Big Easy Evacuees Set For Thursday Return

The road back home for the estimated 2 million Hurricane Gustav evacuees was slow going Tuesday, as those trying to filter into the coast were greeted by police checkpoints and National Guardsmen who told them it was still too dangerous to return.

But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that residents would be able to return to the city early Thursday to look at the damage caused by Hurricane Gustav, though he doesn't recommend anyone staying permanently.

The mayor warned that many homes still do not have electricity and that water and sewer systems are running on backup power.

Nagin says there are few businesses open and a dusk-to-dawn curfew will remain in effect.

Though the storm largely spared New Orleans and Louisiana, hard-hit neighborhoods still had no power, and roads were blocked by trees. With only a handful of communities allowing re-entry, thousands grew frustrated in shelters, sitting on uncomfortable cots and wondering why the buses wouldn't come and drive them back.

"I can't get upset, because this is an emergency, you know," said 88-year-old Malvin A. Cavalier Sr., who was turned away as he tried to return to his home in the city's Desire neighborhood. "I just have to be calm and try to do the best I can. If I have to sleep in my car again tonight, I have to do it."

A day after the city's improved levee system kept the streets dry as a disorganized and weakened Gustav passed overhead, there was quiet pride in a historic evacuation of nearly 2 million people. Only eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S. The toll from Katrina three years ago exceeded 1,600.

"The reasons you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "The only reason we don't have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded ... the instructions to get out of town."

The focus turned to getting the evacuees back home. Gov. Bobby Jindal said officials are focused on taking care of the roughly 1,000 critical needs medical patients evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes, while also working with utilities to restore the more than 1.4 million power outages the storm left behind - the worst utility damage since Katrina, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

There's no apparent damage to oil rigs in the gulf, but production remains shut down. Also, the storm damaged the roofs of 25,000 homes and left 10 million cubic yards of debris - enough to fill more than 3,000 Olympic-sized pools.

Baton Rouge was hit especially hard, reports Pinkston. Among those killed were an elderly couple whose home was crushed by two enormous trees.

"We weren't prepared for 90-mile-an-hour wind gusts by any means," neighbor Susan Marchand told CBS News.

In the shelters, people far away from their homes were growing restless. There were fights at an overcrowded shelter in Shreveport, where doctors worried about medications running out and took several people to the hospital.

At a church in Fort Worth, Texas, Denise Preston was rushed to the hospital with a fever. The new mother endured a 12-hour bus ride with her infant son, just a week after giving birth via Caesarean section, to flee her home about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.

"It's frustrating. I'm ready to go now," Preston said. "They haven't said too much on the news about what's happened in my town. ... Me and the baby sleeping on a cot is hard. He has a crib, but he won't sleep in it."

Gustav is no longer a hurricane, but is still an ugly storm that's expected to dump several inches of rain in northern Louisiana and east Texas. Jindal said Louisiana was only at "halftime" and was worried the damage from rain could exceed Gustav's pounding of the coast.

"This is a serious storm that has caused serious damage in our state," Jindal said before leaving Baton Rouge for a helicopter tour of the mostly rural, low-lying parishes along the state's southeastern and central coast, also home to the state's oil and natural gas industries.

"We're pleased we have not seen major flooding in New Orleans and places that flooded before, but we are facing major challenges in other parts our state."

Power outages caused by Gustav have forced state officials to transport scores of patients from hospitals and other medical facilities for fear they couldn't survive long without air conditioning.

The state's secretary of Health and Hospitals, Alan Levine, told The Associated Press these patients were critically ill, and a few were from hospital burn units. As of Tuesday evening, none of the patients had died during the recent evacuation. He said Tuesday evening that 139 in serious condition had been evacuated.

"Our goal throughout this has been to minimize the loss of life and to protect our folks," he said.

The state estimated Tuesday that almost 700 patients in a dozen Louisiana hospitals may have to be evacuated over the next three days because the facilities do not have air conditioning.

Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge had to move high-risk patients - including some moved to there before the storm from other hospitals - after its own power went out and its generators kicked in. More than 30 patients might have to be moved, said Dr. Michael Kaiser, chief medical officer for the LSU Health Care Services Division. Those included 16 adults in intensive care, six in labor and delivery, eight newborns and a number - he didn't know offhand how many - on dialysis.

"When you're on backup power, there's a limited number of plugs you can use," he said.

In Mississippi, where sections of the Gulf Coast were still isolated by flood waters, Gov. Haley Barbour urged residents not to return to their homes until Wednesday.

John Furey, 65, of Pearlington, sat at an island in the flooded kitchen of his 70-year-old brother Pat's home. Both were still working to repair damage from Katrina when Gustav arrived - the only two floods to hit John's red brick home since 1964.

"This is the second time in three years," Furey said. "I just settled with State Farm in March."

Initial inspections of the Gulf Coast's extensive energy complex confirmed that Hurricane Gustav was nowhere near as destructive as Katrina and Rita, but resumption of production and refining could still take a few days or more. The market also reflected lessened fears as oil prices fell $5.75 a barrel, closing at the lowest level since April.

President Bush said Tuesday he was grateful that Hurricane Gustav was nowhere near as destructive as Hurricane Katrina.

"We are thankful that the damage in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast was less than many had feared," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday via satellite to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

"I commend the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas for their sure-handed response and seamless coordination with the federal government," said Bush, who is traveling to Louisiana on Wednesday to survey damage. "I thank all of the wonderful volunteers who stepped forward to help their brothers and sisters in need."

Bush, who monitored the storm from Texas, said that while it's too early to assess Hurricane Gustav's damage to U.S. oil infrastructure, it should prompt Congress to OK more domestic oil production. He said when Congress comes back from recess, lawmakers "need to understand" that the nation needs more, not less domestic energy production. He planned to tour Louisiana on Wednesday.

The Census Bureau said that Gustav had affected 2.1 million people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and there was significant cleanup. Dickey Arnold, 57, rode out the storm with his wife and granddaughter in Franklin, 100 miles to the east of New Orleans. The owner of a residential glass business said he didn't see much work ahead, finding few homes with broken windows or structural damage after driving through town.

"That's mostly what I see when I went riding around town: tree damage, so thank God for that," he said.

Authorities tried to keep those who did flee Franklin and the rest of St. Mary Parish, both near the epicenter of the storm, from coming back too soon. Officials don't think there is power anywhere in the parish, and the focus is first on restoring electric to the hospital and courthouse. Sheriff's deputies were mostly picking up tree limbs from roads and watching homes where trees fell onto roofs.

"I've yet to see one that's uninhabitable," said sheriff's Maj. Mark Hebert. "It could have been worse. We have a lot of work to do."

Jindal said state officials are deferring to local communities on when they will reopen. Electric crews started work on restoring power to the nearly 80,000 homes and businesses in New Orleans - and more than 1 million in the region - that remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind.

Jindal said there were 11,000 crewmen working on bringing back power to Louisiana, where the storm mostly damaged transmission lines - meaning large groups of customers could see he lights and air conditioning come back all at once. Still, Jindal warned those without power not to expect a fix overnight.

The New Orleans sewer system was damaged, and hospitals statewide 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. The FAA said the city's airport was expected to reopen at 7 p.m.

Nagin apologized to the Republicans, which put the pageantry of their convention on hold to wait for Gustav to move through the Gulf Coast.

"You know, I think Gustav rained on their parade, on their little party," said Nagin, a Democrat, who cut his own trip short to his party's convention to prepare for the storm. "And hopefully they can rekindle. We'd love to host them in New Orleans next week, and they can come down and we can show them how to really do it right."

Like Jindal and Chertoff, Nagin took pride in a massive evacuation effort that succeeded in urging people to leave or catch buses and trains out: Almost 2 million people left coastal Louisiana, and only about 10,000 people rode out the storm in New Orleans.

"I would not do a thing differently," Nagin said. "I'd probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms."

With three months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, he may yet get his chance. Three storms were lining up off the U.S. coast, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way. Hanna has plenty of time to strengthen into a hurricane before possibly striking Florida and Georgia later in the week.