Tropical Storm Zeta interrupts the presidential race with this reminder: It’s still hurricane season.
Zeta formed in the Caribbean early Sunday, becoming the 27th named storm of this busy Atlantic storm season. It is expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico early next week and strengthen into Hurricane Zeta late Monday.
By 5 p.m. Sunday, the tropical storm was meandering roughly 280 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba and about 275 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The storm is throwing off tropical storm-force winds as far as 115 miles from the center. Its maximum sustained winds had increased to nearly 50 mph with stronger wind gusts.
Forecasters predict that Zeta will continue to strengthen in the next 48 hours. Zeta was expected to continue in a northwestward direction over the next couple of days, producing heavy rainfall and strong winds across the northwestern Caribbean. Southern Florida and the Keys may receive several inches of rainfall over the next two days.
The latest forecast shows Zeta’s center moving over the northern Yucatán Peninsula or Yucatan Channel late Monday. By then, Zeta could already be at hurricane strength, the National Weather Service said Sunday. The storm is expected to pick up speed, becoming Hurricane Zeta before it moves over the southern Gulf of Mexico Tuesday, then approach the northern Gulf Coast Wednesday.
Drier air in the Gulf of Mexico should sap some of the storm’s strength, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said Sunday, downgrading Zeta to tropical storm status as it makes landfall somewhere along the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday. The cone of uncertainty stretches as far west as Vermilion Bay, La., and as far east as Destin in the Florida Panhandle.
“While the current NHC forecast indicates that the system should weaken below hurricane strength before landfall, users are reminded that strong tropical storms can still produce significant storm surge, rainfall and wind impacts along the northern Gulf Coast,” senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said in the latest Hurricane Center advisory.
The Mexican government issued a hurricane watch Sunday for the region from Tulum to Rio Lagartos and Cozumel. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
The tropical storm should stay well west of Tampa Bay, and is only expected to have a minimal impact on local weather. The forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain Monday, with temperatures well above normal for most of the work week.
Highs were expected to reach 89 degrees on Sunday and climb to the low 90s over the next five days. But when all that moisture reaches the Gulf of Mexico in mid-week, rain chances will increase to 20 percent each afternoon next week before a band of showers on Friday ushers in slightly cooler, drier air, the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office said.
The formation of Zeta marks a significant meteorological milestone this year. It is the 27th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic storm season, one shy of the record of 28 set in 2005.
And if Zeta makes landfall in Louisiana, it would set a record as the fifth storm to hit the state in a single season.
Louisiana was hit hard by deadly Hurricane Delta earlier this month. On Saturday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a tweet that state officials were keeping a close watch on Zeta’s path.
The 2005 hurricane season is the most active and destructive on record, generating a record 15 hurricanes in one year, including seven major hurricanes — any storm of Category 3 strength of above. The 2005 season saw four Category 5 hurricanes: Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
The 2005 storm season is blamed for 4,000 deaths and nearly $160 billion in damage across the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and the United States, according to USA Today.
While 2020 has been as active as that historic year, it has only generated 10 hurricanes and four major storms: Sally, Teddy, Delta and Epsilon. Zeta could become the 11th hurricane.
What’s significant about this year is the record pace of storm formations: The 27th storm of 2005 formed on Nov. 29. Zeta formed on Oct. 25.
And thanks to this year’s re-emergence of La Niña — a recurring Pacific phenomenon that warms Atlantic waters and reduces wind shear — conditions are ripe for more storms to continue forming at a faster pace well into December.
Editor’s note: This story corrects the record for named storms set in 2005.
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2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
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