As Gustav evacuees return to New Orleans, a varied homecoming

Many find their houses are fairly intact. Power loss is still a problem.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    McShane holds a photo of her and her husband, who died in 1991. It's one of the few mementos that survived Katrina.
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    Ms. McShane returned to her New Orleans home on Wednesday.
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    Checkpoint: A New Orleans police officer looked at IDs.
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    Homecoming: Frances McShane's son had helped pile furniture in the living room, but flooding didn't occur.
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As Gustav evacuees return home, and as those who stayed put survey the terrain, it's apparent how much a hurricane's unpredictability can cause varying degrees of damage.

For Francis "Big Mama" McShane, who had evacuated to Natchez, La., the homecoming to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Gustav brought an unrivaled sense of relief.

On Wednesday afternoon, she turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door of the house she'd lived in for 22 years – the one that had been left under 12 feet of water after Katrina. She paused, peered in, and said, "Thank you, Jesus, thank you, God."

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The house was dry and the electricity was on.

But 80 miles away in the town of Plaquemine, outside Baton Rouge, Stephanie Boudreaux woke up to what she called "total devastation." The area took the brunt of Gustav's winds.

"The winds, the tornadoes, there's never been anything like this here. Trees, poles are down, there are huge electrical wires twisted in the cane fields, and the hospital had its roof ripped off," said Ms. Boudreaux, standing at dawn Wednesday with a small crowd outside the local hardware store, hoping it would open. "Katrina was nothing compared to this."

From an official point of view, Gustav's aftermath is being handled in a far more organized fashion than the disaster that followed Katrina. The chaos and confusion that marked the federal emergency response to Katrina have been replaced with a fairly well-coordinated effort between local, state, and federal officials, as well as National Guard troops and emergency personnel. It was best exemplified by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who took a helicopter tour of the state Wednesday, touching down at many of the worst-hit areas. During the tour, he made it clear to power companies and the federal officials that he demanded accountability.

"The bottom line is this: There is no excuse for delay; we absolutely need to quicken the pace at which power is restored," he said at a press conference in Baton Rouge on Wednesday morning. "I can't emphasize this enough: It is the No. 1 obstacle to our recovery."

After the storm hit Monday, more than 1 million homes in Louisiana were without power, according to estimates. By Thursday morning, an estimated 800,000 homes were still in the dark, and power officials predicted it could take several weeks to restore most of the electricity. In some of the worst-hit areas, like Plaquemine, it could be a month or more.

Following Katrina, it did take several weeks to restore power to the most affected parts of the state. There were 4,000 electrical crews for the job. This time, 15,000 utility trucks rolled into Louisiana. And the National Guard was there in force to help clear the roads of downed trees and debris so the electrical crews could do their work.

No question, there were still problems. Some shelters were overcrowded, and people there were frustrated they had to wait for buses to take them back to New Orleans until Wednesday or Thursday. As of Thursday morning, more than 80,000 people were still in shelters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had anticipated Gustav might have gone west into Texas, had trailer trucks full of tarps and supplies there – hours away from where they were needed in tornado- and wind-lashed towns like Plaquemine.

"We heard FEMA was coming with some tarps today, but they can only give out one apiece," said Marsha Martinez, who was also waiting outside Plaquemine's hardware store.

On Wednesday morning, officials were saying it could be four to six weeks before power in Plaquemine was restored. But people are hoping it will be much sooner.

Back in New Orleans, one of the first things Ms. McShane did, after helping her mother back into the house, was turn on the air conditioner to clear out the 90 degree heat. At first, it didn't seem to work.

"I just pray it's not broken," she said. With the flick of a circuit breaker, it hummed to life. Then she looked at the pile of furniture stacked high in the middle of her living room.

Last Friday, her son had come over, taken the railroad ties he uses in his work to jack up houses, and built what looks like a log-cabin box in the living room. On top of it he stacked the sofas, coffee table, chairs – anything else that would fit.

"My son was trying to save this. He said, 'Well, if the water comes, maybe it won't get up so high this time.' So he did this," she says, pointing at the towering stack, "because I just can't keep buying furniture. I can't afford to do that."

Three years ago, Katrina had flooded McShane's house to the ceiling. The water destroyed almost everything that McShane, known as Big Mama to family and friends, owned.

"Before we left for Katrina, my granddaughter said, 'Big Mama, you better get Big Papa,' " she says, holding a framed picture of herself and her husband, who died in 1991. "This is what I have left. Katrina took everything else, besides two or three other pieces I took with me."

Her home, which is in New Orleans' 17th Ward, had to be gutted, stripped down to the studs. It took 2-1/2 years to rebuild. She and her mother and two grandsons, whom she has adopted, moved back to this home only this past January.

During their two years of living as essentially refugees with family in Natchez, her grandchildren Walter and Shane desperately wanted to come home. She recounts how children at school there constantly teased them, "Go home to New Orleans where you belong. We don't want you here."

When the family prepared to leave again last week because of Gustav, McShane says: "Walter was asking, 'Big Mama, are we going to have to do the house all over again?' I prayed and prayed about it, and I told him: 'Don't worry about it. The Lord's not going to let it happen to us all over again.' "

When asked how she feels now, having just returned safely to her cool, dry, and restored home, she says: "Happy, happy, very happy ... but I'm tired of running every time it clouds up. I don't know what's going to happen with the levees. Will they ever function to full capacity? But I guess they did this time."

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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