NEW ORLEANS - A weakened Hurricane Gustav crashed Monday into the flood-prone but nearly deserted coast of Louisiana, making landfall west of New Orleans as a Category 2 storm. Water was splashing over some floodwalls, but city officials were optimistic the levees protecting the city would hold.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav hit just before 10 a.m. Monday near the community of Cocodrie, the heart of the state's fishing and oil industry. Forecasters once feared the storm would arrive as a devastating Category 4 with much more powerful winds.
The city's levee system has been only partially rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina struck three years ago. Wind-driven water was topping the Industrial Canal floodwall, but it had not breached.
'We are seeing some overtopping waves,' said Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' hurricane protection office. 'We are cautiously optimistic and confident that we won't see catastrophic wall failure.'
As a nervous nation watched to see if Gustav would deliver another Katrina-style hit on the partially rebuilt city, officials steadfastly insisted three years of planning and infrastructure upgrades had prepared them for whatever was to come.
For all their seeming similarities, Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina were different in one critical respect: Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27 feet, a far higher wall of water than Gustav hauled ashore.
'We don't expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina,' Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson told The Associated Press. 'But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely.'
Gusts snapped large branches from the majestic oak trees that form a canopy over St. Charles Avenue. Tens of thousands were without power in New Orleans and other low-lying parishes, but officials said backup generators were keeping city drainage pumps in service. Nearly 2 million had evacuated the coast, and only a few holdouts and those that refused to abandon Bourbon Street remained.
Katrina was a bigger storm when it made landfall in August 2005, and it made a direct hit on the Mississippi coast. Gustav skirted along Louisiana's shoreline at 'a more gentle angle,' said National Weather Service storm surge specialist Will Shaffer.
Initial reports indicated storm surge from Gust of about 8 feet above normal tides, but forecasts indicated up to 14 feet in surge was possible.