Hurricane Ida pummeled New Orleans and the Louisiana coast overnight with lashing rain and ferocious gusts, leaving much of the region without electricity and bracing for widespread floods and devastation.
The storm, wielding some of the most powerful winds ever to hit the state, drove a wall of water inland when it thundered ashore Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane. All of New Orleans was without power when evening fell. And as Ida lumbers north, it’s expected to unleash a potentially catastrophic amount of rain, totaling up to 61 centimeters.
“We’re in for some historic floods,” said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group. “The rainfall — that is going to be the next story.”
Ida struck New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest tropical cyclone in U.S. history that left much of the city in ruins. Now the levees, pumps and other infrastructure rebuilt after that 2005 storm are being put to their biggest test yet. Louisiana’s hospitals, meanwhile, are already overwhelmed with more than 2,600 coronavirus patients.
The storm’s impact wasn’t fully clear late Sunday, and first responders don’t plan to start answering search and rescue calls until sunrise Monday. Yet signs have already emerged that Ida’s toll has been dire.
Nearly 800,000 homes and businesses were without power, according to Poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages. The utility that serves New Orleans, Entergy Corp., said some could be in the dark for weeks. The company’s transmission system suffered “catastrophic damage,” it said in a statement.
Ida drove so much water off the Gulf of Mexico that the Mississippi River flowed backward. In downtown New Orleans, the river has already risen by more than 2 meters in the last 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service. Officials in Plaquemines Parish southeast of the city warned residents to evacuate after reports that water breeched a levee.
“We are confident that the system will perform as designed and we all ride out the storm,” Kelli Chandler, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said in an interview.
Ida made landfall amid the final stretch of what’s been a summer of extreme weather in the U.S. and around the globe. Six tropical cyclones have now struck the U.S., and the high in Portland, Oregon, hit an unthinkable 46.6 degrees Celsius in June. Floods killed 20 people this month in Tennessee, while drought- and heat-wave-fueled wildfires blackened huge swaths of California, Greece, Algeria and Siberia, sending smoke over the North Pole for the first time on record.
Ida’s 241 kph winds tie Louisiana’s hurricane record set by Laura in 2020 and a 19th century storm.
Although Katrina made landfall with 202 kph winds, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was weaker. At its peak over the Gulf, Katrina’s winds reached about 281 kph, making it a Category 5 system with a monstrous storm surge. And while Ida is big, Katrina was even bigger — with hurricane-force winds that reached out 201 km from its eye. Ida’s extend 80 km.
After swirling past New Orleans, Ida is projected to cut across Mississippi and work its way northeast, rolling over New Jersey and New York later this week before blowing back out to sea.
Aside from the swelling Mississippi, several smaller rivers in eastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi are expected to rise more than 3 meters in the next few days, according to the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center. The Big Black River in Bentonia, Mississippi, could rise by more than 5 meters between Sunday and Wednesday.
“A lot of destructive potential is still ahead of us from the inland wind and from the inland rainfall, too,” Ryan Truchelut, president of Weather Tiger LLC, said in an interview.
The storm could damage close to 1 million homes along the coast, according to CoreLogic. It ran directly over chemical plants, refineries and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. All told, damages and losses could exceed $40 billion, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research. That would make it among the costliest ever in the U.S.
Oil explorers bracing for the storm have already halted the equivalent of more than 1.74 million barrels of daily crude production. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, BP PLC and others shut offshore platforms and evacuated crews.
Ralph Tovar, a visitor from Chicago who was stranded in New Orleans because his flight was canceled, tore apart a plastic umbrella bag to fashion a rain-proof hood as he stood inside the oldest cathedral in the U.S., St. Louis Cathedral, as the first gales began to lash the city.
“It’s in God’s hands now,” Tovar said in an interview.
Shortly after, Ida roared ashore.
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