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THE SITUATION ROOM

Troops Arrive in New Orleans; President Bush Tours the Devastation

Aired September 2, 2005 - 15:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where we are getting feeds from all along the Gulf Coast right now in a desperate state of emergency. Standing by, CNN reporters across the region to bring us complete coverage.
Happening now, fires raging in the middle of a flood, as the president of the United States gets a firsthand look at the devastation brought to an entire region by Hurricane Katrina.

Right now, battle-hardened troops are arriving. As one general puts it, they are highly proficient in the use of deadly force. Will this be enough to end the lawlessness?

In Texas, the Astrodome is now full. And its new residents can now receive mail, but remaining evacuees must find other addresses.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Visiting the region, President Bush summed up the state of emergency today this way. He says, it's as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine.

From survival to security, it's now mission critical. A convoy of some 50 military vehicles packed with troops and supplies finally moved into the flooded streets of New Orleans today, the vanguard of a force which will try to restore order and bring relief.

Helicopters are dropping 2,000-pound sandbags in an effort to close the breaches in the levees surrounding New Orleans; 200 of these bags were to be made available today.

The U.S. Navy says a second hospital ship will now move into the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days. The USNS Comfort will arrive Thursday. The USNS Mercy will arrive in mid-September.

More on the hurricane now by the numbers, state by state.

First in Louisiana, officials now say the death toll will be in the thousands; 350,000 homes in New Orleans are now damaged or destroyed. Think about that. Fifty military vehicles, as we just said, are finally moving into New Orleans.

Let's move on to Mississippi. Fears there the death toll may well run into the hundreds. The state senators say the Labor Department will provide some $50 million to try to hire people to help in the cleanup. Over in Alabama, the governor announces what he calls Operation Golden Rule to try to find housing for some 10,000 people made homeless. The number of homes and businesses without power now 135,000. The state government is making up to $25 million available for emergency loans to disaster victims.

President Bush has been touring the disaster region today on the ground in the battered area of Biloxi, Mississippi. He met with survivors and called the devastation -- and I'm quoting now - "worse than imaginable". The president was asked if too many resources are being devoted too Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just completely disagree. We have got a job to defend this country in the war on terror. And we have got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast.

And we will do both. We have got plenty of resources to do both.

Somebody questioned me the other day about, do we have enough National Guard troops? Of course we do. These governors have got compacts with other states. If they need to call upon another state, the state will send Guard troops.

And the people just got to know we have got what it takes to do more than one thing. And we will secure our country from the terrorists. And we will help rebuild this -- this part of the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's over at the New Orleans Airport right now, which has emerged as a key facility, a staging point, a hospital, a communications center, almost everything else, Ed, where you are. Has the president been there already?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know what, Wolf? I'm not exactly sure. But we have seen Air Force One land a short while ago.

But we understand the president was not on that. They were moving it ahead of him. And we have seen two of the helicopters the president would normally ride in had just flown in here a few moments ago. But I'm not exactly sure if he was on board those.

BLITZER: What's going on at this facility at the airport where you are right now? Yesterday, it seemed pretty chaotic. How is it doing today?

LAVANDERA: Well, Wolf, when we first started showing you this yesterday, we have been told that they processed 40,000 people through this airport. And it continues to buzz with activity.

As you look out here on to the tarmac, there are still helicopters coming in and out of this airport, dropping people off, essentially ferries from the city all the way back here to the airport. And from here, these people are being checked out medically and then put on other airplanes to get out of New Orleans.

And I'm told by an official here, this could last anywhere from three more days to as many as six more days.

BLITZER: Are the people of New Orleans, at the airport where you are, are they being -- where are they going once they get to the airport?

LAVANDERA: Well, they are going to all sorts of different places. They are basically being put on airplanes. Some have told me they're going to Dallas. Others say to Houston, to other parts of Louisiana, essentially just being evacuated from the region.

BLITZER: And the medical facilities, do they still have room for more? Or are they basically at capacity right now?

LAVANDERA: I have to think that they are at capacity. They are getting more people in to help them out. I have been told by a few people that that is happening.

But I have also been told that this field hospital was originally designed to handle about 250 people an hour. But, as of yesterday and early this morning, they were handling about 800 people an hour. So, you can imagine how stressed those people, those medical technicians are.

BLITZER: What about the equipment and supplies? Do the doctors have enough equipment, the nurses have enough equipment on hand to deal with the emergency medical cases they are clearly trying to deal with?

LAVANDERA: I haven't heard any complaints that they are running out of that kind of material.

There was -- it seemed like it took a little longer than they what they had anticipated to get the supply routes kind of set up, so they could constantly be brought in. If you remember, in Baton Rouge, which is about 60 miles away from here, is where the much larger FEMA staging ground is for a lot of those supplies.

And a lot of that is being brought in. We have seen massive military aircraft landing on the ground here and a lot of those people unloading equipment and gear from there. So I haven't heard any complaints from any of the nurses or doctors here that they're not getting what they need.

BLITZER: What about -- you are speaking to a lot of the people there, clearly, including a lot of the people who -- the evacuees who have come in from New Orleans. Give us a little flavor, Ed, of what they are saying today, as opposed to yesterday and the day before.

LAVANDERA: You know, the overwhelming sense you get from talking to these people is that they are exhausted. I think just the looks on their faces, as we can show you when they are dropped off of these helicopters and the frustration, many of them saying they've been either sleeping on a runway somewhere or sleeping on the side of the street or sleeping on a rooftop for the last four days.

They are exhausted. They are tired and angry.

BLITZER: But this, presumably, is going to go on for some time. Commercial -- commercial flights, I take it, have been canceled to New Orleans, or are there still planes coming in?

