As the latest overachieving storm in an unforgiving and record-setting season, Hurricane Zeta roared ashore in southeast Louisiana on Wednesday afternoon. The powerful Category 2 hurricane, which struck near Cocodrie, La., intensified right up until landfall, defying earlier forecasts for a substantially weaker storm.

Shortly after crossing the coast, Zeta slammed into New Orleans, its eye moving directly over the city, cutting power to more than 80 percent of its residents. City officials said that more than 200 trees were down across the city and that one man, electrocuted by downed power lines, died, according to the Associated Press.

The storm unleashed wind gusts over 100 mph in both coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, and the high winds cut power to over 800,000 customers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Coastal Mississippi was also subject to a storm surge that raised water levels nine feet above normally dry land at the coast, resulting in severe inundation.

Zeta is now poised to race through central Alabama, northern Georgia and the Mid-Atlantic, covering 1,250 miles through Thursday evening. Damaging winds could stretch into interior parts of Georgia, where gusts to 50 mph are forecast in Atlanta.

Torrential rain is expected all along its path, with widespread amounts of two to four inches and locally up to half a foot. Some flooding is likely.

October 28, 2020 at 10:46 PM EDT
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Hurricane Zeta is a historic storm by many measures

By Jason Samenow

When Zeta first formed on Saturday, it became the earliest 27th named storm on record in the Atlantic and marked only the second instance of this many storms in a calendar year, matching 2005. But upon rapidly intensifying in the Gulf of Mexico and making landfall as a strong Category 2 hurricane in southeast Louisiana, it established several more significant milestones:

  • In its 26 hours prior to landfall, Zeta’s peak winds increased by 45 mph, the most on record in the Gulf of Mexico so late in the calendar year. (source: Sam Lillo)
  • With maximum sustained winds of 110 mph, it is the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States this late in the calendar year since the Halloween Hurricane of 1899. (source: Phil Klotzbach)
  • It became the record 11th named storm to make landfall in the country, extending the record set by Hurricane Delta when it struck southwest Louisiana earlier in the month. Prior to 2020, the most named storms to come ashore in a given season was nine in 1916.
  • It became the sixth hurricane to make landfall in the United States in 2020, tying 1985 and 1886 for the most in a year.
  • Zeta is the fifth named storm to make landfall in Louisiana in 2020, passing the previous calendar year record of four in 2005. (source: Phil Klotzbach)
  • Zeta is the third hurricane to strike Louisiana in 2020 (in addition to Delta and Laura), tied with 1860 and 2005 for the most on record in a calendar year. (Source: Phil Klotzbach)
  • The wind gust of 71 mph clocked at New Orleans International Airport may be the strongest since Hurricane Isaac in August 2012. (source: Steve Seman)
October 28, 2020 at 10:40 PM EDT
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Racing northeast, Zeta will travel 1,250 miles in 24 hours

By Matthew Cappucci

Hurricane Zeta is hitting the Southeast United States savagely but swiftly.

After battering Louisiana and Mississippi, Zeta will race northeast at breakneck pace. It’s set to bring damaging winds and rain to a lengthy stretch of the South, Southeast, Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic, in the process likely knocking out power to hundreds of thousands more. (As of 10 p.m. Eastern time, more than 800,00 customers were without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.)

The system will pack a punch farther inland than most tropical systems manage to, owing to its swift forward motion. By the time it outruns the life-giving waters of the Gulf, it will have already moved several hundred miles away from the coast. Helping to maintain its strength will be its connection to a disturbance in the jet stream, also responsible for sweeping it rapidly northeast.

At 1 a.m. Thursday, the National Hurricane Center forecasts Zeta’s center to be located between Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala. Twelve hours later shortly after noon, it should be barreling through southwest Virginia.

By early Friday morning, the remnants of Zeta — by then restrengthening into a powerful mid-latitude storm system — will be developing in the waters east of Cape Cod.

That’s a trip of more than 1,200 miles in 24 hours, which averages out to 50 miles per hour. That’s faster than a vehicle on the interstate would be able to cover that distance — since the hurricane can take a direct route.

The storm could impact the United Kingdom into early next week.

October 28, 2020 at 10:16 PM EDT
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About 800,000 customers without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama

By Matthew Cappucci

Over 540,000 customers were in the dark in Louisiana on Wednesday night following the onslaught of Hurricane Zeta, which tracked through the heart of downtown New Orleans before roaring into Mississippi. Wind gusts up to 110 mph were clocked on the Mississippi River Delta in southeast Louisiana, while those in the Big Easy ranged between 80 and 90 mph.

