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THE SITUATION ROOM

Thousands Feared Dead in New Orleans; Armed Looters on the Loose; Will Gas Top $4 a Gallon?

Aired August 31, 2005 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where we are getting feeds from all along the Gulf Coast. There are scenes and stories of chaos and courage. And now there are reports of death and destruction, so much worse than earlier imagined -- the New Orleans mayor saying that perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people are dead.
We will get back to the dramatic rescues coming out of New Orleans and all the latest developments. Also standing by, CNN reporters across the U.S., across that region. They'll bring us complete coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And happening right now, in New Orleans, the water is still rising and so is the violence, armed looters on the loose. But there are heroic efforts to rescue stranded survivors and stem the floods.

From the Superdome to the Astrodome. Evacuees are being moved far away as the military prepares to move in.

And get this, $4 a gallon. Is that out of the question? We have exclusive pictures of a damaged Gulf oil port. The president taps emergency stockpiles. We will tell you why that may not help you all that much at the pump.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just minutes ago, heartbreaking information. The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, tells the Associated Press there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead in his city. President Bush earlier flew over the Gulf Coast today. These are pictures that are just coming in from Air Force One. The president is expected to speak about this disaster in two hours. He'll be speaking to the American people from the Rose Garden.

And take a look at some of the other late developments, as the Gulf Coast copes with the aftermath of Katrina.

In New Orleans, there are desperate attempts right now to plug the massive holes in the levees that have left the city drowning, literally. Evacuations are under way. The old, the ailing, the very youngest, virtually all of the city's residents right now, whoever was left behind, they are homeless. Relief is on the way, but it's a race against time right now for those stranded survivors who lack food, water and shelter and now face violence and disease.

Let's take a closer look at some of the numbers that are coming in state by state.

We will begin in Louisiana. New Orleans' mayor, as I said, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are dead, that according to the Associated Press; 23,000 people are being transported right now from the Superdome to Houston's Astrodome. That's quite a feat. And more than 700,000 people in Louisiana right now remain without power.

In Mississippi, it's official; 110 people are dead, but here, too, officials expect that toll to rise sharply. A million people in Mississippi remain without power. And the state says it's losing $500,000 a day due to those closed casinos.

Let's move over to Alabama, two people officially dead; 400,000 people have no power. An oil rig alone was carried 66 miles by the storm, winding up at Alabama's Dauphin Island.

Let's take a look at some videotape that is coming in right now from New Orleans. These are -- these are pictures that are just coming in right now from New Orleans, the rescue operation clearly under way.

Let's bring in Colonel Rich Wagenaar of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers. He's on the phone with us. He's in New Orleans.

Give us a little sense, Colonel, about what you are seeing and what you are hearing, the enormity of this disaster.

COL. RICH WAGENAAR, NEW ORLEANS CORPS OF ENGINEERS: It's -- television does not put it into perspective. I flew over the area yesterday, most of the day, and was in right after the storm.

And it's just extremely significant to see probably a quarter of one part of the city on the eastern side completely underwater. It's hard to put it into words, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, so, is there -- is there any light at this early stage, at the end of the tunnel? The Corps of Engineers, first of all, has to stop the flooding from continuing. How does that operation look right now, Colonel?

WAGENAAR: We're working on that right now. I believe we have got helicopters in the air attempting to plug the two holes in the flood wall on the central part of the city, up near Lake Pontchartrain. Hopefully, we're moving full-bore into that operation in the next couple of hours.

BLITZER: Well, describe in some specific detail for our general viewers out there who may not necessarily be engineers what this means, how this will work, and how long it will take to stop the water from coming into the city.

WAGENAAR: Well, these are drainage canals. And they are lined with concrete. And two canals on the north side of the city against Lake Pontchartrain have 200- and 300-foot holes in them. Lake Pontchartrain was draining back into, in reverse, into these canals and flowing back into the city of New Orleans. One canal we believe is equalized, so it's stable. The water is not flowing in or out. One canal was -- a breach occurred late yesterday and we're getting an assessment of that breach at this time.

BLITZER: Do you have an assessment, Colonel, how long it will take to plug up those two holes, if you will?

WAGENAAR: If we can find a solution, if the solution we have now works, hopefully, in the next two or three days.

BLITZER: All right. As we're speaking, by the way, we're seeing the president of the United States boarding Marine One. He's at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., taking a brief 10-, 12-minute flight aboard Marine One over to the White House. He's going to be addressing the American people, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, less than two hours from now, from the Rose Garden. He cut short his vacation a little bit to get back to Washington to deal with the enormity of this crisis.

Colonel Wagenaar, you were saying that to plug up those holes should take how long? What is a good estimate?

WAGENAAR: I hope in the next two or three days, if the solution we have right now works on this first canal. And then we will start on the second one, as soon as this first one is complete.

BLITZER: And we're showing our viewers, Colonel, as we're speaking from earlier, just a little while ago, people on rooftops in New Orleans still yelling for help, trying to get some of those Coast Guard and other helicopters to stop by and pick them up and bring them to safety.

So, let's say it takes two or three days to plug those holes. In the meantime, does the water continue to seep into the city?

WAGENAAR: Maybe in small amounts. But the significant water flowing into the city right now is through those two breaches.

BLITZER: All right. So, you fill up those holes. You put those thousands of pounds of sandbags to fill those holes. What happens to the water in the city? How do you pump that water out?

