NEW ORLEANS — The remnants of Hurricane Isaac brought heavy rainfall and the threat of flash flooding to the Mississippi Valley on Friday as Gulf Coast residents cleaned up and energy facilities prepared to grind back into operation.
Major offshore oil drillers returned staff to their platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, although operations were expected to take several days to ramp up. One Louisiana refinery tapped into the U.S. government‘s emergency crude oil stockpile to speed up its output.
The first hurricane to hit the United States this year will be remembered for striking New Orleans on the anniversary of 2005′s deadly Hurricane Katrina — and providing a first successful test of the city’s new $14.5 billion flood controls put together in the wake of Katrina.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, fresh from his party’s convention in Tampa, Fla., pre-empted Obama by touring a flooded community in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Friday afternoon, along with Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Democrats pounced on Romney, whose running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, this year proposed eliminating disaster relief spending from the federal budget and requiring Congress to pay for emergencies such as hurricanes by making other budget cuts.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Romney’s visit “the height of hypocrisy.”
Tornadoes still likely
The storm caused anywhere from $700 million to $2 billion in insured onshore losses, disaster modeler AIR Worldwide said late Thursday, well outside the 10 most costly U.S. hurricanes.
The National Hurricane Center said Isaac, once a Category 1 hurricane and now a tropical depression, still was likely to trigger tornadoes in the central U.S. Midwest states — among the final acts of a storm that often confounded forecasters and punched above its weight in terms of damage.
Rain from Isaac was a godsend for Midwest farmers suffering from the worst drought in more than 50 years. Even if too late for many of this season’s crops, the rain will replenish soil moisture in time for winter wheat planting and boost critically low river levels.
Isaac caused widespread flooding and property damage in the U.S. Gulf Coast region, mostly because of its heavy and persistent rainfall. The system lingered near New Orleans for the better part of two days, sometimes moving as slowly as 5 mph.
Through it all, New Orleans sustained mostly cosmetic damage including downed trees and street lights.
Life was slowly returning to normal in the city on Friday, although most of it was still without power after what utility Entergy Corp. described as the fourth-largest storm it had ever faced.
‘We did good’
In residential areas outside the city center, streets were littered with downed limbs and some trees were uprooted. Residents were out clearing debris.
“I am surprised how much debris there is everywhere,” said David Doucet, 55, a member of the Grammy award-winning Cajun band Beau Soleil, as he walked his dog in downtown New Orleans. “The trees have had seven years to grow since Katrina but they didn’t grow all that strong.”
In New Orleans‘ Lower Ninth Ward, famously laid to waste by Hurricane Katrina, Robert Green sat on the porch of his house, one of some 150 built so far by Make It Right, an organization founded and supported by actor Brad Pitt.
“We did good. We lost two people on the 29th of August 2005, my mother and my granddaughter. And this was the first chance we’ve had to ride out a storm as a family,” Green said. “We passed the test.”
New Orleans‘ Audubon Park recorded 18.7 inches of rain in a 24-hour period during Isaac. That exceeded records dating to 1871, said Jeff Masters of Weather Underground. Many other locations in Louisiana and Mississippi logged more than 10 inches of rain.
Surrounding areas, though, without the new protective federal flood barriers, did not fare as well from the relentless rain and huge storm surges.
Plea for more funds
As the flood waters rose, some residents, including Caruso, wondered whether the new federal levee system had shored up New Orleans at the expense of low-lying neighboring parishes outside the system’s protection – a debate that is likely to continue.
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu made a plea on Friday for additional federal funds to build protective levees in the state, while noting that the Army Corps of Engineers has a meager budget for construction projects.
The Department of Energy will loan 1 million barrels of crude oil from emergency reserves to Marathon Petroleum Corp after the firm’s Garyville, La., refinery cut its run rate ahead of the hurricane. A larger tapping of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is possible.
Storm watchers have turned to Tropical Storm Leslie, 715 miles east of the Leeward Islands with wind speeds picking up to 65 mph. Leslie could become a hurricane over the weekend, posing a potential threat to Bermuda next week.