New Orleans begins clean-up in wake of Gustav

 

Those left in a still largely deserted New Orleans are today beginning the clean-up following Hurricane Gustav after rebuilt levees appeared to hold off a repeat of the flooding caused by Katrina three years earlier.

Half of the city was without power today, its sewage system was damaged and authorities said it was too soon for evacuees to go home, but the low-lying city breathed a sigh of relief after escaping a direct hit from Gustav.

Workers armed with rakes and brooms fanned out across New Orleans to clean up today as officials told hundreds of thousands of evacuees to stay away a bit longer.

"It appears the levees, the floodwalls, have maintained their structural integrity," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

But with debris-strewn streets and power outages affecting 1.4 million homes and businesses, officials said the 1.9 million Louisianians who evacuated would not be able to return home right away.

Nonetheless, the French Quarter, the heart of New Orleans, began coming back to life on Tuesday as proprietors swept up debris and reopened their doors.

Gustav is rapidly weakening and has been downgraded to below tropical storm strength, the Florida-based National Hurricane Center said.

Many had feared a repeat of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, but Gustav weakened before hitting the coast to the west of New Orleans as a Category 2 hurricane, and the city was saved a devastating blow.

The storm also did no major damage to key oil installations in the Gulf of Mexico, so oil prices plunged to five-month lows on Tuesday.

New York Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city be emptied as part of a statewide exodus of 1.9 million people - one of the largest and most orderly evacuations in US history.

"We're going to do a full assessment today and really begin in earnest with repairs," Mr Nagin told the CNN network today. "But my initial assessment is there is still some damage out in the city."

He said much of the city was still without power and that hospitals were staffed by skeleton crews.

By early Tuesday, Gustav had weakened to become a tropical depression as it dumped rain over western Louisiana.

Although it landed west of New Orleans, Gustav was a crucial test for a levee system still being rebuilt after it collapsed during Katrina in 2005, when 80 per cent of the city was flooded and about 1,500 people killed .

The levees appeared to hold firm this time and water levels in the most vulnerable canals were receding on Tuesday.

In a virtual ghost town of just 10,000 people who defied evacuation orders, residents emerged from boarded up homes relieved to find only broken tree branches and toppled signs.

Louisiana officials reported six storm-related deaths, including an elderly couple in Baton Rouge who were killed when a tree fell on their home. Gustav had last week killed almost 100 people in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica.

In contrast to the rampant lawlessness that followed Katrina, New Orleans police said they had only arrested two people for looting during the storm.

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

Gustav had overshadowed the start of the Republican Convention to formally name John McCain as the party's candidate in the November 4th presidential election.

As the storm lost power on Tuesday, politics again took centre stage, although new storms are approaching the United States.

Although Hurricane Hanna was downgraded to Tropical Storm over the Bahamas, it still threatened the east coast from Florida to the Carolinas, and potentially dangerous Tropical Storm Ike also moved west across the Atlantic toward the Caribbean.

A new tropical depression also formed in the far eastern Atlantic Ocean south of the Cape Verde Islands and was expected to become a tropical storm later on Tuesday. It will be named Josephine, and it is the 10th tropical depression of this year's busy Atlantic hurricane season.

Reuters