La., Miss. delegates tried to carry on amid Isaac fears
TAMPA - The threat of Hurricane Isaac is a distant memory for Tampa, but the storm cast a shadow over the closing days of the Republican National Convention for delegates from Louisiana and Mississippi. Isaac, which brushed by Tampa and delayed the first day of the convention, hit New Orleans on Wednesday – seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina decimated the city. Delegates from Louisiana and Mississippi have checked out of the convention throughout the week, but some are unable to go back home. "There's flooding. My brother lost the roof on his house. Our business has been shut down for days," said Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party and a florist from Metairie, near New Orleans. "We're extremely concerned … because many had just rebuilt after Katrina, so there are a lot of people that are extremely devastated now."Villere said about one third of the Louisiana delegation left the convention early because of the storm. Their places were taken by alternates, who usually play a minor role at political conventions. Some of those leaving are elected government officials, in charge of fuel supplies and evacuations. Others have children and relatives they have to look after. Many more wish they could go home, but are stuck in Florida due to road and airport closures. "We're a people that love life, we celebrate all the time … but we're extremely concerned and yet are here because we have a responsibility," Villere said. "They've been elected to this position to nominate a president because we don't like what's going on with the future of our country. We think, if we don't stay here and get a new president, we're not going to have a country – not as we knew it, not as we grew up." Tristan Gruspier, political director for the Republican Party of Louisiana, is in charge of getting delegates home – a process that has "been kind of crazy with lots of last-minute changes," he said. So far, there have been very few problems coordinating transportation for the 46 delegates, Gruspier said. Buses will start arriving at 4:30 a.m. at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, where the delegation is staying, to catch 6:30 and 7 a.m. flights. But because many flights have been diverted and airports backed up or closed, the state party is helping re-route some to other cities where they can rent cars and try to make it home. Adding to the concern is the lack of communication between loved ones because of downed power lines. Delegate Lynn Skidmore, a retired school administrator and president of the Louisiana Federation of Republican Women, said many delegates have formed a communication network to get information about friends or family members throughout the state. Isaac is bringing back memories of the devastating Hurricane Katrina and of Hurricane Gustav, which hit Louisiana and Texas in 2008 and delayed the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Like then, Isaac has forced a trip home from Tampa for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. "While I'd say we've enjoyed everything, there's always that concern and sadness behind it for our home and New Orleans and our friends," Skidmore said. "All of the other delegations have expressed great concern and certainly their prayers for Louisiana." The toll of the storm could be seen in the small breakfast crowd this morning, said Louisiana delegate Harold Coats. It featured an update on the storm from the lone Louisiana congressman in town, John Flemming. For Coats, the clouds do carry a silver lining – much-needed rain for his hometown of Shreveport, near the Texas border. "We needed rain badly, so actually I think we're going to benefit from the storm," he said, "but we just wish this wasn't happening right now." Members of the Mississippi delegation also have returned home to help recovery efforts, said Brandon Payne, executive director of the state Republican Party. Payne said he has stayed in contact friends and family members, who told him they saw flooding, downed trees and power outages. Convention planners did a "terrific job" in dealing with the storm's impact, he said, but Isaac will always be associated with his memories of the meeting. "I hope I will remember this convention as the starting point of President Mitt Romney's successful campaign," he said. "I will, of course, remember the convention as it relates to Isaac." Villere, who isn't expecting to leave until Saturday, said convention organizers and the Saddlebrook Resort staff have offered to do anything they could to help out. Meantime, all the delegates can do is wait and enjoy the rest of the convention, which culminated with an 11:30 p.m. party for the delegation at the University Club of Tampa. "We're here and we can't do anything about it, so we're celebrating our nominee," Villere said. "We're going on with the parties."
Anastasia Dawson is a University of South Florida journalism student and a Tribune intern.