Obama praises rescuers in storm-hit Louisiana

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 - 8:00am

President Barack Obama praised rescuers and volunteers helping clean up after Hurricane Isaac on Monday and offered federal help to beef up flood protection in the stricken area.

Obama viewed storm damage in St. John the Baptist Parish, west of New Orleans, which suffered extensive flooding after Isaac struck the northern Gulf Coast last week. Thousands of residents were driven from their homes when the storm drove water over the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, but there were no fatalities in the parish.

"I want to commend everybody who's here for the excellent work they've done in making sure that lives were saved -- that although there was tremendous property damage, that people were in a position to get out quickly," Obama told reporters after viewing the damage Monday afternoon.

He praised authorities who carried out rescues despite their own losses and the "resilient" people of Louisiana and Mississippi, many of whom still face the threat of flooding.

"We are going to make sure at the federal level, we are getting on the case very quickly about figuring out what exactly happened here, what can we do to make sure that it doesn't happen again and expediting some of the decisions that may need to be made to make sure we've got the infrastructure to protect people's properly and protect people's lives," Obama said.

Authorities have blamed eight U.S. deaths on Isaac, six of them in Louisiana. The latest came Monday, when a 90-year-old man was found dead in his home in suburban New Orleans, Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich said.

The home was equipped with air conditioning, but the system didn't work with the electricity out, Cvitanovich said. Temperatures in the area were in the low 90s on Monday.

"It's the very young and very old and chronically ill people that are affected," he said. "The folks in my office are urging everyone to please check on family and get them in air conditioning or get them to a shelter."

Isaac struck the Gulf Coast south of New Orleans as a Category 1 hurricane early Wednesday, the seventh anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Katrina. It had already killed 19 people in the Caribbean nation of Haiti, where it struck before moving into the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm posed the first real test to New Orleans since a $14.5 billion federal effort to reconstruct the city's flood control system after it failed during Katrina in 2005. Katrina killed nearly 1,800 people, most when the storm overwhelmed the levee system and flooded the city.

Most of the areas hit hard by Isaac were outside the rebuilt levee system.

Obama was accompanied by officials from the parishes around New Orleans, the state's two U.S. senators and Gov. Bobby Jindal, a prominent Republican. His visit came three days after his Republican opponent in November, Mitt Romney, visited the region and three days before he's scheduled to accept the Democratic nomination for a second term.

During his stop in LaPlace, the president praised volunteers who were helping people gut their flooded homes "because they care about their neighbors and they care about their friends."

"That's what we do here in the United States of America. That's what we do here in Louisiana," he said. "When disasters like this happen, we set aside whatever petty disagreements we may have. Nobody's a Democrat or a Republican -- we're all just Americans looking out for one another."

More than 100,000 utility customers on the Gulf Coast remained without power nearly a week after landfall, while about 2,800 were still in shelters because of flooding. Authorities are still dealing with threats posed by rain-swollen rivers and lakes -- particularly in St. Tammany Parish, northeast of New Orleans.

The Pearl River, along the Mississippi state line, was projected to crest at more than 5 feet above flood stage on Tuesday, while authorities kept an eye on a weakened lock on an adjoining canal. Parish officials warned people to stay away from the area, but authorities lifted a mandatory evacuation order over the weekend after they released water from the lock to relieve pressure.

More flood warnings were posted for parts of the Mississippi coast, where rivers north of Pascagoula and Gulfport were running high.

As of Monday morning, about 2,700 Louisianans were still registered in shelters inland from the coastal parishes, said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the state emergency management agency. She said state officials were working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local parishes to get those residents back home or into temporary housing soon.

"Our goal is to get them back to their communities so that their children can go to school, they can return to their jobs and start rebuilding their homes," she said. But she added, "We're not going to kick anyone out of shelters if they don't have anyplace else to go right now."

In Mississippi, fewer than 100 people remained in shelters, according to the state emergency management agency.

Stephens said more than half of St. John the Baptist Parish and Plaquemines Parish, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, remain without power. Both parishes suffered extensive storm damage and flooding, she said.

In St. James Parish, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed after the Blind River crested at flood stage, flooding nearly two dozen homes. National Guard troops were deployed to the area to help with security and possible evacuations, Jindal's office said.

Crews in Lafitte, on the outskirts of New Orleans, were considering breaching two spots in a levee along Bayou Barataria on Monday to help drain up to 5 feet of floodwater brought by the storm surge, officials said.

State officials have promised that money from fines paid by BP over the Gulf oil spill will be used to reinforce the area levees, Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said.

But so far, he says, that hasn't happened.

"Yeah, it's frustrating," Kerner told WWL. "It makes you feel like you're not doing your doggone job. But I can't help it if the Corps actually looks me in the face and promises that we're going to get things and we don't."

As many in Louisiana entered their sixth day without power, frustration with the pace of restoration efforts also grew.

At the height of the storm, more than 850,000 customers were reportedly without power in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas. By Monday, there were about 108,000 customers without power in Louisiana, with 59,000 of them in Jefferson Parish, according to Entergy Louisiana.

"Some areas are delayed due to high water conditions," the power company said on its website.

But for Tyrone Wilson, who relies on an electric scooter for transportation, the return of power means the return of his mobility.

"I got to go put it up because I got no power," Wilson told WWL. "I have no way to get around. I have to get medicine and go to the doctor. I have no way to get there."

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CNN's Matt Smith, Rick Martin, George Howell, Greg Botelho, Chelsea J. Carter and David Ariosto contributed to this report.
 

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