Traffic clogged highways as thousands of people left the southern state on Sunday. The National Weather Service in New Orleans warned anyone remaining to “shelter in place”, ideally in “an interior room”.
Ida gathered more strength overnight, faster than meteorologists had predicted only a day ago. It is the toughest test yet for the hundreds of miles of new levees built around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
It made landfall 16 years ago to the day, inundating historically black districts and killing more than 1,800 people.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the storm, due to make landfall by Sunday afternoon, could be the state’s worst direct hit by a hurricane since the 1850s.
The state is also grappling with America’s third-highest rate of Covid-19 infections, with about 3,400 new cases reported on Friday alone.
Hospitals were treating about 2,450 Covid-19 patients, Mr Edwards said, and those in many of the state’s parishes were nearing capacity.
By the early hours of Sunday, Ida was a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, the National Hurricane Centre said. At 11am local time, it was located about 95 kilometres west-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and about 135km south of New Orleans, carrying top sustained winds of 240km per hour.
Rain gusted through New Orleans on Sunday morning, to which Robert Ruffin, 68, had fled with his family from their home in the city’s east.
“I thought it was safer,” he said from a downtown hotel. “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 flooding rainfall.
“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 is one of the most vulnerable parishes, where 23,000 people live along the Mississippi delta stretching into the Gulf. Mr Lepine feared levees along Highway 23 were not up to task.
“Water could go over top,” he said. “That's our one road in and out.”
Mr 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, such as 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. “That's where we are most concerned about the impact of storm surge.”
Mr Edwards said on Saturday there were no plans to evacuate hospitals, and that state officials had been speaking with them to ensure their generators were working and that they had spare water on hand.
Officials ordered widespread evacuations of low-lying and coastal areas, jamming roads and leading some petrol stations to run dry as residents and tourists fled.
“This is a powerful and dangerous storm. It is moving faster than we had thought it would be, so we have a little less time to prepare,” said Dr Joseph Kanter, Louisiana's chief medical official. “There is a lot of Covid out there, there are a lot of risks out there.”
Power cuts expected
Utilities were bringing in extra crews and equipment to deal with expected power losses. US President Joe Biden said he has co-ordinated with electric utilities and 500 federal emergency response workers were in Texas and Louisiana to respond to the storm.
US energy companies reduced offshore oil production by 91 per cent and gas 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 ExxonMobil 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 112km west of New Orleans. His wife's brother was recently discharged from hospital after contracting Covid-19 and had secured a generator to ensure access to oxygen if needed.
“You can't necessarily pile in with family members during Covid,” Mr Bourg said, after trimming trees and putting up plywood on his house. “More people than you'd think are sticking around.”