NEW ORLEANS, September 2 – Hurricane Gustav pounded the US Gulf Coast Monday with ferocious rain and wind, but the partially rebuilt levees in New Orleans appeared to be holding three years after Katrina swamped the fabled jazz city.,
"Looks like we are not totally out of the woods, but we’re getting close," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said at a news conference, warning that a "last potential storm surge" could hit the area west of the Mississippi River.
An estimated 10,000 residents remained in the city after nearly two million people fled coastal areas over the weekend — an exodus authorities described as the biggest evacuation in US history.
City officials said earlier the levee system was "in good shape and holding," despite still being a work in renewal after floodwaters unleashed by Katrina catastrophically washed away the protective embankments in 2005.
"No levee breaches have been reported. Only approximately six inches (15 centimeters) of flooding seen in the Upper Ninth Ward," a statement by the city government said.
In Plaquemines parish 55 miles (90 kilometers) southeast of New Orleans, authorities scrambled to prevent two levees from bursting as water spilled over the structures.
"We have sandbags coming but are fighting a losing battle," parish president Bill Nungesser told local radio, adding to remaining residents: "Get out, and get out now."
About 21,500 people live in Plaquemines on a Gulf coast peninsula. At least 2,000 residents who live on its west bank decided to ride out the storm, Nungesser said.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal cited unconfirmed reports that three critically ill patients had died while being transported to safer ground. New Orleans officials said there were no storm-related deaths in the city.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the search and rescue effort was beginning with boats, helicopters and military aircraft looking for stranded people.
"We have to be on the lookout for people who might find themselves to be in danger, either because they’re trapped or because they’re stranded or because they’re without food and water," he told CNN.
New Orleans officials warned residents that a dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in force. Nagin reported only one arrest in New Orleans for looting.
Regional utility company Entergy reported that 50 percent of New Orleans — just over 100,000 households — was without electricity as Gustav’s howling winds tore down power poles and turned loose objects into unguided missiles.
Fallen tree limbs and downed power lines crisscrossed streets in New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward — ground zero of the 2005 disaster. The wind ripped siding, gutters and roof tiles from houses.
A convoy of National Guard soldiers rode through flood water in the poor neighborhood, determined to ferret out any residents defiantly seeking to outlast the hurricane, and to prevent a repeat of the post-Katrina anarchy.
The Pentagon has authorized deploying up to 50,000 reservists, with just over 14,000 already stationed across the coast.
President George W. Bush took a more hands-on role after suffering a political pummeling over the botched federal response to Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
"The coordination on this storm is a lot better than during Katrina," he said during a visit to Austin, Texas to oversee relief preparations.
But Bush, who had scrapped plans to attend this week’s Republican national convention, added: "The storm has yet to pass, it’s a serious event."
Katrina hit New Orleans as a stronger hurricane than Gustav, and while initial storm damage was limited, its most devastating effects came in the following days when the city’s levees collapsed under the weight of water.
New Orleans’s snaking system of levees is still being rebuilt at a cost of 15 billion dollars, and Gustav will add to the financial strain of rebuilding a region still reeling from that devastation three years ago.
California-based consultancy Eqecat Inc. estimated that insured losses would range from six to 10 billion dollars. About five percent of oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico will be lost for a year, it added.
The monster storm, which killed more than 80 people in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica, slammed ashore Monday morning as a Category Two hurricane packing winds of 110 miles (175 kilometers) per hour.
About four hours later Gustav was downgraded to Category One as it weakened overland, but wind gusts were still reaching 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour in the evening, the National Hurricane Center reported.
The hurricane triggered a truce on the presidential campaign trail as Republican John McCain curtailed the first day of his party’s national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Both McCain and Democrat Barack Obama appealed to their supporters to volunteer their time and money for relief efforts.