After riding out Hurricane Gustav in their house in Houma, La., near the Gulf Coast, Joan Collins and Bill Patterson finally ventured out Tuesday afternoon. The couple had hunkered down as the storm's eye passed over on Monday and the wind howled at more than 100 mph. Now outside, they observed Gustav's wreckage—shredded properties, alongside others left virtually intact. Broken glass from blasted-out storefronts littered the ground, and the steel canopies of gas stations crinkled up like tinfoil. Massive oaks and pines lay severed on the road, and utility poles leaned like sleeping drunks. "It's going to take forever to clean this up," said Collins.
Yet she and her partner fared far better than they'd expected. Their small wooden cottage suffered no damage other than a few sheared-off shingles. As they stepped gingerly through the debris, other signs of life emerged—dogs scavenging for food, cop cars patrolling for looters, utility crews beginning repair work. "We might as well forget about the power coming on anytime soon," said Patterson. For days and possibly weeks, the couple will have to make do without electricity, without communication, and without any stores open for business. While Collins had no regrets about staying put, Patterson vowed never to stay in a house again. Next time, he said, he'll seek refuge in the steel hull of the 170-foot boat he works on. "It's the safest place to be in a hurricane," he said.
Gustav tore through the bayous and swamps of Cajun country in the south-central part of the state, pummeling towns like Houma, Morgan City and Thibodaux. These were the areas hit hardest by a storm that nevertheless proved to be more merciful than many had feared. On Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal summarized Gustav's impact at a press conference: 10 people died, including three struck by falling trees and sick and elderly patients who succumbed during evacuation. A tidal surge inundated the coastal fishing hamlets of Grand Isle and Port Fourchon. About 1.4 million households lost electricity across the state. Cities as far inland as Baton Rouge, the state capital, suffered power outages; prompting authorities to consider evacuating some 800 additional patients in the coming days, if they remained without air conditioning. "We're not quite at halftime," said Jindal. "This is a serious storm that caused serious damage in our state. … We have many hardships ahead."
Though Gustav weakened to a tropical depression on Tuesday, it continued to create problems. In Jefferson Parish, which abuts Orleans Parish, an emergency-operations official interrupted a briefing he was giving to announce, "A tornado just touched down in Westwego. God help Westwego, God help us all." Additional twisters spun off Gustav's edges, and the rain continued to pour down, at least a half-foot more in the southern part of the state, turning low-lying houses into islands amid the fields of sugarcane. That complicated the work of helicopter search-and-rescue teams attempting to survey the landscape.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff drove home the point that Gustav was a major storm. Asked at a news conference whether officials might have overreacted to the hurricane, he responded, "Nothing could be further from the truth. … The reason you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescues is because we had a successful evacuation." This is no time for complacency, he added, given that at least two more named storms, Hanna and Ike, are taking aim at the U.S.
Even in the northern reaches of Cajun country, where many coastal residents sought refuge, the storm took a serious toll. "It was so scary that you had dogs flying," said Tanisha Lazard, a resident of Opelousas, north of Lafayette, explaining that she saw a blast of wind hurl a puppy toward the sky. But the mayor, Donald Cravins Sr., was confident that the worst had passed. "We'll be fine," he said. "It's just a matter of putting things back together. People just got to grab your rakes and grab your chainsaws." At the nearby Shop Rite, some residents were grabbing something else. When an attendant peeked his head out, Curtis Williams asked for two cases of Miller Lite. Gustav had been "a rough ride," Williams said. "This is just to get us through the day."
Down south in Patterson, several miles away from Morgan City, evacuees were beginning to trickle back into town. Letty and Frederick Steckler were relieved to find that just two pieces of siding had been torn from their two-story home. But one of their dogs, a golden Labrador they'd left behind with the chickens, was missing. Just as they were about to call off the search, they found the dog treading water in a neighbor's pool, its paw caught in some lattice. A few houses down, the Brocato family pulled its RV into the driveway and almost immediately got to work. Loretta snapped pictures of her downed backyard fence and storm-pruned oak trees, while her daughter Leisha used a cordless drill to remove wooden boards from the doors and windows. "What do you want me to do with these?" she asked her father, Mike. Perhaps thinking of the next wave of tempests lurking in the Atlantic, he replied with a rueful smile, "Just lay them down there. Hopefully we won't need them again next week."