Hurricane Zeta crashes into storm-weary Louisiana

Zeta threatened to push up to 9 feet of sea water inland and batter homes and businesses with fierce winds.

Louisiana residents boarding up their storefronts in the French Quarter as they prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Zeta in New Orleans, Louisiana, US [Kathleen Flynn/Reuters]

Hurricane Zeta slammed into storm-weary Louisiana on Wednesday with New Orleans squarely in its path, threatening to push up to 9 feet of sea water inland and batter homes and businesses with fierce winds in a Gulf Coast region already pounded by multiple storms this year.

Some roads were flooded near the coast, where forecasters said Zeta was making landfall around Terrebone Bay near Cocodrie, an unincorporated fishing village at the end of a highway.

Rain pelted the French Quarter in New Orleans, and streams of water ran off roofs. Trees whipped back and forth in the wind, though a few people were still out on Bourbon Street with umbrellas or in slow-moving cars. The iconic streetcars were idled and City Hall closed, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

Zeta had top sustained winds of 177 km/h (110mph) as a Category-2 hurricane and was the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season — with over a month left before it ends.

Tropical storm warnings were issued as far away as the north Georgia mountains, highly unusual for the region. New Orleans has been in the warning areas of seven previous storms that veered east or west this season. Zeta was staying on course.

“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 at landfall.

“The good news for us – and look, you take good news where you can find it – the storm’s forward speed is 27 km/h (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,” Governor John Bel Edwards said in an interview on The Weather Channel.

Satellite image showing Hurricane Zeta in the Gulf of Mexico nearing Louisiana [NOAA via AP]

Officials urged people to take precautions and prepare to shelter in place, and a business-as-usual atmosphere in the morning in New Orleans diminished as the storm neared and grew stronger. Traffic slowed, and restaurants and coffee shops shut down.

“This year, the storms have been coming back-to-back. They’ve been avoiding New Orleans but finally decided to come,” cookie shop worker Curt Brumfield said as he stowed empty boxes in trash cans outside and others boarded up the windows.

The winds were picking up and water was rising above the docks in Jean Lafitte, a small fishing town south of New Orleans that takes its name from a French pirate. Workers drove truckloads of sand to low-lying areas where thousands of sandbags were already stacked for previous storms.

“We’re going to get a lot of water fast,” said the mayor, Tim Kerner Jr “I’m optimistic regarding the tidal surge because of the speed of the storm, but we’re not going to take it for granted.”

Zeta could lash the northern Gulf Coast with wind, rain and storm surge more than 150 miles (241 kilometres) east of New Orleans. In Mississippi, the city of Pass Christian ordered all boats out of the harbor, and Dauphin Island, Alabama, shut off water and sewer service in areas that typically are swamped in storms.

Louisiana residents boarding up their storefronts as they prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Zeta, which is expected to make landfall as a Category-2 storm, in New Orleans, Louisiana, US [Kathleen Flynn/Reuters]

New Orleans officials announced that a turbine that generates power to the city’s ageing 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.

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 five to 15 centimetres (two to six inches) 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.

By Wednesday afternoon, Zeta’s top winds had risen to just shy of a major, Category 3 storm, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

Zeta raked across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on 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.

Hurricane warnings stretched from Morgan City, Louisiana to the Alabama/Mississippi state line, including Lake Pontchartrain and metropolitan New Orleans. The deteriorating weather forced early voting sites to close for hours in the western Florida Panhandle, 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 89 km/h (55 mph) early Thursday. Winds could be “especially severe” in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where flash flooding is possible, the hurricane centre said.

Edwards asked President Donald Trump for a disaster declaration in advance of the storm. He and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey both declared emergencies, as did Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich in Biloxi, Mississippi. Trump declared an emergency for Louisiana on 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.

Tourists walk past debris littering the street after Hurricane Zeta’s landfall in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Zeta is leaving Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on a path that could hit New Orleans Wednesday night [AP Photo/Tomas Stargardter]

After Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Sally and Delta, Zeta will tie a record set in 1886 and repeated in 1985 for six hurricanes smacking the continental US, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

And as the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental US, Zeta will set a new record, well beyond the nine storms that hit in 1916.

“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.

Source: AP