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Storm Zeta strengthens into hurricane as it approaches Mexico and US

Storm Zeta has strengthened into a hurricane as it churned towards beach resorts on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, which it is expected to rake with strong winds and heavy rain before making possible landfall in the US later this week.

Zeta – the earliest ever 27th named storm of the Atlantic season – was centered about 90 miles (145km) south-east of Cozumel island Monday afternoon, the US National Hurricane Center said. It had maximum sustained winds of 80mph (130kph).

The hurricane was moving north-west at around 10mph (17kph) 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 US 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 Cancún, 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 Carlos Joaquín González, the governor, 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 7 October between Playa del Carmen and Cancún with winds of 110mph (175kph).

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 4in to 8in (10cm to 20cm) of rain to Mexico, the Cayman Islands and parts of Cuba, before drenching the central US Gulf coast.

The storm could make landfall anywhere from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, forecasters said.

Louisiana’s governor, 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 29 November 2005, Klotzbach said. It’s also the 11th hurricane of the season.

An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms.

The increase in named storms can be attributed to human-induced climate change. The world’s oceans continue to warm at a fast rate, which means hurricanes are more likely.

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