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New Orleans Residents Come Home To Outages

New Orleans resident Josh Rogers gathers his belongings after being dropped off in the Fench Quarter of New Olreans on one of what is believed to be one of the first buses to return evacuees to the city in New Orleans, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008.
AP Photo/Bill Haber
New Orleans' mayor reluctantly allowed frustrated residents to begin returning to the Hurricane Gustav-struck city, while more than a million homes and businesses across three U.S. Gulf states were still without electricity and officials said it could take as long as a month to fully restore power.

As residents returned Wednesday, President George W. Bush returned to the site of one his presidency's biggest failures to show that the government had turned a corner since its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Faced with traffic backups on paths into the city, Mayor Ray Nagin gave up checking identification badges and automobile placards designed to keep residents out until early Thursday. Those who returned said if the city was safe enough for repair crews and health care workers, it was safe enough for them, too.

"People need to get home, need to get their houses straight and get back to work," said George Johnson, who used back roads to sneak into the city. "They want to keep you out of your own property. That's just not right."

But once back at home, many people had no power and no idea when it might return. Outages were widespread across Louisiana and thousands more lost power in parts of Mississippi and Arkansas.

"There is no excuse for the delay. We absolutely need to quicken the pace at which power is restored," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

Even as the region sought a return to normalcy, there were fresh reminders that the 2008 hurricane season is far from over.

In the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Hanna pounded flood-plagued Haiti and was blamed for at least 61 deaths. It was tentatively predicted to hit the U.S.'s east coast somewhere along South Carolina and North Carolina. A hurricane storm watch was issued Thursday for part of the area.

A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Farther out to sea, Hurricane Ike spun westward across the Atlantic as a Category 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, and could arrive in the Bahamas on Sunday. Tropical Storm Josephine followed, behind Ike.

In Louisiana, restoring power was critical to reopening schools, businesses and neighborhoods. Without electricity, gas stations could not pump fuel and hospitals were running out of fuel for generators.

Some places never lost power, including the Superdome, where the Saints, the city's professional American football team, planned to open their regular season Sunday.

In nearby Jefferson Parish, which also reopened Wednesday, officials reported that most sewage-treatment stations were out of service because there was no power. The parish urged residents not to flush toilets, wash clothes or dishes, or even take showers out of concern that the system might backup and send sewage flowing in home and businesses.

After touring an emergency center and flooded-out farmland, Bush praised the government response to Gustav as "excellent," but he urged utility companies in neighboring states to send extra manpower to Louisiana if they could spare it.

"One of the key things that needs to happen is that they've got to get electricity up here in Louisiana," Bush said.

The administration's swift reaction was a significant change from its response three years ago to Katrina, a far more devastating storm. Roughly 1,600 people in the Gulf Coast area were killed and the White House was harshly criticized for its botched response.

To residents who lived through Katrina, that failure was still fresh.

"What do I care if Bush is visiting? I'm still trying to get my house back together from Katrina," housekeeper Flora Raymond said. "This time things went better, but we still need help from the last time."

In the days before Gustav arrived, nearly 2 million people were evacuated from the Louisiana coast. Eighteen deaths were attributed to the storm in the United States, several of them occurring during cleanup after it had passed. The storm killed 94 during its march through the Caribbean.

Nearly 80,000 people remained in shelters in Louisiana and surrounding states. An estimated 18,000 people fled from New Orleans on buses and trains arranged by the state and federal governments.

Nagin said Wednesday night that he hoped the process of returning the city's evacuated residents would begin Friday and most would return by the end of the weekend, depending on weather, roads and rail conditions.

Inside the shelters, the days of living on cots with strangers on all sides was taking a toll. At a church in Montgomery, Alabama, an argument in a parking lot between two sisters over the gas money needed to return to New Orleans erupted into a fight that ended with slashed tires, a punch in the face and an arrest.

Five people were also arrested Wednesday in only the second case of attempted looting in New Orleans since the city emptied. Worried about potential looting of vacant properties, Nagin said the city would maintain its dusk-to-dawn curfew indefinitely.