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State of Emergency

Aired September 6, 2005 - 08:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody.
This is the scene, the scene off of route 110, Highway 110, as you can see. We're heading east out of the city. We're only about four miles from the city, and can you see just how high the water is still here under the highway. We're on an on ramp. This on ramp is now being used to -- for the rescuers they're going to be starting to work now that the sun has come up. And as they are able to rescue people, they will deliver them here, and then of course they're going to try to get them out of the city.

We want to introduce to Sheriff Ted Sexton. He is the sheriff of Tuscaloosa County in Alabama. He's also the president of the National Sheriff's Association.

Nice to see you, and thanks for talking with us this morning.


S. O'BRIEN: I'm doing fine, thank you.

And how are you and your team? Because you've got people here who've been knee deep in helping with the rescues?

SEXTON: We've got personnel assigned to Grand Island, and also we had a tactical unit assigned to Jefferson Parish.

S. O'BRIEN: How has that been? Because you got calls originally back in Alabama of people saying help us right away. What did you do?

SEXTON: I received a call from Mississippi, and then following up, the sheriff there, and following up with calls with Craig Weber (ph) and the Sheriff Harry Lee's (ph) office to find out the situation in Louisiana. We were receiving calls that said they needed help, they need personnel and they needed them immediately. They were describing very dangerous situations, firefights, looting, extreme risk to their personnel, and to the persons they serve, their citizenry.

S. O'BRIEN: So you mobilized?

SEXTON: So the National Sheriff's Association sent out to its members an e-mail that said that sheriffs in Louisiana are requesting assistance, and we set up a command post in Tuscaloosa to be able to handle the influx of calls, and to be able to group those individuals into large numbers, and to be able to feed them into a system, an organized system, to Mississippi and to Louisiana, and we put about 1,500 deputies from 30 different states into Louisiana and Mississippi.

S. O'BRIEN: But you had a little resistance?

SEXTON: Well, there was a bottleneck.

S. O'BRIEN: You had a lot of resistance, let's say. All right, a bottleneck, if that's how you want to describe it.

SEXTON: I would call it a bottleneck. But yes, we had about 10 to 15 persons from our staff at Tuscaloosa that were organizing and did a marvelous job on short notice in pulling things together, but we would talk with especially representatives in Louisiana and tell them that we had this resource of 1,500.

S. O'BRIEN: We've got the guys you need?

SEXTON: We've got the guys. And of course we were watching CNN and finding out that, you know, they needed a thousand personnel. We were talking to Sheriff Lee's office and we were talking with Craig Weber.

S. O'BRIEN: And?

SEXTON: We couldn't make contact with St. Bernard's, but we were being told that they were in trouble, the Plackerman (ph) was in trouble, and they needed immediate help.

S. O'BRIEN: And?

SEXTON: Well, we were being told they didn't need it.

S. O'BRIEN: So who was answering the phone saying, no, you're wrong we don't need your help?

SEXTON: Well, we were receiving information from the Louisiana state emergency operation said that they did not need the personnel. And I don't -- we're not looking to point the finger. We think there's a bureaucracy bottleneck.

S. O'BRIEN: No, but there is something called EMAC, and it's a very complicated system. It stands for the Emergency Management Agency Compact, and that's essentially the way that states can help each other if there is some kind of big emergency. It came out of 9/11, right?

SEXTON: That's exactly what it's for, right.

S. O'BRIEN: So why didn't that help?

SEXTON: Well, the messages were not getting into the EMAC system. They finally made it in. But now as of last Friday, Sheriff Craig Weber went to Baton Rouge and got with personnel. I think many people did not understand the system, and there was some hesitancy as to whether or not they need to do this. It's something we've got to go back and look at. The philosophy and the idea of the EMAC system is excellent. And there were states that it was very fluid, but we need to go back and look and make sure it's fluid.

S. O'BRIEN: But through the EMAC, this compact between states, do you have to have it approved at certain levels before you can send your troops then? Is that what it essentially says?

SEXTON: Yes, yes. The local agency in need makes a request, and it goes into a state. The puts it into a system, and then other states pick it up.

S. O'BRIEN: I guess I got to ask you, how strange is it, though, to have someone on the phone saying seriously, I need your guys, and I need them now, and at the other end, they're saying no, actually, they don't need you.

SEXTON: Well, I think there's a lot of frustration amongst the sheriffs in this area that help was there and help was not responding in a fast and fluid method. I understand you've been to Plackerman. And I understand you've been to St. Bernard's. And I was with a Plackerman sheriff last night at 2:00 in the morning. And he was relaying to me the needs, and we talked with New York City Police Department, and there were folks from everywhere coming, and we were trying to coordinate that into the EMAC system. It was extremely difficult.

