Zeta’s toll on a Louisiana island: ‘Like a bomb was dropped’

Mark Andollina remembers stinging rain and a howling wind that peeled the roof off part of his Cajun Tide Beach Resort on Grand Isle, the Louisiana barrier island town where residents were among the first to feel the ferocity of Hurricane Zeta.

Andollina was salvaging what he could Friday morning, picking up pieces of reusable scrap wood, while mulling what it will take to repair and reopen. He said residents there believe Zeta spawned at least one tornado. “I guess that’s what did it,” he said. “Because we got the most damage on the island right here, basically in the middle of the island.”

RELATED: Zeta leaves millions without power; 6 dead

“The middle of the island looks like a bomb was dropped,” said Dodie Vegas, who with her husband owns Bridge Side Marina on the west side of the island.

Part-time town resident Jimmy Ellis, a New Orleans area physician, said his raised camp survived, but he spent Friday morning retrieving fishing equipment and pieces of an LSU mural that washed away when water swept beneath it.

Zeta came ashore on the southeast Louisiana coast, near Cocodrie, on Wednesday evening with 110 mph (177 kph) winds, just shy of Category 3 strength. It hit hard on Grand Isle, a popular waterside getaway and recreational fishing destination. With a population of about 1,500, the seaside landscape is dominated by rustic fishing camps and vacation homes on pilings high above the flood-prone ground.

Zeta lifted away roofs, snapped telephone polls and washed away parts of a levee designed to protect the narrow island from storm surge.

Andollina rode it out, despite an evacuation having been ordered a day before, when the storm was expected to be a relatively weak, Category 1 hurricane. Zeta’s speed and intensity caught many on the coast off guard.

“That thing just souped up and kicked all of our butts, especially the levee,” said Lan Tivet, a member of the Grand Isle town council. She had been away from the island on family business as the storm approached and was getting reports from town officials as she made her way back Friday.

Zeta’s remnants moved off the northeastern U.S. coast Thursday night. But its effects were evident Friday through a swath of the Southeast. From south Louisiana to Virginia an estimated 1.3 million homes and businesses remained without power as of midday. Restoration, for many, was expected to take days.

Six deaths have been blamed on the storm. A man was electrocuted by a downed live wire in New Orleans. Four people died in Alabama and Georgia when trees fell on homes, authorities said, including two people who were pinned to their bed. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a man drowned when he was trapped in rising seawater.

Dodie Vegas, who with her husband owns Bridge Side Marina on Grand Isle, said damage was minimal at their waterside complex of cabins, campgrounds and docking facilities, but the rest of the island wasn’t so lucky.

“As far as you can see, going down the island, the power lines are cracked in half,” she said by phone Thursday after riding out the storm with family. She described torn-off roofs and scattered debris: “The middle of the island looks like a bomb was dropped.”

A man was electrocuted in New Orleans, and four people died in Alabama and Georgia when trees fell on homes, authorities said, including two people who were pinned to their bed. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a man drowned when he was trapped in rising seawater.

Officials repeatedly stressed that the risks were not over — pointing out that fatalities often come after a storm has passed, from things like breathing toxic generator fumes or being electrocuted by downed power lines.

Property damage after Hurricane Zeta on, Oct. 29, 2020 in Chalmette, Louisiana. A record seven hurricanes have hit the gulf coast in 2020, bringing prolonged destruction to the area. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Zeta was the 27th named storm of a historically busy year, with more than a month left in the Atlantic hurricane season. 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 that hit in 1916. And the coronavirus pandemic has only made things more difficult for evacuees.

“Our heart breaks because this has been a tough, tough year,” said Gov. Edwards, whose state has taken the brunt of the hurricanes.

Every storm is different, and with Zeta the biggest threat was its winds. The hurricane intensified quickly and was just shy of a major, Category 3 storm when it hit the Louisiana coast.

RELATED: Hurricane Zeta surges inland, causing flooding, power outages along Gulf Coast

The howling gale toppled trees and knocked limbs off stately oaks in New Orleans, and in Mississippi the storm surge whipped up by the winds tossed a shrimping boat into a front yard.

Mayor Sheldon Day of Thomasville, Alabama, said hundreds of trees fell in roads and on homes, while some gas station canopies blew over.

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

Many people were still assessing the damage.

Keith Forrest of Bridge City, Louisiana, was launching a boat with his nephew in Lafitte, Louisiana, on Thursday to try to get to his fishing camp.

“I got a phone call because the roof blew off one camp,” Forrest said.

With just a few days until the Nov. 3 election, there were concerns about whether the storm would impact voters’ ability to get to the polls.

Far fewer early voters showed up after the storm in Pascagoula, Mississippi, a court clerk said, and power failures in two Georgia counties disrupted voting. In Louisiana, getting power back to polling centers was a priority as was letting voters know quickly if there were any changes to locations come Tuesday.

In Georgia, a group of civil rights organizations asked the governor to extend early voting hours Friday.

In the remote area of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, commercial fisherman Acy Cooper said his boats survived the storm. But without electricity, he feared operations could be shut down as long as two weeks.

RELATED: New Orleans braces for hurricane as Zeta swirls over Mexico

“Without no lights, none of the docks can work," he said. "Everything’s automated now — the scales and the conveyors.”

The heightened storm activity has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.

And as bad as the 2020 hurricane season has been, it isn’t over. Forecasters said disturbed air off the northern coast of South America could become a tropical depression and head toward Nicaragua by early next week — a forecast not lost on Louisiana’s governor.

“Let’s not pray it on anybody else," Edwards said. "Let’s just pray it away from us.”


Kevin McGill reported from New Orleans. Jeff Amy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press contributors include Rebecca Santana in New Orleans, Ben Nadler in Atlanta, Stacey Plaisance in Marrero, Louisiana; Gerald Herbert in Lakeshore, Mississippi; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland; Skip Foreman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Leah Willingham in Jackson, Mississippi; Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia; Sophia Tulp and Desiree Mathurin in Atlanta.