Zeta barrels across Southeast after battering weary coast

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zeta sped across the Southeast on Thursday, leaving a trail of damage and more than 2.6 million homes and businesses without power in Atlanta and beyond after pounding New Orleans with winds and water that splintered homes and were blamed for at least three deaths.

A Category 2 hurricane when it hit the southeastern Louisiana coast Wednesday, Zeta was still a tropical storm late Thursday morning with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) about 100 miles (155 kilometers) northeast of Asheville, North Carolina — unusual even in a region accustomed to hurricanes and their aftermath.

Hundreds of schools canceled classes or planned to open late across from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas, and widespread power outages occurred across seven states from Louisiana to the south Atlantic seaboard. Some places could be in the dark for days.

The latest punch from a record hurricane season left people shaken. Will Arute said it sounded like a bomb went off when part of a large oak snapped outside his home in New Orleans, and part of the tree crashed into his car and a corner of his home.

“I did not anticipate this to happen. It was pretty intense along the eye wall when it went through here,” he said.

Mackenzie Umanzor did not prepare much because the last hurricane to threaten her home a few weeks ago in D’Iberville, Mississippi, did little damage. Zeta blew open doors that she had tried to barricade, leaving her with a cut hand, and the top of her shed came loose.

“You could hear the tin roof waving in the wind. … It was just rattling. And there was a couple of snaps, lots of cracks of branches and trees falling,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”

Officials said life-threatening conditions would last into the day, with Zeta crossing the mid-Atlantic states as a tropical storm before moving offshore around Delaware and southern New Jersey.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the most severe destruction — what he described as “catastrophic damage” — appears to be on the barrier island of Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, where Zeta punched three breaches in the levee on the island, the only levee failures from the storm in the state. The extent of the damage remains unclear because the only highway onto the island was blocked with debris.

Edwards says he ordered the Louisiana National Guard to fly in soldiers to assist with search and rescue efforts, including door-to-door checks on property.

The governor also urged people to be cautious during the recovery.

“Oddly enough, it isn’t the storms that typically produce the most injuries and the fatalities. It’s the cleanup efforts. It’s the use of generators. It’s the carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s the electrocution that comes from power lines. So, now is the time to be very, very cautious out there,” Edwards said Thursday.

Leslie Richardson, 58, drowned when he was trapped in rising seawater in Biloxi, Mississippi, after taking video of the raging storm, Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer said. Richardson and another man exited a floating car and desperately clung to a tree before his strength “just gave out,” Switzer said. About 25 miles (40 kilometers) west in Long Beach, a large boat was washed up on the beachfront highway.

A 55-year-old man was electrocuted by a downed power line in New Orleans, a Louisiana coroner said. In Georgia, authorities said a man was killed when high winds caused a tree to fall onto a mobile home in Cherokee County.

Morning rush hour happened despite major power failures in Atlanta, but commuters had to dodge downed trees and navigate their way past signals with no power. Trees blocked lanes on two interstates, the Georgia Department of Transportation said.

Northwest of Atlanta in Marietta, many stoplights were out and police directed traffic at a busy intersection. One residential street was covered by mix of campaign signs, amber and gold leaves, and limbs tossed by the storm. A few streets away, Billy Murdock was out picking up branches in his yard.

“It’s the worst storm I’ve been through in Atlanta,” he said.

The storm raged onshore Wednesday afternoon in the small village of Cocodrie, Louisiana, as a strong Category 2 and then moved swiftly across the New Orleans area. The morning after in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the wind was blowing lightly as a few people walked to work and some residents swept leaves in front of their houses.

Waveland Mayor Mike Smith told WLOX-TV that his Mississippi Gulf Coast city, which was part of the area most heavily damaged by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, had taken what might be the worst hit since then from Zeta.

Among the many trees blown down was one that fell on Smith’s own house. “It was my next-door neighbor’s and he wanted to give it to me, apparently,” Smith said.

Damage from Hurricane Zeta extended far inland. More than 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of the coast, Mayor Sheldon Day of Thomasville, Alabama, said hundreds of fallen trees blocked roads and crashed into houses, with canopies at some gas stations blown over.

“At one point, every major thoroughfare was blocked by trees,” Day said.

Zeta was the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season with more than a month left to go. It set a new record as the 11th named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. in a single season, well beyond the nine storms that hit in 1916.

The extraordinarily busy season has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms. And forecasters said disturbed air off the northern coast of South America could become a tropical depression headed toward Nicaragua by early next week

Zeta gained strength over the Gulf of Mexico along a path slightly to the east of those of Hurricane Laura, which was blamed for at least 27 deaths in Louisiana in August, and Hurricane Delta, which exacerbated Laura’s damage in the same area weeks later.

The deteriorating weather prompted early voting sites to close for hours in the western Florida Panhandle.

Thursday was the last day to request an absentee ballot or vote by absentee in person in Alabama, and power was out in areas including heavily populated Mobile on the coast. Mobile County tweeted that the absentee voting office still would be open and voters, some holding umbrellas, waited outside the county courthouse in Birmingham to cast ballots.

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Plaisance reported from Laffite, Louisiana. Associated Press contributors include Gerald Herbert in New Orleans; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland; Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia; Sophia Tulp, Desiree Mathurin and Jeff Amy in Atlanta.