LAVANDERA: Oh, absolutely, Wolf. This airport essentially has been turned into -- the only way in is if you have business to do here. And at this time, the business in New Orleans is to fix it. And if you are on an airplane or a helicopter ride in, you have to have something to do with that.

I was told by the aviation director here at the airport yesterday that it will probably take about two months before this airport is running back to the way it used to be, which means commercial flights, perhaps tourists bringing back in.

But for the next several weeks, you will have to have permission to land at this airport. And that permission is only being given to people on humanitarian or relief missions.

BLITZER: All right, Ed. We will get back to you. We will get back to you shortly. Ed Lavandera is over at the airport, the New Orleans Airport.

These are new pictures, aerial shots, that we're getting in right now from Air Force One. The president has been touring the region. There's a pool of photographers with the president and the president.

These are pictures that are just coming in to CNN right now.

Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You -- first of all, show our viewers these shots. This is Biloxi, Mississippi. I want our viewers to get a sense of Biloxi, where that is, Gulfport.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sure.

BLITZER: And, of course, where New Orleans is. This whole area basically has been so devastated.

FOREMAN: Sure. This is spread all across this region. And you know what, Wolf? At the moment, my computer is not responding to it. So, we will see if we can get that working.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right. Let's get -- we will get that hooked up in a moment and we will make sure that you'll be able to zoom in and show our viewers what's going on.

FOREMAN: Sure.

BLITZER: Ali Velshi is with us as well. Ali, you were down there. You've been following a very important part of this story, namely, the whole issue of gasoline and oil, the short supplies in the region. ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

BLITZER: And these people have been stranded now. These people have been stranded now, with disease potential, death, obviously.

VELSHI: Yes. It's very frustrating.

BLITZER: The great potential of looting and violence. And now, on top of all of that, another huge problem, Ali, has emerged.

VELSHI: Yes. You know, this is a very we have been following for a while. But let me tell you what's developed here. Ed was in Kenner. So, he's on the south side of Lake Pontchartrain.

Now, if you go just north of the lake -- this is on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain from Louisiana. Highway I-12, which goes from Baton Rouge to -- to Slidell, there's a place called Covington. Now, we -- we had one of our producers out there. And -- and I don't know if Tom's map is working yet, but we can...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It's working, Ali. It's working. He's going to show our viewers.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead.

FOREMAN: This is Covington right here.

VELSHI: Let's take a look at Covington.

FOREMAN: The little cluster of town -- of buildings right there is Covington. If you back off, you'll see that this is the bridge that is now impassable. Right there, that little line...

VELSHI: Yes.

FOREMAN: ... is the bridge that runs all the way down here into New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain. It's about a 22-, 26-mile bridge. And you can see how long it is here.

VELSHI: Yes.

FOREMAN: Right there into New Orleans. That's where it's coming in to Metairie. In New Orleans, right over there is where the levee broke. So this is what we are talking about.

VELSHI: And that whole area is short of power. And that's -- that's a different problem that people who are going to get gas are experiencing. We have talked to one of those people. Because of the power, some gas stations can't operate and other gas stations are getting long lines of people, lineups of people.

Stephanie Katobi (ph), one of our producers, was -- was driving by in her work down there and met some people.

And we have got Patty on the phone with us. Patty, are you there right now?

PATTY, MOTORIST IN COVINGTON, LOUISIANA: Yes, I am, Ali.

VELSHI: Patty, you guys have been in that lineup since 8:00 a.m., your time, 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time, doing what? Looking for gas?

PATTY: Waiting for gas with the promise of gas to come. We have been here for six hours.

VELSHI: Now, you have -- you are at a gas station that has gas to deliver to you now? It's got gas? They've taken the pumps -- they have opened the pumps up?

PATTY: Not yet.

VELSHI: The reason we're talking to Patty, Wolf and Tom, is because this situation has become so desperate in some cases that Patty is concerned for their safety.

Tell me a bit about that, Patty. What are you concerned about and what are you doing about it?

PATTY: Well, these are desperate times, and you just don't know what you will be approached with, by whom, or if they'll be armed or not armed. So, we are armed.

VELSHI: You've got a gun.

PATTY: Yes.

VELSHI: Are you fearful that someone is going to go after your gas? Has it gotten to that point, that it's -- it's frightening now just to go and get gas?

PATTY: Not yet, but people were predicting that, so my husband felt it was smarter to be armed.

VELSHI: What's the tension level like in that line? It's -- what is that, a mile long worth of cars?

PATTY: Much longer than that.

VELSHI: Much longer. And I understand it's on the other side, too, because you're at Highway 12 -- Interstate 12 and 190?

PATTY: And 190.

VELSHI: So it's a big intersection. There are a lot of people looking for gas.

PATTY: Exactly. The lines must go on for at least four or five miles on each side. But people are trying to remain civilized. And people are trying to share water and food. VELSHI: Now, Wolf, you know, we have heard of instances where people have been held up for their gas. So, there's an understanding that people are -- they are desperate times and people are suffering and they're getting frustrated. Patty, have you got food and water? Are people around you sort of set up and just calm and in their cars?

PATTY: Most people are outside of the cars, not wasting the gas. And there is a Waffle House open nearby that we have been able to walk to and get food and water for those that did not bring it with them.

VELSHI: Patty, what does it look like? Do you look like they're opening up? Does it look like you're going to get your gas sometime soon?

PATTY: Ali, as we speak, the line is now moving towards the gas station.

VELSHI: Six hours later, Patty. Good for your patience.

PATTY: And we now have someone trying to cut in front of the line that hasn't waited for six hours. And people are honking their horns and not letting him in.

