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Eric Gay, Associated Press
Hurricane Gustav evacuees Fabiola Ribeiro, left, and her mother, Cassia Ribeiro, with their dog Nina, wait for fuel and the opportunity to return home at a gas station in Slidell, La., Tuesday.

NEW ORLEANS — Millions fled the Gulf Coast in fear of Hurricane Gustav, billed as the apocalyptic "mother of all storms." It didn't deliver. Now, with three other storms lining up in the Atlantic some fear people might not listen next time.

And "next time" could come as soon as this week with Tropical Storm Hanna expected to head toward the east coast of Florida, Georgia or South Carolina after killing at least 21 in Haiti.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced residents could start coming back early Thursday in the wake of Gustav. But the first of the 2 million people who fled the hurricane began trickling home Tuesday from shelters, many grumbling about the food, the heat, the overcrowding, the uncertainty and the frustrating wait for the all-clear.

Some evacuees, particularly in Texas, on the far fringes of the storm's path, suggested authorities overreacted in demanding they leave their homes.

"Next time, it's going to be bad because people who evacuated like us aren't going to evacuate," said Catherine Jones, 53, of Silsbee, Texas, who spent three days on a cot at a church shelter with her disabled son. "They jumped the gun."

Emergency officials strongly defended the decision to evacuate coastal areas, saying that with something as unpredictable as a hurricane, it is better to be safe than sorry — a lesson driven home by Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in the U.S. in 2005, compared with nine deaths attributed to Gustav.

Officials noted that, yes, New Orleans' levees held, and Gustav struck only a glancing blow. But when trees fell on homes, power lines went down and roads were washed out in parts of south Louisiana, there was no one around to get hurt. And there was significant damage: Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That's high, but well short of Katrina's $41 billion.

"The reasons you're not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "The only reason we don't have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded the instructions to get out of town."

At the same time, a top emergency planner in Louisiana acknowledged that authorities run of the risk of being accused of crying wolf.

"At all levels, that is a tremendous concern," said Col. Pat Griffin, head of logistics for the state. "After one or two or three of these, I think the leadership on the local and state level are going to have to push even harder to convince the people."

With three months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, the question of whether residents will heed an evacuation order is a serious matter. Three storms are lining up in the Atlantic, with Hanna leading the way.

Tropical Storm Ike was cruising westward across the Atlantic with top winds of 65 mph, projected to near the Bahamas by Sunday as a hurricane. Just behind it was Tropical Storm Josephine, with top winds of about 50 mph, and forecasters said it could near hurricane force by today or Thursday.

Nagin, who ordered New Orleans evacuated ahead of Gustav and warned that the "mother of all storms" was approaching, strongly stood by his decision, and said he would do the same thing all over again.

"We were faced with a Category 5 potential, a huge storm, which would have been really bad news for our citizens," Nagin said. "And there was a complacency."

Similarly, some evacuees said authorities made the right call.

James Katicich, a 49-year-old Louisianan, said his stay at a shelter in Birmingham, Ala., was rough — rationed portions of food and sleeping just inches away from strangers.

"But it's better to be safe than sorry," he said. "We needed to evacuate because no one really knows how bad the hurricane can be until it hits."

The damage assessments coming in Tuesday from the coast provided further evidence Gustav was no Katrina.

Initial inspections showed little damage to the Gulf Coast's extensive oil and gas installations, though resumption of production and refining could still take a few days. Reflecting confidence that the industry suffered little damage, oil prices fell $5.75 a barrel.

In some places, such as Texas, Gustav barely brought a sprinkle, leading to frustration among those who had to spend days on a cot. The Beaumont Enterprise went as far as to taunt "Gustav Who?" on the front page the day after the storm.

"My brother went to Atlanta. He can't get back. He's not happy," said Rod Ferrand, who lives in the New Orleans suburb of Harahan, as he cut up a stately live oak split by the storm. "And there's not a branch on his lawn. Now no one can come back in. The next big storm that comes in, nobody's going to want to leave."

Many evacuees grew frustrated they waited for word on whether they could return to their homes.

But Nagin warned that many homes were without power, hospitals had skeleton crews and water and drainage systems were running on backup power. There also were few businesses open, including grocers or gas stations, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew would remain in effect for the foreseeable future, he said.

The mayor felt he had no choice burt to lift the mandatory evacuation when neighboring parishes decided to let people in beginning today.

"Are we recommending that you come in and stay permanently? I'm not recommending that at this time," Nagin said.

Across the state, more than 1 million people were without electricity, and cellular and Internet service was spotty. Gas stations were unable to pump fuel because of the power outages. The threat of severe weather had yet to fully pass, too. A tornado touched down in suburban Westwego around 5 p.m., causing light damage but no injuries.

Dozens of hospitals were still running on generator power, several without air conditioning, and there were fears that hundreds of patients might have to be evacuated in the next few days. Only one hospital in New Orleans had the capacity to provide dialysis, and two in the Alexandria area were running low on drinking water.

None of it matter for those eager to get back. Curtis Helms, 47, left New Orleans on Saturday with only $20 in his pocket and the striped T-shirt and denim shorts he was wearing. He was still wearing the same clothes Tuesday at a shelter in Alabama, and said he only left because Nagin threatened to toss those caught on the street behind bars.

"Right now, I'd rather be home, even with no electricity," Helms said.


Contributing: Stacey Plaisance, Kevin McGill, Allen G. Bree, Warren Levinson, Janet McConnaughey, Alan Sayre, Michael Kunzelman, Angela K. Brown, Eileen Sullivan and Jonathan M. Katz