NEW ORLEANS -
By universal consensus, this time New Orleans got it right.
Officials successfully emptied the city ahead of Hurricane Gustav, in stark contrast to the nearly 100,000 residents they left behind when Hurricane Katrina struck three years ago. And the newly fortified levees protecting the city held fast against the onrushing storm surge, unlike during Katrina when the floodwalls failed and 80 percent of the city was inundated.
That's the good news.
But it could also be the bad news.
That's because many of the city's 300,000 evacuees, spurred to leave by Mayor Ray Nagin's dire prediction that Gustav would be "the mother of all storms," are distressed at being stranded hundreds of miles from home for what turned out to be pretty much a false alarm.
Even though few New Orleans homes and businesses were damaged by Monday's storm, which landed as a Category 2 hurricane, far weaker than had been anticipated, Nagin said the city would not be open for evacuated residents to return until at least tomorrow because of widespread utility outages, downed power lines and toppled trees.
"The reasons you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "The only reason we don't have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded the instructions to get out of town."
Police posted roadblocks around the city's perimeter to underscore the message - even as the estimated 10,000 New Orleans residents who ignored orders to evacuate and stayed home were free to start cleaning up their yards and resume their lives.
As a result, some evacuees said yesterday that they will be much less likely to heed evacuation warnings the next time a hurricane looms.
"Not allowing us to return to our homes is not only outrageous, it is an action that deliberately rewards those who disobeyed the mandatory evacuation order by allowing them to return," wrote one city resident on the New Orleans Times-Picayune Web site message board. "This decision ... will jeopardize lives in the future because people will be reluctant to evacuate if they know they will be discriminated against after the storm simply for following the rules." Meanwhile, experts predicted that for some who endured the expense and discomfort of what they felt was an unnecessary evacuation, Gustav might prove to be the last straw that drives them from New Orleans for good.
"You don't have to have your house blown away to decide that you don't want to go through this year after year," said Susan Howell, a retired University of New Orleans political science professor who moved away from New Orleans last year out of post-Katrina exhaustion. "Particularly people who sat on the highway in a traffic jam for 14 hours only to come back to find everything is OK - Gustav could definitely push them over the edge." The successful performance of the levees could prove a two-edged sword as well.
Certainly it was encouraging that the 350 miles of levees and floodwalls, still only partially repaired after suffering numerous ruptures and breaches during Katrina, withstood a Category 2 hurricane packing 110 mph winds.
But if New Orleanians draw from Gustav a lesson that they can depend on the levees to protect them from the next hurricane and therefore stay home, they could make a fatal mistake.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has conceded that its $15 billion levee-rebuilding program is falling far behind schedule and won't be complete until at least 2011. What's more, even when the repairs are finished, the floodwalls will be restored only to the level where they were supposed to have been when Katrina struck: protection against a medium-sized Category 3 hurricane.
Congress has repeatedly refused to appropriate the additional billions it would cost to raise and fortify New Orleans levees against a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.
"People focus on what happened last - that has the most power psychologically," Howell said. "What they saw with Gustav was that the levees worked as the Corps said they would." For his part, Nagin - who drew withering criticism for his failure to help the city's poorest residents evacuate ahead of Katrina in 2005 - pronounced himself pleased with the success of the Gustav evacuation and insisted it was not a case of crying wolf.
Impelled by the memory of more than 1,800 victims who perished in Katrina's floodwaters, city, state and federal officials executed a well-coordinated plan this time to assemble more than 18,000 city residents needing help to evacuate and get them onto a stream of buses and trains headed to shelters far from the hurricane danger zone.
"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."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.