Outage numbers were also surging in southern Mississippi and Alabama, where 167,000 and 105,000 customers were without power, respectively, just after 9 p.m. Central time.

The power outages climbed quickly as Zeta slammed ashore in southeast Louisiana. PowerOutage.us reported 30,000 customers were without service at 4 p.m. Central, doubling in the next hour. By 9 p.m., that number had soared to more than 542,000, the majority of outages in the greater New Orleans area.

Orleans Parish, where the city is located, reported over 160,000 outages, comprising more than 80 percent of parish residents. More than 80 percent of Jefferson Parish was without power. Jefferson Parish is made up of the western suburbs of New Orleans, including Metairie and Kenner, as well as the airport. A total of 177,000 customers were suffering outages there.

Entergy, the main electricity provider in the area, had the most customers without power.

Numerous reports on social media emerged of power flashes and downed wires.

Severe weather across the United States, including a winter storm in the Plains, has caused a major infrastructure headache at a time when early voters are going to the polls. About 400,000 customers were still without power in Oklahoma and Texas due to the ice storm earlier in the week.

October 28, 2020 at 9:32 PM EDT
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Surge surpasses 8 feet in coastal Mississippi, as winds top 100 mph

By Jason Samenow

Hurricane Zeta, still packing maximum sustained winds of 90 mph, is pushing an enormous amount of ocean water into coastal Mississippi, resulting in major storm-surge inundation.

In Waveland, Miss., which is just west of Gulfport, the water had risen more than eight feet above normally dry land. In Pascagoula, Miss., to the east of Biloxi, the surge was about five feet.

Winds in coastal Mississippi and even into Alabama over the past hour have been fierce. Waveland posted a gust of 104 mph, Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport clocked a gust of 95 mph, while Mobile recorded a gust of 74 mph.

Here are some images from social media of the surge along the Mississippi coast:

October 28, 2020 at 8:10 PM EDT
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After braving damaging winds, New Orleans is in Zeta’s calm eye

By Matthew Cappucci

Downtown New Orleans was swallowed by the eye of Hurricane Zeta shortly after 6 p.m. local time on Wednesday, the winds becoming calm after a furious half-hour to 45 minutes of damaging eyewall gusts. A gust to 110 mph was measured at Golden Meadow, La., about an hour before the eyewall hit New Orleans.

Closer to the city, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans reported an 87 mph wind gust, while the St. Bernard Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness observed a 100 mph wind gust at their facilities east of New Orleans. Bayou Bienvenue, in a similar area, experienced sustained winds of 69 mph, with a gust to 80 mph.

Terrebonne Bay, west of Grand Isle, managed an 87 mph gust.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport did not emerge into the eye proper, instead being scraped by the inner western eyewall for more than an hour. A gust to 71 mph occurred there at 6:31 p.m. At the exact same time, downtown New Orleans — barely 10 miles away — was calm.

The downtown area found itself in the heart of Zeta’s 25-mile-wide eye, within which air pressures bottomed out and sinking air brought calm winds.

The air pressure at the airport dropped to 28.89 inches, compared to an average sunny-day value closer to 30 inches. That meant there was about 3.7 percent less air in columns of atmosphere in the middle of the storm versus outside. The atmosphere’s desire to balance out that difference is what generated the strong winds.

New Orleans was entering the southern eyewall again around 7 p.m. local time, but conditions should be significantly tamer than the first round.

October 28, 2020 at 7:01 PM EDT
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Zeta’s strongest winds pound New Orleans

By Andrew Freedman

With the storm’s strongest winds moving squarely over downtown New Orleans, reports of power outages are mounting, as are wind gust readings near and above hurricane force (74 mph).

Video from the city shows conditions deteriorating rapidly. So far, wind reports are mainly in the 50-to-70 mph range in New Orleans, though the New Orleans Naval Air Station, just southeast of downtown, recorded a gust to 87 mph.

October 28, 2020 at 6:24 PM EDT
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Zeta’s destructive eyewall closing in on New Orleans

By Matthew Cappucci

Hurricane Zeta’s eyewall, which is the zone of most intense thunderstorms containing the storm’s strongest winds and heaviest rains, was rapidly moving north-northeast into New Orleans at about 5 p.m. Central time Wednesday. A 105 mph gust was measured inside the eyewall in Golden Meadow, La., at 4:25 p.m., with sustained winds nearing 90 mph.

