The downtown streets of New Orleans are deserted as Hurricane Gustav approaches on Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Gerald Weaver)
(CBS/AP) Gustav weakened slightly to a Category 2 hurricane as its eyewall moved onto the southeastern Louisiana coast early Monday, making ready to strike to the west of a city still recovering three years after Katrina's devastating blow.
At 9:00 a.m. EDT the center of Hurricane Gustav was located about 80 miles south-southwest of New Orleans. The storm is moving toward the northwest near 16 mph.
A hurricane warning remains in effect from just east of High Island, Texas eastward to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. A tropical storm warning remains in effect from east of the Mississippi-Alabama border to the Ochlockonee River.
Punishing wind and sheets of rain pored onto New Orleans, where only a few holdouts and those that refused to abandon Bourbon Street remained.
Gusts snapped large branches from the majestic oak trees that form a canopy over St. Charles Avenue. Tens of thousands were without power in New Orleans and other low-lying parishes, but officials in said backup generators were keeping city drainage pumps in service. Winds have also caused a car port to collapse, toppling a vehicle.
Tornadoes have been reported throughout the region because of Gustav. No injuries have been reported.
Major Tim Kurgan of the Army Corps of Engineers told CBS affiliate WWL that most recent readings of the water level at the Industrial Canal were 11 feet, several feet above the normal level. The Corps has shored up parts of the canal system to address stability issues that arose following a geotechnical analysis a couple of weeks ago.
Army Corps officials gave the order to close the Harvey Canal sector gate. The order came down at about 4:30 a.m. with the level of the canal short of 2 feet and heavy rain falling on the West Bank.
But as a nervous nation watched to see if Gustav would deliver another Katrina-style hit on the partially-rebuilt city, officials steadfastly insisted three years of planning and infrastructure upgrades had prepared them for whatever was to come.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated by local and state government over the past two days, part of a mammoth exodus of nearly 2 million people.
The massive effort was aimed at avoiding a terrible toll as was suffered in 2005 when nearly 1,600 people lost their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"We don't expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina," Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson told The Associated Press. "But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely."
On the high ground in the French Quarter, nasty winds whipped signs and the purple, green and gold Mardi Gras flags hanging from cast-iron balconies. Like the rest of the city, the Quarter's normally boisterous streets were deserted save for a police standing watch every few blocks and a few early-morning drinkers in the city's famous bars.
"We wanted to be part of a historic event," said Benton Love, 30, stood outside Johnny White's Sports Bar with a whiskey and Diet Coke. "We knew Johnny White's would be the place to be. We'll probably switch to water about 10 o'clock, sober up, and see if we can help out."
Those who heeded the days of warnings to get out watched from shelters and hotel rooms hundreds of miles away, praying the powerful storm and its 110-mph winds would pass without the same deadly toll.
"We're nervous, but we just have to keep trusting in God that we don't get the water again," said Lyndon Guidry, who hit the road for Florida just a few months after he was able to return to his home in New Orleans. "We just have to put our faith in God."
Residents for the most part heeded officials' pleas to flee. Reports are that there are as few as 10,000 people left in New Orleans itself - far fewer than were crammed into the Superdome three years ago - and only 100,000 along southern Louisiana.
"By all accounts the vast majority of people who were supposed to evacuate did so," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is overseeing operations from Baton Rouge, told CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith this morning.
"Today there's not much we can do at Ground Zero. But we can make sure everybody is squared away in their shelters, they're warm, comfortable, all medical needs are being taken care of.
"As the storm leaves, we will go in immediately and conduct search and rescue in case there are people who have been stranded."
The Lessons Learned
Chertoff said the most important lessons learned from Katrina that have been applied in the case of Gustav are "Planning, preparation, and moving early. Because we have planned together and prepared together and because this process was begun by the governors and the parish presidents probably 24 to 36 hours [later] in the case of Katrina, it gave us the ability to deal with unexpected problems that arose and we could focus on people with medical needs who were a challenging population to evacuate.
In an effort to show the nation shocked by his administration's bungled handling of the Katrina crisis that Gustav would not be a repeat, President Bush headed to Texas to visit a staging ground for emergency response efforts and a shelter for Gulf Coast evacuees.
