NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hurricane Ida struck Cuba on Friday as a rapidly intensifying storm that could speed across warm Gulf waters and slam into Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane on Sunday, the National Hurricane Center warned.
“The forecast track has it headed straight towards New Orleans. Not good,” said Jim Kossin, a senior scientist with The Climate Service.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered the evacuation of everyone living outside the levee system that protects the area from flooding. She did not say how many people lived there, but urged residents with medical conditions and other special needs to get out early.
“Now is the time,” Cantrell said.
Ida became a hurricane with maximum winds of 75 mph (120 kph) Friday afternoon right before making its first landfall on the island off Cuba’s southern coast. The Cuban government issued a hurricane warning for its westernmost provinces, where forecasters said as much as 20 inches of rain could fall in places, possibly unleashing deadly flash floods and mudslides.
An even greater danger will then begin over the Gulf, where forecasts were aligned in predicting Ida will strengthen very quickly into a major hurricane, reaching 120 mph (193 kph) before landfall in the Mississippi River delta late Sunday, the hurricane center said.
If that forecast holds true, Ida would hit 16 years to the day since Hurricane Katrina landed as a Category 3 storm with 125 mph (201 kph) winds near the riverside community of Buras in Plaquemines Parish, just down the Mississippi from New Orleans.
Katrina is blamed for an estimated 1,800 deaths from the central Louisiana coast to around the Mississippi-Alabama state line. A massive storm surge scoured the shores and wiped houses off the map. In New Orleans, failures of federal levees led to catastrophic flooding. Water covered 80% of the city and many homes were swamped to the rooftops. Some victims drowned in their attics. The Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center became scenes of sweltering misery as tens of thousands were stranded without power or running water.
Memories of Katrina still haunt many who scrambled to prepare for Ida on Friday, lining up for groceries, gas and ice, and the city was offering sandbags.
Traffic snarled at entrances to a New Orleans Costco, where dozens of cars were backed up at the gas pumps and shoppers wheeled out carts stacked with cases of bottled water and other essentials.
Retired police officer Wondell Smith, who worked on the police force 16 years ago when Katrina hit, said he and his family were planning to stay, but were also getting ready to head farther inland if the forecasts worsened. He loaded water, bread and sandwich meat into his SUV.
“I know what that looks like,” Smith said, referring to the potential devastation. “This is my first time being home in 34 years of service,” he added. “And I want to be prepared.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s preseason game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Saints at the Superdome was moved up seven hours to avoid the weather, to a noon Central Time start after consultation with city and federal officials and the National Weather Service.
“Ida certainly has the potential to be very bad,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. “It will be moving quickly, so the trek across the Gulf from Cuba to Louisiana will only take 1.5 days.”
A hurricane watch for New Orleans and an emergency declaration for the state of Louisiana were declared. Category 3 hurricanes are capable of causing devastating damage.
“Unfortunately, all of Louisiana’s coastline is currently in the forecast cone” for the storm, said Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“By Saturday evening, everyone should be in the location where they intend to ride out the storm,” the governor added.
A hurricane watch was in effect from Cameron, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border — including Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Maurepas and metropolitan New Orleans.
Dangerous storm surge was also possible along the Gulf Coast. If it pushes a storm surge at high tide, Ida could overlap some levees, with 7 to 11 feet (2.1 to 3.4 meters) of water predicted from Morgan City, Louisiana, to Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
“There is an increasing risk of life-threatening storm surge, damaging hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall Sunday and Monday, especially along the coast of Louisiana,” the hurricane center said.
The mayor of Grand Isle, a Louisiana town on a narrow barrier island in the Gulf, said a voluntary evacuation late Thursday would become mandatory on Friday.
By the time it reaches the central Gulf Coast Sunday, it could dump 8 to 16 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain, with 20 inches in isolated areas, from southeast Louisiana to coastal Mississippi and Alabama through Monday morning. More heavy rains are likely across Mississippi when Ida moves inland, causing “considerable flash, urban, small stream, and riverine flooding,” the hurricane center said.
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