Tropical Storm Eta pounded Cuba with strong winds, heavy rains and storm surge Sunday as forecasters warned the deadly storm would strengthen en route to the Florida Keys.
Gov. Ron DeSantis warned Floridians to stash seven days of supplies. National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said in a Facebook Live post Sunday that Eta could regain hurricane status before the storm arrives overnight.
“You’re going to be dealing with Eta all week,” Graham said. “It’s going to take a lot to get this thing out of here.”
Some school districts – including Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Broward County Public Schools and Monroe County School District – announced their campuses will be closed Monday due to Eta. Online instruction was canceled Monday for Miami-Dade and Monroe county schools.
Last week, Eta stormed through Central America as a Category 4 hurricane, triggering deadly mudslides that destroyed entire villages. The center of Eta was forecast to pass near or over the Florida Keys into Monday, and be over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.
Guatemala searches for bodies: Eta heads to Cuba, Florida
“Exactly where and when Eta makes this turn will determine the extent and magnitude of impacts in Florida,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Pydynowski said. “Although locally damaging winds, heavy rain and some flooding are likely in at least South Florida and the Florida Keys.”
Eta is a little late by hurricane season standards. Should Eta strike as a hurricane, it would be just the fourth U.S. hurricane landfall in November since 1851, WeatherTiger reports. If it arrives as a tropical storm, it would be the first to hit the state in November since Tropical Storm Mitch in 1998. Hurricane season officially ends Nov. 30 but can extend into December.
The Florida Keys and peninsula have mostly been spared the brunt of damage from the record-setting, 2020 Atlantic hurricane season that has spawned 28 named systems. Incredibly, no landfalls have occurred in the state yet this season.
“Eta may make a second pass across the state,” WeatherTiger’s Ryan Truchelut warned. “Big picture: Both the Panhandle and the Florida Gulf Coast should be poised to react to a hurricane threat this week.”
Accuweather warned that Eta may pose a significant threat to lives and property and, at the very least, an interruption to daily activities and travel for the next few days.
Hurricane warnings were issued for the Florida Keys. Forecasters predict up to 8-12 inches of rain will fall over parts of South Florida. Eta’s path later this week and beyond was uncertain. Accuweather said the most likely scenario was for Eta to roll off of Florida and emerge in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico early this coming week, possibly restrengthening into a hurricane yet again.
“There is a danger of life-threatening storm surge in portions of the Florida Keys. Life-threatening storm surge is possible along portions of the southern coast of the Florida peninsula,” the National Hurricane Center said on Twitter. “Residents in these areas should follow any advice given by local officials.”
As of 10 p.m. EST Sunday, Eta was centered 80 miles east of Key West with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph. The storm was pushing northwest at 14 mph.
A storm surge watch north of Card Sound Bridge to Golden Beach, including Biscayne Bay, was canceled on Sunday afternoon. Hurricane warnings were also discontinued for the eastern portion of Florida, north of Golden Beach.
Eta made history last week when it matched the strength of Hurricane Laura, the strongest storm of the brutal 2020 hurricane season, with winds peaked at 150 mph. That’s just a few mph short of a Category 5 storm.
Eta brought death and destruction to Central America, where an estimated 100 people were believed buried in a rain-fueled landslide in Guatemala. Fresh landslides forced rescue workers to delay efforts to reach 150 homes buried in up to 50 feet of mud.
“We are coordinating so that all the personal are evacuated … because we can’t work there,” Juan Alberto Leal, the lead emergency worker in the town of Queja, told Reuters. “If we stay, lives will be lost.”
Rescue workers used a helicopter to evacuate survivor Emilio Caal, who said he was blown several yards by the force of the slide. He said he lost as many as 40 family members and relatives.
“My wife is dead, my grandchildren are dead,” Caal said.
Pope Francis, speaking at St. Peter’s Square, prayed for the “many victims” of the storm that “caused immense damage, aggravated by the already difficult situation of the pandemic.”
Eta is the 28th storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which ties the 2005 season for the most storms on record, the Weather Channel said. It’s also the 12th hurricane of the season, which ties for the second-most on record for a year in the Atlantic.