NEW ORLEANS - It was people this time, not water, that poured into the streets of the storm-tossed city.
Yesterday morning, police abandoned the road blocks that had kept evacuees out of metro New Orleans. Thousands who had fled streamed back home, with wailing children in back seats and empty gas cans strapped to the tops of family cars. They returned to a quiet city of fallen trees, spotty electric service, a fragile sewer system, and shuttered grocery stores and gas stations.
But at least it was mostly dry.
"I'm more than happy to be back - I'm delighted and relieved too," said Esther Padilla, 74, who lives in a brick ranch home in the city's Lakeview section. Her house was inundated when the 17th Avenue levee ruptured three years ago during Hurricane Katrina. This time it was fine, save for some debris in the yard, which she promptly set to cleaning up.
The evacuees' return to New Orleans has proved to be trickier than their flight, which was widely praised as a model of thoughtful government planning. On Tuesday, many of those residents fumed as they waited at police checkpoints.
New Orleans reluctantly opened its borders at least two days before it was ready, pressured by surrounding parishes' decision to let their residents back. Mayor Ray Nagin warned that the city's infrastructure was still not prepared to support the influx of nearly 200,000 residents who fled over the weekend.
"My big concern is public safety. We don't have the hospital situation straightened out," Nagin said, referring to the lack of critical power at medical facilities. Restoring power was also proving to be a challenge.
"In my humble opinion, I think we're forcing the issue, but we're just going to deal with it," he told WWL-TV. "I am really uncomfortable with this repopulation right now."
As Louisianians returned home to assess the damage, officials in North Carolina and South Carolina were preparing for the predicted arrival of Tropical Storm Hanna on Saturday. Hanna, which has killed more than 60 people in Haiti, is moving northwest over the Atlantic and could strengthen into a hurricane before making landfall. Another storm, the Category 3 Hurricane Ike, is farther away in the Atlantic. It is too early to tell whether it will meet land.
Before Gustav, New Orleans' poor and infirm were transported out of the city by bus and train - about 18,000 of them - and might take longer to be repatriated, Nagin said, adding that state officials had assured him that the residents would be brought back within several days.
They will return to a city shaken, but by no means as devastated as it was after Katrina in 2005. That storm and its aftermath damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in New Orleans. Yesterday, by contrast, code enforcement inspectors found eight collapsed houses in New Orleans and 57 in danger of collapsing.
The city informed residents that a dawn-to-dusk curfew would remain in effect indefinitely. Hurricane rules still applied: Anyone leaving their properties at night could still be arrested.
It was an order that residents took in stride as New Orleans began striding inevitably back to a state of normality.
At the Maple Leaf Bar, owner Hank Staples was telling neighbors to stop by that night for live music from the Joe Krown Trio. He was also promising to cook up an "eclectic menu" of meat from neighbors' rapidly thawing freezers.
Staples marveled at the difference in the post-storm atmosphere this time: In most neighborhoods, looters were not to be found, and the streets were crawling with National Guardsmen and police.