NEW ORLEANS – Hundreds of thousands of Gustav evacuees began heading back home on Wednesday to face widespread power outages, food shortages and limited medical care.
Facing rising pressure from those who had left, officials in most jurisdictions along the Gulf Coast began lifting evacuation orders even as they expressed serious reservations about conditions returning residents would face. In particular, officials warned the sick and elderly to stay away.
“We’d like to say ‘Welcome back,’ but it’s not the way we’d like to do it – with no electricity, no traffic lights,” Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, told a local television station.
In contrast to 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck and many people stayed away for months, virtually all of the nearly 2 million people evacuated from southern Louisiana are expected to return in the next few days, potentially overwhelming the area’s infrastructure as it recovers from the storm.
Highways and other roads leading back into areas that had been evacuated became jammed Wednesday as evacuees headed home. In New Orleans, returnees had a hard time finding supplies, particularly gasoline.
State officials said that 1.2 million residential and business customers are still without power in southern Louisiana, mainly because of downed transmission and distribution lines. Power outages in Jefferson Parish’s sewage plants have prompted officials there to ask residents of the New Orleans suburb not to use any water, because it could cause massive sewage backups in homes and businesses.
Of major concern to officials is the number of hospitals that are operating on emergency generators and what they have called the slow pace of power restoration.
Virtually all of Baton Rouge, the state capital, is without electricity. Fifty-seven percent of customers in New Orleans are without power. In some jurisdictions, utilities have said it could be weeks before power is restored.
At a news conference Wednesday, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal expressed frustration at the pace of the power restoration, calling it “unacceptable.”
“There is no excuse for delay,” he said. “We absolutely need to quicken the pace of which power is being restored.”
President Bush, who toured the area on Wednesday, added his voice to the sense of urgency, asking utilities in neighboring states to work with Louisiana to send extra manpower.
But Philip Allison, spokesman for Entergy, the main electric utility in the region, said more than 10,000 workers from Entergy, its contractors and other out-of-state utilities are already at work. “If we do need more, I know we’ll ask for them,” he said. Allison said any delay was caused by the “size and scope of the damage” from Gustav. “There are very few if any areas of the state that were not affected,” he said.
Hospitals without power and running on generators are either being provided additional generators or having critical care patients moved to other facilities, according to Jolie Adams, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
Chris Wormuth, a doctor at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales, La., said he is concerned about the 100-bed hospital and clinic, which is using emergency generators.
“We’re open for the moment,” Wormuth said. “But how long we can stay open we’re not sure.”
National Guard troops patrolled New Orleans on Wednesday, guarding gas stations and grocery stores and handing out ice at some locations.