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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
White House Press Briefing on Disaster Efforts; FEMA Halts Rescue Efforts in New Orleans as Gunfire Endangers Workers
Aired September 1, 2005 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR, BREAKING NEWS: I'm Daryn Kagan. Our breaking news comes out of New Orleans. We are getting word that FEMA has suspended rescue operations. Our Rick Sanchez is on the phone right now from New Orleans with more on that.
Rick, what do you know?
RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, we just left FEMA headquarters at the New Orleans Saints training facility where we talked to several of the rescue officials who we were, in fact, last night performing some of the search and rescue missions on the small swift boats that I have been telling you about.
They are telling me that they are now standing down, they are now officially standing down. They are ceasing operations because they say it's simply too dangerous for the rescue officials to go out there. Some officials told me they plan to regroup and figure out ways to be able to continue the rescues at some point, but not until they're able to ensure the safety of the rescue officials themselves.
A lot of these folks, as you know, are specialized rescue and paramedics. They are usually not armed. At this point, it does appear, according to my sources here, that they are going to stand down the rescue operations on those boats until they can figure out a way to safeguard the rescue officials themselves.
KAGAN: Rick, I know you had a chance to go out with some of these crews yesterday or perhaps today. When they talk about it being too dangerous, what exactly are they facing?
SANCHEZ: They are saying in a couple of different cases that they've encountered, they have had people who become violent because they are desperate to get on the boats. And it's very difficult to get them on the boat without injuring the people who are trying to rescue them.
I think the major problems are found in the areas closer to New Orleans itself. But nonetheless, the deeds of a few are affecting many, because in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, where we were last night, we did find a lot of people who were desperate to be rescued. But they were not acting in any violent matter. In fact, they were gracious. They were just happy to see the rescue operators there.
Unfortunately, many of those people's rescue is now going to have to be on standby because other people, in perhaps another side of the town have reportedly been acting in a violent manner. As a matter of fact, it was just a moment ago talking to some police officials here in Jefferson Parish who tell me that just this morning they've had some more reports of shootings. And that they are having major problems around the Superdome.
So it appears that officials are pulling back, regrouping, and trying to figure out how they can best go in there and rescue people. But at the same time, they are very concerned for the lives of the rescuers themselves.
KAGAN: Rick Sanchez on the phone with us from New Orleans. With breaking news that FEMA, his sources telling him they are stopping rescue operations simply out of concern for the rescuers. Saying it's just too dangerous with the situations that the rescuers face.
That's not the only place where things have become desperate. Our CNN Producer Jim Spellman has been talking to us throughout the morning, and the afternoon, about what's happening along Canal Street. And along the convention center of New Orleans. He joins us on the phone once again.
JIM SPELLMAN, CNN PRODUCER: Daryn, right now and for several hours a stream of people have been heading down Canal Street heading for the convention center looking for help. The convention center is along the Mississippi River on the southern side of downtown. They'll be shocked at what they see when they get there. It's thousands and thousands of people who have been there all night. Sleeping out on the street, on the sidewalk, wherever they can find a spot.
There's no one in control. No national guard. No police. And no -- certainly no FEMA. And inside, we've gotten disturbing news of many dead bodies and nothing to be done with them. And CNN's Chris Lawrence got word to us that right in front of him, an infant died. A terrible situation. And that's where people are going for help, and there is just simply none for them.
KAGAN: Jim, when you were talking to us earlier. You were saying among these thousands of people who are there are perhaps there with a false hope, at least for immediate help, that they believe that they are standing by waiting for a bus or a boat or somebody to get them. But there is really no indication that's going to happen any time soon.
SPELLMAN: Indeed. It's rumors spreading throughout the group. The convention center sits on an area called the River Log, which is a promenade along the Mississippi River. There's two river boats, the last time I checked down there that are sitting there. The Cajun Queen and another one, I didn't get the name of. They are sitting there empty with no activity around them. And many people believe that these boats will take them away to safety and where they can start to regroup.
Also, buses, they think that buses are coming for them. But there has been no indication that any buses have come to the convention center. The only buses we've seen leaving the downtown area are buses provided by hotels, only for their guests.
KAGAN: Those people are the first, at least now, that are able to get out. That's our Jim Spellman on the phone from New Orleans. Jim, thank you for your reports throughout the day here.
Where are those buses going? Where are these people going as they get out? We received word in the last hour that the city of San Antonio has agreed to take an additional 25,000 people from the state of Louisiana, and put them up -- someplace. They haven't said exactly where. If they have figured that out, a news conference is expected in about an hour and a half, out of San Antonio to talk about that.
Meanwhile, Houston was the first city to step up in Texas. And our Keith Oppenheim is standing by outside the Astrodome, where thousands of people are expected to take shelter there.
KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Daryn. I was just at a news conference that lasted for nearly an hour. And there was no really killer piece of news that came out of it. But what I really got from it was just this phrase: "It's a very fluid situation."
With all the planning that's gone on, it's clear that this is improvisational and officials are trying to figure out things as they go. Here are some highlights.
As for a delay in the buses, they really aren't sure exactly why that's happening. It has to do with what's happening on the ground in Louisiana. They are talking about the possibility of bringing some of the Superdome evacuees either by rail or by plane. But, again, not settled.
