Tropical Storm Zeta puts 2020 hurricane season in the record books; path includes part of Florida Panhandle

Chris Perkins, Steve Svekis and Robin Webb, Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A portion of the Florida Panhandle is in the latest forecast track for Tropical Storm Zeta, the storm that put the 2020 hurricane season in the record books as only the second year in history to see 27 named storms.

Zeta formed in the pre-dawn hours Sunday, just south of western Cuba, from the former Tropical Depression 28, which emerged Saturday evening in the western Caribbean.

In rain-battered South Florida, the one-two punch of recent king tides and heavy rainfall has already caused coastal flooding woes and rough seas for boaters. Although Zeta remains hundreds of miles from the state, a moist air mass stretching northeast of the storm is drenching South Florida, National Weather Service spokesperson Pablo Santos said.

“Given recent rains, particularly across eastern sections of South Florida, the region does not need much in the way of rain to experience flooding,” Santos said.

According to the latest estimates, southern Florida and the Florida Keys could see 1 to 3 inches of rain over the next 48 hours or so, with isolated amounts up to 5 inches.

How much rain South Florida gets will depend on the system’s movement in the western Caribbean, according to Chuck Caracozza, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami.

At the 11 a.m. Sunday advisory, Zeta had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph and was nearly stationary, 290 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba.

On the forecast track, “the center of Zeta will pass south of western Cuba early Monday and move near or over the northern Yucatan Peninsula or the Yucatan Channel late Monday, move into the southern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, and reach the central Gulf of Mexico by late Tuesday,” according to the latest advisory.

“A storm system over Texas early next week should steer this system north toward the central or eastern Gulf Coast. This will also increase wind shear across the Gulf of Mexico, which may prevent further strengthening of the system,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Pydynowski.

Zeta’s forecast path indicates an eventual landfall between Lafayette, La., and Pensacola, Fla., with the center of the track in the vicinity of New Orleans. The storm’s forecast has it as a tropical storm or low-end hurricane upon landfall on Wednesday afternoon.

The National Hurricane Center’s advisory stated that a slow north-northwestward to northwestward motion is expected Sunday, with a turn toward the west-northwest and an increase in forward speed forecast by Monday, followed by a faster northwestward motion on Tuesday.

Tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 80 miles, mainly southeast of the center.

Meanwhile, meteorologists said a range from 4 to 8 inches of rainfall, with isolated amounts up to 12 inches, is expected through Wednesday across parts of western Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, the northeast Yucatan Peninsula.

In response, a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning is in effect for Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula from Tulum to Rio Lagartos, including Cozumel.

The Cuban government has issued a tropical storm watch for parts of western Cuba, including the province of Pinar del Río, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The last and only other storm named Zeta was in 2005, when a system developed on Dec. 30, a month after the official end of hurricane season, and lingered into the first week of 2006.

If there is record-breaking next named storm, it would be assigned Eta from the Greek alphabet.

Here is the 2020 timeline of systems that have become at least a tropical depression:

Although both 2005 and 2020 had 27 named storms, a reanalysis of the 2005 season revealed a 28th system briefly became a subtropical storm far in the Atlantic on Oct. 4, 2005. That system was never named but because of it, 2005 technically still holds the title of busiest hurricane season on record — for now.

Even with five weeks to go, the 2020 hurricane season, a La Niña year that spawned three major hurricanes — Laura, Teddy and Delta — has been memorable for many reasons.

A record 24 storms were the earliest of previous seasons to be given their names.

A record 10 named storms have made landfall in the continental U.S., the latest being Hurricane Delta in October. The previous mark was nine storms in 1916, according to hurricane specialist Dr. Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University.

Never before has a hurricane named after a letter in the Greek alphabet made landfall in the continental U.S. This year, two hurricanes did just that: Beta hit just northeast of Corpus Christi, Texas, on Sept. 22 and Delta struck southwest Louisiana on Oct. 10.

Hurricane Delta became the strongest storm ever named after a letter in the Greek alphabet and became the fastest storm on record to intensify from a tropical depression to Category 4 hurricane.

Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha formed before the June 1 start of hurricane season, marking only the second time in recorded history two storms have formed before the season began.

September was especially noteworthy, producing 10 named storms — a record for that month. The previous record for September was eight named storms in 2002, 2007 and 2010.

MAP: See the forecast tracks of active storm systems »

On Sept. 14, there were five tropical cyclones spinning at the same time, one away from the record established Sept. 11-12, 1971, according to Klotzbach. The Sept. 14 frenzy had Tropical Storms Paulette, Rene, Sally and Teddy as well as Tropical Depression 21, marking just the second time the Atlantic basin has had five or more storms at once.

Four days later, on Sept. 18, a record-tying three named storms formed in a six-hour span – Tropical Storm Wilfred (Eastern Atlantic), Subtropical Storm Alpha (near Portugal) and Tropical Storm Beta (Gulf of Mexico). The only other day to have three storms form was more than 100 years ago, on Aug. 15, 1893, according to Klotzbach.

October also has been active with four named storms, including Hurricane Epsilon, which was churning in the far-northeast open Atlantic on Sunday. The last time there were four or more named storms in October was 2005, when that month had six named storms, as well as that unnamed subtropical storm.

The 2020 hurricane season was predicted to be above normal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May, but updated in August to extremely active.

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.

While Florida south of the panhandle escaped virtually unscathed in 2020, Louisiana was brutalized by four named storms — Hurricanes Laura and Delta, and Tropical Storms Cristobal and Marco.

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