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THE SITUATION ROOM

Aftermath of Katrina

Aired September 2, 2005 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from the hurricane disaster zone are arriving all the time, and we're going to share them with you.
Happening now, some relief amid the floodwaters and the fires; 3:00 p.m. in New Orleans, central time. Eight convoys and troops are on the ground at last in a place being described as a lawless, deadly war zone. President Bush offers to comfort Katrina's victims. Did he get an earful in return? This hour, the president's tour and the growing criticism of the way he's handling this crisis.

And tough questions are being asked about race, and how it figures into the state of emergency. We'll talk to a top African American member of the United States Congress who fears people may be dying because of the color of their skin.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

After four horrific days we're seeing the first significant signs of at least some relief efforts underway in New Orleans, but the mission ahead remains critical. The first of some 1,000 National Guard troops are on the ground in New Orleans right now a long with a convoy of about 50 vehicles packed with supplies.

The U.S. Coast Guard now says more than 5,500 people have been rescued in New Orleans. The mayor says 50,000 people still need to be evacuated from the city after what he calls a night of hell.

Another obstacle in getting people out, new fires raging in New Orleans, one in a building across from the Mississippi River has been burning out of control after a huge explosion.

Along the Mississippi coast, the governor says the state is in desperate need of fuel. The Coast Guard is delivering diesel fuel to hospitals to try to keep those generators running, generators that will save people's lives.

Let's get more on the hurricane damage now state by state. We'll start off in Louisiana. Officials now say the death toll will be in the thousands. How many? We don't know.

We do know that 350,000 homes in the New Orleans area alone, 350,000 homes, have been damaged or completely destroyed; 2,600 National Guard troops are due in Louisiana today.

Over in Mississippi, fears of the death toll there may well run into the hundreds. State senators say the Labor Department will provide $50 million so people can be hired to help with the clean-up.

Over in Alabama, 135,000 people are still without power -- businesses, as well as homes. The governor announces what they call Operation "Golden Rule" to find housing for 10,000 people made homeless. State government is making up to $25 million available for emergency loans to victims.

President Bush is now in the disaster zone. He began this day by acknowledging that the federal government's response hasn't been good enough.

Let's go to the latest stop on the president's tour, the Louis Armstrong International Airport outside New Orleans. That's where CNN's Ed Lavandera is standing by. Ed?

ED LAVENDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. We brought you a little bit closer down to what's going on here. Here you see the tarmac where everyone is being ferried into the New Orleans Airport here. These people are literally being plucked out of the city in the last few minutes and being brought here to the New Orleans Airport.

From here, they're kind of -- they're brought in through this area where they have to make their way through this line here. And if they need medical attention, they can go inside the airport, but from here they essentially have to continue waiting for a bus ride or waiting for a bus ride or a flight that will take them out of here.

From here they're going to places like Lafayette, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas. Who knows how long it will take to process all of these people. But this is what's going on here now. People that have spent four, five, days in the city waiting for rescue, we talked to one gentleman a short while ago who was literally plucked off of his rooftop about a half an hour ago has been brought here, and now he's been told to wait for the next bus out of the city.

Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. We'll check back with you, Ed. Thank you very much.

CNN's Nic Robertson is normally overseas covering major wars and other disasters. He's now in New Orleans. I believe you're in the French Quarter, Nic. You're joining us via videophone from New Orleans. Share with our viewers what you're seeing and what you're hearing right now.

We're going to try to reconnect with Nic. Nic Robertson is in New Orleans right now, and he's going to be -- we're going to reconnect with him. Another one of our veteran foreign correspondents, war correspondents, Karl Penhaul is in New Orleans himself right now, and Karl is joining us. Karl, where exactly are you?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm at the international airport in New Orleans, and those helicopters ... BLITZER: Karl, let me interrupt for a second. If you can raise your microphone, we'll hear you a little bit better. Go ahead, start from the beginning.

PENHAUL: I'm at the international airport in New Orleans right now, Wolf, and those helicopters that Ed Lavendera was pointing out to you a few moments ago, I've just come off one of those. We flew on a military Black Hawk helicopter into flood-ravaged eastern side of New Orleans on the lakefront.

The mission there was to pluck out some refugees, some survivors from the lakefront there. They've conglomerated at New Orleans University campus.

Now, over the last five days, some 3,000 citizens alone have conglomerated in that area, and the mission of these helicopters was to pluck them out and bring them back to safety.

As we flew over the city, the skies over New Orleans are abuzz with helicopters, military helicopters, Coast Guard helicopters, navy helicopters. We saw those helicopters winching down Coast Guards to pull survivors off rooftops still. We saw other military helicopters are land on overpasses and people literally pouring into those helicopters.