And 2,000 people inside the Astrodome in Houston so far. They are setting up an on-sight medical facility, which they hope to have completed by today. And the Red Cross has said they are trying to figure out the whole picture.
In other words, while the Astrodome can take 25,000 people, there are people who are staying in other places. Right now in the Houston area, there are 55,000 refugees staying in Houston area hotels and motels. Also, 100,000 in American Red Cross shelters in the Gulf region.
And Red Cross officials emphasize, because so many people are now coming to the Astrodome, who were not in the Superdome, they really don't yet know how many people are coming to Texas in need of refuge. They say they are not going to refuse anyone help, while someone -- if they come to the gates here, they may not be able to stay inside the Astrodome. But they will be redirected to other shelters, either in the Houston area, or other parts of Texas where they will have a roof over their heads.
An interesting point they made about phone calls. SBC Communications is setting up free of charge Internet and phone usage inside the Astrodome. But Red Cross officials emphasize what they really don't want people to do from the outside, is to call in to find out where their loved ones are. They want folks in Texas, who are here to call out, so that the communication lines don't get jammed.
We haven't had a chance since the middle of the night to go inside the Astrodome. But later today, we will get a sense of how it's going in there. And again, this is a thing that's in process. And we will get to see how many people are inside as the day goes on. Originally, you know, we were thinking there would be maybe 20,000 people inside the Superdome (sic) on cots by this afternoon. It's going a whole lot slower than that. Back to you.
KAGAN: They are not just talking about putting these people and these families up, they are talking about letting the kids enroll in school because you don't know how long that they are going to be displaced. They are talking about medical services, a whole list of things to be provided to these people?
OPPENHEIM: Exactly. They are thinking about how are they going to conduct their lives while they have no other place to go. What free services can they tell them about, about places where they can take their children at no cost inside Houston so they can have some entertainment. And there's also thinking about what other shelters can FEMA coordinate to send these people to, along with the Red Cross. So they can get closer to New Orleans, smaller shelters where they could be closer to family, and not living in such a huge facility en masse.
KAGAN: Keith Oppenheim, live from Houston, Texas. Thank you for that.
We want to let you know we are standing by waiting for a news briefing out of the White House about the latest federal efforts to help with what is taking place along the Gulf Coast.
Meanwhile, let's go back to New Orleans and have our Chris Lawrence paint a picture of why people are just so desperate to get out of that city. He's had a chance over the last hour or so to go inside the New Orleans Convention Center where the scene -- apparently -- is even beyond words.
Chris joins us on the phone now from New Orleans -- Chris?
CHRIS LAWRENCE: Yeah, it's hard to describe how bad it was. It was like nothing you would ever expect to find in a major American city. Thousands and thousands of people just living in these horrible conditions, trash, feces, dirty food -- I mean, in just the worst possible conditions.
These people are being forced to live like animals. And we are not talking a few families, or a few hundred families, we are talking thousands and thousands of people just laid out over the entire street.
We saw a man right in front of us literally dying. Going into a seizure on the ground, people trying to prop his head up. They have no medicine, no way to evacuate him, literally just dying there on the ground. And I think just the most horrifying thing we saw was dead bodies. There are not one, not two, there are multiple people dying at the convention center. There was an older woman, her dead body in a wheelchair with a blanket draped over her, just pushed up against the side of a wall. I mean someone's mother, someone's grandmother. Next to her was another body wrapped in a white cloth. It is just horrible. There are babies over there living in the most filthy conditions.
And I can understand where people say, well, it's dangerous. They are trying to think about safety. These people are saying, how much longer can we last? How much longer can you make us live like this? Where are the buses, where is the plan? Where is the help? And you just have to look at them and go, I don't know. I don't know. It's just a horrible tough situation over there.
KAGAN: So they are not getting answers from you. You don't have the answers. Where are the officials, does it appears to be nobody in charge inside the convention center? They've just opened the doors?
LAWRENCE: From what we saw, we walked from one end to the other, we talked to more than a dozen people over there. I didn't see anyone in charge. I mean, there are self-appointed people, who are trying to keep people's spirits up. Trying to keep people calm, because I don't see any officials.
I mean, there are SWAT teams that go by in armored vehicles with 12 or 13 officers, guns drawn, and they blaze by to, you know, show people that there is a show of force here. That they are not going to let things get out of hand, but there is no official talking to these people. There are no buses, there is no hope of when they are going to be able to leave.
Some of these people are saying, we don't have food. We don't have water. Are you really just going to let us sit here and die like this? Because people are already starting to die, right in downtown New Orleans.
KAGAN: An incredible, incredible scene. We don't have the pictures to show, but the way you describe it, it brings it all too well to life. Our Chris Lawrence on the phone from Canal Street, just outside the convention center in New Orleans.
There are answers that are expected from the White House. We are standing by for a news briefing that's to take place any minute. From there, when it begins, you'll see it live on CNN. Right now, we fit in a quick break.
KAGAN: Let's pick up our coverage from what we were just hearing from Chris Lawrence in New Orleans. He had been inside the city's convention center and describes an absolutely horrific scene of dead bodies, of waste, of people dying and not being able to get help --and of a huge level of frustration. People wondering where are the buses? Where is the help? When is it all coming? Well, that frustration goes on the other side of the people trying to get help to the people they want to help. And that is FEMA, and they are based in Baton Rouge to the north of New Orleans. And at FEMA headquarters in Baton Rouge is where we find our Deb Feyerick with that part of the story -- Deb?
