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PAULA ZAHN NOW
New Orleans Devastated by Hurricane Katrina; Hundreds Feared Dead
Aired August 30, 2005 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Appreciate your being with us tonight.
Katrina is just a tropical depression dumping a lot of rain on the Midwest and moving east. But what this storm did to the Gulf Coat is much more severe than it seemed just 24 hours ago. As Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco put it, the devastation is greater than our worst fears.
In Mississippi, Katrina has claimed 50 to 80 lives. In the Biloxi area, it could go into the hundreds. And you can see why from these aerial pictures, whole neighborhoods leveled. It looks like what we saw in December after the tsunami in South Asia.
Nearly 2.5 million people are still without power along the Gulf Coast tonight. And the communication system is shredded. In New Orleans, they thought they escaped the nightmare scenario of a direct hit, but today 80 percent of the city is under water in part because of one section of a levee that gave out.
And there is a grim warning for people in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. We're hearing from local TV station WWL that people there are being ordered to evacuate. It seems that efforts to sandbag the levee break have ended. And the pumps in that area are expected to fail soon. And we have learned that could mean an additional 12 to 15 feet of water to deal with.
People are still clinging to their rooftops. The Coast Guard says it's already rescued 1,200 people from flooded neighborhoods in the way you're watching there on the screen. The main highway leading to New Orleans from the east, Interstate 10, runs for 10 miles over Lake Pontchartrain. As you can see, Katrina cut it to pieces.
At the Superdome, where 10,000 people rode out the storm, there are now 30,000 people, refugees now, from the flooded city. In fact, it's so bad right now in New Orleans, the governor is considering evacuating the people at the Superdome and other rescue centers. So, no one's even talking about when they can ever go home again.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has just returned from a tour of his state's Gulf Coast. In a news conference just now, he compared the destruction of this storm to what we saw in Hiroshima, Japan, after the atomic bombing just 60 years ago.
We have reporters throughout the Gulf Coast tonight. We're going to start in Biloxi, where Jonathan Freed joins us with the very latest.
JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is all that's left of an apartment building that stood on St. Charles Street in Biloxi, just across from the beach. As many as 30 people may have died here during the storm, according to officials. May is the key word, though. The numbers could grow much higher.
Just look at the extent of the devastation around here. There is so much officials don't know.
TOMMY JOE BREAUX, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Because there was about three, four foot of water in my front yard.
FREED: Tommy Joe Breaux says at least some people made it out of that apartment building, because he says one of them just appeared on his porch when the water was rising.
BREAUX: Said he was on the second floor of the apartments. And he said that he had to swim out, and right as he was swimming out, the apartments collapsed.
FREED (on camera): Tell me, what were you doing when you were aware that the water was coming your way?
AL GUMBOS, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Well, at 5:30, we had power. We was watching you guys on the news.
FREED (voice-over): Al Gumbos lives only three doors up from the apartment complex and was amazed to find his place survived the storm. He got a shock on Monday afternoon when he saw a neighbor who was thought to have drowned.
GUMBOS: We were able to exchange hugs, and glad to see her.
FREED: A couple of blocks to the east:
RYAN WINICKY, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: We ran upstairs real quick and we looked at each other. And we said, if we don't get out of here, we're going to die.
FREED: Ryan Winicky (ph) and his friends had to swim for their lives when a storm surge full of debris overtook their house.
(on camera): So, you said you were escaping out a side window.
FREED: Suddenly, you're in the water.
FREED: Right? And it's pushing you this way?
WINICKY: Oh, yes. FREED: So, how did you -- how did you keep your heads above water?
WINICKY: Well, we -- I mean, you grabbed on to anything you could.
FREED (voice-over): One thing everyone we spoke to had in common, they were all amazed they had survived, when some so close by did not.
FREED: Paula, I was truly shocked by the scenes that I saw today when we took that walk along the beach this morning and into the afternoon. It really felt like I was walking through the set of a disaster film. It was disturbing to be there.
It was just very difficult, knowing that so many lives were lost and not knowing who and where and when. It's probably going to take quite a while, officials say, until they can piece all of that together.
ZAHN: I guess what's so amazing to watch from here is to imagine the power of a storm where three-story buildings, brick buildings, you know, built to withstand some wind, are simply gone.
FREED: I was walking around there, and I was asking myself. I just -- I couldn't imagine what it must look like when it's actually happening. And if not for the cloud cover, I kept thinking, wouldn't it be just educational and fascinating to see satellite imagery, for example, of the stages of this kind of thing? I have never seen anything like that.