Doppler radar revealed the eye of Zeta about 10 to 15 miles south-southwest of downtown New Orleans at 5 p.m. Central time. It was moving northeast, in the direction of New Orleans at 24 mph. The onset of severe, damaging winds will occur there by 5:20 to 5:30 p.m. local time.

A high-resolution Doppler radar serving New Orlean’s Louis Armstrong International Airport detected 90 to 100 mph winds at 900 feet elevation in the eyewall. New Orleans proper will probably see gusts in the 85 to 95 mph range areawide, with a few gusts nearing 100 mph.

The eye was a bit over 30 miles wide, meaning New Orleans may see more tranquil conditions for about an hour’s time once the eye is overhead. Strong, damaging winds will return after the eye’s passage, however.

October 28, 2020 at 5:57 PM EDT
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Hurricane Hunters encounter significant turbulence in eyewall of Zeta

By Matthew Cappucci

The U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters encountered significant turbulence after completing an intercept of Hurricane Zeta’s eyewall late on Wednesday afternoon. The missions are used to collect valuable data from inside the storm to feed weather models and inform meteorologists tasked with forecasting the system.

The aircraft measured flight-level wind speeds to 129 mph during its most recent pass through the eyewall; that is estimated to correspond to 100 mph surface winds. The storm remains a powerful Category 2 as it churns toward the coastline.

On satellite, Zeta could be seen clearing out its eye last-minute. The Hurricane Hunters found very warm, dry air — as shown by the increase in temperature and the decrease in dew point — in the eye. That results from sinking motion, which is what eradicates cloud cover in the eye.

Sinking motion is most prevalent in the strongest storms, attesting to Zeta’s power. Temperatures increased 16 degrees at flight level when the team entered the eye.

Moreover, the aircraft faced moderate to possibly severe turbulence. That’s evident in the jostling air-pressure reading.

The aircraft doesn’t fly at a given altitude; instead, it follows the imaginary surface that marks a constant air pressure. The height of that surface changes as pressure drops closer toward the center of a hurricane.

As a result, air pressure throughout the aircraft’s journey is the same, but the plane’s actual altitude fluctuates as it climbs and descends to follow that pressure surface.

As the plane nears the eye of a hurricane, the altitude of the aircraft plummets to match the falling air pressure. But notice the plane’s passage through the eye — its pressure altitude is shaken up and down rapidly, evidence of turbulence inside the eyewall.

October 28, 2020 at 5:30 PM EDT
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Surge danger increasing as Zeta plows ashore

By Matthew Cappucci

The National Hurricane Center increased its estimates for likely storm surge flooding across southern Louisiana and Mississippi on Wednesday evening. Now, coastal Mississippi could bear the brunt of 7 to 11 feet of inundation if a worst-case scenario surge is realized.

Already, a 1- to 2-foot increase in water levels has been observed in Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis, Miss., as well as along the extremities of the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana in places such as Grand Isle. Those values were steadily increasing, however, and a peak surge of 6 to 9 feet is possible there.

The greatest surge is likely to be found east of the Pearl River, or the Mississippi-Louisiana line. That’s where southerly winds will pile water up against the coast, pushing much of it ashore in the form of spiking water levels and damaging, breaking waves. Winds in that area may gust to 100 mph tonight, coinciding with the time of high tide.

Much of coastal Mississippi, including Biloxi, is occupied by structures only a few feet above sea level.

October 28, 2020 at 5:23 PM EDT
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Dangerous conditions moving ashore as Zeta makes landfall

By Matthew Cappucci

The core of Hurricane Zeta — including the destructive eyewall and eerily tranquil eye — was moving ashore late Wednesday afternoon near Cocodrie, La. The most dangerous conditions were spreading over southeastern Louisiana near the Mississippi River Delta and will shift toward New Orleans and southeastern Mississippi in the hours ahead.

A 2.2-foot storm surge was observed at Pilots Station East at the tip of the Mississippi River, with water levels likely to continue to rise throughout the evening. Water had already inundated Highway 56 in Cocodrie, about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans.

Zeta was nearing major hurricane strength, rapidly intensifying as it approached the coast.

Severe and locally extreme gusts above 110 mph are pivoting onshore, with the eyewall already over land. A gust to 87 mph was reported in Grand Isle, according to a report provided to the National Weather Service office in New Orleans.

