After roaring ashore Tuesday afternoon in Nicaragua with 140 mph winds and what the National Hurricane Center called a life-threatening storm surge, Tropical Storm Eta is unleashing widespread flooding rains across much of Central America. A flood disaster is likely underway as a number of locations are set to see mudslides amid forecast rainfall totals of 2 to 3 feet. Meanwhile, concern is growing in Cuba and the southeastern United States, including Florida, where Eta may head next.
More than 30,000 people were evacuated ahead of Hurricane Eta, with Nicaragua’s navy pitching in Monday to help. At least 17 shelters were opened in Puerto Cabezas, a city of more than 60,000, to house those fleeing the impending surge and wind. The city took a direct hit from Eta most extreme winds and surge.
Two municipalities, Bilwi and Waspam, were cut off from the rest of the country by land due to flooding from the Wawa River. In Honduras, collapsed bridges severed access to communities in Colón, Atlántida, Yoro and Olancho.
La Prensareports that some Nicaraguan communities 100 miles inland were unaware of the approaching hurricane until it hit.
Eta had since degenerated into a tropical storm by midday Monday as it moved inland through northern Nicaragua while bands of torrential downpours pinwheeled across Central America. The storm’s center of circulation will drift into Honduras in the coming days and work northwestward before emerging over the Caribbean once again on Friday.
Thereafter, a restrengthening Eta could impact Cuba, Florida, or even the northern Gulf Coast.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, the center of Tropical Storm Eta was about 135 miles north-northeast of Managua, Nicaragua, moving west at about 7 mph. The hurricane’s winds had fallen to about 50 mph as the storm’s primary threat had become heavy rainfall.
A broad 1 to 2 feet of rain was likely across much of Nicaragua and Honduras, the National Hurricane Center calling for localized totals up to 40 inches. Some places have already seen half of their rainfall.
“This rainfall will lead to catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding,” wrote the Hurricane Center, “along with landslides in areas of higher terrain of Central America.”
Eta’s propensity to spell a flood disaster is reminiscent of Mitch in 1998, which made landfall as a Category 1 storm in Honduras before dropping up to 75 inches of rain. More than 11,000 perished in severe flooding and mudslides across Central America.
Slow-moving Eta will drift northwest into Honduras on Wednesday afternoon, meandering northwestward before clipping coastal Guatemala and Belize between Thursday and Friday morning. On Friday afternoon, Eta is likely to slip into the northwest Caribbean, where water temperatures are plenty warm to support reintensification, and begin what could be a problematic second act.
While uncertainty abounds, there is an increasing risk that Eta, in reinvigorated form, could whir through Cuba and close to Florida and the southeastern United States. The risk of direct impacts from wind, rainfall, and/or possible storm surge was slowly but steadily climbing in the Sunshine State, with models converging on the likelihood of Eta’s redevelopment.
After the disheveled circulation exits Central America, intensification will likely ensue. However, the rate of that strengthening will heavily depend on how intact and organized Eta’s core vortex is pending its dayslong encounter with land.
Eta will probably collide with Cuba as a waterlogged tropical storm late Saturday or Sunday, once again passing over land as its strength plateaus or falters. After that, the range of possible scenarios widens, as it is unclear how quickly Eta gets swept west around an approaching upper-level low pressure system over the Gulf of Mexico.
If Eta ends up in the eastern Gulf, places like western Florida, coastal Alabama, or the shores of Mississippi would have to keep an eye out. While the waters are cooling and the strength of any tropical storm or hurricane would likely be capped, that part of the country is very vulnerable to storm surge from even weaker tropical systems.
Alternatively, Eta could sweep through the Florida Straits, holding its own as a strong tropical storm before hitting South Florida. A hurricane would be less likely in that scenario given the limited time Eta would have post-Cuba over warm waters to spin back up again.
There is even a chance Eta could sidestep Florida to the east, though that is improbable.
Whatever the case, there is no need for alarm in Florida at the moment. Any eventual impacts are nearly a week away, and confidence is shaky at best. Instead, it’s simply an opportunity to continue monitoring and remaining abreast of the evolving forecast.
Eta first exploded in intensity Sunday into Monday, lurching from a marginal tropical storm to a monstrous hurricane near Category 5 status. It strengthened at double the rate needed to qualify as rapid intensification, a move unprecedented this late in the year and matched historically by only four other Atlantic hurricanes at any point in the season.
At peak, Hurricane Eta’s 150 mph winds tied with those of Laura, which made landfall in southwest Louisiana in late August, as the strongest hurricane of the 2020 season. Eta also took the cake for the lowest air pressure observed in any system this season; a lower pressure generally corresponds to a stronger storm.
It’s the 28th named storm of the 2020 season, tying the record for all-time busiest Atlantic hurricane season as we inch ever closer to uncharted territory.
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The Washington Post’s Anna-Catherine Brigida contributed to this report from Managua, Nicaragua.