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Louisiana waits to assess damage

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Gustav, arriving weaker than feared, submerged large swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday but left New Orleans and its system of levees and flood walls largely unscathed.

Louisiana officials, mindful that the extent of the flooding after Hurricane Katrina didn't become evident till hours after that storm had passed, cautioned that it was too early to say the danger had passed.

"You remember with Katrina when it first hit the state, people felt like the worst had happened and felt like it wasn't the nightmare storm that people predicted," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday.

"I don't want anybody to have any kind of false sense of hope," he said. "We still don't know the extent of the damage."

Water sloshed over some flood walls, and flooding was knee-deep in some parts of New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward and low-lying areas southwest of the city.

In Plaquemines Parish, there were news reports that authorities were evacuating a subdivision threatened by flood waters spilling over a levee. Officials had tried to open gates that would have allowed the water to flow into the Mississippi River, but the electricity had failed and efforts to open the gates manually had been unsuccessful.

Authorities reported eight deaths related to the storm, all traffic deaths, including four people killed in Georgia when their car struck a tree. By evening, power was reported to be out to more than 1 million across the Gulf Coast.

In New Orleans, there was a strong sense that the city had escaped the kind of flood that in 2005 filled 80 percent of town, killing hundreds.

"The good news is that we haven't had a breach," Mayor Ray Nagin said, almost echoing his words from 2005 before Katrina overwhelmed the levees. "A breach at this point in time would cause significant flooding."

South of New Orleans, residents also reported relatively light damage — toppled trees and flooded roadways and massive power outages — and relief that the storm had been weaker than expected.

"A lot of tree damage, but the houses look pretty good," said Carol Broussard, the mayor of Delcambre, La., a small community south of Lafayette and just north of Vermillion Bay, near where Gustav's eye passed as it headed deeper into Louisiana.

Not everyone felt so lucky. Widespread flooding struck the Mississippi coast, creeping into homes in Biloxi, where winds sent at least one tree through a roof. In nearby Gulfport, an abandoned building collapsed downtown.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd imposed a curfew through Tuesday morning, partly to prevent people from driving in flooded areas. "We've got too many people riding around gawking and looking, and that's how people get hurt," Byrd said.

In Long Beach, Miss., "we've gotten hammered," said Allen Holder Jr., a city alderman.

Although the track of the storm was almost exactly what forecasters said it would be, Gustav never gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico as expected, arriving on shore as a Category 2 with 110 mph winds.

Gustav's center made landfall at 9:30 a.m. CDT in Cocodrie, La., about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans. By late Monday it had weakened to a Category 1 storm, and forecasters said it would dump rain over Louisiana and Texas for several days before disintegrating.

"It will become more of a rainfall threat until it completely breaks up," said Jessica Schauer Clark, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in South Florida. "It could produce up to 20 inches of rain in some areas."

The relative weakness of the storm was good news for the economy. Gustav disrupted oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, preventing 1.3 million barrels of oil a day from reaching the market, but there was little damage to offshore rigs and on-shore refineries, industry Web site rigzone.com reported. That means production is likely to resume within days.

The New York Mercantile Exchange was closed Monday for the holiday, but in after-hours electronic trading, the next-month contract for oil delivery fell by $2.47 a barrel to $112.89. That suggests that oil prices might head below the threshold of $110 a barrel, and analysts think that $100-a-barrel oil could be in sight. Gustav did not cause a significant bump in gasoline prices.

Some New Orleans residents said they thought that the storm's anticlimactic arrival, after two days of urgent evacuations had emptied the city, would discourage residents from fleeing at the next threat.

"A lot of people wouldn't have left if they know it was like this," said Dave Turnes, 23, a cook, between sips of absinthe in the French Quarter.

Others weren't so sure.

"People will evacuate every time after Katrina," said a balloon artist who would give his name only as "Checkers."

"The fear is permanent," he said. "It's like getting bit by a dog when you're a little kid: You'll always be afraid of dogs."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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