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THE SITUATION ROOM
FEMA Director: Focus is on Life-Saving Efforts; Critically Injured Airlifted from Superdome
Aired September 1, 2005 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
QUESTION: Director Brown, can you tell us how you see the security situation, as best as you can, yesterday or the day before, because a lot of people've come in and said the reporters are not giving the full picture. How is it that you see it, and how quickly do you think you could improve it?
MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: In terms of the security?
BROWN: I actually think the security is pretty darn good. I think that what you have is -- if you step back and you take a broad perspective of what's going on, yes, you know, there's some really bad people out there that are causing some problems, and it seems to me that every time a bad person wants to scream or cause a problem, there's somebody there with a camera to stick it in their face. What they don't see is that mother in the other part of the room that's sitting there very quietly that is not engaging in that. That is being patient and understands. Is getting in the line, getting on the bus, and being evacuated.
And so I think the security situation is much, much better because as the general just explained as we continue to exponentially increase those security forces it will continue to get better and better as the days go by.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE)
BROWN: No, they do not.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There have been reports of bodies laying (INAUDIBLE).
BROWN: That's not been reported to me, so I'm not going to comment on -- again, that's what gets started is there have been reports of -- and so until I actually -- until I actually get a report from my teams that say, "We have bodies located here or there," I'm just not going to speculate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) morgue somewhere?
BROWN: Are we going to set up a morgue? Yes. That's what the teams are doing. The teams are setting up -- you have to deal with these bodies with respect, and you have to have a distribution system to take care of them so that we can track them, care for them properly, get them properly secured. You do that in one location by the demark (ph) team and then they go to a different location where they continue to be tagged and hopefully delivered to their loved ones.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Will that be (INAUDIBLE) Gabriel (ph)?
BROWN: I was just getting briefed and I think that was going to be the final point for taking the bodies. But we'll confirm that and make sure.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For how many are you all prepared?
BROWN: As many as we need to.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) Do you have a number today? Do you have any numbers?
BROWN: We do not -- we do not have numbers. We will continue -- and you can chuckle about that as much as you want to, but we are continuing to focus on life-saving and life-sustaining efforts. And I think the story that you need to report is that we are out there doing rescue missions and we are out there doing -- making sure that the food and the water and the meals ready-to-eat are being delivered to the people that need it.
And we will ramp up our process so we can start spitting out the numbers for you as quickly as possible. But right now our focus is doing -- right now our focus is doing the life-saving and life- sustaining efforts.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These bodies in the street, don't they present a health hazard? Can't they picked up, scooped up, delivered and put on ice to prevent widespread outbreak of disease?
BROWN: Well, first of all, you jump to the assumption that it will cause a widespread outbreak of disease. That is not necessarily true. And second of all, we will continue to -- we will continue to deal with that problem as best we can.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know how many people actually you rescued in the city of New Orleans?
BROWN: No, we do not. It is absolutely a fascinating dynamic, because as we move people out of the Superdome, people begin to move in. As we begin to establish points of -- points of pickup for people to be taken to a shelter, people begin to show up out of nowhere.
So people are coming out of either parishes where they've been in their homes, not out on the streets. They're continuing to come out of homes -- maybe they were on the second floor and now they can get out and start moving around, so it is literally (AUDIO/VIDEO GAP) more people continue to shop up and move in (AUDIO/VIDEO GAP).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) carry with them?
BROWN: It is every single thing. I have people out there literally handing out food and water to individuals. We have distribution sites where the guards are actually forming lines and people are coming through that.
We have formed distributions -- what I would call kind of retail distribution sites where we bring in large supplies of the food and water and then the guard and volunteers, Boy Scouts and others will come together.
And we're trying to do it as efficiently as possible by having cars drive through who can drive through. In New Orleans that's not possible, so we're doing it hand by hand with the guard. It's every single means of distribution that we can utilize we're utilizing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) we've heard that over and over, that -- yesterday sometime, some truck by rescue teams in boats. Some people would say, "No, we're staying." Do you know if that's still happening?
BROWN: I don't know if it's still happening, but I do know that it's happened some yesterday and that it happened some this morning. That was reported to me. And I have no rationale to give you why that's the case.
That primarily seemed to be happening, from the reports that I received, from people on the overpasses or the bits of roadway that are not inundated and they're gathered there. We're continuing to sling-load of supplies in to them. And then they'll come in and sometimes people just refuse to be taken away. We may reach a point where we just have to take them out.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: that was my question. Do you force them out at some point? Or do they hamper the efforts to, I guess, clean up and secure...
BROWN: At some point, if someone refuses to move, it will hamper the rescue effort. It will hamper the clean-up effort. And at that point, there will be a plan developed, a decision made about how we will actually extract those people from the area.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will there be additional sites in Texas?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will there be additional sites in Texas?'
BROWN: Yes, yes. We have opened a site in San Antonio, and we have consideration of other sites under consideration, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)
BROWN: No. They're going to the Air Force base in San Antonio.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: talk a little bit about fuel supplies. Obviously, there's less demand (INAUDIBLE) more in some places like Baton Rouge, where are a lot of folks that -- how are you managing the fuel supply? BROWN: We are currently -- the cabinet is currently working to talk to all the governors, talk to all the refiners, talk to all the wholesale distributors about ways that they can divert supplies from critical areas to other critical areas.
