Hurricane Ida barrels into Cuba, as US Gulf Coast braces for hit.

Hurricane Ida barrelled into Cuba on Friday and churned toward a weekend US landfall along the Louisiana coast, prompting advance evacuations of New Orleans residents and oil rig workers as US president Joe Biden issued a federal emergency declaration.

By midday, Ida was packing maximum sustained winds of 120km/h, according the National Hurricane Center, which expected the storm to strengthen further before coming ashore as a major hurricane in southeastern Louisiana on Sunday.

Soon after being upgraded to hurricane status, Ida smashed into Cuba’s Isle of Youth, off the southwestern end of the Caribbean island nation, meteorologists said.

They said the storm was expected to keep gaining strength and speed as it churned over northwestern Caribbean into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, endangering the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

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 centre 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, forcing some residents to abandon their homes.

Forecasters said Ida would likely make US landfall as a category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale with sustained winds of at least 178km/h and heavy rainfall.

Widespread power outages and flooding from surging ocean surf were also predicted.

New Orleans city officials ordered residents to evacuate areas outside the city’s levee system, with 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 positioned sand and sandbags at eight strategic locations as part of storm preparations.

Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Thursday, and on Friday Mr Biden issued at pre-landfall federal emergency declaration at Edwards’s request. This authorised the US department of homeland security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate disaster relief efforts in the state.

“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.

Officials in US coastal areas preparing for the storm urged residents to move boats out of harbours 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.

“By Saturday evening, everyone should be in the location where they intend to ride out the storm,” Edwards said on Thursday.

US energy companies racing to complete evacuations of offshore platforms in the Gulf ahead of the storm had reduced petroleum production by nearly 60 per cent and gas output by almost half, federal regulators said. – Reuters

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