A fast-moving Zeta weakened to a tropical storm as it barreled northeast Thursday morning after ripping through Louisiana and Mississippi and moving into Alabama. The storm hit land Wednesday afternoon over the small village of Cocodrie, Louisiana as a strong Category 2 and then moved swiftly across the New Orleans area and into neighboring Mississippi, bringing with it both fierce winds and a storm surge.
There was heavy rain at times but since the storm was so fast-moving, rain related flooding wasn’t as much of a concern.
Zeta weakened over central Alabama but its strong winds continued across portions of the state and the Florida Panhandle.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm was about 80 miles east-northeast of Birmingham, Alabama and 65 miles west-northwest of Atlanta Thursday morning with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph. Zeta was racing northeast at 39 mph.
The National Weather Service Birmingham, Alabama office tweeted about the wind:
Impressive winds from Zeta at our office tonight from Zeta. pic.twitter.com/r3MrLQLB8C
Zeta was expected to accelerate and weaken even more as it headed through the southeastern U.S. Thursday morning and across the Mid-Atlantic states Thursday afternoon before heading over the western Atlantic by Thursday night.
Zeta was forecast to be a non-tropical gale-force low later today.
Nearly 2 million homes and businesses were without power across several Southern states before dawn Thursday. According to the website PowerOutage.us, about 1.8 million were without power in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Georgia had the most with more than 800,000 in the dark.
The storm killed a 55-year-old man who a coroner said was electrocuted by a downed power line in New Orleans and someone in Biloxi, Mississippi whose body was found by a marina. It wasn’t clear how that person died.
Waveland Mayor Mike Smith told CBS Biloxi affiliate WLOX-TV his Mississippi Gulf Coast city, which was part of the area most heavily damaged by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, took what might be its worst hit since then from Zeta.
“We’re going to see a whole lot of damage in the morning,” Smith said. Among the many trees blown down was one that fell on Smith’s own house. “It was my next-door neighbor’s and he wanted to give it to me, apparently,” Smith said.
In Biloxi, a bridge was closed after a semi-truck overturned and a steeple was knocked off a church.
As much as 5 feet of Gulf water surrounded a casino in Biloxi and deputies in Harrison County, Mississippi, received multiple calls from people who had remained in mobile homes that were threatened by winds.
In the small coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the roof was ripped off the historic 100 Men Hall.
Former Bay St. Louis mayor Les Fillingame said the storm was “very intense” when it blew through.
“It was a noisy storm. It was a truly howling wind,” he said, but said thankfully it was also fast-moving. “It was a lot of wind for several hours, which is enough.”
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards was expected Thursday to tour the coastal regions hardest hit by the storm. During a radio interview Wednesday evening, Edwards said the wind had caused extensive structural damage. And as neighbors and church groups started reaching out to help those affected, he also highlighted the need to protect against the coronavirus at the same time.
“Offer the help but do it with a mask on,” he said.
Much of New Orleans and the surrounding area was without power Wednesday night. The storm packed a punch as it whipped through the city. Signs outside bars and restaurants swayed back and forth in the wind and palm trees along Canal Street whipped furiously. Officials said a person was hospitalized with minor injuries after a structure collapsed.
More than 200 trees were reported down in the city. Echoing a plea made by officials across the Gulf Coast in the dark hours after the storm passed, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell implored residents to stay home and let city officials assess the damage.
“Although we have made it through, we have been damaged, we have been hit,” she said.
Along coastal Louisiana, there were reports of some trailers flipped over, a gas station destroyed, and downed power lines and trees.
Zeta had top sustained winds of 110 mph at landfall and is the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season – with over a month left to go. It set a record as the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. in a single season, well beyond the nine that hit in 1916.
Zeta weakened to a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 90 mph as it moved into southern Mississippi a few hours after landfall.
New Orleans was in the warning areas of six previous storms that veered east or west this season. This time, Zeta stayed on course. Officials had been worried about the loss of a power from a turbine that helps power the city’s aging drainage infrastructure and whether that would leave the city vulnerable to flooding but Zeta’s swift movement meant flooding wasn’t an issue.
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.
The deteriorating weather prompted early voting sites to close for hours in the western Florida Panhandle. One voter in Mississippi worried about how long felled trees and debris might block roads.
“With the election I just kind of hope the city gets the roads clear by November 3 so everybody can get out and vote,” said Mackenzie Umanzor, of D’Iberville, Mississippi.
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.
And the fact that so many of the storms have been concentrated in such a small piece of Gulf Coast real estate has meant repeated damage for some places.
On Dauphin Island, Alabama, Mayor Jeff Collier said residents and workers had nearly finished cleaning up from Hurricane Sally when the wind started blowing and the water started rising yet again.
“This is going to put his back to square one again,” Collier said.
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