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Romney Visits Storm-Stricken La. Ahead Of Obama


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And there are a little more than 60 days left until the presidential election. Democrats are gearing up for their nominating convention, in North Carolina next week. Republicans, of course, held their convention this week, in Florida. And in a moment, we'll hear a report on President Obama's visit to a U.S. military base.

First, though, to his challenger, Mitt Romney. The newly minted Republican nominee for president took a detour from his scheduled campaign stops to visit Louisiana, where he took stock of the damage from Hurricane Isaac. NPR's Ari Shapiro was on the ride through the floodwaters.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The town of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana could be the setting of a Southern gothic novel - with spooky buildings, gnarled trees, even alligators. On this day, it's also a surrealist novel. A school playground rises up out of still water, and a man canoes through an intersection.


SHAPIRO: A line of high-water military vehicles sloshes through the roadways. Reporters and photographers cram into the open truck beds. In the front of the train, an SUV holds Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Jodie Chiarello has lived in Jean Lafitte her whole life. The town floods almost every time a storm hits - but she'll never leave.

JODIE CHIARELLO: 'Cause this is my home. I was born and raised here on the bayou. I can't go nowhere else. You know, I can go to Baton Rouge; I can go to Lafayette. I can go to all of these places, but you always come back home. Always come back home.

SHAPIRO: The levee system that protects New Orleans, doesn't come this far south. Chiarello's home took on 12 feet of water in the storm.

CHIARELLO: It's a disaster. You know everything's underwater. We can't even get down to my house to see what my damage is because I can't get past the lilies that came in from the bayou, you know?

SHAPIRO: Chiarello came over to talk with reporters after Mitt Romney chatted with her, far across the parking lot. She described the advice the presidential candidate gave her.

CHIARELLO: He just told me there's assistance out here. The individual - FEMA, they did that today. So he said, go home and call 211 from any phone, and they can help us with a shelter, and...

SHAPIRO: Democrats say Romney is being a hypocrite. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed out that Republicans have tried to cut FEMA's budget. He said in a statement: "If Paul Ryan and his fellow House Republicans had succeeded in blocking disaster relief last fall, there would have been no aid for the victims of Isaac today." Romney's aides respond that Democrats are trying to use human suffering to score political points.

At a presidential debate in September, Romney also advocated removing federal control of FEMA. A series of devastating tornadoes had destroyed buildings, and lives. And this was Romney's answer to a question about storm relief.


MITT ROMNEY: Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better.

SHAPIRO: The question of how big government should be, and what role it should play, has become central to this presidential campaign. But Romney did not give reporters an opportunity to ask him yesterday. Meeting with storm victims and disaster-relief workers, he stayed far away from the press. Reporters were briefly allowed to approach when Romney's motorcade pulled over for someone waving a sign saying: "Mitt's Our Man." The Romney supporter did not give his name. He was wearing a straw hat; and his family had camouflage hip waders, to walk through the floodwaters. This man was incensed that levees have not been built to protect towns like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't know why we can't come up with something across the coast that saves all these little - I think this is the oldest town, the oldest community in Jefferson Parish.

SHAPIRO: Jodie Chiarello wants levees, too. But she's also a Republican who believes in small government. And she says communities should be able to look after themselves.

CHIARELLO: Well, it depends on the way you look at it, you know. But a lot of our family and friends, we all still - pull together, at a time like this.

SHAPIRO: The Romney campaign has been working hard, to help Americans see Mitt Romney as a viable president. Photos of the candidate talking to relief workers and storm victims, help support that image.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the Romney campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.