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Storm Iota weakens in Central America, but flooding and death toll rise

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Unleashing torrential floods even as it weakened, Storm Iota churned through Central America on Tuesday, causing swollen rivers to burst their banks, flipping roofs onto streets and killing at least nine people across the region.

The strongest storm on record to reach Nicaragua, Iota struck the coast late on Monday, bringing winds of nearly 155 miles per hour (249 kph) and flooding villages still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Eta two weeks ago.

But by Tuesday night, the winds had fallen to 50 mph (80 kph) as Iota weakened to a tropical storm but heavy rainfall continued, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Iota was drenching already saturated towns and villages as it moved inland over southern Honduras and as authorities reported many people missing with some of the worst-hit areas still cut off.

“We’re flooded everywhere, the rain lasted almost all night and now it stops for an hour then comes back for two to three hours,” said Marcelo Herrera, mayor of Wampusirpi, a municipality in the interior of northeast Honduras crossed by rivers and streams.

“We need food and water for the population, because we lost our crops with Eta,” he told Reuters.

The Honduran government closed bridges and highways across the country on Tuesday, while opening more than 600 shelters where some 13,000 residents sought refuge.

The double punch of Eta and Iota marked the first time two major hurricanes had formed in the Atlantic basin in November since records began. The Nicaraguan port of Puerto Cabezas, still partly flooded and strewn with debris left by Eta, again bore the brunt of the hit.

Frightened residents huddled in shelters.

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“We could die,” said Inocencia Smith at one of the shelters. “There is nothing to eat at all,” she added, noting Eta had destroyed local farms.

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo said at least six people had died as they were dragged down by raging rivers.

The wind tore the roof off a makeshift hospital. Patients in intensive care were evacuated, including two women who gave birth during the first rains on Monday, the Nicaraguan officials said.

‘IN THE HANDS OF GOD’

Two people died on Providencia island, part of Colombia’s Caribbean archipelago near the coast of Central America, after it was clipped by Iota, President Ivan Duque said on Tuesday evening.

Nearly all of the infrastructure on Providencia - home to some 6,000 people - had been damaged or destroyed.

Panama’s government said a person had died in its western Ngabe-Bugle region due to conditions caused by the storm.

A resident of Brus Laguna on the Honduran coast told local radio a boy was killed by a falling tree, although the mayor, Teonela Wood, said she had no reports of fatalities.

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said flooding from Iota risked causing disaster after Eta.

“We are very concerned about the potential for deadly landslides in these areas as the soil is already completely saturated,” IFRC spokesman Matthew Cochrane told a media briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.

About 100,000 Nicaraguans and Hondurans had been evacuated from their homes, authorities said.

Iota was about 35 miles (56 km) southeast of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, the NHC said, moving west at 12 mph (19 kph) where it could provoke “catastrophic flash flooding and mudslides.”

The center added that Iota could dump up to 30 inches (76 cm) of rain in some areas.

“We are in the hands of God. If I have to climb up trees, I’ll do it,” said Jaime Cabal Cu, a farmer in Guatemala’s Izabal province. “We don’t have food, but we are going to wait here for the hurricane that we’re asking God to stop from coming.”

Reporting by Wilmer Lopez in Puerto Cabezas, Ismael Lopez in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Oliver Griffin and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Emma Farge in Geneva and Elida Moreno in Panama; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Aurora Ellis, Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney

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