New Orleans officials remain cautious after Gustav's pass

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 1, 2008 

Debris blows across Congress Street in Lafayette, La., on Monday as Hurricane Gustav moves inland.

RALPH LAUER / FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM / MCT

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Gustav, arriving weaker than feared, submerged large swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday but left New Orleans and its system of levees and flood walls largely unscathed.

Louisiana officials, mindful that the extent of the flooding after Hurricane Katrina didn't become evident until hours after that storm had passed, cautioned that it was too early to say the danger was over.

"You remember with Katrina when it first hit the state, people felt like the worst had happened and felt like it wasn't the nightmare storm that people predicted," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday.

"I don't want anybody to have any kind of false sense of hope," he said. "We still don't know the extent of the damage."

Still, there was a sense that New Orleans had escaped the kind of flood that in 2005 filled 80 percent of New Orleans, killing hundreds who'd otherwise survived Katrina.

"The good news is that we haven't had a breach," Mayor Ray Nagin said, almost echoing his words from 2005 before Katrina overwhelmed the levees. "A breach at this point in time would cause significant flooding."

What flooding there was appeared limited. Water sloshed over some flood walls, and flooding was knee-deep in (some) parts of New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward and low-lying areas southwest of the city.

In Plaquemines Parish, authorities evacuated a subdivision threatened by flood waters spilling over a levee after efforts to open flood gates were thwarted by a power outage. But in the end, the gates were opened and the day saved.

Authorities confirmed one storm-related fatality — a motorist lost control of her car on Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, crashing into a tree. Power was out to more than 500,000 customers statewide.

South of New Orleans, residents also reported relatively light damage — toppled trees and flooded roadways and massive power outages — and relief that the storm had been weaker than expected.

"A lot of tree damage but the houses look pretty good," said Carol Broussard, the mayor of Delcambre, La., a small community south of Lafayette and just north of Vermillion Bay, near where Gustav's eye passed as it headed deeper into Louisiana.

In Houma, winds blew a row of power lines crashing into Richard and Hope Leboeuf's home, trapping them.

"We can't get out!" Hope Leboeug shouted from her doorway. "It's like an electric fence."

Fierce winds and widespread flooding also struck the Mississippi coast, creeping into homes in Biloxi, where winds sent at least one tree through a roof. In nearby Gulfport, an abandoned building collapsed downtown.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd imposed a curfew through Tuesday morning, partly to prevent people from driving in flooded areas. "We've got too many people riding around gawking and looking, and that's how people get hurt," Byrd said.

"We've gotten hammered," said Allen Holder Jr., an alderman in Long Beach, Miss.

But the U.S. impact of Gustav in human terms was much less than the path of destruction it left before getting here. At least 96 people were killed before Gustav landed in the United States: 76 in Haiti, 12 in Jamaican and eight in the Dominican Republic and 10 in Jamaica.

Although the track of the storm was almost exactly what forecasters said it would be, Gustav never gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico as expected, arriving on shore as a Category 2 with 110 mph winds. Dry air, competing wind shear and cooler water in the northern Gulf contributed to keeping Gustav from slamming the coast as a major hurricane.

Residents and officials also agreed the region was better prepared to handle Gustav than it had been for Katrina.

Evacuation orders went out early, hospitals moved the sickest patients to safety, and the $15 billion project to rebuild and shore up the levees made a difference, although it's still three years from completion.

More than 200,000 people left New Orleans, at least 18,000 of them on government buses that weren't available during Katrina.

Most hospitals evacuated the majority of patients over the weekend, and those that were left behind found conditions far better than they did during Katrina, when scores died in sweltering heat.

At Tulane Medical Center, where about 1,600 people were stranded during Katrina, fewer than 500 staff, nurses, physicians and patients remained for Gustav, said Mark Romig, spokesman for the medical center.

After Katrina, the medical center installed an improved generator system and waterproofed the boiler room, which had flooded during Katrina and left the center without power, he said.

Children's Hospital in New Orleans, where about 70 mostly critical patients remained, had 70,000 gallons of fuel underground to power its generators, said Brian Landry, vice president of marketing. That's a supply that could last more than three weeks.

Charity Hospital, once the largest public hospital in New Orleans, never reopened after the disaster caused by Katrina. About 200 patients were trapped in horrific conditions for several days.

The center of Gustav made landfall at 9:30 a.m. CDT in Cocodrie, La., about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans. By late Monday it had weakened to a Category 1 storm, and forecasters said it would dump rain over Louisiana and Texas for several days before disintegrating, probably by Friday.

"It will become more of a rainfall threat until it completely breaks up," said Jessica Schauer Clark, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in South Florida. "It could produce up to 20 inches of rain in some areas."

The relative weakness of the storm was also good news for the economy. While Gustav disrupted oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, preventing 1.3 million barrels of oil a day from reaching the market, there was little damage to offshore rigs and on-shore refineries, industry Web site rigzone.com reported. That means production is likely to resume within days.

The New York Mercantile Exchange was closed Monday for the holiday but in after-hours electronic trading, the next-month contract for oil delivery fell by $2.47 a barrel to $112.89. That suggests oil prices may be heading toward the threshold of $110 a barrel, and analysts believe that $100-a-barrel oil could be in sight. Gustav did not cause any significant bump in gasoline prices.

In New Orleans Monday afternoon, people were well on their way to repairing what damage there'd been.

In the Uptown area of New Orleans, Jerome Profit, 43, rode his bicycle through streets littered with tree debris and some downed limbs.

He had woken on Monday to the storm's sounds, and made himself breakfast.

Then he lost power. He slept through the morning and then decided to get out of his house — he had no provisions, candles, or other necessities — and hopped on his bike to peddle to his father-in-law's house several miles away. If nobody was home there, Profit planned to ask a National Guardsman for help finding a shelter. The rest of his family had already evacuated to Birmingham, Ala.

"But it sure wasn't as bad as expected," he said of the storm.

Near Tulane University, Kelly Godwin, 46, attacked a fallen tree on St. Charles Avenue with a machete. The tree had completely blocked two lanes. Godwin, shirtless and in orange shorts, whacked away at the tree, hoping to clear enough small limbs to allow him to drag the remainder off the street.

"Not sure how well the machete will do here," he said. "But I figured I'd help the city by chopping the tree up."

Some New Orleans residents said they thought that the storm's anticlimactic arrival, after two days of urgent evacuations had emptied the city, would discourage residents from fleeing at the next threat.

"This is a bust. A lot of people wouldn't have left if they know it was like this," said Dave Turnes, a 23-year-old cook, between sips of absinthe in the French Quarter.

Others weren't so sure.

"People will evacuate every time after Katrina," said a man who would only give his name as "Checkers," a balloon artist who lives above Zara's Grocery Store in the Lower Garden District.

"The fear is permanent," he said. "It's like getting bit by a dog when you're a little kid: You'll always be afraid of dogs."

(Adams reports for the McClatchy Washington Bureau, Branch for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Benn for the Miami Herald. Contributing to this story were Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, David Ovalle, Frances Robles and Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald; Barbara Barrett, Lesley Clark, Kevin G. Hall, David Lightman and Nancy Youssef of the McClatchy Washington Bureau; Mary Perez of the Biloxi Sun Herald, and Sarah Huffstetler, Kate Gorman and Bill Hanna of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. )

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