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By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Hurricane Iota exploded into a catastrophic Category 5 storm on Monday before it slams into a remote Central American coastal region, where efforts to evacuate villagers were hampered by shortages of fuel for boats.
Iota is due to collide with northeastern Nicaragua on Monday night and was packing maximum sustained winds of 160 miles (260 km) per hour, reaching category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The hurricane was located about 100 miles (160 km) east-southeast of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua in the Miskito region.
The Miskito people are descendants of indigenous groups and Africans believed to have escaped from shipwrecked slave ships.
Local authorities and the navy frantically tried to get thousands of families to higher ground or ports in the watery Miskito region of jungles, rivers and coastline, which straddles both Nicaragua and Honduras.
"The biggest problem we have right now is that we don't have fuel to keep on evacuating people" on boats, said Teonela Wood, mayor of Honduras' Brus Laguna municipality, which she said was home to more than 17,000 people.
Douglas Espinal, emergency services chief in nearby Puerto Lempira, said the fuel shortages stemmed from evacuation and rescue efforts during Hurricane Eta, which slammed into the Miskito region earlier in November before dumping rain across a large swath of Central America, destroying crops and killing dozens in landslides and flooding.
Espinal said a little extra fuel had arrived on Sunday, allowing him to make some evacuation runs, and that villagers were also making their own way to seek shelter in Puerto Lempira.
The unprecedented 2020 hurricane season comes as Central America is facing an economic crisis linked to the coronavirus pandemic, with experts warning the compounding hardship could worsen infections, spread hunger, and fuel a new round of migration from the region. (Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Additional reporting by Diptendu Lahiri in Bengaluru; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)
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