And so the cabinet is working that at that level. They are aware of the problem. They're working on trying to devise some sort of plan that is equitable to the entire country and also recognize that the entire country wants to help this impacted area in these three states.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)
BROWN: Well, public health issues in the terms of widespread disease, no. Health issues in terms of heat exhaustion and just the physical frustration of being in that confined facility, some of the psychological effects, yes, we are beginning to see some of that and trying to address it as rapidly as possible.
I intend to put additional teams of the national disaster medical system in place to deal with those.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) in some of the shelters due to the pressure of being in small confined places like Baton Rouge or...
BROWN: I've had no -- I've had no reports of unrest, if the connotation of the word unrest means that people are beginning to riot or, you know, they're banging on walls and screaming and hollering or burning tires or whatever. I've had no reports of that.
But I've got to tell you, if you're in one of those shelters and your home has been destroyed and you're displaced, you feel unrest. But, again, I emphasize, there's a big difference between being frustrated and being tired and being worn out and frustrated and taking a gun or beating up, you know, a National Guard officer or burning a car or doing anything like that. I have not seen reports of that kind of unrest.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People aren't sure if they get put on a bus if they're going to be required to stay in Houston. Are you trying to keep people in shelters where (INAUDIBLE) what's the point of getting on the bus?
BROWN: Yes. Because we have to develop places for them to go. We have to get the temporary housing program running. In Florida last year we started immediately moving in travel trailers for people to live in. We started that process of identifying sites and ways to do it, just like the cruise ships, identifying those kinds of mechanisms.
So I imagine there is some reluctance of being transported to Houston just because you've gone from one unknown now to another unknown. But we've got to get them -- I don't want to lecture you guys. But the point I'm trying to make is what we're get -- what we're doing right now is this life-sustaining effort of these people have no place to go. So we're trying to get them to a place where we can get them stabilized, get them fed, find out who they are, find out what their needs are and start treating them. That's the objective. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) from a doctor (INAUDIBLE) Houston and (INAUDIBLE) they weren't allowed to leave.
BROWN: Call that boyfriend back and say, yes, go pick them up. Yes, we want to encourage people to leave the shelters if they can. But you got to remember, there are so many people in these shelters who have no place to go. They either have no other family members or that family unit may be intact but they have no place that that family unit can go. So they may have no other place to go.
But if they've got a spot, they're free to pack up and go wherever they want to. If they have the ability to do that, I would encourage them to do so.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) does that mean today you're going to focus on getting the rest of the people out of the hospital? I would think they're ready.
BROWN: Yes. In fact I just heard from the governor before I came in here that she had a report from her state health secretary that those evacuations were ongoing, and they were receiving good reports and they were quite satisfied with the evacuations of the hospitals.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Floodwater still going down?
BROWN: Yes. They're going down.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)
BROWN: It's -- it's not the most desirable thing to do, because if we did that and then we had to stage our logistical operations further away, then we would have questions about why is it taking longer to do something, because they would be flying in from 500 miles away instead of flying in from just a short distance.
There's also the additional problem of getting some of these air bases close by up and running. They have to have power. They have to be able to support people that we put in there before we begin to do that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) some conversations today that that would be a potential location? Even after today?
BROWN: That is -- that is -- let me tell you guys and you'll hear me say it again. You're going to hear me say this in every press briefing. Everything is on the table. I've seen some of the -- if I say this, some of you will ask what they are and I'm not going to tell you. But I've seen some of the craziest ideas about how to house people, where to put people, how to do this, and it is all on the table. There is nothing that is not being considered.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could you tell us how many people we're talking about right now? How many people are in shelters? How many shelter locations are there? How many do you anticipate coming in the next couple days?
BROWN: We have that. And we have that -- we have that spreadsheet for you and we will get that spreadsheet to you as soon as this is over with.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) as well.
BROWN: We'll get you the spreadsheet. Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) some parish presidents, specifically one in Jefferson Parish about encouraging people to come back Monday. Would you think that that would be an unwise thing to suggest to people at this point?
BROWN: It is -- it's really incumbent upon everyone to recognize that we shouldn't do anything that's going to hinder rescue efforts. We shouldn't do anything that's going to hinder the recovery efforts. It is still a very dangerous situation, not in terms of unrest and that sort. It's a very dangerous situation moving into these areas where floodwaters still exist, where homes are still very dangerous.
It's very easy to look at a home that you don't see any water around it, but that's because the water went away the day after Katrina left and that home is still very dangerous.
We don't actually send a lot of urban search and rescue teams out to areas that have been identified as having been under floodwater. We will go through and check the structural integrity of some of those homes. And some of them may be red flagged where people cannot go in, except with a local official or with one of the team members to get what belongings they can and get out of there.
And it's going to be that kind of tedious, long-term process that we have to do house by house by house. That's the scope of what we're facing here, folks.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're basically saying...
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brown is the FEMA director. We've been listening to his news conference explaining what's going on. FEMA clearly trying to do the best they can under awful circumstances.
The other picture you're seeing -- these are live pictures coming in from outside the Superdome in New Orleans. National Guard troops on the scene. They're trying to move the critically injured. You see a helicopter over there that will be removing some of those individuals.
