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Central America: Hurricanes Eta & Iota - Operations Update no. 5 (MDR43007)

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Description of the disaster

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active in history. It was also the fifth in a row to present above-average activity, with 30 named tropical storms of which 13 became hurricanes.

On 3 November 2020, Hurricane Eta made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, causing landslides and floods that displaced thousands of people and left dozens dead or missing in Central America and parts of the Caribbean.

Just 14 days later, Hurricane Iota worsened the situation in areas already affected by Eta and significantly expanded the impact to other regions in Nicaragua and other Central American countries. Originating as a tropical wave in the eastern Caribbean on 10 November, Iota rapidly strengthened to a hurricane by 15 November and to a Category 5 hurricane by 16 November. It struck Nicaragua and the Gracias a Dios region in Honduras as a Category 5 hurricane on 17 November, causing flash floods, river floods and landslides.

These two hurricanes affected more than 7.5 million people in Central America. The governments of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua declared states of emergency in at-risk departments and requested humanitarian and financial aid, elevating it to an official international-level request to intensify emergency response actions.


Between 3 and 17 November 2020, tropical storms Eta and Iota pummelled most of the Guatemalan territory with heavy rains that caused flooding and dozens of catastrophic landslides and mudflows. According to the National Disaster Reduction Coordination (CONRED), 16 of the country's 22 departments were affected by both storms, mostly Alta Verapaz, Izabal, Quiché, Huehuetenango, Petén, Zacapa and Chiquimula. These departments are home to some five million people.

As in 2005 with Storm Stan, Eta and Iota mainly affected rural areas with high levels of extreme poverty. The most affected department was Alta Verapaz, whose residents are mostly indigenous Maya Q'eqchí communities. The affected populations in the departments of Izabal, Quiché, Huehuetenango, Petén, Zacapa and Chiquimula share several structural characteristics with those in Alta Verapaz: they live in rural areas, most self-identify as belonging to indigenous peoples, and they present poverty (income) and multidimensional poverty levels higher than the national average.

In the case of Izabal, the floods caused by the overflow of the Motagua River mainly affected the municipalities of Los Amates, Morales, Puerto Barrios and El Estor. According to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), about 150 square kilometres were flooded in these four municipalities, directly affecting some 8,600 people. The flood waters, which in some places rose as high as 2.50 metres, destroyed homes and their contents (furniture, appliances, clothing, kitchen utensils, among others), flooded streets and community spaces with mud and stones, contaminated artisan wells and destroyed community water systems, causing considerable damage to community and municipal road infrastructure.

In the case of Alta Verapaz, some floods were caused by large rivers and their tributaries while others, mainly between Cobán and Chisec and in San Pedro Carchá, were caused by a combination of surface and underground runoff, creating huge lagoons that flooded at least 20 communities. These communities reported that damage not only to homes, livelihoods, and infrastructure but also to crops, livestock, health posts, schools and road networks.

According to the Presidency’s Planning and Programming Secretariat (SEGEPLAN), the tropical storms caused losses, damages and additional costs throughout the country in the order of 6 billion quetzals.


Hurricane Iota affected communities in the Sula Valley in northern Honduras as well as the departments of Copán, Choluteca and Comayagua and compounded the damage inflicted by storm Eta in the departments of Cortés, Yoro, Atlántida, Santa Bárbara, Olancho and Colón.

Approximately 4.7 million people were affected by the emergency. More than one million were evacuated, some 93,000 were transferred to collective centres and more than a hundred died because of the floods. Some 1,000 homes were destroyed, more than 6,000 were damaged and more than 88,000 were affected. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (SAG) reported losses of up to 80 per cent in the agricultural sector. and according to ECLAC, the impact of the hurricanes has caused some 45,000 million lempiras in losses (approximately US$1.86 billion).

Most water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services have been restored by municipalities, although with needs, as distribution systems in most regions have collapsed and are in a slow initial recovery process. Shelter assistance remains a priority, as structures have suffered considerable damage. Communities' return home has come with the creation of makeshift shelters, often right next to the structures that used to be their homes or fields.

Livelihood recovery measures are considerable given the damage caused to agricultural plantations, and while the rainy season has ended, rubble and mud can still be found in communities. The breaches to riverbank walls have led to unsafe conditions that make it impossible to ensure a successful harvest, which affects subsistence farmers and the informal workers who depend on seasonal crops. Urban areas have suffered the socioeconomic effects of the emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession and the loss of jobs in the transport, trade and agro-industry sectors, and said socioeconomic effects are exacerbated by these threats.


Hurricane Eta made landfall on Nicaragua's northern Caribbean coast on 3 November 2020 as a category 4 hurricane packing 240-km/hr winds, pummelling the Wawa Bar community to the southwest of Puerto Cabezas, Bilwi for more than 30 hours. After Eta, the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Care (SINAPRED) estimated that more than two million people were exposed to this storm.

As a preventive measure, SINAPRED and other response mechanisms in the country, including the Nicaraguan Red Cross (NRC), evacuated almost 70,000 people and opened 325 collective centres. It declared a red alert for the Caribbean region and a yellow alert for the departments of Wiwili, Jinotega, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa and Chinandega. The Pacific region was also affected by torrential rains that caused landslides, which led to having to activate more than 300 collective centres and host households to house and take in families.

On 16 November, Iota made landfall in Nicaragua as a category 5 hurricane, packing winds of up to 260 km/h and hitting the community of Halouver (350 families, approximately 1,750 people, mostly Miskito indigenous people) 45 kilometres south of Puerto Cabezas.

As a result, the northern Caribbean region was left incommunicado, with no telephone and internet service, with no electricity and with no drinking water supply service. Puerto Cabezas was severely damaged. Housing and docks were destroyed. The temporary hospital that had been set up had to be evacuated to the regional government's headquarters as the building began to cave in because of the strong winds, and the damage suffered by the Bello Amanecer regional hospital was even more severe.

Iota, now downgraded to a tropical storm, then went on to hit the Nicaraguan Pacific region, leaving in its wake destroyed bridges and homes, landslides, fallen trees and flooding in the departments of Rivas, Managua, Carazo, Jinotega, Nueva Segovia and Wiwili.

The official government report issued on 24 November 2020 following Iota indicated that some three million people were affected by both hurricanes and estimated the losses due to damages caused in 56 municipalities at US$ 742,671,000.