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The eye of Hurricane Zeta passes over New Orleans while power in the French Quarter is out Saturday, Oct. 28, 2020.

The morning after Hurricane Zeta whisked through the state, Baton Rouge was greeted with fall football weather. An evening of ominous clouds and blustery drizzles was replaced with clear blue skies and autumnal temperatures.

Meteorologists say that sharp change from a tropical weather event to crisp 50s and 60s may help explain why the Baton Rouge area wasn't hit with the fierce wind impacts that were feared as Zeta approached — winds that slammed parts of the state just to the east.

Mike Efferson, a meteorologist with the regional National Weather Service office in Slidell, said the western sides of hurricanes often have a sharp drop in winds, known as a "gradient," the farther one gets from the eye.

But the cold front coming right behind Zeta contained the winds even more than normal, Efferson said.

"It didn't allow the storm itself to have a more gradual decrease in winds, so that kind of combo, I think, caused you to have a sharper (wind) gradient than you typically would," he said. 

East Baton Rouge Parish had just two trees down on roads and scattered power outages, city-parish officials said. Reports from other parishes east of East Baton Rouge offered no significant damage either.

AT&T Mobility customers in eastern Ascension Parish did lose 911 service for a time after a fiber was cut during the storm. Calls were being routed to a landline until late Thursday afternoon when the problem was fixed, AT&T said.

Trees blocked a handful of roads, such as Swamp Road in Ascension, and fell on a few homes. But no injuries have been reported, officials said. 

Livingston Parish public schools started an hour late Thursday to assess damages, but Brandi Janes, acting director of the parish's homeland security office, said none were reported. She said there were only scattered power outages.

"The winds weren't as bad as we thought they were going to be for us, and it went through so fast, there was no time for it to do any damage," Janes said.  

Tangipahoa and St. James parishes were on the edge of Zeta's worst impacts and had been projected to have sustained winds in the 40 to 50 mph range and even 60 mph in some spots. But readings generally only found gusts of around 30 to 40 mph.

Just one parish over to the east, however, the winds were far more severe.

Wind gusts in St. James Parish were in the 30s, with the exception of Gramercy, which had a gust of 48 mph. Just 13 miles east of Gramercy, in LaPlace, however, a wind gust of 100 mph was recorded, the National Weather Service said. 

Power outage maps Thursday morning hinted at this rough demarcation in wind strength and the resulting damage: a few hundred to a few thousand customers were without power in Tangipahoa and St. James, while thousands to tens of thousands were without power in the eastern parishes just next door — with even more closer to Orleans Parish.

Meteorologists often say storm intensity is the hardest part of a hurricane to predict. Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller said that, while forecasters "nailed" the track for Zeta, the winds weren't as bad as predicted.

"The wind field was much tighter than they thought it would be," he said. 

David Freese, spokesman for Entergy Corp., noted that forecasters' cone of uncertainty narrowed significantly in the days leading up to the storm's landfall Wednesday in Cocodrie,. The subsequent damage to Entergy's system has clearly followed the eye wall's boomerang-shaped track across southeast Louisiana, he said.

The damage suggests the strongest winds stayed to the northeast side of Zeta, as is often the case.

Freese said 2020 has been "without question a historic hurricane season," but Entergy will keep working until electricity is fully restored for the nearly 400,000 customers without power Thursday, primarily in the New Orleans area.

"We're all looking forward to putting this hurricane season behind us, without question," Freese said.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.