Let's listen in to the pilot briefly. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whatever you want to call them, we're just people, trying to -- displaced people, trying to get them to a place where they can be safe and have some kind of comfort, have fresh water, have fresh food.
Pan over to the right here and show you a Black Hawk helicopter. Another rain shower is starting to come through here. Just a very surreal scene.
But we have noticed, and a little bit of good news -- we were flying earlier this afternoon over the fairgrounds. And I can't -- it's off in the distance right now, but over the fairgrounds was completely underwater yesterday, has -- the water level has declined slowly. It's definitely nothing good as far as how low it's gone, but it's better than it was yesterday. So it's hopefully a good sign that maybe the waters are starting to recede.
And as we were at the area yesterday, this -- some of these areas here, I think the water line was -- I'm going to push in here. The water line was much higher. So it seems to be that maybe there is some good news...
BLITZER: All right. We've been listening to a helicopter pilot flying over the Superdome in New Orleans, getting ready for emergency operations. Clearly, lots of emergency operations underway right now.
Chris Lawrence is our man in New Orleans. He's joining us on the phone.
Chris, give our viewers a little update. We heard the FEMA director, Michael Brown, say they're doing the best they can. But from your vantage point, how are they doing?
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENTS: Wolf, from here and from talking to the police officers, they're losing control of the city. We're now standing on the roof of one of the police stations. The police officers came by and told us in very, very strong terms it wasn't safe to be out on the street.
So we've now holed up at one of the police stations, and we're on the roof. It cuts us off a little bit as to what's happening directly on the street but does give us a much better view of the entire area. We can see multiple helicopters circling the downtown area. And across the Mississippi River I can still see that fire burning right across the Mississippi.
It has been raining steadily here for about an hour to two hours now. But even with the rain, you can see this huge cloud of black smoke rising up over from the other side of the Mississippi.
BLITZER: We see these individuals, Chris, standing outside the Superdome in New Orleans. We do see National Guard personnel there. We see police officer on the scene. They are presumably waiting -- waiting relatively patiently to board busses and drive to the Astrodome in Houston. They're getting ready -- they're hoping that the busses will arrive, but we did hear an urgent SOS appeal from the mayor in New Orleans, just a little while ago, saying they need so much help. So much is not being done to save these people.
Let me read to you, Chris -- you've been there now for 24 hours in New Orleans -- the lead from the latest Associate Press story that has just moved out of New Orleans, the byline, Adam Nositer (ph). I'll just read a couple sentences to you and to our viewers, and I want you to weigh in after we hear his eyewitness account of what's happening in New Orleans.
"Dateline New Orleans. Storm victims were raped and beaten, fights and fires broke out. Corpses lay out in the open, and rescue helicopters and law enforcement officers were shot as flooded-out New Orleans descended into anarchy Thursday."
"'This is a desperate SOS,' the mayor said.'
The story goes on to say, quote, "The Reverend Isaac Clark, 68, who was standing outside the New Orleans Convention Center. He says, quote, 'We are out here like pure animals. We don't have help'."
Chris Lawrence, you're there. You're in New Orleans right now. Is that an accurate description of what's happening on the streets of New Orleans right now?
LAWRENCE: I would say it's very accurate. And we have reported already all of those except for the actual rape. We have not been able to independently confirm that women were raped, although we did hear a lot of people talking about that.
But we know that there's been -- just in the last hour police tell us that someone did go by the convention center and actually fire at some of the people standing outside the convention center. We believe they have the person in custody, although it is hard to get information.
The police are very, very tense right now. So it's a little difficult to have them stop and kind of explain what happened. They're literally riding around, full assault weapons, full tactical gear, in pickup trucks. Five, six, seven, eight officers. It is a very tense situation here.
One of the officers told us -- although this, too, we are still trying to independently confirm. And it's tough from our vantage point here. But one of the officers says that some of the inmates at the Orleans Parish jail may have taken control of the prison. From what we were hearing, they have weapons. They have not left the jail. They can't get out. But that they have control of weapons inside that jail.
And, again, Wolf, isolated as we are, it's getting more and more difficult to confirm information. I never want to compare anything to what's happening in Iraq. But there is one similarity in that the ability to move about as reporters is slowly becoming compromised. In that to be as safe as possible, you have to sacrifice some of your ability to go out and confirm information and verify stories. And right now, with this safety situation in the city of New Orleans, that's just not possible.
BLITZER: I see a convoy, Chris, of busses. I believe those busses are headed toward the Superdome. Those busses will be carrying people, taking people to the Astrodome in Houston. I counted about 20 busses in that caravan that was snaking its way -- making its way, I believe, toward the Superdome. I assume those busses are empty. But if we get better information we'll update our viewers.
These are live pictures that we're bringing in from New Orleans right now. The pictures our viewers are seeing, individuals. They're outside the Superdome. They're anxious to get out of there as quickly as possible. Even though there are military personnel, National Guard troops there, even though there are police officers there and rescue workers there, they want to get out as quickly as they can. And efforts are being made to move them to Houston.
This is in contrast to what's happening not that far away over at the convention center, where the mayor says there may be another 15,000 or 20,000 people who don't have any kind of security situation or help that is there. And the mayor simply says they're stretched. They have no opportunity to get the job done at the convention center.
