By Maria Caspani and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) -Hurricane Ida battered Cuba with roof-ripping force on Friday as it churned toward a weekend U.S. landfall along the Louisiana coast, prompting evacuations of flood-prone New Orleans neighborhoods and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
By late on Friday, Ida was packing sustained winds of up to 80 miles per hour (129 kph), according to the National Weather Service, which expected the storm to intensify significantly before coming ashore as a major hurricane in southeastern Louisiana on Sunday afternoon or evening.
Forecasters said Ida would likely make U.S. landfall as a robust Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, generating steady winds nearing 140 mph, heavy downpours and a tidal surge expected to plunge much of the Louisiana shoreline under several feet of water.
Inundation from Ida’s storm surge – high surf driven by the hurricane’s winds – will likely reach between 10 and 15 feet around the mouth of the Mississippi River, with lower levels extending east along the adjacent coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Scattered tornadoes, widespread power outages and inland flooding from torrential rain across the region were also expected.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, his state already 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 afternoon news conference. “By nightfall tomorrow night, you need to be where you intend to ride out the storm.”
New Orleans officials ordered https://twitter.com/nolaready/status/1431297701535158279 residents to evacuate communities outside the city’s levee system, and posted voluntary evacuation notices for the rest of the parish.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome signed an emergency disaster declaration and said the city had pre-positioned sand and sandbags at eight strategic locations as part of storm preparations https://twitter.com/MayorBroome/status/1431323093117644802?s=20.
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.”
Edwards declared a state of emergency on Thursday, and on Friday 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.
Edwards also said he had authorized activation of all 5,000 troops in the Louisiana National Guard for emergency deployments as needed.
U.S. energy companies racing to complete evacuations of offshore platforms in the Gulf ahead of the storm had reduced petroleum production by nearly 60% and gas output by almost half, federal regulators said.
CARIBBEAN TAKES FIRST HIT
Soon after being upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane status, Ida smashed into Cuba’s small Isle of Youth, off the southwestern end of the Caribbean island nation, toppling trees and tearing roofs from dwellings.
The streets of Havana, the capital, were empty as residents shuttered themselves at home ahead of Ida’s arrival, which government forecasters warned could bring storm surges to Cuba’s western coastline.
Jamaica was flooded by heavy rains, and there were landslides after the passage of the storm. Many roads were impassable, forcing some residents to abandon their homes.
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. But it pales in comparison to Katrina, the monster Category 5 storm that devastated the region in August 2005, claiming more than 1,800 lives.
Officials in U.S. coastal areas preparing for the storm urged residents to move boats out of harbors and encouraged early evacuations.
Officials in Louisiana’s Lafourche Parish said they would enact a voluntary evacuation https://twitter.com/LafourcheGov/status/1431260517897842688, especially for people in low-lying areas, mobile homes and RVs.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru, Nelson Acosta in Cuba and Kate Chappell in Jamaica; Writing by Maria Caspani and Steve Gorman; Editing by David Gregorio and Leslie Adler)