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2020’s Monster Hurricane Season Still Has Surprises

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Photo by Sandy Huffaker Getty Images

A woman stands in front of a destroyed restaurant after Hurricane Zeta on October 29, 2020 in Chalmette, La. In a post-season analysis, NOAA upgraded Zeta's windspeeds saying it was a 'major' category 3 storm when it hit.

The record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is still setting records. The National Hurricane Center this week released its Tropical Cyclone Report for Hurricane Zeta, which hit southeast Louisiana on Oct. 28. After analyzing data gathered as the storm made landfall, NOAA meteorologists have upgraded Zeta from a Category 2 to a "major" Category 3 hurricane.

In the critique of its forecast, done by NHC staff after every named storm, the meteorologists say "Zeta's intensity was more difficult to forecast than for a typical Atlantic tropical cyclone" because of its rapid intensification and its interaction with the Louisiana coast. Aircraft gathering data from Zeta did the last complete flight through the hurricane two hours before landfall. The NHC says "because of the fast-moving and rapidly intensifying nature of the hurricane," by the time aircraft returned to the storm, Zeta's northern eyewall was already onshore.

After reanalyzing the data, the meteorologists estimate Zeta's winds were 115 mph at landfall, upgrading it to Category 3 and making it the season's seventh major hurricane. That matches the record set in 2005 for the most major hurricanes (Category 3 and higher) in a single season. It also sets a record for the latest U.S. landfall of a major hurricane, eclipsing the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921.

The NHC says Zeta's 115 mph winds were experienced over a small area and that upgrading the hurricane to Category 3 "is of little practical significance in terms of the impacts associated with the storm." Five people died from direct causes in the storm and at least 75 people were injured. NOAA estimates Zeta caused $4.4 billion in damage in the U.S., mostly in Louisiana.

2020 was the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record with 30 named storms. Forecasters say the 2021 hurricane season, which begins on June 1, is also expected to be more active than normal.

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