Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS — Finally a hurricane, the unwieldy and wobbly Isaac bore down on New Orleans Tuesday, almost seven years to the day that Hurricane Katrina transformed this city and became a symbol of government ineptitude, and a defining moment for leaders from City Hall to the White House.

While Isaac was far less powerful than the 2005 storm, it posed some of the same political challenges. President Barack Obama sought to demonstrate his ability to guide the nation through a natural disaster and Republicans reassured residents they were prepared, all the while readying for the coronation of Mitt Romney.

In New Orleans, the mood was calm as the first wave of rain bands and wind gusts rolled ashore, and these battle-tested residents took the storm in stride, knowing they’ve been through a lot worse. Tens of thousands of people, mostly in southeastern Louisiana, were ordered to evacuate ahead of Isaac, which was set to make landfall Tuesday night as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph — much lower than the 135 mph winds Katrina packed in 2005.

About 13,000 homes and businesses had already lost power Tuesday afternoon. The storm’s winds increased slightly to 80 mph as it closed in on the coast.

Many residents along the Gulf Coast opted to ride it out in shelters or at home and officials, while sounding alarm about the dangers of the powerful storm, decided not to call for mass evacuations. Still, there was a threat of storm surge and the possibility of nearly two feet of rain as it slowly trudges inland.

“We don’t expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, urging people to use common sense and to stay off any streets that may flood.

There was already simmering political fallout. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who canceled his trip to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., said the Obama administration’s disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested. Jindal said he wanted a promise from the federal government to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.

“We learned from past experiences, you can’t just wait. You’ve got to push the federal bureaucracy,” Jindal said.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said such requests would be addressed after the storm.

“We wanted to make sure direct federal assistance got out first,” Fugate said.

Obama, during a campaign stop in Iowa, attempted to stay above the fray.

“America will be there to help folks recover no matter what this storm brings. Because when disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first,” the president said.

Isaac became a hurricane Tuesday, a massive storm that reached more than 200 miles from its center, threatening to flood the coasts of four states with storm surge and heavy rains on its way to New Orleans.

At businesses near the French Quarter, windows were boarded up and sandbags were stacked a few feet high in front of doors.

Some tourists said they would ride out the storm near the city’s famed Bourbon Street, and there was little to suggest a sense of worry.

“We made it through Katrina, we can definitely make it through this. It’s going to take a lot more to run me, I know how to survive,” he said.

Obama said Gulf Coast residents should listen to local authorities and follow their directions as Isaac approached.

“Now is not the time to tempt fate. Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously,” Obama said.

In Houma, a city southwest of New Orleans, people filled a municipal auditorium-turned-shelter. However, in the bayou country of Terrebonne Parish off Highway 24, storms pose a perennial dilemma for those living a hardscrabble life.

While some of the homes along Bayou Terrebonne and other nearby waterways show signs of affluence, this section of Louisiana 24 is mostly lined with trailer homes or small, often run-down houses. Staying could be dangerous, but many here who could be in harm’s way have nowhere to go and little money to get there, especially given the high price of gasoline.

Monica Boudreaux lives in a trailer on low-lying land but was talking Tuesday morning with a cousin who lived closer to the bayou. They and two friends chatted as the storm approached. Boudreaux laughed when asked what she’ll do if the storm hits.

“I’m surrounded by all family,” she said, referring to her friends as well as her cousin. “I’ll just pick up my little fat feet and run, I guess.”

Water may be worse than wind because the storm could push walls of water while dumping rain to flood the low-lying coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

New Orleans is in much better shape than it was before Katrina with an injection of about $14 billion in federal funds to fix damage done by Katrina and upgrade the system.

Spanning from the Gulf Coast up to the suburbs of Dallas, 9 schools across the Lone Star State will compete in the Texas Invitational in Austin this Saturday.

With the official heat sheets scheduled to be posted sometime today, the names of 27 UT women are marked down on the meet’s initial roster.

