(Bloomberg) — Hurricane Ida is growing in size and power as it moves north across the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana, and New Orleans is bracing for disaster — clearing out hospital wards, shutting down oil refineries and forcing residents of low-lying neighborhoods to flee.
Ida slammed into Cuba Friday night as it barreled north toward the U.S. Gulf Coast with winds that are expected to reach 140 miles (225 kilometers) per hour and a wall of water that may reach 15 feet in height. The storm was about 440 miles south-southeast of New Orleans Saturday with winds of 85 mph, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 7 a.m. local time. It’s expected to make landfall Sunday night or early Monday morning.
The city of New Orleans is asking residents to evacuate as soon as possible or prepare to shelter in place Saturday evening, according to a text alert sent late Friday. The storm could damage close to 1 million homes along the coast if it intensifies as forecast, with potential reconstruction costs estimated to exceed $220 billion, according to CoreLogic.
With winds strong enough to destroy dwellings and knock out power for weeks or longer, areas that suffer a direct hit could be “uninhabitable for weeks or months,” according to the hurricane center.
There’s little in Ida’s way to stop it from ramping up to the second-most destructive category of storm given the deep eddy of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) sea water that it will traverse before it roars ashore late Sunday or early Monday, said Todd Crawford, director of meteorology at commercial forecaster Atmospheric G2. Warm water is like fuel to tropical cyclones.
“In an unfortunate case of very bad luck, the expected track of Ida will take it directly over an usually warm pool of water in the northern Gulf on Sunday, which is the primary reason for rapid intensification,” Crawford said. “Given the ideal environment for strengthening, it is not out of the question that Ida will touch Category 5 status at some point Sunday.”
Ida made landfall in the Cuban province of Pinar Del Rio shortly before 7:30 p.m. local time, with winds of 80 mph. It’s expected to hit New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history.
Oil and gas prices gained as energy companies shuttered facilities and evacuated workers. Louisiana Children’s Medical Center is sending home some patients and will put its six New Orleans-area hospitals into lockdown Sunday morning. On its current track, the storm could cause from $10 billion to $30 billion in damage and losses, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research.
“Little wobbles matter a lot,” Watson said. “If it goes just east of New Orleans, that risks pumping water into Pontchartain and overtopping the levees and all bets are off.”
As of 7 a.m. local time, 153 flights to and from New Orleans had been scrubbed for Sunday and Monday, according to FlightAware, an airline tracking service.
“All preparations to protect life and property for this dangerous event need to be made today,” Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at the center, wrote in his forecast. “Ida is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it reaches the coast of Louisiana.”
A hurricane warning was posted for the much of the state’s coast, including New Orleans, the center said. Ida could push a surge of ocean water 10 to 15 feet above normal from Morgan City to the mouth of the Mississippi River, and lesser amounts all the way to Mobile Bay.
Some levees outside of the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System could be over topped by the flooding waters. About half of all hurricane deaths are due to flooding.
President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for Louisiana. New Orleans, often referred to as NOLA, is below sea level and depends on levees and pumps to keep the ocean and river out.
“NOLA is always a place that things can go wrong quickly and badly,” said Enki Research’s Watson.
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. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed about 2,500 people to Louisiana and states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. Urban Search and Rescue teams are being sent to Louisiana, it added, with other teams on alert.
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.