CANCUN, Mexico (AP) — Zeta strengthened to a hurricane Monday afternoon as it continued on a track for Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula resorts and then likely move on for a possible landfall on the central U.S. Gulf Coast at midweek.
Zeta — the earliest ever 27th named storm of the Atlantic season — was centered about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Cozumel island Monday afternoon, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph).
The hurricane was moving northwest at around 10 mph (17 kph) after being nearly stationary over the weekend. Forecasters said Zeta was expected to move over the Yucatan Peninsula late Monday before heading into the Gulf of Mexico and then approach the U.S. Gulf Coast by Wednesday, though it could weaken by then.
A hurricane watch was posted from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama state line.
Trees felled by Hurricane Delta barely three weeks earlier still litter parts of Cancun, stacked along roadsides and in parks. There is concern they could become projectiles when Zeta scrapes across the peninsula. There are still a number of stoplights around the vacation destination that have not been repaired since Delta.
Local authorities are taking the storm seriously, but with a distinctly less alarmed tone than when Delta strengthened to a Category 4 storm off the coast. Quintana Roo state suspended alcohol sales Monday and Gov. Carlos Joaquín González said everyone should be off the streets by Monday afternoon.
Residents were pulling their boats from the water, but the sort of panic buying seen in the run-up to Delta was not evident Monday.
State officials reported nearly 60,000 tourists in the state as of midweek. The state government said 71 shelters were being readied for tourists or residents who might need them.
Joaquín said he hoped it would not be necessary in most cases to move guests out of their hotels.
The forecast track would have Zeta hitting Cozumel and striking the mainland just south of Playa del Carmen. Delta made landfall Oct. 7 between Playa del Carmen and Cancun winds of 110 mph (175 kph).
The government was still handing out aid, including sheet roofing, to Yucatan residents hit by Hurricane Delta and Tropical Storm Gamma earlier this month.
Zeta had been dawdling Sunday because it was trapped between two strong high pressure systems to the east and west, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
The hurricane center said Zeta could bring 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of rain to Mexico, the Cayman Islands and parts of Cuba, before drenching the central U.S. Gulf Coast.
The storm could make landfall anywhere from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, forecasters said.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards urged his state’s citizens to monitor the storm, and the state activated its Crisis Action Team.
Zeta broke the record for the previous earliest 27th Atlantic named storm that formed Nov. 29, 2005, Klotzbach said. It's also the 11th hurricane of the season.
An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms.
This year’s season has so many storms that the hurricane center has turned to the Greek alphabet after running out of assigned names.
Zeta is the furthest into the Greek alphabet the Atlantic season has gone. There was also a Tropical Storm Zeta in 2005, but that year had 28 storms because meteorologists later went back and found they missed one, which then became an “unnamed named storm,” Klotzbach said.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland, contributed to this report.