And I assume there are lots of other people elsewhere in New Orleans. Do we have any number? Yesterday we heard perhaps 100,000 people are stranded in New Orleans, Chris, and would like to get out. But have you gotten any better information? I know you're restricted to your whereabouts and how you can communicate with the outside world in the French Quarter of New Orleans where you are right now.
LAWRENCE: Yes, I can't even begin to tell you exact hard numbers on how many people are still here, although having spent most of the morning down at the convention center, I mean, thousands, Wolf. Thousands and thousands of families just sitting out there.
They've run out of a lot of food. They're running out of water. They have no contact with the outside world, no way to talk to family members to let them know they're still alive.
And no way to get out. They've been waiting for days for busses that they were told were going to pick them up. Some of them sleeping out there at night, night after night after night. And the situation down there is just horrible, Wolf. I mean, feces, raw sewage, rotting trash.
And these families -- you're talking mothers with babies, elderly people, people with very serious health problems are living in this night after night, all day exposed to the sun, night, at risk from young people fighting and trampling them.
And as we saw for ourselves, a man went into a seizure right in front of us. I mean, right on the ground. And people did what they could and they put some ice on his chest. But there's no doctor. There's no ambulance. And if nothing changes there, more people are just going to die there.
BLITZER: All right, Chris. I'm going to have you stand by. We're going continue to show our viewers these dramatic pictures from outside the Superdome in New Orleans. Thousands of people anxious to get out of there, make their way to someplace. Many of them will be boarding busses. We saw a whole caravan of busses in New Orleans. And presumably they're going to be taken to the Astrodome in Houston, which is a good drive.
Let's bring in Charles Foti. He's the attorney general of Louisiana.
Mr. Foti, thanks very much for joining us.
You see the pictures. You hear the horror stories. What is most concerning right now, in addition to the life and death struggle that these people are undergoing, is the security situation that has enveloped much of this city. What are you hearing?
CHARLES FOTI, LOUISIANA ATTORNEY GENERAL: The hurricane finally got out of the New Orleans area Monday night. We immediately sent people in. The governor and the homeland security people have been working, along with the state police and the National Guard, to supplement and help the people in the five parishes that it occurred in.
The St. Tammany Parish, the Jefferson Parish is also devastated, Plaquemines Parish and St. Bernard Parish.
We have moved all of the prisoners. The Department of Corrections has moved all the prisoners out of Jefferson Parish. They're in the process of moving all of the prisoners out of Orleans Parish.
We are also in the process right now, because of the flooding in Orleans Parish, to set up a temporary detention center so that the -- everybody that's arrested, whether it's by the New Orleans Police Department, the sheriff's department, or the state police or other law enforcement agencies can bring them there. We will hold them there so they will be out of the action and start the criminal prosecutions against them.
At some time later, we will move them to another parish, where the district attorney from Orleans Parish and the judges, both the municipal and traffic court, will hold open court.
At the same time, the firing you talked a little bit, is probably the one at Oakwood shopping center, which is on the west bank of Jefferson Parish. We have sent people from our office down to the hospital on the west bank to help secure its facilities. We are working with everybody to make sure it's safe.
BLITZER: Attorney general, let me interrupt for a moment and ask you, I guess, the question that everybody who is watching television right now, hearing about what's happening in New Orleans wants to know. When will you have enough troops, National Guard troops, enough police officers, enough rescue operators to control this city, which seems to be at least huge chunks of it in chaos right now?
FOTI: As we speak and for the last two days we've been having more people come in. The Louisiana sheriffs across the state of Louisiana have sent 300 people down there. They arrived there today.
There are more National Guard troops coming in. There are probably some regular Army troops coming. At the same time, we received requests from other law enforcement agencies to send people. We have changed our rules to bring them in so they can start working. FEMA has been down here.
So I would think in the next couple of days we'll have it well under -- well under control. In the process, we had Tuesday, Wednesday and part of Thursday. In that process we had to go through five parishes to help rescue people that were trapped. At the same time, we had to get hospitals running that were getting out of fuel, because there's no water and there's no electricity. So the state sent that down.
We have been working every way possible to provide assistance. The president of the United States has been very gracious with our governor. Our governor has had strong leadership to help bring all of these sources to bear.
And at the same time you have -- you're moving the evacuees out and you're setting up the shelters all over the state which we're sending people to, it's a total statewide and in some instances national effort. This is probably the worst...
BLITZER: I was going to say, Attorney General -- finish your thought.
FOTI: This is probably the worst disaster to hit the United States. I said this is probably the worst disaster to hit the United States of America.
BLITZER: You're probably right, unfortunately. Can you confirm that the death toll in New Orleans alone is going to go into the thousands?
FOTI: I have no independent knowledge of that. We have -- we have been over there. We have helped and provided -- but there is no idea about how many people are dead.
Sometime in the next day or two, FEMA will be able to have that information and we'll -- but right now we're trying to get the living out, trying to get -- have gotten a lot of the critically ill out. And we're going out picking up pockets of people every place you have seen.
They're on bridges. They're in front of the convention center, in front of the Superdome, other places. And just getting -- because of the flooded roads and condition, there's only one way in and one way out.
BLITZER: On the question of a looting, we heard the president say this morning there should be a zero tolerance when it comes to looting. At the same time, there's this dilemma that I'm sure unfolds for a lot of these poor people who are desperate right now. They have their children with them. They have no food. They have no water. They are desperately trying to save their kids.
