© Reuters. Men lay plywood in front of a store in preparation for Hurricane Ida, in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA on August 28, 2021. REUTERS / Marco Bello
By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Devika Krishna Kumar
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Hurricane Ida was expected to make landfall in the United States on Sunday as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm that could sink much of the Louisiana coastline under water as the state grapples with a surge in COVID- 19 that is already affecting hospitals.
The storm intensified faster than authorities had predicted Saturday, when Gulf Coast residents were evacuated and businesses closed.
Ida grew stronger overnight, the toughest test yet for the hundreds of miles of new levees built around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 16 years ago and killed more than 1,800 people.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the storm, which makes landfall Sunday afternoon, could be the state’s worst direct hit by a hurricane since the 1850s.
The state is also grappling with the nation’s third-highest incidence of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, and hospitals in many parishes were already near capacity.
By early Sunday morning, Ida was a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson five-step scale, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. As of 7 a.m. CDT (1200 GMT) it was about 50 miles (85 km) southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, with maximum sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour).
Rain blasted through New Orleans on Sunday morning, where Robert Ruffin, a 68-year-old retired man, had been evacuated with his family to a hotel downtown from their home in the east of the city.
“I thought it was safer,” he said. “It is a double problem this time due to COVID.”
The IDA landing was just hours away, according to the NHC, which warned of life-threatening storm surges, potentially catastrophic wind damage and torrential rains.
“We are as prepared as we can be, but we are concerned about those levees,” said Kirk Lepine, president of Plaquemines Parish on the state’s Gulf Coast.
Plaquemines is one of the most vulnerable parishes, home to 23,000 people along the Mississippi Delta that extends into the Gulf. Lepine feared the levees along Highway 23 weren’t up to scratch.
“The water could go over the top,” he said. “That is our only way in and out.”
The state does not plan to evacuate hospitals now affected by the influx of COVID-19 patients, Edwards said.
“The implications of having a Category 4 storm while hospitals are full are beyond what we normally contemplate,” Edwards said at a news conference Saturday afternoon.
More than 3,400 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Friday and some 2,700 people are hospitalized with the virus.
“We’ve been talking to hospitals to make sure their generators are working, that they have a lot more water available than normal, that they have PPE (personal protective equipment) on hand,” Edwards said.
Authorities ordered widespread evacuations of low-lying and coastal areas, clogging roads and causing some gas stations to dry up as residents and vacationers fled.
“This is a powerful and dangerous storm. It’s moving faster than we thought it would be, so we have a little less time to prepare,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s chief medical officer. “There is a lot of COVID out there, there are a lot of risks out there.”
POWER SHUTDOWN EXPECTED
Utilities were adding additional staff and equipment to cope with anticipated energy losses. US President Joe Biden said he has coordinated with power companies and that 500 federal emergency response workers were in Texas and Louisiana to respond to the storm.
American energy companies cut offshore oil production by 91% and gasoline refineries cut operations at Louisiana plants in the path of the storm. Regional fuel prices rose in anticipation of production losses and increased demand due to evacuations.
Coastal and inland oil refineries also began to cut production due to the storm. Phillips 66 (NYSE 🙂 closed its Alliance plant on the coast in Belle Chasse, while Exxon Mobil Corp (NYSE 🙂 cut production at its Baton Rouge, Louisiana refinery on Saturday.
Jean Paul Bourg, 39, planned to ride out the storm in Morgan City, about 70 miles west of New Orleans. His wife’s brother was recently released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19 and secured a generator to ensure access to oxygen if needed.
“You can’t necessarily huddle with family members during COVID,” Bourg said, after trimming trees and laying plywood around her home. “More people than you think are staying.”