By CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mitt Romney wasted no time after accepting the GOP presidential nomination in heading to Louisiana to see the damage from Hurricane Isaac, changing his schedule on the fly to get there the very next day. President Barack Obama also tweaked his travel plans to make sure he gets there Monday, ahead of his own nominating convention.
This for a Category 1 storm that killed seven and swamped low-lying areas of Louisiana and dumped more than a foot of rain on its way north — a disaster, to be sure, but one that will never rival the biggest to hit the Gulf Coast.
In a region with a storied culture and a history of human suffering, natural and manmade catastrophes, and struggles with government ineptitude and indifference, it's just another turn in front of the cameras as the perfect political backdrop.
Call it the Katrina effect: Presidents, and would-be presidents, can't afford to get panned like George W. Bush did in the days after Hurricane Katrina crippled New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts in 2005, killing more than 1,800.
Bush's decision to observe Katrina's flooding of New Orleans first in a flyover in Air Force One instead of putting his feet on the ground gave critics an opening to argue that he was indifferent to the suffering below. He later set the standard for what not to do in a disaster when he infamously patted the back of former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Michael Brown, telling him he had done a "heck of a job, Brownie," as tens of thousands languished at New Orleans' convention center.
"I dare say, before Katrina there's no way that you would have the president and Romney here within days of one another in a storm of this relatively small magnitude — not to diminish the impact of it (Isaac)," said Robert Mann, the director of the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University.
For many of the people who call the Gulf Coast home, it doesn't matter if it's a storm that submerges the streets, or a busted oil well spewing millions of gallon of crude: the political posturing doesn't make them feel like relief is coming any faster.
"We just want our lights on," said Eddie Cooley, a 56-year-old chemical warehouse worker drenched in sweat as he worked on his truck's engine in the Lower 9th Ward, the New Orleans neighborhood flooded to rooftops during Katrina. Over the weekend, parts of the neighborhood remained without electricity, days after Isaac passed.
"We don't care who gets elected and who doesn't," Cooley said. "We just want power."
But in St. John the Baptist Parish on Monday evening, Obama was greeted enthusiastically as he went house to house in a neighborhood of brick homes, shaking hands with and listening to the stories of residents whose lives were affected by the storm. The neighborhood was no longer flooded, but front lawns were piled high with ruined bedding, insulation, furniture and toys.
"How y'all doing?" he asked.
"Better now!" replied one man.
LaPlace resident Barbara Melton was also grateful for the president's visit.
"I think it's awesome to have a president that cares and wants to come out and see what he can do," Melton, 60, said as she swept mud and debris from her water-logged home. "Having him here and seeing the situation really helps people be able to cope with what's going on, what's happened here."
As he thanked FEMA, state and local authorities for their work Monday, Obama remarked that when disaster strikes, Americans are good at setting aside their differences to help each other.
"Nobody's a Democrat or a Republican, we're all just Americans looking out for one another," he said.
Presidents have been coming to the Deep South for decades to score political points.
Herbert Hoover rode his way to the White House following his heroics in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, U.S. Sen. Russell Long urged President Lyndon Johnson to journey south, telling him that if he got down to New Orleans "by the end of the day, you'll never lose another election in this state," Mann said.
Johnson went to New Orleans with Cabinet members to "see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and to its good people." He met with hurricane victims, ordered water to be delivered to shelters and pledged the federal government's full resources to help New Orleans get back on its feet.