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Hurricane Eta Spares Tobacco in Central America

Nov 9, 2020 | By Gregory Mottola
Hurricane Eta Spares Tobacco in Central America
Photo/Seth Sidney Berry/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Flooded cars along a highway in San Pedro Sula, Honduras days after Hurricane Eta hit the region.

Tobacco growers in Central America are breathing sigh of relief. Although Hurricane Eta and its remnants caused some flooding in the major growing regions of Honduras and Nicaragua, the damage wasn’t nearly as severe as had been anticipated. 

Eta made landfall on Nicaragua’s east coast on November 3 as a Category 4 hurricane, but it weakened to a tropical storm the next day as it passed over the country’s growing regions. And by the time Eta made its way to Honduras, the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression. The storm’s biggest impact came from its heavy rains. The official reports have the death toll in Honduras at 57 so far. For Nicaragua, the death toll is much less at two.

Luckily for the cigar industry, it is still quite early in the growing season, so some fields had not been fully planted with tobacco, or in some cases, not at all.

“Thank God the damage to the crops has been minimal since the rain had been constant, but not much,” said Nestor Andrés Plasencia, who makes cigars and grows tobacco in both Honduras and Nicaragua. “We are estimating about four percent damage to what we have planted to date—three percent in Honduras and one percent in Nicaragua.”

In Honduras, Plasencia transplanted his first seedlings from greenhouse to ground during the first week of August. In Nicaragua, he started in mid-October, but decided to temporarily halt more plantings once he got word of the storm. Plasencia estimates that he grows around 1,700 acres of tobacco in Nicaragua and around 1,800 acres in Honduras.

Oliva Cigar Co. was also counting itself lucky in the wake of the storm. “In Jalapa, we had more rain and wind but fortunately not much damage to our fields. As there was rain the previous weeks, not too many manzanas were planted and those planted were the ones with better drainage or topography,” said Ernesto Milanes of Oliva. He was expecting more damage in Condega, an area where the soil tends to retain more water, and said he had no tobacco planted in Estelí.”

Eduardo Fernandez, who’s growing around 1,400 acres of tobacco in Nicaragua this year via his agricultural conglomerate Aganorsa, shared Plasencia’s sentiments.

“Based on the original predictions of devastation, we definitely dodged a bullet and are extremely lucky,” Fernandez told Cigar Aficionado. “There has been no major damage nor long-term impact on our operations from the storm. There will be some short-term challenges. The rains have impacted planting, particularly in Estelí where the rich volcanic soil will need to dry before we will be able to plow the fields and this will shorten the growing season.”

About 100 miles north in Honduras’ Jamastran valley, it’s much the same story. The wet, saturated soil in both countries will need some time to dry before any further planting can continue.

“We were very fortunate that the storm did not hurt us directly,” said Christian Eiroa of CLE cigars. He and his family plan to grow anywhere from 200 to 300 acres of mostly Corojo-seed tobacco this year in the Valley. “It did cause a one- or two-week delay in transplanting from the seedbeds to the field. We need to wait for the soil to dry, hopefully it will be by the end of this week.”

According to Joel Alvarenga, operations manager at Altadis’ Flor de Copán factory in Honduras, there was little-to-no damage to any of Altadis’ facilities or tobacco. Nor does he expect any delays from a logistical standpoint, but he reminds us that not everyone in Honduras was so fortunate.

“The country, especially on the north coast and the area near San Pedro Sula, has been seriously affected by the floods caused by the Ulúa and Chamelecón Rivers,” Alvarenga said. “There are thousands of victims and they are going through a very critical situation since they have lost their homes and all their material assets. It is shocking to see all the areas that were affected and where our compatriots have lost everything.”

After leaving Central America, Eta moved northeast over Cuba. As this story was posted, it was hovering offshore near Florida’s west coast. It’s projected to make landfall as a tropical storm much later in the week somewhere along the eastern gulf coast of the United States.

Click here to learn about five hurricanes that changed cigar history.

Honduras Nicaragua

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