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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Romney off-message in storm-ravaged Bayou
by Staff Writers
Lafitte, Louisiana (AFP) Aug 31, 2012


Hurricane Kirk strengthens in Atlantic
Miami (AFP) Aug 30, 2012 - Hurricane Kirk strengthened rapidly over the open Atlantic Ocean on Thursday, though it posed no hazard to land, US forecasters said.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center forecast that the storm, while powerful with top winds gusting at 90 miles (145 kilometers) per hour, would likely spin out over the open seas as it heads east toward Europe.

At 2100 GMT, Kirk was about 1,065 miles northeast of the northern Leeward Islands as it headed north-northwestward at a speed of 13 miles per hour, according to the NHC.

Kirk is a category one storm on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale and was set to gather strength over the next couple of days, perhaps becoming a category two storm as early as Friday.

Kirk became the fifth hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic season earlier as the US Gulf Coast bears the brunt of Isaac, which caused massive flooding when it swept through Louisiana as a hurricane. It has since been downgraded to a tropical depression as it moved inland.

To the south of Kirk, Tropical Storm Leslie formed, though it also posed no current threat to land. It was on track to become a hurricane in a day or two, according to the NHC.

The eye of the storm was located about 1,060 miles east of the Windward Islands as it spun rapidly westward at 21 miles per hour with top winds of 45 miles per hour.

Leslie was expected to eventually move to the northeast of the lesser Antilles.

One day after he was named official flag-bearer of the Republican revolution, Mitt Romney confronted the limits of his small government rhetoric Friday in the storm-ravaged Louisiana Bayou.

As Hurricane Isaac petered out and headed off northwards, Romney jetted in from his nomination convention in Florida to visit the desperate residents of Lafitte, a small flood-damaged community just inland from New Orleans.

There, with the world's media looking on, he met 22-year-old mother-of-two Ashley Vegas, whose home was destroyed by a 12-foot (four-meter) wall of water, and whose bare feet contrasted oddly with Romney's suede loafers.

His advice for the suddenly homeless family? Seek a bailout from the US federal government's disaster agency FEMA by calling its 211 emergency hotline.

Vegas was thankful for the lifeline, open to many in Louisiana since Romney's opponent President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency there earlier this week, freeing up government rescue funds for beleaguered communities.

"I think he's a very good man," Vegas volunteered. "He's here to help everybody and do what he can."

Asked by reporters whether she was a Republican or a Democrat, the young woman giggled and said: "My mom would know."

The FEMA gambit might be the best option for flooded families in Lafitte, but the idea clashed with the message of Romney's campaign so far, which has focused on celebrating private enterprise and decrying government hand-outs.

When the surprise detour to the Bayou was announced, Democrats were quick to pounce. Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Romney's trip was the "height of hypocrisy" since Republicans plan to gut the disaster budget.

Romney was also accused of exploiting the disaster to steal a march on Obama, who is not due in Louisiana until Monday, when the huge security detail that travels with an incumbent would not disrupt relief operations.

His campaign dismissed such talk, insisting it was Romney's duty to see what could be done, to support local people and to receive a briefing from Louisiana state governor Bobby Jindal, a leading Republican.

Romney attended a 45-minute meeting with local officials, and toured a scattered community of simple homes nestling between oak trees draped in curtains of Spanish moss.

In normal times the Lafitte community, home to around 1,500 people, is made up of six square miles of land and two of water, and the floods swept through the homes of poorer residents who could not afford to raise them on stilts.

The visit itself was not plain sailing despite the assistance of National Guard reservists equipped with Blackhawk helicopters.

Two vans in Romney's motorcade were involved in a minor collision when a press van rear-ended a staff van, leaving the press pool which travels with the motorcade separated from Romney, who headed back to his plane in New Orleans.

No one was injured, according to reporters in the pool. The group abandoned one of the damaged vehicles and tried to catch up with the campaign.

So, on his first day of the general election campaign, did Romney convince?

Michelle Chauncey, a 43-year-owner of a shrimp stall, an entrepreneur who spent "tens of thousands" of dollars of her own money to elevate her home on stilts and thus avoid the worse of the flooding, would seem to be in his target audience.

She is a registered Democrat, but not entirely sold on Obama, fearing that his health reform plan will force citizens to pay private insurance firms, and she took the chance of the visit to talk to the Republican challenger.

"There's a lot of good things that I think Obama has accomplished in his term," she conceded. "As for Romney I haven't heard anything or know anything about him that impresses me."

"So if I had to choose today as I stepped into a polling place to vote, I'd have to cast a vote for Obama," she shrugged, pulling an unimpressed face.

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