After plowing into Nicaragua as a major Category 4 storm Tuesday, Hurricane Eta is expected to make a dramatic U-turn over the mountains of Central America and track toward South Florida, perhaps late this weekend, the National Hurricane Center said.
Eta made landfall with catastrophic 140 mph winds several hours after lingering off the Nicaraguan coast. There was early word of building damage and power outages in addition to river flooding, the government said.
Although nearly 900 miles from Florida and heading to the west on Tuesday evening, Hurricane Eta’s forecast track shifted north and now includes all of Florida south up to Lake Okeechobee, including the Florida Keys, the hurricane center announced in a 4 p.m. Tuesday advisory.
Eta was so far expected to weaken from its current status as a major hurricane to a tropical storm as it moves inland over Central America before turning east back into the Caribbean Sea on Friday as a tropical depression.
Once back over the Caribbean, Eta is then forecast to strengthen back to tropical storm status as it spins toward central Cuba then into the Florida Straits, continuing on a northeast track that could include a Florida landfall on Sunday.
But it was early yet and the cone may or may not shift in the days ahead. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the center of the cone had Eta narrowly dodging a direct Florida landfall. But the range of where Eta might go includes a wide area that stretches from Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys to the Bahamas.
By the time Eta hit Nicaragua, its winds had dropped from 150 mph, which made it a strong Category 4 hurricane but not strong enough to be a Category 5 storm, the most severe form of hurricane, which is characterized by winds of 157 mph or higher.
Eta is the 12th hurricane to form in the Atlantic basin this year. Its forecast track beyond Friday is uncertain, forecasters said.
Eta — the Atlantic’s 28th named storm this year — formed Saturday night in the Caribbean Sea as a tropical storm, marking the first time in recorded history that forecasters had to resort to using the seventh letter of the Greek alphabet to give a storm a name.
With Eta, 2020 has now tied 2005, the year of Katrina and Wilma, for the record of most named storms in a calendar year.
“Only three full hurricane seasons on record have had 12+ hurricanes,” according to Dr. Phil Klotzbach, a tropical scientist at Colorado State University. The 2005 hurricane season also holds record for the most Atlantic hurricanes in a season: 15.
Forecasters warned of life-threatening storm surge, as well as catastrophic winds, flash flooding and landslides across Central America.
“The center of Eta is forecast to move farther inland over northern Nicaragua through early Wednesday, and then move across central portions of Honduras by Thursday morning,” according to the hurricane center.
Heavy rain, flash and river floods were also forecast in Jamaica, southeast Mexico, El Salvador, southern Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
“There is a risk of storm surge, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall for portions of Nicaragua and Honduras,” the hurricane center said. “...Through Thursday afternoon, heavy rainfall from the system will likely lead to flash flooding and river flooding across portions of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Central America, which could result in landslides in areas of higher terrain.”
There’s still one month left in the hurricane season, which ends Nov 30. The next name that would be used would be Theta.
Colorado State’s Tropical Meteorology Project team issued its first forecast for the 2020 hurricane season on April 2, when it forecast 16 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes, an above-average season.
An average season, measured by standards established between 1981 and 2010, has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes, defined as a Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
Zeta, which hit last week in Louisiana, was the record-breaking 11th named storm to make a U.S. landfall during the 2020 hurricane season — nearly all of them hit along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.
While Florida south of the Panhandle escaped virtually unscathed in 2020, Louisiana was battered by five named storms — Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta, and Tropical Storms Cristobal and Marco.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when Eta was expected to have winds of 150 mph.
Information from the Associated Press was used to supplement this report.
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