Gustav Coverage: Residents (finally) allowed home

The big news today is that checkpoints have been lifted around New Orleans and the city is back open for residents to return home.

This wasn't Mayor Nagin's plan -- he had earlier declared that residents couldn't come back until midnight tonight, but caved to pressure at 9 a.m. as all highways leading into the city were brought to a standstill by miles of traffic.

The Gustav evacuation was coming to a breaking point. City residents who fled to hotels were running out of money, and FEMA and the Red Cross already told evacuees there would be no financial support available. Those staying with family and friends were running out of patience.

The shelters --supposedly much improved after Katrina -- had their own problems. I called the Louisiana evacuee hotline last night, trying to find a shelter that was open, and each one was at capacity or shut down due to lack of electricity (what's the point of a shelter without a generator?). The closest operating shelter they could point me to was in Shreveport -- 330 miles away.

Talk radio here has been filled with angry, exiled residents of south Louisiana wondering why they're not allowed to come back. Nagin and other parish officials kept saying that there wasn't much to come back to -- electricity was down, stores were closed -- but many felt it should have been their choice whether to endure such circumstances. And for many, that was better than staying in a costly hotel.

Bill Quigley, a public interest lawyer in New Orleans, put it well:

Garland Robinette, a respected radio voice of WWL radio, was also pleading with elected officials on air this afternoon, "What are you going to do about the poor people who can't afford another hotel room?"

When the average weekly wage for workers in the hotel and restaurant business is less than $400 a week, the least expensive hotel, plus gas and meals for a family since last Saturday or Sunday, can eat up a week's wages in no time. Additionally, tens of thousands of people have also lost a week of work because most workers are not paid for the time during evacuation. That puts families two weeks of wages behind.

That it why there are widespread reports of families now parked on the side of the highway or in parking lots waiting for permission to come home.