Hurricane Zeta hits Louisiana with flooding, power outages

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

Streams of rainfall ran off roofs in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, signs outside bars and restaurants swayed back and forth in the wind and palm trees along Canal Street whipped furiously. A few trees were down, and one that fell across utility lines sparked a bright orange flash. Officials said a person was hospitalized with minor injuries after a structure collapsed, but further details weren’t available.

Zeta had top sustained winds of 110 (177 kph) 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. It set a new record as the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. in a single season, well beyond the nine storms that hit in 1916.

Tropical storm warnings were issued as far away as the north Georgia mountains, highly unusual for the region. Forecasters issued a string of tornado warnings for as far east as the Florida Panhandle.

New Orleans was in the warning areas of six previous storms that veered east or west this season. This time, Zeta stayed on course.

“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, 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.

Winds picked up and water rose 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.”

New Orleans officials announced that a turbine that generates power to the city’s aging drainage pump system broke down 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 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’s pace could mitigate the flood threat.

On Tuesday, Zeta raked across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, toppling trees and briefly cutting power to more than 300,000 people but causing no deaths.

It then regained strength over the Gulf of Mexico along a path slightly to the east of those of Hurricane Laura, which was blamed for at least 27 deaths in Louisiana in August, and Hurricane Delta, which exacerbated Laura’s damage in the same area 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 prompted early voting sites to close for hours in the western Florida Panhandle.

Large school systems in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina planned to close Thursday or open late.

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, one of about 3,600 evacuees from Laura and Delta still sheltering, said outside her New Orleans hotel.

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