- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

BATON ROUGE, La. | Louisiana evacuees from Hurricane Gustav, many still in shelters and hotels, were urged by state officials to stay away another day while crews worked to clear debris and restore power in the hardest-hit regions.

Those among the two million Gulf Coast refugees who did try to return home were greeted by police checkpoints and National Guardsmen who told them it was still too dangerous to return. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also warned that the state still has a massive cleanup effort ahead.

“I warn people that even after days of evacuations and preparatory efforts, they shouldn’t be exhausted, because this was a marathon,” he said. “People need to understand there’s a lot more work ahead of us. A lot of damage has been caused by this storm.”

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said he hopes to begin allowing residents back home by the end of the week and even then only once critical employees and businesses had returned.

The region breathed a sigh of relief as just eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S., compared with more than 1,600 from Hurricane Katrina three years ago. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned that the relatively low casualty count was the result of the mass evacuation.

“The only reason we don’t have more tales of people in grave danger and more loss of life is because everybody heeded the governors’ instructions, the mayors’ instructions, the parish presidents’ instructions to get out of town,” he said.

Far inland by Tuesday evening, Gustav was expected to dump several inches of rain in northern Louisiana and eastern Texas. Mr. Jindal warned his state that the damage from rain could exceed Gustav’s pounding of the coast.

In the Baton Rouge area, damage was extensive. Signs were twisted, roofs mangled, roads blocked.

Near downtown, streets continued to flood as rain fell around the region during midday. Power was still out to about 1.4 million residents statewide. A dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in effect here and in other towns and cities across the state.

A steady stream of electric-power and tree-cutting crews continued across Interstate 12 Tuesday along with caravans of families, towing cars and recreational vehicles, the back seats packed with pillows, blankets and supplies. In one hotel parking lot, a bank of lights collapsed across cars in the parking lot.

Pete Smith, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said they hoped to have streets cleared of debris by Tuesday night so that residents could start returning home Wednesday.

“We are praying for the best, but we are preparing for the worst,” Mr. Smith said.

Some of those Louisiana residents who chose to ride out the storm counted their blessings Tuesday that Hurricane Gustav did not cause damage nearly as extensive as what Katrina did three years ago

Jim and Ginger Collins, who decided to ride the storm out in their Baton Rouge home with their 7-month-old son, Michael, had half of a 20-foot tree draped across their lawn, taking with it their power lines. A shed and fence were demolished in their backyard. Still, they agreed they were lucky as they endured the soggy aftermath of Gustav without electricity.

“The wind was howling and shrieking with the gusts. I’ve never heard anything like it,” said Mr. Collins, a 34-year-old Internet-technology consultant who has lived in the area for 15 years. “It’s definitely the worst storm I’ve been through.”

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Mrs. Collins, who along with her little boy, painted a splashy “Go away Gustav” sign across their boarded up front window.

Their next-door neighbors, who had fled to Mississippi, were not as lucky. A mammoth bamboo tree toppled across the car in their driveway, a rough testimony to the punch of a Category 2 storm.

Mr. Jindal said 11,000 people were working on bringing back power to Louisiana and warned the estimated 1.4 million without power on Tuesday afternoon not to expect a fix overnight.

The Coast Guard, which conducted 22,000 rescues in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, was at the ready as soon as Gustav passed to launch search-and-rescue missions.

However, the evacuation of the lower Gulf Coast areas - which officials estimated at nearly 2 million people - was so successful that the Coast Guard has reported only three rescue efforts.

“The reason that you’re not seeing dramatic stories of rescues is because we had a successful evacuation,” said Mr. Chertoff. “And the reason I mention this is because we have another storm bearing down on the United States, which is Hurricane Hanna, and we have another storm, Ike, which is on its way.”

“I wouldn’t like people to get the impression that a Category 3 storm is kind of a false alarm or a lay-up, and that we don’t have to get out,” he said.

Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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