VELSHI: Yes. Just make sure you keep that gun safe. Don't be doing anything you don't need to do. I understand your frustration. And I hope you get your gas very soon, Patty. Thanks for joining us.

PATTY: Thank you, Ali.

VELSHI: All right.

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ali, thanks very much. Clearly an awful situation. As bad as it is getting the gasoline, there's still a lot worse that's going on.

We're showing our viewers videotape that we're getting in. This is new video, Marine One. That is the helicopter that's been taking the president and his delegation around the Gulf Coast to get an aerial inspection.

Tom Foreman, as we see these pictures coming in -- they started off in Alabama. And they began to move west towards Mississippi. And now they are in Louisiana. They've been trying to get an up-close look at what's going on.

Start off -- start off with where they started in Mobile, Alabama. That was the president's first stop earlier today. And then, from Mobile, they went over to Biloxi. And then now they are finally winding up in New Orleans.

Give our viewers a little sense of where all this is.

FOREMAN: Very good. This is -- first of all, let's get a sense of New Orleans, because we all know about that one. Right over here, there's New Orleans down in the corner down here. When we talk about the Gulf, there's Lake Pontchartrain up above. This is Lake Borgne over here. You normally cut between these two lakes when you are going to the Gulf.

And when you get up in here, you start going along all the area that has been hit by the storm here, leading you to all of these different towns.

BLITZER: All that waterfront property and pretty far inland is destroyed.

FOREMAN: Absolutely. Now, we're going to zoom in here. And I will see if I can find the right locations. It will take a moment to get us squared away here.

But these are the communities that were hit so hard. And we're going to start with Pascagoula. Pascagoula is one of these places that really got hammered. And if you -- if we go all the way into some of our target areas here, you can see, this is what it looked like before the storm hit. And when I click on this, we will find the strike area here. Now, we have to bring it up here the proper way. Well, now our image is flying. We ought to take a moment to get this squared away.

BLITZER: Pascagoula is the -- has -- the senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott, had a home in Pascagoula.

FOREMAN: Exactly.

BLITZER: That home has been destroyed.

FOREMAN: Exactly. Now we're flying back into Pascagoula to get a good look at it here. This is the waterfront in Pascagoula, which, like all these areas, is very, very popular with local people. They love going into this place.

Look down here at the waterfront. This is before the storm. You can see the houses. Everything looks good. Now look at it now -- same area. Look at the destruction to these houses here. I will go back and forth again. That's Pascagoula today, or recently. This is Pascagoula before -- let me get it back to beforehand. This is Pascagoula -- well, the different images are all smashed up here in this general area.

So, you have a sense of what was happening in Pascagoula when it was all perfectly fine, and then you see what happens to it afterward.

Now, let's move on down the way. If you come down past Pascagoula, and all these ruined homes, you're going to come to Biloxi, which is going to be our next stop in little trip here. We're going to fly over to Biloxi. You see, we are moving down the Gulf, across the little bay area here.

BLITZER: Going to the west.

FOREMAN: Yes. Exactly. We are headed west toward New Orleans. And we come down to Biloxi. I want you to look at why help can't get to anybody here. If we zoom into this shot in particular, look at this. This is the waterfront area. You see the bridges down here? This is a bridge leading across the way. If you were going to Pascagoula, you'd hop on this bridge. Look what's happened to this bridge. That's before.

BLITZER: That used to be a bridge.

FOREMAN: That's what it used to be. This is what it is now. If we go in here and take a look at it now -- there -- look at the remains of that bridge.

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: Broken all to pieces.

BLITZER: Katrina did all...

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: All up and down there. There's another piece of a bridge up there. That was also a bridge. If you look at that little piece right there, same thing. If we go back and forth, you see it beforehand, a bridge, afterwards, wreckage.

Look at the neighborhood nearby. That's what's left of it. This is what it was before. This is what it is now. Before. Now. That's what the president is flying over and that's what he's seeing right now. And this is all in this area.

Let's move further down. We talked about Gulfport, which is one of the other big areas. We are going to fly down to Gulfport.

BLITZER: In Mississippi, still in Mississippi.

FOREMAN: In Mississippi, exactly. So, now we fly to Gulfport, a little bit further down. All of these towns are in Mississippi, by the way. It's all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as you mentioned, from Mobile...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That whole Mississippi Gulf Coast, as Haley Barbour, the governor, has pointed out, is basically destroyed.

FOREMAN: Look at this. This is one of the casino areas. This is the kind of place where people like to hang out and have a good time. This is the area beforehand. You see boats over here, little slips for their boats. You see some areas out here. One of the big gambling places was out here. You see this little place in the middle there. I want you to look at this.

BLITZER: They can have the hotels on land, but all the casinos themselves have to be in the water. FOREMAN: Exactly. I want you to look at this one in particular right here. We are right down the middle. Now, I'm going to back off just a little bit. This is before the storm. Same area after the storm. The barge we just saw a moment ago, the little white thing, look at it now. It's up here at the top of the picture. That's were it went.

BLITZER: So, that wind just...

FOREMAN: Huge. Well, the storm surge.

BLITZER: ... moved it, the surge.

FOREMAN: Yes, sure, the storm surge and the wind. Look at the damage inland. You move inland, same thing, just a wreckage of homes here, compared to what they had before.

That's what happened in this particular area. If you look at that whole dock right in there, you can see little boats and everything that were normally there beforehand. Right here, all the cars, all the boats, all the parking areas, all the buildings now gone.

BLITZER: You know, while we are taking a look -- Tom, stand by a second.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is in Biloxi, Mississippi, right now. Give us a little update, Ted. What's happening there?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Bush drove by here, this exact spot, about an hour and 15 minutes ago. And he saw firsthand the devastation, an example of it. This is what it looks like.

