U.S. Gulf Coast residents flee ‘extremely dangerous’ Hurricane Ida

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A satellite image shows Tropical Storm Ida after forming in the Caribbean, about 75 miles (125 kilometers) north-northwest of Grand Cayman, August 27, 2021. NOAA/via REUTERS

Aug 28 (Reuters) – Hurricane Ida on Saturday strengthened and the reach of its winds expanded over warm Gulf of Mexico waters, prompting tens of thousands to cut short vacations and jam Louisiana highways.

Forecasters said it could make a U.S. landfall as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, generating winds of 140 miles per hour (225 kph), heavy downpours and a tidal surge that could plunge much of the Louisiana shoreline under several feet of water.

On Saturday morning, Ida was about 435 miles southeast of Houma, Louisiana, packing top winds of 85 mph and tracking toward a late Sunday landfall, the National Hurricane Center said.

“We’re concerned about explosive development shortly before it makes landfall,” said Jim Foerster, chief meteorologist at DTN, which provides weather advice to oil and transportation companies.

“It’s going to be moving over some warm water,” he said.

Flooding from Ida’s storm surge – high water driven by the hurricane’s winds – could reach between 10 and 15 feet (3 and 4.5 metres) around the mouth of the Mississippi River, with lower levels extending east along the adjacent coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, the NHC said.

Officials orderedwidespread evacuations of low-lying and coastal areas, jamming highways and leading some gasoline stations to run dry as residents and vacationers fled the seashore.

POWER OUTAGES EXPECTED

Utilities were bringing in extra crews and equipment to deal with expected power losses from the storm. Hundreds of thousands of homes could fall dark as Ida’s strong winds carry well into Louisiana and as far east at Mobile, Alabama, said DTN’s Foerster.

Lifelong Gulf resident Hailey DeLaune, 29, told Reuters she and her fiance spent Friday evening boarding up the windows of his house in Gulfport, Mississippi, and gathering provisions to ride out the storm.

“Hurricanes have always been part of my life,” said the high school theology teacher, who was born during 1992’s Category 5 Hurricane Andrew. “You just run through your list and hope for the best.”

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, whose state is reeling from a public health crisis stemming from a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, urged residents to ready themselves for the hurricane immediately.

“Now is the time to finish your preparations,” he told a Friday news conference. “By nightfall tomorrow night, you need to be where you intend to ride out the storm.”

Edwards declared a state of emergency, and U.S. President Joe Biden issued a pre-landfall federal emergency declaration at Edwards’ request. It authorized the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts in the state.

GASOLINE OUTPUT CUT

U.S. energy companies sharply reduced offshore petroleum production by nearly 60% and gasoline refiners cut operations at Louisiana plants in the path of the storm. Regional fuel prices rose in anticipation of production losses.[nL1N2PY0WD]

Phillips 66 (PSX.N) completed a shut-down of its Alliance refinery on Louisiana’s coast and PBF Energy Inc (PBF.N) reduced its Chalmette, Louisiana, processing, people familiar with the matter said. PBF did not reply to request for comment.

Ida, the ninth named storm and fourth hurricane of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, may well exceed the strength of Hurricane Laura, the last Category 4 storm to strike Louisiana, by the time it makes landfall, forecasters said.

The region was devastated in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people.