The Big Easy is the Big Breathe Easy.
New Orleans dodged another one when Hurricane Ivan made landfall about 175 miles to the east early Thursday. It shook the trees with tropical storm-force gusts of up to 53 mph.
But aside from power outages to some 30,000 customers because of fallen limbs, the city — particularly vulnerable to storms because so much of it is below sea level — survived unscathed.
“We are ecstatic,” said Tansy Jones at the mayor’s office. “Rainfall was only two-tenths of an inch.”
As the storm headed into the Gulf of Mexico, packing winds of 165 miles an hour, the city battened down and the airwaves echoed with dire warnings that this would be the long-dreaded hurricane that would inundate the city with 20 feet of water and leave thousands dead. The traffic jams of fleeing evacuees in stalled bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched all the way to Texas.
Warnings had been so worrisome that officials opened the Superdome for people who had nowhere else to go, and 1,100 spent the night on concourses and in the end zone stands.
But as dawn broke along historic St. Charles Avenue through the heart of the city, massive live oaks still stood majestically and stately mansions were unscathed. All the street lights and traffic lights were working.
A carpet of leaves covered parts of the avenue, but there was no traffic. The street wasn’t even wet. An overnight curfew had people still at home — with a few exceptions.
“I don’t know if I’m happy or just relieved, but I’m certainly one or the other or both,” said John Brink, the bartender at The Avenue Pub.
He was serving a man who was drinking a breakfast beer at 6 a.m.
Mayor Ray Nagin said police would continue to patrol against looting until people get back home — probably through the weekend. Five people were arrested on looting charges, and three others were being sought.
Asked about people grousing that they fled a storm that didn’t come, Nagin said: “If you are questioning that, look at the scenes from Mobile and Pensacola.” He also said he was in discussions with Gov. Kathleen Blanco about improving evacuations in future crises.
State and city officials were preparing for an influx of traffic as people return home. That includes lifting tolls and adjusting signal lights to ensure a steady flow on state highways, said Terry Tullier, the emergency preparedness director.
The near-miss echoed recent close calls from Georges, a monster storm in 1998 that made a surprise shift east at the last minute, and Lily, which started out as a Category 4 and weakened to a Category 2 before coming ashore in 2002.
Most of the power failures in New Orleans were caused by fallen tree limbs in neighborhoods New Orleans East and on the West Bank, not the historic French Quarter that officials feared would be lost in a massive flood. Utility workers said they expected to have all electric service quickly restored.
On the lakefront, the surge from Lake Pontchartrain left high water over Lakeshore Drive. The floodgates were closed, keeping the water out of the nearby homes. Waves whipped over the seawall, driven by the trailing winds from Ivan.
“This isn’t bad at all. I’ve seen a lot worse from a lot of other storms,” said Bob Weilbacker, who lived near the lakefront levee since 1971 and was out for an early morning bicycle ride.
Relieved? “Oh, my God, yes. I thought we were goners.”
Even though Ivan didn’t make a direct hit on New Orleans, it was close enough to spoil the beginning of the French Quarter’s fall business season.
Paul Miller, executive chef at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, figures his eatery lost $100,000 because of the closings and post-Ivan conventions that were canceled.