With increasingly powerful Hurricane Ida bearing down on the Louisiana coast, public officials prepared shelters of last resort and warned residents to get ready as the capital region's highways jammed with people trying to escape the massive storm brewing to catastrophic intensity in the Gulf of Mexico.

Amid the warnings, panic-buying and preparation, some of the humdrum of a normal late summer Saturday also went on in Baton Rouge, making for occasional studies in contrast: everyday life amid high storm anxiety.

Ida is expected to drop 8 to 16 inches of rain on greater Baton Rouge between Saturday and Tuesday — perhaps as much as 20 inches in some spots — and bring hurricane-force winds that could knock out power for days, city-parish officials and federal weather forecasters said.

"This is a very dangerous storm and … it will possibly bring life-threatening impacts," East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said at a late morning news conference Saturday. "It's a powerful storm."

"Please," she added, "take this seriously and use this time to prepare."

Broome said parish crews have been clearing obstructions in waterways, emptied 1,400 storm drains of sediment and lowered the water level in the Capitol Lake by two feet for flood storage but officials still expected flooding.

City-parish officials also said they were preparing to open two shelters of last resort that could hold a combined 450 people but hadn't announced their opening yet Saturday afternoon. 

In Ascension Parish, government officials said they will open two shelters 8 a.m. Sunday at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center gym near Gonzales and Lowery Middle School in Donaldsonville.

The shelters will offer minimum amenities, have COVID mask mandates and security by the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office. Residents are urged to bring supplies for three to five days.

"This is a dangerous storm, do not take it lightly," Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment said in a statement. "If you think your home may not be safe, don’t take any chances; please come to a shelter."

The prospect of a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm slamming into Louisiana Sunday prompted evacuation orders in primarily coastal parishes facing 10- to 15-foot storm surge and at least one in the greater Baton Rouge area: Assumption Parish.

By Saturday, one day before the 16th anniversary of the historically destructive Hurricane Katrina making landfall in Louisiana, drivers were trying to escape yet another hurricane, inching north through Baton Rouge, where two interstate highways meet and major crossings of the Mississippi River are located.

The jammed thoroughfares faintly echoed scenes from the state-ordered "contraflow" that had fed people through Baton Rouge for Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina a decade and a half ago. This time, the state didn't use the procedure, which employs both sides of the highway to move traffic in one direction. 

Wanda Garnier, her daughters, granddaughter and other family had already been driving for six hours by around 2 p.m. Saturday.

Riding in two vehicles, they had just made it from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and to the Chick-fil-A at College Drive and Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge for a snack and a pit stop. 

Garnier's family had left New Orleans at 7:45 a.m. and were hoping to reach the greater Houston, Texas, area where they had found a hotel, she said.

They'd been through this ordeal before. Garnier said her family evacuated and fought through traffic after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They eventually rebuilt their home in the hard-hit Ninth Ward, only to leave again for Ida so many years later.

Garnier, who is 64 and recently had major surgery, said the long drive felt "like hell."

"I'm ready to get out of this," she said.

Many Baton Rouge residents who remained in the city said they were intent on riding out the storm as they hunted down whatever necessities they could find at the back of otherwise barren shelves at local big-box and hardware stores.

Some said they wanted to stay with family members who refused to leave. Others were confident their homes were safe.

As he loaded four large floor fans into his cart at Home Depot Saturday, Baton Rouge native Josh Rounds said one of his main concerns was protecting his property from potential looters.

No stranger to heavy storms, Rounds explained that if his home loses power, his family’s large generator will be able to sustain their refrigerator, freezer and several fans that will help circulate airflow and reduce the impact of August’s scorching heat in the days — or potentially weeks — following Ida.

At a Walmart, LSU student Michael Laforge waited in line for nearly 30 minutes to buy his own hurricane essentials, which consisted of just one 12-pack of dried ramen noodles he said a worker retrieved from the store’s stockroom.

A New Orleans native, Laforge said his family back home was still unsure whether they planned to evacuate, as rapidly changing forecasts for Ida made it difficult to plan.

