NEW ORLEANS - A weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav swirled into the fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns of Louisiana's Cajun country Monday, delivering only a glancing blow to New Orleans that did little more than send water sloshing harmlessly over its rebuilt floodwalls.
It was the first test of New Orleans' new and improved levees, which are still being rebuilt three years after Hurricane Katrina. And it was a powerful demonstration of how federal, state and local officials learned some of the painful lessons of the catastrophic 2005 storm that killed 1,600 people.
'They made a much bigger deal out of it, bigger than it needed to be,' 31-year-old security worker Gabriel Knight said in New Orleans' nearly empty French Quarter. 'I was here with Katrina. That was a nightmare. This was nothing.'
There was growing optimism late Monday that New Orleans would soon reopen for business. Mayor Ray Nagin cautioned that today would be too early for
residents to return to a city largely in the dark, but their homecoming was 'only days away, not weeks.'
A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect, and nearly 80,000 remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service.
The city's sewer system is damaged, and hospitals were working with skeleton crews on backup power. Drinking water continued to flow in the city and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down - two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina's toll.
Crews will comb the city today to fully review the damage, Nagin said, with the goal of having residents return later in the week. Buses are in place and ready to bring residents back, he said.
The sense of relief did not mean the state came through the storm unscathed. A levee in the southeastern part of Louisiana was in danger of collapse, and officials scrambled to fortify it. Roofs were torn from homes, trees toppled and roads flooded. A ferry sunk. More than 1 million homes were without power. And the extent of any damage to the oil and gas industry was unclear.
But the biggest fear - that the levees surrounding the saucer-shaped city of New Orleans would break - hadn't been realized.
Wind-driven water sloshed over the top of the Industrial Canal's floodwall - the same structure that broke with disastrous consequences during Katrina - and several Ninth Ward streets close by were flooded with ankle- to knee-deep water. Still, city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers expressed confidence the levees were holding.
Gustav blew ashore around 9:30 a.m. near Cocodrie, a low-lying community 72 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Forecasters had feared a catastrophic Category 4 storm on the 1-to-5 scale, but Gustav weakened as it drew close to land, coming ashore as a Category 2 with 110 mph winds. It quickly dropped to a Category 1 as it steamed inland toward Texas.
Authorities reported seven deaths related to the storm, all traffic deaths, including four people killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree. Before arriving in the U.S., Gustav was blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean.
In the days before the storm struck, nearly 2 million people fled coastal Louisiana under a mandatory evacuation order - a stark contrast from Katrina. Those evacuated included tens of thousands of poor, elderly and sick people who were put on buses and trains and taken to shelters and hotel rooms in several surrounding states.
It could be days until the full extent of the damage is known, especially in the fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns of bayou country, where rapid erosion in recent decades has destroyed swamps and robbed the area of a natural buffer against storms.
Keith Cologne of Chauvin, not far from Cocodrie, looked dejected after talking by telephone to a friend who didn't evacuate. 'They said it's bad, real bad. There are roofs lying all over. It's all gone,' said Cologne, staying at a hotel in Orange Beach, Ala.
In St. Mary Parish, to the west, Deputy Sheriff Troy Brown cleared roads with a chain saw as he went out to assess damage. He found uprooted trees, houses without some shingles, but few signs of a monster hit. 'Even the mobile homes are sitting there in one piece,' Brown said.
Jude Duplantis, 52, who lives near Bayou Terrebonne, was outside with a push broom trying to clear leaves out of a gutter to keep runoff from backing up. Duplantis had spent part of the day driving around, surveying damage and dodging debris.
'Everything's like playing Nintendo when you're driving 'cause there's all this stuff in the road,' he said, holding up his hands as if turning a steering wheel back and forth.
One community in southeastern Louisiana feared its levee wouldn't hold. The parish president called a local TV station to plea with any residents still there to flee, and crews moved sandbags and moving equipment into place to reinforce the levee and its metal floodgate. Though it was stressed, it didn't break.
It could be a day or more before oil and natural gas companies can assess the damage to their drilling and refining installations. To the east of the city, state officials were unable to reach anyone at Port Fourchon, a vital energy industry hub where huge amounts of oil and gas are piped inland to refineries.