And I asked the people what it looked like. And one of the things that the residents in that area told me, they said that, when the storm surge came in, it was so cluttered with debris, Paula, so much wood in it, for example, that it looked like a rolling wooden floor coming at them. And they said that just chilled them completely.
ZAHN: Jonathan Freed, thanks so much for the update.
There appears to be no end in sight to the horrendous problems folks in New Orleans face tonight. Now we're talking about looting and violence.
Let's go to WDSU reporter Ed Reams, who joins us on the phone with the very latest. We understand there have been reports of gunfire downtown and carjackings. What can you tell us?
ED REAMS, WDSU REPORTER: Well, Paula, we're actually right now in Jackson, Mississippi. We evacuated from New Orleans just because of the deteriorating conditions, not just because of the rising water, but just the safety and concern that many people have in that city.
We left because our station is right in downtown New Orleans. Our transmitter not only was fried by rising water, but the looting was starting to get so out of control, our general manager feared for the safety of our lives. It's hard to go out and cover a story when people are asking you, do you have water? Do you have money? I need that now. Give me your camera. I need something to barter with.
It's something I have never seen before, Paula, in my years of being a reporter, just -- just the people, how people change and go into survival mode just to get the basic necessities. We have a number of convenience stores near our station. The pane glass has been broken. People are going in stores, taking whatever they can find.
I actually was in the Superdome when Katrina blew overhead. And when part of the roof was taken off, those people were pretty stressed out. Now -- now they've been forced to stay there a few days. The water is rising around them. They don't know anything about their homes, their families. And they're starting to lose it right now.
I have heard the reports about the shootings. I can't -- we have heard it from a number of sources about the shootings. One, I believe, of the people shot was a police officer. It's hard to keep control of 10,000 people, even though you have a couple of hundred National Guardsmen there. When these people are upset and feel like they have no way out, I guess survival mode kicks in. And that seems to be happening right now.
ZAHN: And, Ed, as we understand it, the conditions just keep on getting worse. You're talking about toilets that don't flush at the Superdome. You're talking about no potable water. You're talking about no air conditioning, leaks still from the roof. It's raining right now in New Orleans.
And, of course, the population has mushroomed from 10,000 to some 30,000 people. What was the sense of fear when you talked with folks who have no idea how many days they might have to live there?
REAMS: Well, Paula, back in 1998, when the Superdome was last used as a shelter of last resort, was during Hurricane George. Folks got antsy there. In about three-and-a-half days, there were some upset people.
But George doesn't even hold a candle to Katrina. These folks will really have nowhere to go. The whole -- most of New Orleans now is either underwater or water is rising. And people are afraid. They're being corralled, basically, in a confined area with no -- as you said, no running water, no sewers. It was very smelly and humid in there.
The air just kind of hung and clung to you inside the Superdome. With all the damage to the roof, as you said, the water just keeps raining down on you. And, after a while, many people don't have the patience. Their frustration starts to show. And it seems to -- this is what's happening right now.
ZAHN: And what you could not see, Ed, as you were speaking tonight, is some fresh video that had been fed to us of some of the looting that is pretty widespread, we are told, in New Orleans at this hour.
Ed Reams, thank you so much for that update.
Let's quickly talk more about the health implications of this. The storm has also left the city facing an enormous crisis. There is, as we mentioned, no clean water. Food supplies are running out.
And Ivor Van Heerden is the director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He joins me now by the telephone. Ivor, how bad is it right now at the Superdome?
IVOR VAN HEERDEN, LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY HURRICANE CENTER: Well, I haven't been to the Superdome, but I can quite believe it's getting to be pretty unbearable.
You know, the water is rising throughout the city. And I guess folks in the Superdome are wondering when it's going to get to them.
ZAHN: So tell us what your other concerns are statewide.
VAN HEERDEN: Well, I think really the -- what we have to worry about is New Orleans right now. They still have...
ZAHN: And please bear with us tonight. We are going to probably continue to lose phone communication, because the main system has taken an awful lot of hits. It's interesting. During the day, sometimes, we were able to get cell phone calls through to reporters, and then sometimes we'd have to wait for a couple hours for the signal actually to go through.
But, once again, the chief concern in New Orleans tonight is the water that's continuing to rise and the fact that the Superdome has to handle so many refugees.
Right now, you're going to hear from someone who survived Katrina and is now living through the devastation in New Orleans.
Seventy-eight-year-old musician Jack Fine tried to flee the city on Sunday, but returned when he got into too much traffic. He joins me now on the telephone. I guess it's pretty lonely where you are. Describe to us what you saw when you peeked outside today.
