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What Eta and Iota Tell Us About The Hurricane Future In Latin America And The Caribbean

Hondurans left homeless by Hurricanes Eta and Iota this month living in tents on the only patch of dry ground they can find, under a highway in the northern city of San Pedro Sula.
Hondurans left homeless by Hurricanes Eta and Iota this month living in tents on the only patch of dry ground they can find, under a highway in the northern city of San Pedro Sula.

The strongest storms ever to form so late, and so far south, in the Caribbean could force us to revise our expectations about hurricanes in this part of the world.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season officially ends next week — and it's been a record breaker. This year has recorded the most named storms ever: 30 of them.

It's also tied 2005 for the most hurricanes of Category 4 strength or higher: five of them. And it's seen storms of that magnitude later in the season than ever before, including Hurricane Iota that ravaged Central America just last week.

WLRN’s Tim Padgett, sees other troubling trends with the hurricanes that we and our Caribbean neighbors face each year. WLRN’s Christine DiMattei spoke with Padgett about what this year might be signaling.

Here are excerpts from their conversation:

DIMATTEI: Tim, first please update us on the disaster in Central America, which was just hit by two major hurricanes in two weeks.

PADGETT: Right, Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Both, incredibly, made landfall at about the same place on the Nicaraguan coast – and then pounded Central America from Guatemala down to Panama. Both were Category 4 storms when they hit and they dumped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas, especially in Honduras.

The epic flooding’s forced several hundred thousand people from their homes. Eta alone killed 130 people across Central America — many, if not most, in mudslides. We don't yet know the damage estimates; but entire towns are underwater, so it'll be massive.

READ MORE: Bahamas Victims Know What Scientists Warn: Monster Storms Are the New Normal

There’s also COVID-19 to worry about.

Yes. Countries like Honduras and Panama were already dealing with major COVID-19 crises. The chances of those getting even worse now are huge as people crowd into shelters or tent camps on whatever patches of dry ground they can find.

So relief workers on the ground in countries like Honduras told me that in addition to aid like food and water, they're hoping to get PPE, or personal protective equipment, to prevent a massive new COVID outbreak. Relief efforts here in South Florida, like one being led by the mostly-Honduran Amor Viviente Church here in North Lauderdale, are taking those donations.

But you say there was something else about Hurricane Iota last week that left an even bigger impression on you, especially regarding Latin America and the Caribbean.

There was. Keep in mind, Iota was at one point a Cat 5. You rarely if ever see hurricanes that powerful form at that southerly latitude in the Caribbean, more or less where Nicaragua and Costa Rica are. And yet this year we had two of them form that far south. In fact, meteorologists in Nicaragua say Iota was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in that country.

And before Iota hit Nicaragua, it ravaged the nearby Colombian islands of Providencia and San Andrés. The U.S. military's Southern Command here, or Southcom, told me it destroyed 99% of Providencia’s infrastructure. Colombian President Iván Duque said this was the first time in history Colombia had ever recorded a Cat 5 hurricane.

Here's the other thing. No Caribbean hurricane as strong as Iota has ever formed this late in the year. So experts say what all this suggests is that global warming is erasing a lot of our old assumptions about where and when we can and can't expect major hurricanes in this part of the world — and that a larger portion of Latin America and the Caribbean may now be vulnerable to them.


You've been covering Atlantic hurricanes for almost 30 years. When did you first realize we might be entering the era of stronger storms?

Without a doubt it was Hurricane Mitch in 1998. It's still the deadliest in Central American history. It killed some 11,000 people there, especially in Nicaragua and Honduras. And I remember it was also when my colleagues and I first started hearing from scientists this connection between global warming and stronger storms. Especially the far greater amounts of rain these new hurricanes could unleash and cause whole mountainsides to collapse and crush towns and villages, which is what Mitch did.

Remind us, there was a breakthrough this year regarding that science.

Yes, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, published a study this year that for the first time really offered empirical data to confirm that global warming is making these hurricanes stronger, wetter and generally more destructive.

Last week the Trump Administration said it would provide $17 million in humanitarian aid to Central America. In the longer run, though, how do you think President-elect Joe Biden's administration will address this problem?

A few ways, I think. First, Biden has proposed a $4 billion development program for Central America to address the reasons so many people there migrate to the U.S., and that will likely earmark funds for climate-change mitigation. He'll probably resume U.S. funding to the UN's Green Climate Fund for developing countries, which President Trump had stopped.

And he's pledged to put the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement to reduce the causes of global warming, like greenhouse gas emissions. That could perhaps help prevent these storms from becoming even more brutal for poorer regions like Latin America and the Caribbean.
Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Residents of the northern Nicaraguan town of Siuna wade through their flooded streets after Hurricane Iota swept through this week.
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Residents of the northern Nicaraguan town of Siuna wade through their flooded streets after Hurricane Iota swept through this week.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.
Years ago, after racking her brains trying to find a fun, engaging, creative night gig to subsidize her acting habit, Chris decided to ride her commercial voiceover experience into the fast-paced world of radio broadcasting. She started out with traffic reporting, moved on to news -- and never looked back. Since then, Chris has worked in newsrooms throughout South Florida, producing stories for radio broadcasts and the web.