New Orleans levees hold against Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane Gustav scoured rural southern Louisiana on Monday with blistering winds and dangerous storm surges, but New Orleans evaded its latest encounter with natural disaster, emerging with a strained levee system that mostly held despite a day of uncertainty.

Plowing in as a Category 2 storm from the Gulf of Mexico, Gustav packed 110-mph winds but quickly dropped to Category 1. It crossed coastal lowlands dominated by oil pipelines and fishing wharves and headed toward east Texas. By late Monday, it was downgraded to a tropical storm, with sustained winds of 60 mph.

Even as Gustav moved into Louisiana's interior, Hurricane Hanna was forming over the Bahamas. National Hurricane Center forecasters predicted the new storm, which had winds of 80 mph Monday night, could reach the southeastern U.S. by midweek.

By day's end, New Orleans had escaped a catastrophic replay of the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina three years ago. The unprecedented mass evacuation of 1.9 million people emptied the hurricane zone and appeared to have spared the region from heavy casualties.

Authorities reported eight storm-related deaths, all but one from traffic accidents -- including four in Georgia. An additional three fatalities were reported during the evacuation of New Orleans. Gustav was blamed for at least 94 deaths in the Caribbean.

Public officials remained guarded in their assessments but grew increasingly optimistic that the city had missed the brunt of the storm. A relaxed New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Monday night that he felt "really good" about the city's status.

"The city of New Orleans is not totally out of the woods, but we're getting close," he said, adding that today would be "a day of repair and assessment."

"I would not do a thing differently," he said. "I'd probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms."

Companies would probably be allowed to return Wednesday to prepare for a repatriation of the city's population. "Re-entry is only days away, not weeks away," Nagin said.

The city's most anxious moments came as floodwaters streamed over levee walls along the Industrial Canal, the artery that connects the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain.

The canal's levee walls overflowed in two spots and floodwaters seeped into the low-lying streets of New Orleans' Upper 9th Ward -- the scene of major flooding during Katrina.

But by midafternoon, a National Guard team making checks on the canal reported that water levels had dropped nearly two feet, a welcome hint that the worst of Gustav's storm surge had passed.

"It's dropped at least 18 inches, if not two feet," said Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Freddy Morris, commander of the 256th Special Troop Battalion, who led a team that inspected levees. "I'm feeling a little better."

After monitoring southern Louisiana levees for much of the day, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed optimism that the major repairs they had begun after Katrina had held. More than 350 miles of federal levees protecting the city were spared the devastating failures of 2005.

"The system proved resilient," said Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, a Corps spokeswoman.

Other Corps officials were guarded in their comments.

"It's much too early to say they've been a success because the winds are still moving very strong," Maj. Gen. Don T. Riley said at a news briefing in Washington. He added: "We would not be pounding our chest at this point."

South of New Orleans, a sodden levee along a bend in the Mississippi River near the town of Braithwaite breached just before dusk, threatening several dozen houses. The floodwall, in Plaquemines Parish, is not part of the federal levee system.

Dan Ragas, a parish equipment operator, said they would firm up the floodwalls if it took all night. "Look around," he said, gesturing to the small army of men in mud-spattered boots. "These people are out there making it happen."

Gustav roared onto the mainland about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans near the town of Cocodrie just after 10 a.m. CDT, the National Hurricane Center in Miami reported. Barreling across the heartland of the state's Cajun population, the hurricane spun off gusts in excess of 95 mph as it tore through the oil industry communities of Houma, Thibodaux and Morgan City.

Warning that residents and rescuers might be deprived of essential fuel, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked President Bush to tap the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which contains about 700 million barrels of oil in storage sites in Louisiana and Texas.

"It's absolutely critical so we can get back into affected areas," Jindal said.

Bush flew to Austin, Texas, on Monday and visited a federal emergency operations center. He praised the government's performance and acknowledged that lessons had been learned since Katrina.

Stern warnings by Jindal, Nagin and public safety officials led most of New Orleans' Katrina-diminished population of 239,000 to evacuate, leaving fewer than 10,000 diehards who "stayed indoors," Nagin said. Police reported two arrests for looting in the last 24 hours.

Jackie Clarkson, president of the New Orleans City Council, said after touring the levees in the early afternoon that the city appeared to have survived Gustav's surge. "That's the worst of it," she said.

The hurricane severely tested the integrity of some parts of the reinforced levee system, Corps officials said. The levees on the Industrial Canal withstood water that reached about six inches below the top of the 12 1/2-foot wall, the level from three years ago when multiple breaches devastated the 9th Ward.

Wind and waves drove water over the top, but a newly installed concrete splash pad at the base of the wall prevented scouring of the foundation. During Katrina, such scouring on the backside of levees caused serious damage to foundations and in some cases total failures.

Gustav's storm surge raised the level of Lake Pontchartrain about two feet above sea level at the 17th Street Canal, well below the danger level.

But later in the day, the water reached five feet and the Corps closed the newly installed storm gates at the mouth of the canal, said Col. Alvin B. Lee, the New Orleans district commander. The Corps said it also had closed the London Avenue Canal barrier at the lake.

But the 17th Street Canal levee, which breached in 2005 and flooded the affluent Lakeview community, held. Mark Harbison, a petroleum engineer who hunkered down in his house 200 yards from the levee wall, had spent the morning clearing drains.

"This is nothing compared to Katrina," he said.

Nagin and Corps officials expressed alarm over reports that barges had broken free from moorings in the canal. Corps experts and a National Guard team headed by Morris found that an old Navy ship and three barges had wedged against a collapsed railroad bridge. Two more scrapped vessels drifted into concrete pilings near the city's Pump Station No. 19. But the station was unscathed, Morris said.

Gusting winds took a toll on the power grid. More than 1 million homes were without power, utilities reported.

Mississippi's Gulf Coast suffered heavy flooding. U.S. Highway 90 was inundated and shut, said Jim Pollard, a spokesman for Harrison County's Emergency Management Agency. "We're still muddling through," he said.

Betty Robinson, 52, was among 7,200 people forced to find shelter in the state's southern counties. Wondering if her doublewide trailer could survive Gustav's winds, she took to a chair inside a Gulfport elementary school where 100 others spent the long day.

"After Katrina . . . I don't trust hurricanes," she said.

Although Gustav appeared to take direct aim at the vital complex of oil refineries and pipelines that hug Louisiana's southern coast, it was too soon to tell how many had suffered damage. Industry officials voiced optimism that Gustav would inflict less damage than Katrina had.

Petroleum experts said it would take at least another day before industry officials could make full assessments of the damage. Oil production was halted and 95% of the gas output was shut as a precaution before Gustav's approach.

Still, oil investors seemed to see Gustav's threat to energy supplies as diminished. In electronic trading, the cost of crude for October delivery fell $4.34 to $111.12 a barrel in late afternoon action on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Zucchino and Fausset reported from New Orleans and Braun from Washington. Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki in Lafayette, La., Ann M. Simmons in Gulfport, Miss., and Ralph Vartabedian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.