New Orleans battered by Hurricane Ida as storm claims first victim in Louisiana

A million households without power as governor says system of levees overhauled after Hurricane Katrina will face ‘most severe test’

One person has died as Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the US, knocked out power to all of New Orleans, reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and blew roofs off buildings across Louisiana.

The first death was reported in Prairieville, a suburb of Baton Rouge, after a tree fell on a house, said the sheriff of Ascension parish.

Across Louisiana, more than a million households were without power. The outage in New Orleans left the city more vulnerable to flooding – 16 years after Hurricane Katrina caused devastation.

Hundreds of thousands were without refrigeration in sweltering heat and were told to conserve water after sewage pumping stations, which have no back-up power, ground to a halt. Boil-water notices were issued in some areas.

Residents of Alliance, 20 miles south of New Orleans, were told to evacuate after a levee failure. Another levee in Lafitte and Jean Lafitte had been topped, but it did not have any structural damage.

“We’ve never seen one like this, it’s the worst storm in our history,” the Lafitte mayor, Tim Kerner Jr, later told WGNO TV.

Ida – a category 4 storm – hit on the same date Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, coming ashore about 45 miles west of where category 3 Katrina first struck land. Ida’s 150mph winds tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the mainland US.

Ida reduced in strength as it crawled inland, becoming a tropical storm again 16 hours after landfall. Early on Monday its top sustained wind was 60mph. Forecasters said it would rapidly weaken while dumping torrential rain over a large area. The storm was centered about 95 miles south-south-west of Jackson, Mississippi, moving north at 8mph. It was expected to move into central and north-eastern Mississippi before hitting the Tennessee Valley on Tuesday.

After approving federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi on Saturday, Joe Biden appeared at Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) headquarters in Washington on Sunday afternoon.

“As soon as the storm passes we’re going to put the country’s full might behind the rescue and recovery,” he told reporters.

In a tweet on Monday morning, Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, said it was clear that the storm had “left many hazards across Louisiana, including flooded roadways, debris and downed power lines”.

New Orleans police detective Alexander Reiter looks over debris from a building that collapsed during Hurricane Ida.
New Orleans police detective Alexander Reiter looks over debris from a building that collapsed during Hurricane Ida. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

The power supplier to New Orleans, Entergy, confirmed late on Sunday that the only power in the city was coming from generators, the city’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness said. The message included a screen shot that cited “catastrophic transmission damage”.

The city relies on Entergy for backup power for the pumps that remove storm water from city streets.

Hospitals in New Orleans, overrun with Covid-19 patients before the storm hit the city, have been relying on generators. Lady of the Sea general hospital in Lafourche parish reported extensive roof damage. The state health department said a small number of patients would be evacuated once it was safe to do so.

The Lefourche parish sheriff told residents who evacuated that while they may be anxious to return, “today is not that day”.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in New Orleans tweeted a long list of flooded streets and advised residents to shelter in place and avoid all unnecessary travel.

Although Ida arrived with more powerful winds and expected rainfall than Katrina, forecast storm surge of a life-threatening 15ft was expected to be less than in 2005 when Katrina brought highs of 20ft, leading to catastrophic failure of levees in New Orleans.

Edwards said he was confident the levees would hold, as “there’s been tremendous investment in this system since Hurricane Katrina. This will be the most severe test of that system. But we believe that system is going to hold, the entire integrity of that system will be able to withstand the storm surge.”

In New Orleans, wind tore at awnings and caused buildings to sway and water to spill from Lake Ponchartrain. The US coast guard office in New Orleans received more than a dozen reports of breakaway barges. In Lafitte about 35 miles south of New Orleans, a loose barge struck a bridge, according to Jefferson parish officials.

A US Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson, Ricky Boyette, said engineers detected a “negative flow” on the Mississippi River as a result of storm surge. Edwards said he watched a live video feed from around Port Fourchon as Ida came ashore that showed roofs blown off buildings in “many places”.

Officials said Ida’s swift intensification to a massive hurricane in just three days left no time to organize a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans’ 390,000 residents. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged those still in the city on Sunday to “hunker down”.

Memories of Katrina

Marco Apostolico said he felt confident riding out the storm at his home in New Orleans’ Lower 9th ward, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods during Katrina.

His home was among those rebuilt with the help of the actor Brad Pitt to withstand hurricane-force winds. But the memory of Katrina lingered.

“It’s obviously a lot of heavy feelings,” he said. “And yeah, potentially scary and dangerous.”

The region includes petrochemical sites and major ports, and is also already reeling from a resurgence of Covid-19 infections due to low vaccination rates and the Delta variant.

New Orleans hospitals planned to ride out the storm with their beds nearly full, as similarly stressed hospitals elsewhere had little room for evacuated patients. Shelters carried an added risk of becoming flashpoints for new infections.

Montegut fire chief Toby Henry walks back to his fire truck in the rain in Bourg, Louisiana.
Montegut fire chief Toby Henry walks back to his fire truck in the rain in Bourg, Louisiana. Photograph: Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

The hurricane was also threatening neighboring Mississippi, where Katrina demolished oceanfront homes. With Ida approaching and 28,000 households without power so far in the state, Claudette Jones evacuated her home east of Gulfport, Mississippi, as waves started pounding the shore. “I’m praying I can go back to a normal home like I left,” she said. “That’s what I’m praying for. But I’m not sure at this point.”

Ida’s hurricane-force winds stretched 50 miles (80km) from the storm’s eye, or about half the size of Katrina, and a New Orleans infrastructure official emphasized that the city was in a “very different place than it was 16 years ago”.

The levee system has been overhauled since Katrina, Ramsey Green, deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, said before the worst of the storm hit. While water may not penetrate levees, Green said if forecasts of up to 20in of rain proved true, the underfunded and neglected network of pumps, underground pipes and surface canals probably will not be able to keep up.

Louisiana’s 17 oil refineries account for nearly one-fifth of US capacity and two liquefied natural gas export terminals ship about 55% of the nation’s exports, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Government statistics show that 95% of oil and gas production in the region was shut down as Ida made landfall, according to energy company S&P Global Platts.

Louisiana is also home to two nuclear power plants, one near New Orleans and another 27 miles north-west of Baton Rouge.

Edwards warned of weeks of recovery. “Many, many people are going to be tested in ways that we can only imagine today,” the governor said.

Associated Press contributed reporting

Contributors

Oliver Laughland in New Orleans, Lauren Aratani in New York and agencies

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