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

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

Forecast to arrive on Sunday evening with 140mph winds, Ida is 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 as a powerful category 3 storm – weaker than Ida’s projected strength.

The I-10 highway out of New Orleans was gridlocked on Saturday morning after the mayor, LaToya Cantrell, ordered a mandatory evacuation for those living outside the levee protection system and voluntary evacuation for those living inside.

Ida had escalated so quickly, Cantrell said, there had been no time to mandatorily evacuate the entire city.

“We are not calling for a mandatory evacuation because the time simply is not on our side,” Cantrell told reporters on Friday evening. “We do not want to have people on the road and therefore in greater danger.”

The impending threat was compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. 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.

Health officials in New Orleans have not evacuated hospitals due to limited capacity in neighboring states, despite a roughly 15% fall in state Covid patients over the past week.

“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.

On Saturday morning the National Weather Service (NWS) said a region 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 other cities in the storm’s projected path, including Baton Rouge and Lafayette, were braced for extended power outages.

On Saturday morning, Ida was centered about 510 miles south-east of New Orleans, traveling north-west at 16mph with sustained winds of 85mph.

Forecasters have 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.

On Friday, Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration for Louisiana. The White House announced plans to send 150 medical personnel to the affected region.

The president 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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