Hurricane Ida strengthened rapidly as it barreled its way towards Louisiana’s coast early Sunday, prompting the National Hurricane Center to warn of “catastrophic” winds once it moved onshore.
With top sustained winds of 150 mph, Ida was located about 50 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the NHC said in an advisory.
If wind speeds reach 157 mph it will be considered a Category 5 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, a 1 to 5 rating based on maximum sustained wind speed. Only four storms have made landfall in the continental U.S. as Category 5 hurricanes in the last century.
“Everybody in the path of Ida should be prepared for very heavy rainfall, very strong winds, life-threatening storm surge along the coast and isolated tornados as well,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jennifer McNatt told NBC News Sunday.
The center of Ida will make landfall along the coast of southeastern Louisiana late Sunday morning or early afternoon, according to a Sunday morning advisory.
The storm is expected to move “well inland” over portions of Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, although rapid weakening is anticipated once it hits land.
The NHC said to expect “extremely life-threatening” storm surge inundation imminently within the area between Burns Point, Louisiana, to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. It added that”catastrophic wind damage” is likely as Ida moves onshore along the southeast coast of Louisiana over the next few hours.
The center also said the region might see tornados Sunday into Monday from southeast Louisiana all the way to the western Florida Panhandle.
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With all Sunday flights canceled at the New Orleans Airport, tens of thousands of motorists have sought to flee the region, clogging highways.
McNatt said drivers should watch out for flash flooding. “There’s a lot of people that drive into flooded roads and it causes them to be swept off the roads,” she added.
As the city marks the 16-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, those remaining are bracing for the worst.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell told a new conference on Saturday that the hurricane had developed “more rapidly than anyone has prepared for and there are no indications at all that it will weaken.”
She said it was too late for the city to order a mandatory evacuation and called for residents to either evacuate the city voluntarily or shelter in place and “hunker down.”
President Joe Biden also told Louisiana residents to “pay attention and be prepared” in a statement posted on Twitter Saturday. He added that he had been briefed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on preparations for the storm.
“We have deployed emergency response personnel and pre-positioned food, water, generators, and supplies to make sure we’re ready to respond,” he said.
Biden has also warned that residents should remain vigilant in preventing the spread of coronavirus during the unfolding crisis. Louisiana is among the states with the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S.
“Make sure you wear a mask, and try to keep some distance, because we’re still facing a highly contagious delta variant as well,” Biden said.
Cynthia Cashman, 68, lives in Riverbend, New Orleans and is hunkering down in her second-floor apartment with her roommate and 89-year-old mother. They decided to stay in the city due to Covid fears. Her mother is particularly fearful of catching Covid if they fled to a state like Texas.
“She didn’t want to evacuate,” Cashman said of her mother. “”We’d have to go to grocery stores and go out and there’s no mask mandates. I mean, it would be really unsafe. We’re all vaccinated, but still.”
Meanwhile, hospitals in New Orleans are in the midst of a “severe outbreak,” with a seven-day average of 220 new infections, according to the city’s Covid-19 dashboard, which was last updated Saturday.
Across Louisiana, more than 3,400 new cases were confirmed as of Friday, according to data published by the Louisiana Department of Health, with at least 2,684 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the state.