Hurricane Ida turns Louisiana inside out, throws New Orleans into darkness

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Hurricane Ida plowed into Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico as a fierce Category 4 storm on Sunday, lashing the coast with 150 mile-per-hour winds, torrential downpours and pounding surf that submerged much of the shoreline under several feet of water.

Power was knocked out Sunday night to the entire New Orleans metropolitan area with the failure of all eight transmission lines that deliver electricity to Louisiana’s largest city, the utility company Entergy Louisiana reported.

One transmission tower collapsed into the Mississippi River, according to the Jefferson Parish Emergency Management Department.

Ida slammed ashore around noon near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, a hub of the Gulf’s offshore energy industry, blasting the coast with hurricane-force winds extending 50 miles (80 km) out from the eye of the storm. Landfall came 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, one of the most catastrophic on record, struck the Gulf Coast.

Sunday night, the sheriff’s office in Ascension Parish reported the first U.S. fatality from the storm – a person killed by a fallen tree near Baton Rouge, the state capital.

Flash flooding was reported by the National Hurricane Center across southeastern Louisiana.

Residents of the most vulnerable coastal areas were ordered to evacuate days in advance of Ida. Those riding out the storm in their homes in New Orleans, less than 100 miles inland to the north, braced for the toughest test yet of major upgrades to a levee system constructed following devastating floods in 2005 from Katrina.

“I almost found myself in a panic attack when news announced this was the anniversary of Katrina,” Janet Rucker, a lifelong New Orleans resident and recently retired sales manager who took shelter in a downtown hotel with her dog, Deuce. “This is just not good for our nerves and our psyche.”

The storm’s approach forced the suspension of emergency medical services in New Orleans and elsewhere across a state already reeling from a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections that has strained Louisiana’s healthcare system.

For an estimated 2,450 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, many in intensive care units, evacuation was not an option.

A loss of generator power at the Thibodaux Regional Health System hospital in Lafourche Parish, southwest of New Orleans, forced medical workers to manually assist respirator patients with breathing while they were moved to another floor, the state Health Department confirmed to Reuters.

Farren Clark, a Nicholls State University professor who studied Katrina’s impact and was riding out the storm at his mother’s home in Thibodaux, called the arrival of Ida “nerve-wracking.”

“I can hear the howl of the storm getting stronger,” he told Reuters by phone. “Having done research on Katrina, it is a little bit triggering.”

Michael Lewis, 45, restaurant owner in nearby Houma, said he could see shingles blown off his roof and a downed fence through a window of his home but was unable to check the full extent of damage as the storm raged.

“It’s way too dangerous to go outside right now,” he said in a phone interview.

Officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they expected the city’s newly reinforced levees to hold, though they said they said the flood walls could be overtopped in some places.

“This is one of the strongest storms to make landfall here in modern times,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said at a news briefing.

Hundreds of miles of new levees were built around New Orleans after flooding from Katrina inundated much of the low-lying city, especially historically Black neighborhoods. That monster storm claimed more than 1,800 lives.

Edwards voiced confidence in the $14.5 billion in levee improvements since then, saying they were “built for this moment.”