The storm’s maximum sustained winds increased to around 75 mph (120 kph) off Florida’s southwest coast as it moved northward.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane watch for a 120-mile (193-kilometer) 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.
The latest forecast prompted school officials in Pinellas and Pasco counties, which includes St. Petersburg, to send students home early Wednesday. Both counties announced schools would remain closed Thursday.
In Pasco County, officials set up four do-it-yourself locations for people to fill sandbags. In Tampa, the Busch Gardens theme park announced it is closed Wednesday and several Veterans Day events in the area were canceled.
A coronavirus testing site at Tropicana Field was also closed Wednesday.
Eta was about 130 miles west-southwest of Fort Myers early Wednesday and moving at 15 mph (24 kph).
The hurricane center said “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 neighborhood since 1996. He described hearing water and debris slamming against his shuttered home overnight as the storm crossed Florida.
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 50 mph (85 kph).
“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 five or six inches (13 to 15 centimeters) of water.
There was nowhere for the water to go across much of South Florida, which had already experienced nearly 14 inches (35 centimeters) of rain in October.
As much as 16 inches (40 centimeters) of rain damaged one of the state’s largest coronavirus 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 centered Wednesday morning about 740 miles (1,190 kilometers) southwest of the Azores, bearing top sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph) as that system moved east-northeast at 8 mph (13 kph).
By Kelli Kennedy