Gustav Slams La. Coastline West of New Orleans

By: AP
By: AP

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A weakened Hurricane Gustav slammed into the heart of Louisiana's fishing and oil industry with 110 mph winds Monday, delivering only a glancing blow to New Orleans that raised hopes the city would escape the kind of catastrophic flooding brought by Katrina three years ago.

Wind-driven water sloshed over the top of the Industrial Canal's floodwall, but city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers said they expected the levees, still only partially rebuilt after Katrina, would hold. The canal broke with disastrous effect during Katrina, submerging St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.

"We are seeing some overtopping waves," said Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the Corps' hurricane protection office. "We are cautiously optimistic and confident that we won't see catastrophic wall failure."

In the Upper 9th Ward, about half the streets closest to the canal were flooded with ankle- to knee-deep water as the road dipped and rose. Of more immediate concern to authorities were two small vessels that broke loose from their moorings in the canal and were resting against the Florida Street wharf. There were no immediate reports of any damage to the canal.

Mayor Ray Nagin said the city won't know until late afternoon if the vulnerable West Bank would stay dry. Worries about the level of flood protection in an area where enhancements to the levees are years from completion was a key reason Nagin was so insistent residents evacuate the city.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav hit around 9:30 a.m. near Cocodrie (pronounced ko-ko-DREE), a low-lying community in Louisiana's Cajun country 72 miles southwest of New Orleans, as a Category 2 storm on a scale of 1 to 5. Forecasters had feared the storm would arrive as a devastating Category 4.

The extent of the damage in Cajun country was not immediately clear. State officials said they had still not reached anyone at Port Fourchon, a vital hub for the energy industry where huge amounts of oil and gas are piped inland to refineries, as of noon. The eye of Gustav passed about 20 miles from the port and there are fears the damage there could be extensive.

Only one storm-related death, involving a woman killed in a car wreck, was reported in Louisiana.

Still, the storm could prove devastating to the region of fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns. For most of the past half century, the bayou communities have watched their land disappear at one of the highest rates of erosion in the world. A combination of factors - oil drilling, hurricanes, levees, dams - have destroyed the swamps and left the area with virtually no natural buffer against storms.

Also, damage to refineries and drilling platforms could cause gasoline prices at the pump to spike.

The nation was nervously watching to see how New Orleans would deal with Gustav almost exactly three years after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed roughly 1,600 people across the unprepared Gulf Coast.

This time, nearly 2 million people fled the coast, many of them under a mandatory evacuation order issed by the mayor of New Orleans. Federal, state and local officials took a never-again stance after Katrina and set to work planning and upgrading flood defenses in the below-sea-level city.

In New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward, about half the streets closest to the Industrial Canal floodwall suffered minor flooding, with the water knee deep in places. Water poured over one spot of the floodwall; along the rest of the wall, it sloshed over, pushed by the wind.

"There's no indication of any walls in distress," said Robert Turner, regional levee director for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. "No trenches are being cut that will destabilize the walls. No indication of walls deflecting or anything being washed out. No evidence of major seepage."

For all their seeming similarities, Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina were different in one critical respect: Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27 feet, a far higher wall of water than Gustav hauled ashore.

"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."

Katrina was a bigger storm when it came ashore in August 2005, and it made a direct hit on the Mississippi coast. Gustav skirted along Louisiana's shoreline at "a more gentle angle," said National Weather Service storm surge specialist Will Shaffer.

Initial reports indicated storm surge of about 8 feet above normal tides, but forecasts indicated up to 14 feet in surge was possible.

"Right now, we feel we're not going to have a true inundation," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the $15 billion project to rebuild the Army Corps of Engineers' levee and floodwalls in the New Orleans-area.

Still, Nagin urged everyone to "resist the temptation to say we're out of the woods." He said Gustav's heavy rainfall could still flood the saucer-shaped city over the next 24 hours as tropical storm-force winds blast through the city. Winds were 36 mph near City Hall on Monday morning, with higher gusts.

Nagin's emergency preparedness director, Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, said residents might be allowed to return 24 hours after tropical storm-force winds die down. The city would first need to assess damage and determine if any neighborhoods were unsafe.

The only storm-related death in Louisiana reported by state police involved a woman who drove off Interstate 10 and hit a tree between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Gustav was also blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean as it made its way toward the Gulf Coast.

Gusts snapped large branches from the majestic oak trees that form a canopy over New Orleans' St. Charles Avenue. About 500,000 customers in south Louisiana were without power at midday, but officials in New Orleans said backup generators were keeping city drainage pumps in service.

On the high ground in the French Quarter, the wind 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 officer standing watch every few blocks and a few early morning drinkers in the city's world-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."

Public officials warned in the days leading up to the storm that anyone leaving their homes after a dawn-to-dusk curfew was imposed would be thrown in jail.

Evacuees watched TV coverage from shelters and hotel rooms hundreds of miles away.

Harmonica player J.D. Hill said he was standing in line Monday morning to get into a public shelter in Bossier City in northwestern Louisiana after waiting on a state-provided evacuation bus that carried him to safety.

He described a frustrating scene outside the shelter, where elderly evacuees and young children had to wait to be searched and processed before going inside.

"There's the funky bus bathrooms, people can't sleep, we're not being told anything. We're at their mercy," he said.

Hill was the first resident of the Musicians' Village, a cluster of homes Harry Connick Jr. and fellow New Orleans musician Branford Marsalis built through Habitat for Humanity after Katrina. The village provides housing for musicians and others who lost their homes to Katrina.

In Mississippi, officials said a 15-foot storm surge flooded homes and inundated the only highways to coastal towns devastated by Katrina. Officials said at least three people near the Jordan River had to be rescued from the floodwaters. Elsewhere in the state, an abandoned building in Gulfport collapsed and a few homes in Biloxi were flooded.

Gustav was the seventh named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. The eighth, Tropical Storm Hanna, was strengthening about 40 miles north of the Bahamas. Forecasters said it could come ashore in Georgia and South Carolina late in the week.

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Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer, Janet McConnaughey, Robert Tanner, Cain Burdeau, Alan Sayre, and Allen G. Breed contributed to this report from New Orleans. Vicki Smith in Houma and Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge also contributed. Michael Kunzelman reported from Lafayette, La., and Holbrook Mohr contributed from Gulfport, Miss.

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