Travel through south Florida has been disrupted for what feels like weeks. Tropical Storm Eta hammered central America as a powerful hurricane, then lashed Cuba and the Florida Keys, before turning into the Gulf for a wobbly and uncertain slow dance. Now, it’s turned again for the Sunshine state and made yet another landfall, bringing torrential rains and pounding winds. We look at the aftermath of this bizarre storm and its impact on travel.
Central America Feels Eta’s Wrath
Before Florida came under Eta’s gaze, the storm was a slow moving, westerly marcher. As it developed over the southern Caribbean, Eta began a period of rapid intensification. By the time it made landfall in Central America, Eta was a powerful category 4, with winds of up to 150mph. It’s slow westward march brought historic flooding, and the storm took it’s time pivoting over land, bringing even more rain to the region before it moved offshore again to the northeast, a tropical depression remnant of its former self.
Central American countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala were greatly impacted by the storm’s torrential wind and rains, and landslides occurred in water-soaked villages, some wiped nearly off the map by the deluge. Central American countries rely heavily on tourism, especially during the winter months when cold Americans and Canadians head south for reprieve. This sort of landscape-altering tragedy on top of their already struggling pandemic-wracked economies will be very difficult to recover from. Hundreds of people are missing and many feared dead.
Eta Eyes Florida
Likewise, Florida tourism relies heavily on summer months, but there’s a steady and reliable stream of snowbirds who winter in the state’s warm southern regions. At a time when the state is already stumbling and struggling to recoup losses from a summer of record low tourism, Eta’s impending arrival was the worst news possible. It made its way slowly across the central Caribbean, tagging Cuba along the way, before making landfall in the Florida Keys at Lower Matecumbe Key on Sunday.
Then it did something odd. Eta, now a Tropical Storm again, wandered into the southern Gulf, making a slow circle. As it hovered off the coast of Florida, it continued to bring soaking rains to the lower peninsula. Travel plans for the state were paused as Governor Ron DeSantis warned residents along the West and Gulf coasts to prepare for a hurricane. The track shifted several times a day as the wobbly pressure center threw forecast models into disarray. Eventually, Wednesday afternoon finally showed a clear path. Eta strengthened briefly into a hurricane, allowing forecast models to catch up as the center became more defined. It weakened back to a Tropical Storm just before landfall, then worked its way inland near Cedar Key in west central Florida. It then dragged its way north and east across the state, and is expected to emerge in the western Atlantic, soaking the Eastern Seaboard along the way.
Florida can breathe a sigh of relief as the storm moves away, but because of it’s slow movement and soaking rains, a lot of opportunities to recoup lost tourist dollars were lost over the past week. Much of the southern peninsula is still soaked as they clean up from the sustained pounding, but local officials promise that beaches are open and they’ll be ready to receive the lovingly-named “snowbirds,” who paused their exodus southward.
The Aftermath of Eta
Florida escaped the worst of the storm, and recovery will be fairly painless. Although dollars lost during the storm are gone forever, they will be ready to receive northern tourists almost as quickly as the storm is gone.
In Central America, however, it’s a different story. Some villages have been altered forever; landslides wiping out a majority of structures. The beaches are messy and storm-tossed, making them less appealing for travelers looking to escape the cold in a tropical paradise. With pandemic travel restrictions already smothering economic recovery, Central America will need all the help it can get to get back on its feet.