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Tropical Storm Eta will zigzag toward Florida. But will it get stronger?

After devastating Central America, Eta is forecast to head toward Florida. But meteorologists don’t believe it will regain hurricane strength.
Tropical Storm Eta was expected to depart Central America and reach Florida by Monday. Here's the forecast track as of 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday.
Tropical Storm Eta was expected to depart Central America and reach Florida by Monday. Here's the forecast track as of 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday. [ National Hurricane Center ]
Published Nov. 4, 2020|Updated Nov. 5, 2020

Hurricane Eta spent Tuesday and Wednesday devastating Central America. Yet, somehow, what’s left of the storm still poses a threat to Florida about 1,000 miles away.

That’s because Eta’s remnants — it was downgraded to a tropical depression late Wednesday — are expected to turn back toward the water by Friday and re-enter the Caribbean Sea, according to the National Hurricane Center. There, forecasters expect it to regain tropical storm strength and, like a bank shot on a pool table, head northeast toward Cuba and then approach Florida on Monday.

“It’s a very complicated forecast,” said Spectrum Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay. “It doesn’t look like a purely tropical system, more like a hybrid. We’ll get some wind and rain. But it doesn’t look like a hurricane-type situation.”

Related: THURSDAY UPDATE: At least 13 dead in Central America from Eta as forecasters watch Florida impact

That’s because a hybrid storm isn’t quite a tropical system. It lacks an organized center for strong winds to coalesce around. Instead, as a hybrid storm, Eta — pronounced AY-ta — will be a big and messy system of wind and rain moving toward Florida.

Tropical Storm Eta is forecast to depart Central America and reach Florida by Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Tropical Storm Eta is forecast to depart Central America and reach Florida by Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center. [ National Hurricane Center ]

After it passes over Cuba on Saturday and approaches the Keys on Sunday, the hurricane center’s forecasted path shows Eta taking another wild turn, this time swinging northwest and going past the southwest coast of Florida. It could drop up to 10 inches of rain on South Florida and a few inches fewer on Tampa Bay.

Unfortunately for Florida, no models show it being disrupted by the mountains of Central America. Said Clay: "The models are in greater agreement that it will survive and a tropical storm will come up toward Florida.”

The question then is, what’s to keep Eta from turning back into a hurricane once it reaches the warm Gulf of Mexico waters?

Turns out plenty, Clay said. There will be wind shear in the Gulf, the waters have cooled down a bit thanks to the recent cold fronts and the storm will run into a lot of dry air. Eta could even reach Florida as a tropical depression, not a tropical storm.

Much of the Florida peninsula, from the Tampa Bay region and Orlando south, lies under Eta’s cone of uncertainty. While no models show it strengthening into a hurricane, Clay said, some do show it crossing over South Florida. But if it turns northwest as currently expected, it would pass by or over the Tampa Bay region.

Florida would be fortunate to be spared the wrath of Eta, the strongest Greek-named storm on record. It is also the record-setting 28th named storm of the year, tying the record of named storms set in 2005. It struck Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday with wind speeds as high as 140 mph and put all of Central America at risk of heavy rains, winds and flash floods.

Nicaragua is Central America’s poorest country, and Eta devastated one of its poorest cities, Puerto Cabezas, ripping off roofs, knocking down power poles and trees and inundating the region with storm surge of up to 21 feet, according to Reuters.

“We’re really afraid. There are fallen poles, there’s flooding, roofs torn off,” Puerto Cabezas resident Carmen Enriquez told Reuters.

Eta was located just north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, according to a Hurricane Center advisory at 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday. It was generating maximum winds of 30 mph and moving west-northwest at just 8 mph. The track remained uncertain, the advisory said, but there was a growing risk of wind and rainfall in portions of Cuba, South Florida and the Florida Keys.

As for Tampa Bay weather, expect highs to return to the upper 80s later this week, though evenings will still be in the 70s. There will also be a 40 percent chance of rain starting Friday and lasting through the weekend.

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