Hurricane Eta nearly at Cat 5 strength as it bears down on Central America

Ryan Adamson
·7 min read

Eta, the 28th named storm and the 12th hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, strengthened into a powerful Category 4 hurricane over the western Caribbean early Monday afternoon. Extremely dangerous Eta is expected to bring catastrophic impacts to Central America due to its initial strength and excruciatingly slow movement.

The storm was located 20 miles south-southeast of the Nicaraguan town of Puerto Cabezas as it packed maximum sustained winds of 140 mph early Tuesday afternoon.

"The eyewall of extremely dangerous Hurricane Eta [was] moving onshore along the coast of northeastern Nicaragua," NHC said in an update at 1:00 p.m. EDT Tuesday. In order for a landfall to be declared, the center of the storm has to cross the coast.

In the span of 24 hours, the rapidly intensifying storm went from a tropical storm strength on Sunday night to knocking on the doorstep of Category 5 strength -- which has sustained winds over 156 mph -- when winds peaked near 150 mph late Monday. Eta tied Hurricane Laura for strongest storm of the 2020 hurricane season -- and it is the fifth major hurricane of the season to churn across the basin.

Atmospheric conditions surrounding Eta, including very warm water and low vertical wind shear, allowed the storm to ramp up so quickly from Monday morning to Monday night.

AccuWeather meteorologists on Monday night raised the rating for Eta to a 5 on the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale for Hurricanes as it is projected to make landfall in Central America early Tuesday, posing a host of dangers including a life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic flooding rainfall and destructive winds.

Earlier in the day, the storm was rated a 4 after initially being rated a 2 on the scale when it developed as a tropical depression over the weekend.

The AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale is a 6-point scale with ratings of less than one and 1 to 5. In contrast to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which classifies storms by wind speed only, the AccuWeather RealImpact™ Scale is based on a broad range of important factors, including wind speed, flooding rain, storm surge and economic damage and loss.

When Eta reached Category 4 strength, it acheived a rare feat for this late in the season. Only three Category 4 hurricanes - Lenny in 1999, Michelle in 2001, and Paloma in 2008 - and one Category 5 hurricane - the Cuba Hurricane of 1932 -- have developed in the Atlantic during the month of November.

Eta, when it crashes onshore, will join the ranks of only four other storms of Category 4 force or greater to make landfall in Nicaragua.

Forecasters say Eta could have similar impact on Central America to that of Hurricane Mitch from 1998. Mitch struck around the same point of the season, meandered over Central America for days and unloaded torrential rainfall. More than 11,000 people lost their lives due to catastrophic flooding from Mitch. While Mitch peaked offshore as a Category 5 hurricane, it weakened considerably prior to landfall and crossed the Honduras coast as a Category 1 hurricane.

As of early Tuesday afternoon, the hurricane was moving to the west-west at 3 mph (5 km/h) as hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 25 miles (35 km) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend 115 miles (185 km) from the center. Sustained winds of 69 mph (111 km/h) with gusts to 103 mph (166 km/h) were reported at Puerto Cabezas Airport, Nicaragua, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

The governments of Honduras and Nicaragua have issued hurricane watches and warnings. A hurricane warning was in effect for the coast of Nicaragua from the Honduras border to Sandy Bay Sirpi, Nicaragua, Monday. A hurricane watch was in effect for the northeastern coast of Honduras from Punta Patuca to the Nicaragua border.

The storm has already written new pages in the record books before the devastating hit to Nicaragua and Honduras. When Eta became a tropical storm on Saturday evening, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season tied 2005 for generating the most tropical storms in one season.

The NHC had never used the name Eta before this storm, making it the farthest the center ever dipped into the Greek alphabet to name a tropical storm.

The eye of dangerous major Hurricane Eta became less noticeable on satellite images as it churned just offshore of Nicaragua on Tuesday morning, Nov. 3, 2020. (CIRA at Colorado State/GOES-East)

Intense lightning was frequently detected in the eye of Eta on Monday evening by NOAA's GOES-East weather satellite, one of the indications that the hurricane was still strengthening.

Near-continuous lightning was detected in the eye of Hurricane Eta on Monday evening as it approached Nicaragua. (NOAA)

The outer bands of Eta were already lashing the shores of Nicaragua and Honduras Monday morning, and the wind and rain will only increase as the storm moves ashore.

Near and just north of the center, where the hurricane makes landfall, a life-threatening storm surge of up to 18 feet is predicted to inundate coastal locations in northeastern Nicaragua.

Rainfall will total 12-24 inches (300-600 mm) in many areas of Central America. An AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 50 inches (1,270 mm) of rain is expected across northern Belize, eastern Honduras and northern Nicaragua, especially over the higher elevations. Rainfall of this magnitude has the potential to lead to catastrophic flash flooding and devastating mudslides for many villages that are on the slopes of the hills. Local rivers will likely exceed their banks for at least the next week due to the tremendous deluge.

Eta will produce wind gusts of 120-160 mph (193-257 km/h) near and to the north of where the landfall occurs, with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 180 mph (290 km/h) near where the hurricane will make landfall in Nicaragua.

Winds this strong could lead to devastating damage to trees, power lines and structures near where Eta makes landfall, with more localized damage extending inland across Central America. However, heavy rain leading to saturated soil could lead to more widespread downed trees in some areas farther inland.

The power will likely be out for months in these areas and most structures will be completely destroyed near the immediate coastlines.

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Even well away from the center of the storm, soaking rainfall, localized flash flooding and gusty winds can impact surrounding areas such as Jamaica and Cuba.

Beyond Central America, Eta or a spin-off storm from Eta may meander northeastward back over the Caribbean Sea. In this case, impacts to Cuba, Florida and the Bahamas would not be completely out of the question during the second week of November. It is also possible that Eta completely dissipates over Central America.

"However, the system may not be in a rush to move at a steady pace in this northward long-range scenario," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.

"The long-term movement of Eta, if it survives the encounter with Central America, is highly uncertain, but there is potential for the system or a spinoff to linger and wander around into the middle of November somewhere from the western Caribbean to the southwestern Atlantic," Sosnowski said.

AccuWeather meteorologists will continue to keep an eye on Eta in case one of the other scenarios begins to appear more likely.

Eta is the strongest Atlantic hurricane this late in the calendar year since Otto in 2016, according to Colorado State University Meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. Otto became a Category 3 hurricane before making landfall in southern Nicaragua and was blamed for 18 fatalities in Central America, according to the National Hurricane Center.

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