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State of Emergency; Gas Price Watch

Aired September 6, 2005 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Soledad O'Brien live in New Orleans this morning. Officials here have a very bleak assessment. This city is destroyed. Still, the tired and the hungry keep emerging from their hiding places, others found by rescue teams and still many others refuse to leave under any circumstances. Stragglers are going to become a major problem as officials try to shift from rescue to recovery. We're live in New Orleans with the scene this morning -- Miles.

One week ago, New Orleans was filling up with water. Now, the water is flowing in the other direction. It's a welcome sight, but how long will it really take to empty the city?

And more than 200,000 people stranded in Texas by Katrina, some of them getting a temporary new home on a cruise ship on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning, welcome to AMERICAN MORNING.

Some progress in New Orleans this morning, getting the water out of the city. But even that's not so comforting when you think of what will be left when the water is gone.

Soledad is in New Orleans this morning, once again, and the term is a destroyed city -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Destroyed. Uninhabitable, essentially, is what the police were saying, in fact, Miles. But, you know, as people are finding that there are these survivors who don't want to leave. And that has been kind of a remarkable thing to take a look at.

We went out yesterday flying over with the Coast Guard and saw, actually, a number of people who are essentially surrounded by water. I mean their homes are little islands in the middle of water and they don't want to leave. They don't want any help. They actually wave the choppers away. We're going to talk about some of those people today.

Also, the death toll, the mayor says he thinks it could reach 10,000. We've seen people, in fact, essentially just lying, as grim as it is, lying where they fell. It is a terrible, terrible scene.

Right now we're on I-10, we're kind of off an exit ramp. And this is now being used as an entrance ramp for rescuers. They'll go out this morning. They're going to try to pick up survivors, even mark sometimes where they're finding locations of bodies, and then bring them up this way and evacuate those people. It's been pretty smooth. It's been going pretty well.

Also, as you mentioned, some good news. They were able to make a major repair of the 17th Street levee by putting the sandbags in and so now water is pouring back into Lake Pontchartrain, but slowly. You can see, for many people, of course, they are not yet feeling those effects. And they estimate, Miles, that they won't for 30, 40 days -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Soledad. Back with you in a moment.

"Mission Critical" in Mississippi. Tens of thousands of hurricane victims remain homeless and hungry there. The state is struggling to figure out how to provide long-term shelter for them.

Senator Trent Lott has called on President Bush to authorize the immediate release of 20,000 trailers sitting idle in Atlanta, Georgia. Lott blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency officials for being mired in red tape. He said FEMA has refused to ship the trailers because of paperwork.

Meanwhile, state education officials are trying to find classroom space for thousands of displaced school children. One official said money could be a huge problem. Public school funding fell millions of dollars short this year and many districts are already at their tax limit. The state expected to ask the federal government to pay for some additional teachers there in Mississippi.

About 4,000 evacuees will move from the Houston Astrodome to two Carnival cruise ships today. Another Carnival cruise liner will dock in Mobile to house victims as well. So far, Texas is sheltering nearly a quarter million hurricane evacuees. At least 59,000 are seeking shelter in Arkansas. That number could increase to as much as 100,000. Seventeen other states helping out as well. Another 10 states now preparing to take in thousands more.

Keith Oppenheim live now in Houston.

Keith, when will those evacuees at the Astrodome complex make their way to those cruise ships?

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Should take about three hours from now, Miles, that they will get that underway. But when you consider that out of the quarter million or so people who are staying in shelters in hotels in Texas, about 150,000 of them are right here in Houston. This is something that the city and the county are really welcoming.

The 4,000 people who will go to two cruise ships that are docked in Galveston will take a bus ride. It's about a 45-minute or so bus ride to the Gulf on I-45. Elderly evacuees will be given priority. And authorities also say they're going to give also priority to families to try to keep them together. Yesterday, by the way, two former presidents came to this complex to talk, not only about raising money for a hurricane fund, but also to see the evacuees. Former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, along with their wives, Barbara Bush and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, got to speak to the evacuees here at the Reliant Center Complex. And what they saw is really a fascinating work in progress. Because the officials here, Miles, are really trying hard to turn this mass environment into little towns, if you will.

In other words, the Astrodome is now being called Dome City. The Reliant Center is being called Center City. They are setting up a temporary banking center. They are creating bus stops for kids to go to school next week. So while they are slowly getting people out of these mass centers where they're staying now, and the numbers are beginning to reduce, especially with this move to these cruise ships.

They also know that a lot of the folks are going to be staying here for a while, and they want to try to make the living conditions as hospitable and humane as possible. It's really a mass community that's in the process of developing.

Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: Keith, how many people will be housed on those ships? How long can they stay on them?

OPPENHEIM: It's 4,000 is an estimate for now. And when you talk about the people that they're trying to bring, I think they're really looking at people who are less likely to be looking for work and integrating themselves into the community and people who will, basically, just be hanging out on a cruise ship. You become a little bit more disconnected from society. The estimate we get on just about every stay is around two weeks. But two weeks from now, we'll have a different sense of just how long they will be there.

