NEW ORLEANS – As a stream of traffic queued up on the highways leading back to New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin decided Wednesday to let residents who fled Hurricane Gustav back after all — with a stern warning the city was still vulnerable.
Most neighborhoods did not have power, hospitals were running on generators and most businesses remained shuttered. Nagin initially said residents should wait until early Thursday to come back. But those who live here, knowing this storm was no Katrina, were begging to get back home and sleep in their own beds.
"In my humble opinion, I think we're forcing the issue, but we're just going to deal with it," Nagin told WWL-TV. "I am really uncomfortable with this repopulation right now."
Nagin said he felt he had no choice but to lift the mandatory evacuation, because surrounding communities started to let people back in Wednesday. Worried about potential looting of still-vacant properties, he said the city would maintain its dusk-to-dawn curfew indefinitely.
Those trying to make their way home were angry it took so long for officials to let them return after Gustav's Monday strike. George Johnson, 41, was glad to heed the call to leave — but said he would stay put next time because returning was such a hassle.
"People need to get home, need to get their houses straight and get back to work," said Johnson, 41, who used back roads to get into the city Tuesday night. "They want to keep you out of your own property. That's just not right."
After spending days in motels, with family, or in hot, overcrowded shelters, evacuees returned to a new set of problems. There were still nearly 1.2 million homes and businesses in Louisiana without power, including about 77,000 in New Orleans.
While those numbers are down from the immediate aftermath of the storm, the main transmission lines into southern Louisiana are crippled. The state said it will be as long a month — in the dank heat of the Louisiana summer — before the air conditioning returns for all.
"There is no excuse for the delay. We absolutely need to quicken the pace at which power is restored," said Gov. Bobby Jindal. "I cannot emphasize it enough, it is the number one obstacle."
Parts of Jefferson Parish appeared eerily frozen in time, even as some convenience stores and other businesses were beginning to reopen. A sign outside a Catholic church, for example, still advertised a Katrina anniversary mass, scheduled for last Friday.
After flying over flooded fields and downed trees on a tour of the state's hard-hit areas, President Bush said the response to Gustav has been "excellent" while cautioning there was more work to be done. A levee broke in Plaquemines Parish, and National Guard helicopters were bringing in sandbags to plug it. The break was threatening a small group of houses, said parish spokeswoman Karen Boudrie.
"It looks like someone just took a bite out of the levee," Boudrie said.
The lack of power was holding back the other critical needs — including gasoline and hospital care — confronting the nearly 2 million people returning to coastal Louisiana after heeding the call to flee from Gustav.
Without electricity, gas station can't pump their fresh stocks of fuel. Hospitals running on generators, some of which had already moved patients who they feared would suffer without air conditioning, were running low on fuel and could be forced to close entirely.
The public hospital in Baton Rouge was being partially evacuated because of power problems, with patients sent to Texas and Mississippi facilities, Jindal said.
In Jefferson Parish, which reopened to all residents Wednesday, officials reported that most of their sewage 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, worried that an overwhelmed system will backup and send sewerage overflowing in home and businesses.
"This is a bit of concern," parish spokeswoman Patricia Borne said. "We don't know how many people will be coming in."
Nearly 80,000 people remain in shelters in Louisiana and surrounding states. In Texas, officials said they hoped to have the several thousand there back in their homes by Thursday. But New Orleans didn't expected to begin bringing back the estimated 18,000 residents who didn't have the means to evacuate on their own until this weekend.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working to register evacuees for federal aid, with employees heading into shelters to sign people up. FEMA will also pay hotel bills for evacuees after they sign up for individual assistance, he said.
The state has generally been quiet after the storm, as officials had handed out more than 331,000 meals-ready-to-eat, 748,800 bottles of water and 920,000 bags of ice at distribution centers set up around the state. Jindal said National Guard soldiers shot at two or three people attempting to loot a supply truck, and the two fled uninjured.
"It's not going to be tolerated. We will defend ourselves, and rightfully so," said Maj. Michael Kazmierzak, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard.
As the migration back into Louisiana began, what's left of Gustav moved north into Arkansas, knocking out power to nearly 100,000 homes and businesses there as lashing winds and several inches of rain caused flash flooding in parts of the state. A number of schools were closed as water inundated saturated ground and creeped up onto roads.
Several roads remained closed in Mississippi, where nine casinos that closed as the storm approached were given permission Wednesday to reopen.
Gustav's death toll jumped to at least 16 in the U.S., with most coming in traffic accidents, and two in a post-storm tornado. The storm killed 94 during its march through the Caribbean. Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That's high, but well short of Katrina's $41 billion.
In the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Hanna pounded flood-plagued Haiti just days after Gustav added to the misery of a country that has lost more than 100 lives to mudslides and flooding in the past month. The storm is expected to change course and head for the U.S. coast after sweeping across the Bahamas.
Farther out to sea, Tropical Storm Ike marched westward across the Atlantic and could arrived in the Bahamas on Sunday as a hurricane. Tropical Storm Josephine was just behind, gaining strength as that storm's winds topped 60 mph.
There were very few gas stations open in New Orleans, but at one that was running, the consensus seemed to be that residents preferred to rough it at home, even though it was going to be awhile before the city was truly back on its feet.
"Everybody knows it's going to be miserable here for a while," said Brendell John, 50. "It always is after a hurricane. The quicker you get back, the quicker you get back to normal."