Former Hurricane Eta inundated parts of Central America with torrential rains and deadly flooding as a tropical storm on Wednesday, after lashing the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua with a major storm surge and shrieking Category 4 winds. At least three deaths had occurred from landslides and mudslides in Nicaragua and Honduras, according to the Guardian. Eta is expected to move back into the Caribbean and reorganize as a tropical storm late this week, and it may move over or near Florida early next week.
Eta made landfall around 4 p.m. EST Tuesday about 15 miles south-southwest of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, with top winds of 140 mph, down slightly from the hurricane’s overnight peak of 150 mph. The northern eyewall passed over Puerto Cabezas (pop. 66,000), also called Bilwi by the Miskito population indigenous to the area. The city’s weather station stopped reporting a few hours before landfall. Hurricane-force winds extended only 25 miles from Eta’s center, so it is likely that Eta’s fiercest winds and storm surge were focused on the sparsely populated area just south of Puerto Cabezas/Bilwi. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the city, although photos showed that at least some homes were destroyed and a city park was heavily damaged.
Eta weakened quickly after landfall as it moved inland over northern Nicaragua, becoming a tropical storm by early Wednesday. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) predicts that Eta will be a tropical depression between late Wednesday and Friday as it arcs gradually northwest across the heart of Honduras and approaches the Caribbean coast of Belize.
Short-term threat from Eta: Flooding and mudslides
Slow-moving hurricanes that strike the rugged terrain of Central America have produced some of the worst disasters in recent Atlantic history. Hurricane Fifi-Orlene caused some 8,200 deaths in 1974, and in 1998 Hurricane Mitch pushed into Honduras from the north after crawling just offshore for more than a day as a Category 4 and 5 storm. Up to 36″ of rain fell, and flooding and landslides related to Mitch led to some 7,000 deaths in Honduras and 3,800 in Nicaragua.
Fortunately, Eta was a smaller hurricane than Mitch, and it moved inland relatively soon after reaching peak strength. However, the system is embedded within a large cyclonic circulation that has some features of a Central American Gyre. The result is that winds will continue to push onshore and upslope across much of Nicaragua and Honduras, albeit not as powerfully as with Mitch. Still, widespread flooding and mudslides are expected, and there remains the potential for devastating impacts in any areas where the rains and floods are particularly intense.
As of midday Wednesday, NHC was calling for the potential of an additional 10-20″ of rain over much of Nicaragua and Honduras, with storm totals of up to 40″ possible.
Long-term forecast for Eta
An upper-level trough moving across the United States is expected to pick up Eta or its remnants and pull it back over the northwest Caribbean on Friday. Note that even if Eta weakens into a remnant low while over land, it would keep the name Eta rather than take a new name should it restrengthen.
Assuming that Eta does regroup and move toward western Cuba on Friday and Saturday – as indicated by most longer-range model runs, and depicted in the NHC forecast – conditions will likely favor some intensification. Waters remain very warm (around 29°C), and there is ample oceanic heat content. The main limiting factors would be wind shear from the approaching upper-level trough, together with a gradual infusion of dry air into the circulation. NHC predicts that Eta will reach Cuba as a tropical storm around Saturday night.
The forecast becomes even more complex from Sunday onward. It appears the southern end of the upper-level trough steering Eta will break off from the jet stream and dive into the eastern Gulf. As a result, Eta (again assuming it has made it this far) would likely get pulled toward the trough, perhaps rotating around it or becoming absorbed by it. Long-range models indicate that both features will be slow to move next week, trapped south of an unusually strong upper ridge over the eastern U.S.
Bottom line: The details will remain murky until late week, but it’s quite plausible there will be a prolonged period of disturbed weather in and around Florida. Because the circulation in which Eta is embedded remains quite expansive, heavy rains may get underway as soon as Thursday in South Florida, well north of Eta itself. “Flooding is a particular concern given saturated soils across portions of South Florida, especially the east coast metro region,” warned the National Weather Service office in Miami on Wednesday. In addition, the upcoming new moon will favor king tides in the Miami area by the end of next week (November 14-17).
Posted on November 4, 2020(2:22pm EST).