Thousands of people who fled Hurricane Gustav forced the city to reluctantly open its doors Wednesday, but nearly 1.2 million homes and businesses across Louisiana were still without electricity. Officials said it could take as long as a month to fully restore power.
President Bush visited storm-ravaged Louisiana to show that the government had turned a corner since its much-maligned response to Katrina three years ago.
Faced with traffic backups on paths into the city, Mayor Ray Nagin gave up on having police and other workers check ID 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.
“In my humble opinion, I think we’re forcing the issue, but we’re just going to deal with it,” Nagin told WWL-TV. “I am really uncomfortable with this repopulation right now.”
Residents said they had a right to return as soon as possible.
"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."
Inspecting the damage
But once back at home, many people had no power and no idea when it might return.
"There is no excuse for the delay. We absolutely need to quicken the pace at which power is restored," Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Within hours of returning to his suburban home, Paul Braswell was sweating over an outdoor grill as he cooked the chicken and deer sausage he stored in his freezer alongside gallon-size blocks of ice before evacuating with his family to Mississippi.
"We don't have any power, and we don't know when it'll come back on, so we're going to eat all we can until it does," he said. "Tomorrow, we're boiling shrimp my mom left in her freezer."
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 planned to open their regular football season Sunday.
In 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.
Bush praises emergency response
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 were killed, and the White House was harshly criticized for stepping in too late.
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. Only 16 deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S.
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 provided by the city. Officials did not expect to begin bringing them back until this weekend.
Inside the shelters, the days of living on a cot with strangers on all sides was taking a toll. At a church in Montgomey, Ala., 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.
"I wanted to give her something," Samantha Williams said, holding her swelling lip. "But she wanted so much more."
Five people were 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.
There were fresh reminders that the 2008 hurricane season is far from over. Tropical Storm Hanna pounded flood-plagued Haiti before taking an expected turn north for the U.S. coast. Farther out to sea, Hurricane Ike spun westward across the Atlantic and could arrive in the Bahamas on Sunday as a hurricane.
Tropical Storm Josephine was out there, too.