JACK FINE, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Well, I'm surrounded by devastation. This was a lovely, vibrant community, gated community, right on the banks of the Intercostal Waterway, one mile from the Mississippi, a lovely, charming place.
And it's ghostly here. It's absolutely ghostly, the silence, blackness. Roofs are peeled off all over the place. I'm alone here, all alone. And there's no light. There's no heat. There's no cooling, nothing. And it's just silence, like living in a ghost city.
And it's appalling because, you know, we're accustomed to a vibrant, alive, very, very active city. And I'm very much in the cultural point of the city and involved in it. And friends of mine have called, those that have survived and those that have left the city, saying, my God, we're changed forever. Where are we going to play? Who are we going to talk to? It's gone. It's finished. It's done. And it's very upsetting.
But the devastation is just appalling. And I have seen some hurricanes in my time in some other places, but nothing like this.
ZAHN: So, Jack, you're a 78-year-old man. What are you going to do to try to survive over the next couple of days?
FINE: Well, I have a bottle of gin here.
ZAHN: Well, that might help a little. But you might get through that in a day or so.
FINE: Well, I haven't lost my sense of humor, and I can practice at will now, because I will not upset my neighbors.
But where I go from here, I don't know, because I don't know the places that we played at. I'm really concerned about the cultural health of the city right now, because everybody's taken such a terrible hit. And, you know, New Orleans has become such a great cultural center for the United States. And it's such an appalling waste and it's such a devastating situation for those of us who have been here and who have made such contributions to the arts in the United States.
ZAHN: Jack, I don't know how aware you are of some of the violence that's being reported downtown New Orleans tonight, widespread looting, some police officers actually telling members of our crew that they should stay out of the downtown area and stay away from the cars because there are actually reports of refugees on the highway trying to carjack cars simply to get out of the city, as the water continues to rise. Have you heard any gunfire?
FINE: No, I haven't down here, which is very unusual. But then we're very isolated down where I live.
I'm way down in the south, the south part of Algiers, which is -- it's New Orleans Parish, but we're on the south side of New Orleans. This is sort of an isolated community here. But we're surrounded by a lot of very interesting and very active people. And I don't see anything here yet. But that's just the first day here. And anything's possible in New Orleans, anything.
ZAHN: Well, you've got to feel pretty lucky that you, at least, have cheated death and made it back to your home OK. We wish you a lot of luck, Jack Fine. Thank you so much.
Still ahead, more survival stories from New Orleans, as more than 1,000 people are rescued from flooded neighborhoods, many of them plucked off of rooftops into the safety of baskets and the Coast Guard helicopters. We will be catching up with some of the people involved in those heroic rescues when we come back after this short break.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HARVEY JACKSON, WIFE MISSING IN HURRICANE KATRINA: We got up in the roof, all the way to the roof, and water came. And the house just opened up, divided.
JENNIFER MAYERLE, WKRG-TV REPORTER: Who was at your house with you?
JACKSON: My wife.
MAYERLE: Where is she now?
JACKSON: I can't find her body. She's gone.
MAYERLE: You can't find your wife?
JACKSON: No. She told neighbors, she told, I tried, I holded her hand tight as I could, and she told me, You can't hold me. She said, Take care of the kids and the grandkids. And my kids...
MAYERLE: What's your wife's name in case we can put this out there?
JACKSON: Tonetta Jackson.
MAYERLE: And -- OK. And what's your name?
JACKSON: Harvey Jackson.
MAYERLE: Where are you guys going?
JACKSON: We ain't got nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. I'm -- I'm lost. That's all I had. That's all I had.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: An absolutely heartbreaking story from a man from Biloxi, Mississippi. And, unfortunately it's a story we are hearing over and over again tonight, the death toll in Mississippi estimated anywhere between 50 to 80, the governor of that state saying that we should expect it to go a whole lot higher than that, the governor of Louisiana now saying the devastation is far greater than -- quote -- "our worst fears."
Joining me now from Washington, Patrick Rhode, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Good of you to join us, sir.
PATRICK RHODE, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: What is the area that is in the most dire need at this hour? RHODE: Unfortunately, it's a pretty wide area, Paula. I mean, obviously, you're looking at that and the whole area around New Orleans going all the way through Mississippi and, of course, into Alabama.
And what we are trying to do now is to try to make sure that we are fulfilling some of these life-sustaining missions and trying to find these people, as best as we possibly can. What we're doing is a Rapid Needs Assessment right now. We are working with our urban search-and-rescue teams, working very closely with the Coast Guard. We have mobilized all kinds of commodities to try to get it as close to the impacted areas as we possibly can.
