Hurricane Ida struck Cuba on Friday and threatened to slam into Louisiana with far greater force at the weekend, prompting the mayor of New Orleans to order everyone outside the protection of the city’s levees to evacuate the area.
Intensifying rapidly Friday from a tropical storm to a hurricane with top winds of 128 kilometres per hour as it crossed western Cuba, Ida was forecast to strengthen into a powerful Category 4 hurricane before making landfall along the US Gulf Coast late Sunday, the National Hurricane Centre said.
A hurricane warning was issued for most of the Louisiana coast, including a hurricane watch for metropolitan New Orleans.
Residents along Louisiana’s coast braced for Ida to bring destructive wind and rain on the exact date Hurricane Katrina devastated large parts of the Gulf Coast exactly 16 years earlier.
Ross Eichorn, a fishing guide on the coast about 112kph south-west of New Orleans, said he fears warm Gulf waters will “make a monster” out of Ida.
“With a direct hit, ain’t no telling what’s going to be left — if anything,” Mr Eichorn said. He added: “Anybody that isn’t concerned has got something wrong with them.”
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered the evacuation of all areas outside the levee system, which protects against flooding.
Officials said they plan to close floodgates Saturday afternoon on two highways near New Orleans, increasing the sense of urgency for those planning to flee.
“Now is the time,” Ms Cantrell said.
Officials decided against evacuating New Orleans hospitals. There is little room for their patients elsewhere, with hospitals from Texas to Florida already reeling from a spike in coronavirus patients, said Dr Jennifer Avengo, the city’s health director.
The White House said President Joe Biden and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) will assist Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Fema plans to send about 150 medical personnel and almost 50 ambulances to the Gulf Coast to assist strained hospitals.
An emergency declaration for the state of Louisiana has also been issued.
Ida made its first landfall Friday afternoon on Cuba’s southern Isle of Youth. The Cuban government issued a hurricane warning for its westernmost provinces, where forecasters said as much as 50 centimetres of rain could fall in some places, possibly unleashing deadly flash floods and mudslides.
An even greater danger will then begin over the Gulf, where forecasts were aligned in predicting Ida will strengthen very quickly into a major hurricane before landfall late Sunday, the hurricane centre said.
If that forecast holds true, Ida would hit on the 16th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall as a Category 4 storm. Katrina is blamed for an estimated 1,800 deaths and a large storm surge, which scoured the shores and wiped houses off the map.
In New Orleans, failures of federal levees led to catastrophic flooding. Water covered 80 per cent of the city and many homes were swamped to the rooftops. Some victims drowned in their attics. The Superdome and New Orleans Convention Centre became scenes of sweltering misery as tens of thousands were stranded without power or running water.
Memories of Katrina still haunt many who scrambled to prepare for Ida on Friday, lining up for groceries, gas and ice, as well as sandbags that the city was offering.
Traffic snarled at entrances to a New Orleans Costco, where dozens of cars were backed up at the gas pumps and shoppers wheeled out carts stacked with cases of bottled water and other essentials.