Tropical Storm Eta churned over the Caribbean on Sunday, gaining strength as it headed north, becoming the 28th named storm of the hurricane season.
Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center expect the storm to strengthen to a hurricane as it approaches the coast of Central America early on Tuesday. Hurricane watches have been issued in portions of Nicaragua and Honduras, where the center said there could be risks of storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rain.
The storm is expected to bring as much as 15 inches of rain across Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and the southern coast of Hispaniola. Eta could also drop as much as 30 inches of rain across northern Honduras and northern Nicaragua, which could lead to life-threatening flooding and landslides.
With Eta, the fiercely active 2020 season tied the record for the most storms with 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma battered the Gulf Coast. That year, so many storms grew strong enough to be named that meteorologists had to resort to the Greek alphabet after exhausting the list of rotating names maintained by the World Meteorological Organization.
The agency never got to Eta, however, because the 28th storm of that year was not identified until the season was over and remained nameless. That last storm in 2005 was a subtropical storm that formed briefly in October near the Azores, a remote archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is the first time that Eta will be used in real time,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist in the department of atmospheric science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
With the 2020 season not ending until Nov. 30, it is very likely that the 2005 record for most named storms will be broken, he said.
“The odds certainly favor another storm or two forming in November,” he said. “The large-scale environment, especially in the Caribbean, is forecast to remain more conducive than normal for this late in the hurricane season.”
Eta followed Hurricane Zeta, which landed on Oct. 28 in Louisiana as a Category 2 storm. It killed at least six people in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The hurricanes of 2020 have not matched the intensity of the storms of 2005. That year, eight storms became major hurricanes, which are defined as hurricanes that reach Category 3 or higher.
But the effects of the 2020 season across the South have been widespread.
Hurricane Laura battered Lake Charles, La., in late August; Hurricane Sally lashed the Florida Panhandle with a deluge of rain in September; and in October, Hurricane Delta made landfall in Louisiana less than 20 miles east of where Laura struck, slamming the area as it was still trying to recover.
Hurricane Zeta lashed the Louisiana coast with heavy rain and powerful winds, which caused widespread power failures in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Carolinas.
Government scientists had predicted an unusually busy hurricane season, which officially began on June 1.
They pointed to factors like higher-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean, a strong African monsoon season and a reduced vertical wind shear, which means less wind variability at different altitudes that can disrupt the formation of storms.
But the number of named storms exceeded even initial forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.
“Records are made to be broken,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman and meteorologist with the center in Miami. “But this is not one I would want to break.”
Henry Fountain, Christina Morales and Bryan Pietsch contributed reporting.