WAGENAAR: We have a watering plant. And through gravity and other means, we try and get the water down below the level of the pump stations. Those pump stations are then repaired or the pumps are replaced. And we begin pumping water back out of those drainage canals.

We also cut holes in the levees at key locations to drain water out of the city. We have a team right now that is modifying or looking at the plan, based on what's happening now to determine where to cut those holes in the levees to let the water out through gravity flow.

BLITZER: And so, that would be one way. Are those pumps working? The pumps that are supposed to pump water out, are they -- do they have enough electrical power to get the job done? WAGENAAR: Many of those pumps are not working because they are underwater at this time.

BLITZER: So, what do you do with that? How do you fix that? How do you repair that?

WAGENAAR: Well, we get them, we drain them down and then we repair them or replace them and we start pumping. And they can average, in a good day, with all pumps working and no rainfall, about a foot a day to get the water down.

BLITZER: Realistically, what are we talking about to get all the water off the streets of New Orleans?

WAGENAAR: It is hard to predict, but the numbers before this started were three to six months.

BLITZER: Three to six months? In the meantime, those waters, a lot of those waters, are filthy. They are disgusting. And there's potential for health -- for health hazards, as a result of all that water in the city.

WAGENAAR: Correct. The water is extremely dirty, major -- it's a significant health -- health situation.

BLITZER: So, it's critical that people who are still stuck, either on rooftops or in attics, they get rescued and brought to safety?

WAGENAAR: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: What about the personnel? Do you have enough people on hand, men and women, to get the job done, the experts, the engineers, from the Corps of Engineers, to go in there and do -- and deal with this crisis?

WAGENAAR: Right now, I believe we do. They are mobilizing every reaction team we have across the country. The entire corps is focused on this effort from across the country. I believe that, from a national perspective, we have unlimited resources to deal with this situation.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen anything like this in all your years of experience, Colonel?

WAGENAAR: Never. And I never thought it was as bad as it was until I flew over it.

BLITZER: And we hope we never see it again.

By the way, we're seeing the Marine One now land on the South Lawn of the White House. The president will be getting off Marine One. He will walk into the West Wing of the White House. And then he'll prepare his remarks to the American people for 5:00 p.m. Eastern, perhaps a disaster of certainly unprecedented magnitude, at least of recent years. Colonel, give us some perspective, historically. Galveston in the early 20th century may be something along those lines. But I don't remember anything like this, a natural disaster, hitting the United States in my memory.

WAGENAAR: I -- no, not since probably the 1927 flood, which was a significant event on the Mississippi River.

BLITZER: And the earthquake that hit San Francisco, that was a good century or so ago as well.

Colonel, give us a little bit additional perspective as we see these pictures continue to unfold. Give us a little bit of additional perspective of what you need, your men and women from the Corps of Engineers, most right now.

WAGENAAR: Well, right now, I just -- I think we just need to continue to get support from the American public and from everyone involved.

I mean, I have had many, many civilians call me direct and offer their solutions to solving our problems and helping us. And I truly appreciate it. I think that, you know, the nation and everybody is marshaling all the resources that we have available to deal with this situation. It's just, the enormity of it makes it extremely complicated, with the water, power lines down in the water, trees down. That whole situation, it's extremely complex.

And I think we're working it as quickly as we can. So, it's -- it's also going to take some patience for the people that are here, which is extremely hard, but also the American public, as we work through this situation together.

BLITZER: Colonel Wagenaar, you are the district commanding officer. You also -- from the Corps of Engineers. But you are also in New Orleans. Give us a little flavor of what it's like to be walking around New Orleans. I don't know what part of the city you are in right now, but give us a little personal insight into what you are seeing and what you are hearing.

WAGENAAR: When I first came out and what I saw, I -- the one thing I noticed right away was, there was not one building, home or tree or anything that was not undamaged from the wind. It was extremely complicated to get around at all.

And now, with no electricity, no running water, and it's probably 90 degrees outside. -- I haven't been outside this afternoon yet. So, the conditions are just getting worse at this time.

BLITZER: All right. Colonel, good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women of the Corps of Engineers. You've got an enormous job.

We just heard Colonel Rich Wagenaar of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers saying it could take three to six months to just simply pump that water out of the city of New Orleans. We see the president walking in to the White House right now. This is tape of the president walking in from Marine One, cutting short his vacation by a couple of days, to get back to the nation's capital to deal with this enormous national crisis that's under way. There's some of his aides, including Karl Rove, walking in from Marine One.

As well, our producer Kim Segal is joining us now. She's on the phone. She's joining us from New Orleans. You are still there, Kim. Give us a little flavor. What's it like to be in New Orleans, Louisiana, right now?

KIM SEGAL, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Wolf, you have two stories going on here in New Orleans.

We're sitting here watching all the people being evacuated from hotels down here. Remember, a lot of people left their homes and they stuck it out in hotels during Katrina. Now those hotels are being flooded. So, the National Guard, good samaritans, all types of people are trying to help to get these folks out of the hotels.

We're not really sure where they are going to take them yet. They were supposed to go to the Superdome, but it looks like they are evacuating that.

So, you have the story of the hotel and then you have the looting. Unfortunately, there's people, I think, don't even realize how -- how bad the storm was and still is. And they are out here just -- they're clothes shopping, basically.

