Hurricane Ida: New Orleans braces for impact from category 4 storm
Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday as a brutal category 4 storm, slamming the coast with 150mph sustained winds as hundreds of thousands of residents in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other communities braced for a historic storm.
Ida arrived on land close to the southern tip of Lafourche parish at Port Fourchon on the 16th anniversary of Katrina, the catastrophic hurricane that killed more than 1,800 on the US Gulf coast.
By early afternoon more than 250,000 households were without power, a number likely to rise. New Orleans was experiencing tropical storm-force wind gusts. Wind speeds were expected to rise to hurricane force later in the afternoon.
Although Ida arrived with more powerful winds and expected rainfall than Katrina, forecast storm surge, still a life-threatening 15ft, was expected to be less than in 2005 when Katrina brought highs of 20ft, leading to catastrophic failure of levees in New Orleans.
On Sunday the Louisiana governor, John Bel Edwards, pointed to multibillion-dollar investment in the levee system. Appearing on CNN, he said he remained confident the levees would hold.
“There’s been tremendous investment in this system since Hurricane Katrina,” Edwards said. “This will be the most severe test of that system. But we believe that system is going to hold the entire integrity of that system will be able to withstand the storm surge.”
National Hurricane Centre (NHC) officials said Ida strengthened to a category 4 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico early on Sunday morning then quickly gained strength, top winds going from 45mph to 150mph in five hours.
The threat was not confined to one state. The National Weather Service (NWS) said: “We have issued an extreme wind warning for Hurricane Ida. If you are still in Louisiana or Mississippi, you need to shelter in place. Winds will be between 115mph and 150mph.”
Officials warned that Ida was likely to become one of the most severe hurricanes in the history of Louisiana, which is known for torrid weather events.
“This will be one of the strongest hurricanes to hit anywhere in Louisiana since at least the 1850s,” said Edwards on Saturday. “We can also tell you your window of time is closing. It is rapidly closing.”
Tens of thousands of residents in coastal communities were under mandatory evacuation orders. In New Orleans, those outside the levee protection system were under mandatory evacuation and all others were urged to leave voluntarily. There was gridlock on the main highway leaving the city on Saturday and vast queues at the Louis Armstrong international airport, as all flights were cancelled on Sunday.
On Sunday a tornado watch was issued until 7pm in New Orleans and a number of surrounding parishes.
Speaking to CBS, Edwards said: “We think an awful lot of people did evacuate, but this is a very difficult storm. It’s going to come in with sustained winds of over 150mph, when you get to a category 5 storm at 157mph. So, there’s virtually no difference between a very, very strong cat 4 or a cat 5 storm. And so we’re absolutely doing everything that we can now to get people to take those last-minute steps.”
It was 29 August 2005 when New Orleans and other communities were devastated by Katrina and government failures in response. Hundreds of thousands of homes were lost after the levee system failed, leading to catastrophic flooding. New Orleans took years to recover.
In downtown on Saturday evening the streets were eerily quiet. In the historic French Quarter, businesses were boarded up. Bourbon St, usually the centre of nightlife, was deserted.
Still, some businesses remained open. At Buffa’s, a 24-hour dive bar and jazz venue in the Marigny neighborhood known for staying open during inclement weather, a steady stream of regulars came to drink and eat.
Aha Hasan, a 25-year-old camera technician, sipped beer and drank shots before preparing to ride out the storm at his nearby third-floor apartment. He was 10 when Katrina hit and remembers it vividly.
“Every four years we get a bad one,” he said. “And everyone I know who’s been in this city for all these intense hurricanes aren’t going anywhere this time, so I decided to stay because of that.”
The Louisiana national guard had stationed 5,000 troops in preparation for search and rescue missions. As officials warned of widespread power outages, 10,000 linesmen were placed on standby.
Hospitals in Louisiana are packed with patients from the latest coronavirus surge. Jennifer Avegno, the top health official for New Orleans, told the Associated Press: “Once again we find ourselves dealing with a natural disaster in the midst of a pandemic.”
Echoing remarks by Joe Biden during a White House briefing on Saturday, Avegno called on residents to “prepare for both” the storm and avoiding Covid spread.
Edwards told CBS: “Evacuating these large hospitals is not an option because there are not any other hospitals with the capacity to take them. We were able to evacuate over 20 nursing homes and rehab facilities and behavioural facilities and those sorts of things. But when you think in terms of hospitals, it is just not possible.”
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Intracoastal City in south Louisiana to New Orleans. Storm surge warnings extend into coastal Mississippi and Alabama. In New Orleans the NWS projected wind of 110mph and up to 20in of rain, leading to fears of major flooding.
The I-10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is a hub of petrochemical industry, lined with oil refineries, natural gas terminals and chemical plants. Entergy, Louisiana’s major electricity provider, operates two nuclear power plants along the Mississippi. A US Energy Department map of oil and gas infrastructure shows scores of low-lying sites in the storm’s projected path, potentially vulnerable to flooding.
Research has shown that the climate crisis is contributing to more frequent and more ferocious hurricanes, as rising ocean temperatures provide fuel for storms.
The arrival of Ida marked the first time Louisiana had experienced a hurricane with 150mph winds in consecutive years, after Laura last August. The only other storm with such winds to hit the state landed in 1856.
- Associated Press contributed reporting