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A reprieve for New Orleans

Levees hold as hurricane batters city

Waves crested over the Industrial Canal in New Orleans yesterday as Gustav made landfall. Waves crested over the Industrial Canal in New Orleans yesterday as Gustav made landfall. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Keith O'Brien and Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / September 2, 2008
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NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Gustav, reviving anxieties left behind by Hurricane Katrina, washed ashore yesterday morning, ripping shrimp boats from their moorings on the coast, flooding small fishing villages, and pushing white-capped water to the brink of one 12-foot floodwall in New Orleans.

But the floodwall - and the city's other levees - stood up to the Category 2 storm. New Orleans, as of late last night, had suffered no flooding, much less the catastrophic blows delivered by Katrina three years ago. And while other communities were less fortunate - water briefly overtopped a levee in Plaquemines Parish and storm surges swamped at least one low-lying town, Grand Isle - New Orleans officials were happy to dodge the worst of the storm.

"I was hoping this would happen, that we would be able to stand before America and everyone and say, 'We had some successes with the levee system,' " Mayor C. Ray Nagin said last night. "I feel really good about it." But he cautioned that the city would not be out of danger until this morning, when the threat of the storm surge had finally passed. "We're not totally out of the woods," he said. "But we're close."

Gustav, a killer storm that had been stalking the Louisiana coast for days, made landfall early yesterday morning, with the eye of the storm crossing over Cocodrie, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, around 11 a.m. The storm, despite weakening just before landfall, was still packing 110-mile-per-hour winds and 12-foot storm surges in places. According to the National Weather Service, Gustav unleashed hurricane-force winds across the region, including Baton Rouge, and knocked out power to roughly a half-million homes before noon.

Officials in Louisiana confirmed at least seven storm-related deaths, including one motorist who died in an accident on Interstate 10 yesterday morning, a couple in their 70s who were killed when their relatives' house was struck by a falling tree, and three elderly patients died during evacuations over the weekend as the hurricane approached. Among those who were heading to the region to help were 800 Massachusetts National Guardsmen being deployed today and tomorrow.

Gustav was the first storm to close in on New Orleans since 2005 - and that alone was enough to scare most residents to heed Nagin's warnings and follow his mandatory evacuation order. But this time residents will be able to return much sooner, possibly as early as Thursday. Gustav, for all the fear it spawned, was no Katrina.

One reason: New Orleans simply got lucky, said John Grieshaber, chief of execution support for the US Army Corps of Engineers' Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans. "It wasn't anywhere near as strong as Katrina," Grieshaber said. And it also wasn't a direct hit. Many communities south and west of New Orleans bore the brunt of the storm.

But there was more than just luck involved, Grieshaber added. While much work remains to be done on the flood protection system in New Orleans for a powerful so-called 100-year storm, the upgrades made since Katrina made a difference, he said. New Orleans, fortified since Katrina, was tested yesterday. And according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the city passed.

"Clearly, the system is stronger than it was pre-Katrina," Colonel Jeff Bedey, commander of the Corps' Hurricane Protection Office. "But by no means are we where we need to be - that is to provide 100-year protection by 2011."

Since Katrina flooded about 80 percent of New Orleans three years ago, killing nearly 1,600 people statewide, those who have chosen to return to this battered city have done so with one eye looking over their shoulders during hurricane season. Many feared that New Orleans, battered and bruised, was also vulnerable, and early yesterday there was reason once more to be concerned.

While the National Hurricane Center reported minimal storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain water rushed into the city's Industrial Canal, which breached its banks three years ago.

By mid-morning, water lapped at the top of a 12-foot, reinforced floodwall and at least two ships floated in the canal, having broken away from their moorings. Gary LaGrange, director of the Port of New Orleans, eyed the scene warily from the Claiborne Avenue bridge, fearing the worst: yet another breach.

"It's a little bit scary," he said, wearing a hard hat in the driving rain. "But it's better than what we anticipated. I think the Corps of Engineers did an amazing job in a short amount of time with the resources made available to them."

The waters, lapping over the top of the wall, flooded nearby streets, and the Corps also monitored water spewing through the floodwall protecting the lower Ninth Ward, which suffered devastating flooding three years ago. But Jim Hufft, an official sent by FEMA to observe conditions at the Industrial Canal, was not too concerned.

"I'm happy to sit here," he said, "and see this is all that it is." The water subsided throughout the day and, as of late last night, the floodwalls had held.

But Gustav did plenty of damage across the state. In St. Bernard Parish yesterday morning, winds peeled the metal roof off the 100-room Marina Motel and left it hanging from the building. "Are you a roofer?" Robert Berthelot, the motel owner, asked a passerby. "I'm looking for a roofer."

David Camardelle, the mayor of tiny Grand Isle on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, evacuated to the north, but had reports, via satellite phone from one man who stayed, that 4 to 5 feet of water had flooded his community, whisking away shrimp boats. "They were tied up to the dock," he said. "And they just disappeared. They just drifted away."

But with the roads flooded as well, Camardelle had no way to get there, at least until today. And other communities were deserted and damaged because of the storm.

In Houma, where the eye of the storm passed yesterday, tree limbs, power lines, and light poles littered streets. Flimsy gas station rooftops sat shredded. The storm ripped asunder part of the belfry at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, a cypress sanctuary that has stood downtown since 1892. And police showed little patience for those bold enough to venture out as the weaker, back end of the storm spit rain on the city. "Go home!" one officer bellowed over a loud speaker from inside the comfort of his truck.

But even though some 2 million Louisiana residents evacuated before the storm made landfall, some stayed put. In Houma, Christie White rode out Gustav in the white clapboard house where she has spent all of her 33 years. White's 17-year-old daughter cowered as the storm reached its most menacing pitch, between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. But not White. "To me," she said, "it was exciting."

Others, meanwhile, were already lining up to come home. Late yesterday, Veronica Pearson drove through Houma forlorn, uncertain of the fate of her mobile home in Bayou Blue, just up the road, and desperately wanting to return. But when she was almost home, a Terrebonne Parish sheriff's deputy stopped her and told her to turn around.

"Dang," she said, frustrated. "They won't let us go back."

Such frustration is likely to be felt across the state, including New Orleans, in the days ahead. Officials will decide parish by parish when residents can return. Nagin announced last night that only essential city personnel and utility workers would be permitted to return today, followed by major companies and retailers tomorrow.

Regular citizens, he said, would be "stopped and turned around" at the city limits, if they attempt to enter until the mandatory evacuation order is lifted. And while waiting can be frustrating, he acknowledged, New Orleans city officials said that evacuating the city was a success. New Orleans police Superintendent Warren Riley said authorities only had to make two arrests during the storm: one for looting and one for stealing gasoline.

The "curfew is still in effect," Riley announced late last night. "Curfew is an absolute must to curtail looting."

A few residents, though, will be waiting in New Orleans whenever the rest of the city's estimated 300,000 citizens return.

As rain doused the French Quarter yesterday morning, David Erath watched the storm from a sidewalk, predicting that some New Orleanians, leery to return after Katrina, may now be persuaded that it's safe to come home.

"People who were displaced and thought they shouldn't come back because of the risk of a hurricane, maybe they won't be so reluctant now," Erath said. "They will see that this hurricane came, and the city's still standing."

A short while later, Erath's cellphone jangled. It was someone who had left the city, and Erath wasted no time inviting his friend to come home. "Y'all come down," he said, "come back to New Orleans for a barbecue."

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