Would you prosecute people who go into a seven/11 and take food or water for their children? Is that acceptable under these kinds of horrendous circumstances?
FOTI: Let me tell you. If -- if the law enforcement officer makes an arrest, then the district attorney would make that decision based upon the facts of that particular case.
I am positive that where you have the facts of such that someone was starving to death and they had some food they would help them. But let us not confuse that with a criminal element that is wholesale looting and causing trouble.
What you have is a criminal element that's trying to take control. You have a city that's ravaged because of floodwaters constantly rising. And we're doing the best we can to re-establish the criminal justice system, and it will be re-established. And we will prosecute the looters to the fullest extent of the law.
BLITZER: Charles Foti is Louisiana's attorney general. Good luck to you, Attorney General.
FOTI: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it very much. Got a difficult assignment.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us in New Orleans at the airport, watching what's going on. Ed, what is happening now?
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: well, Wolf, there are about 25 helicopters ferrying back and forth between the New Orleans airport and the city of New Orleans, shepherding people back and forth.
Basically, the folks here at the airport using whatever they can to get people moving around. Equipment normally used to move luggage around at these airports is moving people.
Inside the terminal of the airport the FEMA medical teams are overwhelmed with the number of people here. We have seen many people who have been pulled from area hospitals who are already in critical condition. We saw one body taken off a plane on the back of one of these luggage racks that was just wrapped up, a dead body.
Inside it's just an intense scene. The scenes on people's faces says it all. I came across a little while ago, as well, a maternity ward of women holding their newborn babies. Every woman was holding a newborn, except for one who was holding a Polaroid photograph. Her baby had been taken to the intensive care unit. And as the woman was about to board an aircraft for Ft. Worth, Texas, she told me real quickly that she had no idea where her baby is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They had to evacuate us. And I was in ICU. And I'm looking for my baby. They transferred my baby to University Hospital. And I don't know where my baby is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAVANDERA: A harrowing scene, Wolf. And, basically, these helicopters, we've seen them come and go over and over throughout the afternoon. Every time, they just drop off another load of people quickly. Some are taken on buses. The plan is to move a lot of these people out of the airport on fixed-wing aircraft presumably either to Houston, we've heard some people going to Ft. Worth or other parts of Louisiana as well.
I've also been told by one FEMA official that they're doing a nationwide bed count of hospitals, perhaps looking for any kind of place that might be able to handle all of these people -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ed, how long is this going to continue? Because it looks like they're pretty much at full capacity already at the airport. Is that right, Ed?
LAVANDERA: Well, they must be. I spoke with one gentleman who I met on the way in here Tuesday morning like at 3:00 in the morning who is one of the commanders here. He said they were overwhelmed, that they were never expecting to see this many people. But they started getting nervous yesterday when the rumors started circulating that many of the people at the Superdome and the convention center that were still trapped in the city were going to be brought through here. They are still waiting to get more support and backup for many of the medical teams who have been working for 24 hours straight trying to help out this situation.
This is the busiest we've seen since I've been here since early Tuesday morning. The last couple of hours, the helicopters have been coming non-stop. Essentially, this airport has been turned into a military airfield.
BLITZER: All right. Ed Lavandera reporting for us live from the airport in New Orleans, which has taken on a new meaning, that word airport in New Orleans. We'll continue to check back with you.
Chris Lawrence, we'll check back in New Orleans as well.
We'll take a quick break. Jack Cafferty is standing by with his thoughts. Stay with us.
BLITZER: Let's check in with CNN's Jack Cafferty. He's in New York. He's been reading your e-mail. You had a provocative question. Remind our viewers what the question was, Jack. JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, all right. The question was this, "what role of race and class played in the Gulf Coast crisis?" We've gotten a lot of mail from viewers. Renee in Harrisonburg, Virginia writes, "if those congressman saw their rich, white constituents in trouble, they would have called a special session of Congress the next day. Why the hesitation?"
James in Las Vegas, Nevada, "the world's watching, and they're going to get a good look at how this country treats black people."
Beth writes, "Mr. Cafferty, you are correct. These are the poor black who could not leave the area. Our helicopters could have dropped food and water on the roofs of the people who were waiving for help. At least that would have sustained them. But nothing was done."
Eva writes, "race and class played a 100 percent role in the help. The only reason that they're getting help now is due to media coverage for the entire world to see. There's an election coming next November, I hope the people remember this when they go to the polls."
Amos writes, "if this is the question on America's mind, then the next question has to be, how does race and class play into the looting and general lawlessness. It's interesting that race and class might somehow explain the inability of some to flee the storm, confirming their victimhood, but what about responsibility, respect for others and just common decency?
And finally, C. writes, "Blacks and whites with money are gone. In the end, it's all about the money. Once again, the poor are left behind -- Wolf."
BLITZER: Well, you know, I've been getting a lot of e-mail on that, Jack. A lot of the people who are suffering are not just the poor, not just black, but they are middle class people who are suffering as well, including middle class blacks who are suffering in New Orleans. This cuts across sort of class lines and racial lines as well.
CAFFERTY: Well, except that the predominant -- the majority of the population -- a large majority of the population in New Orleans is black to begin with. And, No. 2, those who had the means and the money and were paying attention to the warnings that were coming their way, in all likelihood, chose to get out of dodge.
