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Deadly tropical storm Eta expected to strengthen into hurricane, strike Florida

A strengthening tropical storm Eta sliced across Cuba on Sunday and was aimed at the southern tip of Florida, where officials braced for a storm that could hit at hurricane force after leaving scores of dead and over 100 missing in Mexico and Central America.

Eta sliced across Cuba after devastating Central America and Mexico

Cars navigate strong winds and heavy rains in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday as tropical storm Eta approaches. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/The Associated Press)

A strengthening tropical storm Eta sliced across Cuba on Sunday and was aimed at the southern tip of Florida, where officials braced for a storm that could hit at hurricane force after leaving scores of dead and over 100 missing in Mexico and Central America.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami declared hurricane and storm surge warnings for the Keys from Ocean Reef to the Dry Tortugas, including Florida Bay, with the storm expected to reach that area by Sunday night or early Monday.

Florida officials closed beaches, ports and COVID testing sites, shut down public transportation and urged residents to stay off the street. Several shelters also opened in Miami and the Florida Keys for residents in mobile homes and low lying areas.

Broward County also shut down in-person schooling Monday and Miami seemed poised to do the same.

Eta had maximum sustained winds of 100 km/h Sunday evening and it was centred just north of Cuba, about 100 kilometres east of Marathon, Fla, and 145 kilometres south-southeast of Miami. It was heading north at 22 km/h.

The storm swelled rivers and flooded coastal zones in Cuba, where 25,000 had been evacuated. But there were no reports of deaths.

Eta hit Cuba even as searchers in Guatemala were still digging for people believed buried by a massive, rain-fuelled landslide. Authorities said at least 15 were dead and 109 were missing in Guatemala, many of them in the landslide in San Cristobal Verapaz.

Some 60,000 people had been evacuated in Guatemala.

At least 20 people also were reported dead in southern Mexico and local officials in Honduras reported 21, though the national disaster agency had confirmed only eight.

Pope Francis on Sunday spoke about the population of Central America, hit "by a violent hurricane, which has caused many victims and huge damage, worsened as well by the already difficult situation due to the pandemic." Speaking to faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square, Francis prayed that "the Lord welcome the deceased, comfort their families and sustain all those so tried, as well as all those who are doing their best to help them."

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday for eight counties at the end of the state as Eta approached, urging residents to stock up on supplies. South Florida started emptying ports and a small number of shelters opened in Miami and the Florida Keys for residents in mobile homes and low-lying areas.

Miami-Dade County declared a state of emergency Friday night and also warned a flood watch would be in effect through Tuesday night.

Further south in the Keys, officials were monitoring the storm closely, but had no plans yet to evacuate tourists or residents. They urged residents to secure their boats and encouraged visitors to consider altering plans until Eta had passed.

Central, North American countries devastated

Eta initially hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, and authorities from Panama to Mexico were still surveying the damage following days of torrential rains during the week.

In Guatemala, search teams first had to overcome multiple landslides and deep mud just to reach the site where officials have estimated some 150 homes were devastated.

In the worst-hit village, Queja, at least five bodies have been pulled from the mud. The Indigenous community of about 1,200 residents consisted of simple homes of wood and tin roofs clinging to the mountainside.

Rescue personnel using a sniffer dog on Saturday as they search an area hit by a mudslide, caused by heavy rains brought by storm Eta in the buried village of Queja, Guatemala. ( Esteban Bilba/news agency EFE/via Reuters)

Rescue workers used a helicopter to evacuate survivor Emilio Caal, who said he lost as many as 40 family members and relatives. Caal, 65, suffered a dislocated shoulder when the landslide sent rocks, trees and earth hurtling onto the home where he was about to sit down to lunch with his wife and grandchildren. Caal said he was blown several metres by the force of the slide, and that none of the others were able to get out.

"My wife is dead. My grandchildren are dead," said Caal from a nearby hospital.

In neighbouring Honduras, 68-year-old Maria Elena Mejia Guadron died when the brown waters of the Chamelecon river poured into San Pedro Sula's Planeta neighborhood before dawn Thursday.

A vehicle is seen submerged in La Lima, Honduras, on Sunday following flooding caused by Eta. (Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images)

Mirian Esperanza Najera Mejia had fled her home in the dark with her two children and Mejia, her mother. But while she held tight to her children, the current swept away Mejia.

Najera searched desperately for her mother Friday morning. But Mejia's body was later recovered.

"When the flooding started, the whole family was leaving the house," said family friend Nery Solis. "Mirian had her two children and suddenly the current grabbed them and she wasn't able to get her mom."

A satellite image from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the storm over Cuba. (NOAA)

In southern Mexico, across the border from Guatemala, 20 people died as heavy rains attributed to Eta caused mudslides and swelled streams and rivers, according to Chiapas state civil defence official Elias Morales Rodriguez.

The worst incident in Mexico occurred in the mountain township of Chenalho, where 10 people were swept away by a rain-swollen stream; their bodies were later found downstream.

Flooding in the neighbouring state of Tabasco was so bad that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador cut short a trip to western Mexico and was flying to Tabasco, his home state, to oversee relief efforts.

Hurricane Eta's arrival in northeast Nicaragua Tuesday followed days of drenching rain as it crawled toward shore. Its slow, meandering path north through Honduras pushed rivers over their banks.

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