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New Orleans evacuees may have to wait in shelters a few days longer

New Orleans evacuees scattered across America were anxious to return home after their city was largely spared by Hurricane Gustav, but Mayor Ray Nagin warned they may have to wait in shelters and motels a few days longer.

The city's improved levee system helped avert a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, which flooded most of the city, and officials got an assist from a disorganized and weakened Gustav, which came ashore about 72 miles (116 kilometers) southwest of the city Monday morning. Eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the U.S. after it killed at least 94 people across the Caribbean.

But New Orleans was still a city that took a glancing blow from a hurricane: A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect, and nearly 80,000 remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service.

The city's sewer system was damaged, and hospitals were working with skeleton crews on backup power. Drinking water continued to flow in the city and the pumps that keep it dry never shut down - two critical service failings that contributed to Katrina's toll.

Gustav was downgraded to a tropical depression early Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. At 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), the storm's maximum sustained winds had decreased to near 35 mph (56 kph). The storm's center was located about 135 miles (217 kilometers) northwest of Lafayette and was moving northwest at about 10 mph (16 kph).

Nagin cautioned that Tuesday would be too early for residents to return, but their homecoming was "only days away, not weeks."

Crews would comb the city Tuesday to fully review the damage, Nagin said, with the goal of having residents return beginning late Wednesday or Thursday. Retailers and other major companies could start sending workers Wednesday to check on their locations, he said. Buses are in place and ready to bring residents back with instructions to drop them off as close as possible to their homes.

The state and city took pride in a massive evacuation effort that succeeded in urging people to leave or catch buses and trains out: Almost 2 million people left coastal Louisiana, and only about 10,000 people rode out the storm in New Orleans.

"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."

But thousands of people were strained by sleeping in cots in gymnasiums and convention centers, far away from their homes and wondering when they could go back. Fights broke out at an overcrowded shelter in Shreveport. Doctors worried about medications running out and seven people were hospitalized, all in stable condition.

Though the big city was spared, Gustav devastated parts of Cajun country, destroying homes and flooding parts of the mostly rural, low-lying parishes across the state's southeastern and central coast that are also home to the state's oil and natural gas industries.

Four evacuating Louisianans were killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree. A 27-year-old Lafayette man was killed when a tree fell on his house as the storm whipped through, and an Abbeville couple was killed when a tree fell on a home in Baton Rouge. A woman from Jefferson was killed Monday when her vehicle ran off Interstate 10 and struck a tree.

A levee in the southeastern part of Louisiana was in danger of collapse, and officials scrambled to fortify it. Roofs were torn from homes, trees toppled and roads flooded. A ferry sunk. More than 1 million homes were without power. And the extent of any damage to the oil and gas industries was unclear.

It could be a day or more before oil and natural gas companies can assess the damage to their drilling and refining installations. Gov. Bobby Jindal said as much as 20 percent of oil and gas production that was stopped because of Gustav could be restored by this weekend, stressing that it was a rough estimate.

To the east of the city, Jindal said state officials were planning an aerial tour on Tuesday to gauge damage to Port Fourchon, a vital energy industry hub where huge amounts of oil and gas are piped inland to refineries.

The Gulf of Mexico accounts for about 25 percent of domestic oil production and 15 percent of natural gas output. Damage to those installations could cause gasoline prices at the pump to spike, although oil prices declined Monday. Several companies that operate platforms in the area said their platforms remained intact, but they needed to inspect them before they could restart production.

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