(Bloomberg) -- New Orleans braced Sunday for a long-dreaded test of whether levees, hospitals and entire neighborhoods rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina's devastation 16 years ago would survive another major storm.
Hurricane Ida was about 145 miles (233 kilometers) from the Louisiana coast, crossing the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 4 cyclone and gathering strength before a landfall forecast for Sunday afternoon. Its wind roared at 150 miles per hour.
Evacuations of the most-vulnerable neighborhoods began days ago while officials shut levee gates to fend off the deluge and asked people to avoid Covid-crowded hospitals. Jail inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms were pressed into service filling sandbags along the banks of the Mississippi River.
"More people are getting prepared this time," said Victor Harris as he bought provisions at a crowded Winn-Dixie grocery store on Saturday afternoon. A denizen of the city's 7th Ward that was mauled by Katrina, Harris planned to hunker down this time and look after his elderly mother, who refused to evacuate.
"If the lights go out, we've got a gas grill," said Harris, 44. "We've got plenty of water. We'll see."
Most observers consider New Orleans far better prepared than it was for Katrina, which pummeled the coast with a 30-foot (9-meter) storm surge. The historic city's topography resembles a shallow bowl, and floods had residents climbing to the roofs in areas below sea level. More than 1,800 died.
But while other storms have hit the 1.3 million-resident metropolitan area since 2005, Ida's strength threatens to surpass them all. The hurricane is being turbocharged by warm Gulf waters nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) as climate change is making storms the world over ever-more intense. Ida, which threatens protective wetlands already slipping into the sea, is on course for scores of plants along the Mississippi River that process dangerous chemicals.
"This could test the post-Katrina infrastructure upgrades for the first time," said Daniel Kaniewski, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency deputy administrator.
And Ida arrives amid another very different disaster -- the pandemic.
Few states have been hit as hard by the delta variant as Louisiana, where only 41% of the population is fully vaccinated. Hospitalization rates and intensive-care use are as bad as they've been in at least a year. If Ida causes major injuries, hospitals will have a hard time caring for patients.
"To have these disasters layered on top of each other is a big strain," said Kevin Smiley, a Louisiana State University professor who studies disasters and health. "In an era of climate change and pandemics, this is the type of multipart disaster that we might see more often."
In New Orleans on Saturday, the exodus was in full force as residents thronged the airport to board outbound flights or rent vehicles to flee the city. Queues at rental-car kiosks were two-hours long. Crews in the city's famous French Quarter were busy cladding restaurants, bars and shops with plywood to shield windows from destructive gales.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the storm -- set to land on the 16th anniversary of Katrina's deadly arrival -- emerged and strengthened so quickly that there wasn't time to safely organize a mandatory evacuation of the city. The city's iconic streetcars and other mass transit suspended service before nightfall on Saturday.
Preparations have been underway for days. The Federal Emergency Management Agency stockpiled meals, drinking water and generators, while deploying 500 employees to Louisiana and Texas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which rebuilt the city's storm defenses after Katrina, said it had personnel "ready to embed" with response teams and was securing construction equipment.
The stakes for the federal agencies are high. FEMA's slapdash response to Katrina left a lasting stain on President George W. Bush's administration, one that President Joe Biden can ill afford amid the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"These kinds of disasters always pose risks to leadership," said Robert Verchick, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who wrote a book on Katrina's aftermath. "The risk is the response won't come off seamlessly, and that he might do something that looks like, in people's eyes, that he might not care as much as he should."
Verchick had taken his own steps to prepare, after Katrina filled his basement with 6 feet of water. "I've got gas in the car, and I've got water and food for a few days, and I've got a generator that's hooked up to the house, and I've got some batteries," he said. "And I'm hoping that's enough."
New Orleans schools announced closures for Monday, but many were already emptying by noon Friday. "Parents were coming and pulling students out early to evacuate and leave town, hitting the road running," said Lisa Crow, a 31-year-old middle-school teacher at a private school.
As for herself: "I'm really not prepared, honestly, but I just got two bottles of wine and a six pack, and I'm going to eat all my frozen food."
A volunteer group of boat owners known as the Louisiana Cajun Navy had stocked a warehouse with water and food to distribute. The group assists in search-and-rescue operations, and was waiting for final word on Ida's path before setting up launching points.
"We're always ready at the drop of a hat," said member Jordy Bloodsworth. "When the storm shows up, we could have hundreds show up."
Ida's precise path is being closely watched.
Its course includes chemical plants, oil refineries, granaries, ports and rail networks crucial to industry and exports. The Port of South Louisiana handles more tonnage than any other U.S. terminal in a complex that runs 54 miles from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
Louisiana is home to almost 18% of the nation's total crude-oil refining capacity. About 2.1 million barrels of that capacity, or 12% of the national total, sit directly in Ida's path. More than 90% of Gulf oil production was halted by late morning on Saturday and refiners such as Valero Energy Corp. were idling units while others shut completely down.
The storm was expected to land west of New Orleans, and because winds travel counterclockwise around hurricanes in the northern hemisphere, the city could absorb the strongest gusts and heaviest rains. The eddy of extremely warm water that Ida is following north across the Gulf will allow it to gather strength right up until landfall.
"This is likely going to be a rapid intensifier," said Craig Fugate, who was FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama.
Other factors have heightened the danger. Heavy rain preceded the storm by several days in Louisiana, saturating the ground. Water from flash floods that killed 20 people this month in Tennessee is still working its way down the Mississippi. And on a larger scale, climate change has increased the amount of moisture the air can carry, leading to heavier rainfall, and warming oceans have provided fuel for hurricanes.
In Slidell, just east of New Orleans, about 80% of properties were damaged in 2005, Mayor Greg Cromer said Friday. The city today is in a constant state of storm recovery, receiving hazard-mitigation funds each year and steadily raising homes. Ida could test whether those efforts have been enough.
"If this thing shifts 30 miles to the east, we could have a catastrophic situation on our hands," Cromer said.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.