(Bloomberg) -- Zeta rapidly strengthened to a near-Category 3 hurricane with winds of 110 miles (177 kilometers) per hour and is threatening to be the worst storm to hit New Orleans since Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
While Zeta isn’t as powerful as Katrina, it will pass directly over the Crescent City, bringing the harshest winds in 15 years, said Jim Rouiller, chief meteorologist at Energy Weather Group LLC. The storm’s track could cause as much as $3 billion in damages, but New Orleans will likely escape massive flooding.
“The center of circulation is going to pass directly over the the New Orleans metro area,” said Ryan Truchelut, president of commercial forecaster Weather Tiger. “New Orleans has had six or seven hurricane warnings in a row and nothing has happened but their number is definitely up.”
Zeta, poised to become the record 11th named storm to hit the U.S. this year, is poised to make landfall at about 4 p.m. local time in the vast wetlands south of New Orleans. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell have declared emergencies. Hurricane warnings extend from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border.
After landfall, Zeta will rapidly move inland knocking down trees and powerlines across the South, even potentially knocking out power in Atlanta, Truchelut said.
It will then slingshot into the Mid-Atlantic where it could leave a path of darkness straight through to Delaware, Rouiller said.
“I think everyone is so tired of hurricanes, no one wants to think about what it can do, but it is going to be a major nuisance,” Truchelut said.
Zeta is expected to make landfall between the sites where hurricanes Delta and Laura came ashore, to the west, and Hurricane Sally struck to the east. The larger storms all missed the area, 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.”
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.
Chevron Corp., BP Plc, Enbridge Inc., Equinor ASA and other companies have evacuated Gulf installations. Noble Corp. moved its Globetrotter II rig out of the way. Nearly 67% of oil production and 45% of offshore natural gas has been shut in, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Close to 36% of platforms have been evacuated and 30% of rigs, the agency said. Chevron has also begun preparations to shut a coastal Mississippi oil refinery, according to a person familiar with the operations, and a key seaport that serves deepwater oil installations is under a mandatory evacuation order.
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, up from earlier estimates of about $1 billion, 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.
The storm surge, a wall of water that hurricanes drive onto land, could hit 9 feet (2.7 meters) 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, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar. The moisture from Zeta will enhance that storm, bringing heavy rains throughout the Midwest and eastern U.S.
The U.S. Weather Prediction Center warned that as much as 5 to 7 inches may fall across the central and eastern states over the next few days. The confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, southern Appalachian Mountains and southern Mississippi may be hit hardest.
There are some indications a 28th storm could form in the Caribbean in the next week, however the forecast isn’t completely clear yet, said Phil Klotzbach, hurricane researcher with Colorado State University. That would tie the record set in 2005.
(Updates wind speed in first paragraph)
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