NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana residents braced or fled Saturday as the biggest hurricane since Katrina barreled through the Gulf of Mexico toward the low-lying coast, with its eye tracking closer to the city.
Saturday’s weather was gorgeous throughout southeastern Louisiana, although as dusk approached authorities began to lower floodgates in the levee system and increasingly put out the word that those who had not evacuated by roughly 6 p.m. should shelter in place until Ida passes.
Fears and official warnings grew as the forecast track showed Ida’s eye had shifted a bit to the east, making an even more ominous path for New Orleans. Hurricanes churn counter-clockwise and just east of the eye are the worst locations in a major storm.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Baton Rouge to the Louisiana/Mississippi border and south to the shoreline.
At 7 p.m., Hurricane Ida was swirling over warm waters in the Gulf some 285 miles southeast of Houma. It stood as a Category 2 storm with winds up to 105 mph, but meteorologists warned it could strengthen to a Category 4 with winds exceeding 130 mpsh before it makes landfall around 1 p.m. Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. The storm’s core is moving fast, at a speed that has advanced the landfall timetable repeatedly in the last 24 hours.
Gov. John Bel Edwards addressed the state around 2 p.m. Saturday, urging residents to evacuate quickly if they could or hunker down to ride out what could prove hellish weather.
“Your window of time is closing,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s rapidly closing. By the time you go to bed tonight, you need to be where you intend to ride out this storm and you need to be as prepared as you can be.”
Sunday marks 16 years since Katrina, a date that heightened tension and a sense of foreboding for many New Orleans-area residents. Louisiana has been hit by just four Category 4 hurricanes, with only 1, Hurricane Camille in 1969 the only Category 5. The last Category 4 storm to hit was Laura last year, although that event proved far less severe than anticipated.
Those living outside the levee system faced a mandatory evacuation that took effect Friday, and traffic on Interstate 10, which threads northeast and northwest out of New Orleans, has been badly snarled all weekend.
Motorists on social media reported the drive Saturday afternoon from Baton Rouge to Houston was taking more than 10 hours, double the usual time.
Public shelters were set to open at 6 p.m. Saturday, as tropical storm wind and rain were expected to inundate southeastern Louisiana beginning Sunday morning. Not all shelters were local, as residents in some parishes between New Orleans and the Gulf had been asked to head to shelters in Monroe, hours away in Louisiana’s northeastern corner.
“There’s still time, so get out while you can,” Plaquemines Parish President Kirk Kepine said at a 3 p.m. local time press conference Saturday. “The ferries are going to be suspended tomorrow because of high winds and the gates are closing.”
Plaquemines is one of the handfuls of parishes that fan out below New Orleans toward the Gulf, all of which were devastated by Katrina’s storm surge and rain - two factors that are in play again with Ida.
Southeastern Louisiana is already sodden with rain from storms unrelated to Ida, and the hurricane could bring up to 20 inches of rain compounding spot-flooding issues, officials said.
Hurricane hunters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration remained grounded with technical issues Saturday, depriving meteorologists of the overhead photos on which they rely to gauge a storm’s power. Airplanes were supposed to be aloft by 4 p.m. but were once again canceled, earning blistering complaints from local weather forecasters who broadcast nonstop as networks affiliates canceled scheduled broadcasts.
Many area stores began to close Saturday afternoon and scores of gas stations in the city and the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain were empty, the tangled traffic that roiled around them since Friday morning replaced by pump handles covered in yellow gloves.
Mr. Edwards declared a state of emergency late Thursday, and in his Saturday remarks said close to 5,000 National Guard were in Louisiana to assist in disaster assistance. He and other officials warned power outages could take two weeks or more to repair.
In Lafourche Parish, the floodgates closed over the highways just after 6 p.m. Saturday, meaning all that had ignored the mandatory evacuation cannot leave the area until after Ida has passed.
“We already see the wind picking up and we expect to have tropical storm winds tonight,” Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman Brennan Matherne said on television by a closed gate. “The truth is we want people off the roads now.”
It remained unclear how many people were planning to hunker down in New Orleans.
On Friday, the day after Mr. Edwards declared a state of emergency and, at that time, more than 48 hours before Ida’s predicted landfall, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said it was too late to order a mandatory evacuation of the city. Louisiana officials need between 12 and 24 hours to launch what is known as a “contraflow” in which all highway traffic becomes one-way headed out of New Orleans.
Television news and social media were full of reports late Saturday that some levees would overtop, an ominous development that could prove far less catastrophic than the breaks that happened in 2005 with Katrina. New Orleans’ rebuilt levee system was designed to handle up to a fast-moving Category 3 storm, a level Ida may surpass.
Disaster response teams with FEMA and private charitable organizations were encamped at various locations north of Baton Rouge and toward Hattiesburg, Ms., ready to come into what is expected to be a storm-stricken area Monday.
Mr. Edwards said dozens of busses have been stationed at spots between Lafayette and New Orleans, but he urged residents to evacuate to spots north or west of the I-10 corridor that runs from the capital to the Texas border. For now, the buses have been helping evacuate nursing homes and other vulnerable populations, Mr. Edwards said, leaving many residents with memories of dozens who perished in hospitals and nursing homes Katrina left without power in the city and St. Bernard Parish.
Entergy trucks had taken over the parking lot near the Audubon Zoo in Uptown New Orleans, and the energy provider said it had up to 16,000 employees poised to respond. Nevertheless, the company warned that those in what become the hardest-hit areas should prepare for “extended outages.”
The calendar offered Louisianians eerie reflections of Katrina and Hurricane Rita, another monster Category 5 storm that hit the Bayou State near the Texas border just days after Katrina.
Despite widespread belief Katrina was a natural disaster for New Orleans, the storm was a Category 3 that hit the city. The city’s nightmare began after the storm when the levees broke, thus making the flooding of much of New Orleans a man-made disaster. More than 1,000 people are believed to have died in the storm or drowned.
Katrina did hit the adjoining Mississippi Gulf Coast as a Category 5, packing such destruction the area looked like a German city in 1945 after repeated bombing raids.
New Orleans has been spared a big storm hit since Katrina, meaning the levee system the U.S. Corps of Engineers claimed is now superior to what existed in 2005 has never been tested, as Mr. Edwards noted.
“I know that tomorrow for many of you is a very difficult anniversary,” Mr. Edwards said. “I’m also aware that it’s very painful to think about another powerful storm like Hurricane Ida making landfall on that anniversary. But we’re not the same state we were 16 years ago.
“Having said all that, this system is going to be tested,” he said. “There’s no doubt. The people of Louisiana are going to be tested.”