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Damage Hinders Residents’ Return

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Damage Hinders Residents’ Return

Many in Gulf Coast 
Are Without Power 
Following Gustav
By ALEX ROTH in New Orleans, RUSSELL GOLD in in Houma, La.
September 3, 2008; Page A3

After escaping catastrophic damage from Hurricane Gustav, New Orleans officials took no chances Tuesday, blocking residents from returning home until power and other services could be restored.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin later Tuesday announced that residents could start returning early Thursday, the Associated Press reported.

New Orleans narrowly avoided disaster, but evacuees are still finding it difficult to return to their homes as the city’s clean-up from Hurricane Gustav begins.

Like thousands of others, Ernest Garcia hopped in his car Tuesday with plans to return after riding out the storm in Mississippi. He got as far as a gas station on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, where he was stopped by a police roadblock. Mr. Garcia wasn’t complaining. He had barely survived Hurricane Katrina and had no regrets about evacuating this time around.

“If it saved my life, what’s that worth?” said Mr. Garcia, 56 years old, a carpenter.

After a relatively smooth evacuation of the city, the biggest post-Gustav challenge was managing everyone’s return. Many residents, like Mr. Garcia, were trapped at roadblocks. At checkpoints surrounding the city, National Guard and state police turned away all those except emergency workers.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been overhauled since Hurricane Katrina and is run now by a former fire chief who brought in more money and more-experienced managers, won favorable early reviews for its response to Gustav.

Elsewhere across the Gulf Coast, government and industry officials began assessing the damage, which wasn’t as extensive as they had feared.

Risk modeling company Eqecat Inc., a subsidiary of ABSG Consulting Inc., downgraded its estimate of personal and commercial insured losses to between $3 billion and $7 billion from an initial estimate Monday of between $6 billion and $10 billion.

[open slideshow]
Associated Press
New Orleans evacuees scattered across the U.S. were anxious to return home. At left, Debra Peterson comforted her granddaughters as they waited in their car to return to New Orleans Tuesday.

Owners of oil and gas refineries in Louisiana reported surviving the storm largely intact. Assessment teams didn’t detect major structural damage at Valero Energy Corp.’s Saint Charles, La., refinery, said company spokesman Bill Day. Alon USA Energy Inc. spokesman Blake Lewis said damage at the company’s refinery in Krotz Springs, La., was minimal.

U.S. Coast Guard flights revealed little damage to oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico, with platforms apparently in place and no signs of loose machinery in the water, said Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine. “Everything looked really good,” he said. A spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell PLC said the company would get workers back onto its Mars and Ursa platforms as early as Wednesday to decide when to resume production. Pipelines to shore also need to be tested.

While all the oil and 95% of the natural-gas production in the Gulf of Mexico was off Tuesday, analysts said gasoline and diesel supplies were sufficient to fuel the next few days without significant price increases. Gasoline prices were already on their way down Tuesday, slightly dropping to a national average of $3.684 for a gallon of regular, from $3.686 on Monday, according to the AAA automobile association. If key infrastructure remains idle, however, prices could rapidly increase.

Still, it wasn’t clear how extensive damage was to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the receipt point for 10% of U.S. oil imports. A spokeswoman said an assessment was underway.

It could be days before shut-down refineries come back online. Louisiana’s electric system sustained widespread damage from Gustav that could leave some people without electricity for weeks. Utility customers, who still are paying off costs from Hurricane Katrina three years ago, could be faced with additional expenses that could deplete recently replenished storm reserves and, possibly, necessitate further rate increases.

Cleco Corp., which serves central Louisiana, said 90% of its customers lost power at the height of the storm. Damage “will make it hard for people to return” home, said Cleco chief operating officer Dilek Samil. Late in the day, she reported that critical high-voltage transmission lines mostly came through unscathed and would be back in service Wednesday, so the utility could turn its attention to the lower-voltage distribution system.

Entergy Corp., which operates three utilities in the state, said more than 826,000 of its 1.1 million Louisiana accounts were without service Tuesday, largely because of damage to transmission corridors. For example, 13 of 14 high-voltage-transmission lines linking Baton Rouge with New Orleans were damaged, leaving New Orleans served exclusively by nearby power plants.

Until transmission lines are repaired, most of the state’s generating plants will sit idle because there is no way to move power to customers.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said search-and-rescue teams spent most of Tuesday helping with debris removal and other efforts to restore services.

In Houma, nestled just inland from where Gustav made landfall, Linda Bourgeois said, “We stood out here taking pictures all day long.” She gestured to the downtown office building where she watched the storm.

Others watched winds tear up their homes. Michele Holy cowered in her bedroom as a tree crashed onto the roof over her bed. The storm toppled a utility pole out front, and then her house started to move. “I’ll never stay again. I’ll just leave,” Ms. Holy said Tuesday, standing on a neighbor’s porch surveying the wreckage.

In Dulac, a town in the lower reaches of swampy Terrebonne Parish, Gustav ripped the roof off the waterfront house belonging to Shannon Mauldin’s grandmother, sending pieces of wood flying. “I don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Mr. Mauldin, who rode out the storm in his father’s fishing boat. His family had evacuated to Mississippi, he said, and didn’t know about the damage. Mississippi’s Gulf Coast sustained heavy flooding from the storm, and Gov. Haley Barbour urged evacuees to delay their returns.

New Orleans looked like a municipal landfill. Streets were littered with tree limbs and street signs. Power lines were down. Many streetlights didn’t work and large swaths of the metropolitan area had no power or water.

In Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain, dozens of people camped out at gas stations near the roadblocks. The gas stations were closed and out of fuel. “I’ve been driving all over burning gas for nothing,” said Christopher Wood, 37, Mr. Garcia’s traveling companion. “There’s no pumps nowhere.”

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency has buses, trains and planes ready to move evacuees back to New Orleans.

Meanwhile, FEMA is already dealing with another big storm. Tropical Storm Hanna, which has pounded Haiti and the Bahamas, is expected to intensify, possibly into a major hurricane, and hit the Southeastern U.S. Friday, anywhere from the northeast coast of Florida to the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

–Alyssa Abkowitz, Ana Campoy, Rebecca Smith, Gary Fields, Jeff D. Opdyke and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.

Write to Alex Roth at [email protected] and Russell Gold at [email protected]

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