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PAULA ZAHN NOW

President Bush Promises Massive Hurricane Relief Effort; Thousands Feared Dead in New Orleans

Aired August 31, 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. Thank you for being with us tonight.
The situation along the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana and Alabama, continues to change by the minute, from casualty reports to survivor stories to relief efforts, even how this disaster will affect the entire country. This is in no way just confined to the Southeast. We are going to bring you updates as we get them. Let's get started right now.

Today, the mayor of the New Orleans said Hurricane Katrina may have killed hundreds or even thousands of people in his city. Almost all of New Orleans remains underwater tonight. Thousands of people have been rescued from rooftops. They still haven't plugged the holes in the levees. There are now three breaches. But if there is good news, it's that the water level is no longer rising.

Federal help is on the way, including four Navy ships and a hospital ship. And the 25,000 refugees in the Superdome are being bused 300 miles away to Houston, where they will be housed in the Astrodome.

So, tonight, with the city of New Orleans continuing to be underwater and much of the Gulf Coast flattened, we are looking at the breathtaking challenge of saving one million American refugees. As you can see, unbelievable hardship and devastation everywhere.

CNN's Chris Lawrence is right in the middle of it in New Orleans. He has been through some harrowing experiences himself in the past couple of hours.

He joins me now on the phone with an update.

Chris, what do you see from where you're standing?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, right now, I can see the sun just starting to dip behind the buildings, which is always a really rough time here, helicopters coming in low, fire trucks still on the streets trying to put out this one fire. There are no working fire hydrants anywhere in this area.

The street I'm standing on is completely flooded. We are about -- it varies between knee-deep and ankle-deep water here, waist deep in some places down the street. And they have been pumping the water out of the street, trying to put this fire out, so that it doesn't spread. It's a big challenge, I mean, when you think about, they don't have the fire hydrants like they normally do. And speaking with a couple of the firefighters, they don't have a house to go back to. These guys lost their house and they're still out here on the street fighting the fire.

ZAHN: Describe to us the devastation you have seen. We have heard reports all day long that city officials are finding bodies in attics; they're are finding bodies in the water, that rescue workers have been instructed to ignore the dead bodies, to aid the living. Have you seen any evidence of that?

LAWRENCE: Paula, you don't even have to go in people's homes.

There's a dead body right outside the convention center. I mean, this convention center is right in the heart of downtown. I mean, picture any downtown where -- any city you live, Main Street, wherever. The main building, there's a dead body that has been sitting out there for two days. They put a blanket over him.

But there are literally thousands of people lined up at this convention center wandering aimlessly, i mean, mothers with their babies, little kids, walking through this putrid water. And there's this dead body that is just sitting there. And I asked one of police officers and he said, we can't -- we can barely control the situation as it is. We can't even worry about dead right now.

The coroner's office is flooded. There's no ambulance service. A couple people said, why don't you something about it? And he said, what can we do? What can we do? We don't have communication.

They're just like us. They don't have phones. A lot of police officers say they're kind of making it up as they go along. He said, he had to siphon gas from some abandoned cars just to keep their cars running. And they're scrounging for food and water as best they can. But with no communication, it really is hard to believe this is a major American city.

ZAHN: Finally, Chris, tonight, you have heard gunshot fire. Looting continues to be a huge problem in New Orleans. What's the level of fear there tonight?

LAWRENCE: I think it's pretty high.

Even some of the police officers were saying, you know, it's scary. It's not normal. You don't just walk up and arrest people. When we were standing there talking to one that officer, a group of men walked by, about eight, 10 of them. One of them, you could clearly see had a gun holstered right -- stuffed in his waistband.

And the police officer said, you know, they're not trying to confront people. It's just a very different situation. A lot of people have guns. A lot of people are armed. One of the officers said, unless we walk outside with our shotguns, you know, full shotguns in a group, it's not safe for us. He said one guy walking around with a handgun, he said, I wouldn't feel safe doing that. So, imagine how it feels for, say, a mother and a child or a normal family. (CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Oh, yes.

LAWRENCE: It's scary.

ZAHN: Absolutely unimaginable. Chris Lawrence, thanks so much for the update.

On the phone now is Krystin Smith. She's a registered nurse and has been tending patients in the intensive care unit at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

Thank you so much for being with us. We know things are very rough there at this hour. Just how primitive are the conditions that you have to operate under tonight?

KRYSTIN SMITH, NURSE: I mean, I wouldn't call it primitive conditions here. We have no power, no water, no running water. We -- so, you know, I'm in the ICU. We have patients on ventilators that we have working off of one generator that we scrounge diesel fuel for every two hours.