And also on the ground, we can see still people rowing in boats, rowing on planks of wood, still trying to get to safety. Other people still wading through the flood waters because in areas the water only a few feet deep now, but in other areas it's still more than one story high, Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl, I want to ask you a question, but I want you to continue to raise your microphone a little bit more, we'll hear you a little better if you do, based on my own experience out in the field.

Give us a sense of the people that -- we see people behind you and around you, and maybe your photographer can go wide a little bit and show us where you are and what the scene is like where you are.

PENHAUL: Let me just step out of the way and back for you, Wolf, and take a look at these people behind. These are some of the people that have been brought off these military helicopters this morning. The first priority over the last few days has been to bring the people, the ill, the elderly and firm, but as the mission steps up, as it ratchets up today, the mission has also been to bring out healthy people that have been stranded in their homes.

Many of these people have been days without food, without a large supply of drinking water. And as with we've seen them come off those helicopters in various states of health, some stumbling, some helping one another. They're all certainly very glad to be here.

But in fact, Wolf, the helicopter I came on back into the international airport from the eastern side of New Orleans had five members of New Orleans Police Department on board. They, so to speak, were the last men standing at the University of New Orleans campus. Over the last five days, they say, they estimate that they had helped 3,000 people to safety, ferrying them onboard these helicopters, securing a landing zone there. Because they say at night there was a problem with marauders, with looters. During the day they say there was a lot of panic, a lot of desperation. These police officers that we accompanied say at times they had to drag men of the helicopters to allow the women and children to come first.

But they say their mission was accomplished in that section of the city. They had 3,000 people out in the last five days, Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul reporting for us, he's on the scene, as so many of our other top correspondents. Karl, thank you very much.

Let's focus for a few moments now on the public health emergency that's unfolding in New Orleans and the region. For that, we're joined by the secretary of health and human service, Mike Leavitt. He's joining us from his department headquarters here in Washington.

Secretary Leavitt, thank you very much for joining us. A lot of us have been deeply concerned about disease, a threat to public health erupting from the floodwaters in New Orleans specifically. Give us an update on what you know about this potential disaster.

Hold on. Mr. Secretary, hold on a second. We are going to have to reconnect your audio because I'm not hearing you and I assume our viewers are not hearing you as well. Let me just take a second to reconnect your audio. If you could be patient with us for a minute, we'll get back to you, critical issues affecting people ravaged by this hurricane, the potential for disease, medical problems, emotional problems.

The Department of Human Health -- the Department of Health and Human Services is taking the lead in this issue, and we're going to get back to the secretary in a moment.

Ali Velshi, you're in New York. You're watching oil prices.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... because of the holiday weekend, but it was down $2.50 to $66.90. This is on the news about the Strategic Petroleum Reserves and other reserves putting oil into the system. The markets closed down, the Dow was down 12 points at 10447. The NASDAQ down six -- almost seven points to 2141. That's how we go into the week weekend. I just wanted to update you on that, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks, Ali. We're going to get right back to you as well.

President Bush left Washington this morning for the Gulf Coast knowing his administration's response to this disaster is under extensive fire. Especially critical, the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin.

He didn't mince any words during a late night radio interview in New Orleans. We're going to get that interview. We're going to get that sound bite from the mayor now.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS MAYOR: ... Goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. I won't do another press conference until the resources are in this city, and then come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops that we can't even count. Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here! It's too doggone late. Get off your asses and let's do something and let's fix the biggest goddamned crisis in the history of this country.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go over to CNN's Elaine Quijano. She's over at the White House. Elaine, update our viewers, from your monitoring post, what's happening.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Bush, as you mentioned, is in the State of Louisiana and, in fact, it was at the airport where he was met by the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, who, as you pointed out just less than 24 hours or so ago blasted federal officials for their response.

But the New Orleans mayor at the same time, though, had some praise for President Bush for dispatching Lieutenant General Russell Honore to the region to coordinate military efforts, but those criticisms, certainly I heard a bit of it there, very sharp.

Now, as you saw earlier in the day, the president also was on the ground in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was there that President Bush took a walking tour of some of the damaged areas there. It was the first opportunity, really, for the president to get a chance to take a look up close, to also hear stories, personal stories, of the devastation as these residents have gone through.

Now, the president promised that aid was on the way. He also told reporters later he was satisfied with the response of the federal government, but not the results.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: Our jobs as people in positions of responsibility is not to be satisfied until the job is done as good as it can possibly be done. And that's what I was referring to. We're Certainly not denigrating the efforts of anybody. But the results can be better in New Orleans. And I intend to work to -- with the folks to make it better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

QUIJANO: Now, the president attempting to clarify what he said when he left the White House today, that was that the results were unacceptable. So the president elaborating there.