BLITZER: Kim, were you shocked, as I was, when the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, said -- told the Associated Press just a little while ago that perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people are dead in New Orleans?

SEGAL: Wolf, from what we're seeing, we're not seeing that where we are. But you have to remember, we are at the French Quarter right up on Bourbon Street.

What you have here mostly is high-rise buildings, mostly hotels, not residential, and storefronts. So, we're not seeing any of that. And we haven't over the last couple days. We only could get into like a six-block radius from our hotel since Katrina struck (ph). So, that's all we have seen. Well, we have seen a Hyatt that has every window busted out of it. So, I mean, the number doesn't surprise me, but I'm not seeing it here downtown, not yet anyway.

BLITZER: Kim Segal, I just want our viewers to know who she is. She is one of our veteran producers. She's based normally in Miami.

But you are now in Louisiana, in New Orleans, right in the heart of the city, Kim. I understand a lot of our CNN personnel left New Orleans today. You decided to stay behind with a handful of other CNN personnel.

What was the problem? Simply getting too dangerous for people to stay in the city?

SEGAL: Yes. And when you have that many people here in the city, you don't want to have to worry about evacuating everybody. It's also -- it's also the equipment. You have got to remember -- that's why I'm on the telephone -- we have to have power to power up a lot of equipment. We use car batteries and stuff like that. The problem is, a lot of the cars are underwater. It just made sense to leave the smallest crew possible here to cover the rest of this story. It wasn't -- it just wasn't safe and we weren't able to get as much out as far as transmitting. So, this was the smarter decision.

BLITZER: Kim Segal, stay safe over there. Be -- we will stay in constant touch with you.

Kim Segal is in New Orleans for us, together with a handful of other CNN personnel, a very dangerous assignment. I don't want to belittle that by any means.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick is not all that far away. Deborah, you are in Boyce, Louisiana. Where exactly is that?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Boyce, Louisiana, is someplace between Shreveport, where we were this morning, and Baton Rouge, which is where we're heading to now.

And we spoke to a number of families in Shreveport. And just to give you a sense of how many people fled there, 20,000 people headed to Shreveport to try to escape the hurricane, many of them asking themselves, where do you go to simply start your life over again? I mean, these families lost businesses, homes, possessions, everything.

Now, the Lallah (ph) family, who is spread virtually throughout New Orleans, we spoke to them. They're desperate to reach their sister, Joanne (ph). She's an oncology nurse at Baptist Hospital. The last time they spoke to her was about five hours ago.

This is the nurse's story. She told her family that the backup generators that were taking care of the bone marrow patients, the most critically ill, that generator is gone. They have no ventilation. They are using portable oxygen, trying to decide which patients they can give the oxygen to in order to prolong their lives. They have no running water. They are using water and rationing it out, giving patients drops in order to take their medicine.

They are running out of food. One of the nurses walked outside to get a breath of fresh air. She was held up at gunpoint. So, it is not safe. Now, we did hear the governor just a few moments ago on the radio -- we don't know exactly when she made the statement -- but the governor said that they are making an effort to try to evacuate some of the hospitals. But they've been unable to reach people at, at least two of the hospitals which are surrounded by water.

Now, the families that we spoke to in Shreveport, many of them were -- have enough money to stay at the hotels, but that money is not going to last for long. Some of them are figuring out whether they should go to shelters. One family, they lost their business. They had a mortgage company and they are worried about their employees, because they can't get in touch with them. And they may not go back and start the mortgage business again.

That means that all those employees are simply out of jobs, as people simply search for someplace to go, someplace to start over again.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Deborah, you are in Boyce, Louisiana, right now. Where are you heading next?

FEYERICK: We're going to be heading to Baton Rouge. That is where FEMA is staging all the operations, a number of families there also evacuated, trying to be close to New Orleans.

But, again, this is a city -- so many people had to pull their kids out of school. I mean, the kids had been in school for just about a week and now they don't even know whether, in fact, to enroll them someplace else, whether it be in Baton Rouge, whether it be in Houston, some people thinking they are just going to drive to Arizona. So a lot of questions.

But we are en route to Baton Rouge and to the FEMA staging command center there.

BLITZER: All right, we will check back with you, Deborah Feyerick, on the scene for us.

Let's check in with CNN's Jack Cafferty. He's in New York.

Jack, as much as we have been saying this on an almost daily basis, as bad as it gets, it's getting worse. And now the mayor of New Orleans suggesting perhaps thousands of people in his city are dead. I don't know what your reaction is, but I was shocked when I heard that.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the stories just become more heartbreaking by the hour and by the day.

I guess I'm not really surprised that they are looking at perhaps a four-figure death toll, all of the people in that city who perhaps didn't have cars, couldn't get out of town. The floodwaters rose all the way to the levels of the roofs of those homes in many of the neighborhoods. I guess it's not unreasonable to expect that a lot of people have drowned in the rising floodwaters.

A little piece of good news we just learned in New York, Wolf, is that the local NBC ONO, WNBC Television, here in New York City, is going to hold a one-hour fund-raiser tonight in conjunction with the American Red Cross. So, if you are living in the New York metropolitan area and want to maybe kick in a couple of bucks to help these people, 7:00 to 8:00 tonight on Channel 4 here in New York.