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, we spoke to one state senator and he said right now the plan is simply to restore order within New Orleans. In the words of another senator, he said, "You can't rescue people when you are being shot at."
I asked the lieutenant governor about the evacuation plan and whether the fact it was the right kind of evacuation plan. Especially after 9/11 when all states were required to put something into place so they would be prepared to respond to the event of some catastrophic emergency. The lieutenant governor said the evacuation plan was the right one and even though the morning was quick, that many people were able to evacuate.
And question is, and the focus is now of course, the ones at the Superdome, the ones who either didn't or weren't able to because they didn't have the means or the didn't have the money to get out in time. That is the biggest challenge now for all the people who have gathered here at FEMA headquarters. How are they getting to those people to try to help get them out?
I asked whether they thought there had been some sort of delay given that it is now Thursday and the storm hit Monday. The lieutenant governor said no, because all in all, when we are talking about this kind of catastrophe to have mobilized so many people quickly, to have gotten them into Louisiana, that's basically a nanosecond. Even though it seems like it's been three days.
Right now the plan is to figure out how to get those people where they need to be to try to restore order and then continue with the search and rescue so that things will calm down. And then they can send in a team to focus on the levees. But, a lot of anxious people here because everybody wants to get into that city and start doing what it is they are trained to do -- Daryn.
KAGAN: You know, Deborah, maybe it's easier to ask these questions from outside of New Orleans, but from outside of here, when you are not in a desperate position, I think a lot of people asking the question, why are they having to figure all this out at this point? This is a city built below sea level, next to all this water. Why were there not contingency plans for all of this?
FEYERICK: That is the question I have been asking virtually every single official that I can talk to. And that's because we lived through 9/11. We saw that plans were put in place. We saw that DHS allocated loads and loads of money for states and city governments to have plans in place.
The lieutenant governor is confident that when all is said and done, people will look at the evacuation plan, and the emergency preparedness plan that was put in place by the state of Louisiana, and by New Orleans, and say that was the right plan. But again, it's the wild card. The wild card being the people who didn't get out, who couldn't get out, who chose not to get out. You can never plan for that kind of thing.
And that's what they are having to deal with now because those folks are the folks who have become most desperate. The ones who have gone without food, have gone without water. And standing outside in New Orleans heat, it is just -- it is unimaginable. You begin to melt after about 20 minutes. So for those folks who have been exposed to it without food, without water, it's just an impossible situation -- Daryn?
KAGAN: Deborah Feyerick live on the phone with us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thank you.
Of course, the huge scope of the story is a geographic size of what is being dealt with here. We want to go to the east to Biloxi, Mississippi. And we'd heard word earlier and throughout the day that basically the entire Gulf Coast of Mississippi has been hit and destroyed. Our Ted Rowlands is in Biloxi with more on what they face in that town. Ted?
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, the real problem here is getting to all of these remote areas. Not only in Biloxi, but the focus has to be along the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. And it has been very difficult to ascertain who is still there. Who tried to ride this out and didn't make it. Who needs help, and that now we are seeing, actually, evidence that there is help. And help has arrived.
And National Guard has taken over security. They arrived in force yesterday. And last night, and by this morning, people woke up here to see the National Guard here. They saw that there were emergency medical stations set up in strategic areas around the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
And now they have to get to those people. They are still going around and looking for signs of life in what is left of some of these homes that have been completely flattened. They are looking for not only signs of life, but also for the deceased in dealing with the problems of the deceased as they come across them. They say the numbers of deceased in the state of Mississippi, unofficially, it's about 180, give or take. And it is expected to go up with each passing day here.
It is a very, very difficult long road. There are a lot of people that rode this storm out, but are now on three days with little or no water and little or no food. And they are in homes that have no electricity or water as well. There is a real problem starting.
The intensity, the anxiety is nowhere near what it is in New Orleans today. It is a slower-paced frustration. It doesn't have the immediacy there. I would say that Mississippi is a few steps in front of New Orleans, but a few steps in a very, very long process of getting people situated and then rebuilding.
KAGAN: Ted Rowlands live in Biloxi, Mississippi. Ted, thank you for that.
Once again, standing by for a news briefing. We expected it to start some time, this out of the White House. When that begins, you will see it live here on CNN.
All right. Ahead, I'm going to have a chance to talk with two of my colleagues that I am very happy to see safe back here in Atlanta. John Zarrella and producer Rich Phillips will join us to tell us their personal tale of covering this story. They'll be with us in just a minute.
KAGAN: We are standing by waiting for this news briefing to begin out of the White House. A lot of questions about what's happening along the Gulf Coast with relief efforts, with the military. Also what's happening with gas prices all across the United States?
While we wait for that to take place, I want to go ahead and welcome two of my colleagues, John Zarrella, and producer Rich Phillips, fresh -- and I will say fresh, because they have showered -- back from New Orleans and your incredible coverage.
JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you.
KAGAN: It's really good to see you back.
ZARRELLA: Thank you. Good to be here.
