Infrared satellite image of Tropical Depression Eta at 1940Z (2:40 p.m. EST) Friday, November 6, 2020. (Image credit: RAMMB/CIRA/Colorado State University)

Dozens of people died in Central America, and dozens more remained missing on Friday from destructive floods and mudslides from Tropical Depression Eta. The death toll remained uncertain, as rescuers were challenged to reach some of the hardest-hit locations. As it moves into the Northwest Caribbean, Eta is expected to re-intensify, most likely reaching Cuba as a tropical storm this weekend and swinging over or near South Florida by Monday.

Some of the worst damage from Eta occurred on Wednesday and Thursday as the former Category 4 hurricane weakened to depression status and its rains shifted north into Guatemala, where thousands were reported marooned on Friday. Many of the worst floods in Central America related to tropical cyclones occur with decaying, slow-moving systems such as Eta.

More than 150 people were dead or missing across Guatemala in the wake of Eta, AFP reported on Friday. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said that a preliminary survey found 100 people killed and 150 homes buried in a mudslide that inundated the village of Queja in the San Cristobal Verapraz area. More than 1,000 homes were damaged across Guatemala, according to a report from the news agency EFE. Eta’s floods and landslides have also led to at least 13 deaths in Honduras and two in Nicaragua, with eight people missing in Panama, according to AP and the Weather Channel.

As of midday Friday, most of Eta’s rains had cleared Central America as the depression pushed slowly into the Northwest Caribbean. The elongated, ill-defined center of Eta was about 95 miles east-northeast of Belize City, the National Hurricane Center reported at 1 p.m. EST Friday, November 6. A corridor of intense showers and thunderstorms (convection) extended along the north side of the elongated circulation.

A reconnaissance flight on Friday afternoon found little sign the storm was rapidly reorganizing. As Eta moves further into the Caribbean, it is expected to take advantage of warm sea surface temperatures (around 29°C or 84°F). However, upper-level winds will be pushing dry air into Eta’s moist environment and producing some wind shear, likely keeping any short-term intensification gradual.

Eta will be steered northeastward over the next couple of days ahead of an upper-level trough pushing across the Gulf of Mexico. On this track, Eta is expected to cross central Cuba on Saturday night and emerge into the Florida Straits on Sunday. Forecast models strongly indicate that Eta is likely to be a tropical storm at this point, but very unlikely to be a hurricane. Tropical storm warnings were in effect Friday afternoon for the Cayman Islands, with tropical storm watches over central and western Cuba.

Florida could see prolonged impacts from Eta

By Sunday, the southern end of the upper-level trough will be detaching from the jet stream over the eastern Gulf, and it appears Eta and the trough will be merging or rotating around each other on Sunday and Monday. This could give Eta a brief shot of upper-level support and lead to some intensification over the warm waters of the Florida Straits. The interaction may also foster the intrusion of dry air into the west side of Eta. Over time, Eta will tend to take on subtropical characteristics, but it could then remain at tropical storm strength for days.

In its midday Friday forecast, NHC predicted that Eta would pass west across the Florida Keys on Monday morning, then begin a slow northward arc across the eastern Gulf that could take days to unfold. It’s not yet clear whether this path might end up closer to the west coast of Florida, as suggested by the GFS model, or further offshore, as in the European model. Eventually – maybe not until late next week – the approach of a new upper-level trough will likely push Eta back toward the eastern Gulf Coast, perhaps leading to yet another named-storm U.S. landfall.

Figure 1. Rainfall forecast for the 126-hour period ending at 7 p.m. EST Wednesday, November 10. (Image credit: NOAA/NWS)

The main threat from Eta: Torrential rains and floods

Eta’s track and tropical/subtropical status could continue to produce heavy rains and strong winds well to the east of its center. The upshot is that several days of squally weather and locally torrential rain are likely for South Florida, with the possibility of a named-storm landfall and passage on Monday. Rainfall of 5-10″, with some totals up to 15″, could fall in the coastal cities of South Florida from Fort Myers and Naples to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where soils are largely saturated from late-October rains. A flood watch is in effect from Friday night into Tuesday over metro areas of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Tornadoes will also be possible in Eta’s rainbands.

Also see: How climate change is making hurricanes more dangerous

Onshore flow with a high risk of rip currents will continue to affect the southeast Florida coast even as Eta pulls away by midweek. By the end of the week, the king tides related to the new moon will be increasing, so flood-prone parts of southeast Florida may be in for a prolonged period of high water.

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Posted on November 6, 2020 (4:14pm ET).

Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. He has written on weather and climate for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Weather Underground, and many freelance...

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