Now, his first stop, we should tell you, of the day was actually in the State of Alabama. It was there in Mobile that the president appeared in a hangar, along with other officials there, government officials, emergency officials, as well as the governors of Alabama and Mississippi. President Bush appearing there, also in front of a Coast Guard chopper.

The White House clearly trying to send the message, not just through the president's words, but also through images, trying to send out the message of reassurance and let people know that the government is getting a handle on this situation, so the president continuing with his tour.

The situation, though, very fluid as to what his next step might be in Louisiana. At last word, he was having meetings onboard Air Force One with local officials in Louisiana. He is running very much behind schedule, but still scheduled to do an aerial tour and possibly a walking tour later today.

Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Elaine, thank you very much. And we see some of those aides that the president brought with him, including White House officials, as well as some of the governors and other authorities who are on the scene with him at the airport. We're going to go there once the president speaks.

I think we've reconnected with the secretary of health and human services, Mike Leavitt. Mr. Secretary, can you hear me okay now?

MIKE LEAVITT, U.S. SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: I can, yes.

BLITZER: I can't hear you, but we're going to try to fix that.

In the meantime, we're going to try to reconnect with the secretary of health and human services. Unfortunately, we're not getting a good connection. These things happen in these kinds of stories, but we'll work on it out and we'll get the latest on the health problems facing the people in New Orleans.

Jack Cafferty is watching all of this as well. He has got another question this hour. Jack?

CAFFERTY: The American Red Cross, Wolf, reports that as of noon today they had received almost $72 million in donations. However, a lot of American citizens are doing more than just opening their wallets to help the victims of this Gulf Coast tragedy.

The governor of Texas said today his state will take in more than 50,000 additional refugees between Dallas and San Antonio, and that's on top of the 25,000 refugees already at the Astrodome.

The mayor of Detroit said yesterday that they're looking at ways to bring evacuees from the Gulf Coast region, for both temporary and long-term stays in the Motor City. Mayor Kilpatrick says that area hotel can house up to 3,000 people and that local restaurants and Chamber of Commerce are promising food. So the question this hour we thought we'd ask is this, what should your community be doing to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina? Caffertyfile@cnn.com. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much. We're going to take a quick break. Much more coverage. Elijah Cummings, member of Congress, a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we want to hear from him. He had some very strong words earlier today. And we want to ask him some important questions.

So we'll take a quick break. Much more coverage coming up. We're standing by, also, to hear from the president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're looking at these live pictures from New Orleans. Those big tires are the tires of Air Force One. We see the president of the United States standing there. He's going to be walking over to the microphones. He's joined by the mayor of New Orleans.

He's been meeting with Ray Nagin and others in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Louisiana. The secretary of health and human services (sic), Mike Chertoff is walking next to the president, as well as General Blum, the commander of the National Guard troops. The president is going to be making a statement now.

We're going to listen to what the president said based on his touring of the areas, and we'll perhaps be able to hear from some of the others as well. The man to his left is the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin.

As the president approaches the microphones, we'll get ready to get his assessment of what's going on. We know that others have been with the president all day, including senators from those states, including Louisiana, as well as the governors. We saw Governor Blanco of Louisiana there, as well as Senator Landrieu. We saw, as well, Karl Rove, the president's deputy White House chief of staff has made this trip as well.

So we assume president is walking over to those microphones, but it looks like he's boarding Marine One with the mayor, and he's going to be taking a tour by helicopter, I guess, and then he'll be making a statement later.

We'll watch Marine One take off from the New Orleans Airport. We'll watch to see what the president is doing. But we're joined now by a distinguished member of the U.S. House of Representatives. We'll keep these pictures up as we speak with the immediate past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Elijah Cummings.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us. You're looking at these pictures. As you know, many African American members of Congress earlier today said they've been ashamed and outraged by the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Give us your thoughts as of right now. REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, (D) MARYLAND: Well, I'm feeling a little bit better, but I've got to tell you we were outraged, and many of us still are. The fact is that we believe the administration moved a little bit late and did not take this matter as urgently as they should have.

I'm convinced that the Congressional Black Caucus, which is also called the "Conscience of the Congress," has a lot to do with what's going on right now. This movement is good. The president should have moved a little earlier. The fact is at least now I'm I'm beginning to get a feeling of a sense of urgency.

