People were evacuating high-risk areas and lining up to buy supplies as Louisiana braced for Hurricane Ida, which was expected to strengthen to an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 hurricane when it hits the southern United States this weekend.
Hurricane Ida has struck Cuba 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 on Friday from a tropical storm to a hurricane with top winds of 128 kph as it crossed western Cuba. The National Hurricane Center predicted it would strengthen into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, with top winds of 225 kph before making landfall along the US 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.
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'Residents need to be prepared'
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.”
In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell called for voluntary evacuations. With the storm intensifying so much over a short period of time, she said it wasn't possible to order a mandatory evacuation which generally calls for using both lanes of highway traffic to evacuate people from the city.
“The city cannot order a mandatory evacuation because we don’t have the time.” Mayor LaToya 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 ten hours. Earlier Friday, Cantrell called for a mandatory evacuation for residents outside the city's levee protections — a relatively small sliver of the city's population.
Other areas across the coastal region were under a mix of voluntary and mandatory evacuations.
The storm is expected to make landfall on the exact date Hurricane Katrina devastated a large swath of the Gulf Coast exactly 16 years earlier. Capt. Ross Eichorn, a fishing guide on the coast about 112 kilometers 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. He added: “Anybody that isn’t concerned has got something wrong with them.”
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Hurricane warning issued
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 spike in coronavirus patients, said Dr. Jennifer Avengo, the city’s health director.
At the state's largest hospital system, Ochsner Health System, 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 past week — a 15 percent decline.
Federal emergency declaration for Louisiana
President Joe 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 Friday afternoon on Cuba's southern Isle of Youth. The Cuban government issued a hurricane warning for its westernmost provinces, where forecasters said as much as 50 centimeters of rain could fall in places, possibly unleashing deadly flash floods and mudslides.
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.