ZAHN: But we are hearing reports out of New Orleans that have got to be very discouraging to you. The water is still rising. We're hearing that the Superdome has grown in its population from 10,000 people to 30,000 people, no flushing toilets, no water, no air conditioning, total misery. How can you possibly help those people?
RHODE: Well, we're doing everything that we possibly can. We are harnessing the power behind the federal government right now. And that's what FEMA does. And we're working very closely with our state and local partners, trying to make sure that we are speaking to every need we possibly can.
Clearly, we understand that there are people there within New Orleans and certainly other areas going into Mississippi. And that's why we have to do these assessments as best as we possibly can. Unfortunately, we know that a lot of people don't have homes to go back to.
And so, we have instituted a very strong catastrophic planning task force to speak to the housing issue, which, unfortunately, is going to be with us for months and months. Right now, however, what we're looking at are trying to keep people alive. And, fortunately, if you are in the Superdome now or you're in other places that we have been able to get to, we know that we're able to take care of you.
What we're really worried about tonight and in the next couple of days are those areas that we haven't yet been able to get to.
ZAHN: And there are a fair number of those, aren't there?
RHODE: There certainly are, unfortunately. And I'm afraid that it's going to take us a couple of more days, through the intensive urban search-and-rescue efforts that we have ongoing. We have all seen very dramatic pictures throughout the day, certainly, a lot of Coast Guard rescues that we have seen. We have to really complement all of the federal partners that have come together here in unprecedented fashion.
We're talking about the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, many of the people that you see here behind me, and also working closely with all of those very courageous first-responders in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama. This is an effort unlike many that we have ever seen. ZAHN: I have heard survivors say they are very grateful for this deployment of federal help. But they're sitting there saying to themselves, wait a minute. Some parts of this state aren't going to have electricity for three weeks. And there are some serious health problems that have to be dealt with in the days to come.
Do you think that they're going to see any change in their quality of life, particularly if they're in shelters, in the next couple of days?
RHODE: Well, it's really -- it's really hard to say, Paula.
You know, when you're looking at something this widespread, this massive, we are mobilizing everything that we possibly can to speak to those needs. But, right now, in the aftermath of a storm of this size, seeing the kind of damage that has imposed upon the citizens within the Gulf states, we have to try to make sure that we are keeping people as safe as we possibly can. And that really is our first function.
And, beyond that, we obviously recognize that we have many issues that we have to speak to collectively on behalf of the country.
ZAHN: Governor Haley Barbour, earlier this evening, at a news conference, describing the devastation he has seen of his state equivalent to that of what Hiroshima suffered during World War II.
Just based on the reports that you're getting from the field, what is your team telling you?
RHODE: Our team is telling us some very similar stories. You know, I can tell you, just based upon the couple of years that I have had the pleasure of working here amongst some of the best emergency managers in the business, that there are many people walking around the halls here even saying that this one takes your breath away. And it is something that we planned for. It's something that we're poised to do.
I can tell you that the coordination right now is something that is perhaps the most encouraging that I have seen in the last couple of years. And it is also unprecedented. The federal family, the states, the local communities, the courageous first-responders, the pictures that we're seeing today really represent the best of what this country can do. And FEMA will be there as long as it possibly takes to help the citizens within all of these impacted states, Paula.
ZAHN: Patrick Rhode, thanks so much for your time.
RHODE: Thank you.
ZAHN: Good luck to your whole team.
RHODE: Thank you.
ZAHN: From the moment Hurricane Katrina blew out of New Orleans, rescue crews moved right in. Coast Guard helicopters plucked more than 1,000 people from the rooftops of flooded homes. Other rescuers used boats. We have seen incredible acts of daring courage and endurance.
ZAHN (voice-over): In and around New Orleans, the water that rose all the way to the rooftops caught too many people by surprise. What CNN photojournalist Mark Biello saw in New Orleans' Edgewood neighborhood is happening everywhere, including in Metairie.
MARK BIELLO, CNN PHOTOJOURNALIST (voice-over): They're chopping through with axes on the rooftops to pull people that are literally just breathing the last air in their homes. And they're up in the rafters up in the attic spaces.
ZAHN: These rooftop rescues have been going on since yesterday, people shouting to attract crews arriving by boat and chopped through the shingles and wood of their rooftops.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir. I'm going to need to you hold your breath for a second. Can you hold your breath? Can you hold your breath?
ZAHN: Each rescue became its own heart-stopping drama.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got him. He ain't going nowhere. Come on. One, two, three.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the beam behind you, not in front.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on. I'm holding him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There you go.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I ain't letting him go nowhere.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ready, set, right there. Right there. That's it right there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You all right?
