TAMPA (NewsNation Now) — Eta has weakened to a tropical storm Wednesday afternoon, just hours after regaining strength as a Category 1 hurricane, as it tracks toward Florida.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds dropped to around 70 mph, slowly weakening as it approaches Florida’s southwest coast. The National Hurricane Center reported that the storm is about 115 miles southwest of Tampa, as of 1 p.m. EST.
Forecasters at the NHC in Miami issued a hurricane watch for a 120-mile stretch that includes Tampa and St. Petersburg. The storm has been in the Gulf of Mexico since crossing over South Florida on Sunday.
Forecasters also warned of “life-threatening storm surge” along portions of the Florida Gulf Coast from Bonita Beach to Suwannee River including Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
The Tampa Bay region is home to more than 3.5 million people across five coastal counties. No mandatory evacuations were immediately ordered but authorities began opening shelters for anyone needing them.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said special care is taken at shelters to protect people from the coronavirus, such as social distancing, and suggested people bring their own masks.
“Everything will be done to make sure all of our residents are safe,” Castor said.
The latest hurricane watch extends from Anna Maria Island, which is south of St. Petersburg, to Yankeetown.
The 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, as did neighboring Hillsborough County.
The Florida Highway Patrol closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that links Pinellas and Manatee counties because of high winds. Tampa International Airport tweeted that it would suspend operations at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
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.
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 said Theta broke the record of 28 named storms in 2005. Theta was centered Wednesday morning about 740 miles southwest of the Azores, bearing top sustained winds of 65 mph as that system moved east-northeast at 8 mph.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.