It’s been 22 years since Tropical Storm Mitch made landfall in Florida. That was on Nov. 5, 1998, and it was the last time the Sunshine State experienced tropical-storm-force winds in November.
Now, after devastating Central America, the tropical depression formerly known as Hurricane Eta is projected to reach southernmost Florida as a tropical storm early Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Tropical storm watches were issued late Friday for all of southern Florida. The warnings run from Bonita Beach on the west coast to Lake Okeechobee to Jupiter Inlet on the east coast and then all the way south through the Florida Keys.
Eta departed the mountains of Central America and re-entered the Caribbean Sea’s warm waters, according to the hurricane center’s midnight Saturday advisory. Eta was located 310 miles southwest of Grand Cayman, moving northeast at 10 mph with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph.
It is expected to reach tropical storm strength by Saturday morning and generate wind speeds of nearly 65 mph by Sunday night — just 10 mph below Category 1 hurricane strength.
The projected path for Tropical Storm Eta shows it passing the Cayman Islands on Saturday and nearing Cuba that night. It’s then expected to approach the Florida Keys late Sunday or early Monday. After making landfall in the Keys, Eta could move up Florida’s southwestern coast before turning west into the Gulf of Mexico.
The cone of uncertainty falls along Southwest Florida and the Keys, but Tampa Bay lies just beyond it — for now. The storm is forecast to pass well west of the bay area on Wednesday, but its forecasted paths have shifted all week long.
“It’s a tropical depression on its way to being a tropical storm,” Spectrum Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay said. “If I was in South Florida, I would be watching this very carefully.”
Clay said forecasting models show Eta is a disorganized storm, and that makes it harder to predict its future path and intensity.
Though the storm’s core isn’t expected to reach Tampa Bay, Bay News 9′s forecast projects the region will start next week with higher winds than normal and a 60 percent chance of rain Monday and a 50 percent chance Tuesday.
South Florida is expected to experience heavy rains from Eta starting Friday night and higher winds by Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. The Coast Guard set condition “X-Ray” for Port Tampa Bay, Port St. Pete, Port Manatee and Fort Myers, limiting marine traffic into the port and requiring commercial vessels to request permission to stay in port.
The weather service issued a flood watch for southeast Florida and warned Eta could lead to a “long duration flooding event.” Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach announced Friday that they were distributing free sandbags to residents.
Slow-moving Eta means Tampa Bay won’t feel the storm’s effects this weekend. The region could still see some rain, however, with a 20 percent chance Saturday and a 40 percent chance Sunday. Both days are expected to be breezy with highs in the mid-80s. But keep an eye on Eta this weekend to see what might happen next week.
The similarities between Mitch and Eta go beyond when they formed. Like Eta, Mitch devastated Honduras and Nicaragua as a major hurricane — killing more than 10,000 people — before it turned northeast toward Florida and landed as a weakened tropical storm.
Eta is blamed for at least 57 deaths in Central America as of Friday, according to the Associated Press.
• • •
2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter