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Hurricane Zeta's record-breaking New Orleans landfall

A satellite animation of Hurricane Zeta just before landfall in Louisiana.

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Hurricane Zeta has made a historic and severe landfall in Louisiana, the strongest hurricane in recorded history (since 1851) to have its eye directly pass over New Orleans.

With everything else that's going on, you’d be forgiven if you missed the fact that we’re already 27 names deep into hurricane season. Zeta is the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, more than a month ahead of 2005’s previously record-setting pace.

We’ve simply never had a hurricane, or a hurricane season, quite like this.

Zeta came ashore near New Orleans on Wednesday afternoon with winds of 110mph as a strong Category 2 hurricane. That’s the worst storm to make a direct hit on New Orleans since Katrina in 2005.

Hurricane Zeta is the 11th named storm to make landfall in the mainland US this year (the sixth hurricane), and the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana. All of these are all-time records, going back to 1851. It’s also the strongest hurricane to make landfall this late in the year anywhere in the US since the Halloween hurricane in 1899 in South Carolina.

Zeta strengthened from a tropical storm to a strong Category 2 hurricane in the 18 hours before landfall. A mix of hurricane fatigue and the fact that Zeta strengthened so quickly caught the region off-guard, with meteorologists themselves in disbelief as the storm strengthened on Wednesday. Even though it’s so late in the season, the National Hurricane Center’s forecasts of “life-threatening storm surge along portions of the northern Gulf Coast”, and the storm’s fast motion and exceptionally strong winds for any time of year meant that the hurricane’s effects could be potentially devastating.

Zeta is the eighth Atlantic hurricane to rapidly intensify this year – a terrifying phenomenon that climate change is making more common. And for New Orleans, it’s the last thing they need right now.

New Orleans’ latest bout with the climate emergency

Life in New Orleans in 2020 has been filled with constant trauma. Zeta marks the seventh time New Orleans has been in the forecast cone of a tropical storm or hurricane this year. New Orleans was one of the first US cities to see a big Covid-19 outbreak. The tourism sector has been devastated. Fatigue and anxiety are constant and overwhelming.

In the hours before Zeta’s landfall, even as the outer rainbands were already arriving, the city seemed to be locked in a state of suspended animation or even outright denial that a significant hurricane could be imminent.

As of early Wednesday morning, no mandatory or even voluntary evacuations had been ordered for the core parts of metro New Orleans that are protected by the region’s levee systems. To be honest, given Zeta’s fast movement and rapid intensification, such an order probably would have been impossible to anticipate anyway.

People I spoke with over the past few hours in New Orleans seemed more concerned for their friends and neighbors from Lake Charles, in western Louisiana, who already experienced back-to-back hurricane landfalls over the past several weeks.

“It’s our seventh time in the cone this season. Everyone is tired of bringing plants and patio furniture inside,” said Sue Mobley, a Planning Commissioner for the City of New Orleans. “We’re taking it seriously, and extremely concerned about our Lake Charles folks getting pushed out of hotels and into the streets during a pandemic when they got hit twice and have nowhere to go.”

Thousands of evacuees from Lake Charles were kicked out of hotels in New Orleans last week after their FEMA vouchers expired.

Adding to the stress is the fact that there’s no other major city in the country so dependent on outdated technology to stay habitable during routine weather. New Orleans depends on 100+ year old water pumps and specially designed turbines to stay dry, even in regular summer thunderstorms, and right now two of its five turbines are down for repairs.

But disaster does not define this city – a predominately Black city that has long been at the forefront of environmental justice and transformational change.

The good news is that since Zeta is moving so quickly, rainfall shouldn’t be too severe and the pumping system should be able to handle the job.

Zeta won’t just affect New Orleans

Hurricane Zeta will be moving so quickly it won’t have much time to weaken after making landfall, and it comes so late in the season that snow and ice could form in the outer rainbands, especially on the western side.

Tropical storm and hurricane watches extend as far inland as Atlanta, and cities like Birmingham, Alabama, Charlotte, North Carolina, and even Washington, D.C. could also experience wind damage and power outages.

The large-scale weather pattern that’s bringing Hurricane Zeta towards Louisiana has already spawned one of the worst ice storms in Oklahoma history this week. Later this week, parts of New England could get snowfall thanks to Zeta, reminiscent of Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath in 2012.

If you or a loved one are in the path of Hurricane Zeta, the National Hurricane Center is your best source of information. If you’d like to help support people in Louisiana experiencing this awful hurricane season, Mututal Aid Disaster Relief is a New Orleans-based organization built on the principles of solidarity and transformational change and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has for decades been pioneering what it means to envision and create a world that works for everyone.

A previous version of this newsletter misrepresented Sue Mobley’s title. She doesn’t work at Tulane University, she is a Planning Commissioner for the City of New Orleans.

This article has also been updated with further information after the landfall of Hurricane Zeta.