Hurricane Ida: thousands evacuate from New Orleans as storm bears down

As Hurricane Ida bore down on the Louisiana coast, projected to arrive as a “life-altering” category 4 storm, thousands evacuated from New Orleans and other communities in Ida’s projected path.

Shortly before the storm strengthened to category 2 status out in the Gulf of Mexico, the mayor of New Orleans told residents to get out or hunker down.

“Time is not on our side,” she said.

Forecast to arrive on Sunday evening with 140mph winds, Ida was likely to come ashore on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that hit New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf coast, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. Katrina arrived in Louisiana in 2005 as a powerful category 3 storm – weaker than Ida’s projected strength.

The governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, said Sunday would be “a very difficult anniversary for people … our system and people are going to be tested.”

The Democrat activated the entire state national guard.

From the White House, Joe Biden approved federal emergency assistance for Louisiana and other southern states. At a briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the president repeatedly told residents: “Pay attention and be prepared.”

The mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, said the focus of emergency responders had already switched to the aftermath of the storm, as the window of opportunity for evacuations was narrowing rapidly.

“[You] need to make sure that you are in a safe place, everyone, whether you’re going to leave voluntarily or stay on site hunkered down, wherever that is,” Cantrell told reporters.

“Hopefully that’s your home in our city, but in a safe space. If you’re staying you need to be prepared for damaging wind, power outages, heavy rain, tornadoes … this storm in no way will be weakening, there’s always an opportunity for the storm to strengthen.

“Time is not on our side. It’s rapidly growing, it’s intensifying, and if you’re voluntarily evacuating our city now is the time to leave.”

Emergency responders, power crews and others were ready to move in when it was safe, Cantrell said. But she also warned that residents would have to look after themselves for a while.

“Look, this is our time, your time, to prepare yourselves. Now. This is it. Check on your neighbours, check on your friends, of course your family. What we learned, particularly during Katrina, we are first responders, all of us, our neighbours, we’re all first responders.”

The I-10 highway out of New Orleans was gridlocked after Cantrell ordered a mandatory evacuation for those outside the levee protection system and voluntary evacuation for those inside. Ida escalated so quickly, she said, there had been no time to mandatorily evacuate the entire city.

In the city, boarded-up businesses and lines for gas stations dotted many of the busiest streets. There were queues at hardware stores as those who chose to stay behind stocked up on supplies.

The threat was compounded by Covid-19. Louisiana and other states in the deep south have among the lowest US rates of vaccination, which has enabled the Delta variant to rip through the region, leading to record hospitalizations. Officials in New Orleans have not evacuated hospitals due to limited capacity elsewhere.

“The capacity of hospitals all around this region, from Texas to Florida, is extremely limited,” said the city health director, Dr Jennifer Avegno, on Friday evening.

At the White House, Biden told people in the path of the storm: “Have supplies for your household and follow guidance from local authorities. If you have to move to shelter, make sure you wear a mask and try to keep some distance because we’re still facing the highly contagious Delta variant as well.”

The National Weather Service (NWS) said areas from south-east Louisiana into southern Mississippi could experience tropical force winds from Saturday evening, meaning around 10 hours of powerful gusts, and projected rainfall of between 8in and 16in. New Orleans and cities including Baton Rouge and Lafayette were braced for extended power outages.

Alabama was under a storm surge watch. Governor Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency for coastal and western counties. In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves urged residents to stay off of highways to make room for people fleeing Louisiana. He said 19 shelters had opened.

Jawan Williams shovels sand for a sandbag held by his son Jayden Williams, before landfall of Hurricane Ida in Chalmette, Louisiana, on Saturday. Photograph: Matthew Hinton/AP

By Saturday afternoon, Ida was a category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 105mph. The storm was centered about 325 miles south-east of Houma, Louisiana and traveling north-west at 16mph. Forecasters still expected Ida to reach category 4 before landfall.

Forecasters also warned of life-threatening storm surge of up to 15ft in parts of coastal Louisiana, as federal emergency managers in New Orleans cautioned that the surge could top parts of levees on the west bank of the Mississippi. The city’s east bank, with a large population, appeared safe from surges surpassing levee protections, according to officials.

Research has shown that the climate crisis is contributing to more frequent and more ferocious storms during US hurricane season, as rising ocean temperatures provide fuel for storms to become stronger.

Biden visited Louisiana three months ago, stopping in Lake Charles, a city still recovering after it was twice battered by powerful hurricanes last year. Biden pledged his administration would assist in recovery and infrastructure development.

“It’s hard to believe that you got hit as badly as you have within the timeframe you have,” Biden said, of hurricanes Laura and Delta, which destroyed parts of the city.

Ida made first landfall on Friday afternoon on Cuba’s Isle of Youth. The Cuban government issued a hurricane warning for its westernmost provinces, where forecasters said as much as 20in of rain could fall, possibly unleashing flash floods and mudslides.

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