I don't know what you could see from Tom's maps in terms of detail. But this is the detail that President Bush is now looking at firsthand, driving around. Not only this city, but the entire Gulf Coast, looks like this. This used to be a home. And, of course, it no longer is standing. And it is -- you know, people come here and they just don't know what to do. And they don't know and -- where to go next. They come and weed through their belongings, looking for something.

The president did talk to one family. Hayes Bolton is a shopkeeper. He had a buy-and-sell shop, which is now...

HAYES BOLTON, RESIDENT OF BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI: A pawn shop.

ROWLANDS: ... is literally intermixed with this house next door and the rest of it.

Hayes, what do you think of the president coming down here and seeing this firsthand? Something he had to do?

BOLTON: I think it was something he had to do, something that was totally necessary for him to do. And we're -- of course, we are glad to see him. We hope that he brought a lot of help with him, because, here on the coast, we need lots of help. I realize New Orleans needs a lot of help also, but we are just devastated here.

ROWLANDS: It's a little different feeling here than it is in New Orleans. The unrest isn't as pervasive here. There's some frustration.

BOLTON: Yes, sir.

ROWLANDS: Are you frustrated with the response from the states and from the federal government, in terms of getting to people that need water, food, et cetera?

BOLTON: I am frustrated with that, due to the fact that we don't have enough gas. We don't have any electricity. We don't have water. But they should have -- it seems that they should have brought in the food and water sooner than what has been available so far.

It seems right now, there's a little ice. There's a little water. There's almost no food available, as far as set out. I have heard some rumors about the Salvation Army having portable places open, that type thing. But we need more of it.

ROWLANDS: And communication doesn't seem to be getting -- the information doesn't seem to be getting to people where they can get these services.

(CROSSTALK)

ROWLANDS: That said, you, yourself, were -- you lived through Camille. Many of these people lived through Camille. These homes lived through Camille.

BOLTON: Yes.

ROWLANDS: And everybody measured Camille, using that as the yardstick. If you can survive Camille, you can survive anything.

(CROSSTALK)

ROWLANDS: And do you give the federal government and the state a bit of a pass for that same reason?

BOLTON: Possibly, because they were measuring everything by Camille. But Katrina is the new measurement of hurricanes that we're going to know for decades, because, hopefully, we won't ever suffer anything as devastating as Katrina. If we do, we're going to be in bad shape, or the area that suffers it is going to be more devastated than this one could ever be.

ROWLANDS: What do you think when you look at this?

BOLTON: It's just absolutely mind-boggling. It's hard for me to understand how a force of nature could take structures and just make matchsticks and kindling out of them. It just -- as I drove in this morning and I came down Porter Avenue (ph) and I looked at all of this, it was like I'd seen it for the first time. It's crazy. It's nuts. I can't deal with it. I'm sorry.

ROWLANDS: It's all right.

All right, Hayes Bolton showing the emotion that is pervasive down here, Wolf. People come. They look at their -- what used to be their homes and they just don't know what to do. And it's going to take a lot of time, like the president said, possibly years, before this area is back to where it was before Katrina.

BLITZER: Ted Rowlands, thanks very much. Thank you. Thank Mr. Bolton for us as well. Wish him and everyone else there good luck.

We have got some live pictures from the New Orleans Airport. You can see Air Force One on the tarmac there. They're going to be waiting for the president to come back to New Orleans. I'm not exactly sure where he is right now, but we are going to be watching every step. Actually, we're told he is on board Air Force One and he'll be touring, continuing his tour of the region.

He's also going to be speaking. Once he addresses New Orleans, once he addresses the nation, we're going to bring that to our viewers live.

We're also standing by. Jack Cafferty is standing by in New York. He's got some thoughts on all of this.

We're also going to go to Houston. The Astrodome is now filled to capacity, and stops accepting evacuees from the Superdome in New Orleans. This question, where will the thousands still seeking refuge be able to go? We're going to take a closer look at that.

And the search for the missing continuing, desperate family members seeking their loved ones. We have their stories and lots more.

Our continuing coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Stories of the storm, images captured by the Associated Press, these still photographs, this one outside the Hyatt Hotel in New Orleans.

Men, women and children wade their way to a bus. Here, a woman carries her two babies to the evacuation point. The line stretched -- get this -- half-a-mile.

Not far away, a young person pushes an older gentleman in a wheelchair through the floodwaters, trying to make their way to the Superdome.

And, in Washington, President Bush addresses the news media with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at the White House before heading off to the Gulf. Storm -- stories of the storm captured by our friends over at the Associated Press.

Flooding, fires and explosions, armed gangs in the streets, people without food and water. The New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, last night issued a very angry appeal for help. He spoke with WWL Radio's Garland Robinette.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RAY NAGIN, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: God is looking down on all this. And if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price, because every day that we delay, people are dying. And they are dying by the hundreds, I'm willing to bet you.

We are getting reports and calls that it's breaking my heart from people saying, I have been in my attic. I can't take it anymore. The water is up to my neck. I don't think I can hold out. And that's happening as we speak.

I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man. We ain't talking about -- you know one of the briefings we had, they were talking about getting, you know, public school bus drivers to come down here and bus people out of here.

I'm like, you've got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moving to New Orleans. That's -- they're thinking small, man. And this is a major, major, major deal.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: Today, aid finally is arriving, but Mayor Nagin issued yet another statement, saying the people of this city are holding on by a thread. He says, more than 10,000 were evacuated yesterday, but he says as many as 50,000 survivors remain on rooftops, in shelters, elsewhere.

