NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans evacuees scattered across the country were eager to return home after their city was largely spared by Hurricane Gustav, but Mayor Ray Nagin warned they may have to wait in shelters and motels a few days longer.
The city's improved levee system helped avert a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, which flooded most of the city, and officials got an assist from a disorganized and weakened Gustav, which came ashore about 72 miles southwest of the city Monday morning. Eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S. after it killed at least 94 people across the Caribbean.
But New Orleans was still a city that took a glancing blow from a hurricane: A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect. And though few people were left in the city, nearly 80,000 homes remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service.
The city's sewer system was damaged, and hospitals were working with skeleton crews on backup power. Drinking water continued to flow in the city and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down — two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina's toll.
Gustav was downgraded to a tropical depression early Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. At 5 a.m. EDT, the storm's maximum sustained winds had decreased to near 35 mph, but forecasters issued flood warnings for northern Louisiana and East Texas, where up to 8 inches of rain was expected. The storm's center was located about 135 miles northwest of Lafayette and was moving northwest at about 10 mph.
Nagin cautioned that Tuesday would be too early for residents to return to New Orleans, but their homecoming was "only days away, not weeks."
Crews would comb the city Tuesday to fully review the damage, Nagin said, with the goal of having residents return beginning late Wednesday or Thursday. Retailers and other major companies could start sending workers Wednesday to check on their locations, he said. Buses are in place and ready to bring residents back with instructions to drop them off as close as possible to their homes.
The state and city took pride in a massive evacuation effort that succeeded in urging people to leave or catch buses and trains out: Almost 2 million people left coastal Louisiana, and only about 10,000 people rode out the storm in New Orleans.
"I would not do a thing differently," Nagin said. "I'd probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms."
But thousands of people were strained by sleeping in cots in gymnasiums and convention centers, far away from their homes and wondering when they could go back. Fights broke out at an overcrowded shelter in Shreveport. Doctors worried about medications running out and seven people were hospitalized, all in stable condition.
"People are desperate. They don't know if they are going to have a place to go home to," said Emma McClure, 37, who was at the shelter with her three children, three sisters and some 20 nephews. "They had three years to plan this and now I wish I had stayed in the city like I did during Katrina."
Though the big city was spared, Gustav devastated parts of Cajun country, destroying homes and flooding parts of the mostly rural, low-lying parishes across the state's southeastern and central coast that are also home to the state's oil and natural gas industries.
Four evacuating Louisianans were killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree. A 27-year-old Lafayette man was killed when a tree fell on his house as the storm whipped through, and an Abbeville couple was killed when a tree fell on a home in Baton Rouge. A woman from Jefferson was killed Monday when her vehicle ran off Interstate 10 and struck a tree.
A levee in the southeastern part of Louisiana was in danger of collapse, and officials scrambled to fortify it. Roofs were torn from homes, trees toppled and roads flooded. A ferry sunk. More than 1 million homes were without power. And the extent of any damage to the oil and gas industries was unclear.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said he heard reports of widespread damage across Terrebonne, Lafourche and St. Mary parishes. He said conditions were still too dangerous Monday night to send teams to assess the damage, but the effort to find injured or killed people would begin before dawn with helicopter crews using night-vision technology.
It could be a day or more before oil and natural gas companies can assess the damage to their drilling and refining installations. Jindal said as much as 20 percent of oil and gas production that was stopped because of Gustav could be restored by this weekend, stressing that it was a rough estimate.
To the east of the city, Jindal said state officials were planning an aerial tour on Tuesday to gauge damage to Port Fourchon, a vital energy industry hub where huge amounts of oil and gas are piped inland to refineries.
The Gulf of Mexico accounts for about 25 percent of domestic oil production and 15 percent of natural gas output. Damage to those installations could cause gasoline prices at the pump to spike, although oil prices declined Monday. Several companies that operate platforms in the area said their platforms remained intact, but they needed to inspect them before they could restart production.
Two houses built up on pilings to avoid flooding were not spared by the wind that tore through Montegut, a small Terrebonne Parish town south of Houma.
Across a narrow bayou running past the houses, globs of yellow insulation had collected in a tree and a neighbor's chain-link fence.
One of the homes had part of a wall ripped away, exposing a room with two plaques on the wall, one of which read: "Ashley Pennison, 2000-2001 honor graduate, 3.5 GPA."
The remnants of her childhood lay scattered about the soggy grass, including strung-together letter-shaped pillows spelling out her first name along with an assortment of miniature clowns.
Danny Price, the owner of a grocery store across the street, said he stayed home for the storm, but he might not the next time.
"I got scared," he said. "It was bad when the wind started rolling in. This was a picture to see: trees snapping off, fences blowing down and that wind just coming down the driveway over 100 miles per hour. It gets you scared. It's not something to play with. I don't think I'm going to stay for another one."