The Red Cross said that it's raised something in the neighborhood of $22 million in the first two days. They said the response from Americans so far has been comparable to the kind of response they got when the tsunami hit in Asia last fall.

All of that has nothing to do with the question of the hour. The question is about looting.

In parts of New Orleans, the looters are taking almost everything that isn't nailed down. And stopping them is a big problem. What Katrina didn't destroy, people are stealing, everything from food, clothing, electronics and jewelry. They even lifted an entire gun collection from a new Wal-Mart in the city of New Orleans.

Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, says it's a problem, but that priority one in that city is rescuing survivors, not stopping the looting. Police have also reported attempted carjackings and shootings near the Superdome, where thousands of people have been holed up since the storm hit Monday.

Here's the question for this hour. How should authorities handle the lawlessness in the city of New Orleans? CaffertyFile -- one word -- @CNN.com. Drop me a note if you have some ideas and we will collectively get at this issue.

BLITZER: You heard the governor say earlier that the looting, as bad as it is, Jack, that's not her priority. Saving people's lives, that's her priority right now. And the manpower that they have has to be devoted first and foremost to that.

CAFFERTY: That's true. But you can't have complete lawlessness either in a city that large, I wouldn't think. I mean, I -- some -- some effort has to be made to maintain some sort of civil order, although, granted, under the circumstances, that's easier said than done, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We will check back with you, Jack. Thanks very much.

We're going to take a quick break. Still to come, more on the looting, more on the mass evacuations, the New Orleans area trying to cope with the aftermath of Katrina, making desperate appeals for help. We will have all the late-breaking developments.

Plus, survivors and the missing. There's a desperate search under way for loved ones right now, lots of people still missing. We will have some of those stories.

And mass destruction. One public health official predicted the worst could happen. So, why was the country seemingly caught off guard? I will ask him that and much more.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We're not leaving this story.

Joining us on the phone now is Dr. Jeffrey Williams of Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Dr. Williams, thanks very much for joining us.

I understand your hospital is in deep trouble. Give us a little sense of what has happened there.

DR. JEFFREY WILLIAMS, CHARITY HOSPITAL: Well, obviously, it was a pretty bad storm. And we have -- initially, we lost power and different parts of the hospital had problems getting the backup generators to work over that first day. You know, as of early this morning, we lost all power in the hospital.

BLITZER: How many patients are in the hospital, Doctor?

WILLIAMS: It's hard to say. We have approximately 250 patients, several hundred family members of patients as well, and at least 300 ancillary staff, nurses.

BLITZER: Now, what happens to those who are in critical, intensive care, critical condition, especially the babies?

WILLIAMS: Well, we are at the -- I'm in the medical ICU over here at Charity. The babies are in a -- we have a two-campus facility, about 100 -- I guess about 400 feet away. And, you know, unfortunately, we have such difficulty communicating. We don't really know a lot. They -- the nursery seems to be doing OK, though I know they transported one child out on a flat boat to Children's Hospital. But, otherwise, I think they are doing all right.

At this particular hospital, though, we are -- we have not been able to evacuate almost anyone, I think three people yesterday and two today out of 250. We have at least 42 critical patients as of early this morning. A couple have died and a couple of people have gotten worse. So -- and we have approximately 50 people we need to get out of here.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you, Dr. Williams, when you say a couple have died, have they died directly as a result of your inability to give them the kind of treatment that, under normal circumstances, they should have received?

WILLIAMS: It's hard to say. You know, we have been very fortunate with the people here pulling together resources. I mean, obviously, we are down to backup generators now that are diesel-powered. We have had a lot of scares running out of fuel for that.

Medications are a problem, pharmacy. We don't have very many working pumps for the medications. But the nurses and doctors (ph) and the staff here have been just wonderful. They have done a phenomenal job. Unfortunately, we're all getting quite tired. But I'd like to think that, so far, we have done everything we can for the patients.

We are running out of time, though. We don't have water. We have a number of patients who need dialysis urgently. And we can't run those machines without water. You know, these are otherwise critically ill, but salvageable human lives, that we just can't get out of the hospital to another facility.

BLITZER: Well, what -- what efforts are under way?

I assume there are efforts under way to bring in rescue missions to deal with this crisis that you are seeing before your very eyes at one of the main hospitals in New Orleans.

WILLIAMS: Yes. You know, we -- communication is a real problem. We have a couple of working phone lines, which is tremendous, because a lot of other facilities don't. But we're just not getting information. We hear a lot of conjecture: National Guard is coming. Air National Guard is supposed to be coming.

But, even yesterday, we were told to get patients ready to evacuate and nothing has happened. And, you know, we just had another announcement that they would be trying to bus some of the less critical patients.

But, you know, we have a number of patients here that won't tolerate a bus. We need to get them helicoptered out. One helicopter landed at the Superdome, which is a few blocks away, early yesterday from Dallas with a private institution there. But we haven't been able to get any other ambulance services, helicopters. Or we thought the National Guard in some way would be able to help.

But I have heard a lot of other problems -- they've had a lot of other security issues with riots and such, so I'm not sure if that's distracting them from rescuing our patients or not.

BLITZER: Dr. Jeffrey Williams of Charity Hospital in New Orleans, good luck to you. Good luck to all the people there. We hope that all of you are rescued very, very quickly, sounds like a major priority to me.

The Bush administration certainly has its hands full right now, dealing with this problem. And for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, it's a draining effort, plugging up breached levees, before even more water rises into the city that's already mostly underwater.

