After slamming Cuba twice in less than 24 hours, Hurricane Ida is expected to rapidly strengthen before pummelling Louisiana on Sunday, forcing evacuations in New Orleans and the surrounding coastal region on the eve of the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrtina.
On Saturday morning, Ida was moving away from Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it is expected to intensify over the next 24 to 36 hours prior to landfall across the Louisiana coast on Sunday afternoon or evening. Recent satellite imagery showed the storm is becoming better organised.
The storm is expected to make landfall on the exact date Hurricane Katrina devastated a large swath of the Gulf Coast 16 years earlier. But whereas Katrina was a Category 3 when it made landfall southwest of New Orleans, Ida is expected to reach an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, with top winds of 225 km/h before making landfall likely west of New Orleans late Sunday.
"Ida is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it approaches the northern Gulf Coast on Sunday," National Hurricane Centre forecasters said Saturday morning.
A dangerous storm surge of 3m-5m is expected from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the mouth of the Mississippi River on Sunday as Ida makes landfall, the NHC said.
The storm surge, coupled with winds as strong as 241 km/h, could leave some parts of southeast Louisiana "uninhabitable for weeks or months," according the to the latest hurricane statement from the National Weather Service in New Orleans.
The statement warned of "structural damage to buildings, with many washing away" as well as winds that could bring "widespread power and communication outages." Flooding rains could cause "numerous road and bridge closures with some weakened or washed out" along with "some structures becoming uninhabitable or washed away."
"Today is it," Jamie Rhome, acting deputy director of the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami, said Saturday.
"If you're in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, you really, really have to get going because today is it in terms of protecting life and property."
Late Saturday morning, Ida was centred 710 kilometres southeast of Houma, a city on Louisiana's coast. It was travelling northwest at 26 km/h, forecasters said. It's maximum sustained winds were 140km/h.
Authorities called a combination of voluntary and mandatory evacuations for cities and communities across the region. News footage from the area showed traffic backed up heading out of New Orleans.
In New Orleans the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation for areas outside the city's levee system and a voluntary evacuation for residents inside the levee system. But since the storm quickly escalated in intensity, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said it was not possible to order a mandatory evacuation for the entire city, which would require using all lanes of some highways to leave the city.
"If you plan to evacuate, do so now," said a mid-morning advisory from the city.
In text alerts Saturday, New Orleans officials urged residents to "leave by this morning if you can."
"If you're staying, gather supplies, charge devices, lower fridge temp & secure outdoor items today," the message said.
In New Orleans, city officials said residents need to be prepared for prolonged power outages, and asked elderly residents to consider evacuating. Collin Arnold, the city's emergency management director, said the city could be under high winds for about 10 hours.
State officials also texted residents: "Get ready for Ida."
"Louisianans have until nightfall," the text warned, adding that Ida will "bring serious impacts across the state."
Across the region, residents filled sandbags, got gasoline for cars and generators and stocked up on food. Capt. Ross Eichorn, a fishing guide on the coast about 112 kilometres southwest of New Orleans, said he fears warm Gulf waters will "make a monster" out of Ida.
"With a direct hit, ain't no telling what's going to be left — if anything," Eichorn said.
A hurricane warning was issued for most of the Louisiana coast from Intracoastal City to the mouth of the Pearl River, including metropolitan New Orleans. A tropical storm warning was extended to the Alabama-Florida line.
President Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration for Louisiana ahead of the storm.