Nov. 5 (UPI) — Tropical Storm Eta has weakened to a tropical depression but forecasters say it will again gain strength once it reaches the Gulf of Mexico and moves toward the southeastern United States.
The storm was a Category 4 hurricane when it arrived over Nicaragua on Wednesday but weakened as it moved further over land.
In its 3 a.m. CST update Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said Eta was located about 90 miles south of Ceiba, Honduras, and had maximum sustained winds of 30 mph. It was moving west-northwest at 8 mph.
Eta would again become a tropical storm once it reaches maximum sustained winds of 39 mph.
From Central America, the storm is expected to strengthen and chart a wobbly course that will take it over Cuba and early next week it could threaten Florida in the United States.
Eta could reach hurricane force again on its way toward Cuba and, at this point, AccuWeather meteorologists expect it to approach southern Florida as a tropical storm.
The storm had weakened considerably and was downgraded to a tropical depression late Wednesday.
“It appears that Eta will not just wither away over Central America this week as some part of the diminishing storm’s circulation is likely to survive and re-enter the western Caribbean where the process of re-organizing and re-strengthening is bound to occur,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll said.
Florida has largely dodged impacts so far in a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season, which has spawned 28 named systems.
No landfalls have occurred in the state yet this season, but forecasters say the region is not out of the woods yet. Eta may pose a significant threat to lives and property, and at the very least, an interruption in daily activities and travel late this weekend and early next week.
The water over the northwestern Caribbean is some of the warmest of the entire Atlantic basin and plenty warm enough to nurture a tropical system. Eta is forecast to spend about 36 hours over the warm waters of the northwestern Caribbean, which is enough to allow for strengthening.
Conditions are forecast to deteriorate over western Cuba, especially along the southern coast during Saturday afternoon and evening. Rounds of heavy rain, strong winds and surf are anticipated. The risk of flash flooding will increase, as will the potential for mudslides in the mountainous terrain.
In Havana, on the north side of Cuba, northerly winds are likely to create overwash that could lead to coastal flooding in and around the city.
The storm may have another opportunity to strengthen once it emerges over the Florida Straits to the north of Cuba during the day Sunday. At this time, forecasters expect Eta to approach the Florida Keys and South Florida Sunday night.
Impacts in South Florida and the Florida Keys late this weekend to early next week will depend on storm’s exact track and speed after its encounter with Cuba. The magnitude of wind, rain and storm surge anticipated in the Sunshine State could change over time as details on Eta’s erratic path and strength become more clear.
Provided that Eta strikes Cuba as a hurricane and maintains some strength while crossing Cuba on Saturday night, a potential exists for hurricane-force wind gusts of 74 mph or greater in part of the Florida Keys and the southern part of the Florida Peninsula on Sunday.
Forecasters said the most likely scenario is for Eta to emerge into the Gulf of Mexico after striking southern Florida, but there is the potential that the storm will linger near Cuba and Florida instead, or it could possibly even move northward over the Bahamas.
Eta has already made history and matched the strength of the strongest storm of the tumultuous 2020 hurricane season — Hurricane Laura — when its winds peaked at 150 mph earlier this week.
Eta joined the ranks of eight other tropical systems in the Atlantic this season and underwent rapid strengthening, which is defined by a tropical system that experiences an increase its maximum sustained winds by 35 mph within 24 hours.