BLITZER: It's taken several days. This hurricane hit Monday morning, it's now Friday afternoon, and we saw just a couple hours ago, U.S. troops move into that Convention Center in New Orleans, about 1,000 National Guard and army personnel with supplies.

There have been some that have suggested that race has been a factor because so many of the people in New Orleans who have been suffering, as you well know, are African American.

CUMMINGS: Well, the caucus, we took the position it was the frail, the weak, and those that are sick, suffering. Keep in mind, Wolf, you just talked about the troops marching in. A lot of people have died. And a lot of people will die. And sadly, that's sad, but the fact is, the president we would have hoped would have moved sooner.

Governor Blanco even said the same thing. And certainly, Mayor Nagin. But I think that he's on the right track right now, but we are asking that people be helped immediately.

I mean, when you've got people who can't even get formula for a baby or water for their children, and you've got elderly people lying in carts suffering from bone cancer, lying in an airport, somebody's got to speak up, and I'm glad the caucus did speak up, and I think we made a difference already.

BLITZER: But do you believe -- if f it was, in fact, the slow responses, as many now believe it was, was it in part the result of racism? Is that what you're suggesting?

CUMMINGS: I'm not sure. All I know a number of the faces I saw were African American, but the caucus has always stood for all Americans, particularly those who have been often left out of the system. And people I've seen on your channel, by the way, are people who are the frail, the elderly, the sick, those people -- children, people -- and people literally walking around in water for days in their own feces with dead bodies floating.

Something is wrong with that picture. Another thing, I'm tired of the news media calling folk refugees. These are Americans. They pay taxes just like you and me. Just like the president does. So we need to stop calling them refugees because I think when we begin to call them refugees, we begin to treat them as refugees as they're not part of this country. This is America. BLITZER: They're evacuees, they have evacuated from their homes, but some of the images we've seen -- they don't look like America. It looks like they could be in Sudan or Somalia or someplace like that.

CUMMINGS: You're exactly right. And that's what the caucus was saying today, that we were ashamed at our country, the country that we represent, would be treating people like this, and calling them refugees. So we're begging all Americans to continue to do what they're doing. We applaud all of those people who have been coming out and giving their best to help people, but the fact is that our government must continuously act in an urgent fashion.

BLITZER: New Orleans, a very predominantly African American city, as you well know. There are some critics who are saying, and I don't know if you're among those, but people have said to me, had this happened in a predominantly white community, the federal government would have responded much more quickly. Do you believe that?

CUMMINGS: I think that that's a pretty good probability. The fact is, keep in mind another thing, Wolf, we have not even seen emerge from all of this those people who have passed away. There's another wave coming over this thing.

Number one, we have to bring relief. Number two, we have to reconstruct and reconstruct people's lives, and then we have to bring reassurance to these folks.

But there's going to come a wave when all of these piles of wood and stuff are taken up, and we begin to se those who have perished. That's the question. The question is, how are these going to handle that, wondering if their loved ones could have been saved if we had acted a little sooner. So we've got to go forward and we've got to do the best we can with what we've got.

BLITZER: You understand the outrage of the people who are there first and foremost?

CUMMINGS: Oh, definitely, definitely. I mean, people are in pain. We in the Congressional Black Caucus have gotten calls begging us to stand up for the people that they see on the television screens. And by the way, the people that are calling us are not just black people. They are white people and they are Hispanics and others who are saying this cannot be America.

BLITZER: It's hard to believe. Let me get your reaction to what Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat, Louisiana, has just said in a statement she issued in a letter she sent to the president.

She's traveling with the president right now. Among other things, she says I have personally asked the president today to appoint in a matter of 24 hours a cabinet level official to direct the national response to this tragedy. She goes on to say the suffering has gone on long enough. Now is the time for action. Clearly, she's losing confidence in FEMA, the FEMA director, Michael Brown.

CUMMINGS: Oh, I've lost confidence, too. The fact is, that I -- I heard the president's explanation about saying that the results are not acceptable. If the results are not acceptable, what that means is people have suffered greatly and some sadly, sadly have died. And so the fact is if Mr. Brown can't handle it, someone else needs to be in there. We have great people throughout our country who can do a wonderful job.

Again, we go across the seas, thousands of miles and lift people up all the time and do for them, and we can't get into a civic center some diapers and water and some -- and food? Come on, give me a break.

BLITZER: Elijah Cummings, the immediate past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Thanks, congressman, for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to take a quick break but we'll have much more coverage up. We're watching the president right now. He's aboard Marine One. He's flying over New Orleans. We'll see if marine one touches down. If it does, we'll be there. Much more of our coverage from New Orleans, from Mississippi, from Alabama, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

We're hear in SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As we saw just moments ago, the president of the United States boarding Marine One, the helicopter, to take him on a tour of New Orleans itself. He was joined by the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, as well as Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security.