The president is expected to be in Austin and San Antonio on the same day that Gustav, already a deadly force, makes landfall in the United States west of New Orleans.
Speaking after a FEMA briefing yesterday, the president said he would visit Louisiana as soon as practical, when his entourage's presence would not impede upon evacuation and rescue efforts.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency to ensure that people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama continue to receive their health care items and services even after they leave their homes.
FEMA's second-in-command says there's enough food, water, ice and other supplies stockpiled for 1 million victims over the next three days.
The good news: The storm has been downgraded as it makes landfall.
What Gustav will bring, however, are heavy rains and storm surge. The forward speed of the storm, coupled with wind speed, means more water will be pushed up, adding to the storm surge that could spell real trouble.
FEMA Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson says the eye of the storm is expected to pass west of New Orleans, but its surge will likely overtop levees and at least partially flood the city that was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Storm surge is also a high risk for Houma, La., which is just about seven feet above sea level.
CBS Early Show meteorologist Dave Price, on the scene in Houma near Louisiana's southeast coast, said that lights there are flickering on and off, the result of a lightning storm.
Beth Raley, a spokeswoman for Entergy New Orleans, said that utility and Entergy Louisiana had received reports of 92,000 without power in the New Orleans area and lower-lying parishes.
A Flood Of Evacuees
The brutal memories of Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and killed more than 1,600 along the Gulf Coast, led officials to aggressively insist everyone in Gustav's path to flee from shore. As the storm grew near, the streets of the city were empty - save for National Guardsmen and just about every officer on the city's police force standing watch for looters.
In all, nearly 2 million people left south Louisiana, as did tens of thousands from coastal Mississippi, Alabama and southeastern Texas.
Even presidential politics took a back seat to the storm, as the Republican Party scaled back its convention plans in deference to Gustav's threat. Mindful of the government's inept response to Katrina, President George W. Bush planned to head to Texas, where emergency response personnel were getting ready to head into the storm zone.
"It's amazing. It makes me feel really good that so many people are saying, 'We as Americans, we as the world, have to get this right this time,'" New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said. "We cannot afford to screw up again."
Gustav killed at least 94 people as it tore through the Caribbean and it will test three years of planning and rebuilding on the Gulf Coast following Katrina's wrath. Billions of dollars were at stake, as Gustav threatened industries ranging from sugar to shipping. If production is significantly interrupted from the region's refineries and offshore oil and gas platforms, price spikes could hit all Americans at the pump.
Officials promised they were ready to respond. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said search and rescue would be the top priority once the storm passed: high-water vehicles, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, Coast Guard cutters and a Navy vessel that is essentially a floating emergency room were posted around the strike zone.
"I feel a little nervous about the storm and exactly where it's going to end up, but I also feel real good about the resources," Nagin said. "Man, if we have resources, we can move mountains."
Tropical storm-force winds had reached the southeastern tip of the state early Monday morning, but local officials said they had not received any distress calls or reports of unexpected flooding.
In Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, officials built an emergency levee to prevent flooding along a highway that runs along the Mississippi River channel, sheriff's spokesman Maj. John Marie said.
When the 911 calls start coming in, we'll know how many people are left in town.
Police superintendent Warren RileyBut it was extremely quiet early Monday morning. "It's really remarkable, we got almost everybody out," he said.
Deputies went door-to-door and identified about 12 people who planned to ride out the storm.
"When you have a kid in their 20s, he feels invincible," Marie said. "We have the reverse problem: We have elderly folks who have been through so many storms, they think they'll be fine. This one is a little more dangerous."
In New Orleans, officials were anxiously watching to see what kind of storm surge the city could face: If forecasts hold, the city could experience a storm surge of only 4 to 6 feet, compared to a surge of 10 to 14 feet at the site of landfall, said Corey Walton, a hurricane support meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center.
Katrina, by comparison, brought a storm surge of 25 feet, causing levees to break. While the Army Corps of Engineers has shored up some of the city's levee system since then, fears this time center on the city's West Bank, where levee repairs have not been completed.
Fears of another Katrina led Nagin and Gov. Bobby Jindal to order a massive evacuation that succeeded in removing 90 percent of the population, or roughly 1.9 million people, from southern Louisiana. It continued late into the evening hours Sunday, with Jindal issuing a final plea to the estimated 100,000 people who decided to stay and ride out the storm.