M. O'BRIEN: Keith Oppenheim in Houston, thanks very much.

As we mentioned, former First Lady Barbara Bush met with evacuees in Texas Monday, and she made some comments about them.


BARBARA BUSH, FORMER FIRST LADY: Almost everyone I've talked to says we're going to move to Houston. And so many of the people in the arenas here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them.


M. O'BRIEN: Mrs. Bush made those remarks on American Public Radio's "Marketplace" on Monday after she, and the former president, met with some evacuees. More than 17,000 were sent to the Superdome. Another 7,400 brought to other Houston centers.

President Bush has a full day of meetings in Washington about Hurricane Katrina. Bob Franken at the White House now.

Bob, what is on the president's agenda today?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has pretty much cleared the decks, Miles, dealing strictly with the response to Katrina. He's got meetings with his cabinet members, bipartisan members of Congress, charitable groups. He's going to be making a statement in the Rose Garden. The message is that the chief executive is very much now in charge.

The message yesterday, as he toured the Gulf area, he recognizes now the magnitude of the problem, whatever the mistakes of the past.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I understand. I understand the damage. I understand the devastation. I understand the destruction. I understand how long it's going to take. And we're with you. That's what I want you to know. God bless.


FRANKEN: And the next time we'll hear the president speak probably in the Rose Garden this afternoon at 2:00 Eastern. The message there will be about putting children in school. The big message, what do we do with the children -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Bob, undoubtedly, today the subject of John Roberts will come up. His ascendancy to nominated for chief justice now. What is he likely to hear as he makes the rounds?

FRANKEN: Well, as he is having conversations, according to his spokespeople, having conversations with members of Congress, what he's hearing is is that the stakes have gone up now that John Roberts is going to be nominated as chief justice. But probably most of the conversation is going to be about Katrina and deflecting the recriminations that have been coming up now growing louder and louder as the week has gone on.

M. O'BRIEN: Bob Franken, at the White House, thanks much.

Time now to check the forecast.

Chad Myers at CNN Center with the latest.

Good morning -- Chad.



M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much -- Chad.

MYERS: You're welcome.

M. O'BRIEN: It's still the hurricane season, let's not forget that.


M. O'BRIEN: Back to you -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, certainly something we don't want to hear from here.

Ahead, Miles, this morning, state and federal officials pledging unity, saying they're a team now, they're going to work together. Just ahead, we talk to the Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco, and former FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

Stay with us. You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.


S O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

State and local officials now say they are willing to work together with unity to make the recovery efforts here go more smoothly.

We spoke to the Governor, Kathleen Blanco, and also James Lee Witt. Here is part of the interview.


O'BRIEN: Governor Kathleen Blanco and the former FEMA Director James Lee Witt join us this morning.

Nice to see you.

Governor Blanco, let's begin with you, do you think the president was trying to snub you with that meeting yesterday? I mean, I heard from your spokespeople that you didn't even know about that meeting until you made the call. You saw it on CNN, apparently.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO, LOUISIANA: Well, in the heat of battle a lot of things happen. And we feel like we're in the heat of battle. That having been said, we had a great day together. The president came in and we believe that he solidly is behind our efforts, without a doubt.

O'BRIEN: Solidly behind your efforts, although there's been much written about kind of a power tussle between the two of you. Specifically, the mayor was telling us about a flight on Air Force One. And he said that you and he and the president were all in a room and finally you and the president went separately to have a meeting.

Listen to what the mayor told us, ma'am, if you will.


MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: He called me in that office after that and he said, Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor. I said -- and I don't remember exactly what -- two options. I was ready to move today, but the governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision.


O'BRIEN: Twenty-four hours, is that right? Was that what came out of that meeting on the tarmac with the president?

BLANCO: Soledad, the mayor was not in my meeting. And it was -- I'll tell you, it was a meeting that did not affect what was going on out in the field. They were talking about paper organizations, nothing else, nothing more, and they gave me a very complicated proposition to look at. It didn't help our effort in that instant moment. I needed a little time to understand exactly what it meant. We went forward, all of us, all of the resources were there, nothing stopped. We ended up coming to terms and agreement, and I think that the effort is going great.

O'BRIEN: Coming to terms, meaning that you rejected, after that 24-hour window, that you didn't have any interest in federalizing the troops or turning power over to the president. Why not hand it over, Madam Governor, when the first five days, and I think that meeting was on Friday, so the first several days of the recovery were clearly disastrous?

BLANCO: The first five days of the recovery were heroic. We were the people who took control. The National Guard took control of the city, brought order out of chaos, because we have law enforcement authority. The federal troops do not. I was very concerned about giving up law enforcement authority.

O'BRIEN: Heroic, but by a very small number of people who were on the ground. In fact, I believe it was Friday morning when I was talking to the FEMA director who had only just seen that there were tens of thousands of people at the convention center. So at least by Thursday, let's say the first four days, those people at the convention center were actually not getting anything. If it was not well coordinated...