And when the fuel runs out, before they can get some more, we're having to bag patients manually. And it's frightening, that we have already lost one person in a body bag that we had to get rid of today. And our patients can't get their medicines, because, like I said, there's no power. And we have minimal to work with, if you would even call it minimal here.

ZAHN: So, what are some of tough decisions, Krystin, you have to make, since you don't seem to be get -- able to get everybody evacuated at the hospital; you're running on short supplies?

(CROSSTALK)

SMITH: I want to make a clarification, too.

Only three people have been evacuated from our hospital. There's been no other evacuations. We just sent two people out from my unit and two people went last night. Take that back.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: So, do you expect that you are going to be there for a long time and you're going to have to bear this?

SMITH: Actually, I mean, I pray to God that we don't, because, I mean, since we're taking care of patients, we have no running water.

We are cleaning -- patients -- we have no linen. So, our patients are sitting in feces. And just it's awful. I mean, we are -- and not only that. We are scared for ourselves, too, because it's becoming a hazard to take care of the patients, because we are now getting sick. We have had to start I.V.s in a number of our nurses throughout the whole hospital, because we're dehydrated. We don't sleep at night.

We're working around the clock. And we're not receiving nutrition that we need. And it's frightening.

ZAHN: Krystin, finally, when do you expect to get any help at all?

SMITH: That's why we contacted you, because we thought that you all would get it out there that we're suffering here, that we're not doing too well, and not just our patients, but us, too.

We don't know. We hear one thing and supposedly Monday we were supposed to be moving patients out. And, unfortunately, it didn't happen. And today, we were supposed to move people out. Or, Tuesday, they said in the morning at daybreak, we are going to start. And it's just rumors, you know?

ZAHN: Well, Krystin, we hope to have some answers for you a little bit later on the show, when I will be talking with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Good luck to you all. And thank you so much for your time tonight.

David Mattingly left New Orleans today, after being in the disaster zone since the storm hit. He joins me now from Baton Rouge.

I guess what you're hearing, David, isn't any surprise to you. You have talked to so many people, the survivors, who have bore unimaginable tragedy.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Just listening to that nurse, the trouble that you hear in her voice will tell you how far past the breaking point so many people have been stretched by this disaster.

So many people in New Orleans, a lot of the areas that were hardest-hit areas were low-income areas. People did not have the means to evacuate. Many of them I talked to didn't have cars, didn't have anywhere to go. So, that's why they stayed in their homes. They didn't want to go to the Superdome at the time.

And that's when they got caught in the floods. They had to walk out in that filthy, filthy water that was, in some cases, chest deep or up to their chins as they walked out of their homes wading to high ground on the expressway. So, we talk about the sanitary conditions, what the nurse was seeing. We are going to see a lot of disease, probably, from so many of these people having to wade out in that filthy water just to get to safety.

So, this is a disaster on top of a disaster on top of a disaster. So many facets of it are just now brewing and will be coming up from days to come.

ZAHN: You also very well understand the frustration of the residents there, who are without food, who are without water, without electricity, unable to use cell phones. Was it pretty scary trying to understand what that could potentially lead to down the road, if help doesn't get to these people?

MATTINGLY: We already saw some of that happening with the looting and some of the violence that's been reported, the carjackings, things like that.

There are always people in a desperate situation who will take advantage of a situation and do the things that might do harm to other people. The vast majority of people I talked to were at a loss. They had no idea where to go, what to do next, where their next meal was coming from or where they would even be able to get a clean drink of water in the next day or so.

There were people sitting out on the interstate in the hot sun all day long yesterday, wondering if someone was going to come and give them a ride to the Superdome after they had walked out of their homes. There's a great deal of confusion. Communication is down. So many people are unable to listen to radios. There's absolutely no TV around in that area. And they just want answers, they want help, and they want to know where to find it.

ZAHN: You look at these pictures and it's still hard to absorb the punch that this -- this storm made these people accept.

Thanks so much, David Mattingly.

I want to take a minute now to answer a question that has probably crossed all of your minds. Why did the flooding in New Orleans get worse, instead of better, after Hurricane Katrina blew away?

Unfortunately, we're having some technical problems. But, hopefully, in the show, we can explain to you what has happened with three breached levees. And the bottom line is that, basically, you have New Orleans sitting below sea level. And when these levees breached, it basically sent a wall of water over that city. And I think, with any good luck now, we will have that explanation for you.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): The disaster that hit New Orleans is a result of its major geographic liability. The city lies below sea level. That means it's below the level of Lake Pontchartrain, that big body of water to the north. It's also below the level of the Mississippi River, which you see snaking through the city on the south.