I would suggest, although I have no way of knowing this -- but I would suggest that the bulk of the people ensconced in the Superdome in New Orleans are poor people. And the pictures clearly show the majority of them are black. Again, the majority of the population of the city is black, so I don't know what you can extrapolate from that. But my guess is the means to flee has to be a factor in who is still in New Orleans and who isn't.
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty in New York reporting for us, telling us what our viewers think as well. Thank you, Jack, very much.
Let's check in with our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner. She's reading what's out there on the blogs -- Jacki.
JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Same thing, Wolf, that Jack is hearing from his e-mails is what we see materializing online right now. The race issue not lost on some of the bloggers who are doing analysis. The Ascent Blog who talks about African-American policy is saying why did it take such a long time for President Bush's compassionate conservatism to kick in, wondering, "was the response of a Republican president to a district that is 70 percent African- American sufficient?" I suspect the answer to that question is going to be no.
Also, at Balloon Juice, this is John Cole's blog. He talks about the fact that people were saying they didn't leave. He says, anyone who says they didn't leave because they had been through hurricanes before, he suspects some of them were speaking out of a matter of pride. They had nowhere to go, no way to get there. Have you ever been broke, he says? It can be embarrassing. So, that's one of the things they're taking a look at.
At the Moderate Voice, John Gandelman (ph), also saying the same thing. He refuses to blame this on the people who didn't have the money to get out, saying that it is in fact the invisible hand of capitalism that is affecting people now in New Orleans. So, definitely the issue coming up online as well -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jacki.
Let's go to Houston, the Astrodome specifically. Keith Oppenheim is there. That's where so many of the survivors already have arrived. Not that many, I take it, yet. But many more on the way, Keith. You have one of those survivors with you?
KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I do. And I'll point out first, Wolf, that I went inside the Astrodome a couple of hours ago, took a look at what's going on in there. There are about 2,000 folks in there at that point, probably it's at about 3,000 now.
It's quite orderly in there. But it would not be, in my view, anyway, an easy place to live for a while, because you're inside a sports arena with all those folks. And with us to talk about what she's about to go through and what she has been through is Valena Coco. I'll mention that Valena is a special education teacher. Your home, which is about a mile from Lake Pontchartrain, you believe is up to the roof with water. And you actually were rescued from a church roof near your house?
VALENA COCO, SUPERDOME EVACUEE: That's correct.
OPPENHEIM: So that was -- was that pretty rough getting to the Superdome or was it mostly hard once you were in the Superdome?
COCO: Once we had gotten to the Coast Guard boat and made it to the bridge, waiting a few hours to be rescued again by the Army unit, it took us about an hour and a half to make it through the streets, through the water and downed trees and power lines.
OPPENHEIM: That must have been just unreal to see that.
COCO: It was very scary, because you had to do this zigzag course with this huge truck and people standing, looking and everybody was scared, wet, tired.
OPPENHEIM: Inside the Superdome, you were there for two days, I understand. Was it stressful for you? And I should point out you're with your college aged daughter and your mother, who had bypass surgery five weeks ago.
COCO: That's correct. It was stressful. There were a large number of people. We were sitting in chairs. And this was home for a few days. The National Guard presence was very large and they were doing their best to keep everyone in control and everybody calm and orderly, but I believe the lack of communication with the media -- the news, the radio, the different devices that we could have to let us know what was going on in our neighborhoods, with each new group of people that came in, we heard new horror tales, new levels of water, new places and areas of destruction in home towns. And everything was very, very scary, and it was very stressful.
OPPENHEIM: In a moment I want to ask you about what you're going to do from here at the Astrodome. But while you've been waiting here with me, you've been listening to reports on CNN about what's happening in New Orleans right now. How do you react to this emotionally to hear what's happening to your city?
COCO: It's devastating. We already have the things that mother nature has done to us that we have no control over. But we all have control over ourselves and our actions. And to hear of some of the horrendous acts, it's very disappointing to think that this is home and that we're destroying what's ours.
OPPENHEIM: Thank you so much, Valena. And I'll just finish up, because we have got to go. But Valena has some tough decisions to make, Wolf, because while her mom is going to get medical care here, she has got to balance the decision. She's probably going to send her daughter to another college out of state, at least for the meantime. And then she has to figure out what to do with herself and her mom, because right now she doesn't have a city to return to. Back to you.
BLITZER: All right, Keith. Thank you very much. And I want to continue to show our viewers these pictures. These are live pictures that we're getting in underneath this overpass in New Orleans. People huddling underneath trying to get some protection for themselves. Remember, tens of thousands of people are still stranded in New Orleans right now. They're trying to wait for some help, some opportunity to get out of this city, because the situation there on the ground is increasingly getting desperate, as we're hearing from numerous eyewitnesses on the scene, including the mayor himself, Ray Nagin, who only a couple -- three hours ago issued what he called a desperate S.O.S. We'll continue to watch all of these pictures and continue our Special Coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The mayor of New Orleans has issued what he calls a desperate S.O.S. appeal to try to help people stranded, stuck inside the New Orleans Convention Center as opposed to the Superdome. Raymond Cooper is 43 years old. He's in the Convention Center right now. Mr. Cooper, where exactly are you?
