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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Interview With New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass; Poisonous Waters?

Aired September 8, 2005 - 22:00   ET

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


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again.
Our coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues here in New York with a special two-hour edition of NEWSNIGHT. And we will be joined in a moment and along the way by Anderson Cooper, who is in New Orleans tonight.

Every day brings new details about what happened after the levees broke and New Orleans flooded, before help arrived, before order was restored. Tonight, we have new evidence that the hurricane shelters described as hell were just that, photographs from earlier this week of mutilated corpses, filthy conditions.

Also today, we report Congress has passed and tonight the president has signed nearly $52 billion in emergency aid, on top of the $10 billion already passed; 11 members of the House of Representatives voted against it because they said there was no accountability for how the money will be spent. The White House budget chief said today this will not be the last request for money from Congress.

In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers says it's now pumping the equivalent of 432 Olympic-size swimming pools out of the city every hour. In St. Bernard Parish, the water has fallen five feet. But there are billions of gallons of water remaining, filthy, dangerous, toxic sludge.

Those are the headlines today, the stories we will be reporting on with the help of Anderson Cooper in New Orleans.

Anderson, good evening.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, good evening.

As you said, I mean, this water is everywhere. More than 50 percent of this city is still under water at this moment, well, over a week since this disaster first struck. Just a few moments ago, I had the opportunity to speak to New Orleans' chief of police. This is a man whose police force has been denigrated over the last several days, reports of large-scale defections.

And there have been defections from the force, people simply throwing in their guns or taking their guns with them and leaving. But we have seen day after day New Orleans police officers who stayed on the job, and no one perhaps more clear than that than the chief of police, Eddie Compass. I spoke to him a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: I think a lot of people who weren't here and who haven't been here don't get what your officers were facing, what you were facing on the ground. I mean, I was talking to Greg Henderson, a doctor, who helped set up a triage unit and a medical unit for New Orleans police officers. I mean, they didn't even have medical care during all of this.

EDDIE COMPASS, SUPERINTENDENT, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: Right.

Medical care. We had no food, no water. We were defecating in the street, urinating in the street. No uniforms. And we were fighting a criminal element that was heavily armed. They were shooting indiscriminately around civilians, so we couldn't return fire. I mean, we were definitely at a disadvantage.

But, even though the criminal element had the weapons, even though the criminal element had the tactical advantage from a positional standpoint, the tactical advantage we had is the knowledge, the training. This police department trains hard. We train for times like this.

COOPER: I have talked to some of the New Orleans police officers who remained on the job and are still on the job. And these guys are still...

(CROSSTALK)

COMPASS: Which is over 1,200.

COOPER: And they're living at the police station, many...

COMPASS: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: ... because their homes are gone.

COMPASS: And I'm sleeping in my headquarters...

COOPER: You're sleeping in your headquarters.

COMPASS: ... with three other officers.

COOPER: Are you getting the help now that you need? Because what I'm hearing from some New Orleans police officers is, look, you know, a lot of these people are coming in from outside of state and the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. We have the local knowledge, they say, but no one's asking us. They're just going about their business.

COMPASS: No, those officers are being coordinated. The average patrolman can't really see it, because they're not privy to the meetings, but we're coordinating with local, federal and state.

COOPER: So you feel there is coordination?

COMPASS: There is coordination. And we are -- and once we build the compound for the joint headquarters, you're going to see it even more vividly.

COOPER: But do your -- do your cops on the beat have radios that communicate with the military, radios that communicate...

COMPASS: Well, we have been pairing the military with our cops. So then we're able to communicate. But there are radios that's coming in that's going to be able to communicate with everybody across the board.

COOPER: What about the safety of your police officers? I mean, there are people going out on boats. They don't have latex gloves. They don't have surgical masks, respirators. Are you concerned about the safety of your officers?

COMPASS: That concerns me tremendously, you know, but it goes to show you that the men and women in this police department, they're just making -- they're putting themselves in harm's way.

COOPER: But why is it that this many days after the storm and with all this, you know, involvement of all these different agencies and federal people, why aren't there are masks? Why can't -- isn't someone going to give your officers respirators?

