Zeta sped across the southeastern U.S. on Thursday, leaving a trail of damage and more than 2.5 million homes and businesses without power in Atlanta and beyond after pounding New Orleans with winds and water that splintered homes and were blamed for at least three deaths.

A Category 2 hurricane when it hit the southeastern Louisiana coast Wednesday, Zeta was still a tropical storm late Thursday morning with maximum sustained winds of 85 km/h about 155 kilometres northeast of Asheville, N.C. — unusual even in a region accustomed to hurricanes and their aftermath.

Hundreds of schools cancelled classes or planned to open late across from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas, and widespread power outages occurred across six states from Louisiana to the south Atlantic seaboard. Some places could be in the dark for days.

The latest punch from a record hurricane season left people shaken. Will Arute said it sounded like a bomb went off when part of a large oak snapped outside his home in New Orleans, and part of the tree crashed into his car and a corner of his home.

“I did not anticipate this to happen. It was pretty intense along the eye wall when it went through here,” he said.

Mackenzie Umanzor did not prepare much because the last hurricane to threaten her home a few weeks ago in D’Iberville, Miss., did little damage. Zeta blew open doors that she had tried to barricade, leaving her with a cut hand, and the top of her shed came loose.

A large tree limb, which snapped as Hurricane Zeta moved through New Orleans, rests on power lines in the city’s Carrollton neighborhood on Thursday. (Kevin McGill/The Associated Press)

“You could hear the tin roof waving in the wind…. It was just rattling. And there was a couple of snaps, lots of cracks of branches and trees falling,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”

Officials said life-threatening conditions would last into the day, with Zeta crossing the mid-Atlantic states as a tropical storm before moving offshore around Delaware and southern New Jersey.

3 deaths reported 

Leslie Richardson, 58, drowned when he was trapped in rising seawater in Biloxi, Miss., after taking video of the raging storm, Harrison County coroner Brian Switzer said. Richardson and another man got out of a floating car and desperately clung to a tree before his strength “just gave out,” Switzer said. About 40 kilometres west in Long Beach, a large boat was washed up on the beachfront highway.

A 55-year-old man was electrocuted by a downed power line in New Orleans, a Louisiana coroner said. In Georgia, authorities said a man was killed when high winds caused a tree to fall onto a mobile home in Cherokee County.

Morning rush hour happened despite major power failures in Atlanta, but commuters had to dodge downed trees and navigate their way past signals with no power. Trees blocked lanes on two interstates, the Georgia Department of Transportation said.

A woman stands in front of a destroyed restaurant on Thursday in Chalmette, La. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Northwest of Atlanta in Marietta, many stoplights were out and police directed traffic at a busy intersection. One residential street was covered by a mix of election campaign signs, amber and gold leaves and limbs tossed by the storm. A few streets away, Billy Murdock was out picking up branches in his yard.

“It’s the worst storm I’ve been through in Atlanta,” he said.

The storm raged onshore Wednesday afternoon in the small village of Cocodrie, La., as a strong Category 2 and then moved swiftly across the New Orleans area. The morning after in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the wind was blowing lightly as a few people walked to work and some residents swept leaves in front of their houses.

Waveland Mayor Mike Smith told WLOX-TV that his Mississippi Gulf Coast city, which was part of the area most heavily damaged by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, had taken what might be the worst hit since then from Zeta.

Among the many trees blown down was one that fell on Smith’s own house. “It was my next-door neighbour’s and he wanted to give it to me, apparently,” Smith said.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards was expected to tour the coastal regions hardest hit by the storm Thursday.

People clear debris from Hurricane Zeta at St. Bernard Middle School in St. Bernard, La. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Zeta left much of New Orleans and the surrounding area without power as 200 falling trees and more limbs pulled down utility lines. Signs outside bars and restaurants swayed back and forth in the wind and palm trees along Canal Street whipped furiously as the storm passed.

Along coastal Louisiana, there were reports of some trailers flipped over, a gas station destroyed and downed power lines and trees.

Zeta was the 27th named storm of a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season with more than a month left to go. 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 storms that hit in 1916.

A vehicle’s lights shine as the first floor of a parking garage is flooded from the storm surge of Hurricane Zeta at the Golden Nugget Biloxi Casino and Resort in Biloxi, Miss., on Wednesday night. (Lukas Flippo/The Sun Herald/The Associated Press)

The extraordinarily busy season has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms. And forecasters said disturbed air off the northern coast of South America could become a tropical depression headed toward Nicaragua by early next week

The deteriorating weather prompted early voting sites for next week’s election to close for hours in the western Florida Panhandle.

Thursday was the last day to request an absentee ballot or vote by absentee in person in Alabama, and power was out across parts of the state including heavily populated Mobile on the coast. Mobile County tweeted that the absentee voting office still would be open for normal business hours, but other county offices were closed. Voters, some holding umbrellas, waited outside the county courthouse in Birmingham to cast ballots.

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