New Orleans Levees Tested As Gustav Lashes Gulf Coast

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."

"The coordination on this storm is a lot better than during Katrina," Bush said.

Later in the day, he traveled to the Alamo Regional Command Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where he met with relief workers and urged Americans to offer help.

As Gustav made its way across the Gulf of Mexico toward its rendezvous with Louisiana, it reached Category 4 status at one point and raised fears that it could become a Category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous level, with the strongest winds. Officials said those fears accounted for much of the success in motivating most New Orleans residents -- and about 2 million Gulf Coast residents in all -- to evacuate their homes and head inland.

"We really saw a surge in the evacuation when they said it was going to be a Category 5," said Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police. "It really scared people and pushed them out."

Energy companies evacuated stationary production platforms and movable drilling rigs as the storm approached, shutting down nearly all U.S. oil and gas production in the gulf and more than a quarter of domestic refinery capacity onshore. Federal energy officials estimated that the shutdowns accounted for about a quarter of total U.S. oil production, 12 percent of natural gas production and 12 percent of oil-refining capacity. About 12 of 33 Gulf Coast refineries were closed, and 10 others operated at reduced levels.

But Kevin Kolevar, assistant secretary of energy, said production can resume quickly, assuming there is no significant damage to platforms or undersea pipelines. "We don't see any indication of [significant damage] at this time, but we'll learn more tomorrow as companies start repopulating facilities," he said.

More than a million customers lost power in Louisiana, and the number was expected to grow as evacuees returned home and reported outages, the Entergy power company said. A company spokesman reported "extremely significant damage in areas," and said restoring service would rival the scale and difficulty of post-Katrina recovery. Thousands in Mississippi also were without electricity.

New Orleans was deserted and damaged, but largely spared. On the wide boulevards of the central business district, newspaper boxes lay on their sides, tree limbs were down and traffic lights swayed perilously. In the working-class neighborhoods near the Industrial Canal, road signs were uprooted and debris was strewn across streets and yards.

But "the levees held strong," said Harvey E. Johnson Jr., deputy administrator of FEMA.

Maj. Gen. Don T. Riley, deputy commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, said that in the Industrial Canal, on the western side of the city's Upper Ninth Ward, "we may have seen some overwashing and interior flooding, but city pumps will keep up with that."

In the West Bank area of the city, where officials predicted major floods could occur, the roads were largely clear of water. Kenneth Garrett stood outside his red-brick house in suburban Gretna, along the banks of the Mississippi River, and said he was thankful his neighborhood suffered little damage.

Garrett, 54, a furniture restorer, helped his neighbors -- most of whom are elderly -- evacuate before the storm. He promised he would stay and keep guard with his dogs, a golden retriever and a black Labrador.

"They all left, and I told them I'd keep a watchful eye over it all," Garrett said. "They trusted me."

Federal officials said the worst damage may have occurred in coastal parishes, where Coast Guard overflights and ground assessments may not come until Tuesday.

Army Corps of Engineers officials received reports that Grand Isle was "completely overwashed" and that the area around Houma and Morgan City, where more than 100,000 people live, faces "a very significant danger," Riley said.

"We're very, very concerned about flooding in southern Louisiana, and overtopping of any [levee] systems down there and surge through those highly populated areas in the wetlands," he said.

Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle disputed Riley's report, saying the storm surge there barely reached 10 feet, putting about four feet of water in parking lots and yards. All houses in the area are required to be built 12 to 15 feet off the ground. "We thought, three years after Katrina, 'Here we go again.' [But] it never happened," Camardelle said.

Concern also focused on Plaquemines, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes in southern Louisiana; and on coastal Waveland, Miss., where Gustav swept 11 feet of storm surge into houses.

Air Force Maj. Gen. William H. Etter, director of domestic operations for the National Guard Bureau, said 14,000 troops are on the Gulf Coast, with up to 50,000 authorized to respond.

U.S. health authorities reported evacuating 9,000 medical patients, including 8,000 from nursing homes, 460 of them by air. The three deaths of critically ill patients were confirmed by W. Craig Vanderwagen, an assistant secretary of health and human services, who defended decisions to evacuate hospitals and noted the far greater death toll among patients who were not evacuated during Katrina.

"In Hurricane Katrina, we had scores of patients die," he said. "While we accept no death, we feel this is something that is within our margin of error."

Elsewhere, the American Red Cross reported housing 45,000 people in 340 shelters in 10 states Sunday night, 50 percent more than it sheltered the night before Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

Hsu reported from Washington. Staff writers Peter Whoriskey in Baton Rouge; David Montgomery and Philip Rucker in New Orleans; Dana Hedgpeth in Lockport, La.; and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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