COMPASS: Well, I can't answer that question. You know, search- and-rescue people are handling that aspect of the search.

COOPER: Would you like respirators?

COMPASS: I would love -- I would love them to be there in surgical suits. Anything that is going to keep my police officers safe, I am all for it. I don't know if that equipment is available right now. But we can't wait. We have to save lives, no matter what the risk.

COOPER: Does it feel to you like you're living in the United States of America right now?

COMPASS: Well, it does now. We're getting a lot of help. We're getting a lot of support. And like I said, I'm ready to build. I'm ready to go forward.

COOPER: Can New Orleans rebuild?

COMPASS: New Orleans will rebuild. The buildings is not what represent New Orleans. It's the heart of the people.

The ambiance of the French Quarter is not those buildings. It's those people who know the history, know the heritage, and love it.

COOPER: We went by the Convention Center today with this Dr. Greg Henderson, who is one of the few doctors who actually -- with the escort of the New Orleans Police Department, got into the Convention Center and was trying to help people, save some lives. There were 15,000 people or so there. He calls what happened there a national disgrace, that those people were left there abandoned. Do you think that's true?

COMPASS: I would think that's true. Many people suffered needlessly, and that's something that we should never ever have -- repeat again. There's too much human suffering.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: What a lot of doctors here are afraid of is that, if the lessons of what went on here are not learned, are not studied, are not discussed, and discussed in the media right now, we are going to repeat this if there is a major earthquake that hits the city of Seattle, if there's a chemical or biological attack.

I want to talk about what happened in that Convention Center for a few moments, because, in a matter of days or maybe even weeks, they are going to brush up and wash up that Convention Center and clear away the debris, and what happened there will be forgotten. And that would be a shame, because what happened there was an extraordinary, horrific event. And it went on day after day after day.

You had children dying because they couldn't get I.V.s of hydrating fluid. You had old people taken from nursing homes and home care centers, dumped there in adult diapers, just sitting there in their waste for days after days, and about one doctor with an escort of New Orleans cops with a stethoscope trying to treat all these people.

We are just now learning details of what actually happened inside that Convention Center, because the media wasn't there and the New Orleans police were scared, understandably, to go inside, because it was ruled by gangs and thugs. And they were terrorizing the 15,000 or so people who were there.

CNN's Gary Tuchman has some photographs now of some of the dead who we know people who died there, some of the dead whose bodies were left there.

Some of these images are graphic, we want to warn you.

Here's CNN's Gary Tuchman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The New Orleans Convention Center has been described by many as the hurricane shelter from hell. Now there is explicit evidence of that.

Very disturbing photographs supplied to CNN show four dead people who had apparently been mutilated. A source outraged at what happened who was inside the center gave these photographs to CNN. It is not known how these people died. But the source says it is apparent that, at some point, they had been physically abused.

One photograph of two corpses in a wheelchair is too gruesome for us to show. Three of the victims are male, one female.

One photograph of two corpses in a wheelchair is too gruesome for us show. Three of the victims are male, one female.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is terrorism America-style.

TUCHMAN: In the days following the hurricane, chaos only grew for the 15,000 to 20,000 people in the Convention Center shelter. The photos we received show a kitchen full of garbage and feces.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are dirty. We waded in that water, dirty, filthy water. And we are dirty. This is not the way we live.

TUCHMAN: But it wasn't ordinary chaos. The New Orleans police chief said people had been beaten and raped. The head of FEMA said he didn't know until three days after the hurricane that the Convention Center even was a shelter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These people couldn't leave because they couldn't afford to leave. Superdome people went in that shelter because they couldn't afford to leave. And now we're dying?

TUCHMAN: A covered corpse was left outside the entrance, and that wasn't the only body left that way. But there had been no evidence of more of a desecration of the dead until now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TUCHMAN: We don't know who did this, why they did this, or even when they did this. But we do know, they did this. And without us showing these pictures, the world may never have known -- Anderson.

COOPER: And we want the world to know what happened here and the people of New Orleans want the world to know what has happened -- what happened here and what continues to happen here.

