New Orleans' levees pass the test
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
NEW ORLEANS -- A weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav swirled into the fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns of Louisiana's Cajun country Monday, delivering a glancing blow to New Orleans that sent water sloshing over its rebuilt floodwalls but caused little damage.
It was the first test of New Orleans' new and improved levees, which are still being rebuilt three years after Hurricane Katrina. And it was a powerful demonstration of how federal, state and local officials learned some of the lessons of the catastrophic 2005 storm that killed 1,600 people.
The storm that crashed ashore as a Category 1 hurricane had by late Monday been downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph.
"They made a much bigger deal out of it, bigger than it needed to be," 31-year-old security worker Gabriel Knight said in New Orleans' nearly empty French Quarter. "I was here with Katrina. That was a nightmare. This was nothing."
There was growing optimism that New Orleans would soon reopen for business. Mayor Ray Nagin cautioned that today would be too early for residents to return to a city largely in the dark, but their homecoming was "only days away, not weeks."
"I was hoping that this would happen, that we would be able to stand before America, before everyone, and say that we had some success with the levee system. I feel really good about it," Nagin said.
Damage in New Orleans
A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect, and nearly 80,000 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 is 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.
Crews will comb the city today to fully review the damage, Nagin said, with the goal of having residents return later in the week. Buses are in place and ready to bring people back, he said.
"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."
The sense of relief did not mean the state came through the storm unscathed. 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 industry was unclear.
But the biggest fear -- that the levees surrounding the saucer-shaped city of New Orleans would break -- hadn't been realized.
Wind-driven water sloshed over the top of the Industrial Canal's floodwall -- the same structure that broke with disastrous consequences during Katrina -- and several Ninth Ward streets close by were flooded with ankle- to knee-deep water. Still, city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers expressed confidence the levees were holding.
Gustav blew ashore around 9:30 a.m. near Cocodrie, a low-lying community 72 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Forecasters had feared a catastrophic Category 4 storm on the 1-to-5 scale, but Gustav weakened as it drew close to land, coming ashore with 110 mph winds. It quickly dropped to a Category 1 as it steamed inland toward Texas.
Late Monday, Gustav's center was about 20 miles southwest of Alexandria, lumbering northwest at about 13 mph. Forecasters expect the storm to weaken further to a tropical depression today as it moves toward northeastern Texas. Storm surge flooding was expected to continue to subside overnight.
Authorities reported eight deaths related to the storm. All but one were traffic deaths, including four people killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree as they attempted to flee the storm. A 27-year-old Lafayette, La., man was killed when a tree fell on his house as the storm whipped through. Before arriving in the U.S., Gustav was blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean.
In the days before the storm struck, nearly 2 million people fled coastal Louisiana under a mandatory evacuation order -- a stark contrast from Katrina. Those evacuated included tens of thousands of poor, elderly and sick people who were put on buses and trains and taken to shelters and hotel rooms in several surrounding states.
It could be days until the full extent of the damage is known, especially in the fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns of bayou country, where rapid erosion in recent decades has destroyed swamps and robbed the area of a natural buffer against storms.
Keith Cologne of Chauvin, not far from Cocodrie, looked dejected after talking by telephone to a friend who didn't evacuate. "They said it's bad, real bad. There are roofs lying all over. It's all gone," said Cologne, staying at a hotel in Orange Beach, Ala.
In St. Mary Parish, to the west, Deputy Sheriff Troy Brown cleared roads with a chain saw as he went out to assess damage. He found uprooted trees, houses without some shingles, but few signs of a monster hit. "Even the mobile homes are sitting there in one piece," Brown said.
Jude Duplantis, 52, who lives near Bayou Terrebonne, was outside with a push broom trying to clear leaves out of a gutter to keep runoff from backing up. Duplantis had spent part of the day driving around, surveying damage and dodging debris.
"Everything's like playing Nintendo when you're driving 'cause there's all this stuff in the road," he said, holding up his hands as if turning a steering wheel back and forth.
One community in southeastern Louisiana feared its levee wouldn't hold. The parish president called a local TV station to plead with any residents still there to flee, and crews moved sandbags and moving equipment into place to reinforce the levee and its metal floodgate. Though it was stressed, it didn't break.
It could be a day or more before oil and natural gas companies can assess the damage to their drilling and refining installations. Gov. Bobby 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, state officials were unable to reach anyone at 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.
While Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27 feet, the surge this time in New Orleans reached 12 feet, near the top of the Industrial Canal, on the eastern side of the city.
Officials expressed confidence all day long that the flood defenses in the eastern part of the city would hold. They were more concerned about the West Bank of the Mississippi River, where the $15 billion in levee improvements begun after Katrina have yet to be completed. But those floodwalls appeared to be holding, too.
Gustav was quickly marching inland, reducing the prospect of heavy rain in southern Louisiana. But the storm is expected to slow down as it heads into Texas and possibly into Arkansas, and could bring 20 inches of rain to those areas.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency stood ready to distribute enough cartons of food, water, blankets and other supplies to sustain 1 million people for three days -- another contrast to Katrina, when thousands waited for rescue in the sweltering Superdome.
President Bush skipped the opening day of a scaled-back Republican National Convention to monitor the storm's progress, and both Republicans and Democrats asked supporters to text-message donations to the Red Cross to help victims of the hurricane.
Fights broke out at an overcrowded shelter in Shreveport. People who had slept, eaten and lived on cots for days struggled to get news about home from the lone television in the entire center. 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."
In Mississippi, at least three people had to be rescued from the floodwaters. An abandoned building in Gulfport collapsed, a few homes in Biloxi were flooded, and the ground floor of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Biloxi's casino row was swamped with 2 feet of water. Katrina smashed the casino three years ago shortly before it was to open.
As Gustav passed, authorities turned their attention to Hurricane Hanna, which could come ashore in Georgia and South Carolina late in the week.
In New Orleans, many trees, light poles, traffic lights and signs had been blown down, and debris was strewn across the streets. But there was no flooding or major damage, and the storm brought only 3 inches of rain or less to the city. Police reported just two arrests.
Nagin echoed the cautious grade many were giving to the levees' performance Monday.
"It proved that the city can handle a Category 3 storm," Nagin said. "Is that good enough? No."