ZAHN: When daylight arrived, desperate flood victims hacked their own way onto roofs and waved makeshift flags to get the attention of helicopters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to shoot back in the cabin here. As you see, some of the other family members standing by and waiting for their family member to come on board, which she's doing right now. And she's got a look of relief like, whew, I'm glad that's over with. And she's inside the aircraft now and breathes a big sigh of relief.
ZAHN: People who need medical attention are taken to the Superdome. Rescuers fear some people will be trapped in their attics again tonight. It's an agonizingly slow process.
ZAHN: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff today authorized the U.S. Coast Guard to involuntarily recall 550 reservists to help deal with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Joining me on the phone from Mobile now is Coast Guard rescue swimmer Scott Rady. He rescued nearly two dozen people today. Thanks so much for being with us tonight.
PETTY OFFICER SCOTT RADY, COAST GUARD: Good evening.
ZAHN: We have seen in these amazingly dramatic pictures how tired the people you are -- the people you rescued are. They're scared. They're hungry. What's the biggest challenge of bringing them to safety?
RADY: The biggest challenge is just deciding who is in dire need of the evacuation and who's the top candidates for being rescued at the time. We don't have a lot of room in the Coast Guard helicopters. So, we have to choose and pick the ones that are in the most need.
ZAHN: Scott, how do you make a decision like that from the air?
RADY: It's very hard to make a decision like that. We had like a -- for instance, a case today, we had a gentleman sticking out of a second-story window pointing to his stomach as to a pregnant woman inside.
And we get clues like that, mostly people waving sheets. We get people that wave us down and point in directions and give us hand signals or things like that to let us know that there are people in need and in danger or injured.
ZAHN: How much does it kill you that you can't rescue everybody that needs help?
RADY: Oh, it's a very hard feeling. I could not believe the devastation today. And it's just hard to leave anybody back or even to leave a person's animal behind. It just -- it tears me up. You know, I'm an animal lover. It's hard to leave animals and certainly people behind to, you know, maybe fend for another night on top of their roof.
ZAHN: Scott, we saw pictures of people waving makeshift flags to draw the attention of helicopters. What have some of the folks you've rescued told you about what it was like to ride out this storm?
RADY: They just -- mostly people can't explain it. All they can say is just, you know, thank you 1,000 times and shake our hands, you know, just to see the smile on their face and the relief that they are, you know, away from the commotion and the flooding and just the mayhem and to be able to maybe start a new life after this, all of this happens.
ZAHN: Scott, you perhaps have gotten one of the best views of the devastation of this area from the air. You talked about having to selectively choose which people you're going to rescue, those that seem to be in the most dire need of help. Give us a sense of the numbers of people you simply couldn't help today, people you saw on rooftops that you just didn't have the resources to rescue.
RADY: There was hundreds. But there's always the -- you know, we weren't the only helicopter out there. So, the people can have hope that, you know, they're going -- they're going to get off that roof sooner or later. The Coast Guard's ready to come and get them. That's what we're trained to do. We're going to see this thing through until the end. And, you know, we're going to get those people off the roofs.
ZAHN: And, Scott, we shared the number with our audience a little bit later. It appears as though at least 1,200 people have been rescued this way so far.
Good luck to you, Scott, and thank you for helping us understand what you're up against out there.
And, as our coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues, we are going to go straight back to Biloxi, Mississippi, where hundreds are feared dead, whole neighborhoods are destroyed, a state where the governor is comparing the damage that you're looking at on the screen right now to what was seen in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.
ZAHN: We take you back to Biloxi, Mississippi, part of the Gulf Coast that bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina when a 25-foot swell of water hit it. Right now 80 percent of the state without electricity. The death toll is estimated between 50 to 80. The governor telling us, in a news conference just a short while ago, that he believes the number will climb to the hundreds. He's comparing the damage in his state to the damage that Japan witnessed in Hiroshima during World War II.
Randi Kaye brings us now the story of two neighbors brought together by fate, a woman who decided to leave her home as the storm approached and a couple that actually rode out the storm and nearly made the mistake of their lives.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): This was once one of the most beautiful streets in Biloxi, lined with Victorian homes that caught the eyes of tourists. A day after Hurricane Katrina, though, Howard Avenue looks like a garbage dump.
MARYELLA RONSONETTE, LOST HOME IN HURRICANE: The one -- two bedrooms and a bath is over there.
KAYE: Across the street?
KAYE: Maryella Ronsenette used to have a home at 375 Howard Avenue. It's now in pieces across the street. So is Gary Stillwell's home. He lived next door with his wife in a two-story Victorian that survived every storm since the 1800s.
