Hurricane Eta quickly gained force on Monday, erupting into a major storm as it headed for Central America, threatening massive flooding and landslides across a vulnerable region.
Eta had maximum sustained winds of 130mph and was located east of the Nicaragua-Honduras border, according to the National Hurricane Centre.
It said the Category 4 hurricane will strengthen further before running ashore by early Tuesday, likely to be in Nicaragua, where it could bring rains measured in feet rather than inches.
Forecasters said central and northern Nicaragua and much of Honduras could get 15in to 25in of rain, with 35in in isolated areas. Heavy rain is also likely in eastern Guatemala, southern Belize and Jamaica.
Storm surge up to 15ft above normal tides is possible for the coast of Nicaragua. The hurricane centre also warned of life-threatening flash flooding and landslides in areas with higher terrain.
Nicaragua’s navy evacuated the Miskito Cays of about 1,650 residents along the coast on Sunday and prohibited launching any boats along the stretch of coastline expected to to be hit by Eta.
Offshore residents were taken to shelters in Bilwi, also known as Puerto Cabezas, the primary city of the Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region that is home to 66,000 people, according to Guillermo Gonzalez, director of Nicaragua’s national emergency management agency.
North-eastern Nicaragua is sparsely populated, home to small coastal villages and a large nature reserve.
Mr Gonzalez said 88 tons of rice, oil, corn and other food basics had been sent to the area. The Rio Coco, which makes up part of the border with Honduras, is home to many Indigenous communities, and is known to top its banks in heavy tropical rains.
Nicaragua’s government has placed northern provinces on alert as Eta is expected to move through the country’s northern mountains after coming ashore.
Eta’s expected path through Central America while dumping prodigious amounts of rain was already raising references to Hurricane Mitch, the 1998 storm that unleashed an estimated 35in of rain during a slow trek across the region.
A National Hurricane Centre archive report said more than 9,000 people died during Mitch, one of the deadliest Atlantic storms in history.
At one point its winds reached nearly 180mph, though it weakened while meandering off the Honduran coast before making landfall on Oct 29ober 1998.
In Honduras, much of the country is on red alert for Eta.
Julissa Mercado, spokeswoman for the national emergency management agency, said firefighters had started clearing areas most at risk and mandatory evacuations would be ordered soon.
Eta nearly tripled in strength in just 24 hours, rapidly intensifying from a 40mph storm on Sunday morning to a 110mph hurricane on the threshold of becoming a major hurricane on Monday morning. Forecasters warned that could bring life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, flash flooding and landslides when it makes landfall.
It is the 28th named Atlantic storm this season, tying the 2005 record for named storms. This is the first time the Greek letter Eta is being used as a name.