And he adds by saying this -- and let me quote it directly -- "Only God knows if we can survive another night."

Nic Robertson is standing by in New Orleans. We're going to get to him soon. He's on the scene.

First let's go to CNN's Jack Cafferty. He's watching all of this, has been all week, and is clearly just as shaken as the whole country is. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the war in Iraq is part of the problem in New Orleans. The "Boston Globe" reporting today that National Guard units across the country have about half their usual equipment -- everything from helicopters, Humvees, trucks, weapons -- available to them because all the rest of the stuff has been sent off to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are 78,000 National Guard troops who are now deployed in those overseas war zones. Even the hardest hit states, Louisiana, Mississippi, have 40 percent of their National Guard troops in Iraq right now.

What happens if there's a terrorist attack tomorrow or a massive earthquake in Southern California? How would the nation respond? It's a frightening thought.

The question is this. If we're going to stay the course in Iraq, should the U.S. bring the National Guard home and institute a draft? CaffertyFile -- one word -- @CNN.com. We'll read some of your letters a bit later.

BLITZER: You know Jack, 40 percent of the 138,000, 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and this has been a relatively steady percentage -- 40 percent are either National Guard or reserves, so-called weekend warriors. The citizen soldiers. But they've been playing a critical role in the war in Iraq.

CAFFERTY: Do you suppose, Wolf, that the arrival of the relief convoys and the political photo ops on the Gulf Coast happening at the very same time were a coincidence today?

BLITZER: Well, I'm sure our viewers have some thoughts on that as well. These pictures, by the way, Jack, that we're getting in -- and I want to show our viewers -- these are live pictures over at the airport.

But I am also looking at this other picture that we're getting in from our affiliate WDSU from Biloxi, Mississippi. Look at this. A helicopter has landed and they are simply bringing supplies in off this helicopter. This is tape that our affiliate has. And all these people are simply waiting for the supplies.

We've seen these kind of images in Africa and elsewhere. We're seeing these images right here in the United States right now. A military helicopter lands, and people desperate to get any supplies they possibly can.

Jack, a final thought before I let you go?

CAFFERTY: It's embarrassing.

BLITZER: All right. That's a final thought from Jack. But he's going to have more thoughts coming up later this hour. Jack, we'll get to those e-mails. Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Let's go over to Nic Robertson. He's joining us in New Orleans. Nic, when did you get to New Orleans?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we got into New Orleans a couple of hours ago. We've been here on Canal Street. As you know, one of the main -- would have been normally busy thoroughfares in the middle of the city. We've seen a lot of helicopter activity, a lot of security on the street. And in the last few minutes, we understood earlier today that President Bush would be making an aerial tour of the city. My cameraman, Alfredo Delara (ph) looked at one of the helicopters flying by just now, low, heavy it looked. He made the assessment from his personal knowledge that that appeared to be President Bush's helicopter flying over the city. Not clear if it was -- certainly a lot of helicopters flying in support of it.

While it appeared to be -- and I do say appeared to be, we don't know for sure -- the president's helicopter flying overhead. I was watching a couple of people at a store right here on Canal Street, very close to the main casino here, just going into the store to loot some drinks. There's a lot of people gathering on the streets outside the casino. A lot of very thirsty people been coming asking us for drinks, going into that store to get some -- what appear to be some sodas, carry them off to the people at the casino.

But by and large, what we're seeing here is a lot of security on the streets. Army, police, even DEA agents heavily armed, flak jackets, hanging on the back of an armored vehicles with shotguns. A lot of security on the streets.

And a lot of people still wandering around, Wolf, looking for places to go, look -- wondering, it appears, what they should do next and where, exactly, they should go.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Are these people hungry? Are they thirsty? Do they have enough food, medical supplies, or do they look ill?

ROBERTSON: The location we're at here on Canal Street, the people that we've seen here, Wolf, mostly seem dehydrated. They're not asking us for food. They've been asking us for water, for drinks.

A lot of them seem very tired, as if they've been walking for a long way. I'm just watching a couple of people now go in through the broken glass window of one of the stores here on Canal Street, not clear what they're going in that store for. But it does seem that people are looking a lot in this neighborhood, at least, to find liquid refreshments.

I saw a young family, Wolf, by me before, three or four children -- the youngest child carrying a pillowcase, a pillowcase full of belongings. The family clearly -- certainly appeared not to have any real bags with them. Just carrying what they could from their home, walking very slowly up the street with the family dog looking for somewhere to go. But again, people asking us for drinks, Wolf, not for food.

BLITZER: Nic, is it a dangerous environment? You are one of our best war correspondents. You've been in Baghdad. You've been in all sorts of dangerous locations in your career. Now you are covering a story for us in New Orleans, a major American city. Based on what you see right now, do you personally, and your crew your producers, do you feel in danger?

ROBERTSON: It's clear there would be some opportunist criminals out there, Wolf. And a lot of people here do appear to be genuinely desperate for drink at least.

But there does appear to be an atmosphere where if there is an opportunity to perhaps take some things -- I saw a couple of people scurrying down the street before with two brand new suitcases, impossible for me to say whether they purchased them somewhere or why they had two brand new suitcases that they were racing down the street with. But there does seem to be an element of perhaps opportunism, looting here, when the environment permits. And I think for people in the center of the city that might have something looters would want: food, water, a vehicle, then there is that potential.

But the general atmosphere here is one of relatively heavy security. Though I do have to say, we've seen the security officials driving past people who appear to have been looting, and just driving past it. It's not that they're stopping the people who appear to have looted goods. It appears that they are just putting down a very heavy security presence, keeping moving around the center of the city. But it doesn't seem to be an aggressive threat against anyone that we can see at this time.

