Political Newcomers Confront a Hurricane

Cokie Roberts talks about the recently elected officials who are dealing with Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, and the potential impact of the storm on the oil market. She also notes the effect on her Louisiana relatives.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

New Orleans is the hometown of the person who joins us next, NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts, speaking with us as she does every Monday morning.

Morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are political leaders handling this storm?

ROBERTS: Well, the president declared a state of emergency in Louisiana before the storm hit. That's highly unusual. And he took time yesterday to issue words of warning telling people to take cover. His father was highly criticized, President Bush I, in his handling--immediate handling of Hurricane Andrew, of course, a Category 5 hurricane that hit, and so I think he has learned that lesson. And then, of course, you have the local politicians. The mayor of New Orleans, Nagin, is a political neophyte. He took the unprecedented step of ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city, which my cousins there tell me really took them by surprise. And Governor Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, first woman governor of Louisiana, a very practical-minded mother of six, has been a credible voice through this. But the real question for all of the politicians, of course, is how they handle this in the days after we see what the damage is.

INSKEEP: And, of course, we're focused on saving lives here, obviously, but there are also economic effects, particularly having to do with the access and the price of oil.

ROBERTS: Because there are 6,000 oil workers off the coast there of the Gulf of Mexico on those huge rigs, and there is an enormous refinery at Belle Chase on the river, and, of course, with the price of oil hovering close to $70 a barrel, this could not be a worse time for that. The rigs, most of the rigs have been evacuated, so already there's--talking about a million barrels of oil being taken out of production.

INSKEEP: What are some other economic effects that are likely as this storm passes close to New Orleans?

ROBERTS: Well, I think people don't realize that the Port of Southern Louisiana, as it's called, is the biggest in the United States. It's 50 miles up and down the Mississippi River, and that means not just oil coming in and out of the port, but it is the major export area for United States grain, so it could have a big impact on Midwest farmers if the storm is as horrible as we fear. It could affect global agriculture because it is such an enormous grain exporting port. And then, of course, there are consequences on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well. There it is hardly of the same proportion in terms of world economy, but there are casinos all up and down the coast, most of them floating in the Gulf Coast in one way or another, and they are a huge part of Mississippi's economy.

INSKEEP: Cokie, how's your family doing?

ROBERTS: Well, my mother, who lives in the French Quarter is, I'm happy to tell you, out, and the--my aunts and uncles who live on the Gulf Coast are out. My entire father's family lives on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and twice, Steve, in my lifetime they have been completely wiped out by hurricanes--Camille, of course, and a hurricane in 1947--so it is something that is incredibly worrisome, and some of my cousins are still there. The fact that this could also have that kind of impact, which we've seen on the Gulf Coast, on the city of New Orleans, is really something that none of us can fathom. It is, as John Burnett said, a city that has withstood so many things over its storied history, and the idea that the levees could break is really something that is almost impossible to contemplate.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much.

That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts with a personal story there that's being repeated millions of times this morning as many people look after their loved ones or seek higher ground.

Now if you're among those affected by the hurricane, we want to hear about your experiences. You can write us a note at npr.org, which is also offering the latest on this storm's impact.

And this coverage of Hurricane Katrina is coming to you on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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