Hurricane Zeta is the latest storm in a busy season for the Gulf Coast.
Hurricane Zeta, a powerful storm that gained Category 2 strength Wednesday, was closing in on southeastern Louisiana where it was expected to bring heavy rains and damaging winds to a state that has been repeatedly clobbered by hurricanes this season.
Should the forecast hold, Zeta will be the fifth named storm to strike the state this year with about a month left in the hurricane season. The prior record of four was set in 2002, said Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University.
By Wednesday afternoon, Zeta was 155 miles south southwest of New Orleans and was forecast to bring life-threatening storm surge and strong winds to southeastern Louisiana by midday. The storm was moving at 18 miles per hour with maximum sustained winds of 100 miles per hour. Some additional strengthening was forecast.
A hurricane warning was in effect Wednesday morning for a stretch of coast from Morgan City, La., to the Mississippi-Alabama border and the metropolitan New Orleans area.
The storm was expected to make landfall in southeastern Louisiana later Wednesday and then move across the Southeastern and Eastern United States on Thursday, dumping up to six inches of rain in some locations.
Residents of New Orleans received a text message from the city Wednesday morning warning that Zeta was likely to remain a Category 2 hurricane at landfall — and urging them to finish storm preparations and be sheltered indoors by 2 p.m.
LaToya Cantrell, the mayor, warned via Twitter that the storm could also bring tornadoes.
“We’re very concerned about the storm surge and flooding along the coast of southeast Louisiana and Alabama,” said Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “The winds on the east side of the storm are going to be pushing the ocean water on to the coastline. We could see water levels as high at nine feet.”
The remaining time for residents to prepare was dwindling, he said. “We need residents, if they haven’t evacuated and were told to do so, they need to finish those evacuations up,” Mr. Berg said. “If they’re staying home, they need to be preparing their house for potentially strong and damaging winds. We think this is going to be a pretty gusty storm.”
Zeta, which hit the northern Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico on Monday and Tuesday, is the 11th hurricane and 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 northern Gulf Coast region has been fatigued by repeated storms — Cristobal in June, Laura and Marco in August, Sally and Beta in September, and Delta this month. Yet before they made landfall, the storms swerved to the east or west, scraping New Orleans with just a glancing blow.
Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana had declared a state of emergency and said Tuesday night that President Trump had approved the state’s request for a Federal Emergency Declaration. “Though we don’t know exactly what #Zeta will bring, we know this will be a big help in the recovery process for those communities that will feel” the storm’s impact, he said.
While some residents sprang into action, preparing their property and bracing for whatever the storm may bring, others didn’t appear distressed.
“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 of New Orleans. 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.”
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.
Zeta could mean trouble for birds, too.
Because Louisiana sits at a crucial junction within the Mississippi Flyway, which stretches from the Arctic to South America, late-season hurricanes can delay or cause detours for birds heading to warmer climes.
In other words, Zeta may be bad news for wildlife.
As the hurricane blows through the Gulf of Mexico, it could slam into flocks of small warblers, vireos and indigo buntings, all of which are poised to cross the water at this time of year, said Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation with Audubon Louisiana.
“A storm could be devastating for a migratory songbird that fuels up just enough to make it across the Gulf,” Mr. Johnson said, noting that some flocks might also delay takeoff by a few more days in places like Louisiana’s Barataria Preserve, where migratory birds stop to eat hackberries and seeds before they take off for South America.
There are other wildlife concerns, too. In some national park wildlife areas, storm surge waters can temporarily push alligators closer to pathways and buildings. “Once the alligators go back home, we open back up,” noted Dave Barak, a National Park Service park ranger.
The storm hit Mexico earlier this week.
Zeta brought torrential rains when it slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico on Monday night. It was a Category 1 hurricane at the time, and downgraded to a tropical storm on Tuesday morning.
The storm had caused some power outages in at least two Mexican states and pushed sand onto roadways. The storm’s surf were so great that destroyed turtle eggs were found on Playa Ballenas.
Climate change is making hurricanes wetter.
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.
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.
And in New Orleans, there is concern that low-level hurricanes can be more damaging than predicted. Even the weakest hurricanes can cause hardship or at least discomfort, as the wind and rain knock out electricity and damage buildings.
Any significant rainfall in the city 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,” prompting concerns that water in low-lying areas of the city would be pumped out more slowly.
Reporting was contributed by Maria Cramer, Christina Morales, Katy Reckdahl, Rick Rojas, John Schwartz and Derrick Bryson Taylor.