/ 3 September 2008

No calm after the storm for Louisiana’s evacuees

Authorities on the United States Gulf Coast were on Tuesday struggling to orchestrate the orderly return of nearly two million evacuees to New Orleans and low-lying areas of Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

Officials credited the exodus from New Orleans, one of the largest evacuations in American history, for the relatively low loss of life. Eight people were killed in the US as a result of the hurricane.

But with Gustav past, Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, on Tuesday faced the equally epic challenge of negotiating a peaceful and safe return of 95% of the population of southern Louisiana, now scattered in northern areas of the state, Texas and Tennessee. The evacuees would not be allowed to go home until Wednesday at the earliest, officials said.

With more hurricanes forming over the Atlantic — Hanna was chewing up the Bahamas en route to Florida and South Carolina on Tuesday — the authorities were also under pressure to make sure that the public do not see the relatively light toll of Gustav as an excuse to ignore future evacuation warnings.

”The reason that you are not seeing a dramatic series of rescues is because we had an efficient evacuation,” Michael Chertoff, the secretary for homeland security, said. ”I wouldn’t want to give the impression that a category-three storm is a false alarm.”

Though weakened, Gustav inflicted considerable property damage on Louisiana. About 1,4-million homes, and even a number of hospitals, were without power on Tuesday. Trees and dangling power lines were strewn across roads and the water and sewage systems in some small towns were knocked out of action.

The damage could make it difficult or unsafe for evacuees to return to their homes, and officials pleaded for patience. ”Re-entry is just days away, but residents shouldn’t return Tuesday. Trees are down all over the city, power lines are down all over the city, and there is a significant number of homes and businesses without energy,” said Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans.

Nagin, who issued repeated doomsday predictions ahead of Gustav’s arrival, brushed off criticism that he had exaggerated the potential for danger.

”I would not do a thing differently,” the mayor told CBS television. ”I’d probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms.”

More than 1 800 people were killed three years ago in the aftermath of Katrina, and scenes of stranded flood victims became a symbol of the indifference and incompetence of the Bush administration as well as the state authorities.

But while authorities were priding themselves on their response to Gustav on Tuesday, the storm still exposed the vulnerability of New Orleans, despite the billions spent shoring up the system of levees and floodwalls since 2005.

Although the winds barely reached hurricane force, water still poured over the top of floodwalls on the western Industrial Canal — the same canal whose collapse led to the flooding of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward during Katrina.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Jindal sketched out a plan for a phased return to New Orleans and other low-lying areas, starting on Wednesday or Thursday with shop owners and workers for major companies.

The authorities were lining up hundreds of buses to pick up the evacuees and return them as close as possible to their homes. ”We’re going to reverse the process. We had buses, trains and planes getting people out, now they’re going to be bringing people back in,” Nagin said.

Those evacuees with their own transport would be allowed back once each local parish gives the all clear. The thousands who were evacuated by the authorities by bus and train would have to wait their turn. The elderly or those with medical conditions would be the last to return.

Anyone attempting to drive back into New Orleans before then would be sent back by police.

”They will be detained and turned around,” a spokesperson for Jindal said. ”Then they could get in a situation where they run out of fuel. We’re really saying to people, they need to stay where they are. Returning home too soon could prove dangerous because of downed power lines, standing floodwater and trees and other debris on major roadways.”

In Shreveport, Louisiana, there were reports overnight of fights at an overcrowded shelter.

Others seemed unfazed by Jindal’s warnings. By mid-morning, one elderly woman in Lafayette was already packing up her car to return to her home in Morgan City, with her husband, a kidney patient.

The couple live in Morgan City, a centre for offshore drilling, that was hit badly by Gustav. Neighbours had told them their roof was damaged and their house was without power, but they were determined to return.

”Tomorrow is my husband’s last day before he needs his dialysis again. We have to find some place where we can have it, so we are just going to go home and see,” she said. – guardian.co.uk