NEW ORLEANS - Enter at your own risk, New Orleans. That was the message from Mayor Ray Nagin, who gave residents the go-ahead to return to the Crescent City early Thursday, but with several warnings — many homes were without electricity or working toilets and a dusk-to-dawn curfew would still be in effect.
"It's my humble opinion that the city is still in a very, very vulnerable state," Nagin said Tuesday evening.
Millions fled the Gulf Coast in fear of Hurricane Gustav, and many were ready to get back home after spending several days in hot, overcrowded shelters. But as of late Tuesday, there were still nearly 800,000 homes in Louisiana without power, including about 77,000 in the city of New Orleans. Officials said the main transmission lines into southern Louisiana were crippled and they had no timetable of when much of the power might be restored.
The mayor said he had no choice but to begin allowing residents back because neighboring parishes were reopening Wednesday morning. But they, too, face the dangers of downed power lines and trees.
Still, residents who evacuated coastal areas want to return, realizing this was no Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in 2005. Nine deaths have been attributed to Gustav.
Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That's high, but well short of Katrina's $41 billion.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he won two promises from the federal government that will ease Louisiana's recovery: the White House approved his "major disaster" declaration request, allowing residents of 34 parishes to receive federal funding for housing and recovery, and a strategic oil reserve will be opened to help reverse a severe shortage of fuel, particularly in south Louisiana.
Initial inspections showed little damage to the Gulf Coast's extensive oil and gas installations, though resumption of production and refining could still take a few days. Reflecting confidence the industry suffered little damage, oil prices fell $5.75 a barrel.
Some were ready to celebrate, Big Easy style.
In the fishing village of Jean Lafitte, about 25 miles south of New Orleans, the mayor finally relaxed with a seafood boil of shrimp, corn and potatoes after three days of working on a temporary levee of two miles.
"Like the storm, I'm done," said Mayor Tim Kerner, trying to hold open his heavy, sleep-deprived eyes. "We kept the town dry."
There was no major partying on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, though.
Few businesses were open, including grocers or gas stations. But there were signs of recovery. Utility workers, contractors and government employees were allowed to return Tuesday. Banks and other firms were to return Wednesday.
The city expected to begin this weekend bringing back the estimated 18,000 residents who didn't have the means to evacuate on their own and were sent to shelters in Louisiana and other states on buses, trains or aircraft.
Power outages caused by Gustav forced officials to transport scores of patients from hospitals and other medical facilities for fear they couldn't survive long without air conditioning.
The state's secretary of Health and Hospitals, Alan Levine, told The Associated Press these patients were critically ill, and a few were from hospital burn units. As of Tuesday evening, none of the patients had died during the recent evacuation. Officials said early Tuesday evening that about 140 had been transferred, and the number grew during the evening.
Residents were just ready to get back home.
Curtis Helms, 47, left New Orleans on Saturday with only $20 in his pocket and the stripped T-shirt and denim shorts he was wearing. He was still wearing the same clothes Tuesday at a shelter in Alabama and said he only left because Nagin threatened to toss those caught on the street behind bars.
"Right now, I'd rather be home, even with no electricity," Helms said.
Others questioned the need to evacuate.
"Next time, it's going to be bad because people who evacuated like us aren't going to evacuate," Catherine Jones, 53, of Silsbee, Texas, who spent three days on a cot at a church shelter with her disabled son. "They jumped the gun."
Emergency officials strongly defended the decision to evacuate, saying that with something as unpredictable as a hurricane, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Officials noted that, yes, New Orleans' levees held, and Gustav struck only a glancing blow. But when trees fell on homes, power lines went down and roads were washed out in parts of south Louisiana, there was no one around to get hurt.
"The reasons you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "The only reason we don't have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded the instructions to get out of town."