Thousands of people who fled Hurricane Gustav forced the city to reluctantly open its doors Wednesday, but nearly 1.2million homes and businesses across Louisiana were still without electricity, and officials said it could take as long as a month to fully restore power.
Faced with traffic backups on paths into the city, Mayor Ray Nagin gave up checking ID badges and automobile placards designed to keep residents out until today. Those who returned said if the city was safe enough for repair crews and health care workers, it was safe enough for them, too.
“People need to get home, need to get their houses straight and get back to work,” said George Johnson, who used back roads to sneak into the city. “They want to keep you out of your own property. That's just not right.”
But once back at home, many people had no power and no idea when it might return.
“There is no excuse for the delay. We absolutely need to quicken the pace at which power is restored,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Restoring power was critical to reopening schools, businesses and neighborhoods. Without electricity, gas stations could not pump fuel, and hospitals were running out of fuel for generators.
Some places never lost power, including the Superdome, where the Saints planned to open their regular football season Sunday.
In Jefferson Parish, which also reopened Wednesday, officials reported that most sewage-treatment stations were out of service because there was no power. The parish urged residents not to flush toilets, wash clothes or dishes, or even take showers out of concern that the system might back up and send sewage flowing in home and businesses.
In the days before Gustav arrived, nearly 2 million people were evacuated from the Louisiana coast. Sixteen deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S.
Nearly 80,000 people remained in shelters in Louisiana and surrounding states. An estimated 18,000 people fled from New Orleans on buses and trains provided by the city. Officials did not expect to begin bringing them back until this weekend.
Five people were arrested Wednesday in only the second case of attempted looting in New Orleans since the city emptied. Worried about potential looting of vacant properties, Nagin said the city would maintain its dusk-to-dawn curfew indefinitely.