Last week, I kindly asked then-Tropical Storm Eta to go away because it was clearly drunk. It did not listen.
The town drunk of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico has since regained hurricane status, and its stumbling path now has it aimed squarely at Florida’s Gulf Coast. It will mark the storm’s fourth landfall since attaining tropical storm status 11 days ago.
Hurricane Eta is a Category 1 storm after Hurricane Hunter aircraft found it was packing winds of 75 mph (121 kph) on Wednesday morning. The storm’s outer rain bands are already slapping the Florida Gulf Coast from the Everglades northward to Tampa. Tropical storm watches and warnings run over an even wider swath, reaching near the Florida Panhandle and as far south as the Dry Tortugas National Park.
Eta is expected to run up the coast over the next 24 hours before finally veering inland on Thursday morning somewhere between Cedar Key and Tampa. As it traverses up the coast, it’s likely to weaken into a tropical storm. But its fairly wide (though mercifully not strong) wind field means it will still be able to stir up storm surge. Up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) of surge could inundate the Tampa Bay area. Six inches of rain are also possible along the coast. And due to the way tropical cyclones rotate in the Atlantic, the Gulf Coast will also face Eta’s strongest winds. Though nowhere near the scale of where they were when Eta made its first landfall in Central America, the storm could still pack a punch.
Reading all that and looking at the weather map shows this is, frankly, a mess. Which is fitting for a sloppy-ass storm like Eta.
To recap, the storm tied an Atlantic hurricane season record when it became the 28th named storm of the season on Halloween. It reached Category 4 status as it traversed the Caribbean and hammered Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras in particular. Eventually, it wandered back out to sea where it buzzed the Cayman Islands and then made landfall again in Cuba as a tropical storm. Then it continued marching northward, making a third landfall in the Florida Keys. It also dumped heavy rain across South Florida that led to widespread flooding in places that never got close to the center of the storm, such as Miami. Since then, it’s looped back out to the Gulf and then did a pirouette back toward Florida.
In addition to what I suspect is one too many rum and Cokes on its trip across the Caribbean, Eta has also had little help from the atmosphere in finding a sense of purpose. Usually, winds help guide storms along. But the slack state of the upper atmosphere is what has allowed Eta to meander and wobble around the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. A similar issue played out with Hurricane Dorian last year, though thankfully Eta is nowhere near that level of ferocity at this point.
In a record-setting year where we’ve seen cyclones form before the season began, rapidly intensify before landfall, hit the U.S. in record numbers, and even make it all the way to Lake Superior, Eta still manages to occupy a special spot on the WTF list for its ferocity in Central America, multiple landfalls, and bizarre path. The National Hurricane Center forecasts that by Thursday evening, it will pop out over the Atlantic and head out to sea as a tropical depression. But if I were living in the Carolinas, I’d still offer Eta some Advil and money for a cab ride to the high seas just to be safe.