NEW ORLEANS - Sunday marked 16 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Lousiana as a strong Category 3 storm, leaving a trail of destruction across the South and unprecedented flooding after levees failed in the New Orleans area.
Katrina is blamed for an estimated 1,800 deaths from the central Louisiana coast to around the Mississippi-Alabama state line. A massive storm surge scoured the shores and wiped houses off the map.
In New Orleans, failures of federal levees led to catastrophic flooding. Water covered 80% of the city and many homes were swamped to the rooftops. Some victims drowned in their attics. The Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center became scenes of sweltering misery as tens of thousands were stranded without power or running water.
Memories of Katrina still haunt many who scrambled to prepare for Ida before the storm made landfall, lining up for groceries, gas and ice, as well as sandbags the city was offering.
"Ida will most definitely be stronger than Katrina, and by a pretty big margin,’’ said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. "And, the worst of the storm will pass over New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which got the weaker side of Katrina."
Ida was a strong Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds when it made landfall, "a sneeze away from becoming the fifth Category 5 landfall on the continental U.S.," McNoldy said. Katrina weakened quite a bit before landfall, striking Louisiana as a Category 3 storm with 127 mph winds.
Katrina hit Louisiana from due south, while Ida is coming to the same part of the state from southeast. On Sunday, Ida’s hurricane-force winds extended 37 miles from the center, compared to Katrina’s hurricane-force winds that spread 98 miles from the center when it made landfall, McNoldy said.
"This has the potential to be more of a natural disaster whereas the big issue in Katrina was more of a man-made one" because of levee failures, said McNoldy. Levee failures pushed Katrina’s death toll to 1,833 and its overall damage to about $176 billion in current dollars, and experts don’t expect Ida to come near those totals.
Despite the threat from Ida, local and federal leaders hope the impact won’t be as nearly as bad as Katrina’s.
The federal government spent $14.5 billion on levees, pumps, seawalls, floodgates and drainage that provides enhanced protection from storm surge and flooding in New Orleans and surrounding suburbs south of Lake Pontchartrain. With the exception of three drainage projects, that work is complete.
"The post-Katrina system is so different than what was in place before," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Matt Roe.
One of the lessons learned during recent hurricane seasons has been that maintenance of drains, pipes and canals has been neglected. Officials urged residents Friday to sweep up around storm drains, underlining a concern that even the best pumps won't work if drains are clogged.
Experts note that the levee system was built to protect against a 100-year level of storm surge — a surge that has a 1% chance of happening any given year. With rising seas from climate change and the sinking of Louisiana's spongy coast, there’s concern that simply isn’t enough.
Reports issued in 2021 recommend spending a projected $1.7 billion to raise levees and floodwalls to keep providing the 100-year protection through 2078. That includes raising the height of 99 miles of levees, replacing more than 1 mile of floodwall and building 3.2 miles (5.15 kilometers) of new floodwall.
Meteorologists have improved forecasts and they hope that Louisiana is better prepared than in 2005 with a stronger levee system.
"No U.S. state since 1851 has ever recorded back-to-back years of 150+ mph hurricanes making landfall," Bowen said. "Following Laura’s landfall in 2020, Louisiana is about to make unfortunate history."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.