“They were trying to get me to come down and then if something happens, we’d probably go to Florida or Texas or something,” he said.

For now, though, he’s prepared to face long-term power outages as he waits out Ida in Baton Rouge.

Under mostly warm, partially sunny skies in Baton Rouge Saturday, life seemed to go on as usual for some. 

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At Plank Road and Hollywood Street in northern Baton Rouge, people were still in the drive-thru line Saturday afternoon at a Krispy Kreme donut shop not long after workers had covered the sleekly-designed building's large windows with large plywood sheets and sandbagged the entrances.

Tracy Johnson, a store manager, said the area around the donut shop floods regularly. Demand for donuts had been stronger before the windows were covered with wood, though people still lined up afterward.

"We're just being prepared," Johnson said. 

Managers were still deciding when to close, she added.

The latest forecast of the Ida's track on late Saturday afternoon had shifted east, with the eye raking the west bank of the Mississippi River, hitting communities like Donaldsonville, Plaquemine and Addis and passing over Port Allen around 1 a.m. Monday.

Phil Grigsby, a forecaster with the National Weather Service office for Baton Rouge, said winds could be 90 to 100 mph with gusts over 110 mph and possible tornadoes, primarily ahead of the storm.

Whatever wobbles happen over the next 24 hours, Grigsby added, hurricane-force winds will extend out 30 to 40 miles from the eye. When the eye wall passes over the Baton Rouge area, trees will topple, and some buildings may see roof damage. 

"The wind is going to be the biggest impact for Baton Rouge," Grigsby said.

City-parish officials said the region could see 8 to 16 inches of rain between Saturday and Tuesday, though National Weather Service forecasters noted that a narrow band along the east side of the hurricane could bring 16 to 20 inches.

The heaviest downpour in the capital region is expected Sunday and Monday. Rain bands could arrive mid-to-late-Sunday morning, according to the latest forecast.

Grigsby said the downpour is expected to cause moderate river flooding in the Amite, Comite and other rivers while storm surge is expected to reach into lower Livingston, Ascension, St. James and Assumption parishes.

Entergy officials said power outages could last as long as two weeks, though typically for storms as strong as Ida, power can be restored in a week to 10 days.

In an interview, Will Johnson, region customer service manager for Entergy, said utility officials had to go back to Hurricane Betsy in 1965 for historical parallels to measure the potential impact of a Category 4 storm hitting this part of the southeast Louisiana's power grid.

Because so much has changed in the region since 1965, though, the utility could not really do a full projection of power loss for Ida based on historic trends, but applied a more standard two-week time frame associated with Category 4 storms.

"Now it doesn't reach that," Johnson said. "We always get them in before that, maybe seven days, eight, nine, but never two weeks, but that's the possibility."

Cheri Ausberry, Entergy customer service manager for the Baton Rouge area, added the power utility has about 3,000 workers ready and more from other states are already headed to Louisiana to help restore power if outages happen.

"We're going with the worst-case-and-hoping-for-the-best scenario, so we're going to be prepared for whatever that may be," Ausberry told the new conference Saturday.

Mayor-President Broome warned residents to make preparations. They should include a three-day supply of food and medicine for family and pets, plus masks and other protections against COVID-19 should people have to leave their homes.

Broome said Baton Rouge is dealing with two emergencies: Hurricane Ida and the pandemic.

"So please," she urged, "prepare for both."

As Saturday evening approached, gas shortages were popping up at some local gas stations.

Despite an otherwise chaotic scene at the Shell gas station on Government Street, Cheryl Cassimere stood calmly next to her car as she waited for her daughter to return from paying for their tank of gas.

Cassimere said she, her daughter and granddaughter evacuated from their home in Slidell and were heading for Texas, where they’ll stay with family.

But when her daughter returned, she told her mother a sign on the store’s front door announced the Shell station had run out of gasoline and was only offering diesel.

Unbothered, Cassimere turned back to her car.

“I think we should have enough to get us further along,” she said, “to where we should be able to get gas.”

She laughed.

“I’m a believer.”


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.