Hurricane Ida blasted ashore Sunday as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S., knocking out power to all of New Orleans, blowing roofs off buildings and reversing the flow of the Mississippi River as it rushed from the Louisiana coast into one of the nation’s most important industrial corridors.
The hurricane was blamed for at least one death. The Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office said on Facebook that deputies responded to a home in Prairieville on a report of someone injured by a fallen tree. The person, who was not identified, was pronounced dead. Prairieville is a suburb of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city.
The power outage in New Orleans heightened the city's vulnerability to flooding and left hundreds of thousands of people without air conditioning and refrigeration in sweltering summer heat.
Ida — a Category 4 storm — hit on the same date Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi 16 years earlier, coming ashore about 72 kilometres west of where Category 3 Katrina first struck land. Ida’s 230 kph winds tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the mainland U.S. It dropped hours later to a Category 2 storm with maximum winds of 165 kph as it crawled inland, its eye about 65 kilometres west-northwest of New Orleans.
'Worst possible path for a hurricane'
Significant flooding was reported late Sunday night in LaPlace, a community adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain, meteorologists in New Orleans said. Many people took to social media, pleading for boat rescues as the water rose.
The rising ocean swamped the barrier island of Grand Isle as landfall came just to the west at Port Fourchon. Ida made a second landfall about two hours later near Galliano. The hurricane was churning through the far southern Louisiana wetlands, with more than 2 million people living in and around New Orleans and Baton Rouge under threat.
“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,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told The Associated Press.
The entire city of New Orleans late Sunday was without power, according to city officials. The city's power supplier — Entergy — confirmed that the only power in the city was coming from generators, the city’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness said on Twitter. The message included a screenshot that cited “catastrophic transmission damage” for the power failure.
The city relies on Entergy for backup power for the pumps that remove stormwater from city streets. Rain from Ida is expected to test that pump system.
More than 1 million customers were without power in two Southern states impacted by Ida — more than 930,000 in Louisiana and 28,000 in Mississippi, according to PowerOutage.US, which tracks outages nationwide.
Residents told to hunker down
Officials said Ida's swift intensification from a few thunderstorms to a massive hurricane in just three days left no time to organise a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans' 390,000 residents. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged residents remaining in the city on Sunday to “hunker down."
Marco Apostolico said he felt confident riding out the storm at his home in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods when levees failed and released a torrent of floodwater during Katrina.
His home was among those rebuilt with the help of actor Brad Pitt to withstand hurricane-force winds. But the memory of Katrina still hung over the latest storm.
“It’s obviously a lot of heavy feelings,” he said. “And yeah, potentially scary and dangerous.”
The region getting Ida’s worst includes petrochemical sites and major ports, which could sustain significant damage. It is also an area that is 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. And shelters for those fleeing their homes carried an added risk of becoming flashpoints for new infections.
'Many people are going to be tested'
Comparisons to the Aug. 29, 2005, landfall of Katrina weighed heavily on residents bracing for Ida. Katrina was blamed for 1,800 deaths as it caused levee breaches and catastrophic flooding in New Orleans. Ida’s hurricane-force winds stretched 80 kilometres from the storm’s eye, or about half the size of Katrina, and a New Orleans' infrastructure official emphasized that the city is in a “very different place than it was 16 years ago."
The levee system has been massively overhauled since Katrina, Ramsey Green, deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, said before the worst of the storm hit. While water may not penetrate levees, Green said if forecasts of up to 50 centimetres of rain prove true, the city's underfunded and neglected network of pumps, underground pipes and surface canals likely won't be able to keep up.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was in contact with more than 1,500 oil refineries, chemical plants and other sensitive facilities and will respond to any reported pollution leaks or petroleum spills, agency spokesman Greg Langley said. He said the agency would deploy three mobile air-monitoring laboratories after the storm passes to sample, analyse and report any threats to public health.
Louisiana’s 17 oil refineries account for nearly one-fifth of the U.S. refining capacity and its two liquefied natural gas export terminals ship about 55% of the nation’s total exports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Government statistics show that 95% of oil and gas production in the Gulf Coast region was shut down as Ida made landfall on Sunday, according to energy company S&P Global Platts.
Louisiana is also home to two nuclear power plants, one near New Orleans and another about 43 kilometres northwest of Baton Rouge.
President Joe Biden approved emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of Ida’s arrival. He said Sunday 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.
Edwards warned his state to brace for potentially weeks of recovery.
“Many, many people are going to be tested in ways that we can only imagine today,” the governor told a news conference.