Levees, which are big earthen dams, sometimes topped with concrete walls, normally keep the water out. But Hurricane Katrina was anything but normal. It pushed water way over the top of the levees, which then probably undermined their foundations. Let's zoom into the problem areas. The most serious is along what's called the 17th Street canal, right in the center of your screen.

It's a shipping lane connecting the lake and the river. A 500- foot section of concrete flood wall collapsed yesterday. Lake water poured into the city. Another levee broke on the industrial canal, which connects the Mississippi River to the Intercostal Waterway, just two cuts, but deadly nonetheless, because pumps that normally send water into the lake failed.

That pretty much makes them useless until the levees are repaired. By this afternoon, the water levels had stabilized at sea level, but not before 80 percent of the city had been flooded. Basically, New Orleans is now an urban swamp.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And just to give you an idea of how quickly things change, when we recorded that report, there were only two breaches in the levee. And we have learned tonight that in fact there are three.

So, why would anyone build a city that is actually below sea level? Well, in the beginning, it wasn't. The oldest section of New Orleans, the French Quarter, is on high ground as you come up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. As the city grew, it expanded into areas that are below sea level.

So, with all the water in New Orleans at this hour, efforts are now under way to get it out of there.

Mike Zumstein is head of the unwatering task force with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He evacuated to Memphis, Tennessee, and is about to return to Louisiana. He joins us tonight with his expertise.

Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

How long is it going to take to get the water out of New Orleans?

Please -- please -- please be patient with us. There are all kinds of technical problems associated with the lack of communication equipment down south.

Let me see if I can get Mike back on the line here.

Mike, can you hear me?

I think we're not going to get Mike up.

But the bottom line here is, we have been told that we should expect that it will take a minimum of 30 days to get the water out of the city.

Meanwhile, the mayor of New Orleans was saying today that there will be -- quote -- "a total evacuation of the city." It is hoped that he will be able to get people out, 14,000 to 15,000 a day. And in the mayor's words, it could be two to three months before the city is up and running again.

Still ahead tonight, from one dome to another, 25,000 hurricane refugees begin the move to Houston. We will follow them on the road.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ZAHN: The news out of New Orleans just keeps on getting worse, the mayor earlier day -- that he expects not just hundreds of deaths, but thousands of deaths. The water -- or the city still underwater tonight.

Let's try to establish contact with Mike Zumstein, the man we were telling you about earlier, who is with the unwatering task force with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He evacuated to Memphis, Tennessee. He's about to Louisiana. And he is going to give us a better idea of how you get the water out of there.

Mike, can you hear me?

MIKE ZUMSTEIN, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Yes, ma'am, I can.

ZAHN: So, Mike, how long do you think it will take to get the water out of New Orleans?

ZUMSTEIN: It is going to take a while because of the amount of magnitude, as far as the water.

The number one priority, of course, is to close off the breaches. And then we will implement a series of intended breaches in order to go ahead and let gravity take place and drain the city. And then that will allow us to have our personnel, as far as different parishes, come in and assess the damage to the pump stations, repair and refurbish the pumps as necessary to get them online to pump the remaining water in the city out.

ZAHN: We heard today that the water levels now in New Orleans are stabilized, even those all these pictures we look at continue to show home after home underwater. Is that finally the first ray of good news you've heard?

ZUMSTEIN: Yes, ma'am, it is.

And the water has stabilized on the 17th Street canal. And, also, on the breach on the London canal, it is actually flowing back into Lake Pontchartrain, which is very good news for the residents.

ZAHN: We know you have got a lot of work to get done. Mike Zumstein, thank you so much for joining us.

The evacuation of the Louisiana Superdome has begun. The plan is to put the 20,000-plus hurricane refugees there on buses for a seven- hour drive to Houston. Once there, they will stay at the Astrodome.

And that is where we find Sean Callebs tonight.

Sean, are they ready?

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think the Astrodome is getting ready, whether it will be ready.

It's a seven-hour drive from New Orleans to Houston under the best of circumstances, but, as you can imagine, the logistics getting out of that city, somewhat a nightmare. Here's a look inside the Astrodome. Just a short while ago, they peeled up an Astroturf football field. While the Astrodome is not used for pro sporting events anymore, it is used for high school football games and some parties as well.