Throughout the all-day event, the Longhorns will take on athletes representing a diverse array of Texas colleges and universities including the University of Houston, Houston Baptist, Rice, as well as other schools belonging to the UT and A&M Systems.

Two weeks after the 85th Annual Texas Relays, Saturday’s Texas Invitational will be the second meet held at Mike A. Myers Stadium this 2011-2012 season.

The Invite will commence Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m. with men’s and women’s javelin. Various field events, including the long jump and pole vault, will take place throughout the afternoon and continue into the evening.

Tied for the No. 9 seed in the country, high jumpers Shanay Briscoe and Victoria Lucas will try to surpass their current season-best measurement of 1.81-meters, the stubborn mark has been the glass ceiling — both indoors and outdoors — this year for the pair.

At 4:00 p.m., the running events of the meet will kick off with the women’s 4x100-meter relay — an event in which UT and Texas A&M teams are both nationally ranked in the top 5.

In the 100-meter, Chalonda Goodman, ranked sixth in the event with a time of 11.23, will be joined by five elite athletes: ex-Aggie Porscha Lucas, Nike’s LaShauntea Moore, Adidas’ Tiffany Townsend, Olympic gold medalist Natasha Hastings and former Longhorn Alexandria Anderson.

Later on in the night, No. 3 Goodman will most likely encounter Lucas and Hastings again in the 200-meter dash.

Heading into the evening’s running events, sophomores who are likely to have notable performances include Briana Nelson in the 400-meter open and Danielle Dowie in the 400-meter hurdles.

At 8:30 p.m., the Invitational will conclude for the women with the 1600-meter (4x400-meter) relay. After a third-leg pull that resulted in a comeback to clench a victory at the Relays, a No. 1 ranked Longhorn team will be set on proving, once again, who is the best in Texas.

In a Saturday, June 12, 2010 file photo, crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

NEW YORK — BP's multibillion-dollar settlement with people and businesses harmed by its 2010 oil spill removes some uncertainty about the potential financial damages it faces. It also may help the company restore its all-important relationship with the federal government.

Although the oil company still has a few major legal and financial hurdles to overcome nearly two years after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the tentative settlement with plaintiff’s lawyers sends important signals to investors, Gulf Coast states and federal regulators.

Where once it seemed conceivable that BP’s spill-related costs could reach $200 billion, lawyers and industry analysts now say that figure will likely be less than a quarter that amount. If the class-action lawsuit by victims had gone to trial, BP could have faced much higher costs along with the embarrassment of having to publicly rehash earlier mistakes.

The settlement, which BP estimates will cost $7.8 billion, also shows its willingness to pay a huge sum to resolve issues related to the spill. That may improve its standing with the federal government, which controls access to oil reserves that are critically important to BP’s future.

“The only trial I thought we would see in this case is the one that just went away,” said David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor.

A blowout of the Macondo well in April 2010 destroyed a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon. That killed 11 workers, spilled an estimated 200 million gallons of oil and disrupted thousands of Gulf Coast lives and businesses. The spill soiled sensitive tidal estuaries and beaches, killed wildlife and closed vast areas of the Gulf to commercial fishing.

The settlement announced Friday would apply to tens of thousands of victims along the Gulf Coast, including fishermen who lost work and cleanup workers who got sick. It still needs approval in federal court.

BP expects to pay the victims using the remainder of a trust fund that the company had established to pay these types of claims. The trust has $9.5 billion in assets left out of an initial $20 billion.

Whatever remains would return to BP.

Friday’s deal does not resolve lawsuits with federal, state and local governments or address environmental damage. Those other claims could total up to $25 billion.

BP, which is based in London, says it doesn’t expect to have to add to the $37.2 billion it has set aside to fund the trust and pay for other spill costs. Although some analysts expect BP to have to pay more eventually, the total would be much less than initially feared.

