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Louisiana Braces For Hurricane Ida To Make Landfall

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hurricane Ida is turning into an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm as it barrels toward the Louisiana coastline. The National Hurricane Center says it could bring life-threatening storm surges and sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour. Hundreds of thousands of residents have fled the watery beaches of southern Louisiana that could be hit the hardest. The governor called it one of the most potentially devastating hurricanes since before the Civil War. NPR's John Burnett is on the line with us now from New Orleans. Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Asma.

KHALID: So, John, we have been hearing that New Orleans could get hurricane winds upwards of 100 miles per hour today. What does it look like for you right now?

BURNETT: Well, we're really just getting the first paw swipes of Ida here on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans - light rain, blustery wind, a big slate-gray sky. We're about 60 miles from where the eye is projected to come ashore. It's going to get nastier all day long, and we expect the worst later this afternoon. On Friday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered mandatory evacuation of all the areas outside a levee system. Now it's too late to evacuate. She's telling people just to hunker down and shelter in place.

And, you know, lots of Louisianans have gotten the message, and they've gotten out. I was driving in from Texas yesterday, and it was gridlock traffic on I-10 westbound from Baton Rouge all the way to the Texas border. If you look at that boot of Louisiana, the regions that will get hit the hardest are at the ball of the foot, those sparsely populated parishes facing the Gulf like Terrebonne, Lafourche and Plaquemines. But, man, Ida is so big, nearly 300 miles wide. So it's going to affect a huge chunk of south Louisiana.

KHALID: And, John, this hurricane is expected to make landfall on the exact date that Hurricane Katrina devastated the region 16 years ago. And Ida's winds as of now actually appear to be more intense than Katrina's. So how is the state preparing for this?

BURNETT: You know, it's really impressive. Five thousand members of the National Guard have been activated. Ten thousand electrical linemen are on standby when the lights go out. Dozens of search and rescue boats and high-water trucks are standing by. There are even 125 buses ready to evacuate people from New Orleans after the storm if they're needed. You know, a lot of this came about because of Katrina, because of the disaster that happened back then, the lack of preparedness. You know, in the decade after Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers spent more than $14 billion to strengthen the hurricane barriers surrounding greater New Orleans. And this may be the major storm that tests those protections. I mean, they've got massive floodgates that have been closing in the last few days. One of them is nearly as long as a football field. And this is what you need to remember. It's not just about making the levees and floodwalls stronger. Meteorologist Ed Roy in Lafayette told me that, you know, most of New Orleans, he reminds us, is at or below sea level.

ED ROY: So that was a big improvement to reengineer and re-fortify the levees but two, to improve the pumping system. Because once you get water inside the levee system in New Orleans, it's a bathtub, and it just kind of has to get out on its own if you can't pump it out.

KHALID: John, I've got to imagine that for locals who lived through Hurricane Katrina, it's got to be very difficult to look around on this anniversary and see another potentially violent storm on the horizon. How are people processing all of this?

BURNETT: Yeah, Asma, I went to the Lower Ninth Ward here in New Orleans yesterday, and you remember they had some of the most catastrophic destruction and flooding during Katrina. Here's Simonette Berry, a 36-year-old filmmaker who lives in the Holy Cross neighborhood right next to the Mississippi River levee.

SIMONETTE BERRY: You know, there's a lot of PTSD and fear, you know, that comes from hurricanes and especially on the 16th anniversary of Katrina, when the storm is scheduled to hit. A lot of people are really nervous, but this city is so resilient. And I feel a lot more confident knowing that we have also had billions of dollars put into our levee system that we did not have before.

KHALID: A very tough situation there, though, in New Orleans. That's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John, for joining us. And please stay safe.

BURNETT: You bet, Asma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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