Baton Rouge still digging out from Gustav

BATON ROUGE, LA This is Baton Rouge, seat of Lousiana government, still hobbled by a blow from Hurricane Gustav 10 days earlier. It struck Louisiana as a Category 2 storm, surprising the capital with its extensive damage, uprooting trees and throwing them across roofs, roads and power lines.

By Wednesday, there was still plenty of cleanup to do. The city's streets were mainly cleared of trees, but the debris remained piled up in front yards and on some homes. A quarter of the parish lacked power, and schools were shuttered.

However, there were some bright spots. Lines for an emergency food stamp program that stretched for hours Tuesday had shrunk. Estelle Turner, 62, said it only took her 15 minutes to get her food stamp card worth $162.

"They were very pleasant people," she said after walking out of a state Department of Social Services office. "I was pleasantly surprised. It was a blessing."

In another sign of progress, LSU's football team planned a return to Tiger Stadium on Saturday for its game against North Texas. Meanwhile, Baton Rouge officials agreed to a Thursday lifting of the curfew that's been in place since Gustav struck, and worries about a looming Hurricane Ike lessened as forecasters predicted it was headed toward Texas.

However, storm paths are hard to predict days in advance, a fact not lost on city officials.

"We're not done with Ike yet. We think we're out of the woods, but until it makes landfall, no one is certain," said Walter Monsour, chief administrative officer for the Baton Rouge mayor's office.

Monsour said the first sweep of debris removal pickup should be done by Saturday. More than 817 tons of debris had been removed from the parish so far.

About 27 percent of Baton Rouge electricity customers still had no power on Wednesday, according to the state Public Service Commission. That led at least a handful of residents to seek refuge from the un-air-conditioned heat of their homes by camping in their front yards.

Monsour said about a quarter of traffic lights around the parish weren't working. Travel on some main thoroughfares was an exercise in relearning the rules of four-way stops and drivers holding their breath until they cleared intersections.

The electricity outages hit the poor especially hard. On Tuesday they lined up by the thousands at a DSS office, after hearing about an emergency food stamp program. They waited outdoors for hours, in high temperatures and humidity. Most were turned away because the agency was overwhelmed.

The scene was reversed on Wednesday, as lines moved smoothly and about 3,400 were processed. The quicker processing came after the agency brought in more workers and extended the facilities' hours. DSS Secretary Ann Williamson also received approval from federal officials to keep disaster aid in place until Sept. 23.

"These measures, along with the sites that we continue to add, should help speed the process and get much needed help to our citizens," Williamson said.

Turner, who had never applied for a government handout before, said it was a relief to get help after being forced to throw out a stockpile of ribs, fish, okra and crowder peas because her home had no electricity for six days.

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