New Orleans mayor: Please don’t come home yet

Published 1:20 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Checkpoints popped up around New Orleans on Tuesday to keep the city empty of residents so work could get under way to restore power and other critical services knocked out by Hurricane Gustav.

National Guardsmen and state police promised to stop people not authorized to return. The city didn’t expect to be safe enough to reopen until Thursday at the earliest.

“I can’t get upset, because this is an emergency, you know,” said 88-year-old Malvin A. Cavalier Sr., who was turned away as he tried to return to his home in the city’s Desire neighborhood. “I just have to be calm and try to do the best I can. If I have to sleep in my car again tonight, I have to do it.”

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A day after the city’s improved levee system kept the streets dry as a disorganized and weakened Gustav passed overhead, there was quiet pride in a historic evacuation of nearly 2 million people. Only eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S. The toll from Katrina three years ago exceeded 1,600.

“The reasons you’re not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “The only reason we don’t have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded … the instructions to get out of town.”

The focus turned to getting those 2 million people back home. Gov. Bobby Jindal said officials are focused on taking care of the roughly 1,000 critical needs medical patients evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes, while also working with utilities to restore the more than 1.4 million power outages the storm left behind.

In the shelters, people far away from their homes were growing restless. There were fights at an overcrowded shelter in Shreveport, where doctors worried about medications running out and took several people to the hospital.

At a church in Fort Worth, Texas, Denise Preston was rushed to the hospital with a fever. The new mother endured a 12-hour bus ride with her infant son, just a week after giving birth via Caesarean section, to flee her home about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.

“It’s frustrating. I’m ready to go now,” Preston said. “They haven’t said too much on the news about what’s happened in my town. … Me and the baby sleeping on a cot is hard. He has a crib, but he won’t sleep in it.”

Gustav is no longer a hurricane, but is still an ugly storm that’s expected to dump several inches of rain in northern Louisiana and east Texas. Jindal said Louisiana was only at “halftime” and was worried the damage from rain could exceed Gustav’s pounding of the coast.

“This is a serious storm that has caused serious damage in our state,” Jindal said before leaving Baton Rouge for a helicopter tour of the mostly rural, low-lying parishes along the state’s southeastern and central coast, also home to the state’s oil and natural gas industries.

“We’re pleased we have not seen major flooding in New Orleans and places that flooded before, but we are facing major challenges in other parts our state.”

In Mississippi, where sections of the Gulf Coast were still isolated by flood waters, Gov. Haley Barbour urged residents not to return to their homes until Wednesday.

John Furey, 65, of Pearlington, sat at an island in the flooded kitchen of his 70-year-old brother Pat’s home. Both were still working to repair damage from Katrina when Gustav arrived — the only two floods to hit John’s red brick home since 1964.

“This is the second time in three years,” Furey said. “I just settled with State Farm in March.”

Oil companies and rig owners, which shut down virtually all oil and natural gas production in the Gulf as Gustav approached, headed out to look for damage. Some were already putting equipment and people back in place to resume operations, and a $8 drop in the price of a barrel suggests traders are confident the storm didn’t cause much damage.

President Bush, who monitored the storm from Texas, said that while it’s too early to assess Hurricane Gustav’s damage to U.S. oil infrastructure, it should prompt Congress to OK more domestic oil production. He said when Congress comes back from recess, lawmakers “need to understand” that the nation needs more, not less domestic energy production.

For those who did stay behind, cleanup began. Dickey Arnold, 57, rode out the storm with his wife and granddaughter in Franklin, 100 miles to the east of New Orleans. The owner of a residential glass business said he didn’t see much work ahead, finding few homes with broken windows or structural damage after driving through town.

“That’s mostly what I see when I went riding around town: tree damage, so thank God for that,” he said.

Authorities tried to keep those who did flee Franklin and the rest of St. Mary Parish, both near the epicenter of the storm, from coming back too soon. Officials don’t think there is power anywhere in the parish, and the focus is first on restoring electric to the hospital and courthouse. Sheriff’s deputies were mostly picking up tree limbs from roads and watching homes where trees fell onto roofs.

“I’ve yet to see one that’s uninhabitable,” said sheriff’s Maj. Mark Hebert. “It could have been worse. We have a lot of work to do.”

Jindal said state officials are deferring to local communities on when they will reopen. Electric crews started work on restoring power to the nearly 80,000 homes and businesses in New Orleans — and more than 1 million in the region — that remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind.

Jindal said there were 11,000 crewmen working on bringing back power to Louisiana, where the storm mostly damaged transmission lines — meaning large groups of customers could see he lights and air conditioning come back all at once. Still, Jindal warned those without power not to expect a fix overnight.

The New Orleans sewer system was damaged, and hospitals statewide were working with skeleton crews on backup power. Drinking water continued to flow in the city and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down — two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina’s toll. The FAA said the city’s airport was expected to reopen at 7 p.m.

Nagin apologized to the Republicans, which put the pageantry of their convention on hold to wait for Gustav to move through the Gulf Coast.

“You know, I think Gustav rained on their parade, on their little party,” said Nagin, a Democrat, who cut his own trip short to his party’s convention to prepare for the storm. “And hopefully they can rekindle. We’d love to host them in New Orleans next week, and they can come down and we can show them how to really do it right.”

Like Jindal and Chertoff, Nagin took pride in a massive evacuation effort that succeeded in urging people to leave or catch buses and trains out: Almost 2 million people left coastal Louisiana, and only about 10,000 people rode out the storm in New Orleans.

“I would not do a thing differently,” Nagin said. “I’d probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms.”

With three months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, he may yet get his chance. Three storms were lining up off the U.S. coast, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way. Hanna has plenty of time to strengthen into a hurricane before possibly striking Florida and Georgia later in the week.