BLANCO: Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes -- ma'am.

BLANCO: Soledad, the mayor and I were both asking for the same thing. We wanted troops. We wanted food. We wanted water. We wanted helicopters. We asked for that early in the week. I asked for everything that we had available from the federal government. I got it from the National Guard. I got as much as possible. And the federal effort was just a little slow in coming. I can't understand why. You know those are questions yet to be answered. But I will tell you that...

O'BRIEN: All right, let's...

BLANCO: ... we are the people who put order into chaos. O'BRIEN: Let's bring in the former FEMA Director James Lee Witt. Can it be read, sir, by you being in this group now, being brought in, that there is just absolute lack of confidence in the current FEMA Director Mike Brown?

JAMES LEE WITT, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR: No, not at all. The governor called me and said, you know, she had probably the most catastrophic disaster that's ever hit this country and that she would really like me to come down and advise her on setting things up, making things move a little faster, work with her staff and on the ground. I had a meeting last night and yesterday and we pledged to work together very, very hard and all of the staffs on the state and federal, likewise. So Mike Brown and I get along really well.

O'BRIEN: But you just heard, I'm sure, sitting next to the governor, that she said the federal response was too late and too slow, which means that FEMA did not do what it was supposed to do. That's what it sounds like to me. So what do you think happens now with FEMA? Should FEMA be changed inherently somehow?

WITT: Well, Soledad, you know, a year ago I testified to Congress that I was very concerned about the direction that FEMA was going. Because it is and should be the premier agency in the federal government, not only planning, preparing and exercising with state and local government, but responding with them and making the recovery happen. So I am concerned about FEMA as an agency, where it's going.

You know you cannot take planning, preparedness, exercise out of an agency. You cannot take the heart out of a federal agency and expect that agency to do well and do its job. So, you know I wish the president and Congress would put it back as an independent agency with the resources to make it happen.

O'BRIEN: Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt joining us, and also Kathleen Blanco, the Governor of Louisiana, thank you both for your time this morning.

WITT: Thank you.

BLANCO: Thank you.


S. O'BRIEN: So if you're keeping track, here's where it stands. The mayor is blaming the governor. The governor is blaming the feds. The feds say that the local government are the people really to blame. And it looks as if the death toll could go as high as 10,000 -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Not a great time for finger pointing, is it?

All right, Soledad, thank you very much.

Still to come on the program, Japan helps cool off sky-high U.S. oil prices in the wake of Katrina. Japan, we'll explain that next on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Gas prices keep going up. What did you pay, three?


M. O'BRIEN: Three fifty-five, Andy Serwer paid.

SERWER: That's what I paid.

M. O'BRIEN: That is your vacation treat.

SERWER: Yes. Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: He's back. It's good to see you -- Andy.

SERWER: Good to see you -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: And the prices keep going up. When do we start calling this an energy crisis?

SERWER: Well, it depends on the longevity and it depends how significant it's going to be. And I think that we're going to be really sorting that out over the next couple days. And Americans really feeling the pain at the pump over this holiday weekend, $3.05 was the national average over the weekend. The good news is we're now down to $3.04. Still, that sets an all-time record. Inflation adjusted. The price was $1.41 in 1981. But inflation adjusted, just about that level, $3.04, $3.05 to $3.10.

And you can see here on this graphic exactly how far we have come. And there are scattered outages and lines still to deal with across the country. Those really should be easing this week as we get back to the regular schedule this fall after the holiday weekend. But there are pumps that are out. And when I was buying gas, they were out of regular. I had to buy premium.

Oil prices, you can see here, this is in Baton Rouge, Miles, down where you were, and just regular out all across the board here. And you can see there is the price of oil, which has dropped a bit over the past couple of days as news that Japan and Europe will be releasing emergency supplies.

The real problem, however, refineries, converting that petroleum into gasoline and heating oil. Eight refineries in the Gulf Coast area were knocked out by the storm. The good news here is that four of them should be up to speed later this week. Ten percent at capacity still offline, but some of that will come back. And you can see you need electric, you need to get your employees there. Saltwater very dangerous for these facilities, so there is a lot of cleaning up to do.

M. O'BRIEN: Is the issue a lack of refining capability or is it a lack of supply or is it both?

SERWER: Well, really it's both. We need the oil because some of it is not there. But the real problem is converting it into gasoline. And with those refineries offline, we're probably going to see those high prices for at least a little while.

M. O'BRIEN: So releasing the crude oil reserves is, in part, psychological perhaps?

SERWER: In part, that's right.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you -- Andy.

SERWER: You're welcome.

M. O'BRIEN: Appreciate that.

Still to come on the program, pumps that started draining water out of New Orleans. That's going in the right direction there, folks. How long will it take to finish the job, however? We'll take a closer look at that ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning on AMERICAN MORNING, we're going to show you some more heroes of the search and rescue and recovery effort. We fly around with the U.S. Coast Guard. We're back in a moment on AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.



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