Now, when the people arrive here, they will find conditions hot. It is going to be sunny. It is going to be muggy, but you know what? It is going to feel like paradise compared to what they have had to endure over the past several days. Now, of course, roof at the Superdome, parts of it giving way during the height of the hurricane, water on the ground of the floor of the Superdome as well, very cramped facilities as well.

Now, here, at the Astrodome, they are going to find basically pristine restrooms. There are showers in the locker rooms. A nursery has been set up for those who have small children. And even youngsters coming from New Orleans will begin going to Texas schools as well.

But, Paula, not everything great. Only those coming from the Superdome are going to be allowed. There are thousands of evacuees from New Orleans who are being turned away at the gate here -- Paula.

ZAHN: Where are they telling you they're going to go? A lot of them ran out of money a long time ago. They have left hotels as they move north. They've got nothing left.

CALLEBS: They are furious. That's the only way to put it.

We have heard people stand out here and say, FEMA has all this money and they have all this planning. They have this huge dome that can handle 55,000 people. Why can't we come in with the thousands of evacuees from the Superdome? But, right now, the Red Cross, one of the agencies operating this with FEMA, says they simply aren't going to allow evacuees who are already in Houston inside this dome, because they say -- quote -- they "can't control the situation."

ZAHN: Sean Callebs, thanks so much.

Joining me also from Houston, Mayor Bill White.

Good of you to join us, sir.

I guess the most obvious question is, why can't you accommodate 55,000 people, if that's what the Astrodome can hold?

BILL WHITE (D), MAYOR OF HOUSTON: Well...

ZAHN: Why are you turning away people?

WHITE: We're accommodating tens of thousands of people right now in our hotel rooms and in numerous shelters throughout the city. Thousands are in our Red Cross shelters. And we're increasing the number of shelters. We want to provide a decent living condition, where they can have sanitation, hygiene, food. And our faith community and all of our local government has come together to support folks right now. So, it's just the matter of the capacity of that facility. But, right now, we have tens of thousands of domestic refugees that are in our midst. And we are rising to the challenge of dealing with that.

ZAHN: So, is there any immediate help you can give those people who have been turned away because they aren't among the group that is being transported from the Superdome the other Astrodome?

WHITE: Sure.

There are shelters. Five large shelters have been opened. And we're looking for every facility that accommodates 500 people, 1,000 people. We organized with churches in the community and United Way, Red Cross. So, will have numerous shelters. And then we also now are in the process of identifying apartments and other units.

If it is going to be a matter of months, people need some dignity, a place to shave, to live their lives and seek employment as well.

ZAHN: Governor, you just mentioned -- I'm sorry. Mayor, you just mentioned the month theory. The governor earlier today said he wants to get these refugees in as quickly as possible and out. What is realistic? How long do you think people will be staying at the Astrodome?

WHITE: Well, from the Astrodome, we want people to basically allow people to go back as quickly as the conditions in Louisiana allow.

We're good neighbors here. We know this is a U.S. situation. And we're the closest major city, and so we have tens of thousands of people that will be here. We don't want them to go back prematurely. We're helping build, rebuild the infrastructure already. And our fire and EMS crews are there. We will help New Orleans rebuild. But while people are here, we are going to do everything that we can.

There's already been over $10 million raised locally to help in relief efforts, so we can be a good neighbor.

ZAHN: Well, that's impressive. Godspeed to you all down there.

And just thank you, Mayor Bill White, for joining us tonight.

Just a reminder that there is going to be a convoy of some 500 buses traveling from the Superdome to the Astrodome. Some of the first buses arriving will make it to Houston sometime before 1:00 to 3:00 in the morning on Thursday. And, of course, CNN will be covering all of that live for you.

Much more ahead, though, here on Katrina. Right now, though, for some of the other day's headlines, let's turn to Erica Hill of Headline News -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula.

A horrendous death toll in one single incident in Baghdad. We now know more than 800 dead, more than 300 injured when a stampede broke out during a Shiite religious procession. The panic may have been caused by rumors of a suicide bomber in the crowd. Many of the victims were women and children.

An American soldier died in an attack near Samarra today, bringing the American death toll to 82 for the month August and 1,881 since the war began.

On the CNN "Security Watch," four suspects charged with planning terrorist attacks in the Los Angeles area. And sources say, prisons are suspected of being recruiting grounds for terrorists.

Some more controversy over the government's delay, meantime, in approving a morning-after birth control plan. The director of FDA's Office of Women's Health resigned, saying over-the-counter sales could reduce abortions, but sound evidence is being -- sound science, that is, is being overruled.

And singer Art Garfunkel now facing marijuana charges. He was stopped for a minor traffic violation near Woodstock, New York. Garfunkel is 63.

