Hurricane Ida has made landfall as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States, lashing the country’s southwestern coast with fierce winds, torrential downpours and pounding surf that submerged much of the shoreline in the state of Louisiana.
All of New Orleans, Louisiana’s most populous city, had power knocked out due to “catastrophic transmission damage”, the local utility reported on Sunday.
At least one person died after being injured by a fallen tree in Prairieville, 130km (60 miles) northwest of New Orleans, according to the sheriff’s office.
Ida, a Category 4 storm, hit on the same date Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, ravaged the southern states of Louisiana and Mississippi 16 years earlier.
It dropped hours later to a Category 2 storm with maximum winds of 165km/h (105mph) as it crawled inland, its eye about 65km (40 miles) west-northwest of New Orleans.
The storm’s 230km/h (150mph) winds tied it with Hurricanes Laura and Charley for the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the US mainland.
Residents of the most vulnerable coastal areas were ordered to evacuate days in advance. But those riding out the storm in their homes in New Orleans, less than 160km (100 miles) inland to the north, braced for the toughest test yet of significant upgrades to a levee system constructed following devastating floods in 2005 from Katrina.
“I almost found myself in a panic attack when news announced this was the anniversary of Katrina,” Janet Rucker, a lifelong New Orleans resident and recently retired sales manager who took shelter in a downtown hotel with her dog.
The storm’s approach also forced the suspension of emergency medical services in New Orleans and elsewhere across a state already reeling from the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections that has strained its healthcare system. For an estimated 2,450 COVID-19 patients who are in hospital statewide, many in intensive care units, being evacuated was not an option.
A loss of generator power at the Thibodaux Regional Health System hospital in Lafourche Parish, southwest of New Orleans, forced medical workers to manually assist patients on respirators with breathing while they were moved to another floor, the state health department told the Reuters news agency.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said Ida could be the most powerful storm to hit the state since 1850.
“There is no doubt that the coming days and weeks are going to be extremely difficult,” he said at a briefing on Sunday, adding that some people might have to shelter in place for up to 72 hours.
The governor said he expected newly reinforced levees in New Orleans to hold, saying they were “built for this moment”. The levees were built after flooding from Katrina inundated much of the low-lying city, especially historically Black neighbourhoods. That monster storm killed more than 1,800 people.
Inundation from Ida’s storm surge – high surf driven by the hurricane’s winds – was reported to be exceeding predicted levels of 1.83 metres (six feet) along parts of the coast. Videos posted on social media showed storm-surge flooding had transformed sections of Highway 90 along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast into a choppy river.
Some parishes imposed curfews beginning on Sunday evening.
“We’re as prepared as we can be, but we’re worried about those levees,” said Kirk Lepine, president of Plaquemines Parish, one of the most vulnerable areas along the Gulf Coast.
The parish later issued an alert on Facebook urging residents of one area to seek higher ground after reports of a flooded levee.
“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.
The White House said on Sunday that federal agencies had deployed more than 2,000 emergency workers to the region – including 13 urban search-and-rescue teams – along with food and water supplies and electric generators. Local authorities, the Red Cross and other organisations have prepared dozens of shelters with room for at least 16,000 people, the White House added.
US President Joe Biden had approved emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of Ida’s arrival. He said on Sunday that the country was praying for the best for Louisiana and would put its “full might behind the rescue and recovery” effort once the storm passes.