VIDEO: Hurricane Ida slams into Louisiana, plunging New Orleans into darkness
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Tim Craig, Emmanuel Felton and Ashley Cusick
New Orleans - Hurricane Ida slammed into the marshy coastline of southeast Louisiana on Sunday, bringing catastrophic winds and "extremely life-threatening" storm surge that continued to cause devastation even as it weakened slightly.
The Category 4 storm, on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, tied last year's Hurricane Laura for the most intense hurricane on record in the state, with winds of 150 mph.
As night fell, the Crescent City was plunged in darkness as Ida charged inland, knocking out power. Residents who had stayed in the city rather than evacuate huddled together as the howling wind caused some buildings to shake, reminding many of Katrina.
Ida made landfall just before noon local time near the community of Port Fourchon, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, and its path put the Big Easy and its suburbs in the most powerful quadrant of the storm. Four hours after making landfall Ida maintained Category 4-strength winds - so powerful that they reversed the flow of a portion of the Mississippi River for three hours.
The small coastal community of Grand Isle took the early brunt of Ida's storm surge. Officials there estimated that 40 of the town's 1,500 residents remained in Grand Isle despite a mandatory evacuation order. On Sunday, officials reported receiving several 911 calls from the area, but with several feet of water flooding the only road in and out of the community, there was little emergency responders could do to help. That community sits outside of the region's main levee protection system.
Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng (R) reported "whitecaps" on the highway to the community and that the island's fire station was taking on water.
"This is the worst I've seen in my lifetime," Grand Isle Police Chief Scooter Resweber told the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. "We're getting our worst nightmare right now."
In Galliano, La., near where the eye of the storm passed, winds peeled the roof off Lady of the Sea General Hospital. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said that the state's hospitals were too full because of the recent covid-19 surge for officials to evacuate facilities in harm's way before the storm. On Sunday evening, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health said it would work to evacuate patients at Lady of the Sea after winds subsided.
Video showed the roof suddenly being ripped off and torn into pieces in the storm."Oh my god!" someone yelled.
At a second Lafourche Parish hospital, Thibodaux Regional Health System's intensive care unit lost power as the storm passed. Hospital officials there had to move critically ill patients to other parts of the hospital in the middle of the storm.
The Washington Post could not reach the hospital Sunday night, and the Louisiana Hospital Association did not immediately respond to an inquiry.
Residents of Lafourche Parish were ordered to evacuate. But fleeing Ida has been tougher for hospitals as spiking coronavirus cases fill beds around the South.
Edwards said earlier Sunday that "evacuating these large hospitals is not an option because there are not any other hospitals with the capacity to take them."
"We were able to evacuate over 20 nursing homes and rehab facilities and behavioural facilities and those sorts of things," he said on "Face the Nation." "But when you think in terms of hospitals, it is just not possible."
As Ida moved farther inland, it shifted eastward, taking the eye of the storm closer to New Orleans than models had initially predicted. The slow-moving storm caused some buildings to collapse. Local media reported that the roofs of New Orleans Traffic Court and the New Orleans Municipal Court building had been ripped off, downing power lines and bringing down limbs from some of the city's famous centuries-old oak trees. Even before the storm made landfall, electricity was out across the city, with multiple sewage stations without power, leading the city's mayor to call on residents to limit unnecessary water use.
By early evening, Entergy, the city's electricity provider, announced that all of New Orleans had lost power due to what Entergy called "catastrophic" damage to its transmission system. According to Jefferson Parish officials, a major transmission tower that provides power for the east banks of Orleans and Jefferson parishes, the heart of the metropolitan area, had collapsed. Officials across the area were also concerned about how many days or weeks residents would be out of power as forecasters predicted dangerous hot and humid weather would return to the region later in the week.
The power failure impaired the operation of the pumps that keep the city from flooding. The Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, which runs the pumps, released a statement saying its teams were quickly shifting to their self-generated power sources. As evening fell, residents across the city were reporting street flooding.
Around the same time, officials in Jefferson Parish, just west of New Orleans, announced that residents on the east bank of the Mississippi River there should boil their water before using it after significant damage to the parish's water distribution system. That boil water advisory affected more than 200,000 residents.
The effects of the storm spread far east of Louisiana, with Ida's outer bands reaching as far as the Florida Panhandle. The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings as far east as the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
President Biden made an unscheduled stop at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday afternoon to be briefed on the storm. The president promised to "put the country's full weight" behind rescue-and-recovery efforts as soon as the storm passed.
"We're going to be here to help the gulf region get back on its feet as quickly as possible, as long as it takes," Biden said. "This is going to take a lot of resources, a little bit of luck and, as my grandfather would say, the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbours."
