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Rory Carroll in Braithwaite, Louisiana, Friday 31st August 2012 21:48
The drowned town of Braithwaite slowly emerged from flood waters on Friday, revealing two bodies and ruined homes as a weakened storm Isaac moved further inland, drenching Arkansas and Missouri.
The scale of the clean-up facing Louisiana, battered by hurricane force winds and rain earlier in the week, was starkest here as officials and homeowners used boats to inspect submerged properties.
Mitt Romney, fresh from the Republican convention in Tampa, toured the area to survey the damage and recovery efforts on Friday after an invitation from the Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal. The White House said Barack Obama would also visit.
Insurers will face a bill between $700m to $2bn, a fraction of the $41bn cost of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans seven years ago this week, said the risk-modeling firm AIR Worldwide. Around 700,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi were still without power on Friday – down from a peak of 1m – but airports, oil refineries and other infrastructure were returning to normal. Midwest farmers hoped the rain would ease a drought without damaging crops.
Romney's visit and President Barack Obama's attention to Isaac – he declared the impact on Louisiana and Mississippi major disasters in order to release federal aid – underlined both candidates' determination to avoid comparisons with George Bush's much-criticised response to Katrina.
In Braithwaite, residents assessed the damage. "Just look at that, everything completely submerged," said Jimmy Delery, 57, a land and property owner as he inspected Braithwaite's rooftops from a motorboat. "We thought we knew so much about hurricanes, but we're learning so much more."
Residents without boats waited on higher ground for the water to recede. Officials used a digger to claw a hole in the town's earthen levee to speed up the draining.
"I'm doing OK for now but I know it'll hit me when I get in there and see my home," said Melanie Martinez, who was rescued from her rooftop on Wednesday with her family soon after Isaac made landfall. "We thought we were going to die in that house; the water was coming up so fast."
Two neighbours did not make it. The bodies of the man and woman, who were not immediately named, were found in a kitchen, apparently drowned.
A $14.5bn federal flood defence upgrade since the 2005 Katrina catastrophe, when 1,800 peopled died, was credited with averting serious damage in New Orleans but semi-rural communities on its outskirts such as Braithwaite relied on a more basic, state-built 8ft levee which proved no match for the waters.
Many residents said the higher defences around New Orleans channelled the surge to them. "All that water had to go somewhere. Well, it came here," said Eric Desalvo, 20.
The storm also damaged a dam on Lake Tangipahoa in Mississippi, prompting concerns on Thursday it could break, but authorities late said an intentional, controlled breach neutralised the danger.
Romney and Jindal toured flooded communities around the fishing town of Lafitte, south of New Orleans. Aides and media follows in SUVs and open topped army trucks.
Some residents welcomed Romney with homemade posters saying "Go Mitt" and "Mitt is our man".
The Republican candidate spoke with rescue workers and local officials and residents. Many complained at the lack of flood protection.
"I was expecting a politician but he was understanding and caring," said Jodie Chuarello, 42, whose home disappeared under 12ft of water. She accused Obama of neglecting the area. "I don't think he has done anything to help."
Obama will visit the area on Monday.