(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Ida made its final push toward Louisiana Sunday, packing some of the strongest winds ever to hit the state and threatening to unleash widespread flooding and destruction in New Orleans.
The eye of the Category 4 hurricane was nearing the coast with top winds of 150 miles (241 kilometers) per hour, the National Hurricane Center said at 10 a.m. local time. Only two other storms on record have made landfall in Louisiana with winds that powerful.
“I feel sick to my stomach watching,” Eric Blake, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center said on Twitter. “This is a very sobering morning.”
Ida is barreling into New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Ida will be the biggest challenge yet of the region’s levees and infrastructure rebuilt after Katrina.
“This will be the most severe test of that system,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said on CNN. “We believe that the integrity of that system is going to be able to withstand the storm surge.”
Also See: Tracking Hurricane Ida’s Projected Path
Ida, poised to come ashore just southwest of New Orleans, is expected to drive up ocean levels as much as 16 feet (4.9 meters) and dump 2 feet of rain. Winds will be strong enough to rip roofs from houses, and snap trees and power poles. Blackouts could last weeks. About 33,000 homes and businesses were without power at 9:30 a.m. local time, according to Poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages.
At 150 mph, Ida’s winds are set to tie the record for the most powerful winds to come ashore in Louisiana on records going back to 1851, according to Phil Klotzbach a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. And forecasters expect the storm to grow even stronger as it approaches.
Also See: As Ida Bears Down, New Orleans Faces Biggest Post-Katrina Test
If Ida’s winds gain just a little more power, it could become a Category 5 storm, said Todd Crawford, director of meteorology at commercial forecaster Atmospheric G2. Only four Category 5 storms have hit the contiguous U.S.
In addition to Ida, the hurricane center is tracking four more potential storms in the Atlantic and Hurricane Nora, which is raking Mexico’s Pacific coast.
New Orleans asked residents to evacuate or take shelter. The levee gates are closed in many areas and hospital wards were cleared out. Most oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is shut down. Thousands of people have fled the region.
Hurricane Ida May Damage Almost 1 Million Homes on U.S. Gulf
The storm could damage close to 1 million homes along the coast, according to CoreLogic. It’s forecast to run directly over chemical plants, refineries and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. All told, damages and losses could exceed $40 billion, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research.
“It could be catastrophic,” said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist at the Energy Weather Group.
As of Sunday, 537 flights had been canceled in New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston through Monday, according to FlightAware, an airline tracking service. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was thronged with local residents lining up for outbound flights or trying to rent vehicles to flee the city. Queues at rental car kiosks were hours long.
President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for Louisiana. New Orleans is below sea level and depends on levees and pumps to keep the ocean and river out. The Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans has already risen about 2 feet from Saturday and is forecast to rise 4 feet higher later Sunday, the National Weather Service said.
Even if the levee system holds and keeps the surge at bay, New Orleans could face a major flood risk from the rain alone, said Ryan Truchelut, president of Weather Tiger LCC. FEMA has deployed about 2,500 people to Louisiana and states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas.
Oil explorers are bracing for the storm and have already halted the equivalent of more than 1.2 million barrels of daily crude production. Royal Dutch Shell Plc, BP Plc and others are shutting offshore platforms and evacuating crews.
The Gulf is home to 16% of U.S. crude production, 2% of its natural gas output, and 48% of the nation’s refining capacity. After Ida comes ashore, it could also flood cotton, corn, soybean and sugarcane crops, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar.
In addition to Ida, the hurricane center is tracking three more potential storms in the Atlantic and Hurricane Nora which is raking Mexico’s Pacific coast.
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