Bilwi (Nicaragua) (AFP) -
Eta was downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane Tuesday even as it continued to pummel Nicaragua, unleashing fierce winds and heavy downpours.
The hurricane, which dropped from a Category 4 storm earlier in the day as it moved inland, hammered impoverished indigenous communities along the coast and caused heavy rains throughout much of Central America.
'Quite a lot of trees have fallen and traffic has been badly affected' in the region, said Infrastructure Minister Oscar Mojica.
Packing 110 mile (175 kilometer) an hour winds, Eta tore up trees and ripped roofs off homes in Bilwi, the biggest town on the northeastern coast, also known as Puerto Cabezas.
'We spent the whole night with strong gusts of wind, accompanied by rain,' Kenny Lisby, head of a local radio station, told AFP. 'It's possible there will be quite a lot of destruction.'
Winds tore down the concrete perimeter walls of the town's baseball stadium, and left a trail of fallen trees as dazed cattle and domestic animals wandered through the streets, AFP reporters said.
Giovany Nelson, 34, said his family was 'locked in a room listening to the wind destroying the roof.'
The Nicaraguan government reported no immediate deaths, while authorities in Honduras said that a child died in a collapsed house.
The US National Hurricane Center warned the effects of Eta could be catastrophic for the region.
'Life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, flash flooding, and landslides expected across portions of Central America,' it said, including Jamaica, southeast Mexico, El Salvador, southern Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
The Wawa river that connects Bilwi to the rest of the country broke its banks.
Eta is forecast to continue moving inland over northern Nicaragua and central Honduras through Wednesday and into Thursday.
- Devastation -
At the request of the government, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it had sent 80 tonnes of food for distribution in the region.
Some 100,000 people live in Bilwi and adjacent communities along the coast, mostly inhabited by indigenous Miskito and Mayagna people who are among the poorest in Nicaragua.
'Bilwi has been badly affected, there are surrounding neighborhoods and bridges that are flooded, many houses are without roofs and the situation is continuing because the hurricane is very slowly continuing on its path into the territory,' said Kevin Gonzalez, a community volunteer helping with the relief effort.
'It was a terrifying night because the strong gusts of wind generated a sound like a tractor demolishing everything in its way,' Joel Quin, 35, a Bilwi resident, told AFP.
The hurricane is likely to have a devastating effect on the communities' main livelihoods of fishing and agriculture, the WFP said.
As the surface layer of oceans warms due to climate change, hurricanes are becoming more powerful and carrying more water, posing an increasing threat to the world's coastal communities, scientists say.
Storm surges amplified by rising seas can be especially devastating.
In the coastal community of Prinzapolka, winds tore the zinc roofs from simple wood-framed dwellings, local teacher Kevin Lacwood told AFP.
The government said it had evacuated 20,000 people from the coast to shelters inland.
The governments in Nicaragua, with more than six million people, and neighboring Honduras, with more than nine million, had warned populations in the path of the hurricane to prepare as best they can.
In Honduras, a small girl died when a house collapsed in the El Carmen slum in northern San Pedro Sula, the country's second largest city, where Eta caused flooding that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes, relief agencies said.
Heavy rains lashed the Caribbean ports of La Ceiba and Tela, where authorities evacuated more than 100 people, as water levels rose dangerously in local rivers.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele said on national radio and television that more than 100,000 people from the government, relief organizations, the police and army were ready to help the population during and after the hurricane.