Wolf.

BLITZER: And what about the floodwaters and the potential for disease? What do you see on that front?

ROBERTSON: Well, of course, it is -- I look just down Canal Street, I can see the water lying further down on the street. We -- I personally haven't been able to get into the waterlogged neighborhoods so far this afternoon.

But as the temperature rises, as there is still the water, as there are obvious sanitation issues, that is a very big concern for people here -- the possibility, the potential in this type of environment for cholera and for water-borne diseases, Wolf.

BLITZER: For 15 years, Nic, you've covered stories around the world for CNN in very dangerous locations. I'm going to let you go. But a quick personal thought. Did you ever think that CNN would ask you to cover a situation, a dangerous situation in the continental United States as it now has?

ROBERTSON: To drive into New Orleans today, Wolf, on the deserted highways, looking at the burning areas in the business district and other parts of New Orleans, one has a feeling that this was a movie set. This wasn't part of the routine job that I have. This was very, very different, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, we're going to check back with you. Nic is on the scene for us in New Orleans. And he's watching this story very, very closely. The Coast Guard has just announced that as of today, as of right now, they've rescued 5,500 individuals by helicopter, another 1,600 by ships. But there is still a lot more, many tens of thousands more individuals in New Orleans that need rescue.

Houston's Astrodome is now, we're told, full. Evacuees from New Orleans are being sent to other shelters in that city as well as other cities in Texas.

Let's go live to CNN's Sean Callebs. He's joining us from Houston with more. Sean?

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, we can tell you last night at midnight Eastern Time, we were here when really this all came to a head. We know that the Astrodome and FEMA, the Red Cross had said they were going to prepare for as many as 24,000 people. Well, after they got about 11,000 or 12,000 last night, they cut it off. The fire marshal here saying it was simply too dangerous.

At that point, they began putting the buses that were filled with people trying to get here in nearby Reliant Arena just outside that area. And just a short while ago, the mayor held a news conference, Wolf, and said nobody will be turned away, no buses that come here, no evacuees. They will find a place for them somewhere. It won't be the Astrodome behind me, and it permanently will not be Reliant Center -- perhaps homes, perhaps other shelters.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Sean, what's it like inside the Astrodome right now? We've seen some of the pictures with the cots on the main field there. But give us a little flavor. You've been there.

CALLEBS: Yes. To say that it's pleasant would be way overstating it. I think that people, when they first began organizing this, they had envisioned a very orderly way of bringing people in. They have a triage. But once you get inside there, it is a crowded mess.

Certainly the city is doing everything it can. No one is trying to condemn them in any way. But, Wolf, I think we have someone who can perhaps talk a little bit better about that.

This is David White, and I want to tell you his story, Wolf, because we're seeing this -- it is just heartbreaking -- over and over. The people coming to us, needing help finding loved ones. David and most of his family left New Orleans on the eve of the storm. They got here. His 20-year-old daughter, however, did not.

The last time you spoke with her, she was at the Convention Center, on Tuesday. She was in water up to her chest and she was frantic. It must be heartbreaking for you, after knowing what has gone on at the Convention Center the past several days. What has it been like for you? And what do you do now to try and find your daughter?

DAVID WHITE, SEARCHING FOR DAUGHTER; Well, I come from Pruitt, Texas, to the Astrodome here, in these poor conditions here, to look for my daughter. I was told through the news media that she would be coming from New Orleans on buses here. And I come here to find my child. And I have been through -- I've been here since 3:00 yesterday evening, and I haven't found my child yet. CALLEBS: You've been looking at every bus that comes in?

WHITE: I have been -- every bus. I have been holding up a big sign for my child, and I haven't found my child yet.

CALLEBS: And you've been up and down. You spent the night in the Astrodome. What are conditions in there like? And how agonizing is it seeing so many people in your situation trying to find loved ones?

WHITE: It's very agonizing. It's a lot of tension. It's people that's -- how do you say? It's people that's disgusted. They...

CALLEBS: They're at their breaking point?

WHITE: They're at their breaking point. That's a very good word to use. They're at their breaking point. It's fights. They had a fight broke out last night. It's just poor conditions, man. It's just not right. I woke up this morning to put clothes on, and my clothes were stolen.

CALLEBS: Well, that's one thing David was telling us earlier. He actually had a job interview earlier today. He went to go back and change his clothes. Someone had taken his clothes. And to give you a bit more information, the evacuees that are coming here, doctors telling us they're coming here, and all of them -- virtually all of them dehydrated.

And remember, these are people that came just a couple of days after the storm. More and more are going to be coming, so we know their medical conditions are going to be even worse. Physicians telling us post-traumatic stress is a huge problem. Anxiety, depression. Some people, Wolf, literally so scared to go in a dome because it reminds them of the Superdome and what they had to endure, they won't go in.

BLITZER: Just the trauma for everyone. Sean, thank you very much. Sean Callebs is in Houston.

Barbara Starr, our Pentagon reporter, correspondent, is in New Orleans now. She's been there with the U.S. troops who are moving in. Barbara, set the scene for us. What have you seen today?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've been traveling all day with General Honore, who is the commanding general now of the military task force. There's been a lot of movement getting aid in, working on the big picture. But, Wolf, it is, as we have said all day, these moments of utter heartbreak and desperation that we see here that are just -- there is no other word for it than unbelievable.

We were walking with General Honore and his military team from the Convention Center. There are still, of course, hundreds of people on the street, just sitting there in terrible circumstances. But then, we came across one young African-American mother. She had twin babies, young infants in her arms. She was trying to walk in this terrible heat and she apparently was so exhausted, the babies were half-falling out of her arms. It was at that point that General Honore just stopped cold in the middle of the street. He went up to this woman and he said, we're going to get you help. He took both of those babies, handed them off to his soldiers, said take these babies. And then we got on a Coast Guard ship. Another young mother and another young baby in terrible circumstances joined us. And we basically did -- we did a very quick baby lift out of New Orleans.

