A strengthening Tropical storm Eta sliced across Cuba on Sunday and was aimed at the tip of Florida, where officials braced for a storm that could hit at hurricane force after leaving scores dead and over 100 missing in Mexico and Central America.
The US 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 65 mph on Sunday afternoon and it was centered north of Cuba, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) southeast of Marathon, Florida, and about 140 miles (225 kilometers) south-southeast of Miami. It was moving north-west at 14 mph (22 kph).
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-fueled landslide. Authorities on Sunday raised the known death toll there to 27 from 15 and said more than 100 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, governor 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.
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.
Eta initially hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, and authorities from Panama to Mexico were still surveying the damages following days of torrential rains during the week.