Hurricane Ida was about to make landfall in the United States on Sunday as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm that could submerge much of the Louisiana coast underwater as the state grapples with the spread of the Covid-19 virus already taxing hospitals.
Ida gathered more power overnight, faster than meteorologists had predicted just a day earlier. It’s the toughest test yet of the hundreds of miles of new levees built around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 16 years ago to the present day, inundating historically black neighborhoods and killing more than 1,800 people.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the storm, which is due to make landfall on Sunday afternoon, may be the worst direct hit by a tornado in the state since the 1850s.
The state is also dealing with the third-highest rate in the country of new Covid-19 infections, with about 3,400 new cases reported on Friday alone. Mr Edwards said hospitals are treating about 2,450 patients with Covid-19, though those in many of the state’s parishes are already close to accommodating them.
By early Sunday, Ida was a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). At about 4 pm Irish time, it was located approximately 95 kilometers west-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and about 135 kilometers south of New Orleans, and had strong winds of up to 240 kilometers per hour.
It rained in New Orleans Sunday morning, as retired 68-year-old Robert Ruffin and his family were evacuated to a downtown hotel from their east city home.
“I thought it was safer,” he said. “It’s a double problem this time because of Covid.”
Fall Ida was only a few hours away, according to the NHC, which warned of life-threatening storm surges, potentially catastrophic wind damage and flood rains.
“We are as prepared as we can be, but we are concerned about these dams,” said Kirk Lieben, president of Plaquemines Parish on the state’s Gulf Coast.
Plaquemines is one of the weakest parishes, with 23,000 people living along the Mississippi Delta stretching into the bay. Lieben feared that the levees along Interstate 23 were not up to the task.
“The water can overflow,” he said. “This is our only way in and out.”
Edwards told CNN Sunday that he believes the state’s levees will be able to withstand the storm surge, though he has expressed some skepticism about parishes, such as Plaquemines, in the south.
“Where trust is less in the south, where there are other protection systems that are not built on the same standard,” he said. “This is where we are most concerned about the impact of storm surge.”
He said Saturday that there are no plans to evacuate patients from hospitals and that state officials have spoken with hospitals to make sure their generators are working and that they have more water on hand than usual.
Officials ordered large-scale evacuations of low-lying and coastal areas, jamming highways and drying up some petrol stations as residents and vacationers fled.
“This is a strong and dangerous storm. It is moving faster than we thought it would be, so we have less time to prepare,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s chief medical officer. “There is a lot of Covid, and there are a lot of risks out there.”
Anticipate a power outage
The facilities were bringing in additional crews and equipment to deal with the expected energy losses. US President Joe Biden said he coordinated with electric utilities and that 500 federal emergency response workers are in Texas and Louisiana to respond to the storm.
US energy companies cut offshore oil production by 91 percent and gasoline refineries cut operations at Louisiana plants in the storm’s path. Regional fuel prices have risen in anticipation of production losses and increased demand due to evictions.
Coastal and inland oil refineries have also begun to cut production due to the storm. Philips 66 closed its Alliance plant on the coast in Bell Chass, while ExxonMobil reduced production at its Baton Rouge, Louisiana refinery on Saturday.
Jean-Paul Borg, 39, was planning to weather the storm in Morgan City, about 112 kilometers west of New Orleans. His brother-in-law was recently released from hospital after contracting Covid-19 and secured a generator to ensure access to oxygen if needed.
“You can’t necessarily gather with your family members during Covid,” Borg said, after felling trees and laying plywood on his house. “More people are on the move than you think.” – Reuters
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