BELLE CHASSE, La. (AP) — As Isaac’s drenching rains and cooling winds drifted north of the Gulf Coast, heat and humidity moved back in – along with frustration, exhaustion and uncertainty.
People stuck inside stuffy, powerless homes were comparatively lucky. Thousands of others were displaced by floodwaters and had no idea where they would end up next. Some boarded buses to faraway shelters.
“I’m with my family, and my wife’s with her family,” said 35-year-old construction worker Jarvis Mackey as the couple and their two children boarded a bus to Shreveport, 5 1/2 hours away from their Port Sulphur home, which lay underwater.
“All we can do is pray – pray we come back home to something,” Mackey said.
LaPlace resident Roshonda Girrad was staying in a state-run shelter in Alexandria, 200 miles from her home. She was waiting for the chest-deep waters in her neighborhood to recede.
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The massive, beige, windowless shelter next to Louisiana State University’s Alexandria campus is currently home to almost 1,600 evacuees who either drove themselves or were bused in from various parishes inundated by rain from Isaac and the rising water from Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas.
“The showers are horrible. The food is horrible,” Girrad said. “I’m not from around here. I don’t know what’s going on. We’re in the dark.”
As the Labor Day holiday weekend got under way, so did what was certain to be a long, slow recovery for Louisiana.
Motorists ventured out as power came back on and businesses reopened, clogging intersections with no traffic lights and forming long lines at gas stations. The Mississippi River opened to limited traffic, and in New Orleans, the normally lively French Quarter awoke from its nearly weeklong slumber.
Isaac dumped as much as 16 inches of rain in some spots, and about 500 people had to be rescued by boat or high-water vehicles. Thousands remained in shelters late Friday. At least seven people were killed in the storm in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Isaac remained a powerful storm system carrying rain and the threat of flash flooding as it lumbered across Arkansas into Missouri and then up the Ohio River valley over the weekend, the National Weather Service said.
The storm knocked out power to thousands of people in Arkansas, and Ohio hotel operators said their holiday weekend business was already taking a hit as families canceled planned outings to theme parks.
Meanwhile, newly nominated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited flood-ravaged communities, and President Barack Obama said he would arrive Monday – appearances this part of the country is all too familiar with after Hurricane Katrina in 2007 and the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
In Lafitte, a fishing village south of New Orleans, Romney saw waterlogged homes, roads covered with brown water and debris-strewn neighborhoods. The GOP-friendly community is outside of the federal levee system that spared New Orleans and it lies on an exposed stretch of land near the Gulf.
Romney met along a highway with fellow Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and they spoke about challenges facing the stricken area, which relies on fishing for its livelihood.
“I’m here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what’s going on here,” Romney said. “So that people around the country know that people down here need help.”
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., had a message for Romney as she shared a podium in Belle Chasse with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate: The $2 billion a year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has for the nation’s flood protection and coastal restoration efforts is insufficient.
“We could absorb $1 billion – at least 50 percent of that – alone,” she said.
“I realize he’s all about cutting this federal government,” Landrieu said of Romney, “but this is one agency that cannot – absolutely cannot – take any additional cuts.”
The Gulf Coast needs a state-of-the-art, comprehensive flood protection system, she said, calling it “just inconceivable” that hundreds if not thousands of people still see water up to their rooftops.
To the east, officials pumped and released water from a reservoir, easing the pressure behind an Isaac-stressed dam in Mississippi on the Louisiana border. The threat for the earthen dam on Lake Tangipahoa prompted evacuations in small towns and rural areas.
Crews intentionally breached a levee that was strained by Isaac’s floodwaters in southeast Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which is outside the federal levee system. Parish President Billy Nungesser said the work was slow-going.
Workers were only able to reach one spot, he said, and 10 to 12 cuts were planned. The levee is cut as the tide goes out, he said, then patched while the tide comes back.
The storm cut power to 901,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana alone, or about 47 percent of the state, but that was down to fewer than 620,000 by late Friday.
More than 15,000 utility workers began restoring power to customers there and in Mississippi, but officials said it would be days before power was fully restored.
Farmer Matt Ranatza fled with his disabled wife from Jesuit Bend to Metairie, about 25 miles away, before the storm hit. He didn’t get any water in his house but has no power. Now he fears the electricity won’t be restored for at least a month – the same length of time he was displaced after Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
“It’s priorities. It’s triage, you know?” he said. “I mean, the city’s got to get theirs first and then … it trickles down to us.”
While Ranatza could travel back and forth to check on his more than 200-acre citrus and vegetable farm, others like Lisa Encalade found water blocking the way to their homes.
The 42-year-old stay-at-home mom was headed to Shreveport, nearly 380 miles north of her home in Pointe a La Hache, with her five sons ranging in age from 8 to 21 years old. She has no idea when she’ll return.
“I’m just going to put my hand in the hand of the man up above and take it from there, have my faith in God because it’s all I can do,” she said.
Sixty-year-old June DeMolle was displaced from her home in Pointe a La Hache for three years after Katrina. “They’re telling us it’s going to be less time. They’re going to get us back home as fast as they can,” she said, sounding skeptical.
But others like Diamond resident Reginald Fountain, 45, said the risk of such storms comes with the territory in south Louisiana.
“This is where our home is, where we have our roots, our family,” Fountain said as he also boarded a bus to Shreveport with his mother, brother, a niece and a nephew. “We know the consequences of living where we live. That’s why we have homeowners’ insurance, flood insurance, wind insurance. It’s expensive … but it’s what we do now.”
[Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama has declared both Mississippi and Louisiana disaster areas, clearing the way for federal assistance.]