Hurricane Eta is already an unprecedented storm. It represents the first time that we have used the Greek letter “Eta” in a storm name. Hurricane Eta is the fifth major hurricane (category 3 or greater) of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season and the third major hurricane to form since October 1st. According to Colorado State University hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach on Twitter, “This is the first time on record that the Atlantic has had 3 major hurricane formations (e.g., storm first reached major hurricane strength) in October-November.” However, there is something more ominous than climatological records that worries me about Eta. A human tragedy could unfold as it makes landfall.
Eta, which rapidly intensified to a Category 4 storm on Monday afternoon, is expected to make landfall on Tuesday. The National Hurricane Center is sounding the alarms for a multi-hazard event, which includes potentially catastrophic winds and excessive rainfall. I want to specifically focus on the rainfall amounts. National Hurricane Center estimates are as follows:
- Nicaragua and Honduras: 15 to 25 inches with isolated amounts of 35 inches.
- Eastern Guatemala and Belize: 10 to 20 inches with isolated amounts of 25 inches.
- Panama and Costa Rica: 10 to 15 inches with isolated amounts of 25 inches.
One particular concern about Hurricane Eta is the forward speed. The forecast map below illustrates that the storm will not move significantly after landfall. Between now and Wednesday, the storm is still sitting over regions of Nicaragua and Honduras. Even by Thursday, the weakened storm is projected to be over the region before moving back out over water by late Friday. Eta is just one more storm in what Weather Channel expert Rick Knabb calls Category “Slow” hurricanes like Harvey (2017), Florence (2018), or Sally (2020).
In the Monday afternoon National Hurricane Center Public Advisory, forecasters warn that, “This rainfall will lead to catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with landslides in areas of higher terrain of Central America.” Additionally, coastal regions of Nicaragua could experience storm surge water levels in the 12 to 18 feet above normal tide levels.
Richard Henning is a meteorologist and former graduate school classmate of mine at Florida State University. Henning is also a NOAA Hurricane Hunter. He reflected on Hurricane Mitch (1998) in a social media post. He wrote, “It (Eta) reminds me of late season Hurricane Mitch of 1998 that caused the deaths of more than 10,000 people in this same area.” Nearly 2 to 3 feet of rainfall falling on terrain like the map below is a recipe for disaster and the potential loss of human lives. Hurricane Mitch, which reached Category 5 status, caused over $5 billion in damages and was one of the deadliest storms in the Western Hemisphere, according to History.com
At the time of writing, Hurricane Eta was still in an intensification phase. There is nothing that guarantees that we will see scenarios like the region saw in 1998, but the similarities are in place.