Officials in the United States have warned of the “catastrophic” effects of Hurricane Ida, as the Category 4 hurricane brought extreme winds, a dangerous storm surge and flash flooding to the southern state of Louisiana after making landfall there on Sunday.
“We are expecting catastrophic impacts from this,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell said during a news briefing in the afternoon alongside US President Joe Biden.
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“We should start to see some of those impacts tonight, but we won’t have the full picture until tomorrow,” Criswell told reporters from the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC, where Biden was briefed on the situation.
Biden said the storm “continues to rage and ravage everything it comes into contact with” and urged residents in affected areas to listen to instructions from local and state authorities. “The storm is a life-threatening storm,” he said.
Ida made landfall as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 hurricane near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, at 11:55am CDT (16:55 GMT) on Sunday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, bringing maximum sustained winds of 241 kilometres per hour (150mph).
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) August 29, 2021
It hit the US Gulf Coast region on the exact date Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi 16 years ago, inundating historically Black neighbourhoods and killing more than 1,800 people.
Ida caused a “catastrophic storm surge, extreme winds and flash flooding in portions of Louisiana” and was expected to remain a hurricane through late Sunday night, the Miami-based NHC said in a later update.
It is moving towards New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as a key industrial corridor.
Rain gusted 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,” Ruffin told the Reuters news agency. “It’s double trouble this time because of COVID.”
A day earlier, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards had warned that Ida could be the state’s worst direct hit by a hurricane since the 1850s. “This is not the kind of storm that we normally get,” Edwards told The Associated Press news agency.
“This is going to be much stronger than we usually see and, quite frankly, if you had to draw up the worst possible path for a hurricane in Louisiana, it would be something very, very close to what we’re seeing.”
The governor also told CNN that he believed the state’s levees would be able to withstand the storm surge, though he expressed some doubt about parishes 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.
Before the storm made landfall, Louisiana State Police tweeted that “conditions are quickly deteriorating” and urged residents to take cover. “If you have not evacuated and are in the affected area along the southeast and south central gulf coast, please seek shelter immediately,” it said.
‘Unpredictable and incredibly powerful’
But Ida intensified so swiftly that New Orleans officials said there was no time to organise a mandatory evacuation of the city’s 390,000 residents.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged residents to leave voluntarily. Those who stayed were warned to prepare for long power outages amid sweltering heat. Resident Nick Mosca was walking his dog, like most of those who were out on Sunday.
“I’d like to be better prepared. There’s a few things I’m thinking we could have done. But this storm came pretty quick, so you only have the time you have,” Mosca said.
The storm made landfall 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. While the two hurricanes are similar, they have key differences – namely in size and direction.
Al Jazeera’s Phil Lavelle, reporting from New Orleans, said it was very unlikely that Hurricane Ida would increase in strength after it made landfall. But there are serious fears the storm will not only bring strong winds and flooding to the area, but could affect critical infrastructure, as well.
Dozens of oil refineries are located in the path of the storm, Lavelle explained, among other important sites. “You don’t know what’s going to happen; this is unpredictable and it is incredibly powerful,” he said.
Hurricane Ida is threatening a part of the US already reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections, due to low vaccination rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.
New Orleans hospitals planned to ride out the storm with their beds nearly full, as similarly stressed hospitals elsewhere had little room for evacuated patients. Shelters for those fleeing their homes carried an added risk of becoming flashpoints for new infections.
Sharon Weston Broome, the mayor of Baton Rouge, said on Sunday that staff and evacuees at shelters would be required to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.
“Masks will help ensure the safety of our workforce and those we serve during disasters. Our goal is to keep everyone safe from the hurricane and COVID-19,” she tweeted.
The Red Cross will require staff and residents to wear face coverings inside shelters — regardless of vaccination status.
Masks will help ensure the safety of our workforce and those we serve during disasters.
Our goal is to keep everyone safe from the hurricane and COVID-19.
— Sharon Weston Broome (@MayorBroome) August 29, 2021