We are now sitting on a Coast Guard ship in the middle of the Mississippi River. These three infants and two mothers who are terribly dehydrated and exhausted are now getting medical care -- instant medical care on this ship.

And the mothers tell us that there simply has been no help. That they escaped their homes, that they swam to safety during the flood, and they have just been waiting ever since with their babies on the street for someone to pick them up. It's a story we are seeing again and again in all of these places.

At the same time, however, the food convoys are moving in. They are trying to get supplies to people. But this is going to take a very long time.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, is that -- the distribution of the food, the water, the medical supplies, is it unfolding? I know it's just beginning. It's now Friday. Is it unfolding in a smooth manner, or is it still sort of chaotic?

STARR: Well, it's very difficult to assess at this point. Where we have just been at the Convention Center, is where this large convoy with perhaps up to 1,000 National Guard troops came into town earlier today. Those people in the Convention Center, thousands of them, are in absolutely dire straits and this has been General Honore's stated priority for the day, is to get that food convoy in with food, water, medicine supplies and begin to medevac out those who are too sick or injured perhaps to stay.

Wolf, there are also confirmed dead bodies at the Convention Center, dead bodies just outside that have not yet been removed in this terrible heat. So they are going to certainly try. They hope they have the troops to make it an orderly process, to ensure that people line up and that even those in the weakest condition get a share of the supplies.

But how it turns out, Wolf, over the coming hours, I think is extraordinarily unpredictable. Some people on the streets are just having a very tough time. And I would say from being there earlier today, there certainly is unrest, perhaps just below the surface.

Wolf.

BLITZER: One final question, Barbara, before I let you get back to work over there. What are the rules of engagement for these thousand troops, these National Guard forces -- and I assume some regular Army personnel -- who have gone in there with their weapons? Because as you know, there has been looting, there has been violence. And some people in New Orleans are armed themselves. And I wonder what kind of rules of engagement they have.

STARR: Well, let me share with you that all of the National Guard and active duty military forces come with their own security. They do have weapons. There is no question. We see hundreds and hundreds with weapons. However, they are not in a law enforcement role. They only maintain what they call in the military the inherent right of self- defense.

What I can tell you is, as we have traveled with the military today, General Honore has ordered, at the top of his lungs, every troop that he comes across to point their weapon down. He has repeatedly gone up to vehicles, gone up to National Guard troops standing sentry, even gone up to New Orleans P.D. and said, please, put your weapon point down. This is not Iraq. Those are his words. He wants the profile here to very much be one of a humanitarian relief operation.

Now, the New Orleans Police Department is certainly taking the leading role in law enforcement. And we have spoken to some of the police officials. They have obviously had problems. They are trying to deal with that. They have been shot at, they tell us, and they have had a lot of difficulty. But that is essentially a criminal element. It is going to be something that they want law enforcement to deal with.

The rules for the military here in New Orleans, weapons are pointed down, this is a humanitarian relief operation.

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you very much. Barbara Starr is on the scene for us with the U.S. military now in New Orleans. She's our Pentagon correspondent.

We'll take a quick break. When we come back, a heartbreaking story with a happy ending that has unfolded in the past hour here on CNN. We're going to tell you what has happened. You'll want to stick around for this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing our special coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM, "The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina".

Get this. Some want to help, but certainly can't, at least now. Sheriff's deputies from Virginia headed over to New Orleans to try to aid the police there, but they were turned back when they could not get clearance from federal and Louisiana state officials.

CNN's Brian Todd has the story. He's joining us now from Loudon County in northern Virginia. What exactly happened, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're going to hear it right from the sheriff's mouth, Wolf. His teams were on the way there, as you mentioned. They were on the road. They were heading toward Louisiana, and something went wrong.

Sheriff Steve Simpson from Loudon County, Virginia, is with me now. Sheriff, thanks for joining us. This originated with some communication that you had gotten through other chains of command, a request from the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana sheriff. What happened then? First of all, tell me, what was their state of mind when they called you, and then what happened?

SHERIFF STEVE SIMPSON, LOUDON COUNTY, VIRGINIA: Well, we were put in touch with them by the National Sheriffs' Association. When we contacted them, I guess it was actually about 8:00 Wednesday evening. The tone of their voice of almost panic, asking for help, how soon can you get here, what can you bring? We're losing control down here, we're in dire straits. Please get here as quickly as you can.

TODD: And you got teams on the road, 22 deputies, and then tried to go through chains of command. What happened then?

SIMPSON: Right. We put everything -- we worked on it overnight, put everybody together. We were ready to move, actually, 1:00 that following day. And trying to work through about 10 hours of phone calls, trying to get the approval that we needed to make it official. We went back and forth and back and forth. Finally ended up with me talking to someone in the Louisiana State Police late Thursday night who basically told us, we're telling everybody not to come.

TODD: Did he give any reason?

SIMPSON: No reason. First it was, well, we don't have a place to put you up. Well, we were self-sufficient. We had tents, we had things to sleep in, we had food, we had water. We had already made these arrangements with Jefferson Parish. We were good to go. That was really the only explanation ever given, is that we're telling people not to come down. There's no place to put you.

TODD: Now, let me relay something to the audience that I just told you about. We did speak to the Louisiana State Police just moments ago, Lieutenant Lawrence McCleary. He said that the Louisiana State Police didn't necessarily need to sign off on it. Once the governor of Louisiana lifted certain provisions in the law to supersede chains of command, then the Jefferson County Parish could have just received your team directly with no interference from anyone else.

