Central America’s 2020 Hurricane Season Previews Grim Future

This post was written by my colleague Nikole Blandon.

As a daughter of Central American immigrants, it’s hard to ignore the impacts of climate change there. Countries already reeling from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are now suffering a humanitarian crisis brought by back-to-back storms a month ago. Hurricane Iota made landfall two weeks after Hurricane Eta during the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, affecting more than 7.5 million people and causing more than $7 billion in damages across Central America and Colombia.

Hurricane Iota, the strongest storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season

NASA Earth Observatory / Joshua Stevens

On November 3, Eta hit the coast of Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane and slowly lessened to tropical storm status, affecting Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries on its path. Cuba, Florida, and North Carolina also experienced extreme flooding because of Eta. On November 16, Hurricane Iota also made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 storm, just 15 miles away from Eta’s landfall. As of December 15, more than 200 people were reported dead from the two storms, with many others still missing. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is complicating response and recovery efforts, spreading among evacuees despite precautions by shelter volunteers. 

Hurricane Iota exacerbated flooding and landslides caused by Eta, further damaging or destroying infrastructure like bridges and roads and making it difficult for recovery efforts to reach affected communities. Central America is home to many Indigenous communities that have been devastated in more ways than one from the storm. The damage to homes, crops, and businesses will leave a lasting impact on food security and income.

Central America is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and other environmental stressors. The average temperature in Central America has increased by 0.9°F since 1950 and could rise by at least another 1.8 degrees before 2050. This increase in temperature is exacerbating drought, excessive rainfall, and rising sea levels in Central American countries. Being that the economy relies heavily on agriculture, these impacts can be detrimental to the population’s livelihood. For example, 22 million people in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua already experienced crop failures due to excessive rain and droughts before being affected by the hurricanes this year.

Most of Central America’s population lives in poverty and does not have access to adequate disaster relief needed to re-build their communities and combat climate change. Two countries, Guatemala and Honduras, have called on the United Nations to declare Central America as the region most impacted by climate change. Iota and Eta’s impact in Central America is just one example of how a collection of vulnerable populations that have contributed the least to climate change are often disproportionately affected and displaced by its impacts. Despite a lack of resources, the region is still working towards a more sustainable future, for example by cutting carbon pollution in Costa Rica.

The recent storms are a stark reminder of the urgency of U.S. climate action both to reduce the pollution causing climate change and to help build the resilience of those most at risk. It will be critical for the incoming Biden Administration to center climate change in its diplomacy with countries in Central America. This engagement should include enhancing technical assistance and funding to strengthen climate preparedness. It should also include support for nature-based solutions that can help build resilience and food security by avoiding land degradation and restoring natural ecosystems and services.  

About the Authors

Juanita Constible

Senior Advocate, Climate and Health, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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