The president had a meeting aboard Air Force One. He got off the plane. And he walked on the tarmac together with the mayor of New Orleans, the secretary of Homeland Security, and the commander of the U.S -- of the military's National Guard.

They walked over to Marine One. Boarded Marine One for that tour that's underway right now in New Orleans. We expect the president to get off Marine One at some point and make a statement together with the others. We will have live coverage of that once it happens. There they are. They're walking just a few moments ago.

Let's check in on Capitol Hill. Our congressional correspondent Joe Johns is watching developments there as they affect Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What's the latest, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The House of Representatives coming back in that emergency session around 1:00 Eastern time today, an emergency session to pass a $10.5 billion bill, $10 billion of that for FEMA, another $500 million of that for the Department of Defense.

A number of members of Congress not in session. Of course, they had been in recess, except for this emergency session. Among those not on the floor today, the speaker of the House himself, Dennis Hastert. We're told earlier today he had to attend a fund-raiser in Indiana for one of his House colleagues. We're also told while in Indiana, he stopped of at an auto show apparently to auction off a car of his. His office says the money from that auction will be given to the victims of the Katrina disaster.

He arrives back in the city just a little while ago, apparently meeting with his people here on Capitol Hill. A lot of people expressing a great deal of concern about the federal response to the crisis -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He made some very controversial comments in one of his hometown newspapers in Illinois. What's the fallout?

JOHNS: Well, that's quite unclear. In fact, what he said was, he wasn't so sure it would be a good idea to rebuild New Orleans. Later, he clarified that saying he was questioning how the rebuilding of New Orleans should go on.

A number of members of Congress raising questions about that, particularly some Democrats. And some other Democrats, of course, have held their fire, notably Senator Landrieu of Louisiana. She said, this is the kind of thing we can discuss. This is just not the time to discuss it. Wolf?

BLITZER: What about calls for investigations in the U.S. Congress underway right now? We understand Democrats, maybe even some Republicans already want to know what happened. Why was the federal government so slow in responding?

JOHNS: In fact, the top Republican in the Senate himself, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader has said he would like to see some hearings into the response to Katrina. Of course, as I said at the top, a number of Republicans expressing concern. You've already talked about some of the Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus who say so far the response has been inadequate.

So, we are expecting a lot of talk here on Capitol Hill in coming days, as the Congress gets back into session, starting on Tuesday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Joe Johns. We'll check back with you.

Let's check in with our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner. She's watching what's going on right now -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: I don't think there's a camera on me right now, Wolf. So I'll talk to you, until we get a camera on me.

BLITZER: We'll get one there.

SCHECHNER: All right. There we go. It helps to have the visual. What we were going to talk about was the fact that the bloggers and people who write online who are now getting back into place and back online are starting to tell some firsthand accounts. And it's not just in New Orleans.

We wanted to get you the story of Ken Foster. He's an author who actually left New Orleans, went to Hattiesberg, Mississippi. He says, first of all, right now, my mind is scrambled as he tells the story. A lot of emotions going on.

But Ken took off. And he says once he got to Hattiesberg, he realized they were going to get to the eye of the storm, but at that point, it was too late for him to move on. So, they rode it out in a house. He was with a student of his. They ended up on the living room floor. A tree actually fell through the house and they crouch on the living room floor and rode out the storm.

He says, afterwards, when it finally calmed down and he could get out of the house, he walked around the neighborhood, and every couple of yards there was another tree or power line to climb over. Every other house was at least partially destroyed.

It was then the aftermath that was difficult. Again, this is Hattiesberg, Mississippi. He says the National Guard finally got there with water and ice, but they were only allowing one gallon of water and one bag of ice per car. And then they were telling people not to drive their cars. And where these things were located were actually -- you had to drive to them. So there was no way to get there if people weren't driving.

Everything was a mess. He says, now, where are the police, the National Guard, the military? He says even FEMA didn't show up until today. And their location was a mystery because, again, power's down. There is no communication.

Now, he is safe in Atlanta, but he said it was an 11-hour drive to get there. It should have taken him four hours.

And Wolf, we have corresponded with Ken via e-mail. And essentially what he says he has his car, his dogs, and his laptop and that is it. He is stranded now. We'll send it back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jacki Schechner, as well. It looks like some sort of statement coming out of FEMA in Baton Rouge. Let's listen in to hear what they're saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I'll make it simple for you. Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE; All right. Thank you. And we'll collect connections afterwards.

