New Orleans, Gulf Coast Assess Gustav Damage

Prisoners and others work on stopping the flooding underneath a floodgate. i i

Prisoners and others work on stopping the flooding underneath a floodgate at the St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish border, Sept. 1, 2008, in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. Matthew Hinton/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Hinton/AFP/Getty Images
Prisoners and others work on stopping the flooding underneath a floodgate.

Prisoners and others work on stopping the flooding underneath a floodgate at the St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish border, Sept. 1, 2008, in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

Matthew Hinton/AFP/Getty Images

If a city could breathe a sigh of relief, New Orleans would be doing that now. Bracing for what Mayor Ray Nagin had said would be the "storm of the century," local, state and federal authorities directed one of the nation's largest exoduses, getting some 2 million people along the Gulf Coast out of the path of Hurricane Gustav over the course of 2 1/2 days.

Now the task is to get them all home.

The city's evacuees are scattered across the country and naturally are eager to return to survey the damage. Nagin has asked them to hold off and stay in shelters and motels for a few more days. He wants officials to fan out and assess the storm's effects first. While the levees and flood walls seem to have done what they needed to do — a far cry from what happened three years ago during Hurricane Katrina — there is other storm damage.

The city remains under a mandatory evacuation order and curfew. Power lines are down all over the city, and electricity is out in some 80,000 homes in New Orleans. Some 35 substations are believed to be out of service. The city's sewer system also took a hit.

Nagin wants time to fix those problems before residents start back. He said a return home was "only days away, not weeks," and he hoped residents could begin to flow back to the city Wednesday or Thursday. "[At] the latest Thursday we'll start letting our citizens arrive," Nagin told CNN on Tuesday morning.

"We're just going to reverse the process; once we give them the word, the same process will get them back," Nagin said, adding that buses, trains and planes would be available to drop off returning residents. "We'll provide them all the assistance they need to get them back efficiently and effectively."

Retailers and employers will be allowed to send workers to check on the damage to their establishments Wednesday, the mayor said.

"I would not do a thing differently," the mayor said Monday night. "I'd probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms."

Gustav is now a tropical depression moving across Louisiana, with maximum sustained winds near 35 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. That's a far cry from Monday, when Gustav made landfall as a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph.

Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, said Tuesday that the city "dodged a bullet."

"The water has gone down in the Industrial Canal considerably," Van Antwerp told NPR's Renee Montagne, referring to the 5.5-mile stretch of water connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. He said the water is down some 8 to 10 feet from what it was during the height of the storm Monday.

Van Antwerp said he was satisfied with the way the levees and flood walls performed, particularly given that the Army Corps of Engineers is only halfway through a six-year reconstruction effort in New Orleans. The levees could never be foolproof and fully protect the city, he said.

"I don't use the word protection; I use the word risk reduction," he said. "If this had been a Category 5 with a surge of 15 to 20 feet, there is no way you can protect against that. There are always vulnerabilities."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said it could be a couple of days before oil and natural gas companies can fully assess Gustav's impact on drilling and refining operations. He said as much as 20 percent of the oil and gas production that was put on hold because of Gustav could be restored by this weekend.

In a news release, the Shell Oil Co. said it planned to start redeploying skeleton crews to some of its operations in the Western part of the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday morning and to some of the eastern rigs later Tuesday afternoon, though those plans are subject to weather and road access, the company said.

The Gulf accounts for about a quarter of U.S. domestic oil production and about 15 percent of natural gas output. The concern is that damage to those installations could cause a spike in gasoline prices.

Oil prices actually dropped by $4 a barrel, closing at $111 on Monday. Idustry officials say they were prepared for worse and are feeling lucky.

"We are breathing a sigh of relief," Shell spokesman Shaun Wiggins told NPR's Carrie Kahn.

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