Hurricane Gustav moving inland after battering coast

 

Hurricane Gustav made landfall on the US Gulf coast today, lashing New Orleans with strong winds and heavy rain but sparing the city devastated by 2005's Hurricane Katrina its full force.

The centre of Hurricane Gustav came ashore as a weaker Category 2 hurricane near Cocodrie, Louisiana, some 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, and it further weakened to a Category 1 hurricane, the US National Hurricane Center said today. It is now moving inland.

Flood waters splashed over a concrete wall at the New Orleans Industrial Canal, but there were no immediate reports of breaches of the barriers that gave way three years ago, flooding 80 per cent of the city and stranding thousands of people.

New Orleans’s levee system has only been partially rebuilt since Katrina struck, and it is not expected to be completed until 2011.

There was some flooding over the tops of levees in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, hard-hit during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but city pumps were able to keep up with the flooding, an Army Corps of Engineers official said.

Two barges broke away from their moorings near New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers said, and one appears to have sunk.

A National Guard official told a briefing by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) that the secretary of defense had authorised up to 50,000 National Guard troops to assist in the aftermath of the hurricane.

"We've seen a very well prepared nation for Hurricane Gustav," he said.

Col Jeff Bedey, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ hurricane protection office, said: “We are seeing some overtopping waves. We are cautiously optimistic and confident that we won’t see catastrophic wall failure.”

Harvey Johnson, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, added: “We don’t expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina. But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely.”

But President George W. Bush warned that the danger to the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Gustav was far from over. "This storm has yet to pass. It's a serious event," he said at a briefing by emergency officials in Austin, Texas.

He insisted that co-ordination of the emergency response to to Gustav "is a lot better than during Katrina".

Mr Bush, who was criticised for the slow relief efforts after Katrina, cancelled his appearance at the Republican convention today to oversee emergency response effort.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin also cautioned residents against too much early optimism. "We are nowhere near out of danger yet," Mr Nagin said. "Those canals are full right now. I don't know if we are going to get any more water pushed in that direction but that's a big concern for me right now."

Nearly two million people fled the Louisiana coast and more than 11 million residents in five US states were braced for the impact from the fast-moving storm.

Hurricane Gustav also took centre stage in US presidential politics as Republicans prepared to open their convention today to nominate presidential candidate John McCain with a bare-bones programme stripped of the usual pomp and circumstance.

Mr McCain headed to the Gulf to survey preparations and ordered political speeches cancelled today for his nominating convention.

By last night, some 95 per cent of the population of New Orleans had left the city after Mr Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, warning looters they would be sent straight to jail.

An estimated 1.9 million people had fled coastal areas. Only 10,000 people were believed to have stayed behind in New Orleans. Police and national guard troops patrolled the empty city as a curfew went into effect in a bid to prevent looting.

As Gustav passed through Louisiana, Tropical Storm Hanna grew to hurricane strength near the southeast Bahamas and could threaten the US east coast from Florida to the Carolinas. Another new tropical depression formed in the Atlantic and could become a tropical storm on Monday, the National

Hurricane Center said.

Long lines of cars and buses had streamed out of New Orleans yesterday after Mr Nagin ordered an evacuation of the city of 239,000 and told residents, "This is still a big, ugly storm, still strong, and I encourage everyone to leave."

The government lined up trains and hundreds of buses to evacuate 30,000 people who could not leave on their own and Mr Nagin said 15,000 had been removed from the city, including hundreds in wheelchairs.

Flights from New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities were cancelled today as the storm bore down on the region.

Oil companies shut down nearly all production in the energy-rich Gulf of Mexico, a region that normally pumps a quarter of US oil output and 15 per cent of its natural gas.

Oil and natural gas prices plunged as Gustav weakened to a Category 2 hurricane with 110 mph (177 kph) winds shortly before making landfall, easing fears of serious supply disruptions that had put energy markets on edge.

Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina brought a 8.5 metre storm surge that burst levees on August 29th, 2005. New Orleans degenerated into chaos as stranded storm victims waited days for government rescue and law and order collapsed.

Katrina flooded some 80 per cent of New Orleans, killed some 1,500 people in five states and cost near $80 billion.