KAGAN: And in person. We had a chance to talk during the break. Even with everything that you saw, took place, it would appear from what we are hearing and from reports from Chris Lawrence it's even gotten worse since you've been able to get out.
ZARRELLA: Yeah, it's not a surprise. When we were in there it was coming to a situation where if you were out in your cars, people were being pulled out of vehicles, cars taken, gasoline taken. And that's -- and then all of the looting that was taking place. But you know, it's so hard to get your arms around it.
In fact, it's impossible. Everything's a little snapshot of what's going on from the Gulf Coast across to Louisiana, but to get your arms around the enormity of the situation.
KAGAN: Just the geographic size we are talking about.
ZARRELLA: And comprehend what's happening to these people. It's heartbreaking.
KAGAN: Rich, as a Miami-based producer you have seen your share of hurricanes. The actual storm, as you were riding it out -- actually, standby with that thought, we are going to the White House.
That's beginning now, here's White House Spokesperson Scott McClellan.
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SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... all the citizens in the affected areas of the Gulf Coast. The nation stands with all those in the region who have been affected by one of the most devastating natural disasters in our nation's history.
It was very sobering, as we were traveling over the region yesterday, returning to Washington, to see the devastation and damage from Katrina and to see the flooding and to see the homes that had been destroyed.
Tomorrow's visit is another way for the president to show the nation's support and compassion for the victims and our appreciation for those who are helping with the ongoing response and recovery efforts. It is an opportunity for the president to get a firsthand, up-close look at the response and recovery efforts and to hear from those on the ground.
It is also a time, simply, to offer some encouragement and comfort to boost the spirits of the people: those who are helping in the response and those who have been displaced by the hurricane.
The schedule is very fluid at this point, and it is certainly subject to change. The general plan for tomorrow is as follows.
The president will first stop in Mobile, Alabama. I expect he will meet with Governors Riley and Barbour. Then he will, along with the governors, do a helicopter tour of the Alabama-Mississippi coast along the Mobile, Biloxi, Gulfport area.
Following the aerial tour, I expect he will visit a location or two on the ground in Mississippi. Then he will depart for New Orleans, where he will be joined by Governor Blanco. He will then do an aerial tour of New Orleans. And we're still working on the rest of the schedule for New Orleans at this point.
We will keep you updated on any changes or additions to the schedule as we get them.
This is a massive federal response effort that is under way. We are continuing to coordinate closely with state and local authorities.
Just to put it in perspective, the total amount of land that is under federal disaster area declaration is approximately 90,000 square miles.
MCCLELLAN: The president continues to spend much of the day focused on the federal government's response efforts.
This morning, the president called Petty Officer Josh Mitchelltree (ph) of the United States Coast Guard. He is a swimmer who has been involved in the search and rescue efforts. The president expressed his appreciation for his efforts and the around-the-clock efforts of his colleagues.
Hopefully, it helped to boost their spirits during this trying time. And it was also an opportunity for the president to get a firsthand account of the ongoing response efforts and the search and rescue efforts.
The president also spoke with Mike Brown this morning to get an operational update from the ground. He's been in discussions with White House staff throughout the day.
He met with Secretary Rumsfeld, General Myers and General Blum, who is head of the Army National Guard, along with Secretary Chertoff earlier today. He received an update from Secretary Chertoff on the operational aspects. And he also had a discussion with those individuals about the latest security situation on the ground, particularly in the New Orleans area.
At 1:30 p.m. today, Secretary Chertoff will be joined by General Blum and others to provide an operational update. I expect one of the issues they will talk about is the law enforcement and security situation on the ground. And I think they can provide you with an update of the increase in the number of National Guard troops over the course of the day and the next couple of days, to address some of those issues on the ground.
Right now, the president is having lunch with Chairman Greenspan. This is an opportunity to talk about -- the purpose of the meeting is really to focus on the economic impact.
Following that lunch, the president is participating in a briefing with his economic team, to get a preliminary assessment of Hurricane Katrina's economic impact.
And then at 3 p.m. this afternoon, the president will meet with former Presidents Bush and Clinton to announce an effort that they will lead to raise private funds for victims of Katrina. This is similar to the effort they led with the tsunami relief, where they helped to raise more than $1 billion in an unprecedented effort to help people in that region.
MCCLELLAN: This is a national tragedy. And one of the best ways for the American people to show our compassion for the people in the Gulf Coast region is to support with donations of the efforts of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and others who are helping people in the region.
The American people are already showing the generosity and providing significant contributions, but this will be an ongoing effort. It will be a long and difficult road ahead as the president said, and it will require continued support from all Americans.
The president and Ms. Bush today will be sending a significant contribution to the Red Cross, as well.
One other announcement and then I'll be glad to go to your questions.
In just the past few days, the president has received requests from Governor Blanco, Governor Riley and Governor Barbour for a waiver of state cost-share requirements for emergency response activities. And today the president is granting that waiver.
The president's action today will increase the federal share from the current 75 percent level to 100 percent federal funding for a period of 60 days, retroactive to the date of the major disaster declaration. This action recognizes the unprecedented scope and impact of this disaster.
These extra funds will allow the federal government, through FEMA, to pay for 100 percent of the cost of the debris removal and emergency protective measures taken by local first responders under the public assistance program, including direct federal activities.