  • The worst is starting in southeast Louisiana along the Bayou Lafourche corridor and will ramp up now through 5 p.m. Central time; gusts nearing 110 mph are probable for much of the Highway 1 stretch between Golden Meadow and Lockport, about 40 to 50 miles south-southwest of New Orleans.
  • The New Orleans metro area can expect the onset of eyewall wind gusts reaching from 95 to 100 mph by about 5:30 to 6 p.m. local time. The strongest winds are likely to last two to three hours.
  • The period of the worst winds will be accompanied by a significant storm surge, particularly east of the center. Water levels surrounding New Orleans could rise up to seven feet if a worst-case-scenario surge is realized. The surge-protection system in place for the city was built high enough to safeguard against this level and is supposed to withstand a Category 3 storm.
October 28, 2020 at 4:21 PM EDT
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In rare move, Zeta makes a run toward major hurricane status

By Matthew Cappucci

Hurricane Zeta is rapidly intensifying as it nears the Louisiana coastline. Shortly before a potentially destructive landfall, the storm shows no signs of weakening. In fact, Zeta is just 1 mph shy of major hurricane status. The continental United States has never been hit by a major hurricane this late in the season.

In fact, only three Category 2 hurricanes have ever hit the Lower 48 from late October onward. The last time it happened was in 1985.

Zeta’s rapid intensification is meteorologically unusual. Zeta is stronger than it would otherwise be if upper-level wind dynamics and the temperature of the seawater were controlling its intensity; instead, Zeta has been getting some extra help from the jet stream. Winds on its eastern side are also being amplified by its fast forward motion.

Flight-level winds during a midafternoon Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance flight hit 138 mph; extrapolated down to the surface, that would suggest 101 mph winds at the surface. A dropsonde, or probe, released shortly after found a surface wind of 115 mph in the southern eyewall. That would indicate Zeta is near or at major hurricane status.

The National Hurricane Center did not upgrade Zeta in their most recent advisory, raising the potential that the measurement was suspect. Regardless, Zeta continues to increase in strength and could approach Category 3 intensity as it makes landfall.

Zeta is the latest in a series of storms this season that have undergone rapid intensification shortly before landfall; Laura and Sally, which struck western Louisiana and southwest Alabama, respectively, did the same — significantly outpacing their predicted strengths. Human-caused climate change makes rapid intensification more likely to occur.

Rapid intensification has never occurred so late in the season in any part of the Gulf except the extreme southern reaches. Now it’s happening right before landfall.

October 28, 2020 at 4:00 PM EDT
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Zeta could bring damaging winds to Alabama, Georgia

By Matthew Cappucci

Hurricane Zeta may bring a burst of strong, damaging wind gusts to portions of Alabama and Georgia, with the storm maintaining its force as it spins far inland thanks to two factors: its rapid forward speed and interaction with the jet stream. There’s a potential for scattered to widespread power outages as far northeast as the Appalachian foothills, with Zeta’s core of strong winds remaining largely intact for more than 500 miles.

Winds could gust upward of 80 mph in southwest and west-central Alabama between sunset and just after midnight Wednesday, knocking down trees and power lines and having a potentially significant impact.

Gusts of 65 to 75 mph may enter east-central Alabama or western and northwestern Georgia, and scattered power outages are possible in the Atlanta area. Travelers to Atlanta or those making connections should expect delays Thursday morning at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

If the jet stream and an approaching mid-level disturbance impart enough energy on what by then will probably be Tropical Storm Zeta, it could even deliver pockets of 50 to 60 mph winds to the Carolina Piedmont and the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

Winds will eventually taper some into eastern Virginia, with 30 to 40 mph gusts Thursday afternoon, before the storm strengthens again, this time as a nontropical system, off the Delmarva Peninsula into Friday.

October 28, 2020 at 3:27 PM EDT
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Hurricane Zeta intensifies further before landfall

By Andrew Freedman

Hurricane Zeta has put on an unexpected burst of rapid intensification during the past 24 hours, lasting straight through to right before landfall. Despite being over cooler ocean waters along the continental shelf, the storm now has 105 mph sustained winds, making it a slightly stronger Category 2 hurricane.

Every uptick in wind speed means a greater storm surge and more capacity for wind damage from New Orleans into northern Georgia as the storm gets picked up by the jet stream and pushed northeast rapidly.

Weather forecasters have been impressed, and a little disturbed, by the rarity of this storm’s intensification, given that it’s coming so late in the season.

October 28, 2020 at 3:15 PM EDT
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Astronauts on the International Space Station caught a bird’s-eye view of Hurricane Zeta

By Paulina Villegas

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station got a stunning view of the swirling clouds of Hurricane Zeta as the storm rapidly intensified over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday afternoon.

The storm’s dimensions could be perceived from outer space as coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and other states brace for its effects.