New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a Oct 28, 2020 press conference ahead of Hurricane Zeta. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

On Wednesday, New Orleans city officials held a press conference ahead of Hurricane Zeta — the latest in a long line of such gatherings to discuss preparations for a storm in the Gulf of Mexico during this year’s record-breaking hurricane season. Six times this season, the city found itself in the forecast cone over and over again, only to be spared as the storms later tracked away.

But with Zeta hours away from an expected southeast Louisiana landfall, it does not appear that the city will be so lucky this time. 

“We’ve been doing this all season, this is the seventh time,” said Colin Arnold, director of the city’s office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. “Despite six times where we were able to prepare for this and we were missed, this time we are prepared, and we will get impacts from this. … There are going to be impacts here, especially from wind. There’s going to power outages, there’s going to be downed trees, there’s going to be downed limbs.”

After weakening to a tropical storm Tuesday as it moved over the Yucatán Peninsula, Hurricane Zeta strengthened again into a Category 1 hurricane overnight and began to move quickly toward the Louisiana coast, taking aim almost directly at New Orleans. According to Arnold, the storm is now expected to make landfall as early as 2 p.m. on Wednesday, potential ramping up to a Category 2 hurricane with winds upwards of 100 mph.

“The forecast overnight and into this morning has, I’d say, ratcheted it up a notch,” Arnold said. “This afternoon we’re now looking at a 1 potentially 2 making landfall.”

Arnold and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned residents to be home, or wherever they plan to ride out the storm, by 2 p.m. Wednesday. The storm force winds are expected to escalate in the city between 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and then pass relatively quickly. 

“It’s coming fast, it’s coming strong, and hopefully out of our way, moving out [at] 9 p.m., 11 p.m. this evening,” Cantrell said. “This is not a drill.”

“It’s going to be quick, but it’s going to be brutal,” Arnold said. “You need to be, by 2 p.m. at the latest, where you’re going to be to ride this out for several hours.”

Tyrell Morris, the director of the Orleans Parish Communications District — which runs the city’s 911 call center — said that first responder vehicles including ambulances and fire trucks won’t be able to go out if winds are above 50 mph, but added that depending on the situation the city could get creative, for example by sending an SUV or smaller vehicle out to respond.

Sandra Diggs-Miller, Vice President of Entergy New Orleans, said that the utility was expecting power outages during the storm, and that it was preparing for a swift recovery. She similarly warned that bucket trucks won’t be able to go out for repairs until winds drop below 30 mph.

The city’s Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno reminded residents that COVID-19 remains a major concern. She warned that people need to social distance and wear masks within their homes if they’ve taken in neighbors or extended family to ride out the storm. 

“We do not want to survive a hurricane only to have a spike in a week or two,” Avegno said.

City Hall is closing at noon, and the Regional Transit Authority will stop operating at 1 p.m. The NOLA Public Schools district cancelled virtual learning for Wednesday afternoon to allow teachers and students’ families to prepare for the storm. 

The main risk factor from the storm appears to be wind, and officials asked residents to bring in or secure garbage cans, outdoor plants or anything that might blow away during the storm. However, rain is always a concern for the City of New Orleans. 

“Heavy rains continue to be an issue for us, but wind is the greatest threat as I understand it,” Cantrell said.

One of the top concerns is the city’s aging drainage system. 

On Monday, the city revealed that one of the Sewerage and Water Board’s primary power generators, Turbine 4, was out of commission and wouldn’t be restored in time for the storm. The pump system was already working with reduced energy capacity after Turbine 5 exploded in December. With the loss of the two turbines, the system is left with roughly half the power capacity it was working with a year ago, according to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

At a Tuesday press conference, Sewerage and Water Board General Superintendent Robert Turner said that there was enough power to work all the city’s pumps as long as nothing else went wrong. However, he said that if the Sewerage and Water Board loses another generator, they would not have enough power for all the pumps and would have to strategically route energy to pumps in specific areas of the city depending on where flooding was the worst. 

On Wednesday, Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban said that the utility will be relying more heavily on electricity coming from Entergy — rather than self-generated power — which comes through above ground poles that are more susceptible to damage and outages.

But officials seemed hopeful that Hurricane Zeta would not be as big of a rain event as previous storms. Their larger concern was power outages resulting from strong winds.

Hurricane Zeta will be the fifth named storm to land on Louisiana’s coast, the most ever recorded in a single season since hurricane record-keeping began in the mid-1800s, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

The Atlantic storm season has been so busy that the National Hurricane Center had to move to the Greek alphabet to name storms. This is only the second time a storm has been named Hurricane Zeta, the last one coming in 2005. 

While New Orleans has fared relatively well during the 2020 season, a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s press conference was the fatigue felt by many New Orleans residents after repeatedly preparing for potentially deadly storms. On Wednesday, officials stressed that this time was going to be different, and encouraged residents to take the threat seriously. 

“It’s laser focused on our area,” Arnold said.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...