Our Tom Foreman is here with more on this very, very complicated situation. Tom, tell our viewers how complicated this is.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the very things we're talking about now.

These hospitals, the reason they can't get people in and out is because the roads are impassable, because there's too much water, too many power lines. Look at this. Let's zoom into the city of New Orleans here and show you exactly what we're talking about. This takes us all the way down to the Superdome right here, which you can see. Everybody knows this. This is downtown New Orleans. And off to the side over here, just a little bit, that is the French Quarter. So, now you have an idea where we are.

The hospital you were just talking to is right here, right in the crosshairs. This is where Charity Hospital is. A short distance away in the same area, generally, but a little bit of what we call uptown, over here is what you'll find is called Baptist Medical Center, is over here.

And a little further uptown, also in the same area down here, which is my old neighborhood where I used to live, is Touro Infirmary. Touro Infirmary a short while ago, a guy said they were trying to get 100 babies out of there. And they are afraid, because they feel like they can't go in the streets. They feel like it's incredibly dangerous.

And the reason nobody can get in or get out is in a different part of the city. I want to show you right here on this. I'm going to zoom into this area. This is what we've been talking about. This is the Industrial Canal. It's where the first big break occurred in this.

If you look at those pictures right over there, they will show you what the Industrial Canal is doing. That's the picture we've been watching all day of this giant break in the levee. The levee is an earthen wall that surrounds the entire city of New Orleans and the water has been flowing out through these giant holes in the levee there.

That's on the Industrial Canal. That was the first big break that created this big rush of people to rooftops in the beginning of the storm.

But when you come back out from all this -- if you move back out -- you see this is Lake Pontchartrain on the north here. That's all of Lake Pontchartrain up here in this area.

Now, if you move over a little bit from that and you zoom back in again -- I can get the right spot. This is where the second levee break occurred. This is on the 17th Street Canal. You see that? Houses on both sides and it empties into what? The lake right there. That's the whole lake right up there. It empties right in here. And now, all of that has been emptying into the town.

BLITZER: Where was the break?

FOREMAN: The break is right along in this area, right up in here where -- this is the Orleans Parish side, New Orleans on this side, Jefferson Parish on this side, which is one of the suburban areas -- Metairie, Kenner. The places you always hear about are out in this direction.

So, the break occurred here and it started filling up the entire city. Now if they could have stopped it earlier, maybe not, maybe it wouldn't have gone so far, because right along in here, if you look carefully, right through this area, is what's called the Gentilly Ridge. It's a slightly higher piece of land.

If they could have stopped the flow of water earlier, the water might have held up there a little bit and not made it all the way down into this area. But now what you have -- because if we go back to our French Quarter here. This is what everybody knows. If you are a tourist, you know these areas.

This is the French Quarter and right down here is Jackson Square, if we can get to it. There's Jackson Square with the St. Louis Cathedral. The things you've seen a million times. The water has made it all the way up in areas around here. The reason that happens is because it's been able to flow all the way up to even this, which is relatively high land.

What the Corps of Engineers is finally doing and they've been trying to do for hours, is get support in here to drop enough sand into these levee breaks. The one we showed you on the north part here and the one we showed you over here on the east part.

To do that, normally what they do is come up the river. You can see the river right here winding around, winding around and it goes -- you come all the way out. You can see the river winds all the way down here to the Mississippi. Like this.

You would normally come all the way up there with barges and take them right to the area that need to be prepared. They've had a very hard time doing that because bridges, trees are down. All sorts of problems. And if you can't get in that way close enough with the supplies and the helicopters, what you have to do is come back out the river and then you have to go all the way around into the Gulf and back into Lake Pontchartrain.

BLITZER: Stand by for a minute, Tom, because I want to continue this, but Ed Lavandera is over at the New Orleans Airport right now. Operations are staged from there to deal with this situation. Rescue operations, shall we call them.

Ed, you're joining us via videophone. Give our viewers a sense of what's happening where you are.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what is happening here at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is this is where several teams of -- disaster medical teams have set up camp. Essentially setting up a field hospital, turning in the terminal of the airport here into a field hospital, if you will.

They have rolled in dozens of trucks. We rolled in with them overnight as they were setting up here. They have set up pharmacies inside refrigerated FedEx trucks. They have doctors, nurses, nurses' aides from teams from all over the country -- Georgia, Texas, Washington, California, Oregon.

There are dozens of these people here setting up this particular field hospital. This is one of about 40 that have been set up in the region. And I think it's important to point out, as I've done a couple of times, just to get a sense of how widespread and how many people they have -- that FEMA has launched into this area: 8,000 medical personnel. These 40 teams -- if you get a sense of all the four hurricanes that hit Florida last year, about five field hospitals were used in each of those. There are 40 for this one alone. So, this is a massive operation. We have been speaking with several people here...

BLITZER: Ed, hold on one second. I'm going to just interrupt you for a second, Ed. LAVANDERA: ... Many patients being airlifted in here. We've already seen about five or six helicopters bring in about a dozen or so patients. We understand that those patients have been -- we see them, you know, taken into the triage area where they are being looked at and evaluated.

We haven't had a chance to speak with any of them just yet, but when they were brought in, we saw them -- and some of them were brought in on stretchers. Others were brought in on wheelchairs and others able to walk off the helicopters and walk themselves.

