Hurricane Zeta speeding toward a storm-weary Louisiana

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.

Life-threatening storm surge and strong winds were expected beginning around midday along the U.S. Gulf Coast, where residents were bracing for the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season.

Louisiana has had the worst of it, already 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 Colin 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 160 km/h 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 (27 km/h). 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.

Restaurant workers board up windows on Tuesday as they prepare for the arrival of Zeta in New Orleans. (Kathleen Flynn/Reuters)

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, Fla., 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 five to 15 centimetres 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.

WATCH | Zeta lashes Mexico as tropical storm: 

Some municipal employees clean the streets of the popular resort destination Cancun after tropical storm Zeta hit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. 1:01

Zeta raked across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula Tuesday, weakening to a tropical storm over land before strengthening again over the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s following a path not too different from 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.

Early-voting sites forced to close

By late Wednesday morning, Zeta’s top winds had grown to 150 km/h and its forward movement increased to 28 km/h as its centre moved north, about 380 km south of New Orleans.

Hurricane warnings stretched from Morgan City, La., 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 centre 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, Miss. Trump declared an emergency for Louisiana Tuesday evening.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve seen a lot this year, with COVID and so many threats from so many storms,” Gilich said in a news release, “but this storm shows that we haven’t seen it all yet.”

Zeta broke the previous record for a 27th named Atlantic storm, taking shape more than a month before that one on Nov. 29, 2005. It’s also this season’s 11th hurricane. An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms.

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

‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

With yet another storm approaching, worries accumulated for people left homeless. The state is sheltering about 3,600 evacuees from Laura and Delta, most in New Orleans area hotels.

“I’m physically and mentally tired,” said a distraught Yolanda Lockett of Lake Charles, La., standing outside a New Orleans hotel.

WATCH | Hurricane Laura amplifies existing inequalities in Louisiana:

A ground-level view of what it’s like to live through the damage wrought by a powerful hurricane. The pandemic makes things harder on survivors but so do inequalities of race and income exacerbated by disaster. 2:30

Meanwhile, many along the coast renewed an unwanted ritual of preparation.

On Dauphin Island, off the coast of Alabama, marina workers prepared for Zeta, although in some places there was little left to protect after Hurricane Sally hit in September.

“We don’t have any docks or fuel pumps at this point. Sally took it all out,” employee Jess Dwaileebe said.

In Louisiana’s 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 downtime for seafood harvesters, many of whom are already suffering a drop in demand from restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic.


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