South Florida under warnings for Tropical Storm Eta; entire region in possible forecast track

Men work on a small house in "El Muelle" Neighbourhood in Bilwi, Nicaragua on November 5, 2020, after the passage of Hurricane Eta.



FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Tropical storm watches and warnings are in effect for much of southern Florida as Tropical Storm Eta strengthens and picks up speed faster than forecasters expected.

The storm will keep getting stronger as it crawls toward Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center. The forecast track held steady northeastward Saturday, meaning the southern half of the state to Lake Okeechobee could be affected, the hurricane center said.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for the southern Florida coast from Golden Beach in North Miami-Dade County across the state to Chokoloskee, near Naples, including Florida Bay. The warning also encompasses the Florida Keys from Ocean Reef to the Dry Tortugas.

Tropical storm watches are in place for both coasts of South Florida from Golden Beach north to the Brevard/Volusia county line and from the Naples area north to Englewood, including Lake Okeechobee.

Warnings are also in place for the Cayman Islands, six central Cuban provinces, and the northwestern Bahamas.

The Cone of Uncertainty has been extended to include all of Florida except for the western tip of the Panhandle.

During an 11:30 a.m. Saturday briefing, National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Molleda said southern Florida can expect rainfall of between 6 and 9 inches Saturday through Tuesday morning.

"There's a higher potential, greater risk for the east coast areas," he said. "(There's) a lower risk for the interior and gulf coast, but still a notable risk of flooding."

No substantial storm surge was expected but there could be some flooding along the coast and in low-lying areas, he said. Broward County has been clearing storm drains and flushing water into canals to prepare for more rain in an already saturated South Florida.

"We do expect a few tornadoes, potentially, all across southern Florida Sunday night," Molleda said. "Monday will be more likely in the northeast quadrant of the storm as it moves by."

Eta weakened into a tropical depression Wednesday evening after making landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 major hurricane earlier in the week. The storm fell apart over Central America's mountainous terrain but not before bringing life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and flash flooding.

Eta is the 12th hurricane of the year. Only three other full Atlantic seasons on record have seen more than 12 hurricanes.

It is the 28th named storm of the year, tying the 2005 season record for 28 storms of tropical storm strength or greater.

Forecasters said a Hurricane Hunter aircraft found Eta's center further south than expected on Friday afternoon. If the storm has slowed down, it will remain over warm water longer and have more time to strengthen before arriving at the south coast of Cuba.

Eta was previously expected to develop into a tropical storm late Saturday or Sunday.

Although there's a chance Eta will reach hurricane strength, it is more likely to remain a tropical storm when it makes its closest approach to Florida late in the weekend.

"It's not currently what's forecast," said Robert Molleda, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Miami office. "But it's not something we can rule out right now."

Eta's winds would have to increase to more than 74 mph to become a hurricane.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Eta's maximum sustained wind speeds were 40 mph with stronger gusts, the hurricane center said. The storm was about 45 miles west-northwest of Grand Cayman and was moving northeast at 17 mph.

Despite a pattern this year of storms seeing rapid intensification — defined by wind speeds increasing by at least 35 mph within 24 hours — conditions don't appear favorable for Eta to follow suit.

But, forecasters warn, the exact track and intensity aren't certain and the outlook could change.

The last five storms in the Atlantic basin — including Hurricane Eta before it struck Central America early this past week — have undergone rapid intensification.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for central north and south coasts of Cuba, where Eta is forecast to cross over the island into the Florida Straits. A tropical storm warning is also in effect for the Cayman Islands.

Watches could be issued for parts of South Florida or the Florida Keys by Saturday.

Eta's wind field is expected to increase in the next few days and will produce a large area of tropical storm-force winds on its north side when it approaches Cuba, the Florida Keys or South Florida.

The forecast track has Eta's center moving across the northwestern Caribbean Sea overnight, approaching the Cayman Islands on Saturday, and the south coast of Cuba Saturday night and into Sunday.

After that, forecast models are in disagreement about where the storm will go. Some say the system will make a sharp turn west just before the Florida Keys and move into the Gulf of Mexico. Others predict it will come closer to South Florida on Monday or Tuesday.

In either case, the storm will probably slow down over Cuba and have as much as 24 hours to strengthen between Cuba and South Florida.

Eta is likely to be gone from South Florida by late next week, sparing the area from a double-whammy of flooding rains during the next King Tides cycle, which begins Nov. 14 and ends Nov. 18.

"I think Eta should be pretty far removed from South Florida next Friday," said Jonathan Erdman, digital meteorologist for the Weather Channel.

However, Molleda said power outages are possible and drivers on overpasses, especially in high-profile vehicles, should be aware of the potential for gusty winds.

"Certainly the potential is there for impactful rains and winds over the next few days," Molleda said.

South Florida is under a flood watch through Tuesday evening.

Molleda said Sunday night is the most likely time for tropical-storm-force winds, but a wind advisory for South Florida could be issued by Saturday morning.


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