What is going to happen at that Convention Center? I mean, those pictures are out there now. The bodies -- we checked the Convention Center today. We walked around there with a doctor. The bodies aren't there anymore. Do you know where they are, Gary?

TUCHMAN: It's not clear, Anderson, where they are. The fact was, though, those pictures were taken early this week. And everyone had left by Monday. So, the bodies were there for a period of time. We don't know how long.

We do want to tell you, we were at another shelter here in Baton Rouge today, 6,000 people there, lots of complaining, a lot of problems, but a much better situation than what we saw in the city of New Orleans at that Convention Center. COOPER: Gary, thanks for that.

I mean, calling the Convention Center a shelter frankly is misleading, because a shelter implies there are services there, there are medical services, there is care, there is law and order. None of that was in existence at the Convention Center, for not one, not two, but three and four days. There's a lot more investigation to be done on that. We will continue with that.

Let's go back to Aaron in New York -- Aaron.

BROWN: At the very least, shelter implies shelter, that people are sheltered from everything, from whatever. My God.

Thank you.

This is not the kind of news anyone in the American South wants to hear. We report it just the same. Tropical Storm Ophelia is now a hurricane. And forecasters are warning, the storm might make a loop out in the Atlantic and head towards land -- might. Ophelia is only one of three hurricanes churning out in the Atlantic now.

Rob Marciano is standing by at the Weather Center in Atlanta.

What do you got?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, three hurricanes, like you mentioned. Luckily, two of the three are not going to affect any more landfall.

We have got Maria. We have got Nate here just east of Bermuda. The smallest one, but the closest one right now, is what is now Hurricane Ophelia, just now 75 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral, right about there, a lot of fluctuations in intensity. As a matter of fact, it looks like it may even be weakening a little bit. But it is a Category 1 hurricane right now.

And the fact that it's over some pretty warm water has forecasters concerned. Also, what has forecasters concerned is that it's very stationary. It's stuck in between some weak steering currents. So, forecasting where it's going to go is quite often difficult in this case. But the National Weather Service -- or National Hurricane Center has this forecast out. And this will be updated actually in the next 45 minutes.

Taking it, drifting a little bit farther off towards the northeast, as a little cool front kind of picks it up. And then you're right, maybe even looping it back around. So, we just hope it stays offshore. But, right now, it's close enough to where you're getting a lot of wind and a lot of big waves across Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, down in Melbourne, up through Daytona Beach as well, a lot of beach erosion. So, that's a big-time issue.

But it has shifted just a little east in the past several hours, so not nearly as much rain that has been falling earlier today. And that's good news, because if it was any closer, we'd have big-time issues with flooding rains because the thing's just not moving.

Right now, a Tropical Storm watches and warnings are out, warnings from Flagler Beach down to Sebastian Inlet. But notice there's no hurricane warnings out. And that's good news. So, they're pretty confident right now to see this thing probably drift off to the north and east. What it does after that, we're just going to have to wait and see, because these type of storms are very, very difficult to forecast, 75-mile-an-hour winds at this point and 75 miles off the shore of Florida.

We will see if it does that loop, Aaron, but hopefully we will have several days to watch it. We will have another update within about an hour with the latest out of the National Hurricane Center.

BROWN: Rob, thank you.

MARCIANO: You bet.

BROWN: Appreciate that.

Coming up, we will look at whether -- it's sort of become the question of the day for a variety of reasons, all the focus on what federal agencies did or did not do, who gave orders, what orders they were given or weren't given, take a look at what state and local officials failed to do for the people of New Orleans. There is plenty of blame in this to go around.

First, at about a quarter past the hour, coming up on that, Erica Hill joins us in Atlanta tonight.

Ms. Hill, good evening.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And good evening to you, Mr. Brown.

It turns out that, four years after 9/11, still big gaps in the security training of commercial airline crews, this from a government report which says Homeland Security has made some improvements, but better ways are still needed to assess the effectiveness of security training.

Colin Powell says the U.N. speech where he accused Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction was a -- quote -- "blot" on his record. The former secretary of state said he based his speech on CIA intelligence, not knowing that some of the sources weren't reliable.

