So Far, Gustav Less Destructive Than Feared

As Hurricane Gustav struck central Louisiana on Monday, nervous officials gathered at the Claiborne Avenue Bridge in the eastern section of New Orleans. Directly below was the Industrial Canal, one of the weak points in the city's storm defenses since it has yet to be fully retrofitted. As tropical-storm-force winds battered onlookers, water lapped dangerously near the top of the floodwalls, sometimes spilling over. In bordering neighborhoods like Gentilly and the Upper Ninth Ward, streets were already beginning to flood.

But Gary LaGrange, CEO of the Port of New Orleans, felt somewhat reassured by what he observed. "You can see there is still a foot and a half of floodwall left," he shouted above the din of the tempest. "Right now, we are only seeing local flooding, thankfully." Later, as the storm began to wane, the water level in the canal subsided as well.

Though Gustav remains a powerful storm, it has so far proved less destructive than many had feared. The hurricane, whose center made landfall at Cocodrie, La., at about 10:30 a.m. ET, had weakened to a Category 2 storm, with winds of 110 miles per hour, by the time it struck. Later in the day, it was downgraded again to Category 1 status, with winds not exceeding 95mph.

Nevertheless, Gustav's impact has been widespread. It has left more than 500,000 people statewide without power and has temporarily displaced nearly 2 million residents. It has provoked flooding outside New Orleans, in cities like Mandeville, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. And it has damaged levee systems, like one in Plaquemines Parish; the parish president urged residents to leave late Monday when water spilled over two levees there. All told, Gustav could result in insured losses of $6 billion to $10 billion, according to EQECAT, a company that estimates insurance-industry losses.

Perhaps the worst destruction is in Louisiana's coastal region near Cocodrie. A vulnerable string of towns running along Highway 90 from Houma to New Iberia, this is the heart of Cajun Country. As Gustav barreled through, it tossed trees, downed power lines and ripped off roofs. Officials were expecting a tidal surge of as much as eight feet. This is an area where protective marshlands have been depleted over the years. Fortunately, most residents appear to have heeded warnings to evacuate.

From there, Gustav churned toward Lafayette, La., on Monday afternoon. But city officials were prepared. They'd already implemented a "contraflow" plan, which redirects highway lanes to facilitate outbound traffic, and helped evacuate those without vehicles. "We didn't have to tell them twice," says Mike Mouton, the Parish's Emergency Operations and Security Coordinator. "Boom, and they got out … I didn't have any heartburn or heart attacks worrying about people."

He and other city officials gathered at the Lafayette emergency operations center downtown to coordinate the storm response. Once winds subsided Monday evening, they began to dispatch first responders to search for people in distress. And they positioned emergency medical units throughout the city to offer residents help starting at noon Tuesday. "The preparation has been phenomenal," says Lt. Craig Stansbury, an Emergency Operations spokesman. "Everything so far has gone extremely well."

That was a sentiment echoed by officials throughout the day. The memory of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago apparently prodded government leaders to take no chances this time around. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican from Lafayette, cited a number of improvements over the government's performance last time: better evacuation plans, upgraded communications equipment, an earlier and more active role for the Department of Defense and greater availability of National Guard troops. Beyond that, "individuals and families realized this has to be taken seriously," says Boustany. "Prior to Katrina and Rita, people had a cavalier attitude."

As the hurricane powered ahead, the tension began to dissipate in New Orleans. Damage didn't appear severe or widespread. There were felled trees, peeled-back awnings and blowing detritus, but so far, nothing like what Katrina left behind. National Guard troops working out of a Holiday Inn near City Hall reported that they'd helped rescue 11 people and four dogs—holdouts from the Lower Ninth Ward who began to panic after hearing reports of overtopped levees. One city government worker who requested anonymity since he wasn't an authorized spokesman went so far as to call Gustav "one lame hurricane" and "a whole bunch of nothing."

"I've seen worse flooding and damage in a summer thunderstorm," he said. "There has only been one arrest in 36 hours. That should tell you how quiet it is." Hopefully the cities and towns closer to Gustav's path will emerge just as intact.