NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hurricane Ida rapidly grew in strength early Sunday, becoming a dangerous Category 4 hurricane just hours before hitting the Louisiana coast as emergency officials in the region grappled with opening shelters for displaced evacuees.
As Ida moved through some of the warmest ocean water in the world in the northern Gulf of Mexico, its top winds grew by 45 mph (72 kph) to 150 mph (230 kph) in five hours. The system was expected to make landfall early Sunday afternoon on the exact date Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi 16 years earlier.
The National Hurricane Center said Ida was expected to maintain its strength just 6 mph shy of a Category 5 hurricane until landfall. Only four Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the United States: Michael in 2018, Andrew in 1992, Camille in 1969 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Both Michael and Andrew were upgraded to category 5 long after the storm hit with further review of damage.
Ida threatened a region already reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections, due to low vaccination rates and the highly contagious 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. And shelters for those fleeing their homes carried an added risk of becoming flashpoints for new infections.
Hurricane force winds started to strike Grand Isle on Sunday morning. Before power was lost on the Louisiana barrier island, a beachfront web camera showed the ocean steadily rising as growing waves churned and palm trees whipped.
Forecasters warned winds stronger than 115 mph (185 kph) were expected soon in Houma, a city of 33,000 that supports oil platforms in the Gulf.
In New Orleans, where the worst weather is expected later, a light rain fell. Cars were parked on the median, which is a few feet higher and can protect against potential flooding
Ida intensified so swiftly that New Orleans officials said there was no time to organize a mandatory evacuation of its 390,000 residents. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged residents to leave voluntarily. Those who stayed were warned to prepare for long power outages amid sweltering heat.
Nick Mosca was walking his dog, like most of those who were out.
“I’d like to be better prepared. There’s a few things I’m thinking we could have done. But this storm came pretty quick, so you only have the time you have,” Mosca said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards vowed Saturday that Louisiana’s “resilient and tough people” would weather the storm. He also noted shelters would operate with reduced capacities “to reflect the realities of COVID.”
Edwards said Louisiana officials were working to find hotel rooms for evacuees so that fewer had to stay in mass shelters. He noted that during last year’s hurricane season, Louisiana found rooms for 20,000 people.