Some residents dissatisfied with the claims process under the trust fund are hoping the settlement makes it easier to receive compensation.

HOUSTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday pledged $50 million to a program designed to restore seven river basins from Florida to Texas in an attempt to show a blueprint for rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s fragile ecosystem is more than just another federal report.

The USDA’s announcement accompanied the presentation of the final report of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a team established by President Barack Obama after the April 2010 oil spill that highlighted decades of environmental decline in the Gulf of Mexico.

The task force’s plan for reviving the Gulf and the ecosystems and watersheds linked to it calls for rebuilding and conserving wetlands; cleaning polluted rivers and streams; strengthening communities along the storm-prone area and better preparing them for the storms that brew over the warm ocean waters; and allowing more sediment to naturally flow downstream to slowly rebuild barrier islands meant to provide natural protection from storms.

“We are all dedicated to making sure that the treasures we grew up with are still around for future generations,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a New Orleans native who chaired the task force.

Jackson and officials from other federal and state agencies made the announcements in Houston at a summit sponsored by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. The summit focuses on the Gulf, its importance to the U.S. economy and the need to reverse decades of damage and neglect.

Jackson said the USDA project — an offshoot of an existing national program aimed at conserving, improving and preserving the nation’s watersheds — is only the first of many initiatives she expects will be announced in the coming months.

“I expect a flurry of activity to get some meat on those bones,” she said.

The Gulf of Mexico, long neglected and under-funded, is a vital part of the nation’s economy. More than 90 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas production originates in the Gulf and 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage are in the region. If the five coastal states were a country, it would rank seventh in global gross domestic product. In 2009, the Gulf Coast produced 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

While this committee has been assigned the task of identifying problems and pinpointing possible solutions, Congress has been considering a bill called the Restore Act that would allow most of the penalties BP would pay for fouling the waters to go back toward restoring the environment in the five Gulf states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The House is to hold hearings on the proposed bill later this week.

The first project administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service gives farmers and ranchers the finances they need to change their land or water use practices to help clean, conserve and preserve the watersheds, said Harris Sherman, the USDA’s undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment.

The USDA provides them with a “tool kit” of options for joining the program, he added.

The program — called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative — also requires matching funds from state, local and nonprofit entities, and so the funds available could total some $90 million, Sherman said. Similar projects are already under way elsewhere, and have successfully reversed some damage done to waterways.

The $50 million commitment to the Gulf Coast, however, is unique because it significantly increases the department’s funding to the region. Already, Sherman said, officials have met with ranchers and farmers in the area and are confident they will participate. The funding will be made available over the next three years, with the first $20 million available immediately.

The seven river basins identified for immediate assistance are already on the federal Clean Water Act’s list of polluted waterways. In Alabama, the program’s goal in the Weeks Bay watershed is to reduce agricultural-related nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment running downstream and to preserve wildlife habitats.

In a watershed shared by Alabama and Florida, the program aims to reduce the sediments and nutrients that flow into tributaries of the Escambia River. The USDA believes this will ultimately “improve wildlife habitat and the quality of water delivered to Pensacola Bay” and the Gulf.

The project has similar goals for another Florida watershed.

In Louisiana, it will focus on the Baratoria-Terrebonne estuary and the Mermentau basin, once again by reducing the harm fertilizers have as they flow downstream from rivers and streams into the Gulf of Mexico. In Mississippi the Jourdan River basin is the focus, while in Texas the goal is to clean up the Guadalupe River basin.

Officials believe the project will improve water quality for thousands of residents in Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and San Antonio.

“We’re focusing on priority areas where we can get the greatest gains,” Sherman said.

MIAMI — Forecasters have issued tropical storm warnings for the U.S. Gulf coast from Mississippi to Texas as a depression has organized in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center said Thursday night that the system will dump 10 to 15 inches of rain over southern areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Some areas could receive up to 20 inches of rain.

Louisiana’s governor has declared a state of emergency.