GARY STILLWELL, LOST HOME IN HURRICANE: We've lost our soul, I think, you know. This is, you know, as any couple or family, you know, your home is kind of your mark. Now it's stretched all over.
KAYE: The Stillwells and Mrs. Ronsonette have been neighbors for years. But only one of them evacuated this time. Ronsonette split, thinking she and her home had survived Hurricane Camille back in '69, she thought this time around they both would, too. But when this 65- year-old grandmother returned and found her home flattened, she felt lost.
RONSONETTE: I lived through Camille., and it was here during Camille, so I didn't think it was going to --
KAYE: Next door, the Stillwells waited too long to evacuate.
STILLWELL: We watched the tsunami, and we said, look at this. We're the ones that always say, why didn't they get out of town? Some people stay. Some people go. Within a span of about an hour or so, the water just rose and all of our furniture started to float.
KAYE: And what did you think when that water's coming up as fast as it probably did?
STILLWELL: Somewhere in there I kept figuring it's going to subside somewhere.
KAYE: But it didn't. So the Stillwells had no choice but to ride out the storm at home, literally.
STILLWELL: We're looking back at all of this stuff coming. Then that part of the building, the house, just started to float. We floated. As we floated, this house in front of us collapsed. And so -- it was slow. But we just kept on floating.
KAYE: Gary, his wife and their three pets, trapped on the second floor, as the entire home floated for about a quarter of a mile until it lodged in a tree across the street. And while the water was inching up, the wind was picking up. Somehow, Gary and his wife managed to escape their crumbling home and climb into their boat which had floated alongside them. Howard Avenue had turned into a river. Homes and everything in them submerged.
RONSONETTE: We found some things. Like my grandmother's sewing machine and most of the hutches. And just things that mean a lot. But now everything else is gone. KAYE: Including a family photo album that belongs to Ronsonette's future daughter-in-law. It's the only memory Constance Bruce has of her mom who was killed by a drunk driver when Constance was just nine. The family spent hours searching for it. No luck. One of the many mementos lost on Howard Avenue.
KAYE: And, Paula, that gentleman you saw in our story, Gary Stillwell, has become sort of a neighborhood hero, actually. Because after he floated down the street in his home and escaped into his boat, it was heavy wind and heavy rain, and he heard people screaming. He looked up into the trees. And there were three people trapped in the trees. He took his boat straight over to them and plucked them to safety right into his boat. So not only did he save himself and his wife and his family pets, he saved three others from the neighborhood.
ZAHN: That's an incredible story. Randi Kaye, thanks so much.
We go straight back to New Orleans where the suffering extends in all directions. Neighboring Jefferson Parish is officially off limits tonight, because of extensive flooding because of a breach in the levee and because of pumps we're told that are now -- or will soon be non operational.
Jefferson Parish Emergency Operations Chief Deano Bonano joins me now on the phone. How many people have gotten out tonight, sir?
DEANO BONANO, JEFFERSON PARISH EMERG. OPERATIONS: Well we have evacuated about 70 percent of our population prior to the storms landfall, which is, you know, a good 3 - 350,000 people. And they're scattered all over the Southeastern United States trying to call us and convince us to let them come back home.
And Jefferson is just not a safe or inhabitable place at this time. There's no lights anywhere in the parish. No food, no water. The people that did stay are calling us saying I need food, I need water. But we can't get to them. We can't just feed that many people. It's not a good situation to come back home. For more people to come, it would just add to the burden.
ZAHN: So what's going to happen to the folks who stuck it out who are in dire need of food and water?
BONANO: FEMA is now on the ground here. And we are actually going around the government and unloading groceries from grocery stores and bringing it to shelters where we're putting people in there to feed them and give them something to drink and a dry place to sleep, because many places are wet.
ZAHN: And we're looking at a picture of what we believe is a woman, maybe, being brought to safety here. And the shelters that we've seen look pretty darn miserable. How worried are you about health problems associated with folks not having running water, not having air conditioning, not having food and potable water? BONANO: Well obviously without water, you can't have sewage. People can't flush toilets. We have dead animals floating in the water. We have a boil water order but the system's not running because when the trees and the poles fall over, they pull up the waterlines. So we have several hundred water breaks that have been preventing us from getting pressure in our water system. And now it's nightfall. It's dark. Everybody's sitting around in the dark. Some of them with water in their homes.
For the last two days we have been conducting extensive search and rescue operations in the flooded areas with high-water trucks, boats, helicopters, pulling people out of water and bringing them into at least a dry area, that you refer to, it's a shelter, which is a lot better than sitting in a house full of water.
