One person has died as Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the US, knocked out power to all of New Orleans, reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and blew roofs off buildings across Louisiana.
The first death was reported in Prairieville, a suburb of Baton Rouge, after a tree fell on a house, said the sheriff of Ascension Parish.
Across Louisiana, more than a million households were without power. The outage in New Orleans left the city more vulnerable to flooding – 16 years after Hurricane Katrina caused devastation.
Hundreds of thousands of residents were without refrigeration in sweltering heat and had been told to conserve water after sewage pumping stations, which have no back-up power, ground to a halt. Boil-water notices were issued in some areas.
Sondagaand, the National Weather Service (NWS) New Orleans office said local law enforcement had reported a levee was failing in the Lafitte and Jean Lafitte area, in Jefferson Parish, putting more than 200 people “in imminent danger”.
“This is a particularly dangerous situation,” the weather service warned, urging people to seek higher ground immediately.
“We’ve never seen one like this, it’s the worst storm in our history,” Lafitte mayor Tim Kerner Jr later told WGNO TV.
Ida – a category 4 storm – hit on the same date Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, coming ashore about 45 miles west of where category 3 Katrina first struck land. Ida’s 150mph winds tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the mainland US.
Ida reduced in strength as it crawled inland, becoming a tropical storm again 16 hours after landfall. Early on Monday its top sustained wind was 60mph. Forecasters said it would rapidly weaken while still dumping torrential rain over a large area. The storm was centered about 95 miles south-south-west of Jackson, Mississippi, moving north at 8mph.
After approving federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi on Saturday, Joe Biden appeared at Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) headquarters in Washington on Sunday afternoon.
“As soon as the storm passes we’re going to put the country’s full might behind the rescue and recovery,”Het hy aan verslaggewers gesê.
Fema said the full impact of Ida would not be known until Monday.
Die Louisiana governor, John Bell Edwards, said Ida was following close to “the worst possible path”.
“This is not the kind of storm that we normally get,” he told the Associated Press. “This is going to be much stronger than we usually see and, quite frankly, if you had to draw up the worst possible path for a hurricane in Louisiana, it would be something very, very close to what we’re seeing.”
The power supplier to New Orleans, Entergy, confirmed late on Sunday that the only power in the city was coming from generators, the city’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness said. The message included a screen shot that cited “catastrophic transmission damage” for the power failure.
The city relies on Entergy for backup power for the pumps that remove storm water from city streets. Rain from Ida is expected to test that pump system.
Although Ida arrived with more powerful winds and expected rainfall than Katrina, forecast storm surge of a life-threatening 15ft was expected to be less than in 2005 when Katrina brought highs of 20ft, leading to catastrophic failure of levees in New Orleans.
Appearing on CNN, Edwards said he was confident the levees would hold. “There’s been tremendous investment in this system since Hurricane Katrina," hy het gesê. “This will be the most severe test of that system. But we believe that system is going to hold, the entire integrity of that system will be able to withstand the storm surge.”
In New Orleans, wind tore at awnings and caused buildings to sway and water to spill out of Lake Ponchartrain. The Coast Guard office in New Orleans received more than a dozen reports of breakaway barges. In Lafitte about 35 myl (55km) south of New Orleans, a loose barge struck a bridge, according to Jefferson Parish officials.
US army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Ricky Boyette said engineers detected a “negative flow” on the Mississippi River as a result of storm surge. And Edwards said he watched a live video feed from around Port Fourchon as Ida came ashore that showed that roofs had been blown off buildings in “many places”.
Officials said Ida’s swift intensification from a few thunderstorms to a massive hurricane in just three days left no time to organize a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans’ 390,000 residents. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged residents remaining in the city on Sunday to “hunker down”.
Marco Apostolico said he felt confident riding out the storm at his home in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods during Katrina.
His home was among those rebuilt with the help of actor Brad Pitt to withstand hurricane-force winds. But the memory of Katrina still hung over the latest storm. “It’s obviously a lot of heavy feelings," hy het gesê. “And yeah, potentially scary and dangerous.”
The region includes petrochemical sites and major ports, and is also an area that is already reeling from a resurgence of Covid-19 infections due to low vaccination rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.
New Orleans hospitals planned to ride out the storm with their beds nearly full, as similarly stressed hospitals elsewhere had little room for evacuated patients. Shelters for those fleeing their homes carried an added risk of becoming flashpoints for new infections.
The hurricane was also threatening neighboring Mississippi, where Katrina demolished oceanfront homes. With Ida approaching and 28,000 households without power so far in the state, Claudette Jones evacuated her home east of Gulfport, Mississippi, as waves started pounding the shore. “I’m praying I can go back to a normal home like I left," sy het gese. “That’s what I’m praying for. But I’m not sure at this point.”
Ida’s hurricane-force winds stretched 50 myl (80km) from the storm’s eye, or about half the size of Katrina, and a New Orleans infrastructure official emphasized that the city was in a “very different place than it was 16 years ago”.
The levee system has been overhauled since Katrina, Ramsey Green, deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, said before the worst of the storm hit. While water may not penetrate levees, Green said if forecasts of up to 20in of rain proved true, the underfunded and neglected network of pumps, underground pipes and surface canals likely won’t be able to keep up.
Louisiana’s 17 oil refineries account for nearly one-fifth of US capacity and two liquefied natural gas export terminals ship about 55% of the nation’s exports, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Government statistics show that 95% of oil and gas production in the region was shut down as Ida made landfall, according to energy company S&P Global Platts.
Louisiana is also home to two nuclear power plants, one near New Orleans and another 27 miles north-west of Baton Rouge.
Edwards warned of weeks of recovery. “Many, many people are going to be tested in ways that we can only imagine today,” the governor said.