God knows, we didn’t need any more records in 2020.
But Hurricane Zeta provided another. And the extensive damage to metropolitan New Orleans and the Gulf Coast underlined warnings that we can’t take anything for granted, either in hurricanes or in other public health emergencies.
With thousands of homes without power and the storm blamed for at least three deaths, Zeta — that we’re into the Greek alphabet shows how awful this year has been — took dead aim at New Orleans and had its own ideas about wind speed. It sped up to just a hair short of Category 3 right before landfall.
Zeta set the record as the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental United States in a single hurricane season, well beyond the nine in 1916. While it’s cooler and near November, there’s still a month left of hurricane season.
This year has shown many examples of social-distance fatigue. There was also evacuation fatigue: Many people were tired of the sixth or seventh warning — or mandate — from elected officials to leave home in advance of the storm. Had we known how much punch Zeta would carry, probably more would have evacuated.
Many people in exposed places like Grand Isle rode out the storm and got some pretty bad storm surge and wind-damage surprises as a result.
The debate over the impact of a changing climate and a warming Gulf of Mexico — our immediate problem, as warm water is a better breeding ground for storms — will be given new impetus because of these hurricane records set in 2020.
The good news is that we escaped without more deaths. At the request of Gov. John Bel Edwards, President Donald Trump promptly approved a pre-landfall emergency declaration. Utility companies were on the ball prepositioning crews to deal with outages, that are probably worse than we’d expected from Zeta even a few days before.
Another bit of good news is that the storm moved faster than some of our earlier and unwelcome visitors, minimizing flooding from heavy rainfall.
We should also be grateful that in the midst of one of the most controversial presidential elections in memory, Louisiana’s early voting with lines waiting outside those venues was not disrupted. The same cannot be said of some of the southeastern states affected by Zeta. Still, officials in metro New Orleans are going to have to hustle to ensure that the big Election Day on Tuesday goes off without much difficulty.
The world in 2020 has been a very different place in Louisiana, even if hurricanes are a normal hazard for us. Let’s pray Zeta was the end of the Greek alphabet this year.