As I mentioned, this action comes on the heels of the emergency declarations the president's issued on August 28th and 29th for Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, which allowed FEMA to identify and mobilize the equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impact of the emergency in those areas.
And this is a rule that was established under the Stafford Act law, and that's what the waiver relates to.
And with that, I will be glad to go to your questions.
QUESTION: What's the latest estimates of the damage caused by the hurricane?
MCCLELLAN: There's going to be an operational update later today by Secretary Chertoff
MCCLELLAN: That might be a place to direct that question.
I think that it's still very early in the assessment of the damage and devastation that was caused by this hurricane, so I don't have an updated number or anything to put on it at this point.
But as I mentioned, this covers some 90,000 square miles. And certainly, yesterday, when we were travelling over the region and looked out at the devastation, it was enormous.
Now, you've got really two different situations you're dealing with in Mississippi and Louisiana. I think we could see that from the air yesterday.
In Mississippi, it's more of the wind damage. The hurricane simply wiped out homes on the ground. It wiped out structures on the ground. You could see homes that were in pieces or home where just slabs of concrete were left because those homes had been completely wiped out.
In the New Orleans area, of course, you have the flooding. And while our focus remains first and foremost on saving lives, we are also working to stop the flooding and fix the breaks in the levees; to address those problems on the ground as we also continue evacuating people in New Orleans.
QUESTION: People on the ground, though, Scott, are questioning why it's taken three days or more for federal help to arrive notwithstanding all of the preparations. There's considerable bitterness in some places. We had one woman ask on camera last night, "Where's the cavalry?"
And then there's been editorial criticism across the country of the president for not acting sooner or not coming back sooner.
What do you say to all that?
MCCLELLAN: I can understand how frustrated people are in the region who have been affected by this. There are some immediate priorities that we must remain focused on. First and foremost, that is saving lives. And second, right along with that, is sustaining lives.
That's why the federal government is working in close partnership with state and local authorities. This is a massive undertaking by the federal government. It is unprecedented.
Remember, we prepositioned assets in the region prior to the storm hitting. You have more than 50 disaster medical assistance teams in the region. You have some 28-plus search and rescue teams deployed in the region.
Those efforts are ongoing. I can understand people who have not received the help they need being frustrated at this point.
It's going to take time to get help to some people. We've got to prioritize what the needs are. That's exactly what the federal government is doing.
MCCLELLAN: And we are going to continue moving resources and assets into the region to help those who are in need.
If you look at what the Department of Transportation, for instance, has done, they have moved, I think, approximately 1,000 truckloads containing more than nearly 7 million meals-ready-to-eat to the region. They have moved millions of gallons of water, 15,000-plus tarps, 10,000-plus rolls of plastic sheeting, 3.4 million pounds of ice that they have helped to transport to those who are in need of those supplies.
QUESTION: But none of that means anything to somebody who's been living on an interstate overpass for the last three days without food or water or any kind of assistance...
MCCLELLAN: As we were passing over the region yesterday, we saw people that were standing on those highways, those highways that just disappeared into the water. We saw people that were on rooftops. We saw helicopters in the distance engaged in search and rescue operations as we were passing through the region.
Our concern, first and foremost, is with the people who have been displaced or affected otherwise by this major catastrophe. It is a major catastrophe, and there is a major response to this catastrophe. And the federal government will continue working to do everything in our power to get help to those in need.
But we certainly understand frustration coming from people on the ground who are in need of help. And we will continue working to get them the assistance that they need. And we appreciate the efforts of all those in the region who are working around the clock to make sure that they are getting help.
QUESTION: Going to bring back any National Guardsmen from Iraq to help?
MCCLELLAN: I think that the military talked about that a little bit yesterday. I think you're talking about two separate priorities, and we're addressing both. And they'll be talking later today, I think, about some of the ongoing increase in the number of National Guard units that are being deployed to the New Orleans area to meet the security and law enforcement needs there on the ground.
I think that they have indicated that, yes.
QUESTION: What impact is this having on the budget? Are you preparing a budget supplemental to take care of it?
MCCLELLAN: That's a good question.
We had significant resources available for the short-term needs. We are fully committed to making sure that the needs on the ground are met and doing what is within our power to do at the federal level. That's why I mentioned the announcement today of the waiver by the president of the United States.
Congress is in the process of returning from their August break.
MCCLELLAN: We believe that we have the resources we need in the short term to meet the needs on the ground. But we will be discussing with Congress -- in fact, we already are discussing with some members of Congress how we move forward on additional supplemental funding to meet the needs down the road.
And you can expect that we will act with Congress to address those needs and provide additional funding that is needed.
It's also important to continue making the assessments of what is needed. And so that's one of the things -- I mean, Terry brought that up at the beginning of the briefing. That's one of the things we're doing is making an assessment on what additional funding may be needed so that we can move forward and pass that quickly once Congress is back in session.
QUESTION: Do you have a ballpark figure yet?
MCCLELLAN: No, I don't have that today.
QUESTION: Do you know how much the former presidents are hoping to raise? And will they be seeking money from...
MCCLELLAN: I don't know. I recall, in the tsunami relief -- I mean, obviously, this is something that has been pulled together in the last day or so. On the tsunami relief efforts, the total amount raised, as I pointed out, was more than $1 billion.