RAYMOND COOPER, INSIDE CONVENTION CENTER: I'm upstairs in the kitchen area utilizing one of the phones that I was walking by looking for some water or anything I could bring down to some babies and stuff like that.
BLITZER: Did you find any?
COOPER: No, sir. It's no water at all in the building.
BLITZER: What is it like inside the Convention Center? There are thousands of people inside.
COOPER: Sir, you got about 3,000 people here in this -- in the Convention Center right now. They're hungry. Don't have any food. We was told two-and-a-half days ago to make our way to the Superdome or the Convention Center by our mayor. And which when we got here, was no one to tell us what to do, no one to direct us, no authority figure. They had a couple of policemens out here, sir, about six or seven policemen told me directly, when I went to tell them, hey, man, you got bodies in there. You got two old ladies that just passed, just had died, people dragging the bodies into little corners. One guy -- that's how I found out. The guy had actually, hey, man, anybody sleeping over here? I'm like, no. He dragged two bodies in there. Now you just -- I just found out there was a lady and an old man, the lady went to nudge him. He's dead.
BLITZER: Are there any National Guard personnel, any troops on the scene?
COOPER: Yes. There's troops passing by with their weapons like a show of force and stuff, as if I'm in Iraq and stuff. I'm ex- military. I know what they look like. And that's basically what it is.
COOPER: And what about police? You say there's about six police officers outside?
COOPER: There's six, seven police officers on the corner back off to the side in a garage with their generators going on. They told me, said, hey, it is nothing that we can do.
BLITZER: So what are people eating? What are people drinking? The 3,000 people stuck inside?
COOPER: We have to walk to different little stores and stuff like that to find stuff that the looters had already broke in the doors and stuff like that. We have to, literally, pick up candy, cookies, sodas off the floor and stuff. Water is all over there. We have to walk it all the way back and stuff to give to people and stuff like that. I found some hams. I found some turkeys and stuff like that. And I just was handing it to the people just handing it to them and stuff. I mean, hey, you know, and then the thing about it, you got these young teenage boys running around up here raping these girls.
BLITZER: Well, Mr. Cooper, stand by for a moment. The head of FEMA, Michael Brown, is joining us now from Baton Rouge. You've got an awful job underway Mr. Brown. But give our viewers a sense -- you just heard this individual, Raymond Cooper. He's 43 years old, together with 3,000 other people. They're stuck inside that Convention Center and there's no help in sight. What do you say to this individual?
MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: Wolf, we just learned today from the state about the convention center and the folks there. And the state ordered five truck loads of meals and food, so we started delivering those today. So the mayor should be seeing those just any time.
BLITZER: When do you think that those truck loads will arrive?
BROWN: Well, the request came in from the state about four, five hours ago. So they should be on the way. And I would think literally they should be there any time now.
BLITZER: So help is on the way to those 3,000 people? The mayor in his desperate SOS appeal, he said if those individuals inside want to start walking away from the convention center over to an expressway that's not far away and just start walking, that would be fine with him, given the deteriorating health and security situation inside that convention center.
BROWN: If people want to leave and are capable of leaving, I think that's great. That is not a decision -- FEMA does not do law enforcement. That's up to state and local authorities. So if someone is able to walk to safety, I would encourage them to do that.
BLITZER: When do you think FEMA will have the resources in New Orleans to save these people? Because we're hearing at hospitals, the situation is getting increasingly dangerous and worse, and elsewhere in the city as well. When do you think you will have the resources you need to secure New Orleans?
BROWN: We have those resources now. I just met with General Honore, who is our military commander here working in conjunction with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. The general assured me that we have 4700 National Guard troops in New Orleans now. That number is going to go to some 7,000. And over the next two or three days it will increase exponentially where we'll have slightly over 30,000 National Guard troops to do both security work and to help us in the distribution of supplies.
We continue to do search and rescue missions. I learned today that we just completed or are in the process of completing the evacuation of the hospitals and that those are going very well.
So I think that the things -- considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, that things are going relatively well.
Now, I want to emphasize, though, I completely understand and empathize with those who right now are in miserable conditions. It's hot, it's humid, it's crowded. They're frustrated. Their lives have been upended. They don't know what's going to happen to them next. So I fully comprehend and understand their frustration. That's why we're working, the men and women of FEMA and the Army, are doing everything they can to get that supply to them just as humanly fast as we can do it.
BLITZER: We spoke to a doctor, a physician from Charity Hospital in New Orleans on this program just a little while ago, and he made it clear that the situation there is pretty grim right now. And they need help to especially remove about 350 patients and 600 medical personnel because they're afraid to walk outside because of the floodwaters, the potential disease and the snipers. Some of their vehicles have already been shot on as they're trying to remove patients. I assume you've heard those stories as well.
BROWN: I have heard those stories. And we're trying to put non- law enforcement people in the field in addition, obviously, to the law enforcement people, just to get a read on the accuracy of those reports that we're hearing about snipers and everything else.
But I would say they're making the right decision. If there is still floodwaters around there, they shouldn't be trying to evacuate those patients by themselves. The Coast Guard, FEMA, all of those continue to do those rescue missions and we continue to do those evacuations and we'll certainly continue to evacuate all of the hospitals.
