Sighs of Relative Relief As Damage Is Limited

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

LOCKPORT, La., Sept. 1 -- For the past five days, officials canceled their vacations, told inmates to fill sandbags, stored fuel to run trucks and generators, and evacuated most of the 95,000 who live here.

Then they hunkered down in their command post, a cinder-block building off Highway 90 about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, and watched and waited. Weather forecasters said Lafourche Parish could bear the brunt of Hurricane Gustav as it moved into Louisiana, with winds, rains and possible storm surges of more than 20 feet. A blow of that force could have wiped out this community of fishermen, cooks and oil-rig operators.

But by late Monday afternoon, officials and some residents who had stayed to ride out the storm surveyed the damage and found that it wasn't as bad as predicted.

There were problems -- downed power lines, snapped tree limbs and blown-off roof shingles -- but even so, many said they considered themselves lucky.

"We've seen what Mother Nature can do, and this is something we can handle and recover from pretty quickly," said Larry D. Weidel, spokesman for the parish Sheriff's Office, which oversaw the area's emergency plans. "It could have been a lot worse. All reports were that this was going to be a monster storm."

Officials said that winds reached 100 mph, and that the rain fell heavily on and off for hours. But the rainfall amounted to less than five inches. The much-talked-about storm surge that threatened to overwhelm roads and levees never materialized. No deaths were reported, and there was no major flooding.

The cleanup began as soon as the worst of the storm passed. Crews of prisoners, convicted of misdemeanor offenses such as drug use and drunken driving, used chain saws to trim broken trees and cleared the roads of tree limbs.

Along Bayou Lafourche, the waterway that runs through the middle of the parish into the Gulf of Mexico, bobbed a freshly painted red-and-black tugboat called "Risky Business." The murky water rose to the shoreline, but officials said they weren't worried.

Although a mandatory evacuation order remained in place through the parish, officials said about 700 residents had stayed put.

One of them was Billy Duet, who stepped outside to check on his Lockport sheet-metal shop. "We've got no power, downed trees, but it seems like everyone's safe. Just a little roof damage, maybe," he said.

Lynette Major's house in Raceland, a few miles north, also was unscathed, but one brother lost the roof on his house and another's trailer came off its blocks. "It was stronger winds than I thought it was going to be," said Major, 42. "I made it, though."

Farther down the bayou, in the little town of Cut Off, Tony Esponge, 55, walked through his garage and yard to find only a few roof shingles and downed tree limbs to pick up. He and his family, including his 87-year-old grandmother and a 2-year-old, had holed up in their house through the storm. "We knew we couldn't pack up and leave, so we just stayed," Esponge said. "Now you look out and it seems like it was easy and not that bad."

But it could have been much worse, said Jim Cantore, a meteorologist for the Weather Channel. Cantore, who had set up base west of Lockport in Houma for the past two days, said Gustav's force was a tenth of what it had been when it hit Haiti last Tuesday, killing dozens.

If Gustav had retained that strength, Cantore said, "it would have demolished the whole area."

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