A satellite image shows Hurricane Ida in the Gulf of Mexico and over the coast of Louisiana, the US, August 29 2021. Picture: NOAA/REUTERS
A satellite image shows Hurricane Ida in the Gulf of Mexico and over the coast of Louisiana, the US, August 29 2021. Picture: NOAA/REUTERS

Hurricane Ida pummelled New Orleans and the Louisiana coast overnight with lashing rain and ferocious gusts, leaving much of the region without electricity and bracing for widespread floods and devastation.  

The storm, wielding some of the most powerful winds yet to hit the state, drove a wall of water inland when it thundered ashore on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane. All of New Orleans was without power when evening fell.

As Ida lumbers north, it is expected to unleash a potentially catastrophic amount of rain, totalling up to 61cm.

“We’re in for some historic floods,” said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group. “The rainfall — that is going to be the next story.”

Ida struck New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest tropical cyclone in US history that left much of the city in ruins. Now the levees, pumps and other infrastructure rebuilt after that 2005 storm are being put to their biggest test yet. Louisiana’s hospitals, meanwhile, are already overwhelmed with more than 2,600 coronavirus patients. 

President Joe Biden approved a federal disaster declaration for Louisiana to assist with recovery. While the storm’s effect was not fully clear early on Monday, and first responders don’t plan to start answering search and rescue calls until sunrise, signs have already emerged that Ida’s toll has been dire. The storm was responsible for at least one death, as the Louisiana health department said a man in Ascension Parish was killed when a tree fell on his home.

Flowed backward

More than 1-million homes and businesses in Louisiana and about 67,000 in Mississippi were without power, according to Poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages. The utility that serves New Orleans, Entergy Corp, said some could be in the dark for weeks. The company’s transmission system suffered “catastrophic damage”, it said. 

Ida drove so much water off the Gulf of Mexico that the Mississippi River flowed backward. In downtown New Orleans, the river has already risen by 213cm in the last 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service. 

Officials in Plaquemines Parish southeast of the city warned residents to evacuate after reports that water breached a levee. In St John the Baptist Parish, west of Lake Pontchartrain, officials reported at least one case of residents trapped in their attic and seeking to be rescued, according to local media.

“We are confident that the system will perform as designed and we all ride out the storm,” said Kelli Chandler, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

Ida made landfall amid the final stretch of what has been a summer of extreme weather in the US and around the globe. Six tropical cyclones have now struck the US, and the high in Portland, Oregon, hit an unthinkable 46°C in June.

Floods killed 20 people this month in Tennessee, while drought- and heat-wave-fuelled wildfires blackened huge swathes of California, Greece, Algeria and Siberia, sending smoke over the North Pole for the first time on record.

Monstrous surge

Ida’s 185km/h winds tie Louisiana’s hurricane record set by Laura in 2020 and a 19th century storm. 

Though Katrina made landfall with 202km/h winds, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was weaker. At its peak over the Gulf, Katrina’s winds reached about 281km/h, making it a Category 5 system with a monstrous storm surge. And while Ida is big, Katrina was even bigger — with hurricane-force winds that reached out 201km from its eye. Ida’s extend 80km.

After swirling past New Orleans, Ida is projected to cut across Mississippi and work its way northeast, rolling over New Jersey and New York later this week before blowing back out to sea. 

Aside from the swelling Mississippi, several smaller rivers in eastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi are expected to rise more than 3m in the next few days, according to the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center. The Big Black River in Bentonia, Mississippi, could rise by more than 5m between Sunday and Wednesday.

“A lot of destructive potential is still ahead of us from the inland wind and from the inland rainfall, too,” Ryan Truchelut, president of Weather Tiger, said.

The storm could damage about 1-million homes along the coast, according to CoreLogic. It ran directly over chemical plants, refineries and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. All told, damages and losses could exceed $40bn, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeller at Enki Research. That would make it among the costliest yet in the US

Oil explorers bracing for the storm have already halted the equivalent of more than 1.74-million barrels of daily crude production. Royal Dutch Shell, BP and others shut offshore platforms and evacuated crews.

Key agricultural export elevators are also in the direct path of the hurricane, and the interruption to container terminals is  likely to affect grain shipments. 

Ralph Tovar, a visitor from Chicago who was stranded in New Orleans because his flight was cancelled, tore apart a plastic umbrella bag to fashion a rainproof hood as he stood inside the oldest cathedral in the US, St Louis Cathedral, as the first gales began to lash the city.

“It’s in God’s hands now,” Tovar said. 

Shortly after, Ida roared ashore. 

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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