ZAHN: Well you, unfortunately, are not only dealing with the brutality of Mother Nature, but the brutality of mankind. We have heard a number of reports tonight of pretty wide spread looting in New Orleans. In addition to that, attempted carjackings.
Can you, Deano, update us on what you're hearing from your listening post?
BONANO: Well, in Jefferson, we've had similar problems. We haven't had any shootings, but the sheriff's office has made dozens of arrests of criminals who are trying to take advantage of the fact that people aren't at home. And even in the flooded areas, taking boats or walking through the floodwaters after we've evacuated them and breaking into homes. We're arresting numerous people doing that. And New Orleans has had some problems with looters shooting at the police when they go to try to stop them.
ZAHN: Sounds like you have a very long night ahead, and probably weeks worth of pain and months worth of pain ahead as well. Good luck to you, sir. Thanks so much.
More on Katrina, when we come back.
ZAHN: Just when you think things are really, really bad in Mississippi, the numbers keep on getting worse. The death toll climbing. We are told at this hour estimates anywhere of 50 to 80. The governor now telling us he believes that number will go into the hundreds.
And tonight as we look at stretches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it's very hard to believe that once where there were vibrant towns, that Hurricane Katrina bulldozed though them all, leaving basically absolutely nothing.
Gary Tuchman reports from the Mississippi coast.
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A small Mississippi town in ruins. Bay St. Louis, which suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Camille in 1969, was hit even harder this time. Nicky Nichelson moved here two years ago.
NICKY NICHELSON, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Here is my dream. Yes. I came here from New Orleans two-and-a-half years ago with a wonderful dream to have a B and B on the beach and I did for a very short period of time.
TUCHMAN (on camera): And Nicky, I can't even see where it was anymore. Where was it?
NICKELSON: I know. It was right here. This beautiful tree was in my front yard.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): Her bed and breakfast is now rubble, just like many of the homes and businesses on Main Street, just like the mile-long bridge which is part of U.S. 90 across the St. Louis Bay. Each of the stories is unique, but Nicky's is harrowing as well as lucky.
NICKELSON: This house had withstood Camille and withstood the huge wind of 1947 and -- so, I felt we were safe. I felt safe in the house.
TUCHMAN: So she and six other people remained in the bed and breakfast, but a tidal surge came in and then --
NICKELSON: My house literally crumbled.
TUCHMAN (on camera): While you were in it?
NICKELSON: While we were in it. Crumbled, just crumbled.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): And that's where this tree comes into the story: The seven were propelled by the storm surge to the tree. As the winds whipped and the torrents of rain fell, they grabbed on to a limb, literally for dear life.
NICKELSON: We held on, it was amazing, for almost three hours. And it just finally, finally slowed down. But I mean, it was washing over our heads -- over our heads.
TUCHMAN: One of the employees of the B and B, Kevin McNeil, was next to Nicky on the limb.
(on camera): So, Nicky was here. You were where, Kevin?
KEVIN MCNEIL, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Right up there.
TUCHMAN: You were up there and the waves were hitting the branch. And what were you thinking?
NICKELSON: I started to pray a lot. I truly didn't know if we'd make it. I really didn't.
TUCHMAN: You must have been terrified. NICKELSON: Absolutely.
MCNEIL: I was just trying to keep her calm.
NICKELSON: You know, and every once in a while we'd look at each other and touch, you know, a finger to each other.
MCNEIL: It was stinging so bad with the rain.
NICKELSON: It was awful.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): Minutes later, four of the seven, including a couple in their 80s, lost their grips and floated away. The three left on the tree were despondent.
(on camera): Did you think you were going to die?
NICKELSON: Yes. Yes, I did.
TUCHMAN (on camera): No doubt about it?
NICKELSON: No. No doubt about it. No doubt.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): But the water started to recede. Nicky and her friends were safe and the four who floated away were later rescued.
(on camera): What were you thinking while that water was climbing the tree and you were on it?
NICKELSON: That I would be a little bit more religious; have a little more faith.
TUCHMAN: Have more faith?
TUCHMAN: If you lived?
NICKELSON: Yes. And my brother's a priest. He'll be very happy with that.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): Kevin hadn't been able to contact his nervous mother in Louisiana to say he was all right. We let him use our satellite telephone to do that.
MCNEIL: Love you. Love you. Bye. Bye.
TUCHMAN: And Nicky is now mulling the future with her faithful friend, Mattie the Scottish terrier, who by the way, was on that tree branch with Nicky.
