Gustav brushes New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS

This time, the levees held.

A weakened Hurricane Gustav slammed into the heart of Louisiana's fishing and oil industry Monday, sidestepping New Orleans and assuaging fears that a monster storm would ravage the Gulf Coast states so soon after deadly Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans' partially reconstructed levee system stood firm, even as the Category 2 storm, packing 110 mph winds, toppled trees, flooded roads and claimed at least seven lives — four in traffic accidents and three from falling trees in Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

But federal management officials warned parts of southern Louisiana remained in grave danger. It's "much too early" to declare success, said Maj. Gen. Don Riley, deputy commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Still, Gustav was no Katrina. It was smaller and less intense, and the worst rain and wind missed New Orleans. Its storm surge — about 12 feet and much lower than Katrina's — entered New Orleans through navigation channels in the east and washed over the Industrial Canal.

The storm made landfall near Cocodrie, a low-lying community in Louisiana's Cajun country about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, at 10:30 a.m. EDT. It weakened to a Category 1 by early afternoon and became a tropical storm late Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The biggest fear — that the levees surrounding the saucer-shaped city of New Orleans would break and flood the city again — was not realized by late Monday night.

Wind-driven water sloshed over the top of the Industrial Canal's flood wall, but city officials and the Corps of Engineers said they expected the levees would hold, even though post-Katrina reconstruction is only 25 percent complete.

"I was hoping this would happen, that we would be able to stand in front of America and have some levee successes," said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "Is that good enough? No."

The levees might not have been able to withstand a stronger storm, said Nagin, who billed Gustav as "the mother of all storms" before it hit.

At times, it appeared disaster would strike Monday.

The U.S. Coast Guard scrambled to corral two derelict World War II military vessels that broke free of their moorings and floated loose into the storm-whipped Industrial Canal early Monday morning. A loose barge crashed through the levees during Katrina, which helped flood the Lower 9th Ward in 2005.

Southeast of New Orleans near Braithwaite, workers managed to keep a levee along the Mississippi River from bursting. It took hundreds of sandbags and dozens of people working feverishly over more than three hours to save two riverside communities.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser got word around 3 p.m. that water was topping the levee and immediately put the call out to remaining residents of Braithwaite and Scarsdale to get out of the area, as water spilled out, threatening homes and possibly lives.

The parish got approval from the Corps of Engineers to reverse the pumps from the river, flushing water back into the Mississippi. They cut the lock open and turned them on. Water levels began to recede.

Nungesser said he has the money on hand to raise the levees higher. He expects work to begin soon.

For much of the day, the concern focused on the Industrial Canal protecting the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated by Katrina and still lies in ruin three years later. Huge waves sloshed over the levees.

The scene drew curious onlookers, including Topher Mira, who went there with friends to the northwest corner of the flood walls in an industrial area to see what was keeping the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain from spilling into the city.

Each wave sent water spilling over the wall and onto them.

"I think it's kind of foolish that man thinks it can conquer nature,'' said Mira, 27. "It's amazing to see that little wall hold back millions of gallons of water. But there's going to be a weak link when you have hundreds of miles of levees."

But this time the Corps of Engineers was right: The levee held and the Lower 9th Ward saw only minor flooding.

In Mississippi, officials said a 15-foot storm surge flooded homes and inundated the only highways to coastal towns devastated by Katrina. Officials said at least three people near the Jordan River were rescued from floodwaters. Elsewhere in the state, an abandoned building in Gulfport collapsed and a few homes in Biloxi were flooded.

Gustav left more than a million households along the gulf without power — though many of them were not there to sit in the dark — and it forced the closing of offshore oil platforms that handle a quarter of the nation's petroleum production.

Mayor Nagin said residents might be able to return to New Orleans as early as Wednesday. But Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said a return would have to wait until roads and bridges were inspected and debris was cleared. Many city streets were littered with downed trees and power lines through the day.

While New Orleans was largely empty, not everyone heeded Nagin's dire warnings to flee.

Joe Colvin helped his neighbors flee Gustav — hundreds of them — so why didn't he leave this time? "It was kind of too late," said Colvin, 43.

Some residents are elderly and couldn't leave. Others had to stay, like registered nurse Michelle Grant, who has to work today in the recovery room at West Jefferson Medical Center.

"I don't know how I'm getting through," she said. In the meantime she's helping look after elderly neighbors.

Others delighted in their decision to stay, despite a mandatory curfew.

Kerry Cahill and her girlfriends strolled through Uptown New Orleans, red go-cups in their hands, inviting neighbors over for brats on the grill.

"It was nothing," Joyce Hunter said as she met up with her neighbors on Prytania Street, just around the corner from the Milan Lounge. "It was just a big blow."

Joe Aguda, 70, took a nap midday. It's all he could think to do since the power went out.

The home he had been renovating since Katrina flooded it did fine during Gustav. Aguda said he stayed through the storm because he worried about looters. He just bought a dishwasher, a microwave and a range.

As as soon as he finishes the renovation, he plans to sell and get out of town. "I don't feel secure about the work they're doing on the levees," he said. "I feel we're being sandbagged."

Just days before Gustav arrived, forecasters predicted it could be a devastating Category 4, stronger and more frightening than Katrina. About 2-million people fled in one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history.

In the end, Gustav skirted along Louisiana's shoreline at "a more gentle angle," said National Weather Service storm surge specialist Will Shaffer.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had cartons of food, water, blankets and other supplies to sustain 1-million people for three days ready to be distributed Monday.

FEMA Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson said the agency has spent the last two years getting ready for the next big hurricane. Response officials began gearing up last week, "almost as Gustav was born, and people saw the potential size of that storm," Johnson said.

The flurry of preparation stood in stark contrast to the sluggish response to Katrina by local, state and federal officials and residents.

Katrina killed nearly 1,600 people in the region, wiped out 90,000 square miles of property and wreaked billions of dollars in damages.

On Monday, President Bush monitored Gustav from Texas.

"The coordination on this storm is a lot better than on —-than during Katrina," he said from the Texas Emergency Operations Center in Austin. "There was clearly a spirit of sharing assets, of listening to somebody's problems and saying, how can we best address them?"

Bush later asked Americans to donate to relief agencies. "Everybody's praying for everybody's safety," he said.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

Gustav brushes New Orleans 09/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 9:16am]

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