S. O'BRIEN: Confusing?

SEXTON: There was a bottleneck, but that's something that we can work on later. But there are areas still, St. Bernard's parish, Plackerman's parish that are requesting the need now of the personnel we have here.

And I'd like to make one point, Soledad, please, and that is to all the law enforcement agencies that have responded to our e-mail and whatever, we don't need their help now.

S. O'BRIEN: They're here on the ground. We have enough people.

SEXTON: What we have on the ground is what we need. The initial response is there. But this is going to be a long-term operation. As you look out here and you see, the Plackerman, St. Tammany, St. Bernard. There's a number of parishes that are going to need long term. So if they would, we have an e-mail set up, and we're feeding our information to the Louisiana state sheriff task force and also over to Mississippi. And in Mississippi, the Department of the Highway Patrol there is coordinating it. But we have a NSA, Katrina CP at And we are coordinating information through there and then disseminating it, but we don't need any more people coming here.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, it's good to get that word out, and it's -- obviously, as you say, that bottleneck has to be fixed. Obviously lives are probably lost.

Sheriff, thank you so much. SEXTON: Thank you, but we do need their help in the long term.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, of course. Thank you.

We want to take you over the way. We've some good pictures of our camera that's up on i-10. Look at the smoke just over my shoulder. We don't know exactly what is happening, because all we can see is the smoke that's sort of lofting over now behind us, but it's a fair amount, coming up pretty high. Not too long ago, we also saw another fire just across the interstate from where we're standing. Looks as if there might be four fires burning at this time but not much information is known.

And it really is more than anything, Miles, an indication of how much is still going on here and how much resources are needed on the ground and are being deployed on the ground as they try to do the search and rescue, recover the bodies, as they try to talk to the people who refuse to leave their homes out of their homes. We heard the mayor saying he's not going to give water anymore to anybody who refuses to leave. And then of course you've got these fires that -- we've seen at least two fires in the not quite two hours that we've been out here. And I'm told there's more, like three or four, that have been burning. So we'll find out the latest on that and bring it to you -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Soledad, I can't help but think of the paradox of a city flooded, where they are unable to get water on a fire because the hydrants don't work and, for that matter, it's just hard to get the fire trucks there.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, we're in four feet of water, and that's probably where that fire is burning, four or five feet of water, and there is no way to get that water on the fire.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad O'Brien, thank you very much. Back with you in just a little bit.

And update on the story we've been reporting to you. Evacuees from the Houston Astrodome, as it turns out, will not be boarding cruise ships today as we reported just a little while ago.

Keith Oppenheim, what happened over the past hour or so?

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The plans is on indefinite hold. The idea was to reduce the numbers here, take 4,000 folks and put them on two cruise ships about 45 minutes away in Galveston. And the problem is that there are not enough takers. People want to stay here at the Astrodome and Reliant Complex, in large part, because people are still searching for loved ones, particularly children.

Missing children is a major problem out here, and we can tell just from talking to folks who are coming up to us, parents who are really desperate to find their kids, they don't know where they are.

One organization that's really making a difference is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They have a Web site, which is sort of a clearinghouse, where pictures of missing kids are posted and people can search in hopes of finding a child.

Sometimes the descriptions of the children that are listed are understandably vague and heartbreaking. I'll read you one, for example. A photo of a small boy who is too young to speak has a description that reads, his name may be Neamiah or Jeremiah. His date of birth is unknown. He is believed to be about two years old.

There also have been some success stories. The national center located seven children that were in a Baton Rouge shelter, and a staffer able to identify that the mothers of these seven kids were in San Antonio, and happily the kids were air-lifted by a military aircraft and taken to San Antonio and the family got back together.

Here at the Reliant Center, there is also a place where people can go. It's a lost kids area inside the complex, and that is another place where people are searching.

Miles, I have to tell you, our experience out here at this place, we have folks who are coming up to us throughout our long day here. Sometimes they may have a photograph of a child or a relative in their family that they're looking for and we -- they asked if they could do an appeal on camera, and we always say yes, it's the least we can do. And inevitably, when they start to give one of these appeals, people break into tears. You can just feel the pain that particularly parents are going through when they're looking for their kids.

Back to you, Miles.

S. O'BRIEN: It's heartbreaking stuff, Keith. We wish you well you up there. And we thank you for whatever you can do. And I'm sure they are very gratified to the extent that they can get people together. We'll just keep plugging away at then.

