NEW ORLEANS — A deteriorating Hurricane Gustav knocked out electricity and sent water spilling over floodwalls around New Orleans Monday, but emergency managers said they remained cautiously optimistic that the area's levees would hold up.
"The good news is that we haven't had a breach," Mayor Ray Nagin said to reporters, almost echoing what he said in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees and left 80 percent of the city flooded.
"A breach at this point in time would cause significant flooding," Nagin said.
The center of Gustav came ashore as a Category 2 storm at 10:30 a.m. EDT about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans and had moved over Morgan City by 1 p.m., according to the National Hurricane Center.
Gustav's maximum sustained winds had receded to 105 mph as the storm moved over land, and forecasters said weakening would continue until the storm disintegrates over Texas later this week.
Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall as a major Category 3 storm and pushed a storm surge of 27 feet into the city, Hurricane Gustav's initial storm surge was closer to 8 feet.
Gustav skirted along Louisiana's coastline at "a more gentle angle'' than Katrina, National Weather Service storm-surge specialist Will Shaffer said.
The few residents left in New Orleans felt they had dodged the big one and gathered on front porches to watch the show. Power was out for about 350,000 customers in the area.
"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.
Turnes said he thought officials would have greater trouble evacuating the city in the future because some would feel as if Gustav's threat had been overhyped.
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. It's like getting bit by a dog when you're a little kid: You'll always be afraid of dogs," he said.
Authorities confirmed one storm-related death in Louisiana after a motorist drove off Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, crashing into a tree.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said Monday they did not expect the number of fatalities that Hurricane Katrina brought when it hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people along the coast. Flooding continued to be a concern as Gustav pushed water to the tops of many of the area's levees on Monday.
"Even if the levees hold there is still going to be possible flooding," FEMA Director David Paulison said Monday aboard Air Force One with the president.
Nagin said a citywide curfew would remain Monday night, but evacuated residents would likely be allowed to return once tropical storm-force winds die down by Tuesday. After Nagin's stern warning that all looters would go directly to jail, the New Orleans Police Department announced Monday it had no reports of looting.
In the Lower Garden District, a 30-foot mulberry trees snapped at the base and fell across Magazine Street, blocking the roadway. Residents Topher Mira and Derek Brown chained the tree to the back of their white pickup truck and hauled it away so motorists could pass.
"I just want to help, whatever I can do with the skills I have," said Mira, 27, a tree-health specialist, before getting back in the truck to continue roaming the city.
In a bit of good news for weary U.S. motorists, oil prices skidded sharply Monday morning after it became clear that Gustav hit the Gulf Coast with a weaker punch than anticipated. There were no immediate reports of serious offshore damage to oil infrastructure, and the 32 oil refineries scattered along the Texas and Louisiana coastline apparently avoided major damage.
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.
Bush and Vice President Cheney canceled their plans to travel to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., for speeches Monday. The GOP overhauled its scheduled program to change it "from a party event to a call to the nation for action," presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said Sunday.
Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas also decided not to attend the convention, opting to remain in their states during the storm. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist also announced that he would stay in his state instead of going to Minnesota.
Competing winds, dry air and a ragged core prevented Gustav from intensifying in the Gulf.
"It never made that real big-bang rise in intensity," said Chris Sisko, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in South Florida. "That's a good thing, of course, but regardless, this storm is going to be a significant event."
An estimated 2 million residents in New Orleans and along the coast heeded dire evacuation orders that authorities issued earlier and with better planning than before Katrina. Officials said only about 10,000 people remained in New Orleans, and about 100,000 remained in hurricane-affected coastal areas. More than 45,000 sought refuge in emergency shelters.
Thousands of National Guard troops joined about 1,400 New Orleans police officers and guardsmen from other states to help patrol and secure the city and coastal areas.
As Gustav reached the Gulf Coast, Caribbean islands continued to pick up the pieces left in Gustav's wake. At least 96 deaths have been confirmed: 76 in Haiti, eight in the Dominican Republic and 12 in Jamaica. On Sunday, authorities in Key West said a man died when he fell overboard from a cargo boat during Gustav's passing.
No fatalities were reported in the Cayman Islands or Cuba, where Gustav's winds toppled power lines and snapped trees and light poles. Cuba's government called Gustav the worst storm to hit the island in 50 years.
Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Frances Robles, Lesley Clark and Jacqueline Charles, McClatchy Washington Bureau correspondents Chris Adams, Kevin G. Hall and David Lightman, Biloxi Sun-Herald staff writer Mary Perez, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writers Alex Branch, Sarah Huffstetler, Kate Gorman and Bill Hanna contributed to this report.