Cajun Country Seethes Under Gustav's Fury

Storm surge from Hurricane Gustav washes over Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, Miss. on Monday, Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Sun Herald, William Colgin)
AP Photo/Sun Herald, William Colgin
Hurricane Gustav has weakened to a tropical storm as it crosses central Louisiana.

The National Hurricane Center says the storm's maximum sustained winds have dropped to about 60 miles-an-hour.

A weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav swirled into the fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns of Lousiana'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."

Katrina slammed into New Orleans as a Category 4 hurricane, with all the makings of a disaster, hitting a city built below sea level and ringed with an aging levee system designed to keep it dry, CBS News anchor Katie Couric reports.

"People didn't really think Katrina would hit," said historian Doug Brinkley. "Everybody watched the blob on their TV screens and many residents, included myself, said you know what? I'll wait it out."

It turned out to be a huge mistake.

The New Orleans Superdome, where many fled on their own, became both haven and hell. The weakest of the weak perished, and the government couldn't help. Now it appears, Gustav will not be history repeated, Couric reports.

Last time, the National Guard lost many of its choppers and water vehicles to the same flooding. This time, the staging areas are outside of New Orleans.

And unlike the post-Katrina days there's been very little looting. Law enforcement on the streets of New Orleans has almost doubled.

And the infamous levee system along Lake Pontchartrain, where the three most serious breaches occurred, have undergone some repairs. The holes have been fixed and strengthened, the walls have been built up an additional three feet, and new pumps have been installed for better drainage.

That did not mean the state came through the storm unscathed. A levee in the southeastern part of Louisiana was in danger of collapse Monday night, 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 would hold.

Maj. Tim Kurgan, a Corps spokesman, said late in the day: "We don't anticipate any problems, but we're still watching this storm because it has not passed the area yet."

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 in 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.

Eighteen members of the Bennett family, the youngest eight months old, the oldest 46 years, all from New Orleans' West Bank, were forced to stop when their truck broke down, CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

This one family is just part of the estimated 1.9 million residents of Southern Louisiana who evacuated. That's nearly 90 percent of the region's population. It's the largest mass movement of people in the state's history. In Mississippi, more than 100,000 people evacuated.

By bus, by train, by car - the exodus started voluntarily last week, and became mandatory by Sunday, Pitts reports. Families dropped off as far away as Tennessee and Texas. Part of the lesson learned the hard way after Hurricane Katrina.