Next, we're hear from Brigadier General Crear, that's C-R-E-A-R, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- general.

BRIG. GEN. ROBERT CREAR, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Good afternoon. Good to see you all again. We made considerable progress today, but we're not resting. Still a lot of work to be done.

Today we were able to effect, as I talked to you last night, finished a closure of the 17th Street Canal. Right now we left it open because, in fact, the water is draining out. We can effect the closure when we need to.

We had maximum helicopters on site today, dropping 3,000-pound sandbags into the hole. A great joint effort with D.O.T.D., they worked hard. They had to build the road first, 100 feet by 25 feet deep in order to start dumping stone into the crevasse. Today we started dumping stone into that crevasse. So again, it's considerable progress in that area.

We have started to -- the dewater plan, what that consists of is breaching levees where storm damage surge is still above the lake levels and the palette of sandbag and rock closures, they are being made where levees are washed out during the storm.

We're stopping the flow today into the residential areas of St. Bernard Parish. And that's being done by Beau Brothers. Our priority for fixing pumps, which is again, as I mentioned to you last night, that's our critical path, is pump No. 6, which has the largest capacity, then seven, and then nine. And that will allow us to dewater Orleans Parish.

We were able to get a team out today on the site. Have not gotten a feedback from them with a detailed report. I'm sure I'll have that later tonight, see how they looked on there. Then I can tell you how that works.

At the same time, we had a chance to go and revise our calculations as to the amount of saturation and the amount of time it would take to unwater the city once we have the plants -- once we have the pumps. We're looking at anywhere from -- anywhere from 36 to 80 days to be done, which is quite better than what we had had before. The original calculation was based on total saturation. But since that time, we have had pumps to evacuate, you know, most of the area to the west of 17th Street.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: When you said you closed the gap -- I wanted to clarify what you said. You closed the gap.

CREAR: The entrance to the 17th Street Canal.

QUESTION: You're talking about the Hammond Street, you closed that part. Or are you talking about the big gap?

CREAR: The Hammond Street.

QUESTION: You clog the Hammond Street. You haven't closed the big...

CREAR: We haven't yet. We think we'll be done with that by tomorrow with the progress we're making today. QUESTION: 30 days to be done with what?

CREAR: 36 to 80 days to be done with the dewatering, once we have the pumps operational.

QUESTION: And that's the city overall?

CREAR: The reason I gave you that, it's in different locations.

QUESTION: 80 days til the whole city would be dry, best case?

CREAR: If we got -- that's correct.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Given the timing that we have here in the room today, we can to do follow-ups. Thank you very much.

General graham.

BRIG. GEN. MARK GRAHAM, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Hi. Brigadier General Mark Graham, I'm the deputy commanding general for the Task Force West for Task Force Katrina.

I think earlier they discussed what we're working on right now. We're here to provide planning support and also some assistance as we can to FEMA, to the state, and to the National Guard of Louisiana.

Currently right now one of the primary missions we've been asked to do is coordinate evacuation using the buses that we've been given to do so. Currently today, we've had six airplanes have departed. There are currently six airplanes at the international airport. We have flew out 438 passengers today. It seems like a little low number, but some of those small planes had medical patients on them, that's why there weren't very many passengers. Larger airplanes are inbound. We expect the air flow to continue tonight in a pretty heavy way.

We're also working to open a second airport at the Naval Air Station, called Bell Chase. We hope to -- we're looking to have that airfield open in the next 24 hours to start moving aircraft there.

We also had 95 commercial buses today that have come through and departed. Commercial buses are the buses we use to evacuate folks out of different locations and then depart the state with those personnel to other places for housing -- temporary housing.

That's a total of 3,800 people, approximately. Which means so far since this morning, once the buses started arriving we had 4,238 personnel evacuated, that's an estimate.

The other thing we're looking at doing now is a possible third location of an airfield would be the third airfield we have started to work in planning only, the next 96 to 120 hours we're possibly going to try to open a third airfield which would be Acadania (ph), I think's the name, or how do you say it? Regional airport south of Lafayette. Acadian Airport -- thank you very much -- that will work soon.

We continue to have buses coming in. Once the buses get here, they go to a staging area. We then take it from there to the Superdome. Our anticipation is to have the Superdome empty in the next four hours.

Once we have the Superdome empty -- just so you know, we're not just going to one place to move personnel, we're going to multiple sites. And we go -- we are currently going to the Arcadia area and bringing folks out of the Arcadia area as well with school buses. And all of those folks have been taken to the airport to be transported out so far. We're continuing to do that.