Let's get another check on the headlines. Carol Costello in with that. Good morning, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Miles. Good morning to all of you.

Now in the news, memorial services begin this morning for Chief Justice William Rehnquist. His body will be placed in the Supreme Court's Great Hall sometime in the next hour. The casket will lie in repose in the same building where Rehnquist spent more than three decades of his life. The nation's 16th chief justice will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery tomorrow.

It is the final day of campaigning in Egypt's historic presidential elections. In the 24 years since he's been in power, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has never run against an opponent until now. This year, three -- this year, rather, there are nine other candidates. The elections were opened up due to strong U.S. pressure. The Egyptian government has said voting would be fair, but refuses to allow international monitors.

In the world of sports, will he, won't he, will he? Well, maybe he will. Barry Bonds could be back in the San Francisco Giants lineup this week. Bonds attended batting practice on Monday, hitting a few balls over the fence and testing his fielding. Bonds has been recovering from three surgeries on his right knee since January. Doctors will again evaluate his knee today and could clear him for play on Thursday, just in time for the wild card race.

And Hurricane Maria, now weakening over the Atlantic Ocean. Chad says Maria peaked as a Category 3 hurricane late Monday before losing strength as it moved toward the North Atlantic. In the meantime, Tropical Storm Nate is brewing south of Bermuda.

M. O'BRIEN: Still to come on AMERICAN MORNING, singer and songwriter Paul Simon will join us. Find out what he's doing to help take care of medical needs, and they're a lot of them, for families along the Gulf Coast. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Wal-Mart is responding to Hurricane Katrina. Andy Serwer is here with that part of the story -- Andy.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" COLUMNIST: Miles, good to see you.

You know, corporate America's received so much bad press over the past few years, with WorldCom and Enron. And, of course, Wal-Mart's gotten some bad press, too. Now they're finally getting some good publicity because of what they're doing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A hundred and 26 of their stores were closed initially, now 20 of them are closed. But the company has given $20 million in cash.

There's -- this is Slidell, by the way, the store down where you were, Miles. Lines there. And they provided free umbrellas. But more than that, $20 million cash, 1,500 trucks filled with supplies. They've set up mini stores. They're providing thousands of meals and they have been earning praise from local officials. And even former President Clinton yesterday.


WILLIAM CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, too, want to thank Lee Scott and Wal-Mart. And I want to mention something that they are doing because this, I hope, will give some guidance to our members of Congress. They still have over 20 stores that are closed and so when the employees of those stores are relocated to other communities, even in other states, they're given a job at the nearest Wal-Mart store.


SERWER: And you know what Wal-Mart is so good at, Miles, is supply chain, moving goods around the country very efficiently and very quickly. And they're using those skills in this area. One local politician said if the American government had responded the way Wal- Mart is responding right now, we wouldn't have this kind of crisis.

M. O'BRIEN: So maybe Wal-Mart should run FEMA?

SERWER: Maybe. You said it, not me.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

SERWER: One final note here, Miles. "USA Today" is reporting that Wal-Mart has suspended sales of guns and ammunition in 40 stores in that area. And they've also removed all guns and ammunition from the stores that are closed because of looting and that kind of thing.

M. O'BRIEN: That sounds like a good idea.

SERWER: Makes sense.

M. O'BRIEN: Andy Serwer, thank you very much.

SERWER: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Still to come in the program, singer/songwriter Paul Simon will join us live to talk about what he's doing to help families in those areas hard hit by Katrina. Stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Scenes of the damage in Biloxi, Mississippi, where the casino industry is no more this morning. A mobile medical clinic is helping to treat hurricane victims in Biloxi. It's the first of two mobile units coming to the region as part of Operation Assist, a program sponsored by the Children's Health Fund.

Joining us this morning, the co-founders of the Children's Health Fund, singer and songwriter Paul Simon and Dr. Irwin Redlener of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Good to have you both with us, gentleman.

Paul, I'd like to begin with you.

PAUL SIMON, SINGER/SONGWRITER: Thanks for having us.

M. O'BRIEN: It's good to have you with us. You're very talented at putting things like this into words, obviously, as a songwriter. Can you boil this down? Is there any way to emote what you've seen over the past couple of days?

SIMON: What I've seen is simply shocking when -- in comparison to what I've seen on television and in the newspapers. To just to -- to stand in the midst of square miles of what used to be houses and is now just leveled fields of rubble, it's really overwhelming. To see a boat in the middle -- in the middle of a road that's a half a mile from the Gulf and a shrimp boat that's there. People's abandoned houses with spray paint on the side saying we're OK, so that relatives who come by would know. People still haven't found their families. It's simply a disaster of biblical proportions.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, I don't think television really does it justice until you really immerse yourself in it and realize how large the area is. Dr. Redlener, tell us a little about this efforts, these mobile vehicles that provide medical care. What's the goal here?

