JEAN LAFITTE, La. (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney launched the final leg of his quest for the White House by visiting storm-battered Louisiana on Friday. He drove through a town that was flooded by Hurricane Isaac in part because it's still outside the vast flooding protection system built with federal funds after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
Just hours after accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Romney swooped into this fishing community, where Isaac brought severe flooding to the area earlier in the week before being downgraded to a tropical storm.
Romney, who chatted with a handful of storm victims and shook hands with first responders, didn't have too much to say. "I'm here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what's going on here," Romney told Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who he accompanied to the Jean Lafitte town hall to meet with emergency workers. "So that people around the country know that people down here need help."
That snippet of conversation represented the bulk of Romney's public remarks in Louisiana on Friday.
His host, Jindal, is now calling on the federal government to expand the rebuilt flood protection system that prevented serious flooding in New Orleans during this week's storm. That system, built after flooding from Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, cost the Army Corps of Engineers $14.5 billion. It doesn't extend as far as Jean Lafitte, which is situated in Jefferson Parish, and has been affected by a series of hurricanes, including Katrina, Rita, Cindy and now Isaac.
"It is absolutely critical that the Corps, and certainly our delegation working them, but that the Corps and the federal government look at those other levees," Jindal said Thursday. Lafitte is included in a proposed ring levee that the state hopes to build, but there are no concrete plans to build yet.
Romney was silent on whether, as president, he would support paying for such an expansion. Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, has proposed eliminating $10 billion a year in disaster spending and requiring Congress to pay for emergencies by cutting from elsewhere in the budget. That proposal was blocked by GOP leaders.
Hurricane Isaac is blamed for at least six deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi. It submerged hundreds of homes, forced thousands of others to evacuate and cut power to nearly half of Louisiana's homes and businesses.
Romney didn't speak to reporters as he toured Jean Lafitte on Friday. The Romney campaign refused to say whether he would support additional funding for the levees, saying only that the GOP nominee "recognizes the importance of disaster prevention and would seek to ensure that we have the infrastructure we need to keep all Americans safe."
Jindal did explain the issue to Romney as they climbed into the Republican nominee's SUV and began their tour.
"It (the levee system) performs well, but the areas here — the other areas ..." Jindal said, trailing off because Romney jumped in.
"Are outside, outside that levee system," Romney said.
Romney's motorcade, including trucks equipped to drive through high water, edged gingerly down Jean Lafitte Boulevard, a main road.
Accompanied by National Guard vehicles, the caravan inched through water that at some points was a foot or more deep, submerging gas stations, flooding homes and covering front laws. Residents stood in the water and watched the motorcade pass.
Flood protection was clearly on the minds of residents. A man who waved a neon yellow sign reading "Mitt is Our Man" wondered why levees had not been able to protect the low-lying areas of this fishing community.
"It has really destroyed us," the man said to Romney after the motorcade stopped on the side of the road. "I don't know why we can't come up with something that saves all."
Up the street, a giant pink sign hung on the balcony of a flooded house. "Where is our levee protection?" it read.
Romney and Jindal spent close to an hour meeting with first responders and local officials. Romney shook hands with National Guardsmen outside the U.S. Post Office and talked with a local resident, Jodie Chiarello, 42, who lost her home in Isaac's flooding.
"He just told me to, um, there's assistance out there," Chiarello said of her conversation with Romney. "He said, go home and call 211." That's a public service number offered in many states.
Chiarello said she will likely seek some other shelter because her home was submerged in the flooding. She expressed frustration about the town's lack of flood protection.
"We live outside the levee protection that's why we get all this water because they close the floodgates up front and all they're doing is flooding us out down here," she said. "It's very frustrating, very. We go through Katrina and Rita and now we're going through Cindy, Lee and now Isaac."
Romney's last-minute visit, announced less than 12 hours after he became the Republican nominee, took him to the disaster area ahead of his Democratic rival, President Barack Obama. The president was following with his own visit to Louisiana on Monday, the White House announced.
Romney went at Jindal's invitation, his campaign said. Jindal, a Republican, told reporters Romney had been in touch several days ago to ask how he could help with storm relief and Jindal suggested Romney come down and see the damage for himself. He said he had extended an invitation to Obama as well.
"We welcome them both," Jindal said.
Jindal insisted that he would stay focused on the storm's aftermath during both men's visits.
"We're not talking politics," he said. "That's not the right time to do that. We're solely focused on the hurricane and the response."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked what a private citizen like Romney could accomplish by visiting a disaster area, said he wasn't sure how to answer the question but that drawing attention to the affected area was "important."
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney's visit could focus people on "the needs of the affected region, particularly the need for charitable donations and resources to aid relief efforts."
Back in Washington, Democrats seized on the trip to accuse Republicans of supporting cuts in federal disaster funding that the Gulf Coast will now need to recover from Isaac.
"It is the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a written statement.
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu said she welcomed Romney to her home state but pushed him on disaster funding.
"I hope as he witnesses recovery in action, he will reflect upon his party's approach to funding disaster response," she said. "Had the plan advocated by his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan and Congressman Eric Cantor prevailed, there would be no money readily available to provide assistance for this, or any other disaster."
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Tampa, Fla., Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., and Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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