One of our plans is to have multiple sites as the large sites -- as the large sites start being decreased with personnel, then we'll have to spread out the smaller sites. We're working those plans today.

The next large place we'll go to will be the convention center. We moved 1,000 people out of the convention center already this morning, so that's starting to work. Thank you.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, you said Arcadia, what are you talking about?

GRAHAM: Cadiana? That might be right.

What is the name of that peninsula? I have to look at my notes. I'm sorry, I'm not from here.

QUESTION: It was an area where people have been brought that was isolated on a levee, had a name...

GRAHAM: Algiers? I'm sorry, that's it. I apologize. Thank you very much -- Algiers.

We've been moving people by school buses out of Algiers all day. We understand now we've gotten those folks all out there. They are bringing more in by barges. And as they do that, we will continue to move those folks out of there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Thanks. Next Captain Sharon Richie, U.S. Coast Guard.

CAPT. SHARON RICHIE, U.S. COAST GUARD: Good afternoon. I'm Captain Sharon Richie. I'm the Coast Guard liaison officer to the emergency operation center here. The Coast Guard has been actively engaged in around the clock search and rescue operations. The numbers are currently coming in at an alarmingly fast rate so I don't have the exact number, but we've certainly removed more than 4,000 effected personnel from the flooded neighborhoods and rooftops. And those numbers have really grown a lot over the last several hours even.

Our priority mission is to evacuate patients and personnel from hospitals and to get them taken care of. We're working jointly with FEMA to deliver food and water to affected personnel. The Coast Guard alone has delivered more than 23,000 pounds of water. We have assets that have been mobilized around the nation to this area. Currently we have over 2,500 Coast Guard personnel on scene with additional personnel en route.

We have 50 aircraft that are actively flying in this area. We have four Coast Guard cutters that are stationed in the Mississippi River and many small boats also located there. And their primary mission at this point in time is for communication and logistical support to the teams in the area responding.

We have 24 additional Coast Guard assets, water assets. These are Coast Guard boats and vessels in the ports and waterways that are affected in the Gulf area.

The ports of Destin and Panama City are open to all commercial traffic that are less than 34 feet in draft. The port of Mobile is open only to barge traffic at this time. And late breaking news is that the Mississippi River is open with restrictions from mile marker 0 to mile marker 235. And I apologize, I don't have the details on those restrictions, I'll get those to you. But we're looking to get commercial traffic moving as soon as..

BLITZER: All right. We're going to reconnect with that briefing that's going on. We're going to watch what's going on there and bringing al the latest, but we're hearing all of the work that FEMA officials, the military, the Coast Guard, what they're trying to do to deal with this catastrophe that has taken hold in Alabama, Mississippi, but especially in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans.

Let's give this some perspective, though. A very graphic article has just moved on the Associated Press wire by Allen Breed, one of their reporters who's been in New Orleans since two days before the hurricane struck Monday morning. And let me read a couple of sentences from his dispatch that has just moved.

Five days after Hurricane Katrina came and went, he writes, "necessity has forced police officers to become looters, gangs hijack the boats of volunteers who have come to rescue them, naked babies wail for food as men get drunk on stolen liquor." And then he adds this, Allen Breed writing for the Associated Press, "a walk through New Orleans is a walk through hell, punctuated it must be said, by moments of grace." An article that will be in many newspapers tomorrow.

The president of the United States is now on the ground in New Orleans, together with the mayor, Ray Nagin. We're going to wait to get to them, hear what they have to say. Much more of our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Big question today, did the federal government do enough over the years to prevent the massive devastation that's taking hold right now in New Orleans? It's no secret that New Orleans is vulnerable to flooding. Much of the city lies below sea level. Washington has been working with state and local officials for almost 40 years on flood relief efforts, but some now say that federal funds to fix and improve the levee system in New Orleans have been cut back since 9/11.

The Congress allocated $70 million for work in 2001. This year, just more than $42 million was granted. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan has defended the administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Flood control has been a priority of this administration from day one. We have dedicated an additional $300 million over the last few years for flood control in New Orleans and the surrounding area. And if you look at the overall funding levels for the Army Corps of Engineers, they have been slightly above $4.5 billion that has been signed by the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Joining us now to discuss this and more is CNN's Tom Foreman.

Did officials in New Orleans have enough money to get the job done?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. I mean, that's the simple answer. No, they did not. Corps of Engineers, people down there have been saying for years, look, the levees are in pretty good shape, but they're not high enough. And here's one of the interesting things, when water goes over a top of a levee, which is exactly what happened here, and we're talking about a town that's surrounded by levees, I want to you look here, as we always do, when water goes over the top, levees fail. That's what happens if it happens to long.

