By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras girded for further floods and landslides even as Storm Eta weakened into a tropical depression on Wednesday on its course towards Florida, after at least five deaths and dozens of fishermen left stranded in the Atlantic.
Eta, one of the most powerful storms to strike Central America in years, hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane before weakening as it swept over neighboring Honduras.
Eta is forecast to return to sea and regain momentum as a tropical storm, reaching Cuba and southern Florida this weekend, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Across swathes of Nicaragua and Honduras, the storm has damaged homes, roads and bridges, forcing thousands of people to flee to shelters.
With alerts active for "life-threatening flash flooding," Honduras declared a state of emergency, allowing officials to order evacuations.
"The most important thing is human life," government spokesman Carlos Madero told reporters.
By evening, Eta was about 70 miles (115 km) east of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, and blowing maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph).
Amid the pummeling rain, a 15-year-old boy drowned trying to cross a river and a 13-year-old girl died in a landslide on her home.
Dozens of people living along Tegucigalpa's Choluteca river evacuated as the water overflowed from the banks.
About 60 fishermen were trapped at sea in the eastern Mosquitia region of Honduras, possibly taking shelter on Caribbean keys, and had not yet returned by evening, said Robin Morales, a representative of the local population.
The deluge was so extreme in the northern Honduran city of El Progreso that a prison flooded to waist level and 604 inmates were transferred to local gyms, officials said.
In Nicaragua, the storm downed trees and power lines and caused serious flooding. Local media reported that two wildcat miners were killed by a mudslide.
Before Eta retreats, it is expected to dump another 15-30 inches of rain over Honduras, Guatemala and Belize, and another 15-20 inches over Nicaragua. Some areas could see up to 40 inches, NHC said.
The storm has killed one person in Guatemala, where rains felled trees and unleashed landslides, authorities said.
Through Monday morning, flooding is also possible across Jamaica, southeast Mexico, southern Haiti, the Cayman Islands and western Cuba.
Eta is the 28th named tropical storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, tying a record set in 2005, the NHC said.
(Reporting by Ismael Lopez and Oswaldo Rivas in Nicaragua and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Gerry Doyle)