NEW ORLEANS — Nate was upgraded to a hurricane late Friday as the central Gulf Coast braced for its landfall as early as Saturday evening, with damaging winds and storm surges forecast to hit a part of the coast that had largely been spared in this extraordinarily busy hurricane season.
In an update at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, the National Hurricane Center reported Nate had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, and was gaining force as it hurtled toward the Gulf Coast.
“An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft just penetrated the center of Nate and reported hurricane-force winds,” the center said.
“Reports from Air Force aircraft indicate that maximum sustained winds have increased to near 80 mph with higher gusts. Additional strengthening is expected through Saturday up until the time Nate makes landfall along the northern Gulf Coast.”
The storm, already blamed for at least 22 deaths in Nicaragua and Costa Rica this week, swelled as it crossed unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans officials ordered mandatory evacuations of three low-lying areas of the city.
The National Weather Service put coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama up to the Florida border under a hurricane warning, with a storm surge warning in effect from Morgan City, La. — west of New Orleans — to Walton County, Fla. Rain bands [from the outer edges of the storm] are likely to strike the coast as early as Saturday afternoon.
Nate appears most likely to hit the Gulf Coast to the east of New Orleans. It could deliver a storm surge of four to seven feet above normally dry land, forecasters said. Wherever the storm makes landfall, areas east of the eye will experience stronger winds than those to the west.
Nate is then expected to weaken and travel northeast into the southern Appalachians, where flash floods Sunday and Monday are a serious risk. The storm’s remnants are then likely to head toward the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.
The last hurricane to strike this part of the Gulf Coast directly was Isaac, also a Category 1, in August 2012. It left hundreds of thousands of utility customers without power.
The forecast includes a significant chance of the storm’s growing into a significant hurricane — even a Category 3, one with sustained winds of up to 129 mph.
The storm Friday was moving north over very warm water, which drives intensification. But that trajectory also meant interaction with Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, with pockets of dry air and shearing winds that could enfeeble the storm.
The fast movement of the storm means it is unlikely to drop massive amounts of rain as Hurricane Harvey did while loitering in the Houston area of the Texas coast in August.
The National Weather Service’s hurricane warning, issued Friday, extends from Grand Isle, La. — which is due south of New Orleans — to the Alabama-Florida border.
Samenow and Achenbach reported from Washington. Patricia Sullivan in Washington and Capital Weather Gang meteorologist Brian McNoldy contributed to this report.
Jason Samenow is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association