- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A mighty hurricane slammed into Louisiana’s Gulf Coast on Monday but this time was greeted with a response well-versed in the lessons of Katrina.

New Orleans was virtually vacant when Hurricane Gustav arrived, its residents heeding warnings less than two days earlier to escape inland.

The city’s partially rebuilt and strengthened levees managed to rebuff the initial assault of tropical storm winds and an onslaught of waves overflowing levee walls.

And this time, President Bush was on the scene with his blue shirt-sleeves rolled up, commanding the relief efforts with a gritty determination to put behind him the botched hurricane response of three years ago.

“The coordination on this storm is a lot better,” Mr. Bush said at midday, as cautiously optimistic federal and local officials kept a watchful eye to see whether the Gulf Coast’s flood-control system would hold through Tuesday.

“It was clearly a spirit of sharing assets, of listening to somebody’s problems and saying, ‘How can we best address them?’” Mr. Bush said.

Optimism was growing late Monday that New Orleans would soon reopen for business. Mayor C. Ray Nagin cautioned that Tuesday 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,” he said.

The fury, chaos and desperation that played out on national television three years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was absent across the Gulf region as the brunt of Gustav veered west of New Orleans, targeting instead the heart of Louisiana’s well-prepared oil and fishing industries.

The storm weakened to a Category 2 hurricane as it made landfall about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans about 11 a.m. EST. Officials breathed sighs of relief as the water crests did not top most levees by late Monday. Gustav was downgraded to a tropical storm over central Louisiana late Monday night.

However, relief that a major hurricane had weakened as it approached landfall and just missed New Orleans also was the first-day reaction three years ago, only for the catastrophe to happen the next day when the levees broke.

With the rains stopping and the winds calming, utility repair trucks and search-and-rescue helicopters started their operations before sunset. Red Cross vans were spotted pouring into Louisiana from Mississippi. Power company trucks gathered in wait at truck stops along Interstate 20 as rain continued to pour Monday night. Hotels along the corridor leading to Mississippi were packed, and recreational vehicles spilled out and lined the roads of parks that were full of evacuees.

Concerns instantly turned to flooding in eastern Texas, where the storm was expected to deliver up to 20 inches of rain in the next 24 hours. Another hurricane threat developed in the Caribbean, with Hanna on a course to strike Georgia and the Carolinas in just a few days.

Far away from Gustav’s fury in Minnesota, Republicans pared back their national convention for a day as presumptive presidential nominee John McCain and the delegates focused instead on raising money and arranging humanitarian aid for the victims of Gustav.

It was a theme that first lady Laura Bush and first-lady-hopeful Cindy McCain picked up early Monday evening.

“This is a time when we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats,” Mrs. McCain said.

Added Mrs. Bush: “Our first priority for today and in the coming days is to ensure the safety and well-being of those living in the Gulf Coast region.”

Federal and local officials had expressed little confidence that the levees, some still under reconstruction from Hurricane Katrina, could withstand the winds and rain of a Category 3 storm, as Gustav was expected to be, and commanded a mandatory evacuation of the region Sunday heeded by nearly 95 percent of New Orleans residents.

Massive flooding and renegade tornadoes were reported throughout the coastal region after the storm made landfall. Officials said the region is still not out of danger.

“Act 2 is about to unfold,” said Harvey E. Johnson, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The first priority Tuesday will be the Coast Guard’s search and rescue efforts and operations to ensure that residents taking shelter throughout the state are safe. Residents will be allowed home later this week after streets are cleared and electrical power is restored.

Maj. Gen. Don Riley, deputy commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said city pumps were able to contain the storm water along New Orleans’ levees, although parishes southwest of New Orleans where Gustav came ashore most likely had flooded.

Nearly 2 million people evacuated the Gulf Coast, including thousands of residents who were still inhabiting travel trailers from Hurricane Katrina from three years ago. State and local officials warned that the structures could become projectiles in the tropical force winds and ordered trailer residents to evacuate.

This time, New Orleans residents were not sheltered at the Convention Center or Superdome, but evacuated to shelters in Northern Louisiana and bused, railed and flown to shelters in New Mexico, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Authorities reported seven deaths related to the storm, three of them during the transport of hospital and nursing home patients out of New Orleans.

One federal official said no deaths are acceptable but called the number “within the margin of error” of deaths expected. More than 1 million people across the region lost power.

Republicans canceled nearly all of their planned events Monday at their nominating convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Mr. Bush traveled to Texas to personally oversee the response and recovery efforts.

Mr. Bush coordinated the relief plans from Texas and declared that federal and local cooperation and response were “a lot better” than the response to Katrina. He credited clear communication among the federal, state and local governments as well as a “spirit of sharing assets.”

“I feel good about this event,” the president said.

Mr. Bush thanked the tens of thousands of people who heeded the mandatory evacuation orders. “It’s hard for a citizen to pull up stakes,” he said.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told state residents that he will alert them when the storm has cleared and the roads are safe to drive home. “The roads are still flooded; you may run off the road and kill yourselves in a washed-out road,” he said.

More than 50,000 National Guardsmen were posted throughout the Gulf Coast to keep order along with local police and state troopers, and local officials warned that anyone caught committing crimes would go directly to jail.

In New Orleans, the French Quarter reportedly lost electricity early but in the Garden District, Charles Abbyad hunkered down at the Chimes Bed and Breakfast on Constantinople Street and watched the local news as Gustav moved in. His inn still had power and was full of reporters, not tourists.

“It’s not the wind. It’s the water,” Mr. Abbyad said of the continued threat to New Orleans. “There are two barges and a boat loose in the Industrial Canal. If those hit the wall, we’ll have big problems.”

Officials later said the barges were two old Navy vessels from a scrap yard that had broken free in the Industrial Canal but posed no threat.

One private levee near Braithwaite, about 20 miles down the Mississippi from New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish, was on the verge of collapse and officials scrambled to fortify it.

Mr. Abbyad, the maitre d’ at the famed Arnaud’s restaurant in the French Quarter, helps his wife, Jill, run the five-bedroom inn. He has lived in the city for nearly 30 years and through many storms, but was fearing that big losses from flood damage from Gustav, just three years after Katrina, could well sink the city.

The inn has survived over the past few years by hosting more business travelers and fewer couples looking for romantic escapes. A second blow to tourism in New Orleans might damage the city even further. “This is our livelihood,” Mr. Abbyad said, noting his concern about the rising surge Monday afternoon.

Gustav brought no more than 3 inches of rain to New Orleans, where police reported two arrests by late Monday.

Mr. Nagin cautioned that officials wouldn’t know until the waters crest late Monday or when the waters recede on Tuesday whether levee breeches or widespread flooding would occur.

“I would not do a thing differently,” he 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.”

Andrea Billups in Louisiana and Jon Ward in Washington contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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