New Orleans officials said they are confident that the levee system protecting the city would not fail as it had during Katrina. Levee breaches during Katrina flooded nearly 80 percent of the city. Officials said the federal government has since spent $14.5 billion on a new system of levees, pumps, sea walls, floodgates and drainage systems to protect the city and most of its immediate suburbs from storm surge and flooding. That system is nearly complete, but there are three drainage projects that remained unfinished ahead of Ida. All gates in the levee system are closed, the city said Sunday.
Instead of the kind of massive storm surge that flooded the city during Katrina, city officials were more concerned about flooding caused by the torrential rains forecast to hit the city. The downpour could exceed three inches per hour, overwhelming the city's drainage systems. Still, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) and other city officials projected confidence in safeguards put in place.
"We're very confident in a way that we have never as a community been before," said Ramsey Green, the city's deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure. "It's a different time, it's a different place, and we had 16 years to really protect our city from what occurred tragically on this day 16 years ago."
There was less confidence outside of the federally funded hurricane-risk reduction system, where Edwards, at a Sunday news conference, projected that there would be some overtopping of levees.
"Obviously, overtopping is concerning," Edwards said. "But I want to make sure that everybody understands overtopping and levee failure are not the same thing. Levee failure can be much more catastrophic."
Several levees south of New Orleans were overtopped. The overtopping of a levee near the small community of Braithwaite led to severe flooding. The National Weather Service advised people in the area to seek higher ground immediately, even as Ida's winds made movement dangerous. Officials there declared a more serious flash flood "emergency," while warning of "life-threatening" conditions and a levee potentially being overwhelmed.
Later, the National Weather Service issued a separate flash flood "emergency" for the south shore area of the metro New Orleans area, home to region's most populated communities.
Even with all of the assurances of a new, stronger levee system protecting New Orleans, many residents and visitors couldn't help but fear a repeat of Katrina as they watched Ida barreling toward the coast.
Wayne Rebels said he was being forced to ride out the storm in a downtown Holiday Inn after his flight to Houston was cancelled. The New Orleans native, who has lived in Houston for 16 years, recalled being rescued from the roof of his home during Katrina.
"I never came back after Katrina, except to visit my relatives, but never at this time of year," Rebels said. "Now I can't get out."
After the levees were breached during Katrina, water poured into Rebels's home, forcing him onto his roof. For two days and nights, he stayed there until the Oregon National Guard finally arrived to hoist him into a helicopter. But the guard helicopter dropped him off on the Interstate 10 overpass, where he spent another two days waiting to be rescued. An evacuation bus eventually took him to Houston, an experience he described as especially traumatic.
"When we arrived in Houston, they wanted to delouse us before we got off the bus," said Rebels, a horticulturalist. "That was the ultimate humiliation."
Thousands of federal, state and local responders were staged throughout the Gulf Coast preparing for the aftermath of Ida, which officials warned could render some areas uninhabitable for weeks.
Edwards activated the Louisiana National Guard - more than 4,900 troops - and members were staged in 14 parishes across the southeastern part of the state.
"There is no doubt that the coming days and weeks are going to be extremely difficult for our state, and many, many people are going to be tested in ways that we can only imagine today, but I can also tell you that as a state, we've never been more prepared," Edwards said Sunday, repeatedly describing the response effort as "robust."
FEMA said it had deployed some 2,000 employees to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas - including emergency medical workers in Louisiana and Mississippi, where hospitals are at nearly full capacity because of a surge of Covid-19 patients.
At least 900 rescue workers from 16 states had positioned with boats and other equipment in Louisiana and Mississippi - including scores of emergency workers who had responded to Katrina.
The Coast Guard said it was staging assets across the Gulf Coast, including Lake Charles, La. - a city still rebuilding from damage caused by Hurricane Laura.
A state of emergency had been declared in Mississippi and Alabama, where officials were bracing for tornadoes and flooding. In Mississippi, which was experiencing flooding and tornadoes from Ida's outer bands, Swift Water Rescue teams were deployed to the Gulf Coast.
With threats of widespread power loss, hundreds of utility workers from around the country, including at least 150 from Florida, were descending to assist in coming days. Entergy, which oversees the power grid in much of southeastern Louisiana, said it had mobilized 16 000 workers.
Hospitals were also of particular concern for many ahead of Ida. During Katrina, dozens of people died at the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. The delta variant of the coronavirus, which has filled the state's hospitals in recent weeks, had also thwarted plans to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, Edwards said.
Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's leading infectious-disease expert, said Sunday that he worried Ida could worsen the already dire coronavirus situation in Southern states.
"You're having two potential or real catastrophes conflating on each other," Fauci said during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union."