Hurricane Ida to hit on Katrina anniversary. Will it impact New Orleans the same way?

Andrew J. Yawn
The American South

On Sunday, 16 years to the day since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Hurricane Ida is expected to rumble ashore as a Category 4 storm with New Orleans set squarely in its path. 

But that’s where the comparisons between the two storms should stop, said Jamie Rhome, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center. 

Hurricane Katrina put 80% of the city underwater, killing hundreds and causing billions in damages. Rhome said its natural for people to want to compare a new hurricane to a similar-looking past event, but he said the storms have followed two distinct paths that will create different hazards.

“It’s tempting to want to compare it to Katrina, but these are two very, very different storms, for a number of reasons,” Rhome said in a phone interview Saturday. 

Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina fill the streets near downtown New Orleans, in this Aug. 30, 2005, file photo.

For example, Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 storm that caused a storm surge of more than 20 feet.

Hurricane Ida is expected to have a 10-15 feet surge on the city’s west bank, which sits across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. For the majority of New Orleans, which sits on the river's east bank, the storm surge is projected to be between 7-11 feet, Rhome said. 

"That's certainly impactful, but not Katrina-esque in terms of impact," Rhome said. 

Instead, the bigger threat for the majority of New Orleans residents will be the storm's high winds and potential flooding from rainfall. 

"The problem is, hurricanes are really kind of like people," Rhome said. "They all have their own little nuances. You might, on the surface, look at two hurricanes and say they look alike, but when you drill down to their impacts and what they do to a community, it can be totally different."

That doesn't mean Hurricane Ida's threat should be downplayed. Benjamin Schott, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Baton Rouge/New Orleans division, said, "This will be a life altering storm." 

At a pre-storm press conference Saturday, New Orleans Mayor Cantrell said Hurricane Ida "represents a dramatic threat to the people of the city of New Orleans."

And yet, as New Orleans faces its strongest hurricane since Hurricane Zeta last year -- which had a higher sustained wind speed than Katrina -- the biggest difference for the city is its preparedness and protection systems. 

Katrina would not have devastated New Orleans so immensely had its levee system not failed, allowing the storm surge to rise to residents' rooftops. And after years of investigation, planning, and billions of dollars in investments, the city is now better protected by its flood walls.

Hurricane Ida, upgraded from a tropical storm Friday afternoon, could make its way inland to flood-battered Tennessee.

"The federal levee system that protects that encases New Orleans is substantially stronger and better than the system during Katrina," Rhome said.  

In fact, the federal government spent $15 billion on the new hurricane risk reduction system to prevent another Hurricane Katrina repeat, which Gov. John Bel Edwards noted Saturday.

"We're not the same state we were in 2005 because of the generosity of the American people," said Edwards, while acknowledging the new system "will be tested."

A day before Ida's expected landfall, that sentiment was echoed by Heath Jones, emergency manager of the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District, at a city press conference. 

"There are things on those levees like armoring. Pump stations have backup generators," Jones said. "We built all that post-Katrina with the idea that it would be resilient to a 500-year event, which is above this event we’re having now."

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.