Hurricane Zeta Aims at Gulf Coast
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Hurricane Zeta was speeding toward storm-weary Louisiana and intensifying, with landfall expected as a Category 2 hurricane Wednesday afternoon. New Orleans, where a pump system failure raised flood risks, was squarely in its way.
Workers closed one of the last floodgates surrounding New Orleans as residents braced for the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season. Tropical storm warnings were issued as far as the north Georgia mountains, highly unusual for the region.
Louisiana has had the worst of it, hit by two tropical storms and two hurricanes. New Orleans has been in the warning area for potential tropical cyclones seven times this year, each one veering to the east or west.
"I don't think we're going to be as lucky with this one," city emergency director Collin Arnold said.
Zeta had been predicted to hit as a relatively weak Category 1 hurricane, but Louisiana residents awoke to updated forecasts predicting a Category 2, with top winds of nearly 100 mph (160 kph) at landfall.
"The good news for us -- and look, you take good news where you can find it -- the storm's forward speed is 17 mph. That's projected to increase, and so it's going to get in and out of the area relatively quickly, and then we're going to be able to assess the damage more quickly," Gov. John Bel Edwards said in an interview on The Weather Channel.
Officials urged people to take precautions and prepare to shelter in place, but there were few signs of concern in New Orleans. It was business as usual in the French Quarter. "This one is moving fast and I don't think it's going to do much," said Kelly Ann, a visitor from St. Petersburg, Florida, as she strolled Decatur Street.
South of New Orleans, winds picked up and water rose above the docks in Lafitte, a small community that takes its name from a French pirate. Workers drove truckloads of sand to low-lying areas where thousands of sandbags were already stacked along bayous before previous storms.
New Orleans officials announced that a turbine that generates power to the city's aging drainage pump system broke down on Sunday, with no quick repair in sight. There was enough power to keep the pumps operating if needed, but little excess power to tap if other turbines fail, officials said at a news conference with Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
Officials said they were running through contingencies to provide power and make repairs where needed should there be other equipment problems. Forecasts called for anywhere from 2 to 6 inches (5 to 15 centimeters) of rain to fall in the New Orleans area, but Zeta is expected to be a relatively fast-moving storm, possibly mitigating the flood threat.
Zeta raked across Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Tuesday, toppling trees and briefly cutting power to more than 300,000 people but causing no deaths, before strengthening again along a path slightly east of Hurricane Laura, which was blamed for at least 27 Louisiana deaths after it struck in August, and Hurricane Delta, which exacerbated Laura's damage in the same area just weeks later.
By late Wednesday morning, Zeta's top winds had grown to 90 mph (150 kph) and its forward movement increased to 18 mph (28 kph) as its center moved north, about 235 miles (380 kilometers) south of New Orleans.
Hurricane warnings stretched from Morgan City, Louisiana to the Alabama/Mississippi state line, including Lake Pontchartrain and metropolitan New Orleans. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the western Florida Panhandle, forcing early-voting sites to close for hours in three counties where Republicans dominate.
Tropical storm warnings covered a large swath of the South, from Louisiana and Mississippi into Alabama and Georgia, including all of the Atlanta area, where winds could gust up to 55 mph (89 kph) early Thursday. Winds could be "especially severe" in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where flash flooding is possible, the hurricane center said.
Edwards asked President Donald Trump for a disaster declaration ahead of the storm. He and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey both declared emergencies, as did Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich in Biloxi, Mississippi. Trump declared an emergency for Louisiana Tuesday evening.
An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms. This extraordinarily busy season has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.
"I'm physically and mentally tired," a distraught Yolanda Lockett of Lake Charles said outside her New Orleans hotel. She's one of about 3,600 evacuees from Laura and Delta still sheltering.
In coastal St. Bernard Parish, Robert Campo readied his marina for another onslaught. "We're down for four or five days, that's four or five days nobody's fishing. That's four or five days nobody is shrimping. That's four or five days, no economic wheels are turning," he said.
Zeta is poised to set a new record of most U.S. landfalls in a year for named storms, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
Zeta will be the sixth hurricane smacking the continental United States, tying a record set in 1886 and repeated in 1985. Already Hurricanes Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Sally and Delta have made landfall this year. It will be the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S., breaking the record 2020 already set this year. The old record of nine was set in 1916.
Zeta also is the strongest hurricane this far west in the Gulf of Mexico this late in the calendar year, Klotzbach said.