Now that's not all necessarily attributable to their efforts but certainly they provided a lot of help in that. And I don't believe that they set necessarily a target goal. This is just to maximize the response from the American people and maximize those contributions.
I'd also point out that we have received numerous offers of condolence and assistance from nations around the world. And I think you can expect that we intend to take nations up on their offers of assistance.
And the State Department can probably talk to you more about that if there is any more to add to it.
QUESTION: Two questions. First, we've heard a number of reports about crime deterring people from making rescues, that FEMA has called off some rescues in some areas, that helicopters have been shot at, that there's been shooting in the hospitals. And yet some of this has proved to be urban myth. Can you, sort of, set the record straight on what you're hearing?
MCCLELLAN: No, I think that the best place to ask that question is going to be at the briefing at 1:30 or the briefing later today by FEMA officials from the region. They will have the most up-to-date information on operational matters on the ground.
Now, the security situation is a concern. It is a priority. We are working very closely with state and local authorities. We're in close communication with Governor Blanco and other officials on these issues.
And the president, I think, made it very clear earlier today that we will not tolerate lawbreakers, we will not tolerate price gouging, we will not tolerate insurance fraud, we won't tolerate looting. And there is a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to these issues.
QUESTION: And a second question: The Department of Energy reports that about 35 percent of customers don't have power in the area. One of the problems is the people who would go bring them power are sleeping in their trucks. They don't even have the food and resources to get there and help themselves. It seems that these local communities are having trouble even taking care of themselves.
Is there any thought about federalizing the effort to not just be a task force from the federal government, but clearly control and oversee the rescue and recovery?
MCCLELLAN: Again, that's getting into some of the operational aspects. Secretary Chertoff and the Department of Homeland Security are overseeing all the operational activities. I think a question like that would be best directed to them.
Now, in terms of the electricity issues, yes, the Department of Energy is looking at those very closely. One of our concerns when it comes to the economy, of course, is the shortage of gas, and that's an issue we've been working to address. That's why the EPA moved forward on a waiver yesterday, so that the regulations prohibiting some fuel from being used -- that fuel can now be used. And that's why Secretary Bodman is moving forward on approving loans from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, so that we can address the short-term issues that have been caused by this hurricane.
And certainly this is something that has a national impact.
QUESTION: Is it something the president's considering?
MCCLELLAN: Is what something the president's...
QUESTION: Federalizing this effort.
MCCLELLAN: Again, I mean, that's a question you ought to direct to the Department of Homeland Security.
QUESTION: Scott, in light of the president's zero tolerance of insurance fraud, looting, price gouging, does he make any allowance for people who've yet to receive aid who are taking things like water or food or shoes to walk among the debris?
MCCLELLAN: I think you heard from the president earlier today about his zero tolerance.
We understand the need for food and water and supplies of that nature. That's why we have a massive effort under way to continue getting food and water and ice to those who are in need. There are ways for them to get that help; looting is not the way for them to do it.
QUESTION: Scott, I read that Air Force One, on the way back from Texas, had dipped down as low as 1,500 feet.
MCCLELLAN: Seventeen hundred, for a brief period.
QUESTION: How brief? And can you tell us, were you looking out the window or was the president? What did he see? What was the reaction?
MCCLELLAN: Most of the flight over the region, it was pretty clear, and we were able to get a good look at the devastation from the air. I think when we were coming to the Mobile area that there were thunderstorms in the area, so we didn't get to see that part of the region as closely as maybe we would have liked.
But when we flew over New Orleans, we were at 2,500 feet, and then for a brief period after we left New Orleans we went down to about 1,700 feet, and then we went back up to 2,500 feet soon after that.
The one thing that the pilots aboard Air Force One did, at the direction of the president and the White House, was to make sure that the flyover in the region was in no way going to disrupt the ongoing response and recovery efforts, the ongoing search and rescue efforts.
MCCLELLAN: That's why they were in close contact with people on the ground in the region, authorities on the ground, to make sure that the level we were in and where we were flying over was in no way disrupting those ongoing activities. So they were very careful about that.
QUESTION: You talk about the difference between the short-term planning under way now versus the long-term planning to come. Describe for us what short term means in the context of this catastrophe. And when does the long term planning start?
And in terms of housing the displaced residents and the refugees, do you have any kind of an estimate as to how many people in that 90,000 square mile area that you're talking about are still displaced, unsheltered?
MCCLELLAN: No, I think, again, that might be one to direct to FEMA on the ground or the Department of Homeland Security here in Washington at one of their briefings to see if they have any latest update on the number of people that have been displaced. It is certainly a large number of people that have been displaced because of this natural disaster.
And, as you're aware, officials are in the process of evacuating people from New Orleans, particularly the Superdome people that are housed there and moving them to the Astrodome in Houston. That is something that is ongoing. Buses are still en route to the Superdome to move people.
In terms of the short term and long term, that is where the president's focus really is, is, one, the short-term, immediate need. Are we doing everything in our power to meet the urgent needs on the ground, the needs of the people?
First and foremost, it is about saving lives. So those search and rescue operations continue.
A close second to that is sustaining life. And that means making sure people have the food and the water and the ice and the shelter and that they're getting their needs met in that respect.