This official with the Louisiana State Police said he's not sure how that word didn't get to you. And the governor did lift those provisions either yesterday evening or late last night. What's your response to that? You never heard from anybody?

SIMPSON: No. I don't know whether that was an after the fact thing that -- after about 11:00 last night. If it was done earlier and nobody in Jefferson Parish knew anything about it. They didn't tell us. The gentleman I spoke with at the command center in Baton Rouge did not -- with the state police -- did not tell me anything about that either, otherwise we were already on the road. We were three hours down the road. We would have continued. We would have been there by now.

TODD: All right. This is just an example of some of the logistical -- the command nightmare that is going on with law enforcement all around the country. He had MREs ready to go. He had vehicles. He had 22 deputies, as we said, ready to go. They were on the road to Louisiana. Turned back.

You know, there is a lot of back and forth about what was responsible for that, Wolf. But it gives you a window into the logistical and command problems that we're facing.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thank you very much. I want to thank the sheriff as well.

I want to immediately go back to New York. Ali Velshi is standing by. What are you picking up?

VELSHI: Well, let's take a look at this gas station that you've on the screen there. This is in Baltimore. There's some rumors that this was going to close up. Obviously, you know, this is the busiest driving weekend of the year. And now we've got a lineup at this gas station. Look at that. These are all people trying to get gas.

I got to tell people, this is not a '70s-style gas shortage. It's a technical, logistical problem. Gas is going to start running. Obviously, if you need gas in your car to get home or get wherever you have to go, you're going to have to wait in line. But let's not let the rumors get out of control. We don't have a gas shortage on our hands. Take time and be patient.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Ali. We'll check back with you.

I want to go to CNN's Carol Lin at the CNN Center. She's got an incredible story to share with our viewers. Carol?

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, less than an hour ago, three survivors of this hurricane had fled to Atlanta. They were on our set, being interviewed. One of those people is Carol Hamm. She is sitting next to me. She did not know where her husband was, and was desperate for any information at all.

She's joining me now, because moments ago, Wolf, we were standing in the news room and she got a telephone call that changed her life.

Carol, you were able to talk to your husband, Gene.

CAROL HAMM, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Yes.

LIN: We've got him on the telephone right now. Gene, can you hear us?

GENE HAMM, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: Yes. Yes. C. HAMM: Hi, baby.

G. HAMM: How are you doing, honey?

C. HAMM: Excited. I'm sorry, I didn't hear you (INAUDIBLE)

G. HAMM: I know you are. Me, too. I have Robert and Erica with us. They are fine.

C. HAMM: That's great. I just wanted to let you know pops doing fine.

G. HAMM: OK, baby. I love you.

C. HAMM: I love you, too.

LIN: Gene, you actually heard about your wife on CNN.

G. HAMM: I did not. Actually, I had a phone call into a personal cell phone over here at the Star of Hope. It's a woman shelter. And they called -- some woman was watching TV, and she called in and we immediately called you all right back.

LIN: Oh my gosh. Carol, can you believe this?

C. HAMM: No. It's hard. It just doesn't feel real.

LIN: Your story is so dramatic. You were trapped on a roof with the floodwaters around you. A local fisherman picked you up. How did you end up here in Atlanta from Violet, Louisiana?

C. HAMM: After we were rescued...

LIN: Go ahead, Carol.

C. HAMM: After we were rescued, we were evacuated from the shelter that we were in because it was unstable. We got on to a barge, and I went with my father because he had a back injury. And my brother -- I don't know how long afterwards, he came. I wasn't able to leave with my father.

LIN: So between the military -- fisherman, military, Red Cross, here you are in Atlanta, Georgia.

Gene, we hope to reunite you with your wife real soon. You stay safe. You're not injured, right?

G. HAMM: No, I'm not. Me and the kids are fine.

LIN: All right. Gene in good health. Carol Hamm in good health. We're going to get you guys reunited real soon.

Wolf, what a pleasure to bring you a happy story.

BLITZER: It's about time we got at least one happy story. Carol, thanks very much. Good work. And congratulate that loving couple, indeed.

Let's go back to New York. Jack Cafferty has been reading all of your e-mail. Jack, what are you picking up?

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is this. If we're going to stay the course in Iraq, should the United States bring the National Guard home and start a draft?

Here's some of what we received.

Phil in Providence, Rhode Island, "Forget Iraq. We need the National Guard here in our own country. I don't care about Iraqi elections or an Iraqi constitution when innocent U.S. citizens are dying in New Orleans day after day after day."

Jack writes to me, "Not a chance. The draft died at the end of the Vietnam War and were it to be reinstated, there's a good chance the people of the United States would revolt."

Gina in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, "Yes, the National Guard should come back from Iraq. But no, there should not be a draft. We need to decrease the presence in, and get out of, Iraq. And maybe this domestic tragedy will be the impetus to do that. They have a constitution. They need to start running their own country, even if it's not in the way the U.S. administration wants it to."

Mike who is a retired U.S. Air Force sergeant in Montgomery, Alabama, "As a Vietnam-era military retiree, I support the idea of America reinstituting a national draft. The bottom line is that we can't support national emergencies like Hurricane Katrina and fight a foreign war abroad without adequate manpower and equipment. The draft, though unpopular, remains the only viable option."

And finally Chuck, who is a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy down in Virginian Beach says, "This is a prima facie case for universal national service. If we required a minimum of two years active and two more reserve of all our young people, we would have a tremendous capacity to respond to emergencies like this."

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jack, we'll check back with you in a few minutes. Thank you very much.

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