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Tropical storm warning issued to Tampa Bay as Eta slowly creeps north

The storm won’t make landfall in Tampa Bay, according to forecasts. But it’ll get close enough to soak us and cause flooding.
The projected path of Tropical Storm Eta.
The projected path of Tropical Storm Eta. [ National Hurricane Center ]
Published Nov. 10, 2020
Updated Nov. 11, 2020

Prepare for lots of wind and rain, Tampa Bay.

The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning for all four Tampa Bay counties on Tuesday night as Tropical Storm Eta’s projected path continued to move east. The warning means the region is expected to experience tropical storm conditions in the next 48 hours.

Related: WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Eta grows into hurricane, Tampa Bay may feel effects starting this afternoon

Tropical Storm Eta, which devastated Central America last week as a major hurricane, isn’t expected to make landfall in Tampa Bay — but is expected to just north of the region. It is, however, expected to get close enough to the Tampa Bay coast on Thursday morning to dump rain, cause flooding and bring winds of at least 39 mph.

“Eta is going to get close enough to us to bring tropical storm conditions to our coast,” said Spectrum Bay News 9′s Chief Meteorologist Mike Clay. “This is a bad track for us. Most of the bad weather will be east of the center and we’ll start to have some issues with storm surge, flooding and issues with heavy rainfall.”

How much rainfall? The hurricane center, as of Tuesday afternoon, predicts four inches in Tampa Bay. The center also warned that flash and urban flooding could happen throughout the Suncoast on Thursday and Friday. The distance Eta’s tropical-storm-level winds reached was 60 miles from its center at 10 p.m.

Eta is a slow-moving storm. It was moving just 9 mph on Tuesday night with sustained winds of 65 mph. It is expected to remain off Florida’s west coast and stay a tropical storm — but it wouldn’t surprise Clay if it reached sustained winds of 74 mph, which would make it a Category 1 hurricane.

“It’s forecast to stay a tropical storm the whole way but I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point it gets back up to hurricane intensity,” he said.

The hurricane center wrote in its 10 p.m. Tuesday advisory that additional watches and warnings could be issued later Tuesday night as Eta’s forecast continues to evolve. The storm was 315 miles southwest of Tampa at that time.

Meteorologist Stephen Shiveley with the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office said Tuesday that Eta’s projected path and intensity have changed so much the past week because weaker and slower storms — like Eta — are harder to forecast.

“Monday night it looked like it was trending away from us and we were in the clear,” Shiveley said. “Now it’s moving east and we’re still up in the air. It’s ironic, but a Category 5 hurricane is way easier to forecast than a tropical storm. It’s just the way it is — the upper-level support just isn’t there and the models have a hard time grabbing tropical storms.”

Models that project the path of Tropical Storm Eta.
Models that project the path of Tropical Storm Eta. [ South Florida Water Management District ]

Models from the South Florida Water Management District would agree with Shiveley. Some have the storm turning straight into Tampa Bay, while others have it peeling further into the Gulf of Mexico. Some have it headed for the Florida Panhandle.

“We really won’t know Eta’s path until it starts to speed up,” Shiveley said.

With that uncertainty comes a lot of possibilities, according to Shiveley. The worst-case scenario for our region, he said, is that the storm makes landfall with Tampa Bay. The next-worse, he said, is that Eta slows down to a complete stop off the coast of Pinellas County — where flooding already occurs with regular heavy showers — and stays there for days.

“One of the solutions is where Eta sits off the coast of Pinellas by about 30 miles and just spins for a couple of days before dissipating,” Shiveley said. “A situation like that would bring bad flooding in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. ... Rain and wind would be the biggest concern and storm surge, too.”

Eta has already shown the damage it can inflict. In Central America, it killed at least 130 people as a Category 4 hurricane. In South Florida, where it made landfall at Lower Matecumbe Key late Sunday, it dumped up to 15 inches of rain in some areas and brought the streets of downtown Miami to a stand-still because of flooding.

Elsewhere in the tropics, Subtropical Storm Theta formed in the northeast Atlantic on Monday night to become the 29th named storm of this year. The storm broke the 2005 hurricane season’s record for most named storms in a season. It remained in the far-eastern Atlantic on Tuesday and will pose no threat to Florida.

The 2020 season likely won’t end with Eta and Theta. A tropical wave over the eastern Caribbean was producing disorganized showers and thunderstorms on Tuesday was given a 70 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm in the next five days.

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