(Tim Isbell for Mississippi Today) Credit: Tim Isbell for Mississippi Today

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency on Saturday “to put assets in place” to deal with Hurricane Ida, the strong storm that will affect Mississippi and Louisiana starting on Sunday.

Reeves said that the center of the storm is expected to hit neat Morgan City, La., — about 85 miles west of New Orleans — and present significant dangers to Mississippi in terms of heavy rain and strong winds throughout most of the state and strong storm surge on the Gulf Coast.

“This is a storm that is unlike normal in that it popped up literally less than 48 hours ago as a tropical depression, and here we are talking about it hitting landfall as early 2 p.m. tomorrow,” Reeves said on Saturday afternoon during a news conference at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Rankin County.

While rainfall could be as much as 20 inches in parts of southwest Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, the governor said that the rain could be as much as 4 inches to 8 inches throughout the state.

In addition, widespread power outages are anticipated across the state as the center of the storm moves through central and northern Mississippi, said Stephen McCraney, MEMA executive director.

“We are better prepared today than we were for Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago, but this time we also are dealing with a major pandemic,” said Jim Craig, director of health protection with the Mississippi State Department of Health. Craig urged people going to shelters and to other places to continue to wear masks and take other precautions to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Shelter locations can be found at the MSEMA.org.

Hurricane Katrina hit exactly 16 years from Sunday — the date Hurricane Ida is supposed to come ashore. Katrina’s landfall resulted in unprecedented destruction both in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Reeves said the forecast could change, but as projected Saturday afternoon, the center of the storm could enter Mississippi by early Monday morning, be near Vicksburg by Monday around 7 p.m., and be near Batesville by Tuesday at 7 a.m.

The governor said storm surge on the Mississippi Gulf Coast could rise to as much as 11 feet.

With the state of emergency declaration, the governor said local, state and federal rescue teams will be on standby, and he said he has been in conversations with President Joe Biden to formulate plans to transport patients as needed to deal with hospitals that have been over capacity because of COVID-19 and could be called upon to treat additional patients because of the powerful hurricane.

Craig said state health department COVID-19 testing and vaccinations will be suspended at some locations on Monday in south and central Mississippi and would reopen depending on conditions.

READ MORE: Gulf Coast hospitals, already overwhelmed with COVID, prep for Hurricane Ida

Reeves said the path of the storm could still change in the coming hours, but that it is expected to reach central Mississippi, including the Jackson Metro area, on Monday.

Traffic on Interstate 55, Interstate 10 and other thoroughfares in Mississippi was heavy by Saturday afternoon as people evacuated from south Louisiana, New Orleans and low-lying areas of Hancock County in Mississippi.

McCraney urged Mississippians to take backroads and leave the crowded interstates to the people from Louisiana fleeing the storm.

“We know our backroads,” McCraney said.

Ida on Saturday reached Category 2 strength on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with winds from 96mph to 110mph, capable of extensive damage. Forecast give the possibility of Ida reaching a Category 4 before landfall, which would mean winds from 130 mph to 156 mph, bringing likely catastrophic damages to homes and buildings.

Wind warnings for south Mississippi were for sustained 74 mile per hour winds — at the bottom end of hurricane strength and still capable of extensive damage. For Mississippi, there is also a threat of tornadoes being spawned throughout much of the state as the storm moves inland. Saturday forecasts warned that hurricane-force gusts could extend well inland into Mississippi, and heavy rain and gusts up to 60 miles per hour through central Mississippi.

In Saturday’s forecasts, Mississippi was expected to be spared a direct hit, but to be on the east side — the worst, particularly for flooding rains — of Ida, and the storm is expected to track through western and central Mississippi as it moves inland. The National Weather Service extended tropical storm warnings from Lake Charles, La., through Mobile, Ala.

Forecasts also warned of storm surge through the Mississippi Coast from 7 feet to 11 feet, which would bring major flooding to low-lying areas. The forecast also predicts heavy rainfall for parts of Mississippi — up to 20 inches in isolated areas.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.