Hurricane Gustav, arriving weaker than feared, submerged large swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday but left New Orleans and its system of levees and flood walls largely unscathed.
Louisiana officials, mindful that the extent of the flooding after Hurricane Katrina didn't become evident until hours after that storm had passed, cautioned it was too early to say the danger was over.
“You remember with Katrina when it first hit the state, people felt like the worst had happened and felt like it wasn't the nightmare storm that people predicted,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
“I don't want anybody to have any kind of false sense of hope,” he said. “We still don't know the extent of the damage.”
Still, there was a sense that New Orleans had escaped the kind of flood that in 2005 filled 80 percent of New Orleans, killing hundreds who'd otherwise survived Katrina.
“The good news is that we haven't had a breach,” Mayor Ray Nagin said, almost echoing his words from 2005 before Katrina overwhelmed the levees.
Nagin urged evacuees not to return today, citing power outages. Still, he said their homecoming is “only days away, not weeks.”
What flooding there was appeared limited. Water sloshed over some flood walls, and flooding was knee-deep in some parts of New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward and low-lying areas southwest of the city.
In Plaquemines Parish, authorities evacuated a subdivision threatened by flood waters spilling over a levee after efforts to open flood gates were thwarted by a power outage. But in the end, the gates were opened and the day saved.
Authorities confirmed one storm-related fatality – a motorist lost control of her car on Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, crashing into a tree. Power was out to more than 500,000 customers statewide.
South of New Orleans, residents also reported relatively light damage – toppled trees and flooded roadways and massive power outages – and relief that the storm had been weaker than expected.
“A lot of tree damage but the houses look pretty good,” said Carol Broussard, the mayor of Delcambre, La., a small community south of Lafayette and just north of Vermillion Bay, near where Gustav's eye passed as it headed deeper into Louisiana.
Fierce winds and widespread flooding also struck the Mississippi coast, creeping into homes in Biloxi, where winds sent at least one tree through a roof. In nearby Gulfport, an abandoned building collapsed downtown.
But the U.S. impact of Gustav in human terms was much less than the path of destruction it left before getting here. At least 96 people were killed before Gustav landed in the United States: 76 in Haiti, 12 in Jamaica and eight in the Dominican Republic.
The center of Gustav made landfall at 9:30 a.m. CDT in Cocodrie, La., about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Although the track of the storm was almost exactly what forecasters said it would be, Gustav never gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico as expected, arriving on shore as a Category 2 with 110 mph winds. Dry air, competing wind shear and cooler water in the northern Gulf contributed to keeping Gustav from slamming the coast as a major hurricane. Late Monday night, forecasters downgraded Gustav to a tropical storm over central Louisiana, where its top winds were reaching 60 mph. Forecasters expect Gustav to decrease to a tropical depression today and its storm surge flooding to subside, though it's expected to dump rain over Louisiana and Texas for several days before disintegrating, probably by Friday.
“It will become more of a rainfall threat until it completely breaks up,” said Jessica Schauer Clark, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in South Florida. “It could produce up to 20 inches of rain in some areas.“
Residents and officials agreed the region was better prepared to handle Gustav than it had been for Katrina. Evacuation orders went out early, hospitals moved the sickest patients to safety, and the $15 billion project to rebuild and shore up the levees made a difference, although it's still three years from completion.
More than 200,000 people left New Orleans, at least 18,000 of them on government buses that weren't available during Katrina.
Some New Orleans residents said they thought that the storm's anticlimactic arrival, after two days of urgent evacuations had emptied the city, would discourage residents from fleeing at the next threat.
“This is a bust. A lot of people wouldn't have left if they know it was like this,” said Dave Turnes, a 23-year-old cook, between sips of absinthe in the French Quarter.
Others weren't so sure.
“People will evacuate every time after Katrina,” said a man who would only give his name as “Checkers.”
“The fear is permanent,” he said.