Eta remained a tropical storm Wednesday as it prepared to skirt past the heavily populated Tampa Bay region in Florida and crash ashore in the coming hours somewhere to the north along the Gulf of Mexico coast.
The storm's maximum sustained winds remained at about 65 mph off Florida's west coast as the storm moved north, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Additional weakening was possible as Eta approaches the coast.
Forecasters had posted — but later discontinued — a hurricane watch for a 120-mile stretch that includes Tampa and St. Petersburg. Eta had briefly attained hurricane strength Wednesday morning but then weakened. Subsequently, a tropical storm warning was issued for the same general area.
The storm has been in the Gulf of Mexico since crossing over South Florida on Sunday. At 10 p.m. Wednesday, Eta was located 55 miles northwest of St. Petersburg and was moving north at 12 mph, the hurricane center reported.
Eta’s latest twist comes as cities in South Florida mopped up after Eta flooded some urban areas with a deluge that swamped entire neighborhoods and filled some homes with rising water that did not drain for hours.
It was the 28th named storm in a busy hurricane season, and the first to make landfall in Florida. This year tied the record with 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma struck the Gulf Coast. But that was before Theta formed late Monday night over the northeast Atlantic, becoming the basin's 29th named storm to eclipse the 2005 record.
After striking Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane and killing nearly 70 people from Mexico to Panama, Eta swept over South Florida, then moved Monday into the Gulf of Mexico near where the Everglades meet the sea, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph.
Broward County was among the harder hit areas.
"It’s very bad. In the last 20 years, I've never seen anything like that," said Tito Carvalho, who owns a car stereo business in Fort Lauderdale and estimated the water was 3 feet deep in some places. Some items in his business were damaged from the flooding, he added.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis called it a 100-year rain event.
“Once the ground becomes saturated, there’s really no place for the water to go,” Trantalis said. “It’s not like a major hurricane. It’s more of a rain event, and we’re just doing our best to ensure that the people in our community are being protected.”