"If you've not evacuated, please do so," Jindal said. "There are still a few hours left."
Adam Woods didn't need the reminder. A Coast Guard helicopter plucked him off his roof after Katrina struck, and this time, he and his lab mix Mandela headed to the city's Union Station for a ride out of town.
"I've got oxygen in my lungs," the 53-year-old landscaper said. "Remember, you've got to be alive to have problems."
The final train out of New Orleans left with fewer than 100 people on board, while one of the last buses to make the rounds of the city pulled into Union Station empty. Every officer in the department was on duty as police made their final rounds around 7 p.m.
"When the 911 calls start coming in, we'll know how many people are left in town," said police superintendent Warren Riley.
The city's emergency medical service had received only 26 calls as of midnight Monday, a fraction of what they received on the night before Katrina, spokesman Jeb Tate said.
Jeffrey Carreras was among those staying behind. Looters wreaked havoc in his neighborhood restaurant in the days after Katrina struck and despite promises of police protection, he wasn't willing to leave his business a second time.
"I have shotguns, rifles. I collect guns actually," Carreras said. "So I have plenty of guns in there, plenty of ammo."
New Orleans Police report having made 17 arrests, including one for carjacking and one for armed robbery, both before evacuation began.
Three people were arrested for illegal possession of firearms, two for domestic violence and the rest for misdemeanors.
Nobody has been arrested for looting.
Mississippi Shelters Filled With Gustav Evacuees
Mississippi shelters are filled with Louisiana residents seeking refuge from powerful Hurricane Gustav.
Fears of another Katrina led officials to order a massive evacuation that removed 90 percent of the population from southern Louisiana.
In Mississippi, the Red Cross shelter at Richland High School was among those that had to turn away evacuees as early as Sunday afternoon.
Central Mississippi Red Cross CEO Mary Hammett Hamilton says metro-area Red Cross facilities were full by early Sunday evening.
She says there are about 2,500 people in shelters, and her agency was working with area churches and governments to find more space.
Madison County emergency operations director Butch Hammack says there are more evacuees than he's ever seen.
Mississippi's three coastal counties are also bracing for possible flash flooding and tornadoes.
Greg Flynn, a Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman on the coast, says winds had knocked out power to 2,200 homes and businesses in Waveland, but most residents of the coastal town had fled to higher ground.
U.S. Highway 90 in Harrison County has been closed because of storm surge.
Along coastal Alabama, heavy rains flooded some roadways. Emergency officials closed Dauphin Island Parkway north of Dog River.
Swimmers in Florida Drown
A North Dakota couple drowned off the shore of Fort Lauderdale in strong seas caused by Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna. A search was launched for a teenager who went missing in a separate incident.
Bradley and Terry Ann Perleberg drowned Sunday. Authorities said they were a truck driving couple from Jamestown, N.D. Her body washed ashore, while his was found by rescuers floating offshore.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, authorities used boats and helicopters to unsuccessfully search for a 14-year-old boy who was pulled to sea by the rip currents. A 12-year-old friend was rescued.
FEMA's Post-Storm Locator System
A new Federal Emergency Management Agency locator system has been set up to help people displaced by Hurricane Gustav get in touch with family members.
People who sign up with the National Emergency Family Registry Locator can let up to seven people access their information, including ways to contact them.
A special section is set aside specifically for missing children too.
It's a response to the chaos that reigned in 2005, when an estimated 18,000 people were reported lost immediately after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma slammed into the Gulf Coast and Florida.
People can sign up at FEMA's Web site, FEMA.gov, or by calling toll-free at (800) 588-9822.
And Then There's Hanna …
(NOAA)Tropical Storm Hanna, the eighth named storm in the Atlantic hurricane season, is strengthening about 100 miles from the Bahamas.
Long-term projections show the storm could come ashore along the border of Georgia and South Carolina late in the week.
At 8:00 a.m. EDT, Hanna was about 90 miles north-northeast of the southeastern Bahamas, drifting slowly westward at 2 mph. Forecasters say the center of Hannah is expected to travel over or near the southeastern Bahamas during the next day or two.
Hanna's maximum sustained winds are near 50 mph.
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