And in terms of the long-term strategy, that was one of the things the president directed the task force to make sure that they were working on: that we continue developing a long-term strategy to address the needs going forward, because this will be a long and difficult road as we work to rebuild the great city of New Orleans and we work to help people rebuild their lives and get back on their feet.
QUESTION: But in the context of folks who are now looking at perhaps never seeing their homes again, or perhaps being in shelters for months at a time, can you give us some idea? Are we talking about a short-term strategy period of three months, six months, a year?
MCCLELLAN: Well, I want to leave this to those who are overseeing those operational aspects and leave those questions to them, but there are many federal agencies involved in this effort.
Yesterday, the president sat down with the first meeting of the task force that we established to help with the coordination. Secretary Chertoff is chairing that task force and he's also overseeing the operational aspects.
But you had Cabinet secretaries from many agencies sitting at the table. The Department of Transportation is an agency I just mentioned. The Department of Defense: They're deploying -- continuing to deploy -- a large amount of military assets to the region, from ships to troops, to help with the response and recovery efforts.
You have the Department of Energy. You have the Department of Homeland Security, obviously, and FEMA, under the Department of Homeland Security that is overseeing this effort.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, to look at those issues when it comes to people being displaced and where we can provide temporary housing for those individuals.
You have the Department of Labor and Social Security Administration addressing the issues of Social Security or unemployment insurance and things of that nature and how we're going to get people help.
So we are acting on many fronts throughout the federal government. This is an unprecedented effort on behalf of the federal government. And it is being closely coordinated under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.
As you will recall, we developed the National Response Plan for the purpose of situations like this. The National Response Plan was implemented by Secretary Chertoff just the other day. This is the first time it's ever been implemented. And it allows us to really fully mobilize all the resources of the federal government needed to address a situation like this and do so under one umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. And the Department of Health and Human Services -- there are concerns about public health and disease and things of that nature. So they are working very closely with the Centers for Disease Control to address those public health issues.
There are just multiple fronts we are working on to respond to the hurricane.
QUESTION: Two quick clarifications, please.
Was the lunch with Chairman Greenspan scheduled previously, previous to the...
MCCLELLAN: No. I mean, he does have lunch with Chairman Greenspan from time to time, but this was set up for the purpose of talking about the economic impact.
QUESTION: And the second is, based on what you have said today and what the president said this morning on television, is it fair to say that the president feels that all the help has been provided as quickly and in sufficient quantity as possible?
MCCLELLAN: For those on the ground who are still in need of assistance, I think they would tell you that it hasn't. They need the help yesterday.
But we are doing everything in our power to get assistance to those who need it.
Obviously, when you have a situation of this magnitude, you have to prioritize what are the most urgent, pressing needs and make sure that those needs are being met first. And that's what we're doing, in partnership with state and local authorities.
QUESTION: I know the president, obviously, is focused on response efforts right now, but can I talk to you about preparedness?
Is the president satisfied with the way assets were prepositioned, specifically in those areas like New Orleans and Mississippi, New Orleans particularly, a place that was identified by the Red Cross as being particularly vulnerable because of its geographical location?
Is the president satisfied?
MCCLELLAN: One thing that I think's important to keep in mind at this time, this is the immediate aftermath of a major catastrophe. This is a time when the whole country needs to come together to help those in the region. And that's where our focus is.
This is not a time to get into any finger-pointing or politics or anything of that nature. This is a time to make sure all our resources available are focused where they need to be, and that is on the people who have been displaced or the people who have been otherwise affected by this natural disaster. And that's exactly what we are doing.
In terms of the hurricane itself, remember we took a number of steps prior to the hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast region. The president issued disaster declarations for the states in the region prior to the hurricane hitting shore. That enabled FEMA to fully mobilize all the resources needed to preposition assets, like disaster medical assistance teams and search and rescue teams, so that they would be able to quickly deploy and help.
MCCLELLAN: I think on Tuesday everybody recognized -- if not sooner -- that this natural disaster is unprecedented. It is, as I said, perhaps the, if not -- certainly one of, if not the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. And that's why we have a massive federal response effort under way.
Mike Brown was working closely with the state and local authorities in the region last week, leading up to the hurricane hitting at the early part of this week. And so there was a lot of prepositioning of assets and people and resources prior to the arrival of Katrina. QUESTION: There's already a line of discussion going on about the funding of projects prior to this, whether projects in New Orleans, in particular, were underfunded because of the Iraq war or for other reasons.
Do you find any of this legitimate? Do you think there is any second-guessing to be done now about priorities, given that the New Orleans situation was, sort of, obvious to a lot of the experts?
MCCLELLAN: As I indicated, this is not a time for politics. This is a time for the nation to come together and help those in the Gulf Coast region.
And that's where our focus is. This is not a time for finger- pointing or playing politics.
And I think the last thing that the people who have been displaced or the people who have been affected need is people seeking partisan gain in Washington. So if that's what you're talking about, that's one thing.
Now, if you're talking about specific areas, I think I would be glad to talk about some of those, if that's what you want. I don't know what specific areas you're talking about.
QUESTION: The (OFF-MIKE) project, for instance, is the one some people cite, where they felt -- they wanted $60 million in this current '06 fiscal year; they were given $10 million -- those types of projects. And a lot of the amount...
MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry. Which project is this?
QUESTION: Southeast Louisiana flood control.
MCCLELLAN: Yes, flood control has been a priority of this administration from day one.
We have dedicated an additional $300 million over the last few years for flood control in New Orleans and the surrounding area. And if you look at the overall funding levels for the Army Corps of Engineers, they have been slightly above $4.5 billion that has been signed by the president.
QUESTION: If you look, people were asking for more money over the last couple years. They were quoted in local papers in 2003 and 2004 as saying that they were told by federal officials there wasn't enough money because it was going to Iraq expenditures.
MCCLELLAN: You might want to talk to General Strock who's the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers because I think he's talked to some reporters already and talked about some of these issues.
I think some people maybe have tried to make a suggestion or imply that certain funding would have prevented the flooding from happening. And he has essentially said there's been nothing to suggest that whatsoever and that it's been more of a design issue with the levees.
QUESTION: Without getting into finger-pointing or partisan politics or anything, would you concede, given the difficult reality on the ground there now, that more could have or should have been done to have resources available to move quickly or to be there? Or is it your position that this is simply the nature of responding to disasters of this scale, that it's going to take...
MCCLELLAN: That's a very good and legitimate question, and I think that that's something that over time will be able to be addressed and looked at.
You're still right now trying to assess all the damage and destruction that's been done. Now is the time to remain focused on the response and recovery efforts, and that's what we're doing.
There'll be a time for politics later. There'll be a time to look at all these other issues and do more of a critique or assessment of the response efforts. But right now we're making sure that we're doing everything in our power to respond to this natural disaster.
QUESTION: Would you expect that as a result of this, in the long run, when that time comes, that there will have to be an overhaul of the National Response Plan both in terms of dealing with natural disasters as well as what we're going to learn from this should there be a...
MCCLELLAN: I think in any situation like this you're, obviously, going to look back at it and learn from it. And that's something that would be expected: to make sure in the future we take into account what we've learned.
I think it's just too early to get into that kind of discussion. Right now, there are a lot of people who are in need. And we need to make sure the assistance is getting to them.
QUESTION: Search and rescue now, and in a very few days it's probably going to start shifting to search and recovery -- sadly -- so clearly there's urgency now.
Have you considered making a request for international aid? Has it been considered getting National Guard from all the states, or even co-opting domestic airlines to get them to evacuate...
MCCLELLAN: I'm not talking about any specific area. Again, this is something that is probably a question best directed to the Department of Homeland Security at one of their briefings, when you're looking at some of these issues.
But I don't think we're ruling things out at this point in terms of any area. And in terms of assistance from other nations, as I just indicated earlier today, we are open to all offers of assistance from other nations and I would expect we would take people up on offers of assistance when it's necessary.
QUESTION: So that is a request? You are requesting international aid?
MCCLELLAN: No. I mean, I think that a lot of nations have offered assistance. I don't know of any particular request I have to update you on at this point.
And the point I think I'm making is that we're not ruling things out. So whenever you're looking at any area to help with the response and recovery efforts, you always want to consider all your options that are available.
And so I don't know. You know, I mean, the president talked earlier today when he was asked about -- I think it was about -- Saudi Arabia, and he said he's confident Saudi Arabia would provide what assistance they could when it came to the energy supply.
But, of course, he talked about how their capacity was limited. I mean, there are a lot of ways people can help. And, certainly, we're going to look at those offers and take people up on those offers, I would expect.
QUESTION: Is it the time, though, now, in terms of getting people out alive, maybe getting rescuers in -- whereas, in some days' time, it may only be money or body recovery?
MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry, is it...
QUESTION: Is the time now to request international aid?
MCCLELLAN: There's a lot of assistance coming in. And I think some have already offered assistance in different ways. So I don't think that the way you characterize it is necessarily the way I would look at it.
QUESTION: I know that it's fairly early in the fact-finding department, but what's the best guess on when there might be a ballpark figure on how much this might cost?
MCCLELLAN: That's something we continue to work on, and we continue to assess what those needs are.
Obviously, as the damage and devastation is assessed by people on the ground, then that helps you come to a better, more precise estimate of that.
QUESTION: On a related point, motorists around the country are now in many places paying more than $3 a gallon for gasoline. Most analysts expect that to remain the case for days and weeks to come.
Are we going to hear anything from the president on asking Americans to do what they can to conserve?
MCCLELLAN: You heard from him earlier today. The president indicated that where people can, they should conserve.
And he talked about the steps we're taking to address the issue of high gas prices and a shortage of supply that has led to an increase in gas prices. And that's why the Department of Energy is making loans available to help address some of that shortage, making loans from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve available. That's why the EPA issued the waiver when it came to certain fuels, so that...
KAGAN: We've been listening in to White House spokesperson Scott McClellan for just about the last 40 minutes. The big news out of the news conference. President Bush will head to Gulf Coast tomorrow. He'll go to Mobile, Alabama, and he'll take an aerial tour of the New Orleans area.
Also meeting later today with former Presidents Bush and Clinton, asking them to fill a similar role as they did after the tsunami and raise private donations to help those in desperate need along the Gulf Coast.
That is going to do it for me. I'm Daryn Kagan. I toss it now to New York City and my colleague Kyra Phillips.
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