(Bloomberg) — Hurricane Zeta is strengthening as it spins across the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to slam into New Orleans Wednesday (Oct. 28) evening as a Category 2 storm capable of uprooting trees and causing massive power outages.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds are likely to increase to 100 miles (161 kilometers) per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory. It’s expected to come ashore about 7 p.m. local time, the record 11th storm to hit the U.S. in 2020. Zeta is forecast to cause as much as $3 billion in damages.
“It will continue to strengthen today,” said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar. “We have pretty high confidence it is going to make landfall in far, far southeastern Louisiana.”
Zeta is on pace to make landfall in the vast wetlands south of New Orleans, arriving 15 years after the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. But it isn’t expected to be anywhere near as devastating as the 2005 storm. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell have both declared emergencies. Hurricane warnings extend from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border.
After it makes landfall, Zeta is forecast to continue north, where it may join a winter storm over the Great Plains and dump flooding rains across the eastern U.S. through the rest of the week.
Zeta is expected to make landfall between the sites where Hurricanes Delta and Laura came in, to the west, and Hurricane Sally struck in the east. The larger storms all missed the region, but it was struck by Tropical Storm Cristobal in June. The multiple strikes have left residual damage throughout the Gulf Coast.
“Any vulnerable structures — specifically roofs or infrastructure that were lightly damaged from the past two storms and not repaired — will be at risk,” said Lou Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global, a commercial insurer. “Hurricane Sally was less than six weeks ago, so it’s not likely that the damage has been fully repaired.”
‘Supercharged’ hurricane season
Zeta is the 27th named storm in a supercharged Atlantic hurricane season, just one short of the record reached in 2005. So many storms have formed this year that the hurricane center has run out of official names and is using Greek letters to designate systems.
Zeta’s track is shifting to the east, and it’s continuing to strengthen, so it may cause as much as $3 billion in damages and losses as it makes landfall later Wednesday (Oct. 28), up from earlier estimates in the $1 billion range, said Chuck Watson, a damage modeler at Enki Research. Its stronger winds bring more dynamic pressure on everything it hits, and there are simply more targets in the way the closer to New Orleans it gets.
Storm surge, a pulse of water the hurricane pushes into the coastline, could get to 9 feet (2.7 meters) high in areas between the Pearl River in Louisiana to Dauphin Island, Alabama, the hurricane center said.
As Zeta comes ashore and moves across Mississippi, Alabama, and northern Georgia, it will interact with a winter storm that’s brought snow to Texas and is now moving east, Keeney said. The moisture from Zeta will enhance that storm, bringing heavy rains throughout the Midwest and the eastern U.S.
Vast stretches of the eastern U.S. will be hit with heavy rain, and the U.S. Weather Prediction Center warned that as much as 5 to 7 inches may fall over the next few days. The confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, southern Appalachian Mountains and southern Mississippi may be hit hardest.
The U.S. has been particularly hard hit this year, with Hurricanes Isaias, Laura, Hanna, Sally and Delta all hammering the coastline and causing billions of dollars in damage. A handful of tropical storms have struck the U.S. as well. If Zeta makes landfall in Louisiana, it will be the fifth time the state has been hit this season.