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Hurricane Ida on track to hit New Orleans on Katrina anniversary

Satellite image of Hurricane Ida
Hurricane Ida brewing in the Caribbean Sea.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Hurricane Ida struck Cuba on Friday and threatened to slam into Louisiana with devastating force over the weekend, prompting evacuations in New Orleans and across the coastal region.

Ida intensified rapidly Friday from a tropical storm to a hurricane with top winds of 80 mph as it crossed western Cuba and entered the Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center predicted Ida would strengthen into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, with top winds of 140 mph before making landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast late Sunday.

“This will be a life-altering storm for those who aren’t prepared,” National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott said during a Friday news conference with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The governor urged residents to quickly prepare, saying: “By nightfall tomorrow night, you need to be where you intend to be to ride out the storm.”

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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered a mandatory evacuation for a small area of the city outside the levee system. But with the storm intensifying so much over a short time, she said it wasn’t possible to do so for the entire city. That generally calls for using all lanes of some highways to leave the city.

“The city cannot order a mandatory evacuation because we don’t have the time,” Cantrell said.

City officials said residents need to be prepared for prolonged power outages, and asked elderly residents to consider evacuating. Collin Arnold, the city’s emergency management director, said the city could be under high winds for about 10 hours.

Other areas across the coastal region were under a mix of voluntary and mandatory evacuations. The storm is expected to make landfall on the same date Hurricane Katrina devastated a large swath of the Gulf Coast 16 years ago. Capt. Ross Eichorn, a fishing guide on the coast about 70 miles southwest 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,” Eichorn said. “Anybody that isn’t concerned has got something wrong with them.”

A hurricane warning was issued for most of the Louisiana coast from Intracoastal City to the mouth of the Pearl River. A tropical storm warning was extended to the Mississippi-Alabama line.

Officials decided against evacuating New Orleans hospitals. There’s little room for their patients elsewhere, with hospitals from Texas to Florida already reeling from a surge in coronavirus patients, said Dr. Jennifer Avengo, the city’s health director.

At the state’s largest hospital system, Ochsner Health, officials ordered 10 days’ worth of fuel, food, drugs and other supplies and have backup fuel contracts for its generators. One positive was that the number of COVID-19 patients had dropped from 988 to 836 over the last week — a 15% decline.

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President Biden approved a federal emergency declaration for Louisiana ahead of the storm. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said FEMA plans to send nearly 150 medical personnel and almost 50 ambulances to the Gulf Coast to assist strained hospitals.

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

Ivonne Deulofeu, who lives in the western town of Vinales, said strong winds persisted for hours on Friday.

“It shook us up hard. It was really frightening,” Deulofeu said. “We had to nail the doors of the rooms. ... The plants, they’re all gone.”

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Col. Noel Lozano of Cuban Civil Defense said more than 10,000 people were evacuated in Pinar del Rio province, most to stay with relatives. There were no immediate reports of deaths.

Late Friday night, the storm was 105 miles west of Havana and traveling northwest at 15 mph.

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 in the Mississippi River Delta late Sunday, the hurricane center said.

If that forecast holds true, Ida would hit 16 years to the day since Hurricane Katrina landed as a Category 3 storm with 125-mph winds near the riverside community of Buras in Plaquemines Parish, just down the Mississippi from New Orleans.

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Katrina is blamed for an estimated 1,800 deaths after striking the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The massive storm surge it generated scoured the shores and washed away many houses completely.

In New Orleans, failures of levees led to catastrophic flooding. Water covered 80% of the city, and many homes were swamped to the rooftops. Some victims drowned in their attics. The Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center became scenes of sweltering misery as tens of thousands were stranded without power or running water.

Memories of Katrina still haunt many in New Orleans who scrambled to prepare for Ida on Friday, lining up for groceries, gas and ice, and the city was offering sandbags.

Traffic snarled at entrances to a 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.

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Retired police officer Wondell Smith, who was on duty in 2005 when Katrina hit, said he and his family were planning to ride out the storm at home, but were also getting ready to head farther inland if the forecasts worsened. He loaded water, bread and sandwich meat into his SUV.

“I know what that looks like,” Smith said, referring to the potential for devastation. “This is my first time being home in 34 years of service,” he added. “And I want to be prepared.”

Saturday’s preseason NFL game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Saints at the Superdome was first moved up seven hours to avoid the weather, and then canceled.

The hurricane center predicted the peak storm surge could reach 10 feet to 15 feet along the Louisiana coast, with a possible surge of 7 to 11 feet in the New Orleans area. The storm’s track put New Orleans on the eastern side — often called the “dirty” side — which generally sees much more significant effects than the western side.

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“Being east of this storm’s track is not ideal,” Arnold said.

Associated Press contributors to this report include Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La.; Jeff Martin in Marietta, Ga.; Darlene Superville in Washington; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Md.; and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana.


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