New Orleans A weaker-than-expected Gustav swirled into the fishing villages and oil-and-gas towns of Louisiana's Cajun country Monday, delivering only a glancing blow to New Orleans that did little more than send water sloshing harmlessly over its rebuilt floodwalls.
It was the first test of New Orleans' new and improved levees, still being rebuilt three years after Hurricane Katrina. And it was a demonstration of how federal, state and local officials learned some of the painful lessons of the catastrophic 2005 storm that killed 1,600 people.
The storm that crashed ashore as a Category 2 hurricane had by late Monday been downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph.
There was growing optimism that New Orleans would soon reopen for business. Mayor Ray Nagin cautioned that today would be too early for residents to return to a city largely in the dark, but their homecoming was "only days away, not weeks."
"I was hoping that this would happen, that we would be able to stand before America, before everyone, and say that we had some success with the levee system. I feel really good about it," Nagin said.
A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect, and nearly 80,000 remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service.
The city's sewer system is damaged, and hospitals were working with skeleton crews on backup power. Drinking water continued to flow in the city and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down - two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina's toll.
Crews will comb the city today to fully review the damage, Nagin said, with the goal of having residents return later in the week.
"I would not do a thing differently," Nagin 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."