4 Sep 2008

Life returns to New Orleans in wake of Gustav

6:45 pm on 4 September 2008

] New Orleans is slowly coming back to life as hundreds of thousands of residents trickle home after their city survived a pounding from Hurricane Gustav.

An estimated 10,000 people are believed to have remained in New Orleans, a city of 300,000, when Gustav slammed the Gulf coast on Monday, amid fears of a repeat of the catastrophic flooding that came with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours," Mayor Ray Nagin said on Wednesday, playfully quoting a line from a classic popular song. "The picture today is much better than it was yesterday."

Mr Nagin said that President George W Bush, who visited Louisiana on Wednesday, assured him that Washington is committed to a multibillion-dollar programme to rebuild New Orleans and bolster the levee system that protects it.

He has allowed residents to begin returning to the city, voiding a mandatory evacuation order and lifting police roadblocks more than 12 hours earlier than planned.

But those returning found less than ideal conditions: local utility companies said that more than a million homes and business were without power, and most petrol stations - both in the city and across the state - were empty.

Mr Bush announced the government was releasing 250,000 barrels of oil from its strategic petroleum reserve, after the region's refineries saw their production curtailed by the storm.

He praised emergency workers for a "much better coordinated" response than was seen after Katrina, and for rushing aid to remote areas, as well as New Orleans and Baton Rouge.