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Ida is among strongest hurricanes to ever hit the US. But it could have been worse.

The worst hurricanes always etch their names into the memories of survivors, grim reminders used to measure future storms.

Camille. Katrina. Andrew.

Betsy is the first name burned into Linda Green's memory. The New Orleans native was only 8 when she remembers being held in someone's arms as her family fled the September 1965 hurricane.  

More than a dozen hurricanes have made landfall in Southeastern Louisiana since then, but none as fearsome as the wild thing that roared around her home for hours on end on Sunday, said Green, who lives in New Orleans' Central City. "It was scary because it really sounded like a train was rolling, like a locomotive train." 

"Ida came into this town and took over. She was like a wild person," said Green, a chef known as the "Ya-ka-mein Lady" for her version of a famous New Orleans soup. "Ida putting some respect on that name."

Indeed, Ida quickly earned a place in hurricane history, its rapid intensification over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico placing it high on the list of strongest hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland.

Drone flies over flooded New Jersey neighborhood
This drone flew over a neighborhood in Lincoln Park, New Jersey and captured the damage from flooding caused by storm remnants of Hurricane Ida.
USA TODAY, New Jersey Herald

How does Ida compare to other storms on the list? 

Among the 51 hurricanes known to have made landfall along Louisiana's 397-mile coast since the 1850s, Ida is one of three tied for the strongest winds in a land-falling hurricane.

The other two storms are the "Last Island" storm in 1856 and Laura in 2020, said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University.

At landfall southwest of New Orleans at Port Fourchon, Ida's sustained winds were clocked at 150 mph and its gusts at 172 mph by ships in the port. It dumped up to 20 inches of rain in areas around the west shore of Lake Pontchartrain and sent a powerful storm surge ashore across much of the Gulf coast and up the Mississippi River.

It will be weeks before the full impacts of its wind, storm surge and rain are known. By Friday, more than a dozen deaths had been blamed on the storm in Gulf states. Researchers are still pulling together rainfall reports and gathering data from storm sensors strung out along the coast. 

Historic hurricanes

Ida's minimum sea level pressure also earned it a spot in historic hurricane records. It's second only to Katrina for pressure in a landfalling hurricane in Louisiana. Katrina holds the record at 920 millibars.  At 930 millibars, Ida was four millibars lower than the 19th century storm and eight millibars lower than Laura. 

The sustained winds of 150 mph at landfall place Ida on the top 10 list for the strongest sustained winds at landfall anywhere on the U.S. mainland. Klotzbach said it's among seven storms tied for fifth place.

Its winds were 35 mph lower than the hurricane at the top of the list, the Labor Day storm in Florida in 1935 with its 185 mph sustained winds. Then there's Camille, which hit Mississippi in 1969 with 175 mph winds. Two other Florida storms are third and fourth on the list: Andrew in 1992 with 165-mph winds and Michael in 2018 with 160-mph winds.

Camille slammed into the Gulf Coast in Waveland, just east of the Louisiana state line, with an incredible combination of 175-mph winds and a 24.6-foot storm tide.

Jimmy Rafferty, mayor of Pass Christian, Mississippi, will never forget it.

“My family lost a home,” Rafferty said. He was relieved that his Gulf-front hometown escaped the worst of Ida's winds, even though the community was still feeling the effects of winds and rain more than 24 hours later.

From his perspective, every hurricane is different. 

When Hurricane Katrina began its terrifying trip toward the coast 36 years after Camille, the father of Rafferty’s best friend figured no storm could ever do as much damage as Camille. He was wrong.

His friend’s parents were killed when Katrina sent a record 28-29 feet of water into homes blocks away from the Gulf of Mexico, devastating communities. Katrina, he said, “wiped Pass Christian almost off the map."

Katrina vs. Ida

What makes each hurricane so different? Winds, ocean temperatures, pressure, structure and timing.

Ida started getting organized late in its trip northward in the Gulf of Mexico, so it wasn't able to muster the storm surge Katrina had. However, for that reason, Ida was still at full strength and hadn't been weakened by an eyewall replacement cycle like the one that weakened Katrina before landfall.

Both Ida and Katrina received much of their strength from a rapid intensification cycle while moving over over the Gulf Loop Current, an eddy of very warm and deep water in the Gulf. 

Because Katrina had been well-organized and growing for longer as it moved through the Gulf, its area of hurricane-force winds was about seven times larger than Ida’s, noted Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate and tropical cyclone expert at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School. The energy of Katrina’s entire surface wind field – called integrated kinetic energy – was three times greater than Ida.

More: Ida is latest storm to test New Orleans' levees after Hurricane Katrina

Katrina, which made landfall on the same date as Ida, 16 years earlier, had hurricane force winds extending out more than 90 miles from the center, and tropical force winds to more than 200 miles. Laura's winds last year reached out as far as 205 miles.

By comparison, Ida's wind field was much smaller. Its hurricane force winds extended out up to 50 miles and its tropical storm force winds to 140 miles. Klotzbach said it's difficult to compare wind field sizes in storms before 2004 because that's when the most accurate data became available.

The extent of the wind fields help drive storm surge, which combines with large battering waves and tides to batter coastal areas. Katrina's massive storm surge was blamed for most of the more than 1,800 lives lost after the storm. 

It could be days before Ida’s peak storm surge is officially measured somewhere along the southeastern Louisiana coast. But, based on the forecast and initial observations, both McNoldy and Klotzbach expect Ida’s surge to be far lower than Katrina's, because its wind field was smaller.

Comparing storm surge

The location of landfall can make a big difference in how high the ocean moves in above ground when a storm arrives. The storm's forward speed, angle of approach and the depth of the water at the coast also play a role in the height of the storm's surge. 

“A shift of even 10 miles can make a big difference,” said Dennis Feltgen, communications officer for the National Hurricane Center.

That's exactly what happened with Ida, and with Laura in the summer of 2020.

Laura, one of two hurricanes tied with Ida for worst winds in Louisiana history, left catastrophic damage in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It roared ashore on Aug. 27, 2020, with 150-mph winds and a surge as high as 18 feet.

If Laura had made landfall a few miles further west, it would have sent a larger, more damaging surge into Lake Charles.  As it was, the National Hurricane Center estimated Laura caused $19 billion in damage and claimed 47 lives. 

Similarly, as Ida approached the coast, forecasters feared it would wobble to the east and send a higher surge into the New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. But the wobble never happened, sparing those communities. 

Watching from a tow boat on the Louisiana coast, boat captain Shannon Dryden learned firsthand what a difference a few miles can make. He wound up right in the middle of Ida's highest gusts when the hurricane made landfall in Port Fourchon. Dryden rode out the storm at the port in a 50-foot towboat. It's something he now says he would never do again.

One official in Port Fourchon estimated Ida's surge there at between 12 to 15 feet, again far lower than the 28 feet Katrina pushed into Waveland, Mississippi.

Storm surge also was a huge factor in the storm tied with Ida and Laura for strongest winds in a landfalling Louisiana storm.

Long before Ida, Laura or Camille, the dreadful "Last Island" hurricane struck Isle Dernieres about 30 miles west of where Port Fourchon stands today.

When it struck on Aug. 10, 1856, its storm surge completely submerged the island. The powerful forces destroyed nearly every structure, killed more than 200 people and carved the island into two.

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