As Hurricane Ida bore down on the Louisiana coast, projected to arrive as a “life-altering” category 4 storm, thousands were evacuating from New Orleans and other communities in Ida’s projected path.
The mayor of New Orleans told residents to get out or hunker down.
“Time is not on our side,” she said.
Forecast to arrive on Sunday evening with 140mph winds, Ida is likely to come ashore on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that hit New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf coast, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. Katrina arrived in Louisiana as a powerful category 3 storm – weaker than Ida’s projected strength.
The mayor of New Orleans
, LaToya Cantrell, said the focus of emergency responders had already switched to the aftermath of the storm, and that the window of opportunity for those who wished to evacuate was narrowing rapidly.
“[You] need to make sure that you are in a safe place, everyone, whether you’re going to leave voluntarily or stay on site hunkered down, wherever that is,” Cantrell said at a lunchtime press briefing.
“Hopefully that’s your home in our city, but in a safe space. If you’re staying you need to be prepared for damaging wind, power outages, heavy rain, tornadoes … this storm in no way will be weakening, there’s always an opportunity for the storm to strengthen.
“Time is not on our side. It’s rapidly growing, it’s intensifying, and if you’re voluntarily evacuating our city now is the time to leave.”
Emergency responders, power crews and others were ready to move in as soon as it was safe, Cantrell said. But she also warned that residents would have to look after themselves for a while.
“Look, this is our time, your time, to prepare yourselves. Now. This is it. Check on your neighbours, check on your friends, of course your family. What we learned, particularly during Katrina, we are first responders, all of us, our neighbours, we’re all first responders.”
The I-10 highway out of New Orleans was gridlocked on Saturday morning after Cantrell ordered a mandatory evacuation for those living outside the levee protection system and voluntary evacuation for those living inside. Ida had escalated so quickly, Cantrell said, there had been no time to mandatorily evacuate the entire city.
In the city, boarded-up businesses and lines for gas stations dotted many of the busiest streets in New Orleans. There were queues at hardware stores as those who chose to stay behind stocked up on last-minute supplies.
The impending threat was compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Louisiana and other states in the deep south have among the lowest US rates of vaccination, which has enabled the Delta variant to rip through the region, leading to record hospitalizations.
Health officials in New Orleans have not evacuated hospitals due to limited capacity in neighboring states, despite a roughly 15% fall in state Covid patients over the past week.
“The capacity of hospitals all around this region, from Texas to Florida, is extremely limited,” said the city health director, Dr Jennifer Avegno, on Friday evening.
On Saturday morning the National Weather Service (NWS) said a region from south-east Louisiana into southern Mississippi could experience tropical force winds from Saturday evening, meaning around 10 hours of powerful gusts, and projected rainfall of between 8in and 16in. New Orleans and other cities in the storm’s projected path, including Baton Rouge and Lafayette, were braced for extended power outages.
Late on Saturday morning, Ida was centered 435 miles south-east of Houma, a city on the Louisiana coast. It was traveling northwest at 16mph, forecasters said. Maximum sustained winds were 85mph. The wind speed in the late morning forecast had not picked up from an earlier advisory from the National Hurricane Center, but forecasters still expected Ida to reach category 4 strength before making landfall.
Forecasters have warned of life-threatening storm surge of up to 15ft in parts of coastal Louisiana, as federal emergency managers in New Orleans cautioned that the surge could top parts of levees on the west bank of the Mississippi. The city’s east bank, with a large population, appeared safe from surges surpassing levee protections, according to officials.
On Friday, Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration for Louisiana. The White House announced plans to send 150 medical personnel to the affected region.
The president visited Louisiana three months ago, stopping in Lake Charles, a city still recovering after it was twice battered by powerful hurricanes last year. Biden pledged his administration would assist in recovery and infrastructure development.
“It’s hard to believe that you got hit as badly as you have within the timeframe you have,” Biden said, of hurricanes Laura and Delta, which destroyed parts of the city.
Ida made first landfall on Friday afternoon on Cuba’s Isle of Youth. The Cuban government issued a hurricane warning for its westernmost provinces, where forecasters said as much as 20in of rain could fall, possibly unleashing flash floods and mudslides.