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Hurricane Zeta Storms Ashore In Southeastern Louisiana

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hurricane Zeta made landfall late today in southeastern Louisiana. The strong Category 2 storm blew ashore with sustained winds of 110 miles per hour and a significant storm surge. It's the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana this year. We're joined now by Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in New Orleans, where conditions are getting worse.

And Tegan, just to start, how are things looking where you are?

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Super strong winds right now. There's tree branches smashing outside on a sparking power line in front of my house. My roommate and I stocked up on ice and food. You know, we're prepared for widespread power outages, but it feels pretty scary. I drove around a few hours ago, and people were boarding up their windows. It's just a very tense atmosphere at the moment. And at the same time, there's still more than 3,000 people sheltering in hotels around the state who've been left homeless after the last few storms.

CORNISH: This storm has confused meteorologists. Just a day or two ago, they thought it would be a strong tropical storm or maybe a weak hurricane. Then it came ashore. It's almost a Category 3. What's going on here?

WENDLAND: You know, it's part of the science of hurricanes that's just very difficult to predict. Forecasters and the computer models they rely on have gotten much better at predicting the eventual path of the storm. Getting the intensity right is a lot more difficult. So basically, it was a fast-moving storm already at around 20 miles per hour, but it gained steam really fast as it moved over warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. So just yesterday, forecasters were saying this would be a Cat 1, maybe a 2, and they didn't call an evacuation here in New Orleans as a result. But it sped up really fast. And meteorologist Dan Holiday says it surprised everyone.

DAN HOLIDAY: Forty-eight hours ago, it didn't look at all like it was going to be this strong. But all it takes is just a couple of variations in what happens at sea, and it makes a huge difference.

CORNISH: This is like some other storms this year that strengthened just before landfall. Is that atypical behavior for hurricanes?

WENDLAND: Well, there's been a number of hurricanes this year that have kept getting stronger as they get closer to land. So normally, they get weaker for a couple of reasons. Water temperatures are generally a little cooler, and hurricanes are fueled by warm water. And then the friction of land slows down the winds as storms approach. But we've seen several hurricanes this year - Laura, for one, which underwent rapid intensification and hit Louisiana in August as a Category 4 storm. Its wind speeds nearly doubled as it approached the coast.

And of course, climate change is one factor. As we've reported previously, a study last year found that storms are more likely to become major hurricanes very quickly. Before Laura, the last two major hurricanes to affect the Gulf Coast - Harvey in 2017 and then Michael in 2018 - both intensified really rapidly before they made landfall.

CORNISH: What's next? Where is this storm headed?

WENDLAND: So as we said, this is a really fast-moving storm - about 24 miles an hour with winds of at least 110 miles an hour. And because it's moving so fast, there are actually tropical storm warnings well inland, so including Birmingham, Ala., and even up into north Georgia. So by midday tomorrow, the center of the storm is expected to be over Virginia, and it'll enter the Atlantic Ocean. And it's still expected to be a tropical storm when it does. So inland flooding is going to be an issue, especially in areas that just aren't used to getting this much rainfall, because it's going to be really windy. So we should expect power outages and even some tornadoes. Basically, this storm's really going to leave a mess in its wake.

CORNISH: That's Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in New Orleans.

Thank you.

WENDLAND: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.