New Orleans Levees Tested As Gustav Lashes Gulf Coast

Hurricane Gustav lashed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 2 storm, but has now weakened to Category 1. The storm's path takes it over the region around the key oil hub of Port Fourchon, which services deep-water oil production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 1 -- Hurricane Gustav smashed into Louisiana's Gulf Coast on Monday, unleashing torrential rains and 110-mph winds that sent waves of water splashing over this city's levees. But early indications were that the weakened storm caused far less damage than feared, and New Orleans appeared to have avoided a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

As the storm made its way inland, federal, state and local officials expressed confidence that the levees protecting New Orleans would hold, sparing the city from catastrophic flooding. U.S. Coast Guard helicopter overflights late Monday afternoon confirmed that there were no levee breaches so far, according to Marty Bahamonde, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Still, officials' hopes were tempered by persistent concerns about pressure on the levees and floodwall system from a storm surge that Gustav pushed up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico, and by vivid recollections that the Katrina disaster developed gradually after initial reports indicated that the city had dodged a bullet.

The optimism Monday prompted New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) to suggest that evacuees could be allowed to start returning to the city as early as Tuesday. But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) quickly cautioned that it is "too early to be telling people today that they can come back tomorrow."

Late Monday, Nagin backpedaled, announcing a tentative schedule that would allow New Orleanians to return in phases, and encouraging employees of major companies and retailers to return first, probably on Wednesday. The rest of the city's residents will be allowed back starting possibly Thursday, he said.

Gustav's center passed west of the city, sparing New Orleans the force of the hurricane's strongest winds. Instead, a largely rural area -- a center of Louisiana's oil and fishing industries -- bore the brunt when the storm struck the coast as a Category 2 hurricane Monday morning at Cocodrie, a fishing village about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans.

About four hours into the storm's progress across southwestern Louisiana, the National Hurricane Center downgraded Gustav to a Category 1 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. The center later predicted that Gustav would become a tropical storm by early Tuesday, when it is expected to make its way into eastern Texas.

Despite its diminished state, the storm still posed a risk to the area's taxed levee system. National Hurricane Center meteorologist Jessica Shaver Clark said the storm surge reached 12 feet and was expected to rise as high as 14 feet later Monday. Rainfall between six and 12 inches was reported, with some areas receiving as much as 20 inches.

The hurricane reportedly spawned several tornadoes north of New Orleans and in southern Mississippi, and there were tornado warnings in southern Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle. Tropical-storm-force winds extended up to 200 miles from Gustav's center, Clark said.

"The worst flooding could be on the backside of this storm," Jindal warned in a news conference in Baton Rouge. He said he asked the federal government to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help with fuel supplies that were disrupted by the storm.

Seven people were killed in storm-related traffic accidents, four of them in Georgia when their car struck a tree, the Associated Press reported. In addition, three critically ill hospital patients died while being evacuated. Before striking the Gulf Coast, Gustav was blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean.

President Bush dropped plans to address the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday night and flew instead to Texas, where he visited an emergency operations center in Austin. He said he wanted to "determine whether or not assets are in place to help, whether or not there's coordination, and whether or not there's preparation for recovery" from the hurricane. "And to that end, I feel good about this event."

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