DR. IRWIN REDLENER, MAILMAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Well, you know, Paul and I have been running the Children's Health Fund since 1987 and we've been providing mobile medical units like this to care for very medically underserved poor children in a variety of urban and rural communities around the United States.

But because they're mobile and highly well-organized, we're able to bring them to disasters like this. We did the same thing after Hurricane Andrew and, of course, after 9/11 in New York. But what we did yesterday was bring two of our mobile units, one from northern Mississippi and one from New York City, down here and they already, as of yesterday afternoon, had seen 75 patients. Just as soon as we opened the doors, there were patients all over the place.

But we're going to see a huge amount of medical problems here that are going to rise secondarily from people with infected wounds, from people suffering from environmental effects. And Paul's going to say something about that in a second. But it's just extraordinary. Not to mention the psychological impact, which is going to start settling in soon.

We've never seen anything like the number of displaced people that have been affected by Katrina. We're going to be going over to Louisiana later today and putting another two mobile units there in the New Orleans vicinity over the next week or so. So there's a lot of work to be done. These mobile units are -- just happen to be the right ticket for really helping out in efforts like this.

M. O'BRIEN: I imagine you could use about a hundred of them, given all the need that is out there right now. Paul, tell us about your long-term concerns for the region.

SIMON: Well, some of the work that needs to be done, it's just heartbreaking. For example, in Biloxi, all of the famous historical homes and buildings, all of them destroyed. So you can rebuild, but you can't rebuild the history. And the same is true in Louisiana.

I was talking to a friend of mine who was a painter, an artist. And he was about to have a show in a gallery in Louisiana. And -- but his paintings didn't arrive before the storm. But the gallery was destroyed. And he said the warehouse that holds all of the gallery's paintings and the works from the museum in New Orleans, that was destroyed.

The -- all the Mardi Gras work, the huge feathered headdresses. And all of the history, it's gone. I don't know how -- that can't be -- that can't be replaced. So the psychological impact of that is just -- on an art -- for the art and cultural community, it's a devastation.

M. O'BRIEN: I'd just like to end it with your thoughts on how people are doing generally. Are they still sort of shocked and numbed? What is the general...

REDLENER: Well, they're... M. O'BRIEN: ... I hate to say mood, but what is it?

REDLENER: Well, the mood is helping each other down here. There's a tremendous amount of local engagement and energy around doing what has to be done right now. In fact, there is much more prevalence of the local activities around this, people helping their neighbors. We see actually, strikingly, in comparison, relatively little of the outside, especially the federal resources. We've done a very, very inadequate job so far, I think, in organizing the outside help.

But these people in this community are extraordinary. And I think the same is true in Louisiana. A lot of work to be done and a lot of suffering yet to be dealt with, but I think there's going to be a shot. If there's people like these people here in Mississippi, we're going to get through this. But not without a lot of cost, in terms of human suffering, loss and grieving over the long-term, particularly with children and families.

This is going to be tough, but we're going to have to get through this. And these mobile units that have been so generously sponsored by the people that support us, the United Healthcare, Wyeth and many corporate players, have helped make this possible. And we're going to look forward to doing a lot more in this area in the weeks and months to come.

M. O'BRIEN: Keep up the good work, guys. Dr. Irwin Redlener and Paul Simon in Biloxi. And I'm sure everyone there is quite happy you guys are there and your facilities are there.

If you'd like to make a donation to this worthy organization, we invite you to go to That's

Let's get back to New Orleans now, where there are fires are still burning. We've been showing you these this morning. Still trying to pin down what's burning.

Soledad is there. Good morning, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, and as you pointed out, Miles, in a city that's mostly underwater, how ironic to have a fire raging and growing, frankly. We've seen that even from our vantage point, where there's a lot of stuff in between us and the fire.

The sheriffs we were just interviewing a short time ago, one a native of here, said it looks to him that would be like dry land. He's going to go check it out for us and come back and tell us what we're looking at. Also, frankly, behind us, right under this highway, we've got some bodies under tarps. Those bodies covered, but not recovered yet, clearly.

The governor and the president, according to the governor, now part of a team and they're working together well. We'll talk a little bit ahead about the relationship, as they head into the recovery here in New Orleans. We've got our interview with Governor Blanco just ahead. Stay with us. You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.



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