Hurricane Zeta Knocks Out the South, Causing Pre-Election Panic

Pilar Melendez
·6 min read
Kathleen Flynn/Reuters
Kathleen Flynn/Reuters

At least six people have died and at least 2 million are without power after Hurricane Zeta barreled through the South on Thursday evening, knocking out some early voting sites and sending state officials scrambling to pick up the pieces in time for Election Day.

Zeta moved quickly after making landfall on the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 storm on Wednesday afternoon. It hit at least seven states, some of which were still recovering from earlier storms, and weakened to a post-tropical cyclone with “strong, damaging wind gusts” upwards of 50 mph by the following afternoon, according to the National Hurricane Center. In its wake it left downed trees, flooded streets, and power outages.

By Thursday evening, officials stated Zeta had moved out over the Atlantic ocean, marking the end of the 27th storm during this year’s hurricane season set to end in one month.

“Damage was extensive in some places. New Orleans sustained a direct hit from Zeta,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell tweeted Friday morning. “Now it takes Teamwork.”

Among the six killed were three people in Georgia who died after trees fell on their homes. A similar tragedy happened to one person in Alabama, while a man in Mississippi drowned in a Marina after videotaping the storm. In New Orleans, a 55-year-old was electrocuted by low power lines.

Cantrell begged people to leave it up to public safety officials to manage the damage. “We do not want to lose another life. It is unnecessary,” she said.

State officials across the South were scrambling to assess the damage and restore power to more than 2 million homes and voting sites before Election Day.

As of Friday morning, about 326,531 customers in Louisiana were still without electricity, according to Entergy Louisiana. In New Orleans, which was hit directly by the storm’s eye and 110 mph winds, officials estimated that 80 percent of residents were without power and might not see relief for at least three days.

“That eyewall came through here last night. It came in bright as day,” Paul Noble, a retired East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy, told The Advocate. “It was rocking. It was sliding stuff off the stove.”

Another resident told the outlet that during Hurricane Katrina, a benchmark for storms in the area, utility poles “laid down” amidst the massive flooding. “Here, they snapped,” Travis Latapie, a local shrimper, said.

And the outage numbers surged in other affected states—more than 500,000 people in Georgia, 400,000 in Alabama, 360,000 across the Carolinas, 55,000 in Virginia, and about 180,000 in Mississippi were still without power Friday.

But despite the mass outrages, state officials are still determined to have the lights on for Election Day. During a press briefing Thursday night, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards stressed that local voting officials and electricity companies are working diligently to determine if power will be restored to precincts by Tuesday—and are creating alternative sites in case.

“If you haven't voted early and you were planning on voting on Election Day, we need you paying attention and we'll get you that information as soon as we can," Edwards said Thursday night.

In Georgia, several advanced voting locations were knocked offline on Thursday, calling into question how the final two days of early voting will pan out for the state. According to The New York Times, 15 counties opened polling sites late because of the storm, while others relied on generators.

In Douglas County, all six early voting locations lost power, while four in Cobb County were closed—creating wait times of upwards of 90 minutes on Thursday. As of Wednesday, more than 2.3 million Georgians had voted in-person and more than 1.1 million absentee ballots had been returned, officials said.

“The Elections and Voter Registration Department of Douglas County is feverishly working to reopen them,” Douglas County spokesman Rick Martin said Thursday, stressing that officials had to ensure election workers could safely reach reopened sites.

Politico also reported that officials in three countries in Florida’s Panhandle limited early voting hours this week in anticipation of the storm. Those counties—Escambia, Okaloosa, and Santa Rosa—are Republican strongholds.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>St Bernard Middle School in Louisiana was ravaged by Hurricane Zeta.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Sandy Huffaker/Getty</div>

St Bernard Middle School in Louisiana was ravaged by Hurricane Zeta.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty

“It’s an abundance of caution for us,” Okaloosa Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux told Politico. “Hurricane Sally just in September weakened a bunch of trees and power lines, so we need to be careful, but I do think we will get back up and running quickly.”

But despite the setbacks, locals are also determined to ensure a successful Election Day. In Statesville, a North Carolina city about an hour outside of Charlotte, one mail carrier barely escaped injury after a tree smashed his truck.

“One last bit about Mailman John—one of the first things he and his supervisor did after this happened was secure and protect the mail in his truck. Because there were ballots inside, and democracy is really, really important,” resident James Hogan said in a Twitter post, adding that the mailman was leaning out of his truck delivering mail when the tree fell.

Earlier this week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency, and upwards of 3,300 evacuees in Louisiana were put in hotels and shelters.

The storm has also posed a problem for emergency responders trying to reach Grand Isle, a remote Louisiana barrier island whose levees were breached by Zeta in three places. It’s believed to be one of the hardest hit areas of the storm.

A spokesperson for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told The Daily Beast the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is now on the island of 1,400 residents to assess the damage along with the Army Corps of Engineers. Some were forced to helicopter in.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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