/ 2 September 2008

New Orleans levees hold as Hurricane Gustav weakens

Hurricane Gustav slammed ashore on the United States Gulf Coast just west of New Orleans on Monday but rebuilt levees appeared to hold floodwaters out of the city devastated by Katrina in 2005.

Gustav weakened before hitting land with 177km/h winds, easing fears it would be another Katrina, whose floodwaters burst protective levees, swamping 80% of New Orleans and stranding thousands of people.

Gustav’s powerful storm surge pushed tons of water into the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans canals, putting pressure on barriers that were repaired or reconstructed after failing three years ago and prompting a tense watch for signs it would happen again.

Water flowed over flood walls and spurted through cracks in the vulnerable barrier system. Fifteen centimetres of water pooled in some streets near the New Orleans Industrial Canal and officials cautioned that while the levees had not been breached, they were still in danger.

But some residents emerged from boarded up homes relieved to find only broken tree branches and toppled signs.

”We’ll still get some nasty weather but we’ve dodged a big-time bullet with this one,” said stockbroker Peter Labouisse, sitting on the porch of his home, which was shuttered and without power.

About 750 000 customers were without electricity and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said it could take more than two weeks to restore power to everyone.

The storm roared through the heart of the US Gulf oil patch but oil and natural gas prices plunged as Gustav weakened to a category-two hurricane before landfall, easing fears of serious supply disruptions.

Oil companies had shut down nearly all production in the region, which normally pumps a quarter of US oil output and 15% of its natural gas.

Mindful of the ravages of Katrina, which killed about 1 500 people, nearly two million people fled the Gulf Coast as Gustav approached, and only 10 000 were believed to have remained in New Orleans.

More than 14 ,000 National Guard troops and pilots were deployed to the Gulf Coast and the Pentagon authorized up to 50 000 troops. Soldiers are routinely deployed in US disasters for rescue and clean-up and to prevent looting.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned residents it was too early to sound the all-clear.

”This is not over. It’s still hitting parts of the state very hard,” he said.

Underscoring continued concern about the fragile flood barriers, officials in rural Plaquemines Parish told the handful of residents remaining to flee as a levee protecting 200 homes had been weakened by water surging over the top.

Some officials recalled that catastrophic breaches in the city’s levees occurred a day after Katrina departed. — Reuters