BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/AP) – Hurricane Zeta strengthened more than expected overnight into a Category 2 storm and has picked up speed as it heads toward Southeast Louisiana, thanks in part to storm system’s convergence with the cold front that brought snow and freezing rain to parts of West Texas and the Panhandle.
“It’s gonna be a rough evening for Louisiana, particularly the eastern portion of the state,” Gov. Edwards said during a briefing early Wednesday afternoon.
Zeta had been predicted to hit as a relatively weak Category 1 hurricane, but Louisiana residents awoke to updated forecasts predicting a Category 2, intensifying to nearly 100 mph (160 kph) at landfall. It is now expected to make landfall sometime later in the afternoon somewhere near the Terrebone and Lafourche Parish line as a Category 2 storm.
Parts of South Louisiana area already seeing tropical storm-force winds. The greater New Orleans area could see winds in the 100 miles per hour range, and St. Tammany Parish can expect to see sustained winds of up to 90 mph.
“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 earlier in the day on The Weather Channel.
During his briefing, the governor said he had spoken with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and believes the city is well-prepared, as is Southeast Louisiana overall.
The city is in the path of the storm and concerns had been raised about a pump system failure raising flood risks, but Edwards said the city has the capacity to generate the power to keep the system up and added that only two to four inches of rain are expected there. He added that some thunderstorms have brought more rain in the past, giving reason to believe the system will be able to handle any rain Zeta brings.
Workers closed one of the last floodgates surrounding the city as residents braced for the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season. The iconic streetcars shut down and City Hall closed until after the storm, Mayor Cantrell said.
Because this is going to be a significant wind event, Southeast Louisiana is expected along the track of the storm and particularly along the east side of the storm track. That is where Edwards said widespread power outages are expected. More than 5,700 linemen are staged to begin restoration efforts early Thursday morning and more crews can be brought in if necessary. Edwards said some of them would be coming from Texas, where crews have been working to restore power due to ice from the winter weather there.
Edwards also said power restoration would be prioritized at polling stations in the path of the storm “so we can have the election without any issues on Tuesday.”
Because of the expected power outages and cooler temperatures that are expected to move in after the storm passes through, Edwards warned once again about operating generators safely. He noted that nine deaths from hurricanes Laura and Delta have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning in connection with the use of generators, as well as several fatal fires caused by refueling them before they were allowed to cool.
Life-threatening storm surge and strong winds were expected beginning around midday along the U.S. Gulf Coast, where residents braced for the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season.
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.
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.
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.
Zeta was forecast to move over Mississippi Wednesday evening before crossing the southeastern and eastern United States on Thursday. The hurricane center warned that gusty winds could cause damage across the South and be especially severe in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where flash flooding is possible.
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.
Zeta formed more than a month earlier than the previous 27th named Atlantic storm did in 2005. It’s also this season’s 11th hurricane. An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms. The 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, standing outside a New Orleans hotel. She’s one of about 3,600 evacuees from Laura and Delta still sheltering, mostly in New Orleans area hotels.
In coastal St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, 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.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Thomas Hymel, an extension agent in Jeanerette with the LSU Agricultural Center. He said the storms have meant more than a month of down time for seafood harvesters, many of whom are already suffering a drop in demand from restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This story has been corrected. The New Orleans emergency director’s surname is Arnold.
Plaisance reported from Laffite, Louisiana, and Santana from Shell Beach, Louisiana. Associated Press contributors include Gerald Herbert in New Orleans; Jay Reeves, in Birmingham, Alabama; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland, and Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun, Mexico.