But there is definitely an urgent need and the officials here and the medical experts that are already working in this field hospital, understand that there might be many more people coming their way, especially as word as trickled around about the comments of the mayor of New Orleans has been saying.

There are other teams that are specializing in mortuary science. So those types of cases won't necessarily be coming here, but this will be one of the more popular field hospitals used because this is at the airport.

BLITZER: All right.

LAVANDERA: There is a lot of ability to fly in and out of. The airport is in good shape. The runways are open. We've seen a Southwest Airlines flight that has brought in equipment and food and water.

They actually took some of the people who had been using the airport as shelter on a flight back to Dallas. So, this will probably be a very popular place in the coming weeks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed, hold on one second.

Tom Foreman is here. Tom, show our viewers where Ed is right now -- where the New Orleans Airport is. Give us a sense where the Superdome is first and then show us where the airport is.

FOREMAN: This is exactly where we were. Downtown, Superdome. Right here, you can see it. I'm going to pull out just a little bit here and you notice like any airport in any town, it is not downtown. We move over here to the west out to Kenner, which is one of the suburbs and that is the airport we're talking about -- 15, 16 miles.

This is going to be a good start, but these people are still a long way away from all the troubled people downtown, especially when you can't go up and down the roads.

BLITZER: It's an amazing situation; an awful situation. Ed Lavandera, thanks very much. We'll be getting back to you.

Let's check in with CNN's Ali Velshi. He's joining us. Ali, the Bush administration took some dramatic action today to deal with the potential oil problems.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: It's dominated business news today: The price of oil, obviously. Whether or not you follow it regularly, you may have seen it when you went out to fill gas today.

In many parts of the country, gas, a liter -- a gallon of self- service unleaded gas going for $3 or more. That was a sudden spike after hearing news of damage facilities in Louisiana.

Now, what happened is early this morning, the Energy secretary announced that in response to a request from Citgo, one of the oil manufacturers, one of the oil companies, they will, in fact, be giving up some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Now, as you know, Wolf, I just got back from Louisiana and Texas and I was sort of checking out the damage to some oil facilities. We went by one of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites. There are four of them. The government holds 700 million barrels of oil in four underground reserves.

This is the Big Hill Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Winnie, Texas. It's between Baton Rouge and Houston. I think it's fair to say. It's just on the Texas side of the Texas-Louisiana border. That's one of the refineries nearby that's been shut down.

Now what they've done is they've offered to these companies to loan them some oil so that the oil can keep on going through those refineries to get gas. You know, Wolf, as the -- you know the problem we've been talking about over the last several weeks with some of the refineries in this country down. We don't build new refineries in America, so they are working at full tilt to keep up with America's thirst for gasoline.

So, what we're seeing now, is gas above $3 in many parts of the U.S. And some people, Wolf, talking about $4 a gallon.

BLITZER: Oh, my God. All right. Ali, stand by. We're going to be getting back to you. I want you to also check the markets for us when we check back later -- maybe you should do it right now. How are the markets looking?

VELSHI: Because oil has pulled back a little bit to $68.94 as a settle, markets have done well. Correspondingly, the Dow is up 56 points to 10,468 and the NASDAQ is up 18 points to 2,148. And of course, we've got 20 minutes left in the trading session. I'll update you when the markets close, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Ali. Ali, just back from Louisiana and Texas.

Coming up: With water as far as the eye can see, how are the survivors faring? We'll have some amazing stories. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Local officials are very concerned about public health. Ivor van Heerden joins us now on the phone, from Baton Rouge. He's the director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center.

You've spent a lot of time, Mr. van Heerden, studying this problem. It seems worse than any of us could have imagined. Could you have imagined this?

IVOR VAN HEERDEN, LSU HURRICANE CTR.: I'm afraid that it fits right into the scenarios as we thought they would develop. This is definitely one of the two worst-case scenarios that could happen to New Orleans.

BLITZER: Well what exactly is happening right now? Because you're taking a much closer look at this than all of the rest of us are.

HEERDEN: Well, basically, the living conditions or the conditions in New Orleans have become totally intolerable. It's an urban wilderness that's totally flooded. You have got chemical releases occurring from various sources throughout the city. You can't move around. Folks are obviously highly stressed, being forced out onto their roofs where they're having to deal with whatever is in the air and the potential of insect and other bites.

BLITZER: You heard the mayor, Ray Nagin, say just a little while ago that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people are dead. Is that the kind of information you are getting as well?

HEERDEN: Yes. That's what we're hearing. And I want to point out that the estimate is that 80 percent of the people evacuated New Orleans. That means approximately 250,000 to 300,000 stayed behind. Now our initial computer models are telling us that maybe as much as a third of those have drowned.

BLITZER: And so right now, the urgent need is what, from your perspective, Mr. van Heerden?

HEERDEN: Get them out. Get everybody out of there as quickly as possible to minimize the public health impacts, to minimize the stress to them. And then once you have everybody out, you can start planning the draw down and the cleanup.

BLITZER: Hold on one second, Ivor van Heerden. I want to also include in this conversation the former U.S. Surgeon General, David Satcher, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He's joining us as well.

Dr. Satcher, thank you very much. I assume this is all brand new kind of material, Dr. Thatcher, for you as well.

