New Orleans, No Stranger to Storms, Braces for Hurricane Zeta

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NEW ORLEANS — At this point, nearing the end of a long, long hurricane season, the warnings were nothing new: A storm swirled in the Gulf of Mexico, likely gaining strength as it barreled toward the coast. New Orleans sat in its potential path, in what forecasters call the “cone of uncertainty.”

There was Cristobal in June, and Laura and Marco in August. September brought Sally and Beta, and Delta was bound for the city earlier this month. Yet before they made landfall, the storms swerved to the east or west, scraping New Orleans with just a glancing blow.

Now, it was happening all over again: Tropical Storm Zeta was on a fast clip toward the coast. It strengthened into a hurricane and was expected to make landfall in southeastern Louisiana on Wednesday afternoon.

New Orleans, once again, was in the path.

“I’m over it, really,” Glen David Andrews, a trombonist, said during a break in a gig at Café du Monde in the French Quarter. He was not planning to put much effort into preparing for the storm. “I’m going to charge up my devices,” he said, “and then sit back to enjoy the wind as this 24-hour storm blows through the city.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana yet again found himself straining to telegraph the gravity of the threat, urging residents to brace themselves. “It’s easy to let your guard down late in the hurricane season,” he said, “but that would be a huge mistake.”

It is a message, though, that had lost some of its bite as it collided with the fatigue of a brutal and record-setting hurricane season. Parts of Louisiana are clawing their way back from hurricanes that delivered repeated assaults. And even places like New Orleans — spared the worst of the devastation this year — were dealing with the distress of watching and waiting, the specter of past destruction and anguish giving fuel to their concern. It was tough to gin up the energy to prepare and worry one more time.

“I suspect that most people in New Orleans could be described as storm weary at this point,” said Bob Wagner, a meteorologist at the closest National Weather Service office, in Slidell, La.

Officials in New Orleans are worried that Zeta will not skirt past the city like the other storms. “I don’t think we’re going to get around this one,” said Collin Arnold, the director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, noting consistent forecasts showing Zeta tracking directly toward southeastern Louisiana. “It hasn’t altered, it hasn’t faltered.”

Mr. Edwards declared a state of emergency as Zeta threatened to bring life-threatening storm surge along portions of the northern Gulf Coast by late Wednesday, when it is expected to make landfall in Louisiana.

Zeta hit the northern Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico on Monday and Tuesday before continuing north over the gulf and toward the United States. It was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane but had regained hurricane strength by early Wednesday morning.

Winds are expected to reach at least 74 miles per hour by the time the storm makes landfall. A hurricane warning remained in effect on Wednesday from Morgan City, La., to the Mississippi and Alabama border, including metropolitan New Orleans. Meteorologists predicted up to six inches of rain across these areas and to the north.

Along the Gulf Coast, veterans of hurricanes tend to take Category 1 storms in stride. There was also the added advantage that late-season storms, like Zeta, typically move a lot faster than an early-season storm that can stall for 10 to 12 hours, overwhelming areas with winds and rain.

Still, many in New Orleans acknowledge that some low-level hurricanes have been more damaging than predicted, and even the weakest hurricanes can cause hardship or at least discomfort, as the wind and rain knock out electricity and damage buildings.

Flooding is a constant concern for many places along the storm’s likely path. The eroding Gulf Coast could see flooding of several feet from storm surge. And in New Orleans, any significant rainfall is worrisome because of the city’s drainage system, a series of pumps that lift water out of the bowl-shaped city through power supplied partly by century-old turbines.

On Sunday, the city’s Sewerage and Water Board announced that Turbine 4, one of the system’s largest, “unexpectedly went offline.” Though all pumps can still run at full capacity at this point, another turbine malfunction likely means that low-lying areas of the city would be pumped out more slowly.

Louisiana’s bandwidth for disaster is already taxed by a tumultuous year: New Orleans was one of the early hot spots for the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with some medical experts saying Mardi Gras celebrations could have been a superspreading event. The state has also been pummeled by a hurricane season that has set records in terms of the number of storms and their severity.

Hurricane Laura, which hit the southwest corner of the state with 150-mile-per-hour winds, had been one of the most powerful storms on record to make landfall in Louisiana. And Zeta, once it hits, will be the fifth named storm to strike the state this year. The prior record of four was set in 2002, said Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University.

It is also the 27th named storm in an Atlantic cyclone season so busy that forecasters have run through the alphabet of names and are now working their way through Greek letters.

The devastation this year has been attributed in part to a changing climate, which has made hurricanes wetter and slower. But climate scientists said the series of storms in Louisiana could also be blamed on simple bad luck.

“It’s kind of like flipping a coin and getting heads five times in a row — it happens,” said James P. Kossin, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, adding that “it’s not that surprising” given the size of the Gulf and the randomness of weather factors.

In Plaquemines Parish, which lies directly on the Gulf of Mexico, southeast of New Orleans, Byron Encalade said he could not afford to be cavalier about hurricanes. “Any storm, I care about,” said Mr. Encalade, 66, who remembered riding out storms as a child in the parish courthouse.

These days, with the barrier islands gone, the storm surge is worse.

On Tuesday, fishermen in the Plaquemines marina tied up the big boats with stronger and doubled-up ropes, and they took the nets off shrimp boats that made them looked like winged creatures from a distance.

“Those nets in the air catch winds like a sail, could flip those boats,” Mr. Encalade said. “So if you live here, this is a drill and you have to go through the drill.”

Katy Reckdahl reported from New Orleans, Rick Rojas from Nashville, and Maria Cramer from New York. John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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