Hurricane Zeta Expected to Hit Gulf Coast by Wednesday

Tropical Storm Zeta moves away from the Yucatán Peninsula and over the Gulf of Mexico.
Gif: CIRES/NOAA

By Tuesday afternoon, we should have Hurricane Zeta, the twelfth hurricane of the 2020 season. The storm is expected to reach Louisiana by Wednesday and batter a state that’s spent much too much time in the bullseye this year.

Zeta is currently a tropical storm swirling away from the Yucatán Peninsula, a region that’s also dealt with its fair share of tropical cyclone hazards this year. The storm is slowly moving northward away from the coast and into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it is expected to strengthen from a strong tropical storm into a full-fledged hurricane.

From there, it will move toward the Gulf Coast and make landfall, likely somewhere on the eastern half of Louisiana’s coastline. This is both good and bad news. The “good” side is that the storm is likely to be nowhere near as strong as recent landfalling hurricanes that have hit the state, including record-setting Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta. It will also likely bring marginal impacts to the western part of Louisiana, where both those storms made landfall.

The bad part is, uh, a hurricane is going to make landfall. Zeta is forecast to bring heavy rain and storm surge to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on Wednesday evening. Up to eight feet (2.4 meters) of storm surge could hit a 90-mile (145-kilometer) stretch along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Heavy rains could cause flash floods across the three states, and wind gusts will be a huge issue not just on the coast but overnight on Wednesday as the storm moves inland.

The storm will also come in quick succession after a major ice storm rolls through Texas and Oklahoma, which could stretch resources like utility repair crews normally dispatched across state lines to respond to disasters. Oh, and California is still on fire, stretching resources thinner still. (Honestly, writing about the weather and staring at satellite images this year has felt like Groundhog Day.)

Zeta could also disrupt early voting. Though Louisiana’s early voting period wraps up today, the storm is expected to cut a swath through portions of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The first two are crucial swing states that allow early voting through Friday and Saturday respectively. They’re also locations where Republicans have sought to depress voter turnout. While Zeta will be a tropical depression by the time it reaches those states, research has shown rain can dampen voter turnout. Whatever rain Zeta brings will also be falling on waterlogged soil in those and other states in its path, which could lead to more flooding. In an election that will feature Republicans planning an all-out press to not count all the ballots cast, those margins matter.

These impacts reflect the growing brittleness and inadequacy of the systems we rely on in the face of climate change. They’re reminiscent of what essayist Mary Heglar has called “crisis conglomeration.”

The conglomeration that is hurricane season isn’t over yet either. We’re one storm away from tying the record for busiest season on record, an ignominious distinction held by the 2005 hurricane season. With more than a month to go and conditions favorable to tropical cyclone formation, there’s still more than enough time to tie and even beat that record.

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