DR. DAVID SATCHER, FMR. U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Well, the proportion is certainly brand new. I was thinking about our experience with Hurricane Floyd and the flooding in North Carolina back in 1999. And I, you know, traveled throughout the state of North Carolina.

But I don't think we've seen anything of this proportion before. And I think the major priority now is survival, because we don't know how many people are already dead and how many people can be salvaged. So I think the key is survival. Then after that you worry about water safety and food safety. We're worried about that now, but there's some critical emergencies we're facing, and I think the Department of Health and Human Services appropriately declared a public health emergency. BLITZER: Dr. Satcher, the great fear now, I assume, is disease, public health. The people who survived could wind up dead because of the rampant health issues that are clearly on the scene.

SATCHER: No question about it. I mean, flood water is very unsafe. People could be severely poisoned by the drinking the water without using it -- without making sure that it's sterilized. So bottled water, boiled water, treated water, the order of the day. By the same token, food may be available, but it may not be safe. So people have to be very careful. They have to be concerned about the water standing and mosquitoes developing and the implication for the West Nile virus and fever. So a lot of critical issues.

Carbon monoxide has been mentioned. Already, I believe, a few people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning when they bring gas stoves and other things into the house without appropriate ventilation. All of those things are concerns. Injuries -- the need to be aware of the possibility of tetanus from injury and the possibility that people may need tetanus shots.

So we have some major public health threats and challenges, but also right now the challenge of some people surviving the flood.

BLITZER: Dr. Satcher, please stand by for a moment. Mr. van Heerden, stand by as well.

I want to go back to New Orleans. One of our producers, Jim Spellman, is on the scene for us. And he has an eyewitness account of what's happening right now. Jim, update our viewers.

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN PRODUCER: Wolf, we just made it over to the Superdome. And New Orleans has fast become a refugee city. Thousands and thousands of people seeking shelter on the highway overpasses looking for some sort of help, some sort of information, screaming out to us and anybody around for water, for help, for information, for a way to get out.

BLITZER: And is there any of those materials available to the people around the Superdome? Water specifically, food? Is there enough there?

SPELLMAN: There doesn't appear to be anything around it. Inside the Superdome, we haven't been able to get in today. But on these highway overpasses, and underneath the highways as well, people trying to find a spot for themselves. Absolutely nothing. And, well we were just up there. Corrections, prison buses streaming by to evacuate prisoners. And a lot of people very, very upset that they're not getting help, but the prisoners are.

BLITZER: And what about the looting situation from your vantage point? What have you seen, Jim?

SPELLMAN: We have seen just looting constantly all day long. We actually went right up to a Walgreens. People trying on shoes, getting the correct size. Picking out whatever it is they like, televisions, just anything they can get. The police have definitely been trying to keep it to a minimum -- police in boats, state police on amphibious vehicle. But there's really nothing they can do. I don't know where they would even take anybody that they would arrest. They're collecting all of the looted material into police boats. And they are -- they're just trying to keep the chaos to a minimum.

BLITZER: Are you seeing people already suffering from lack of water, dehydration, potentially from disease, infectious diseases that could be spreading in New Orleans?

SPELLMAN: There was a man on the I10 overpass right at the Superdome trying to get the attention of anybody to bring first aid help for his wife who, he said, that she needs medical attention right away. Something wrong with her heart. Nobody up there has any food.

Today is the first day when, I think, lack of water is starting to really become a problem. It's about -- it must be in the 90s. Extremely humid here. And people are just baking out on these highways. Nowhere else for them to go. Everywhere else is flooded.

Oh, and actually, right now, right now, Wolf, I'm seeing smoke pouring out of a building here, right at the corner of Bourbon and Canal Street. Thick black smoke.

BLITZER: So where there's smoke, there's usually fire, Jim. So I assume that there's a fire going on. We saw several fires erupting yesterday in New Orleans. You're a tall guy, Jim. How high is the water in the area where you are right now?

SPELLMAN: Well, we're up on a dry spot. If I walk another block it's waist-high, and waist-high from Canal and Bourbon to the Superdome and beyond. On the other side -- then there's a thin patch where we managed to make our way over there that's dry near I-10. And the other side of I-10, it was our first look at that today, as bad as anywhere we've seen up to the windows of houses, as far as we could see.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to check back with you. Jim Spellman our producer on the scene in New Orleans.

Let me just briefly go to Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University, the director of the University Hurricane Center. Based on that eyewitness account, Mr. van Heerden, button this up for us. Give us your final thought.

HEERDEN: I think it's an extremely desperate situation. They've got to get people out. I think we're going to see the increase in diseases -- over the next two days the quality of life dropping dramatically. And really the people are going to be very, very stressed. Remember this is mosquito country. Those who were out last night would have been bitten to pieces.

BLITZER: Ivor van Heerden, thank you very much. We'll check back with you. A pretty ominous word.

David Satcher, give us your bottom-line assessment right now based on what you've just heard from our producer, Jim Spellman. DAVID SATCHER, FRM. U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Well, this is a tragedy of unheard of proportions. I think the public health implications are very severe, and we need to make sure that we get water to people. It's critical now that people not consume water that is not safe. So we need to get as much water in there as possible. And people need to know the dangers of drinking water -- of drinking floodwater.

So the mental health implications again are very serious. And I'm really concerned about children who experience this kind of disconnection with their history, their environment, and the need for them to have a way of expressing that.

