- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

“Please pray for us,” said Louisiana state Rep. Kay Katz, Sunday, putting on a brave face and decked out in patriotic red, white and blue as she and members of her Republican National Convention delegation entered a morning brunch at Minneapolis’ Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Even as orange mimosas were passed in festive long-stemmed flutes and white-gloved waiters served inside a banquet room, the mood was somber as Louisiana delegates monitored Blackberries and took cell phone calls for news on Hurricane Gustav, which was on track to hit their home state.

With the convention one day away, and the Category 3 storm barreling through the Gulf of Mexico, most were thinking less of politics and more on home — and what they might find when they were able to return. Many, having survived Hurricane Katrina, were trying to wrap their heads around the fact that once again, their home state faced storm devastation.

“We have one foot here and one foot in Louisiana,” said Madeleine Deslatte of Lafeyette, Louisiana, who is attending the convention with her husband Lonny. They said they were evacuated to Minnesota — for now.

“It’s hard to totally relax,” she said. “We’re very nervous and very stressed.”

News crews descended on the convention hotel where many of the states 46 delegates and 43 alternates and their guests are staying this week. They were met with reactions of uncertainty but also resolution, with many delegates noting that Louisiana natives were a strong bunch of resilient survivors who would get through yet another disaster, this time better prepared. GOP nominee John McCain offered use of planes and resources to help return delegates in the Gulf Coast back home, but many agreed that it would likely be impossible to return.

“My life is in the Lord’s hands,” said delegate Jeff Giles of Houma, which is currently in the storm’s path. His two sons and daughter were evacuated and safe.

Mr. Giles, 52, who owns a phone company, Accesscom, that serves 250 businesses, said his employees had moved vehicles to higher ground and computers out of their office in preparation of the hurricane.

Houma, in the ball of the Louisiana “foot,” is an oil town that is booming these days and also a boat-building area, he said. But even as it remained a storm target, Mr. Giles praised the preparation of state officials and the leadership of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who he said was coordinating a smooth evacuation of New Orleans and other coastal areas, in stark contrast to previous disaster relief efforts. Mr. Giles lost 25 percent of his business in Hurricane Katrina and said that he expects to lose everything in his own home, which sits near Bayou Black and low-lying areas of marshland that will flood.

“It’s probably going to be a pretty strong frontal assault of water,” he said. “I know my wife will be emotional. Everything is there, lots of pictures, but it’s only property. As far we we’re concerned, if the house goes, we’ll build again.”

Ruth Ulrich or Monroe, Louisiana’s national committeewoman-elect, pinned red ribbons on the lapels of delegates and visitors in a show of solidarity Sunday morning. “They mean that our hearts and our prayers are at home,” she said of the ribbons she stayed up until midnight Saturday cutting from a spool she’d brought along for convention decoration.

Malaura Blanchard of Baton Rouge wore the red ribbon proudly, but said she was concerned about family back home. Currently 24 friends and relatives are camped out at her three-bedroom, two-bath home near the governor’s mansion. She said they’d make room for me if need be.

“There is no place for people to go,” she said. “We are going to make it a home within a home. That’s what we do. You open your heart and you open your arms and let people in.”

Mrs. Blanchard, a writer, said she left daughters Victoria, 11, and Kathleen, 20, at home on Friday “not realizing it would be as bad as it is.”

Now, she felt helpless, knowing she could not return and knowing her loved ones needed her there. “It’s worse being away,” she said. “I’m on the phone constantly.”

Aaron Baer, communications director for the Louisiana Republican party, said that the McCain camp had reached out to their delegation constantly and offered assistance for them in Minnesota and also at home. Much of their delegation remained uncertain about what to do on Sunday.

“I think there are some people trying to make plans to get back,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out if people are going to get back, how they are going to get there.”

Many, however, have confidence that this time around, state and federal response is on track to get people out and protect communities as much as they can, he said.

“I think that a lot of people feel more comfortable in the local and federal response,” he said. “They have been telling us for a week that we need to get out of the path of the storm. We learned a lesson (with Katrina). “This time we’re going to people and saying get up and go. And they are listening.”

“Property is replaceable,” said delegate Lonny Deslatte. “People aren’t.”

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