Bush surveys Gustav response as evacuees head home

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - President George W. Bush made a quick visit to Louisiana on Wednesday to survey damage from Hurricane Gustav as New Orleans officials lifted roadblocks to allow tens of thousands who fled the city to return despite widespread power outages.

Bush, widely criticized for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said government “was much better coordinated this time than we were with Katrina,” which killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damages.

But after a briefing by emergency service providers in the state capital of Baton Rouge, Bush said much work was left to be done, most importantly restoring power to 1.1 million homes and business.

He did not visit New Orleans, which escaped the brunt of the storm and saw its vulnerable levees hold, and said the thrust of relief efforts targeted hard-hit rural areas.

Nearly 2 million people fled the Louisiana coast, including some 95 percent of New Orleans’ residents -- an unprecedented exodus credited with saving lives.

New Orleans officials lifted police roadblocks to allow residents to return, and cars and trucks packed with families, bedding, cats and dogs streamed back into the city.

Although the scars of Katrina and subsequent flooding from the levees’ collapse are all too evident three years later, especially in places like New Orleans’ poor Lower Ninth Ward, many said the government did a better job this time.

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“The levees held up pretty nice, they got everybody out of here this time,” said construction worker Larry Taylor, who stayed behind in his Lower Ninth Ward house. “I think people are starting to trust them a little bit now.”

Louisiana reported just six deaths in the immediate wake of the storm. And New Orleans police said they had arrested only two people for looting during the storm.

That was a stark contrast to Katrina’s aftermath, when looters roamed the streets and rescue helicopters plucked thousands of people from rooftops and bridges.


New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said residents should come check out their property and decide if they want to stay under difficult conditions, while City Council President Jackie Clarkson warned they would find a city that is “dark and hot.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, praised for his leadership during his first major storm as governor, said power was his biggest worry and he wouldn’t stand for delays.

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“I can’t emphasize this enough,” he said. “It is the number one obstacle to a quick recovery of our impacted region.”

The region’s oil industry might also face delays in getting started due to the lack of electricity for refineries shut down ahead of the storm’s arrival on Monday.

Twelve Gulf Coast refineries that process about 15 percent of the nation’s fuel were off line and some needed power to resume operations. But 3,800 offshore oil platforms appeared to have suffered little damage and could return to full production within two weeks.

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U.S. crude oil prices continued to drop as supply worries waned in Gustav’s wake and were trading at five-month lows. Yet the market had its eye on new storms forming in the Atlantic.

Tropical Storm Hanna was moving through the Bahamas and threatened the U.S. East Coast from Florida to the Carolinas, and tropical storms Ike and Josephine trekked westward toward the Caribbean.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Hanna was expected to move near the central Bahamas as it begins to strengthen again toward hurricane force. U.S. disaster officials warned Americans this week that more evacuations could be in store in a turbulent hurricane season.

Bush skipped the Republican National Convention to travel to Louisiana to “listen and to figure out how to help,” but he may have a ways to go to make amends in these parts.

“I’ll be glad to see him gone,” said Lower Ninth Ward resident Gary Cambor. “At first, with Katrina, he said he was going to help no matter what it took, but he didn’t. The trust is gone.”

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Baton Rouge, Chris Baltimore, Bruce Nichols and Erwin Seba in Houston; writing by Mary Milliken; editing by Todd Eastham