Traffic builds as Gustav evacuees return home

Published 1:09 pm Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cars, campers and sports utility vehicles jammed the roads back to the Louisiana coastline Wednesday, as the 2 million evacuees chased away by the threat of Hurricane Gustav tried to make their way home.

Though New Orleans wouldn’t officially open its doors until midnight, outlying communities were already welcoming residents back. Mayor Ray Nagin said no one would be turned away from the city if they tried to come in early, but warned that New Orleans was still in a “very, very vulnerable state.”

“I don’t want people heading in yet,” Nagin said. “But if they jumped the gun, we will let them through.”

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Those trying to make their way home were visibly angry it took so long for officials to let them return after Gustav’s Monday strike. George Johnson, 41, was glad to heed the call to leave — but said he would stay put next time because returning was such a hassle.

“People need to get home, need to get their houses straight and get back to work,” said Johnson, 41, who used back roads to get into the city Tuesday night. “They want to keep you out of your own property. That’s just not right.”

After spending days in motels, with family, or in hot, overcrowded shelters, evacuees came home to find another set of problems. This storm was no Katrina, but there were still nearly 800,000 homes in Louisiana without power, including about 77,000 in the city of New Orleans.

Officials said the main transmission lines into southern Louisiana were crippled and they had no timetable for when much of the power might be restored. Hospitals were running on generators, and some had to move patients who they feared would suffer without air conditioning.

Grocery store manager Ryan Carderara, 23, headed back into a reopened St. Bernard Parish after ducking the storm at a friend’s house. He didn’t expect to have electricity, but intended to reopen his store on Thursday.

“It’s just the typical stuff you get living down here,” Carderara said while he gassing up his car. “We’ve been here all our lives. We’re used to it.”

What’s left of Gustav moved north into Arkansas, knocking out power to nearly 100,000 homes and businesses there as lashing winds and several inches of rain caused flash flooding in parts of the state. A number of schools were closed as water inundated saturated ground and creeped up onto roads.

Gustav’s death toll jumped to 16 in the U.S., with most coming in traffic accidents, and two in a post-storm tornado. The storm killed 94 during its march through the Caribbean.

Several roads remained closed in Mississippi, where nine casinos that closed as the storm approached were given permission Wednesday to reopen.

President Bush was set to tour hard-hit areas of Louisiana Wednesday, and authorities were still trying to assess the damage to low-lying communities on the southeast coast. A levee broke in Plaquemines Parish, and National Guard helicopters were bringing in sandbags to plug it. The break was threatening a small group of houses, said parish spokeswoman Karen Boudrie.

“It looks like someone just took a bite out of the levee,” Boudrie said.

Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That’s high, but well short of Katrina’s $41 billion.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he won two promises from the federal government that will ease Louisiana’s recovery: the White House approved his “major disaster” declaration request, allowing residents of 34 parishes to receive federal funding for housing and recovery, and a strategic oil reserve will be opened to help reverse a severe shortage of fuel, particularly in south Louisiana.

Initial inspections showed little damage to the Gulf Coast’s extensive oil and gas installations, though resumption of production and refining could still take a few days. Reflecting confidence the industry suffered little damage, oil prices fell $5.75 a barrel Tuesday.

But markets and the southeast were nervously watching the Atlantic, where a series of storms were brewing. In the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Hanna pounded flood-plagued Haiti just days after Gustav added to the misery of a country that has lost more than 100 lives to mudslides and flooding in the past month. The storm is expected to change course and head for the U.S. coast after sweeping across the Bahamas.

Farther out to sea, Tropical Storm Ike marched westward across the Atlantic and could arrived in the Bahamas on Sunday as a hurricane. Tropical Storm Josephine was just behind, gaining strength as that storm’s winds topped 60 mph.

New Orleans expected to begin this weekend bringing back the estimated 18,000 residents who didn’t have the means to evacuate on their own and were sent to shelters in Louisiana and other states on buses, trains or aircraft.

The state has generally been quiet after the storm, but there have been isolated reports of looting. Jindal said two or three people attempting to loot a supply truck fired on National Guard soldiers in Ville Platte in south central Louisiana overnight. The soldiers shot at the attempted looters but they fled. There were no reports of injuries.

“It’s not going to be tolerated. We will defend ourselves, and rightfully so,” said Maj. Michael Kazmierzak, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard.

There were very few gas stations open in New Orleans, but at one that was running, the consensus seemed to be that residents preferred to rough it at home, even though it was going to be awhile before the city was truly back on its feet.

“Everybody knows it’s going to be miserable here for a while,” said Brendell John, 50. “It always is after a hurricane. The quicker you get back, the quicker you get back to normal.”