Tropical storm Zeta barrels across southeast US

More than 2.6 million homes and businesses are without power across seven US states after strong winds leave a trail of destruction and at least three dead.

Residents use chain saws to clear fallen trees in the aftermath of Hurricane Zeta in Waveland, Mississippi [Gerald Herbert/AP]

Tropical storm Zeta has sped across the southeastern United States, killing at least three people, causing widespread damage and leaving more than 2.6 million homes and businesses without power in several states.

A Category 2 hurricane when it hit the southeastern Louisiana coast on Wednesday, Zeta was still a tropical storm late on Thursday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 85 kilometres per hour (50 miles per hour) – unusual even in a region accustomed to hurricanes and their aftermath.

At least three people have died due to the storm, which pounded New Orleans with winds and water that splintered homes. Some voting places were affected and hundreds of schools cancelled classes or planned to open late from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas.

Widespread power outages occurred across seven states, from Louisiana to the south Atlantic seaboard, and officials said some places could be in the dark for days.

The latest punch from a record hurricane season in the US has left people shaken.

Workers remove debris from an unoccupied structure that collapsed on Wednesday as Hurricane Zeta passed through New Orleans [Gerald Herbert/AP]

Will Arute said it sounded like a bomb went off when part of a large oak tree snapped outside his home in New Orleans, crashing into his car and a corner of his home.

“I did not anticipate this to happen. It was pretty intense along the eye wall when it went through here,” he told The Associated Press news agency.

‘Roof waving in the wind’

Mackenzie Umanzor did not make many preparations because the last hurricane to threaten her home in D’Iberville, Mississippi, a few weeks ago did little damage.

Zeta blew open doors she had tried to barricade, leaving her with a cut hand, and the top of her shed came loose.

“You could hear the tin roof waving in the wind … and there was a couple of snaps, lots of cracks of branches and trees falling,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”

Officials said life-threatening conditions would last through Thursday, with Zeta crossing the mid-Atlantic states as a tropical storm before moving offshore around Delaware and southern New Jersey.

This satellite image taken on Wednesday shows Hurricane Zeta in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana [NOAA via AP]

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the most severe destruction – what he described as “catastrophic damage” – appears to be on the barrier island of Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, where Zeta punched three breaches in the levee.

Edwards said he ordered the Louisiana National Guard to fly in soldiers to assist with search and rescue efforts, including door-to-door checks on properties.

Zeta was the 27th named storm of a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season, which has more than a month left to go.

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

The extraordinarily busy hurricane season has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.

Source: AP