As Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified into a Category 4 storm threatening the Gulf Coast Sunday morning, residents of the area faced a difficult decision — to stay and ride out the storm, or to brave the clogged highways and try to evacuate.
Ida made landfall in southeast Louisiana early Sunday afternoon with 150 mph sustained winds as authorities warned of "catastrophic" damage that could threaten all homes and people in its path.
Hurricane warnings are all too familiar to Gulf Coast residents who have lived through countless storms, but the severity of this one took some by surprise, leaving little time to prepare.
On Friday evening, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned that Hurricane Ida was "changing, it seems, by the hour."
"Now is the time to finish your preparations," Bel Edwards said. "By nightfall tomorrow night, you need to be where you intend to ride out the storm and you need to be postured as you would want to be as the storm approaches you."
'We're just going to stay and pray'
For some, where they wanted to be was at home.
As the storm made landfall on Sunday afternoon, Lee and Skylar Rudin, both lawyers, secured the hatches of their home in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, hoping for the best during intermittent power outages.
The Rudins rolled the dice on sheltering in place with their 2-year-old daughter, armed with a backup generator and a track record of Uptown generally surviving even the worst weather.
"My inclination is that there are two types of people who stay during a storm," Skylar Rudin, 34, said. "It's ones who have a generator and they know that they'll be OK. And then there's also the people that are just going to ride it out, no matter what."
Homeowner Chris Hannah decided to stay put in his Lower Garden District house. The 48-year-old bartender said he didn't want to leave and spend sleepless nights wondering if his house was still standing.
"I own my house now so it's hard for me to leave," Hannah said while plugging leaking windows on Sunday. "I just know every time there's a storm, something happens to the windows and I'd rather be here to help. It's different when you own it, rather than rent it."
Tammy Williams, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also decided to stay. She was attempting to fill her car with gas on Saturday to prepare amid shortages. She said she was most concerned about power outages and flooding, but still planned to hunker down and ride out the storm.
"We see hurricanes all the time coming through here, and by the time they get here they've dissipated," she said. "So you kind of get into a bad habit of saying, 'oh well, it's fine.' So to know that this could be a Category 4 is a little bit scary. It happened at the last minute, so my family, my pets, everybody is here. And where are we going to go? Hotel rooms are full, houses are full."
"So we're just going to stay and pray and hope it works out and we don't have a repeat of 2016," she said, referring to the floods that hit the area that year.
'I just had a horrible feeling about it'
At the same time, fellow Uptown resident Melanie Warner Spencer was relaxing with her husband and cat inside a downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, hotel after enduring a stressful eight-hour drive from the Big Easy.
Many who evacuated throughout the weekend were met with bumper-to-bumper traffic that delayed drive times by several hours as the storm was upgraded to a Category 4 on Sunday morning.
"For us, we did not want to to deal with the anxiety and the uncertainty and the inconvenience of (possibly) sitting around without electricity for what could be several days," Spencer, 48, said on Sunday.
If there was a final factor that drove Spencer to hit the road, it was probably her diabetic cat whose insulin needs to be kept cold. The prospect of a power outage, and thus an inoperable refrigerator, was too much of a threat.
"I have to say sometimes our decision-making is based on what will stress out the cat," she laughed.
Lifelong New Orleans resident Mary-Devon Dupuy, 32, also elected to evacuate to Birmingham, Alabama, because of her 5-month-old baby Oscar and a gut feeling.
“We were planning on staying. We did not decide to leave until Saturday morning. Something happened and I just had a horrible feeling about it," said Dupuy, who got out of town with her husband Geoff Gauchet, their son and three cats.
"We would have stayed if we didn’t have the baby. There’s just so many things to consider," she continued. "But going without power for that long with a baby. Also not having access to emergency services with the baby is just so scary.”