BLITZER: Knowing what you know now, Michael Brown -- and obviously all of us are a lot smarter with hindsight -- what would FEMA -- what should FEMA have done differently in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina to save people's lives in New Orleans? Because as you know, we're getting reports from the governor, from the mayor, that perhaps the death toll will go into the thousands.
BROWN: Well, I think the death toll may go into the thousands. And unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the evacuation warnings. And I don't make judgments about why people choose not to evacuate.
But, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. And to find people still there is just heart wrenching to me because the mayor did everything he could to get them out of there. And so we've got to figure out some way to convince people that when evacuation warnings go out, it's for their own good. Now, I don't want to second guess why they did that. My job now is to get relief to them.
The one thing I wish that I could do is I wish that I could have had just literally the army on hand at the very beginning. I wish I could have had thousands of people on hand at the very beginning. But what we faced, Wolf, was a disaster that, in the normal circumstances, and it moves on and becomes a tropical storm. What we had in New Orleans is a growing disaster. The hurricane hit. That was one disaster. Then the levees broke. That became another disaster. And then the floods came. That became the third disaster. And so the second and third day after Katrina left this area, the disaster continued to occur. And so I had to be very careful about getting rescue teams in there, because otherwise would he would face a higher death toll.
BLITZER: I know you have to run. I'll ask one final question. So many people, especially in New Orleans, are now saying all of this was predictable, that the levees, the flood walls, they could sustain a category three but for days they knew this was going to be potentially either a category four or a category five with winds more than 150 or 160 miles an hour. And they're saying this was predictable, people should have realized the potential danger. Is that a fair criticism?
BROWN: Well, I think it's a fair question to ask. And I know that government officials and engineers will debate that and figure that out. You know, right now, I'm focused on trying to save lives. I'm trying to focus on getting people out of harm's way. And I think we should have that debate, but at the appropriate time.
BLITZER: Michael Brown, the FEMA director, has got an incredibly difficult job. Thank you very much, Mr. Brown, for joining us. Good luck to you and all the personnel on the ground.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us now. She has got some new information. First of all, Barbara, where are you?
BARBARA STARR. CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We've just arrived at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the headquarters for General Honore and his military planning staff for this massive aid and relief effort. We've been talking to some planners since we got here on the ground in Mississippi. And they're updating us on a couple of key points.
They tell us the Aircraft Carrier Truman which we have seen, is on its way from Norfolk. It's most likely to now use its helicopters to air drop food, water and other supplies to some of the cutoff towns along the Gulf Coast. The towns which have no way to get aid. As soon as the Truman gets here, we should expect if the towns are still cut off to see those helicopters dropping aid.
They're also telling us another key fact here this afternoon, military planners at several army brigades across the country are already engaging and planning to send their ground forces to this relief mission. And what they will do is as those thousands of National Guard troops take on more of a law enforcement and security role, these army ground troops will back fill them, essentially, they will take on food distribution, logistics, supplies, all the things -- and continuing to do search and rescue -- all the things the national guard was doing.
And, Wolf, I have to tell you here on the ground in Mississippi, the major challenge faces this army planning staff, these military people that are working around the clock to get this effort going, is still lack of communications. They are suffering terribly here from a lack of ability to just simply be in touch with their counterparts and get things moving, Wolf.
BLITZER: What we're seeing, Barbara, is a military helicopter. It's about to drop what is estimated to be a 3,000-pound sandbag into one of those holes. The breach in the levee that has caused so much of this devastation. They are bringing these sandbags in to fill up -- to try to fill up -- at least on a short-term basis -- the levee holes, the breach, so that the water will stop coming into New Orleans.
We'll continue to watch this picture, a very dramatic picture of this helicopter about to drop one of those 3,000-pound sandbags. A lot more of those sandbags will be needed, as you'll be able to see once the camera goes wide, to see how big this hole in the levee actually is.
I want to bring back Raymond Cooper. He's 43-years-old. He's been stranded inside the New Orleans Convention Center for the past two, three days. You've heard what the FEMA director, Michael Brown, just said, Mr. Cooper. Your reaction.
COOPER: Let me give them a word of advice. Do not send the National Guard to this place without sending someone of authority to talk to the people and instruct them to what is going to -- what is going on and what is going to happen. Because if they send those National Guard -- I'm ex-military as well, if those send those National Guard in this place, I know what's going to happen. These little guys got guns running around here and stuff, they were shooting last night and stuff like that. Now you tell me, what you think is going to happen, Wolf?
BLITZER: Well, you're there. When you say people -- when you say, Mr. Cooper, that people have guns, how many people do you think are armed right now inside that convention center?
COOPER: They have quite a few people running around here with guns and stuff. And I'm going to tell you what they're doing now, they're lined up outside. They got about 30 different lines and stuff outside waiting for buses. Now, in about an hour-and-a-half it's going to get dark. Their minds going to say, those buses are not going to come. They're going to act like crazy people.
They're already walking around here like zombies of the living dead and stuff, you know. I know what's going to happen.
So, please don't send the National Guard. Send someone up in here -- send someone with a bull horn outside the place that can talk to these people first before you send someone in here to try to like police work.
BLITZER: All right. Raymond Cooper, we've got to leave it right there. Good luck to you and all your family and friends inside that convention center. We're going to leave our coverage right now. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" picks up the coverage. Kitty Pilgrim sitting for Lou tonight -- Kitty.
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