Hurricane Ida stoked fear and dread in Louisiana on Sunday as the approaching storm threatened to grow into one of the most powerful systems to assault the region since Hurricane Katrina, forcing residents to flee or hunker down as the storm quickly intensified to a Category 4 overnight and forecasters warned it had New Orleans in its projected path.
The trajectory and strength of Ida will serve as a high-stakes test of the 350 miles of levees, flood walls, pumps and gates that were built up around the city as added storm protection after Katrina in 2005. Ida has also raised concerns about hospitals, which were overwhelmed by water and patients during Katrina and are already strained by the resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ida is expected to arrive on Sunday, the 16th anniversary of Katrina, stirring painful reminders of the death and devastation it wrought and the psychological scars that still run deep in the city. That storm killed 1,833 people, inflicted more than $100 billion in damage, and submerged large swaths of New Orleans, leading to scenes of suffering that horrified the nation.
“It’s definitely triggering to even have to think about this,” said Victor Pizarro, a health advocate and a resident of New Orleans who planned to ride out the storm with his husband in the Gentilly Terrace neighborhood. “It’s exhausting to be a New Orleanian and a Louisianian at this point.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina more than $14 billion was spent on the reconstruction of the area’s levee system. Levees, including those that failed during Katrina, were armored with concrete.
Though the city was rebuilt to defend against a “100-year-storm,” or a storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening every year, local and state officials have said over the years that 100-year-protection isn’t enough at a time when weather events like hurricanes are intensifying and sea levels are on the rise.
Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana described Ida’s potential impact as historical. “We can sum it up by saying this will be one of the strongest hurricanes to hit anywhere in Louisiana since at least the 1850s,” he said on Saturday.
Ida, the first major storm to strike the Gulf Coast during the 2021 hurricane season, strengthened quickly in large part because, as is normal near the end of summer, the Gulf is very warm, and warmer water provides more energy to the storm. But research over the past decade suggests that climate change also plays a role. Studies have found that rapid intensification of hurricanes is also increasing because the oceans are warming as a result of human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases. Overnight on Saturday night, the storm first intensified to a Category 3, followed quickly by another upgrade to Category 4 an hour later.
The storm threatens a state already imperiled by a different kind of disaster, as hospitals have been inundated by a surge in coronavirus cases. Daily deaths from Covid-19 reached their highest levels in Louisiana last week, forcing stretched hospitals to modify the intense preparations they would normally make ahead of an expected hurricane strike.
The governor said officials had asked hospitals to check generators and stockpile more water, oxygen and personal protective supplies than usual for a storm. The implications of a strike from a Category 4 hurricane while hospitals were full were “beyond what our normal plans are,” he added.
The decision to stay or go was made for some area residents on Friday when New Orleans city officials issued mandatory evacuations for residents living outside the levee system, echoing similar mandates for neighbouring parishes. For those inside the levees, evacuations were voluntary.
The Rev. Willie L. Calhoun, Jr., who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, a New Orleans neighborhood that was ravaged by Katrina, had hoped to take part in a 16th anniversary commemoration Sunday, with a high school marching band and a theme, he said, of “healing, unifying and strengthening our communities.” Instead, on Saturday afternoon, he was in his Lincoln Continental on the verge of getting out of town.
In other news – The Braai Show: AKA’s battle far from over
Forbes last week applied for an urgent interdict at the Johannesburg High Court to halt the SABC, in conjunction with production companies Makhuducom Media and Cake Media, from airing the show’s second season. Learn more