October 28, 2020 10:15 AM, EDT

Zeta on Course to Hit New Orleans as Category 2 Hurricane

Damage is seen in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, on Oct. 27, after Hurricane Zeta passed through.Damage is seen in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, on Oct. 27, after Hurricane Zeta passed through. (Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images)

[Ensure you have all the info you need in these unprecedented times. Subscribe now.]

Hurricane Zeta is strengthening as it spins across the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to slam into New Orleans in the evening Oct. 28 as a Category 2 storm capable of uprooting trees and causing massive power outages.

The storm’s maximum sustained winds are likely to increase to 100 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory. It is expected to come ashore about 7 p.m. local time, the record 11th storm to hit the U.S. in 2020. Zeta is expected to cause as much as $3 billion in damages.

“It will continue to strengthen today,” said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar. “We have pretty high confidence it is going to make landfall in far, far southeastern Louisiana.”

Zeta is expected to strike Louisiana as a Category 2 hurricane around 7 p.m. local time Oct. 28.

Zeta comes 15 years after New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. It’s on pace to make landfall in the vast wetlands stretching south of the city and isn’t expected to be anywhere near as devastating as the 2005 storm. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell have declared emergencies. Hurricane warnings extend from Morgan City, La., to the Mississippi-Alabama border.

After it makes landfall, Zeta is forecast to continue north where it may join a winter storm over the Great Plains and dump flooding rains across the eastern U.S. through the rest of the week.

Zeta is expected make landfall between the sites where hurricanes Delta and Laura came in, to the west, and Hurricane Sally struck in the east. The larger storms all missed the region, but it was struck by Tropical Storm Cristobal in June. The multiple strikes have left residual damage throughout the Gulf Coast.

“Any vulnerable structures — specifically roofs or infrastructure that were lightly damaged from the past two storms and not repaired — will be at risk,” said Lou Gritzo vice president and manager of research with commercial insurer FM Global. “Hurricane Sally was less than six weeks ago, so it’s not likely that the damage has been fully repaired.”

RELATED: Hurricane Warning for New Orleans as Zeta Swirls Over Mexico

Zeta is the 27th named storm in a supercharged Atlantic hurricane season, just one short of the record reached in 2005. So many storms have formed this year that the hurricane center has run out of official names and is using Greek letters to designate systems.

Chevron Corp., BP, Enbridge Inc., Equinor ASA and other companies are evacuating workers from Gulf installations. Noble Corp. moved its Globetrotter II rig out of the way. More than 49% of oil production and 55% of offshore natural gas has been shut in, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Close to 24% of platforms have been evacuated and 30% of rigs, the agency said. Chevron also has begun preparations to shut a coastal Mississippi oil refinery, according to a person familiar with the operations, and a key seaport that serves deepwater oil installations is under a mandatory evacuation order.

Zeta’s track is shifting to the east and it’s continuing to strengthen, so it may cause as much as $3 billion in damages and losses as it makes landfall later Oct. 28, up from earlier estimates in the $1 billion range, said Chuck Watson, a damage modeler at Enki Research. Its stronger winds bring more dynamic pressure on everything it hits, and there simply are more targets in the way the closer to New Orleans it gets.

Storm surge, a pulse of water the hurricane pushes into the coast line, could get to 9 feet high in areas between the Pearl River in Louisiana to Dauphin Island, Ala., the hurricane center said.

A view of where Hurricane Zeta will bring rain in the U.S.

As Zeta comes ashore and moves across Mississippi, Alabama, and northern Georgia, it will interact with a winter storm that’s brought snow to Texas and now is moving east, Keeney said. The moisture from Zeta will enhance that storm, bringing heavy rains throughout the Midwest and eastern U.S.

Vast stretches of the eastern U.S. will be hit with heavy rain, and the U.S. Weather Prediction Center warned that as much as 5 to 7 inches may fall over the next few days. The confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, southern Appalachian Mountains and southern Mississippi may be hit hardest.

The U.S. has been particularly hard hit this year, with hurricanes Isaias, Laura, Hanna, Sally and Delta hammering the coastline and causing billions of dollars in damage. A handful of tropical storms have struck the U.S. as well. If Zeta makes landfall in Louisiana, it will be the fifth time the state has been hit this season.

Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing: