New Orleans: Hurricane Ida was expected to make landfall in the United States on Sunday as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm that could plunge much of the Louisiana shoreline under water as the state grapples with a COVID-19 surge already taxing hospitals.
The storm intensified faster than officials had predicted on Saturday, as residents of the Gulf Coast evacuated and businesses shut down.
Ida gathered more strength overnight, the toughest test yet for the hundreds of miles of new levees built around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 16 years ago to the day and killed more than 1,800 people.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said that 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 dealing with the nation’s third-highest incidence of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, and hospitals in many parishes were already nearing capacity.
By early Sunday, Ida was a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said. At 7am CDT (1200 GMT) it was located about 85km southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, carrying top sustained winds of up to 240km per hour.
Rain gusted through New Orleans on Sunday morning, where Robert Ruffin, a retired 68-year-old man, had evacuated with his family to a downtown hotel from their home in the city’s east.
“I thought it was safer,” he said. “Its 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. 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.” The state is not planning to evacuate hospitals now strained by an influx of COVID-19 patients, Edwards said.
“The implications of having a Category 4 storm while hospitals are full are beyond what we normally contemplate,” Edwards said at a news conference on Saturday afternoon.
There were more than 3,400 new COVID-19 cases reported on Friday, and about 2,700 people are hospitalised with the virus.
“We have been talking to hospitals to make sure that their generators are working, that they have way more water on hand than normal, that they have PPE (personal protection equipment) on hand,” Edwards said.
Officials ordered widespread evacuations of low-lying and coastal areas, jamming highways and leading some gasoline stations to run dry as residents and vacationers 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 outage expected
Utilities were bringing in extra crews and equipment to deal with expected power losses. US President Joe Biden said he has coordinated 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% and gasoline 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 Exxon Mobil 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 released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19 and secured a generator to ensure access to oxygen if needed.
“You can’t necessarily pile in with family members during COVID,” Bourg said, after trimming trees and putting up plywood on his house. “More people than you’d think are sticking around.”