The Hurricane Center is warning of the threat of “catastrophic wind damage” near where the center crosses over the coast, along with a “potentially catastrophic and life-threatening storm surge” as high as 14 to 21 feet above normal tide levels. Winds in the eyewall upon landfall could gust near 160 mph.
It could become only the second hurricane on record to ever attain Category 5 strength in the Atlantic in November, and the latest Atlantic Category 5 landfall on record. The only other storm to reach Category 5 strength during November, a hurricane in 1932, weakened before striking Cuba.
As of 10 p.m. Eastern time, Hurricane Eta was located about 70 miles east-northeast of the Nicaragua-Honduras border, and was moving west-southwest at 7 mph. Maximum winds were estimated around 150 mph in the compact eyewall. The forecast landfall location is near Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, with the worst storm surge flooding taking place to the north of the center.
Hurricane-force winds extend outwards 25 miles from Eta’s center, the worst conditions tightly-wound about Eta’s eye. Inland rainfall will be much more widespread, however, with flooding a grave concern particularly given Eta’s slow forward speed.
As the storm moves inland over high terrain, it is expected to produce a deluge, with rainfall totals of up to 35 inches and locally higher amounts. Flash and river flooding along with landslides are expected in portions of Central America, particularly in Nicaragua and Honduras as well as Guatemala and Belize.
In addition, there is a threat of heavy rainfall extending into Jamaica, southeastern Mexico, El Salvador, southern Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
“Life-threatening storm surge, damaging winds, flash flooding, and landslides [are] expected across portions of Central America,” the forecast center stated.
Hurricane warnings are in effect for coastal Nicaragua from the Honduras border to Sandy Bay Sirpi, while tropical storm warnings cover regions farther south of that zone, as well as in northeast Honduras. A hurricane watch flanks the warning, in case of any wobbles in Eta’s track.
The government of Nicaragua has already begun evacuating coastal residents in advance of the impending storm, officials issuing a rare red alert through their System of Prevention, Mitigation, and Warning of Disasters. Hardest hit will be Puerto Cabezas, home to more than 60,000 people. Many were already packing up early Monday.
Nicaragua’s La Prensa reports that 17 shelters have been opened by the government there for those fleeing Eta’s coastal surge; the majority are located in schools and churches.
Concern was also growing for poorer residents who live along the Prinzapolka River, south of Puerto Cabezas, since extreme rainfall could cause the river to overflow its banks. Close to the ocean, the river could become backed up by the storm surge as it attempts to drain. La Prensa reported that up to 80 percent of the town of Prinzapolka, which sits at the mouth of the river, are vulnerable to surge flooding.
Nicaragua’s navy spent much of Monday using boats to help poor residents from Bilwi and Wawa Bar, both near Puerto Cabezas, to evacuate.
Eta is the 28th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, tying the record for the busiest hurricane season ever observed in the North Atlantic Ocean Basin and doing so at a breakneck pace. In 2005, it took until the end of December to arrive at 28 named storms, putting this year two months ahead.
There’s even an increasing chance that at least one more named storm will form this season, carrying 2020 into uncharted territory.
Meanwhile, meteorologists are watching the potential for Eta to reemerge over the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean late in the week, becoming a danger once again to areas farther north, though the Hurricane Center stated there is considerable uncertainty regarding that outcome.
Eta is yet another 2020 storm to rapidly intensify
Hurricane Eta presented a formidable appearance on infrared satellite imagery Monday morning, with a region of cold, very tall cloud tops signifying strong thunderstorms surrounding an increasingly clear eye at the center of the circulation. Eta’s core also contained an “enveloped eyewall lightning” signature, meaning the thunderstorms surrounding its eye were crackling with electricity. That’s a known harbinger of rapid intensification.
The storm had made a huge leap in intensity, compared with its behavior Sunday, reaching high-end Category 2 status as of 10 a.m. Monday, when just 24 hours before it was a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of just 40 mph.
That’s a 70 mph jump in intensity in just a day’s time, or double the intensification rate required to meet the meteorological definition of a rapidly intensifying storm. According to Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University, Eta is the fastest-intensifying November storm ever observed in the Atlantic.
Hurricane Eta marks yet another bout of rapid intensification leading up to a hurricane landfall this season. Previously, Hurricanes Laura and Zeta rapidly intensified on approach to Louisiana.
Eta is the fifth straight hurricane in the Atlantic Basin to rapidly intensify. Atmospheric scientists have shown that by increasing ocean temperatures, human-caused climate change increases the odds of rapid intensification. It is likely that Eta will continue intensifying right up to the point of landfall.
Flood threat continues well after landfall
With ample fuel to tap into from warm ocean waters and broader environmental conditions that support additional strengthening, Eta is forecast to continue to intensify through Tuesday morning. In addition to the wind threat, which is escalating as the storm gets stronger, the hazard with the greatest potential to cause fatalities and loss of livelihoods is heavy inland rains.
Flash flooding could be potentially disastrous across large parts of Central America, a region that has seen such events lead to massive death tolls in the past, such as during Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
After peaking at Category 5 strength and making landfall as a Category 1 storm, Mitch killed at least 11,000 in Central America, primarily in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala after producing up to an estimated 75 inches of rain. Mitch was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in at least 200 years, and flooding occurred far from the storm’s main circulation.
Eta is similarly expected to rapidly weaken after landfall from a wind standpoint, but its torrential tropical rains will continue to rage unimpeded as its circulation meanders over varied terrain from Tuesday through about Friday.
A broad one to two feet of rain is likely from Eta across a large region, with localized three foot-plus totals. Some computer models simulate up to five feet of rain falling where the mountainous terrain locally enhances rainfall.
It is all but assured that a high-impact flood disaster will unfold in the days ahead.
Potential redevelopment of Eta late this week
Eta’s circulation will be battered during its passage over land, but it could eventually curve to the north and northeast to a position in the Gulf of Honduras by late in the week. Thereafter, Eta’s remnants may reorganize, perhaps entering the Gulf of Mexico or affecting Cuba.
The Hurricane Center stated Monday there is high uncertainty over the longer term fate of Eta, and whether it re-intensifies to affect areas closer to the U.S. mainland.
Even if Eta doesn’t regenerate after its encounter with land, the upper-level swirl it leaves behind could help spin up a new tropical system that would earn the name Theta.
Farther into the future, above-average Atlantic tropical activity looks likely to persist through at least the middle of November. If another named storm forms before the calendar flips to 2021, this year will go into the books as having the most named storms on record of any hurricane season on record.
Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.