And, Paula, those are the headlines at this hour. We will hand it back to you.

ZAHN: Thanks so much, Erica.

Coming up next, the anguish on the Gulf Coast, so many homes flattened and survivors wondering, when will help ever get here?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Hard to believe that that is happening here within our own country.

Welcome back to our continuing coverage of aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Here at CNN, we are trying to help people find their missing loving ones.

Carol Lin joins us now from Atlanta with details.

Hi, Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Paula.

We're trying to use the power of television and the Internet to help people find out what has happened to their loved ones. And we are posting e-mails on our Web site and we are getting tapes from people who want to let their families know they are alive.

Here had a couple examples. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAUREEN BURNETT, WAVELAND, MISSISSIPPI: Joe in Chicago, the kids and I and Mel (ph) are fine. And, Lily (ph), I'm trying to call you, but I can't get ahold of you. And P.J. (ph) and Inga (ph) in Michigan, we're OK.

CHAD EDWARDS, SLIDELL, LOUISIANA: My sister and one of my brothers also rode it out.

(CROSSTALK)

EDWARDS: And we don't know where they are. We found one of my brothers, but we don't know where the other two are.

BECK: Yes, I am. Yes. This is one of our main worries in the French Quarter during normal times, is fire. Just ask our fire people here and our police. That's a huge concern at any time. The looting that I've seen -- I haven't seen the actual looting, but the aftermath of the looting and the possible continued looting is a concern in itself.

I'm just wondering how far are they going to take this? Are they going to start torching the buildings as they leave them? Once one of these buildings will gets fire in it, who knows when it's going to stop.

ZAHN: Well you raise a lot of interesting questions and it's something that the federal government is very deeply concerned about it and they're hoping that the National Guard will be able to get that all under control. Rick Beck, thank you for joining us tonight.

Hurricane Katrina will soon affect all of us. The storm crippled oil production. Gas prices are climbing. That part of the story when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Talk about sticker shock: Much of the country is already getting hammered by the hurricane's energy shock. Tonight, Atlanta drivers are facing prices above $5 a gallon for even regular gas. There also happen to be gas shortages and it could get a whole lot worse. Ali Velshi has the latest on that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the 12-million pound oil rig Warwick. Hurricane Katrina's winds pushed it 66 miles off its moorings until it ran aground off the coast of Alabama.

More than a quarter of America's oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico, drawn out of ocean floor by more than 4,000 floating rigs and fixed- production platforms. When the order came to evacuate the Gulf, thousands of workers were airlifted from their rigs and platforms to this land base, Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Fourchon is the hub of oil and gas production in the gulf. It's a one-stop shopping facility sitting near the southern-most tip of Louisiana. It's also the closes land connection to the LOOP, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. LOOP is the only place in America where the supertankers can offload their oil. The rigs, the platforms, the supertankers, the pipelines, they all come together at Port Fourchon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When Fourchon is shut down, pretty much oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico is shut down.

VELSHI: Fourchon's got location on its side most of the time. These pictures show the hit the port took from Katrina. As soon as it was passable, CNN got exclusive access.

Fourchon also serves as an enormous supply and repair yard and there'll be lots of repair work ahead. At least one massive oil platform is severely damaged, while several floating rigs are either listing, adrift or missing. And until all the damage is assessed, 90 percent of the Gulf's oil output is offline.

Half of the nation's refineries are in the gulf region. As a precaution, eight of them have been shutdown. Some are slowly coming to life, but even before Katrina, gasoline production was at it's limits. That's pressured the government into announcing it will let oil companies dip into its 700-million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve stored in four underground reserves in Texas and Louisiana.

But don't expect that to send the price of oil falling. It's a band-aid solution. For now, the immediate problems need to be addressed: Bringing oil rigs like the Warwick back to their original locations and returning Port Fourchon back to operation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Some pretty tough challenges ahead. Ali Velshi reporting. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Well, it is indeed a desperate night for thousands and thousands of people all along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts: No food, no clean water, no power, no sewage treatment and a lot of frustrated survivors who are waiting for federal help; very critical of the government's response.

But earlier tonight, Mike Brown, the director of FEMA told CNN that, that is going to change now. Brown says what people are going through is quote, "unacceptable." His promise is that the government's distribution of aid, food, water and more is going to start now.

His message to the storm victims: You can tell them, you've talked with the FEMA director and it is going to happen. One last thing, here are people waiting to leave the Superdome where they'll be heading by bus to Houston. They should get there shortly after midnight. CNN will cover it all live. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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