Oct. 27 (UPI) — Zeta, the 27th named storm of the 2020 hurricane season, emerged over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, where it will intensify back into hurricane force before it crashes into Louisiana, near Houma, late Wednesday.
In its 10 p.m. CDT advisory, the National Hurricane Center said the storm had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. It was located about 390 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and 435 miles south of New Orleans, as it was moving northwest at 15 mph.
It’s expected to strengthen to hurricane status before landfall.
Forecasters have rated Zeta a 1 on the AccuWeather RealImpact Scale at the time of landfall. The state is bracing for its fifth strike from a named storm of the season, which will make the United States tally for land-falling storms climb to 11 — a record for the country.
Hurricane warnings were in effect along the Gulf Coast from central Louisiana eastward to the Mississippi/Alabama border. New Orleans, which has been spared the worst from storms striking Louisiana so far this year, was included in the area under hurricane warnings. Tropical storm watches have been issued northward through Atlanta.
Zeta made its first landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, packing 80-mph winds, along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico just north of Tulum shortly after 11 p.m. CDT Monday. The storm lost some wind intensity once over land and weakened into a tropical storm as it spun northward unleashing storm surge, heavy rain and strong winds overnight.
There is the chance that Zeta could reach Category 2 hurricane strength with sustained winds between 96 mph to 110 mph, as it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf Tuesday and Tuesday night, but then it could weaken slightly into a Category 1 storm (74 mph to 95 mph) before it nears the Gulf Coast on Wednesday.
“We anticipate a slight loss of wind intensity shortly before landfall on Wednesday evening, which may cause Zeta to be a minimal Category 1 hurricane or a strong tropical storm at the time of landfall,” AccuWeather senior meteorologist Adam Douty said.
“Regardless of this small difference of strength, overall impacts are expected to remain the same,” Douty said.
Dangerous and damaging storm surge, high winds and flooding rainfall will hammer Louisiana to Florida as Zeta makes landfall late Wednesday and begins to move inland. Several tornadoes could also touch down as the Zeta batters the U.S. Gulf Coast, especially near and east of where the storm comes onshore.
Zeta is forecast to track northeastward toward the coastline, striking just southeast of Morgan City, La., during Wednesday evening, and forecasters say the center of the storm will come close to New Orleans. The storm’s projected path has the potential to bring the most significant impacts in southeastern Louisiana and the New Orleans area of any tropical system this season as the city managed to avoid the core of all tropical systems thus far this year. The Big Easy is at risk for power outages and flooding from Zeta — and conditions will deteriorate quickly there late Wednesday.
A storm surge of 3 feet to 6 feet is forecast along the southeastern Louisiana coast, including along lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain. But, a storm surge of 1 foot 3 feet can occur as far to the east as the northern Gulf coast of Florida and as far to the west as Intercoastal City, La.
Storm surge warnings have been issued from the mouth of the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana to Navarre, Fla. This includes the bays around Gulfport, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.
As Zeta moves over the northern Gulf, it is expected to pick up forward speed and move along at a breakneck pace of 25 mph as it reaches the Louisiana coastline. The storm’s fast movement will likely lead to a fast rise in coastal waters — much faster than what would be expected by a system moving at a more typical speed of 10 mph.
However, the storm’s quick movement will also mean a shorter duration of high winds and torrential rainfall. Significant power outages and tree damage are still anticipated in southeastern Louisiana to part of southern Mississippi with gusts frequenting 60 mph to 80 mph. An AccuWeather Local StormMax of 90 mph is forecast in southeastern Louisiana.
“Power outages could last for a few days to a week in some areas and minor structural damage is expected as well, especially to weak and poorly built buildings,” Douty said.
Sporadic tree damage and power outages can occur with wind gusts of 40 mph to 60 mph as far to the north as the mid-Atlantic coast.
The central and eastern Gulf is being warned to closely monitor the progress of Zeta as the area will bear the brunt of the tropical system’s impacts, but effects will also reach far inland across the U.S.
Enough rain to cause flash and urban flooding is forecast as far to the north as the Ohio Valley, central and southern Appalachians and the mid-Atlantic coasts. Torrential rainfall will be limited to several hours due to the fast forward motion of Zeta, but downpours and moderate rainfall will precede the storm many hours in advance.
