Eta regains hurricane strength as Florida prepares for hit

Eta regained hurricane strength Wednesday morning with maximum sustained winds around 120 km/h as Florida braced for a second hit from the storm.

Hurricane watch issued for area including Tampa, St. Petersburg

Cars move along highway A1A with poor visibility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday. After drenching southern Florida on the weekend, Hurricane Eta is forecast to return and hit the central Gulf Coast of the state. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/The Associated Press)

Eta regained hurricane strength Wednesday morning as Florida braced for a second hit from the storm.

The storm's maximum sustained winds increased to around 120 km/h off Florida's southwest coast.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane watch for a 193-kilometre stretch that includes Tampa and St. Petersburg. The storm has been in the Gulf of Mexico since crossing over South Florida on Sunday.

The latest hurricane watch extends from Anna Maria Island, which is south of St. Petersburg, to Yankeetown.

Storm surge warning

Eta was about 209 kilometres west-southwest of Fort Myers early Wednesday and moving at 24 km/h.

The hurricane centre said a "life-threatening storm surge" is possible early Thursday, and forecasters advised residents to heed warnings from local officials. Tropical storm-force winds are expected in the area by late Wednesday.

Forecasts call for more rain from the storm system over parts of already drenched South Florida.

"Never seen this, never, not this deep," said Anthony Lyas, who has lived in his now-waterlogged Fort Lauderdale neighbourhood since 1996. He described hearing water and debris slamming against his shuttered home overnight as the storm crossed Florida.

Hit Central America, Mexico first

The storm first hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane and killed nearly 70 people from Mexico to Panama, before moving into the Gulf of Mexico early Monday near where the Everglades meet the sea, with maximum sustained winds of 85 km/h.

"It was far worse than we could've ever imagined, and we were prepared," said Arbie Walker, a 27-year-old student whose Fort Lauderdale apartment was filled with 13 to 15 centimetres of water.

There was nowhere for the water to go across much of South Florida, which had already experienced nearly 35 centimetres of rain in October.

As much as 40 centimetres of rain damaged one of the state's largest COVID-19 testing sites, at Miami-Dade County's Hard Rock Stadium, officials said. Throughout the pandemic, it has been among the busiest places to get a coronavirus diagnosis. The site was expected to be closed until Wednesday or Thursday.

Eta hit land late Sunday as it blew over Lower Matecumbe, in the middle of the chain of small islands that form the Keys, but the heavily populated areas of Miami-Dade and Broward counties bore the brunt of the fury.

It was the 28th named storm of a busy Atlantic hurricane season, tying the 2005 record for named storms. And late Monday, it was followed by the 29th storm — Theta.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Theta broke the record of 28 named storms in 2005. Theta was centred Wednesday morning about 1,190 kilometres southwest of the Azores, bearing top sustained winds of 100 km/h as that system moved east-northeast at 13 km/h.