President Carter made a whirlwind helicopter tour of storm-ravaged Alabama, Mississippi and Florida coastlines today, pledging "complete and permanent" federal assistance to help the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Frederic.
"We're sensitive to your needs, and we'll be available to help you," the president told about 125 local government officials here. "The country will not forget you. We will be partners in the days and weeks ahead."
Carter, traveling with three governors and a host of senators, repeatedly said the winds and property damage inflicted by Frederic were worse than those of Hurricane Camille that killed 253 people a decade ago.
But he said the loss of life was kept at a minimum because of what he called "the most massive evacuation effort in our history," involving some 400,000 to 500,000 residents.
Although Frederic's winds were up to 130 miles an hour and the property damage is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, only nine died in the storm.
The president warned that the low-lying areas of the Gulf Coast can expect similar hurricanes in the future and must prepare for them.
Flying aboard the presidential helicopter Marine One, Carter visited Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. The shipyard has government defense contracts totaling over $1.5 billion. The largest employer on the Gulf Coast, it suffered an estimated $10 million in damage.
The president's party also inspected some of the hurricane's worst damage as it flew from Mobile over southern Alabama to Pascagoula and then eastward along the Mississippi Gulf coast to Pensacola, Fla.
Leaving Mobile, where he made a brief airport speech, Carter flew over several shopping centers leveled by the storm and a number of large subdivisions completely covered by fallen trees. Hundreds of buildings were roofless; thousands more severely damaged. One predominantly black area of west Mobile looked as if it had been struck by a bomb.
Rural areas looked worse. In places where the hurricane's winds were able to gather momentum over open fields, whole farmhouses and barns were blown from their foundations. All that remained of some were dark red scars in the earth. Dozens of pine groves looked as if they had been bulldozed.
At Pascagoula, Eddie Khayat, president of the Jackson County board of supervisors, told Carter "this is worse than Camille. We had 10 tornadoes hit our town besides the hurricane. We had tornadoes coming in from the north. We had a hurricane coming in from the south. They must have all come together here.
"People just got out in time," he said.
At each of the three brief stops on the two-hour tour Carter stressed the long-term commitment local residents would need to recover from Frederick and the importance of evacuation programs. He suggested communities tighten up their building codes.
In Mobile, he noted that 22 Small Business Administration agents are still processing loans and claims from victims of Hurriane Camille.In Pascagoula, Gulfport, Miss., Mayor Jack Barnett told him his city just recently repaid a $5 million loan from the state of Mississippi for Camille recovery efforts.
Carter, frequently praising the courage of local residents, said the purpose of his trip was to see how he could better coordinate federal recovery efforts and to show that "the nation cares . . . You are not alone."
The president was accompanied by Mississippi Gov. Cliff Finch, Alabama Gov. Fob James, Florida Gov. Bob Graham and senators from the three states.
"Our communities, especially the small rural ones, are completely paralyzed," Finch said. "They have no water, no sewers, no lights, no gasoline and no communications with the outside world."
Along the way, the president got ample advice on how to improve recovery efforts. A Jackson County supervisor accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of dragging its feet. Corps officers claimed they couldn't start debris removal and beach reconstruction until Monday, he said. Gulfport Mayor Barnett said his town desperately needs trucks and help with its sewer system.
Your coming is a godsend to us. We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts," said Khayat.
Before flying back to Washington on Air Force One, Carter promised that low-interest federal loans for damaged homes, businesses and croplands will be on the way soon. Temporary mobil homes will be brought into the area to house displaced residents. The federal commitment, Carter said, "is complete and it's permanent."
Meanwhile, thousands of residents who had fled inland to avoid Frederick and stayed away yesterday began to stream back today, grateful to be alive. Many soon found they had to swallow their gratitude without water.
There was little electric power in the region. Phone service was sporadic, if at all. Streets in Mobile, the largest city hit by the storm, were clogged. Cars waited in lines 50 long to get gasoline at the handful of stations open.
Thursday night, the entire city was shut down. A 7 p.m.-to 7 a.m. curfew went into effect today. Only two downtown streets had light. No stores or restaurants were open, and joint patrols of local police and National Guardsmen arrested 65 looters. The mayor of suburban Pritchard put out a "shoot to kill" order for anyone caught looting.
Officials said it will be days before electricity is restored to many residential areas. "It's like living in the Dark Ages. All the lights are out. We don't have any water. It's awful," said Latanya Williams, who lives near downtown.
As the Gulf continued to clean up the pieces, the remnants of Frederic moved north through the Great Lakes states, dumping more than six inches of rain on some areas along the way.
The rain prompted flooding and evacuations in Ohio, closed industries and snarled traffic. In Buffalo, the rain broke a record set in 1893.
A covered footbridge spanning the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont collapsed in a rainstorm spawned by the storm, trapping one person for a time.
Erie, Pa., recorded six inches of rain from 9:30 p.m. Thursday to noon Friday. Columbis, Ohio, received 4.76 inches, Cincinnati 4.54 and Akron 6.13, the National Weather Service said.
In central Ohio, the weather service issued flood warnings for 17 counties yesterday, and classes were called off in Columbus public and Catholic schools and in several suburban areas because flooded roads made it impossible for buses to travel.
A number of families in a low-lying area in Columbus had to be evacuated by boat after water surrounded their homes.