Hurricane Gustav fades moving into Louisiana

Water is pushed over the flood wall into the upper 9th Ward from the effect of Hurricane Gustav. in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Water is pushed over the flood wall into the upper 9th Ward from the effect of Hurricane Gustav. in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Hurricane Gustav slammed into the heart of Louisiana's fishing and oil industry with 110 mph winds Monday then faded as it moved inland, delivering only a glancing blow to New Orleans that raised hopes the city would escape the kind of catastrophic flooding brought by Katrina three years ago.

Wind-driven water sloshed over the top of the Industrial Canal's floodwall, but city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers said they expected the levees, still only partially rebuilt after Katrina, would hold. The canal broke with disastrous effect during Katrina, submerging St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.

"We are seeing some overtopping waves," said Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the Corps' hurricane protection office. "We are cautiously optimistic and confident that we won't see catastrophic wall failure."

In the Upper Ninth Ward, about half the streets closest to the canal were flooded with ankle- to knee-deep water as the road dipped and rose. Of more immediate concern to authorities were two small vessels that broke loose from their moorings in the canal and were resting against the Florida Street wharf. There were no immediate reports of any damage to the canal.

Mayor Ray Nagin said the city wouldn't know until late afternoon if the vulnerable West Bank would stay dry. Worries about the level of flood protection in an area where enhancements to the levees are years from completion were a key reason Nagin was so insistent residents evacuate the city.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav hit around 9:30 a.m. near Cocodrie (pronounced ko-ko-DREE), a low-lying community in Louisiana's Cajun country 72 miles southwest of New Orleans, as a Category 2 storm on a scale of 1 to 5. The storm weakened to a Category 1 later in the afternoon. Forecasters feared the storm would arrive as a devastating Category 4.

As of noon, the extent of the damage in Cajun country was not immediately clear. State officials said they had still not reached anyone at Port Fourchon, a vital hub for the energy industry where huge amounts of oil and gas are piped inland to refineries. The eye of Gustav passed about 20 miles from the port and there were fears the damage there could be extensive.

The storm could prove devastating to the region of fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns. For most of the past half century, the bayou communities have watched their land disappear at one of the highest rates of erosion in the world. A combination of factors-oil drilling, hurricanes, levees, dams-have destroyed the swamps and left the area with virtually no natural buffer against storms.

Damage to refineries and drilling platforms could cause gasoline prices at the pump to spike. A risk modeling firm, Eqecat Inc., projected Monday that Gustav could knock out capacity for about 5 percent of both oil and natural gas production in the Gulf for the next year. The Gulf Coast is home to nearly half the nation's refining capacity, while offshore the Gulf accounts for about 25 percent of domestic oil production and 15 percent of natural gas output.

Only one storm-related death, a woman killed in a car wreck driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, was reported in Louisiana. Before arriving in the U.S., Gustav was blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean.

The nation was nervously watching to see how New Orleans would deal with Gustav almost exactly three years after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed roughly 1,600 people.

This time, nearly 2 million people fled the coast, many of them under a mandatory evacuation order issed by the mayor of New Orleans. Officials estimated only about 100,000 stayed put along the coast, and about 10,000 were still in New Orleans. Federal, state and local officials took a never-again stance after Katrina and set to work planning and upgrading flood defenses in the below-sea-level city.

President Bush, who skipped the Republican convention to monitor the storm from Texas, applauded the efforts.

"The coordination on this storm is a lot better than on-than during Katrina," Bush said noting how the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas had been working in concert. "It was clearly a spirit of sharing assets, of listening to somebody's problems and saying, `How can we best address them?'"

For all their seeming similarities, Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina were different in one critical respect: Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27 feet, a far higher wall of water than Gustav hauled ashore.

Katrina was a bigger storm when it came ashore in August 2005 as a Category 3 storm and it made a direct hit on the Louisiana-Mississippi line. Gustav skirted along Louisiana's shoreline at "a more gentle angle," said National Weather Service storm surge specialist Will Shaffer.

The storm surge in the Industrial Canal reached 12 feet-the same height as the lowest wall. Officials monitoring the flood protection system took a breath, then turned their concern to the West Bank, where waters could still rise and pressure incomplete levees over the next day as the storm blusters inland.

"Right now, we feel we're not going to have a true inundation," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the $15 billion project to rebuild the Army Corps of Engineers' levee and floodwalls in the New Orleans-area.

Still, Nagin urged everyone to "resist the temptation to say we're out of the woods." He said Gustav's heavy rainfall could still flood the saucer-shaped city over the next 24 hours as tropical storm-force winds batter the region.

Nagin's emergency preparedness director, Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, said residents might be allowed to return 24 hours after the tropical storm-force winds die down.

Other evacuated areas along the coast may be away from home for longer, said National Hurricane Center director Bill Read. The hurricane will likely slow down as it heads into Texas and possibly Arkansas, and those areas could then get 20 inches of rainfall.

Coastal residents who evacuated into those areas may have to wait until a downgraded Gustav or its remnants passes them, Read said.

Evacuees watched TV coverage from shelters and hotel rooms hundreds of miles away. Some were relieved the news wasn't worse, while others knew their homes were in tatters.

Keith Cologne of Chauvin, La., looked dejected after talking by telephone to a friend who didn't evacuate. "They said it's bad, real bad. There are roofs lying all over. It's all gone," said Cologne, staying at a hotel in Orange Beach, Ala.

Harmonica player J.D. Hill was standing in line Monday morning to get into a public shelter in Bossier City in northwestern Louisiana after waiting on a state-provided evacuation bus that carried him to safety.

"There's the funky bus bathrooms, people can't sleep, we're not being told anything. We're at their mercy," he said.

Hill was the first resident of the Musicians' Village, a cluster of homes Harry Connick Jr. and fellow New Orleans musician Branford Marsalis built through Habitat for Humanity after Katrina. The village provides housing for musicians and others who lost their homes to Katrina. So far, the group of the homes was intact-on one porch, a decorated banner reading "Welcome Friends" survived the winds and was still hanging.

In Mississippi, officials said a 15-foot storm surge flooded homes and inundated the only highways to coastal towns devastated by Katrina. Officials said at least three people near the Jordan River had to be rescued from the floodwaters. Elsewhere in the state, an abandoned building in Gulfport collapsed and a few homes in Biloxi were flooded.

Gustav was the seventh named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. The eighth, Tropical Storm Hanna, was strengthening about 40 miles north of the Bahamas. Forecasters said it could come ashore in Georgia and South Carolina late in the week.

Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer, Janet McConnaughey, Robert Tanner, Cain Burdeau, Alan Sayre, and Allen G. Breed contributed to this report from New Orleans. Vicki Smith in Boutte and Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge also contributed. Michael Kunzelman reported from Lafayette, and Holbrook Mohr contributed from Gulfport, Miss.