By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 2 -- Even though Hurricane Gustav did not wreak the destruction expected when it struck the Gulf Coast on Monday, officials said Tuesday that they were not ready to allow many of the 1.9 million Louisiana residents who had evacuated to return to their homes.
But under pressure from evacuees, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) announced late Tuesday that all residents of the city would be allowed to come back after 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
While the worst was avoided -- there were no major levee breaks of the sort that inundated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) cautioned that the state still faces major hurdles before life returns to normal.
"This was a serious storm that has caused major damage," Jindal said, as the hurricane's trailing edge continued to dump rain across the state. "This is a challenge that is not going away overnight. We did not have the levee breaches, but we have major challenges from Hurricane Gustav."
President Bush declared a major disaster in Louisiana, and he ordered federal aid to bolster state and local recovery efforts. The federal assistance may include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as other programs to help residents recover.
Jindal and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned at an evening briefing that extensive power outages and a lack of gasoline supplies could make life difficult for those who return home quickly.
"I do want to warn people: If you're going back, make sure you know what the conditions are," the governor said.
Some towns were completely without power, and vast portions of the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas were knocked off the national electricity grid, said Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant secretary of energy for electricity delivery and energy reliability. The amount of destruction to the region's grid was surpassed only by that from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Of immediate concern were about a dozen hospitals that had limited electricity service, raising the possibility that some of the 800 patients will need to be evacuated -- in addition to the hundreds already removed to more secure facilities, Jindal said.
State and federal officials said they were moving fuel to hospitals and other key facilities to ensure that they can continue to run generators.
To clear debris, distribute supplies and secure communities isolated by the storm, thousands of National Guard troops, federal law enforcement officers and other emergency workers were being deployed.
Meanwhile, Gustav continued to spawn bad weather. The National Weather Service reported that a tornado touched down in New Orleans's West Bank neighborhood Tuesday night, and there were reports of flooding along several rivers in residential neighborhoods on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.
There had been concerns that the storm would disrupt energy supplies from the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for 25 percent of U.S. oil and 12 percent of natural gas production. But Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said initial flights showed no visible damage to 3,842 oil and gas platforms along the coast, and he expected quick restoration of production.
"At this point we believe there's little damage that has been caused, and within two weeks we can see us approach that 100 percent production level," Bodman said, adding that authorities saw no signs that rigs were set adrift, dragging anchors that could damage pipelines on the sea bed, as occurred in Katrina.
Frank Glaviano, vice president of production at Shell Oil, the U.S. affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell that is one of the biggest operators in the gulf, said the company saw no significant damage and could start production in three to five days.
Oil markets greeted Gustav's passing with relief. Prices slid to $109.71 a barrel, down $5.75 from Friday's closing price but little changed from the price over the holiday in electronic trading.
Bush will visit Louisiana on Wednesday, making several stops to view the havoc caused by Gustav, the White House announced.
By several standards, Gustav was far less destructive than Katrina, officials said.
According to a preliminary estimate by the Army Corps of Engineers, Gustav caused about a tenth as much damage as the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, measured by debris and damaged roofs. Maj. Gen. Don T. Riley, deputy commanding general of the corps, said Gustav damaged the roofs of about 25,000 homes, compared with 200,000 damaged by Katrina and Rita. The corps estimated that it will need to remove 10 million cubic yards of debris, compared with 120 million cubic yards after the 2005 storms, Riley said.
Jindal said the state is deferring to local authorities to determine when different areas are safe enough for residents to go back. Hundreds of buses were waiting to bring people home, and the state is also working with Amtrak and airlines to coordinate the return once local leaders approve it.
Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle alluded Monday night to the pressure on local officials, saying, "I've got people calling me, saying they're paying $125 a night for hotels, and people can't afford that."
Parishes that sustained little damage announced that residents could begin returning Wednesday. Those with more significant destruction said residents will need to wait as late as Friday.
Tuesday, authorities established checkpoints on major roads leading into New Orleans to turn away anyone who tried to come back prematurely.
But despite the warnings from officials, a trickle of evacuees began returning to some areas.
In Cocodrie, a fishing community on the Gulf Coast where Gustav made landfall, residents were breathing a huge sigh of relief.
"Normally you couldn't drive down this road the day after a hurricane," said Donna Domangue, who has lived on the bayou her whole life. "It's full of water."
But Tuesday, she and a few of her family members drove their small pickup along the bayou that empties into the Gulf of Mexico to check her restaurant and other family businesses and houses. After worrying about forecasts of storm surges of up to 20 feet or more, they stood on dry land. Around them, water lapped three or four feet high against the 20-foot stilts that elevate restaurants and homes.
"It may not look good, but to us this is good," Domangue said.
In New Orleans, things began to return to some semblance of normalcy Tuesday. The National Football League announced that the Saints, who had been practicing at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, will return to the Superdome for their Sunday season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Many of the estimated 10,000 residents who rode out the storm emerged from their homes, relieved at the city's narrow escape. Under partly sunny skies, they walked dogs, cruised the empty streets on bikes and sought out restaurants, which were reopening in increasing numbers.
On Deslonde Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, where in 2005 Katrina unleashed some of the city's most devastating floods, Ottley "Big O" Smith and his mother, Elizabeth Smith, celebrated the passing of Gustav, which left their neighborhood with hardly any damage.
Ottley Smith lighted a charcoal grill in front of his house to cook pork chops for his family. "I'm living!" cheered Smith, wearing a T-shirt that read "Thank You Jesus."
Hedgpeth reported from Houma, La. Staff writers Peter Whoriskey in Baton Rouge; David Montgomery and Philip Rucker in New Orleans; and Spencer S. Hsu, Dan Eggen and Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.