Hurricane set to hit Louisiana coast as COVID-19 infections surge

Hurricane Ida rapidly grew in strength early Sunday, becoming a dangerous Category 4 hurricane just hours before it was expected to hit the Louisiana coast as emergency officials in the region grappled with opening shelters for displaced evacuees despite the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

As Ida moved through some of the warmest ocean water in the world in the northern Gulf of Mexico, its top winds grew by 72 km/h to 230 km/h in five hours. The system was expected to make landfall early Sunday afternoon on the exact date Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi 16 years earlier.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ida is forecast to hit at 250 km/h, just shy of a Category 5 hurricane. Only four Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the United States — Michael in 2018, Andrew in 1992, Camille in 1969 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. 

Ida threatened a region already reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections, due to low vaccination rates and the highly contagious delta variant.

Hospitals already under stress

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. And shelters for those fleeing their homes carried an added risk of becoming flashpoints for new infections.

Hurricane=force winds started to strike Grand Isle on Sunday morning. Before power was lost on the barrier island, a beachfront web camera showed the ocean steadily rising as growing waves churned and palm trees whipped.

Forecasters warned winds of 161 km/h were expected soon in Houma, a city of 33,000 in Louisiana that supports oil platforms in the Gulf.

In New Orleans, where the worst weather is expected later, a light rain fell in the morning. Cars were parked on the median, which locals call neutral ground, because it’s a bit higher and can protect against potential flooding.

Southern Louisiana is still reeling from the effects of  Hurricane Laura from a year ago. The state also has the  third-highest incidence of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in  the U.S over the past seven days.

No time to organize mass evacuation

Ida intensified so swiftly that New Orleans officials said there was no time to organize a mandatory evacuation of its 390,000 residents. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged residents to leave voluntarily. Those who stayed were warned to prepare for long power outages amid sweltering heat.

Nick Mosca was walking his dog, like most of those who were out.

“I’d like to be better prepared. There’s a few things I’m thinking we could have done. But this storm came pretty quick, so you only have the time you have,” Mosca said.

Cars drive through floodwaters along Route 90 after the outer bands of Hurricane Ida arrived Sunday in Gulfport, Miss. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

Gov. John Bel Edwards vowed Saturday that Louisiana’s “resilient and tough people” would weather the storm. He also noted shelters would operate with reduced capacities “to reflect the realities of COVID.”

Edwards said Louisiana officials were already working to find hotel rooms for many evacuees so that fewer had to stay in mass shelters. He noted that during last year’s hurricane season, Louisiana found rooms for 20,000 people.

“So, we know how to do this,” Edwards said. “I hope and pray we don’t have to do it anywhere near that extent.”

Shelter doing temperature checks

In coastal Gulfport, Miss., a Red Cross shelter posted signs displaying directions for evacuees along with warnings about COVID-19. With skies still sunny, only a handful of people had shown up Saturday evening.

Shelter manager Barbara Casterlin said workers were required to wear face masks. Evacuees were encouraged to do the same. Anyone who refuses will be sent to an isolated area, she said, and so will people who are sick.

A satellite image shows Hurricane Ida in the Gulf of Mexico and approaching the coast of Louisiana, on Sunday. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Reuters)

“We’re not checking vaccinations,” Casterlin said, “but we are doing temperature checks two or three times a day.”

President Joe Biden approved emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of Ida’s arrival.

Memories of Hurricane Katrina

Comparisons to the Aug. 29, 2005, landfall of Katrina weighed heavily on residents bracing for Ida. A Category 3 storm when it made landfall, Katrina was blamed for 1,800 deaths as it demolished oceanfront homes in Mississippi and caused levee breaches and catastrophic flooding in New Orleans.

In Saucier, Miss., Alex and Angela Bennett spent Saturday afternoon filling sand bags to place around their flood-prone home. Both survived Katrina, and didn’t expect Ida to cause nearly as much destruction where they live, based on forecasts.

“Katrina was terrible. This ain’t gonna be nothing,” Alex Bennett said. “I hate it for Louisiana, but I’m happy for us.”

Long lines formed at gas pumps Saturday as people rushed to escape. Trucks pulling saltwater fishing boats and campers streamed away from the coast on Interstate 65 in Alabama, while traffic jams clogged Interstate 10 heading out of New Orleans.

In preparation of Hurricane Ida, workers attached protective plywood to windows and doors of businesses in the French Quarter of New Orleans and elsewhere in the Louisiana city on Saturday. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

Officials stressed that the levee and drainage systems protecting the city had been much improved since Katrina. But they cautioned flooding was still possible with up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain forecast in some areas.

Edwards said 5,000 National Guard troops were being staged in 14 Louisiana parishes for search and rescue efforts. And 10,000 linemen were on standby to respond to electrical outages.

Ida posed a threat far beyond New Orleans. A hurricane warning was issued for nearly 320 kilometres of Louisiana’s coastline, from Intracoastal City south of Lafayette to the Mississippi state line. A tropical storm warning was extended to the Alabama-Florida line.

Petrochemical industry in storm’s path

Meteorologist Jeff Masters, who flew hurricane missions for the government and founded Weather Underground, said Ida is forecast to move through “the just absolute worst place for a hurricane.”

The Interstate 10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is a critical hub of the nation’s petrochemical industry, lined with oil refineries, natural gas terminals and chemical manufacturing plants. Entergy, Louisiana’s major electricity provider, operates two nuclear power plants along the Mississippi River.

A U.S. Energy Department map of oil and gas infrastructure shows scores of low-lying sites in the storm’s projected path that are listed as potentially vulnerable to flooding.

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