Hurricane Ida churned toward the U.S. Gulf Coast on Saturday, forecast to gather strength in coming hours and prompting evacuations of flood-prone New Orleans neighborhoods and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Forecasters said it could make U.S. landfall as a dangerous Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, generating winds nearing 140 miles per hour (225 kph), heavy downpours and a tidal surge that could plunge much of the Louisiana shoreline under several feet of water.
Ida battered Cuba on Friday and by early Saturday it was carrying top winds of around 80 mph (129 kph) as it headed northwest, the National Hurricane Center said. The NHC expected the storm to intensify rapidly before coming ashore by late Sunday.
Flooding from Ida’s storm surge – high water driven by the hurricane’s winds – could reach between 10 and 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) around the mouth of the Mississippi River, with lower levels extending east along the adjacent coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, the NHC said.
Scattered tornadoes, widespread power outages and inland flooding from torrential rain across the region were also expected.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, whose state is already reeling from a public health crisis stemming from a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, urged residents to ready themselves for the hurricane immediately.
“Now is the time to finish your preparations,” he told a Friday afternoon news conference. “By nightfall tomorrow night, you need to be where you intend to ride out the storm.”
New Orleans officials ordered residents to evacuate communities outside the city’s levee system, and posted voluntary evacuation notices for the rest of the parish.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome signed an emergency disaster declaration and said the city had pre-positioned sand and sandbags at eight strategic locations as part of storm preparations.
The governor said he spoke to hurricane center forecasters who told him Ida’s rapid intensification is happening “faster than expected.”
“The next 24 hours are very, very important. Now is the time to finish your preparations,” Bel Edwards said. “By nightfall tomorrow night, you need to be where you intend to ride out the storm and you need to be postured as you would want to be as the storm approaches you.”
A National Weather Service forecaster said gusts could reach 170 mph.
“This is stronger than Laura from last year,” he said. “This will be a life-altering storm for those who aren’t prepared to take what Ida is going to throw at us later this weekend.”
Matthew Jewell, president of St. Charles Parish, west of New Orleans, ordered a mandatory evacuation of the parish’s roughly 50,000 residents no later than 5 pm Saturday.
Ida is expected to wallop the northern Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm on Sunday with maximum winds of 140 mph, according to forecasters — 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana as a devastating Category 3 storm. Warm water temperatures in the Gulf will help the storm to intensify, forecasters said.
The Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi coasts are under storm surge warnings, and Louisiana’s coast is now under a hurricane warning, according to the National Hurricane Center.
New Orleans could take a particularly bad hit. The city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, on Friday ordered mandatory evacuations for residents in low-lying areas outside of the city’s levee system. She also called for voluntary evacuations inside the levee system.
With tropical storm conditions on track to arrive in the region late Saturday afternoon, officials said those who need to evacuate should do so immediately.
“August 29th is a very critical date in our city’s history and in all of our memories, that date taught us to be ready and resilient and that’s what we will do together,” said Collin Arnold, the city’s director of emergency preparedness.
After moving over the Isle of Youth and western cuba, the storm is expected to head toward the southeastern and central Gulf of Mexico before hitting the Gulf Coast.
Tropical Storm Force Wind Speed Probabilities Tropical Storm Ida
A hurricane warning was in effect Friday for the Isle of Youth, and the Cuban provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.
Southeast Louisiana to coastal Mississippi and Alabama could get up to 16 inches of rain, with some areas seeing 20 inches through Monday morning.
And “the combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” according to the center.
From Morgan City, Louisiana, to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the water could rise to 11 feet.
“The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast near and to the east of the landfall location, where the surge will be accompanied by large and dangerous waves,” the National Weather Service said.
The east side of New Orleans on Lake Borgne should expect 7 to 11 feet. The city’s floodwalls will be tested against the surge, while its water pumps will be tasked with draining the rainfall.
The Weather Service said overtopping of local levees was “possible.”
Bel Edwards on Thursday issued a state of emergency. On Friday, he requested a pre-landfall Federal Declaration of Emergency, and said 12 parishes had already declared their own states of emergency.
“Unfortunately, Louisiana is forecast to get a direct, strong hit from Tropical Storm Ida, which could make landfall as a major hurricane, a category 3, which is compounded by our current fourth surge of COVID-19,” Edwards said. “This is an incredibly challenging time for our state.”
“The people of Louisiana have been tested time and time again, and while it is my hope and prayer that this storm will not bring destruction to our state, we should be prepared to take the brunt of the severe weather,” he added. “By Saturday evening, everyone should be in the location where they intend to ride out the storm.”
Louisiana Comic Con, which was scheduled to be held in Lafayette on Aug. 28 and 29, was canceled due to the incoming storm.
“Although it’s always a tough decision to cancel an event, the impending weather is a concern for a multitude of reasons,” said Greg Hanks, one of the owners of the company putting on the event. “We don’t want to shrug off the warnings being issued and surely don’t want anyone stuck and unable to make it home.”
The mayor of Grand Isle, a Louisiana town on a narrow barrier island in the Gulf, called for a voluntary evacuation late Thursday ahead of Ida and said a mandatory evacuation would take effect Friday.
“Ida certainly has the potential to be very bad,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
Ida joins a list of “I” named storms — Irma, Ike, Ivan — that were some of the more historically damaging hurricanes. This is because “I” named storms typically happen at peak hurricane season when the atmospheric ingredients favor strong tropical cyclones and the steering patterns favor landfalls. Eleven “I” names have been retired, the most of any other alphabetical letter on record.