US Gulf Coast hit by ‘life-threatening’ storm on anniversary of Katrina


Natural disasters updates

Hurricane Ida slammed into the US Gulf Coast on Sunday afternoon as an “extremely dangerous” category 4 storm, prompting fears of widespread devastation in Louisiana and other states in the region.

The National Hurricane Center said wind speeds were around 150 miles per hour as the storm made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, about 60 miles south of New Orleans, bringing “life-threatening” storm surges.

Many Gulf Coast residents had evacuated in the days before the storm, clogging airports and roads out of town, after warnings from Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards that Ida would be “one of the strongest storms to hit anywhere in Louisiana since at least the 1850s”.

Those that remained in the city received dire warnings from officials as the storm landed.

The National Weather Service said in a tweet on Sunday morning: “If you are sheltering in place, go to an interior room of your house. Prepare to hunker down for the next 24 hours. Conditions will be worsening throughout the day as Ida makes landfall! DO NOT, we repeat, DO NOT, go outside during this time!”

A man rides a bicycle in Bourbon Street at the French Quarter ahead of Hurricane Ida, in New Orleans © REUTERS

US president Joe Biden approved emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of the storm and federal agencies had been deployed to help set up shelters in the region and support recovery efforts.

“We’ve pre-positioned equipment and supplies throughout the states to ensure resources are in place,” said Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “I urge residents in the storm’s path to prepare now for significant impacts.”

The storm quickly gathered strength overnight, fuelled by a pocket of unusually warm and deep water in the Gulf of Mexico, which some scientists have attributed to the effects of climate change.

A local resident on a jet ski tows a canoe to a flooded house as Hurricane Ida arrives Sunday in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. © AP

Ida was taking aim at the city of New Orleans 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina unleashed a wall of wind and water on the city, overwhelming the low-lying region’s flood defences and killing more than 1,800 people.

Despite fears of widespread damage from the huge storm, officials said they were confident a new $15bn system of pumps, levees and flood barriers built after Katrina had made the region better prepared for storms like Ida.

Ida will be “the most severe test” of the new flood system since Katrina, Edwards said on CNN on Sunday morning. “There’s been tremendous investment in this system . . . we believe the integrity of that system will be able to withstand the storm surge.”

A surging Covid-19 outbreak in the region threatened to complicate the storm response as hospitals were already stretched to capacity and short of staff with coronavirus-related hospitalisations and deaths at record highs.

“Our hospitals are currently overwhelmed assisting patients with Covid-19; we ask that trips to the emergency room be limited to strict urgent medical needs,” the New Orleans Health Department said in a press statement.

The storm was also sending ripples through energy markets as it barrelled through the heart of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil-producing region, threatening “extensive damage” to refineries, petrochemical facilities and liquefied natural gas export plants, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.

Oil producers, including Shell and BP, evacuated offshore platforms across the Gulf of Mexico ahead of the powerful storm, shutting in more than 1.65m barrels a day of crude output, 90 per cent of the Gulf of Mexico’s production and about 15 per cent of total US output, according to federal government data.