LAKE CHARLES, La. — Zeta, the storm that formed in the Caribbean over the weekend, gained strength Monday to become a hurricane, which forecasters warn is likely to make landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast, where storm-beleaguered residents are fearful of yet another round of destruction.
Zeta, the 27th named storm of the 2020 season, intensified to a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph Monday and made landfall in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm made landfall just north of Tulum around 11 p.m. and was lashing the region with strong winds and heavy rain.
It is expected to break a record by becoming the 11th named storm to make landfall in the U.S. this season, with southeastern Louisiana potentially getting slammed around Wednesday afternoon, according to forecasters. Heavy rains, however, will already be felt in the central Gulf Coast on Tuesday night, spreading across eastern Mississippi and Alabama.
Zeta could revert to a tropical storm by the time it makes landfall in the U.S., said Joe Rua, a lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Lake Charles.
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"It's going to be a close call with remaining a Category 1," he said.
A hurricane watch was in effect Monday evening from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including Lake Pontchartrain and metropolitan New Orleans. New Orleans officials also called for a voluntary evacuation Monday of some vulnerable districts as sandbags were being assembled.
No matter the storm's strength, Gov. John Bel Edwards said, Louisiana, which is still recovering from hurricanes Laura and Delta, wouldn't take Zeta for granted. He issued a state of emergency Monday and prepared 1,150 members of the Louisiana National Guard to be activated.
"Good thing and the bad thing is we've had a lot of practice this year," Edwards told reporters.
Laura made landfall 1n Louisiana near the Texas border on Aug. 27 as a powerful Category 4 storm, with wind speeds of 150 mph and life-threatening storm surges. Six weeks later, Delta, a Category 2 storm, raked southwestern Louisiana again, marking the sixth time this season that Louisianans had to prepare for a hurricane. Hundreds of thousands of households across Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi were left without power.
Lake Charles, the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country, felt a double whammy of devastation from Laura and Delta. As residents were picking up the pieces from Laura, Delta dealt another blow.
While forecasters say Lake Charles and the rest of southwestern Louisiana are expected to dodge this latest storm, some residents rebuilding from the pair of hurricanes remain wary.
"Oh, Lord, we've been watching every day since I heard about it," said Hazel Logan, 44, who was getting free meals Monday from the United Way of Southwest Louisiana's hurricane relief center in Lake Charles.
"It's saying it's going more eastward, but they said that with the other storm," Logan said, adding: "I'm just taking it day by day. I can't lie and say I'm not concerned."
The roof of Logan's home on the outskirts of Lake Charles was damaged this hurricane season, but that didn't stop her from taking in other family members who had fared worse. The seafood business she operates was also battered — and that was on top of the financial hit she took as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, she's waiting on her insurance to help her rebuild.
"We have been neglected," she said.
Across Louisiana, tens of thousands of residences and other structures were partly ruined or destroyed by Laura, which primarily caused wind damage, and Delta, which brought intense flooding, said Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office. The agency's surveying is used to help communities obtain federal emergency funding,
About 95 percent of the 35,000 structures in Lake Charles were damaged, while about 6,000 of its 78,000 residents haven't returned since Delta, officials said. Many went to evacuation shelters and remain in hotels in surrounding cities with the assistance of state vouchers.
Blue tarps cover once-vibrant homes in Lake Charles' residential neighborhoods, and 10-foot piles of tree limbs and debris sit untouched as reminders of one of the worst hurricane seasons to strike Louisiana since 2005, when Katrina and Rita led to economic devastation and hundreds of deaths.
Since early September, the United Way of Southwest Louisiana's relief center in Lake Charles has been operating a drive-thru service to pick up food, water, cleaning supplies and baby products donated from around the world.
The nonprofit has been serving upward of 2,000 meals a day, President and CEO Denise Durel said. While evacuation orders temporarily halted its operations, Durel said, it is ready for whatever Zeta may bring — and whatever the people of the region may need.
"I don't wish Zeta on anyone, on any community," Durel said, "but we're definitely just praying every day it spares us.
"I can't even imagine what the longevity of the damage will be if we get hit again," she said.
Daniella Silva reported from Lake Charles and Erik Ortiz from New York.