By Maria Caspani
(Reuters) – Hurricane Ida barreled into Cuba’s Isle of Youth on Friday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, and the U.S. Gulf Coast braced for a direct hit this weekend as the storm churned toward the region.
Ida reached hurricane status much more quickly than forecasters had expected. New Orleans city officials ordered residents to evacuate areas outside the levee system, with a voluntary evacuation for the rest of the parish.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Thursday and said on Friday he had sent a request to President Joe Biden for a “pre-landfall” federal declaration of emergency.
“Unfortunately, Louisiana is forecast to get a direct, strong hit from Tropical Storm #Ida, which is compounded by our current fourth surge of COVID-19. This is an incredibly challenging time for our state,” Edwards wrote on Twitter.
Ida smashed into the Isle of Youth packing maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour), meteorologists said.
The storm was expected to keep gaining strength and speed over the warm Gulf waters, endangering the coast lines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, forecasters said. Ida was expected to make landfall along the northern U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday.
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, especially for people in low-lying areas, mobile homes and RVs. Hurricane force winds of about 110 mph with gusts of 130 mph could hit the state, forecasters said.
“By Saturday evening, everyone should be in the location where they intend to ride out the storm,” Edwards said on Thursday.
Cuba’s meteorology institute said Ida would cause storm surges as far east as Havana. The governor of the Isle of Youth Adian Morera said an evacuation center was ready to receive families in the main town of Nueva Gerona, and sea vessels had already been secured along the coast.
Jamaica was flooded by heavy rains and there were landslides after the passage of the storm. Many roads were impassable and forcing some residents to abandon their homes.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru, Nelson Acosta in Cuba and Kate Chappell in Jamaica; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Jason Neely, Kirsten Donovan and David Gregorio)