Tropical Depression Eta is strengthening faster than expected and may blossom into a tropical storm Friday night, then continue getting stronger as it crawls toward Florida, according to the 4 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters said a Hurricane Hunter aircraft found Eta’s center further south than expected on Friday afternoon. If the storm has slowed down, it will remain over warm water longer and have more time to strengthen before arriving at the south coast of Cuba.
Eta was previously expected to develop into a Tropical Storm Saturday or Sunday.
Although there’s a chance Eta will reach hurricane strength, it is more likely to remain a tropical storm when it makes its closest approach to Florida late in the weekend.
“It’s not currently what’s forecast,” said Robert Molleda, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Miami office. “But it’s not something we can rule out right now.”
Eta’s winds would have to increase to more than 74 mph to become a hurricane.
Despite a pattern this year of storms seeing rapid intensification — defined by wind speeds increasing by at least 35 mph within 24 hours — conditions don’t appear favorable for Eta to follow suit.
But, forecasters warn, the exact track an intensity aren’t certain and the outlook could change.
The last five storms in the Atlantic basin — including Hurricane Eta before it struck Central America early this week — have undergone rapid intensification.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for central north and south coasts of Cuba, where Eta is forecast to cross over the island into the Florida Straits. A tropical storm warning is also in effect for the Cayman Islands.
Watches could be issued for parts of South Florida or the Florida Keys on Friday night.
Eta is 115 miles east of Belize and 375 miles west-southwest of Grand Cayman, the hurricane center said.
Eta has maximum sustained winds of 35 mph and is moving northeast at a slow 7 mph.
Eta’s wind field is expected to increase in the next few days and will produce a large area of tropical storm-force winds on its north side when it approaches Cuba, the Florida Keys or South Florida.
The forecast track has Eta’s center moving across the northwestern Caribbean Sea overnight, approaching the Cayman Islands on Saturday, and the south coast of Cuba Saturday night and into Sunday.
After that, forecast models are in disagreement about where the storm will go. Some say the system will make a sharp turn west just before the Florida Keys and move into the Gulf of Mexico. Others predict it will come closer to South Florida on Monday or Tuesday.
In either case, the storm will probably slow down over Cuba and have as much as 24 hours to strengthen between Cuba and South Florida.
Eta is likely to be gone from South Florida by late next week, sparing the area from a double-whammy of flooding rains during the next King Tides cycle, which begins Nov. 14 and ends Nov. 18.
“I think Eta should be pretty far removed from South Florida next Friday,” said Jonathan Erdman, digital meteorologist for the Weather Channel.
However, Molleda said power outages are possible and drivers on overpasses, especially in high-profile vehicles, should be aware of the potential for gusty winds.
“Certainly the potential is there for impactful rains and winds over the next few days,” Molleda said.
South Florida is under a flood watch through Tuesday evening.
Molleda said Sunday night is the most likely time for Tropical-Storm-Force-winds but a wind advisory for South Florida could be issued Friday night.
Local municipalities are gearing up for Eta. Palm Beach County had a conference call Friday with agencies including the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center to plot its strategy. It’ll also be in touch with the South Florida Water Management District.
Broward County is taking similar steps and held planning meetings Friday afternoon.
“I think the issue is mainly the timing (of Eta’s effects),” said John Jamason, Palm Beach County emergency management deputy director of public affairs.
Jamason said the county always plans for a storm one category higher than its expected arrival. He said he’s unsure whether Eta would necessitate opening shelters but that possibility will be discussed.
Shannon Weiner, emergency management director for Monroe County which covers the Florida Keys, will recommend declaring a local state of emergency on Saturday morning. The county is considering opening shelters for people who live on boats, in mobile homes or are homeless.
A decision on whether to close schools in Monroe County next week will be made on Saturday.
State drawbridges in Broward and Palm Beach counties must be locked down eight hours before tropical storm-force winds arrive. The bridges will be closed to marine traffic and will remain closed until they are assessed for damage.
Eta weakened into a tropical depression Wednesday evening after making landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 major hurricane earlier in the week. The storm fell apart over Central America’s mountainous terrain but not before bringing life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and flash flooding.
On Thursday afternoon, Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei said said a water-soaked mountainside in the central part of the country had slid down onto the town of San Cristobal Verapaz, burying homes and leaving at least 25 dead.
Two other landslides in Huehuetenango had killed at least 12 more, he said. Earlier Thursday, five people had been killed in smaller slides in Guatemala. There were 13 deaths in Honduras and two in Nicaragua. Panamanian authorities reported eight people were still missing.
Eta is the 12th hurricane of the year. Only three other full Atlantic seasons on record have seen more than 12 hurricanes.
It is the 28th named storm of the year, tying the 2005 season record for 28 storms of tropical storm strength or greater.
Information from the Associated Press was used to supplement this report.
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