Overtopped, not toppled

The Baltimore Sun

NEW ORLEANS - In the end, it was just a glancing blow. And for that, the Big Easy let out a big sigh of relief.

A weakened Hurricane Gustav blew into southern Louisiana yesterday morning as a less-fearsome Category 2 storm, bearing 110-mph winds that cracked tree branches, knocked out power to a million homes and triggered localized flooding, but apparently spared the vulnerable New Orleans levee system.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav made landfall just before 10 a.m. near the coastal community of Cocodrie, La., about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans in the heart of the state's fishing and oil industry. Forecasters had feared that the hurricane could strike the coast as a catastrophic Category 4 storm - a warning that spurred a huge inland evacuation of up to 95 percent of coastal residents over the weekend.

As the storm spun its way inland later yesterday, dumping heavy rains over central Louisiana on its way into Texas, officials cautioned that storm surges could still buffet the New Orleans region today, putting stress on fragile flood defenses that have still not been fully repaired since their destruction during Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

But with every passing hour, as the winds subsided and the clouds thinned, New Orleans seemed to be in the clear.

By late last night, Gustav had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph.

That did not mean Louisiana came through the storm unscathed. A levee in the southeastern part of the state was in danger of collapse, and officials scrambled to fortify it. Roofs were torn from homes, trees toppled and roads flooded. A ferry sank. And the extent of any damage to the oil and gas industry was unclear.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who orchestrated a successful effort to evacuate nearly all of his city's 310,000 residents ahead of Gustav, warned residents not to attempt to return home today because of continuing power outages, sewer problems and debris littering most streets. But their homecoming, he said, was "only days away, not weeks."

"There's damage throughout the city," Nagin told a news conference last night. "The city is not quite ready for our citizens to return." About half the city was without power as dusk fell, but a drive through several neighborhoods indicated that few homes had sustained major wind damage. Police said they had arrested just two looters as of last night, a stark contrast to the lawlessness after Katrina.

Authorities reported eight deaths related to the storm. All but one were traffic deaths, including four people killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree as they tried to flee the storm. A 27-year-old Lafayette, La., man died when a tree fell on his house as the storm whipped through. Before arriving in the U.S., Gustav was blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean.

There was less information about the fate of smaller coastal communities in the Cajun country southwest of New Orleans, where Gustav came ashore. In those low-lying regions, where natural wetland barriers have been eroded by oil and gas drilling, officials warned that damage was likely much greater.

"We don't expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina," Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey Johnson told the Associated Press. "But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded and damaged severely."

State officials said they had not been able to reach anyone at Port Fourchon, a vital hub for the energy industry where huge amounts of oil and gas are piped inland to refineries. Gustav's eye passed about 20 miles from the port.

The Gulf Coast is home to nearly half of the nation's oil refining capacity, and if either the onshore or offshore energy infrastructure suffered major damage from Gustav, gasoline prices could spike.

Risk Management Solutions, a major insurance-risk firm based in London, estimated that Gustav might have caused from $1 billion to $3 billion in damage to oil platforms and wells, while insured losses for damage to residential and commercial properties might range as high as $7 billion.

"The platforms tend to be fairly resilient to Category 3-level winds," Christine Ziehmann, a company official, said in a statement, "so the structural damage and impact on production will be relatively low."

Global oil markets seem to have endured the storm. Oil prices fell to $111 a barrel as the storm weakened.

In New Orleans, the closest call came at midday, when wind-driven water started spilling over a floodwall along the west side of the Industrial Canal bordering New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward.

Televised pictures of the swollen canal bursting its banks summoned ghastly memories of Hurricane Katrina, when multiple levee failures flooded 80 percent of the city, leading to the deaths of 1,600 people and the loss of at least 100,000 homes.

The floodwall on the eastern side of the Industrial Canal failed during Katrina, causing a flood that destroyed the historic, largely African-American neighborhood as well as adjacent St. Bernard Parish.

But officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said there had been no breaches, either in that floodwall or anywhere else in the complex levee network protecting the New Orleans metropolitan area, and they said they were confident that the system would continue to hold - even though work to fully repair Katrina's damage will not be completed until 2011.

Gustav blew in packing much less of a punch than Katrina, which arrived as a Category 3 storm with a monstrous 27-foot storm surge. Gustav's surge was predicted to top out at 14 feet.

President Bush, who skipped the Republican National Convention to monitor Gustav from Texas, applauded local, state and federal efforts to cope with the storm. Bush was widely faulted for the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

"The coordination on this storm is a lot better ... than during Katrina," Bush said, noting how the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas had been working in concert. "It was clearly a spirit of sharing assets, of listening to somebody's problems and saying, 'How can we best address them?' "

Meanwhile, the nearly 2 million people who left coastal Louisiana under mandatory evacuation orders issued by every southern parish watched TV coverage of the hurricane from shelters and hotel rooms scattered hundreds of miles away. Many were enduring an anxious wait to learn the fate of their homes.

Cong Doan, 34, of Chauvin, a coastal fishing town near where Gustav made landfall, sat playing cards with his wife and several of his six children on cots at a shelter in Alexandria, La.

"I just keep telling myself: Whatever happens, happens. There's not much to do," he said. "We're going to go back. But whether we have anything to go back to, I don't know."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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