Once again, this is the big lake on the north, this is the river running right through the middle of town here, if we can get to it. There's the river running right through town. And all of these areas are surrounded in some way by levees all through here, all up in here, all down in here, the canals in town have levees aside them.

BLITZER: That's Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River at the bottom.

FOREMAN: Mississippi River right here. Particularly -- look down in this area here, see all this march land? This is a tremendous amount of water pushing all into this area. This is Lake Born over here, which you don't hear as much talk about.

But all this area down here is some of the first areas that flooded. When we talked about New Orleans east, remember day all of the pictures of the people on top of the houses then? That's what we're talking about, the areas down here.

St. Bernard Parish huge problems there. Plaquemine Parish further down, Shalamed (ph), Araby (ph), these areas really got hammered by this. The money that was needed to keep this happening has been cut back.

Now, we don't know exactly why. We're going to figure out exactly why. Some people say it's because that money has been diverted to the war, some people say other things. But the bottom line is it takes money to keep levees built up. There are people there who know how to build levees better than anyone in the country, they just haven't had the funds to do it.

BLITZER: And there was one study a few years ago, 2001 that said $14 billion was needed redo the whole system to withstand a category 5 hurricane, the highest level category, at the time $14 billion sounded like a great deal of money. And now, compared to how much everyone has got to spend, that seems like a relatively modest.

FOREMAN: Yeah. A drop in the bucket, to use a bad phrase.

BLITZER: A bad phrase right now. Thanks very much Tom Foreman for that.

We're standing by to hear from the president of the United States, the mayor of New Orleans. They're touring New Orleans right now to get a firsthand assessment of what's going on. Our cameras are with them. We'll go there live as soon as they speak. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with our White House correspondent Dana Bash. She's here in Washington.

Dana, there's been some suggestion, as you well know, that perhaps the federal government should take over the entire operation, and bypass state and local authorities. What are you hearing?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, several senior Bush officials are saying now that that is something being actively discussed inside the White House, the possibility of the federal government taking control or federalizing inside the state of Louisiana.

But one senior official I talked to did caution saying that that is just one of several options being discussed. It is something that is a potential for a contingency plan, if you will, at this point. But it is being discussed.

As you mentioned, there is frustration both ways. state Officials have been frustrated, as we have heard that the federal authorities and help is not there at the ready, soon enough. And federal authorities we've heard on television saying that they're not exactly sure from the state officials where to go or what to do.

So, what they're trying to figure out at this point is how to streamline both the relief effort and the law enforcement effort from the federal government, Wolf.

BLITZER: That would be a major decision if, in fact, that happens. Dana, thank you very much. And just to remind our viewers, we heard a little while ago Brigadier General Robert Crear of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers saying their estimate now is it'll take at least 36 day, but perhaps as many as 80 days to remove the water from New Orleans, Louisiana.

Jack Cafferty has been reading all of your e-mail. Jack, what do our viewers think?

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is. "what should your community be doing to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina?" And it's pretty interesting, some of the stuff that's going on.

Greg in Shelby, North Carolina writes this, "we've decided to adopt a whole city. We're adopting Laurel, Mississippi. It's about the same size as Shelby, 20,000 people. Our churches are adopting churches there with food, money donations. Individual families from Shelby will be adopting families in Laurel with offers of opening their homes to them. Our police department will share officers to help their police departments. I hope other American cities will be likewise."

Laura writes this, "I think Tempe, Arizona, as a university town, should be helping to accommodate the displaced students affected by Hurricane Katrina."

Deb in St. Petersburg, Florida, "is there a way to start an "adopt a family" program? I am confident that if you could get flights of people to cities, doors would open to take families in. I am one of them. I've called the Red Cross, they suggested I contact that news outlets. I'm sure there are many people wanting to do something, but they don't know how other than donations."

Jim in Gaithersburg, Maryland, "we should be sending buses for transport, trucks loaded with supplies. I'm seriously considering loading up my SUV with camping equipment, food, water and fuel and driving 100 miles to try to help 2 or 3 families. If we work together, we can make all the difference. We don't have to sit in our living rooms and blame the government for taking too long to act, although it's true."

And Lisa in Huntsville, Texas, "we have two Red Cross shelters set up at local churches and have received several busloads of evacuees. Our community is banding together to donate items needed by setting up massive food drives to help out. We also have many realtors getting together to find property owners that have vacant rental properties to help house those in need. And several families in the area have taken those refugees into their homes."

So, some good stuff happening out there.

BLITZER: There are a lot of good people out there who really want to help. Thanks, Jack, very much. We'll check back with you very soon.

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