Gustav sideswipes New Orleans but flood risk remains

Hurricane Gustav crashed into a mainly-deserted US Gulf coast and delivered only a glancing blow to New Orleans as it weakened and headed inland today.

Hurricane Gustav crashed into a mainly-deserted US Gulf coast and delivered only a glancing blow to New Orleans as it weakened and headed inland today.

An estimated two million people fled the state of Louisiana over the weekend as the hurricane prompted fears of death and destruction on a similar scale to that caused by Katrina three years ago.

But “the storm of the century” lost much of its power as it landed south west of New Orleans, which resembled a virtual ghost town, and the city’s levees which failed during Katrina appeared to be holding.

Its mayor Ray Nagin urged everyone to “resist the temptation to say we’re out of the woods”.

He said Gustav’s heavy rainfall could still flood the saucer-shaped city over the next 24 hours as tropical storm-force winds batter the region.

But even as fears started to fade over Gustav, another hurricane, Hanna, was strengthening about 40 miles north of the Bahamas and could come ashore in Georgia and South Carolina later in the week.

The main threat from Gustav to New Orleans appeared to be flooding.

In the Upper Ninth Ward, about half the streets closest to the canal were flooded with ankle to knee-deep water.

Looting, one of the major problems in the wake of Katrina, would not be tolerated, with anyone caught being sent straight to a maximum-security prison in the area, Mr Nagin said.

The extent of the damage was not immediately known. It is possible that damage to refineries and drilling platforms could cause fuel prices to spike.

Torrential downpours swept across the US Gulf coast with winds of around 110mph as Gustav smashed into the heart of Louisiana’s fishing and oil industry as a Category 2 storm.

It made landfall near Cocodrie, a low-lying community in Louisiana’s Cajun country 72 miles south-west of New Orleans, at around 9.30am local time (3.30pm BST), the US National Hurricane Centre said.

Forecasters once feared it would arrive as a devastating Category 4 hurricane, with much more powerful winds.

A total of seven storm-related deaths were reported, but all were traffic deaths. They included a woman killed in Louisiana in a car crash driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and four people killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree.

Before hitting the US, Gustav was blamed for more than 90 deaths as it wreaked havoc across the Caribbean.

Three years ago, Katrina killed more than 1,800 people after it hit the Gulf coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27ft, a far higher wall of water than Gustav hauled ashore.

Yesterday’s storm surge in the Industrial Canal in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, an area of the city which has remained empty since Katrina struck, reached 12ft. Wind-driven water sloshed over the top of the canal’s floodwall.

Katrina was also bigger when it made landfall in August 2005 as a Category 3 storm, and it made a direct hit on the Mississippi coast.

Gustav skirted along Louisiana’s shoreline at “a more gentle angle”, National Weather Service storm surge specialist Will Shaffer said.

President George Bush said the US authorities’ co-ordination during Gustav was also “a lot better than during Katrina”.

Speaking at the Texas Emergency Operations Centre, in Austin, the president said: “There was clearly a spirit of sharing assets, of listening to somebody’s problems and saying, ’how can we best address them?’

“It’s been a huge evacuation.”

Mr Bush, who was severely criticised for his administration’s poor, slow and apparently casual response to the Katrina disaster and its relief effort, warned America of the “dangerous” threat posed by the storm.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) administrator Dave Paulison said everyone who wanted to get out of New Orleans was able to get out.

Gustav will test New Orleans’ levee system, which has only been partially rebuilt since Katrina struck. It was not expected to be completed until 2011.

Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the £8.2 billion project to rebuild the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee and floodwalls in the New Orleans-area, said: “Right now, we feel we’re not going to have a true inundation.”

Tens of thousands were without power in New Orleans and other low-lying parishes, but officials said back-up generators were keeping city drainage pumps in service.

The storm also had an impact on the presidential campaign trail.

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain suspended most of his party’s national convention and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s campaign sent emails and text messages to his huge network of donors and volunteers urging them to help any victims of Gustav.

Some Britons, including James Lewis, 38, who left Putney, south west London, 18 years ago to run a pub in New Orleans, defied the warnings to evacuate.

Mr Lewis, who runs the Crown & Anchor pub, said he wanted to prevent “what happened to my pub when Katrina rolled in – looting and mindless destruction”.

His phone service was not working as the storm hit land.

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