Hurricane Ida made landfall in the United States on Sunday as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm that could plunge much of the Louisiana shoreline under water as the state grapples with a COVID-19 surge already taxing hospitals.
It is the toughest test yet for the hundreds of miles of new levees built around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 16 years ago to the day, inundating historically Black neighborhoods and killing more than 1,800 people.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said Ida could be the state’s worst direct hit by a hurricane since the 1850s.
The state is also dealing with the nation’s third-highest rate of new COVID-19 infections, with about 3,400 new cases reported on Friday alone. Hospitals were treating some 2,450 COVID-19 patients, Edwards said, with those in many of the state’s parishes already nearing capacity.
By Sunday, Ida was a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale with top sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour), the NHC said.
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Palm trees trembled as rain gusted in sideways through New Orleans on Sunday morning, where retired 68-year-old Robert Ruffin had evacuated with his family to a downtown hotel from their home in the city’s east.
“I thought it was safer,” he said. “It’s double trouble this time because of COVID.”
IDA’s landfall was only a few hours away, according to the NHC, which warned of life-threatening storm surges, potentially catastrophic wind damage and up to two feet (61 cm) of rainfall in some areas.
“We’re as prepared as we can be, but we’re worried about those levees,” said Kirk Lepine, president of Plaquemines Parish on the state’s Gulf Coast.
Plaquemines, one of the most vulnerable parishes, is home to 23,000 people along the Mississippi delta stretching into the Gulf. Lepine feared water topping the levees along Highway 23.
“That’s our one road in and out,” he said.
Edwards told CNN on Sunday that he believed the state’s levees would be able to withstand the storm surge, though he expressed some doubt about parishes, like Plaquemines, in the south.
“Where we’re less confident is further south where you have other protection systems that are not built to that same standard,” he said.
Edwards said was impossible to evacuate patients from hospitals, and that state officials had been speaking with hospitals to ensure their generators were working and that they had more water on hand than normal.
Officials ordered widespread evacuations of low-lying and coastal areas, jamming highways and leading some gasoline stations to run dry as residents and vacationers fled.
“Everyone who cares about New Orleans is worried,” said Andy Horowitz, a history professor who wrote “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015”. Horowitz fled to Alabama with his family from their home near New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Some $14 billion was spent strengthening levees after Katrina, but the stronger walls in many places may still be insufficient in the face of climate change, he said. Climate change has led to more intense and wetter hurricanes in the region.
Refineries cut production, power outages expected
Utilities were bringing in extra crews and equipment to deal with expected power losses. U.S. President Joe Biden said he has coordinated with electric utilities and 500 federal emergency response workers were in Texas and Louisiana to respond to the storm.
U.S. energy companies reduced offshore oil production by 91% and gasoline refiners cut operations at Louisiana plants in the path of the storm. Regional fuel prices rose in anticipation of production losses and on increased demand due to evacuations.
Coastal and inland oil refineries also began to cut production due to the storm. Phillips 66 shut its Alliance plant on the coast in Belle Chasse, while Exxon Mobil Corp cut production at its Baton Rouge, Louisiana, refinery on Saturday.
Jean Paul Bourg, 39, was planning to ride out the storm in Morgan City, about 70 miles (112 km) west of New Orleans. His wife’s brother was recently released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19 and secured a generator to ensure access to oxygen if needed.
“You can’t necessarily pile in with family members during COVID,” Bourg said, after trimming trees and putting up plywood on his house. “More people than you’d think are sticking around.”