NEW ORLEANS — As Hurricane Ida began violently tearing through South Louisiana on Sunday, Kelli Chandler was holed up in a windowless office, waiting and watching for the answer to a question that all of New Orleans was asking: Would the levees — the newer, stronger, more sophisticated levees — hold back the storm?
Ms. Chandler, an official in the nerve center of the sprawling $20 billion storm defense system that was upgraded after the misery of Hurricane Katrina, spent hours fielding emails, calls, and texts from a web of officials and agencies that were keeping their eyes on the new system.
The early signs, she said early Sunday evening, were good, but the final answers were far from clear. Ida was not finished with New Orleans. So the waiting and worrying went on. “We’re expecting peak winds later on tonight,” she said.
The nation’s most flood-scarred city buckled in for a terrifying ride Sunday, its people gripped by an anxiety that was whipping around with the wind. Would Ida amount to a rerun of the epic disaster that no one has forgotten — and, of all days, on the 16th anniversary of Katrina?
For residents like Erica Smith, the new storm protections offered little assurance. Ms. Smith, 38, had survived Katrina, but, she said, just barely. She had no intention of living through this storm at her house in suburban Metairie. So she had come downtown, seeking the safety of a big hotel. Sunday morning, however, she had to move from one hotel to another. She cowered in the curve of a downtown building, contemplating the harrowing nine-block walk. The wind howled down Carondelet Street.
“It’s horrific,” she said. “This could be another Katrina.”
The prospect of that — “another Katrina” — has haunted New Orleans, and the rest of the nation, since the nightmare flooding of 2005 and the botched government response that followed. And Ida, which made landfall Sunday just south of New Orleans, seemed like a serious contender, with winds that reached 150 miles per hour, and a trajectory that appeared to be headed just west of New Orleans.
But all storms are different, and the extensive investment in a remade storm protection system offered hope. It could seem, on Sunday, like pessimism and optimism were fighting it out like colliding weather systems.
In the Algiers Point neighborhood, directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, windows shook and tree limbs were sent flailing. Steely gray skies were barely visible through the stretch of oak trees lining Opelousas Avenue. Some neighborhood streets were strewn with leaves and broken branches.
Many residents evacuated the city before the storm made landfall, but some stayed behind, determined to ride out the storm in their own homes or those of friends or relatives.
Most houses were not boarded up, but residents appeared to have taken to heart officials’ advice to pull trash cans inside, leaving the streets uncommonly empty.
Further into the day, the Mississippi River was whipped into an ocean-like frenzy. Video footage circulated of a ferry that had broken loose from its moorings. Ms. Chandler said a tug would be dispatched to pull it to safety as soon as the winds died down.
Prolonged power outages are expected to have the biggest impact for those who stayed in the city, with food and medicine spoiling in inoperable refrigerators and hot weather making daily life uncomfortable for everyone. Power trouble had already begun on Sunday, as the lights flickered and went out in Algiers, then the 7th Ward, then the 9th Ward.
The Sewerage and Water Board sent a notice just before noon that a number of its stations throughout the city were losing power, which could cause sewers to back up in homes if residents did not reduce the amount of wastewater they send into the system through showers, dishwashing and toilets flushing.
“These stations will be out of service until the storm passes,” the notice read.
In other parts of the region, the storm’s effects were yet to arrive in force, and officials braced for daybreak Monday, when they would begin to learn the extent of a near-certain trail of misery for a state that was battered by numerous powerful storms last year.
It remained to be seen if New Orleans would be on the list of the hardest hit. On Sunday, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana expressed optimism that the city would handle the storm on CNN’s “State of the Union.” The new storm system surrounding New Orleans, with its 350 miles of levees, flood walls, gates and pumps, “will withstand the storm surge,” he said.
“There’s been tremendous investment in this system since Hurricane Katrina,” he said. He added: “This will be the most severe test of that system.”
There were hopes that Ida might prove mild. One weather forecaster suggested that the result might turn out to be more similar to Hurricane Zeta, a storm that struck in October, blowing through quickly and ferociously, leaving the streets filled with fallen tree branches and downed power lines — but leaving most of the city intact.
But many residents had a hard time putting faith in the predictions and the experts. Even if the levees held this time, they wondered if the city’s historically troubled pumping system would be able to churn water out of the city before floodwaters rose.
“I just have a really eerie feeling about this one,” said Chris Dier, a local schoolteacher who evacuated his home in the Arabi neighborhood. “I feel like the levees should hold, but again, if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised because we all thought they would hold during Katrina but they didn’t.”
The big hotels around the French Quarter, meanwhile, were experiencing a rarity: rooms and floors full of patrons with New Orleans accents.
Devin Sanville, 51, a chef at Antoine’s Restaurant, the famous Creole restaurant in the French Quarter, had moved with his family into a room in the AC Hotel on the fifth floor. He rode out Katrina on the third floor in the St. Bernard housing projects after fleeing his house, which filled with at least six feed of water.
“I feel like our infrastructure is better than it was 15-16 years ago,” he said. But he emphasized that much of the suffering came after the storm, when so many New Orleanians were left stranded without power or a means of escape.
“I think we can make it,” he said. “It’s just about people. Preserving lives and people.”
Angela Williams, 55, a New Orleans school bus driver had also come to the hotel for some peace of mind. She said Katrina put 12 feet of water in her Uptown New Orleans home.
On Sunday, the hotel lobby seemed like the best vantage from which to judge whether the city was truly safer than it was in 2005.
“We’re going to see if it works,” she said of the upgraded flood protection system. “Because the last hurricane, it didn’t work at all for us.”