should weaken swiftly.

In the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, where Eta is expected to make landfall, government shelters had reached capacity and there was a town-wide power outage following intense rains, said Javier Plat, a local Catholic priest.

By Monday evening, Eta was 45 miles (72 km) east of Puerto Cabezas, churning west-southwest at seven mph and blowing sustained winds of 150 mph, the NHC added.

Describing it as a “major hurricane”, NHC said Eta’s rains may cause “life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, flash flooding and landslides” in parts of Central America. Jamaica, southern Haiti, the Cayman Islands, El Salvador and southern Mexico may also be hit.

Eta was poised to be one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit Nicaragua in years, and may test President Daniel Ortega, who presides over one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

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On Monday evening, strong winds and heavy rains lashed Nicaragua and the government put regions in the hurricane’s path on red alert. It has evacuated about 3,000 coastal families from their homes and sent supplies to help residents prepare for the storm’s impact, Vice President Rosario Murillo said.

Eta could also trigger destructive waves in Nicaragua, while water levels could reach 14 feet to 21 feet (4.3m to 6.4m) above normal tide levels, NHC said.

In Honduras, the government has placed five Atlantic coast regions on red alert, its highest warning, and evacuations were underway, authorities said.

Adverse weather conditions on Monday forced Honduras to shutter some of its ports, while several towns on its Atlantic coast were already experiencing flooding, the Honduras Permanent Contingencies Commission (COPECO) said.

El Salvador on Monday also announced a red alert and began precautionary evacuations, Interior Minister Mario Duran said.

Eta is the 28th named tropical storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, tying a record set in 2005, the NHC’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch said.

Eta could dump 15-25 inches (38-64 cm) of rain on central and northern Nicaragua and much of Honduras, with up to 35 inches in some areas, the NHC said.

Additional reporting by Ismael Lopez and Nelson Renteria; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates

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