Cajun Country Seethes Under Gustav's Fury

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.

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 monster hit. "Even the mobile homes are sitting there in one piece," Brown said.

One community in southeastern Louisiana feared its levee wouldn't hold. As many as 300 homes in Plaquemines Parish were threatened, and the parish president called a TV station to plead with any residents who stayed behind to flee.

While Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27 feet, the surge this time in New Orleans reached 12 feet, near the top of the Industrial Canal, on the eastern side of the city.

Officials expressed confidence all day long that the flood defenses in the eastern part of the city would hold. They were more concerned about the West Bank of the Mississsippi River, where the $15 billion in levee improvements begun after Katrina have yet to be completed. But those floodwalls appeared to be holding, too.

Gustav was quickly marching inland, reducing the prospect of heavy rain in southern Louisiana. "From what I've seen, New Orleans metro should be back in business" on Tuesday, said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.

(AP Photo/Brian Lawdermilk)
(Right: A member of the National Guard blocks the Westbound entrance to the Industrial Street Canal as Hurricane Gustav comes in Monday, Sept. 1, 2008, in New Orleans.)

But Read said the storm will slow down as it heads into Texas and possibly into Arkansas, and could bring 20 inches of rain to those areas.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency stood ready to distribute enough cartons of food, water, blankets and other supplies to sustain 1 million people for three days - another contrast to Katrina, when thousands waited for rescue in the sweltering Superdome.

"With Katrina they didn't come and rescue us until the next day," said LaTriste Washington, 32, who stayed in her home during the 2005 hurricane and was rescued by boat. She was in a shelter in Birmingham, Ala., on Monday. "This time they were ready and had buses lined up for us to leave New Orleans."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hinted the city could be reopened as early as Tuesday, once the city assesses damage and is sure its neighborhoods are safe. 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. But two-thirds of the city's electric customers were without power, as the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service.

The decision to reopen the city was eagerly awaited by those who fled the coast and watched the storm unfold on TV from shelters across the region.

As Gustav passed, authorities turned their attention to Hurricane Hanna, which could come ashore in Georgia and South Carolina late in the week.

In New Orleans, many trees, light poles, traffic lights and signs had been blown down, and debris was strewn across the streets. But there was no flooding or major damage, and the storm brought only 3 inches of rain or less to the city. Police reported making just a single arrest.

Gerald Boulmay, 61, a hotel employee in New Orleans, emerged into a dry French Quarter not long after the rain stopped in midafternoon. The skies were brightening and the wind was breezy. But mindful of how the full extent of Katrina's damage did not become clear until the storm had passed, he was still worried about a levee breach.

"I don't think we're out of the woods," Boulmay said. "We still have to worry about the water."