“Heavy rain is by far going to be the most widespread impact from Zeta in the United States,” warned AccuWeather meteorologist Niki LoBiondo.
Rainfall on the order of 4 inches to 8 inches will occur along the path of Zeta as it interacts with a non-tropical storm, the same one bringing heavy snow and ice to the southern Plains and Rockies. An AccuWeather Local StormMax of 12 inches is forecast from southeastern Louisiana to part of western Alabama, which will be closest to the source of tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Flash flooding will be a threat across much of the area where the heaviest rain totals are expected, especially in places with steeper terrain,” according to AccuWeather meteorologist Jake Sojda. “Ponding on roads and in poor drainage areas will likely be widespread, especially in communities where falling leaves clog storm drains.”
Due to the widespread nature of heavy rain over the lower Mississippi and Ohio valleys, some minor river flooding may also develop along the tributaries of these major rivers by the end of the week.
Zeta’s legacy may include tornado outbreak
Sometimes, when tropical storms or hurricanes make landfall, tornadoes and waterspouts can occur, and that will be a threat when Zeta comes ashore on the Gulf Coast.
“Tornadoes to the east of Zeta’s track can lead to localized areas of more intense damage,” Douty said. “There is the concern that there could be a higher-than-usual number of tornadoes with this tropical system as extra energy from the non-tropical storm system over the southern Plains interacts with Zeta as it moves inland.”
In the wake of Zeta, showers and thunderstorms will be left behind in the area from the western Caribbean to the southern Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits. “This area will have to be watched for the next potential tropical development zone next week,” according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Houk.
‘We’re doing everything we can to prepare for this storm’
Even though Zeta is expected to strike the U.S coast as a Category 1 hurricane, forecasters and officials have been warning residents along the central and eastern Gulf Coast not to let their guard down.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Monday ahead of Zeta’s arrival. “[The] good thing and the bad thing is we’ve had a lot of practice” at weathering storms this season, Edwards said during a Monday afternoon update on the looming threat for his state. “We’re doing everything we can to prepare for this storm,” he added.
Nearly 3,600 people remain sheltered by the state after devastating back-to-back hurricane strikes. Laura struck the state as a devastating Category 4 storm in late August, and then just 43 days later, Category 2 Hurricane Delta made landfall only 13 miles to the east of where Laura hit.
Zeta is predicted to be the fifth tropical system to make landfall in the state at tropical storm strength or greater following hits from Tropical Storm Cristobal, Hurricane Laura, Tropical Storm Marco and Hurricane Delta. There were also other near misses on Louisiana from Sally and Beta.
Edwards also noted that his state is dealing with dueling disasters amid the public health emergency of the pandemic. “We may be tired of COVID-19 and hurricanes, but neither the virus nor Mother Nature is going to take that into account,” Edwards said.
Zeta became the 11th hurricane of the extremely busy Atlantic hurricane season over the northwestern Caribbean Sea on Monday afternoon. Only two other Atlantic hurricane seasons since 1851(1950 and 2005) spawned 11 or more hurricanes by Oct. 26, according to Colorado State University meteorologist Philip Klotzbach. An average season generates six hurricanes and 12 named storms.
It will become the eighth named storm to strike the Gulf Coast this season, and the 11th tropical system to make landfall in the United States in 2020. Hurricane Delta was number 10, which broke the record of nine storms to crash into the continental U.S. in one season, previously set in 1916.
“For those counting, 2005 still holds the record for the most number of named storms in a season (28). NHC identified an ‘unnamed’ subtropical storm in its post-season analysis that year, which is included in the total,” the National Hurricane Center said on Twitter. “With #Zeta, the number for 2020 currently stands at 27.”
Only one other storm in history has been named Zeta, with the last Tropical Storm Zeta forming on Dec. 28, 2005. That Zeta was also the second tropical system on record to exist during two different years, as it continued to churn in the Atlantic until Jan. 6, 2006. Forecasters have never before utilized the name Eta, or the next Greek letter on the list to name Atlantic tropical systems.
Zeta is the earliest-forming 27th storm on record for the Atlantic basin; the prior record for the earliest Atlantic 27th named storm formation was Epsilon on Nov. 29, 2005, according to Klotzbach.