TUCHMAN: Nicky and her friends were very lucky. Bay St. Louis is located in Hancock County. That's the southwestern most coastal county here in the state of Mississippi. Authorities with the emergency management service there are telling us there are a number of people who have been killed.
They say there are more than 150 people who have been hurt. They are in the local hospital, the Hancock County Medical Center. They've made a plea for doctors and nurses in the area to go to the hospital. They don't want civilians going there because it's very crowded, it's hard to pass the roads, but they need medical help.
But they are telling us a number of people have died. They don't want give us a number, but they're saying that some of the people who have died are in houses that are inaccessible right now. Authorities have gone on boats, put red paint marks on a house to indicate that's where a deceased person is and they're waiting for some refrigerated trucks to come to pick up those bodies.
ZAHN: Gary Tuchman, thanks. I guess it's for a very good reason that the governor of that state indicated to us earlier tonight that he expects the death toll to go into the hundreds in his state alone.
Next, we go right to ground zero, the Mississippi Coast, where countless homes and businesses have been absolutely leveled -- not a trace. In some cases, three-story buildings being leveled.
Our coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues.
ZAHN: It is a very tense night in New Orleans tonight. A CNN producer tells us tonight that National Guard troops are taking up positions on the edge of the French Quarter on Bourbon and Canal Streets and are telling everyone to get off the streets. This after looting and violence earlier as Adaora Udoji reported just a short while ago.
ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're in downtown New Orleans, Anderson, right outside of the Superdome. And we ran into police officers who are telling us that there's some massive looting going on in the downtown area, particularly in those areas that have been flooded.
They tell us that the water has continually been rising, that at some points it is up to 12 feet. They say it was in the last couple of hours that there have been a couple of shootings in the area. And they're very concerned that the situation could deteriorate as we move into nighttime.
It's actually also begun to rain. They told us that there have been a couple of reported incidents of various people, some of these I guess you could call them Katrina refugees, who are packed along the highway, trying to take others' cars, because they're trying to get out of town. So, they were certainly advising us to be very careful. Really, they advise us not to go in the downtown area.
ZAHN: And once again, the folks we have talked to in charge of security in New Orleans tonight, very concerned about temperatures rising as folks in the Superdome -- we believe as many as 30,000 people taking refuge there, are living in very cramped quarters with no water, no air conditioning, rain leaking in from the roof as it rains there this evening. It is a mess.
Much more ahead tonight on the disaster. Clearly millions of people are in desperate need. Here are some numbers to call if you or someone you know needs help or if you want to help. And there are more to choose from on our Web site, CNN.com.
ZAHN: Our primetime coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues now with LARRY KING LIVE at 9:00. Larry, what are you doing tonight?
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": We're going to have Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi on. An old friend; I haven't seen him or heard from him in a long time and I'm sorry under such tragic conditions. And a lot of major figures -- governor of Louisiana will be on our panel, by the way. She'll be with us for the full hour.
And this story gets more incredible by the minute. And this tragedy is almost unbelievable, Paula. This is unbelievable.
ZAHN: I can't remember seeing so much pain and in such a wide widespread area here in this country when it comes to a natural disaster. It's horrible. Larry, see you at the top of the hour. Thanks.
ZAHN: New Orleans tonight, a city under water, a city under siege and we are hearing more reports of looting and violence, carjackings in New Orleans. And a CNN producer on the ground just told us the National Guard has arrived in the French Quarter to keep order.
Right now joining me on the phone is a man who actually witnessed some of the looting and says he was actually shot at. Describe to us what you saw earlier today.
CALLER: Yes. Yes, ma'am. I was traveling down St. Charles Avenue a few -- I guess about 30 or 45 minutes ago and they had several of the convenience stores, just people walking in and out. I mean, several -- probably 30, 40, 50 at each one of these Walgreens and Rite-Aids, just taking anything that they wanted and it looked to me like large gangs walking up and down St. Charles Avenue.
And I was trying to take a couple pictures and all of a sudden, I heard a couple shots going off. And you know, I kind of got a little excited and punched on the accelerator and got out of there. But it looks to me like they're trying to loot some of those million and $2 million homes on St. Charles Avenue.
ZAHN: I guess that's not surprising give how difficult it is even for law enforcement to be on the scene.
CALLER: It's all dry on St. Charles. It's not wet. It's dry.
ZAHN: It's all dry now. OK, that's a good reminder. We actually are looking at some pictures of some of that looting that took place earlier today. Thank you so much for sharing what you witnessed.
And just a reminder that CNN will stay with this story all night long. We really appreciate your joining us tonight. And LARRY KING LIVE is next. He starts right now.
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