NEW ORLEANS (NewsNation Now) — Zeta sped across the Southeast on Thursday, leaving a trail of damage and more than 2.6 million homes and businesses in the dark in Atlanta and beyond after pounding New Orleans with winds and water that splintered homes and were blamed for at least three deaths.
A Category 2 hurricane when it hit the southeastern Louisiana coast Wednesday, the storm was still a tropical storm Thursday morning with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph about 50 miles west of Asheville, North Carolina — unusual even in a region accustomed to hurricanes and their aftermath.
Zeta had top sustained winds of 110 mph as a Category 2 hurricane at landfall and is the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season — with over a month left to go. It set a new record as the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. in a single season, well beyond the nine storms that hit in 1916.
As much as 5 feet of Gulf water surrounded a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, and deputies in Harrison County, Mississippi, received multiple calls from people who had remained in mobile homes that were threatened by winds.
The storm killed at least one person in Louisiana, a 55-year-old man who a coroner said was electrocuted by a downed power line in New Orleans. In Georgia, authorities said a man was killed when high winds caused a tree to fall onto a mobile home in Cherokee County.
Leslie Richardson, 58, drowned when he was trapped in rising seawater in Biloxi, Mississippi, after taking video of the raging storm, Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer said. Richardson and another man exited a floating car and desperately clung to a tree before his strength “just gave out,” Switzer said.
Power outages were reported across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, according to the website PowerOutage.us. Georgia had the most outages before dawn with more than 1 million customers in the dark.
Hundreds of schools canceled classes or planned to open late across from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas.
The latest punch from a record hurricane season left people shaken. Will Arute said it sounded like a bomb went off when part of a large oak snapped outside his home in New Orleans, and part of the tree crashed into his car and a corner of his home.
“I did not anticipate this to happen. It was pretty intense along the eye wall when it went through here,” he said.
Mackenzie Umanzor did not prepare much because the last hurricane to threaten her home a few weeks ago in D’Iberville, Mississippi, did not do much. Zeta blew open doors that she had tried to barricade, leaving her with a cut hand, and the top of her shed came loose.
“You could hear the tin roof waving in the wind and the stronger the wind got. It was just rattling. And there was a couple of snaps, lots of cracks of branches and trees falling,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”
Officials said life-threatening conditions would last into the day, with Zeta crossing the mid-Atlantic states as a tropical storm before moving offshore around Delaware and southern New Jersey.
Morning rush hour happened as usual in Atlanta, but commuters had to dodge downed trees and navigate their way past signals with no power. Trees blocked Interstate 985 near Buford in the far northeastern suburbs, as well as some lane of Interstate 20 near downtown, the Georgia Department of Transportation said.
The storm raged onshore Wednesday afternoon in the small village of Cocodrie in Louisiana as a strong Category 2 and then moved swiftly across the New Orleans area and into neighboring Mississippi, bringing with it both fierce winds and storm surge. There was heavy rain at times but since the storm was so fast-moving, rain related flooding wasn’t as much of a concern.
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards was expected Thursday to tour the coastal regions hardest hit by the storm. And as neighbors and church groups started reaching out to help those affected, he also highlighted the need to protect against the coronavirus at the same time.
“Offer the help but do it with a mask on,” he said.
Zeta left much of New Orleans and the surrounding area was without power as 200 falling trees and more limbs pulled down utility lines. Signs outside bars and restaurants swayed back and forth in the wind and palm trees along Canal Street whipped furiously as the storm passed.
Along coastal Louisiana, there were reports of some trailers flipped over, a gas station destroyed, and downed power lines and trees.
On Tuesday, Zeta raked across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, toppling trees and briefly cutting power to more than 300,000 people but causing no deaths.
It then regained strength over the Gulf of Mexico along a path slightly to the east of those of Hurricane Laura, which was blamed for at least 27 deaths in Louisiana in August, and Hurricane Delta, which exacerbated Laura’s damage in the same area weeks later.
An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms. This extraordinarily busy season has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.
This story will be updated throughout the day with the latest updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.