BY ALEX HARRIS AND MICHELLE MARCHANTE
MIAMI — As Tropical Storm Eta continues to grind through Central America, the details of its potential impacts on South Florida are starting to come into focus.
The National Hurricane Center forecast that Eta — weakened but likely to regain tropical storm force — will reenter the Caribbean Sea on Friday, cross Cuba and approach the South Florida coast. Exactly where remains uncertain, though the Lower Florida Keys seem most in the crosshairs.
The projected path shifted west Wednesday morning, putting the eye of the storm on track to cross near Key West and sweep up the state’s Gulf Coast early next week. But even if that path holds, forecasters warn that the large and wet storm could lead to heavy rains and flooding on the southeast coast as well.
On Wednesday morning, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Shannon Weiner urged Keys residents to expect potential wind gusts of up to 65 mph.
The Keys could start seeing tropical-storm-force winds as early as Saturday evening, but the hurricane center said they’re most likely to begin Sunday morning.
“This is a good time to make plans to batten down the hatches for this weekend,” Weiner said in a news release.
The National Weather Service said the chance for heavy rains and gusty winds has increased, with flooding a particular concern because of the saturated soil across portions of the area.
Miami-Dade County had a 50% to 70% chance of rain Thursday through Sunday, with a 90% chance of rain Saturday, according to the weather service. In Broward County, those rain chances range from 40% to 80%. The Keys are looking at a 60% to 70% chance of rain.
Forecasters said the rain is associated with Eta’s moisture, and South Florida might see 8 to 10 inches of rain through Monday.
The National Hurricane Center also warned that “there is a fair amount of uncertainty about what parts of Cuba and Florida the center may pass near or over.”
Craig Setzer, meteorologist at Miami Herald news partner CBS4, tweeted that he’ll be watching how quickly Eta redevelops in the Caribbean and if the storm slows down as it approaches Florida.
“Neither would be good,” he said.
Eta is continuing to dump heavy rain that can cause “catastrophic, lifethreatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with landslides in areas of higher terrain of Central America,” according to the hurricane center.
La Tribuna reported at least one death in Honduras from the storm, as well as intense winds and flooding that overran rivers, ripped the roofs from homes and sent thousands of people to shelters.
The worst of the rain was dousing Nicaragua and Honduras, with 15 to 25 inches of new rainfall expected, and some areas possibly seeing up to 40 inches in northeast Nicaragua and eastern Honduras.
Forecasters say flash flooding and river flooding is possible across Jamaica, southeastern Mexico, El Salvador, southern Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
The good news is that the dangerous storm surge is beginning to subside, with water levels along the coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras expected to gradually decrease Wednesday, the hurricane center said.
As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, Eta was moving west near 7 mph with maximum sustained winds near 45 mph with higher gusts and its tropical-storm-force winds extending up to 50 miles from its center, according to the National Hurricane Center.
On the forecast track, Eta is expected to pick up the pace as it moves over northern Nicaragua Wednesday morning and will have weakened into a tropical depression by the time it begins to move across central portions of Honduras through Thursday morning.
Forecasters say it will then turn, taking it over parts of Guatemala and Belize before emerging over the northwestern Caribbean Sea on Friday, where it will regain its tropical storm strength.
The forecast track then shows Tropical Storm Eta moving over Cuba on Sunday and approaching South Florida by late Sunday or early Monday.