FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Hurricane Zeta, which has been increasing in intensity and speed all day, is making landfall in southeast Louisiana as a Category 2 storm with 110 mph winds, according to the 5 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center.
Zeta, which is traveling at a brisk 24 mph, is almost a Category 3 hurricane, which is considered a major hurricane. A Category 3 hurricane has winds between 111 and 129 mph. Zeta was 1 mph from becoming the fifth major hurricane of the year joining Laura, Teddy, Delta and Epsilon.
Zeta made landfall near Cocodrie, Louisiana, according to the NHC.
Zeta became the record-breaking 11th named storm to make a U.S. landfall during the 2020 hurricane season, nearly all of them along the storm-ravaged Gulf coast.
But Zeta’s landfall strength wasn’t predicted. Tuesday’s forecast called for Zeta to make landfall at or near Category 1 status, which means winds between 74 and 95 mph.
Zeta surprisingly underwent rapid intensification, which is defined as a wind increase of at least 35 mph in a 24-hour period.
The storm was a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in Mexico overnight Monday, but it dropped to a tropical storm after interacting with land.
Zeta was located 65 miles south-southwest of New Orleans at Wednesday’s 5 p.m. advisory. Hurricane-force winds extended 35 miles from the storm’s center and tropical-storm-force winds extended 150 miles from center.
This marks the seventh time New Orleans has been in the hurricane center’s storm cone this year, according to The Weather Channel.
“On the forecast track, the center of Zeta will make a second landfall along the Mississippi coast this evening,” the NHC said, “and then move across the southeastern and eastern United States on Thursday.”
Zeta is expected to cause problems throughout the south and over to the East Coast.
“A few tornadoes are expected this afternoon through tonight over southeastern parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, southern Alabama, and the western Panhandle of Florida,” forecasters said Wednesday.
Parts of the Panhandle could see storm surge of 1 to 4 feet, while areas outside Florida are in a forecast range of 1 to 9 feet.
A state of emergency was declared Tuesday for Alabama and Louisiana ahead of the storm’s arrival.
The NHC said heavy rainfall, both in advance of and along the track of Zeta, is expected from the central Gulf Coast to the mid-Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. The rainfall ventures into the southern to central Appalachians and mid-Atlantic Wednesday and Thursday.
The NHC also said damaging winds, especially in gusts, will spread well inland across portions of southeastern Mississippi, Alabama, and northern Georgia from Wednesday evening through early Thursday morning.
Damaging winds are expected to go into the Carolinas and southeastern Virginia on Thursday. It said wind gusts could be especially severe across the southern Appalachian Mountains on Thursday.
Zeta is predicted to eventually mix with the winter storm that’s gripping the southern portion of the United States.
“They’ll be a little bit harder to tell apart by, say, Thursday or Friday,” said Jonathan Belles, IBM meteorologist for Weather.com. “They’ll basically become one big mass of rainfall as it moves into the mid-Atlantic and northeast.”
New Jersey could experience wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph, according to Bob Smerbeck, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.
Although Hurricane Zeta traveled along a similar path as Hurricane Delta, it wasn’t a candidate to undergo rapid intensification such as Delta.
It’s late in the hurricane season so the water is a bit cooler. In general, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is at its warmest in September. Plus, the jet stream has dipped farther south, providing more wind shear.
Zeta proved all of that irrelevant.
Interestingly, Zeta hit the only spot along the Gulf coast where cooler waters exist.
“They’re above average along the Texas coast and above average near the Florida coast,” Smerbeck said, “but split right in between it’s kind of average temperatures.”
Previous storms might be responsible for the average water temperatures because as they’ve come through Louisiana, they’ve brought up cooler water from lower in the ocean.
Zeta also proved that to be largely irrelevant.
Worse, Louisiana might not be in the safe zone yet because there could be more tropical activity as soon as next week.
Meteorologists also are eyeing a system that could form in the southwest Caribbean.
“This is exactly what we look for this time of year on the tail end of these colds fronts, they get down into the Gulf or the southwest Atlantic, the Bahamas and Cuba and places like that,” Smerbeck said. “We are concerned next week there’s going to be some potential for a tropical system to develop.”
Right now, it’s too early to make a firm prediction but forecasters are paying attention.
“Whether something would actually try to come up out of the Caribbean up into the United States, that I have no idea,” Smerbeck said, “but there is potential for another tropical system in the northwest Caribbean or even into the Bay of Campeche perhaps into the southwest Gulf, that general area, and maybe east of the Bahamas.”
Zeta formed as a tropical storm in the predawn hours Sunday south of western Cuba, only the second time in history a hurricane season has produced 27 named storms.
The only other storm named Zeta was in 2005, when a system developed on Dec. 30, a month after the official end of hurricane season, and lingered into the first week of 2006.
If there is record-breaking next named storm, it would be assigned Eta from the Greek alphabet.
Although both 2005 and 2020 had 27 named storms, a reanalysis of the 2005 season revealed a 28th system briefly became a subtropical storm far in the Atlantic on Oct. 4, 2005. That former unnamed storm is now called the “Azores sub-tropical storm,” according to AccuWeather. Because of it, 2005 technically still holds the title of busiest hurricane season on record — for now.
Even with five weeks to go, the 2020 hurricane season, a La Niña year that spawned four major hurricanes has been memorable for many reasons.
A record 24 storms were the earliest of previous seasons to be given their names.
A record 11 named storms have made landfall in the continental U.S. — Bertha, Cristobal, Fay, Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Marco, Sally, Beta, Delta and Zeta. The previous mark was nine storms in 1916, according to hurricane specialist Dr. Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University.
Never before has a hurricane named after a letter in the Greek alphabet made landfall in the continental U.S. This year, three hurricanes did just that: Beta hit just northeast of Corpus Christi, Texas, on Sept. 22, Delta struck southwest Louisiana on Oct. 10, and Zeta hit southeast Louisiana.
Hurricane Delta became the strongest storm ever named after a letter in the Greek alphabet and became the fastest storm on record to intensify from a tropical depression to Category 4 hurricane.
Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha formed before the June 1 start of hurricane season, marking only the second time in recorded history two storms have formed before the season began.
September was especially noteworthy, producing 10 named storms — a record for that month. The previous record for September was eight named storms in 2002, 2007 and 2010.
On Sept. 14, there were five tropical cyclones spinning at the same time, one away from the record established Sept. 11-12, 1971, according to Klotzbach. The Sept. 14 frenzy had Tropical Storms Paulette, Rene, Sally and Teddy as well as Tropical Depression 21, marking just the second time the Atlantic basin has had five or more storms at once.
Four days later, on Sept. 18, a record-tying three named storms formed in a six-hour span – Tropical Storm Wilfred (Eastern Atlantic), Subtropical Storm Alpha (near Portugal) and Tropical Storm Beta (Gulf of Mexico). The only other day to have three storms form was more than 100 years ago, on Aug. 15, 1893, according to Klotzbach.
October also has been active with four named storms (Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta). The last time there were four or more named storms in October was 2005, when that month had six named storms, as well as that unnamed subtropical storm.
The 2020 hurricane season was predicted to be above normal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May, but updated in August to extremely active.
While Florida south of the Panhandle escaped virtually unscathed in 2020, Louisiana was brutalized by five named storms — Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta, and Tropical Storms Cristobal and Marco.
©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)