So I hope that people keep that in mind, and not be ashamed to admit problems with anxiety to depression and grief because those can be very serious also, and especially can impact the lives of children for many years to come.

BLITZER: Dr. Satcher, thank you very much for your thoughts.

What an enormous crisis of epic proportions under way right here in the United States, a major American city. A city of half a million people -- another million in the surrounding areas -- literally under water.

Jack Cafferty has been reading your e-mail. He's got lots of answers. More than 2,000 of you have already written to him in the last few moments alone. We'll go to New York. And Jack Cafferty right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The mayor of New Orleans says perhaps thousands of people are dead as a result of Hurricane Katrina, an enormous, enormous number.

Let's check in with CNN's Jack Cafferty who is getting your reaction to what's going on. Jack, what do our viewers think?

CAFFERTY: Wolf, there's a certain amount of lawlessness in the city that's unfortunately accompanying this disaster. What Hurricane Katrina didn't destroy in New Orleans, people are stealing -- everything from food, clothing, electronics, jewelry, a whole gun collection taken from a Wal-Mart in New Orleans.

Police have also reported attempted carjackings and shootings near the Superdome where all of those people have been holed up since the storm hit Monday.

The question is, how should the authorities handle the lawlessness in New Orleans?

Edward in Bass, South Carolina writes, "Identify the offenders using all the video footage available. Convert the Superdome into a makeshift jail and hold court proceedings on the 50 yard line."

R writes, "Regarding the looters, the law enforcement personnel should photograph or otherwise identify them and after order is restored hunt them down and make them clear debris or help rebuild the infrastructure Of New Orleans for a minimum of one year to pay for their crimes."

Peter in Houston writes, "The emphasis has to be on violent crime. The looting is irrelevant. The whole city has become a write- off. Resources first should be focused on the mandatory evacuation. Get the people out. The crime goes away."

Marion in Enfield, Connecticut writes, "The looting pales in comparison to what else is going on. By the way, if this had been an act of terrorism, I'm glad to know Homeland Security has things well in hand. Don't you feel safer now?"

And Anita in Indiana, "Dear Jack, if there were ever a job for our National Guard, this is it. You know, National Guard. Oh, wait, they're all in Iraq."

Wolf.

BLITZER: Strong views from our viewers. Not surprising. Thanks very much.

Jacki Schechner is checking what's happening on the Internet. Jacki, what are our viewers saying there?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, we've been hearing a lot about the people who are still in New Orleans trying to survive there. What we haven't heard as much of are the people who left and suspect now that they may not have anything to come back to.

We found some of these stories online today, wanted to share them with you. This is Paul from Wizzbang Blog. It's actually a political blog that we check in with from time to time. He left New Orleans over the weekend, is now in a hotel room in Memphis. Took very few of his belongings with him and now says he suspects there is really nothing for him to come back to. Everything else, he thinks is gone.

Also saying -- now think about the magnitude of this. He also lost a business in New Orleans due to the hurricane. Says, there are millions of people just like him. They don't know what they are going to do. Another thing is the mounting costs of hotel rooms. There is no foreseeable income, and expenses keep piling on.

Another blog we wanted to show you, someone who started blogging. This is Laurel who is now with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. She left over the weekend as well. Says she's now safe and sound, but it started as an e-mail to tell people that she was OK and what was going on, even pointing out that her girls moved their Barbie dolls to the higher floors of the house before they left, afraid that they were going to get flooded.

She now has pictures of her adorable children and how they are resting soundly at her sister's house. Also talking about the emotion starting to set in for herself. I feel weak. I feel vulnerable, scared, exhausted. She says, part of her doesn't even want to go back, Wolf. She's afraid of what she may or may not find.

BLITZER: Jacki, thanks very much. We'll check back with you.

Let's check in with CNN's Ali Velshi who is in New York monitoring all of this. As far as the oil prices are concerned, the consequences of this disaster are enormous, Ali.

VELSHI: Yeah. And I've got some new video I can show you. These are the things causing oil prices to go up. Let's take a look at this, what I think is a rig that we're looking at. This appears to be a rig, as we pull out, this new video that we're getting, I can probably look at it and tell you a little more about it.

This appears to be a rig that has intersected around Dauphin Island off of Alabama. This is -- we do know that a rig run by Diamond Offshore Drilling has -- had crashed into the island, and that's what you are seeing some remains of. And I'll confirm that for you.

But what I did do while I was down in Louisiana, Wolf, is I went and started to look at the kind of damage that was going on. And we got an exclusive interview and exclusive access to Port Fourchon. I want to show you the video here.

Now Port Fourchon is -- it's the general store of the Gulf Coast offshore oil drilling. This is one of the facilities on the port. One- hundred and thirty oil companies have facilities in this area. And what they do is they basically use that as their base for offshore drilling. You can get supplies here. You can store your stuff. Well, you can see the power lines are all down there.

This is where I drove down to yesterday. This port usually has about 1,500 people working on it, helicopters coming and going. This is what they have to face.

Now, I don't know if we've got those still pictures for you. That's a barge, by the way, that has gone on to the roadway and taken out some power lines with it.

This was completely underwater on Tuesday. Now, this is off site -- these are some still photographs of Tuesday. You couldn't even access it. The roads had just gone completely under water. That is the port that has to be open in order for oil production to get back into gear.

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