New Orleans mayor: Don't come home yet

September 2, 2008 3:51:47 PM PDT
Anxious evacGustav is no longer a hurricane, but Louisiana and other Gulf states still face a flood threat from the tropical storm. New Orleans residents may have to wait for several more days before they can go home. The road back home for the estimated 2 million Hurricane Gustav evacuees was slow going Tuesday, as those trying to filter into the coast were greeted by police checkpoints and National Guardsmen who told them it was still too dangerous to return.

Though the storm largely spared New Orleans and Louisiana, hard-hit neighborhoods still had no power, and roads were blocked by trees. With only a handful of communities allowing re-entry, thousands grew frustrated in shelters, sitting on uncomfortable cots and wondering why the buses wouldn't come and drive them back.

"It's frustrating. I'm ready to go now," said Denise Preston, who was rushed to a hospital with a fever. She was with her infant son, who was born only a week ago. "They haven't said too much on the news about what's happened in my town."

A day after the city's improved levee system kept the streets dry as a disorganized and weakened Gustav passed overhead, there was quiet pride in a historic evacuation of nearly 2 million people. Only eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S. The toll from Katrina three years ago exceeded 1,600.

"The reasons you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "The only reason we don't have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded ... the instructions to get out of town."

The focus turned to getting the evacuees back home. Gov. Bobby Jindal said officials are focused on taking care of the roughly 1,000 critical needs medical patients evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes, while also working with utilities to restore the more than 1.4 million power outages the storm left behind. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said it would be at least Thursday before the city reopened, and people would come back in waves: critical employees and businesses first, then residents.

Gustav was no longer a hurricane, but is still an ugly storm that's expected to dump several inches of rain in northern Louisiana and east Texas. Jindal said Louisiana was only at "halftime" and was worried the damage from rain could exceed Gustav's pounding of the coast.

"This is a serious storm that has caused serious damage in our state," Jindal said before leaving Baton Rouge for a helicopter tour of the mostly rural, low-lying parishes along the state's southeastern and central coast, also home to the state's oil and natural gas industries.

"We're pleased we have not seen major flooding in New Orleans and places that flooded before, but we are facing major challenges in other parts our state."

Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge had to move high-risk patients -- including some moved to there before the storm from other hospitals -- after its own power went out and its generators kicked in.

"When you're on backup power, there's a limited number of plugs you can use," he said.

In Mississippi, where sections of the Gulf Coast were still isolated by flood waters, Gov. Haley Barbour urged residents not to return to their homes until Wednesday.

John Furey, 65, of Pearlington, sat at an island in the flooded kitchen of his 70-year-old brother Pat's home. Both were still working to repair damage from Katrina when Gustav arrived -- the only two floods to hit John's red brick home since 1964.

"This is the second time in three years," Furey said. "I just settled with State Farm in March."

Initial inspections of the Gulf Coast's extensive energy complex confirmed that Hurricane Gustav was nowhere near as destructive as Katrina and Rita, but resumption of production and refining could still take a few days or more. The market also reflected lessened fears as oil prices fell $5.75 a barrel, closing at the lowest level since April.

President Bush, who monitored the storm from Texas, said that while it's too early to assess Hurricane Gustav's damage to U.S. oil infrastructure, it should prompt Congress to OK more domestic oil production. He said when Congress comes back from recess, lawmakers "need to understand" that the nation needs more, not less domestic energy production. He planned to tour Louisiana on Wednesday.

The Census Bureau said that Gustav had affected 2.1 million people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and there was significant cleanup. Dickey Arnold, 57, rode out the storm with his wife and granddaughter in Franklin, 100 miles to the east of New Orleans. The owner of a residential glass business said he didn't see much work ahead, finding few homes with broken windows or structural damage after driving through town.

"That's mostly what I see when I went riding around town: tree damage, so thank God for that," he said.

Jindal said there were 11,000 crewmen working on bringing back power to Louisiana, where the storm mostly damaged transmission lines -- meaning large groups of customers could see he lights and air conditioning come back all at once. Still, Jindal warned those without power not to expect a fix overnight.

The New Orleans sewer system was damaged. Drinking water continued to flow in the city and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down -- two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina's toll. The FAA said the city's airport was expected to reopen at 7 p.m.

Like Jindal and Chertoff, Nagin took pride in a massive evacuation effort that succeeded in urging people to leave or catch buses and trains out: Only about 10,000 people rode out the storm in New Orleans.

"I would not do a thing differently," Nagin said. "I'd probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms."

With three months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, he may yet get his chance. Three storms were lining up in the open Atlantic, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way. Hanna has plenty of time to strengthen into a hurricane before possibly striking Florida and Georgia later in the week.

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Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer, Cain Burdeau, Allen G. Breed contributed to this report from New Orleans. Janet McConnaughey and Alan Sayre contributed from Hammond. Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge, Michael Kunzelman in Lafayette, La., Vicki Smith in Montegut, La., Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Ala. and Holbrook Mohr in Gulfport, Miss., also contributed. Angela K. Brown reported from Forth Worth, Texas.


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