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Hurricane Nate forecast to hit the Gulf Coast: what we know

Yes, there’s another one.

Tropical Storm Nate seen over Central America.
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Atlantic hurricane season, which has already broken a few records, isn’t over. And indeed, there’s another one.

Early Saturday, Tropical Storm Nate intensified into hurricane as it moved over the warm Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Nate is now sustaining 85 mph winds, making it a Category 1 storm. It’s forecast to make landfall with 90 mph winds near the Louisiana-Mississippi border Saturday night.

A hurricane warning — meaning hurricane conditions are imminent — is in effect for the coastline between Grand Isle, Louisiana, and the Alabama-Florida border. This area includes New Orleans.

Nate is moving very quickly northward at around 22 mph, so it won’t linger long over these areas. But the forecast is calling for 4 to 6 feet of “life threatening” coastal storm surge, 3 to 6 inches of rain, and damaging winds. Both the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have proclaimed states of emergency to hasten preparations.

On Friday, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered mandatory evacuations for certain low-lying sections of the city, and ordered a 7 pm curfew Saturday. Nate will test the resiliency of New Orleans pumping stations, which are operating at 92 percent capacity after being strained by previous flooding this summer, The New Orleans Advocate explains. With Nate, the city is expected to see up to 10 inches of rain. "We are ready for whatever Nate brings our way," Landrieu told reporters Friday.

St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, which sits on edge of the low-lying Mississippi Delta just south of New Orleans, has ordered evacuations as early as Thursday. (As Weather Underground explains, St. Bernard Parish “has the horrific distinction of being the only parish or county completely inundated from Katrina.”)

Nate has already been a deadly storm

Earlier in the week, Tropical Storm Nate made landfall over Nicaragua and Honduras with 40 mph winds, bringing 15 to 20 inches of rain. It’s expected to continue northward, clipping the Yucatan Peninsula, and then head through the Gulf of Mexico, where it’s likely to hit warm patches of water that will help it intensify into a hurricane. According to the Associated Press, Nate has been responsible for 22 deaths in Central America, mainly due to flooding.

Here are the latest key messages on the storm, from the National Hurricane Center:

1. Life-threatening storm surge flooding is likely along portions of the northern Gulf Coast, and a storm surge warning is in effect from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Okaloosa/Walton county line in Florida. Residents in these areas should heed any evacuation instructions given by local officials.

2. A hurricane warning is in effect for portions of the northern Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama, and preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion in these areas.

3. Nate will bring heavy rainfall of 3 to 6 inches with isolated totals of 10 inches east of the Mississippi River from the central Gulf Coast into the Deep South, eastern Tennessee Valley, and southern Appalachians through Monday, resulting in the potential for flash flooding in these areas.

4. Moisture from Nate interacting with a frontal zone will also bring 2 to 4 inches with isolated totals of 6 inches across the Ohio Valley into the central Appalachians Sunday into Monday, which will also increase the risk for flash flooding across these locations.

Don’t just focus on wind speed. Even if Nate doesn’t become a hurricane, it’s still packing a lot of rain.

Nate will be the fourth hurricane to make landfall on the US this season. And that’s concerning because the federal government’s emergency response capabilities are already severely strained from the ongoing disaster response in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. These were all extreme rainfall events that caused billions of dollars’ worth of damaged and cost hundreds of lives. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies are still trying to save lives in Puerto Rico. Needless to say, another storm — especially one impacting Louisiana, parts of which were affected by Harvey — is not good news.

A Category 1 storm with 85 mph winds can damage homes, uproot trees, and knock out power. But meteorologists caution against focusing on wind speed alone. As we saw with Harvey in Houston, even a hurricane that’s downgraded to a tropical storm can cause massive destruction and chaos. Even if Nate remains a tropical storm, it can still dump feet of rain in an area, which can quickly overwhelm drainage systems, causing flash flooding and mudslides. And it’s often costal storm surge — not winds — that are the deadliest aspect of a hurricane.

A chart describing storms labeled Category 1 (winds up to 95 miles per hour, isolated injuries) through Category 5 (winds above 155 mph, extreme flooding). Zachary Crockett/Vox

How to follow Nate

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Nate. Check it out.
  • Follow the National Weather Service’s Atlantic Ops account on Twitter. And the NWS’s New Orleans branch too.
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folks tend to live-tweet storm updates.