HILL: A Navy review has refused to declare that Captain Michael Scott Speicher, a pilot shot down over Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, is dead. A spokesman said there is no evidence to support that conclusion and that members of the overthrown government of Saddam Hussein actually know where Speicher is.

And Former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has been fined $50,000 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service and two years probation. Berger was convicted of taking highly classified documents from the National Archives and destroying some of them. Berger said he took the documents to help with his work with the 9/11 Commission, Aaron.

BROWN: Erica, thank you. And we will see you in about half-an- hour.

We have much more on the program tonight. We go two hours, starting with a city overflowing with evacuees and overwhelmed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARTHUR STERBCOW, REALTOR: It's the best of times. It's the worst of times.

BROWN (voice-over): Baton Rouge, Louisiana, its population has doubled practically overnight.

STERBCOW: There will be a lot of money coming into this town.

BROWN: Money and traffic and overflowing schools.

A filthy toxic mess of mud and water, dangerous for adults, even more dangerous for the unborn.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The fetus will then have this very high impact from these chemicals, much higher than the mother, potentially.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, what's on this bed basically represents what you were able to get out of New Orleans?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As I said, a couple of shirts.

BROWN: Katrina threw their lives into chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have no documents. I have no checks, you know, deposit books. You know, it's been kind of frustrating.

BROWN: Now they're trying to get back on their feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, ma'am, I haven't filled out anything.

BROWN: A day in the life of an evacuee.

From New York, this is NEWSNIGHT.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: All week long, for more than a week now, we have been trying to get answers as to what went wrong here, what went wrong at the state level, at the local level, and at the federal level. And there -- frankly, we're not getting answers. We're getting maybe some responses to questions. We're really not getting answers to the questions.

We asked Tom Foreman to take a look specifically tonight at the state and local level what went wrong, what went right, what decisions they made and what decisions perhaps they could have made differently.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the last desperate day before Katrina...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are emphasizing leaving the city.

FOREMAN: In the final dwindling hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need your help to assist us with getting the folks out of New Orleans.

FOREMAN: Local and state leaders in the city ordered the first mandatory evacuation here in a century.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA: I just want to say, we need to get as many people out as possible.

FOREMAN: But, even as hundreds of thousands fled along carefully designated routes, top local and state officials knew the evacuation would fall far short, knew that up to 100,000 poor residents didn't have cars and no emergency buses were standing by. No one's yet said why.

JACK HARRALD, INSTITUTE FOR CRISIS, DISASTER AND RISK MANAGEMENT: There were plans in place on paper to have collection points, to run buses, but the capability to actually do that clearly did not exist. Very, very many people clearly felt they didn't have an option to get out of harm's way.

FOREMAN: As the storm hit, the official refuge of last resort, the Superdome, was filled with people. Electricity failed. The roof developed a hole. Still, food and water were delivered before and after the storm. But then another breakdown in preparation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The storm surge most likely will topple our levee system. So, we are preparing to deal with that also.

FOREMAN: When that massive predicted flooding came, it forced rivers of people downtown. City officials sent them to the Convention Center, where there was almost no food, no water, no services. And now the latest possibly explosive revelation: The Red Cross stayed away from downtown while those people suffered and some died because the Louisiana deputy director of homeland security said it was too dangerous to go in.

VIC HOWELL, AMERICAN RED CROSS: Yes. He told me that the conditions were not properly set for us to go in and provide that support and asked us not to go in. And we abided by that. It was a military operation trying to save lives, and we abided by that request.

FOREMAN: As looting and violence erupted, an estimated third of the police force was not on duty, some taking care of their families, some abandoning their posts, some lost in the flood. By most accounts, the remaining officers were courageous and helpful.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My babies is suffering.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't even know where mine's are.

FOREMAN: But, as things got worse, some disaster experts believe paralyzing indecision gripped local and state governments.

BLANCO: The biggest thing that we needed was buses. You know, if we'd have been able to get buses in a day earlier, we wouldn't have had the kind of chaos.

FOREMAN: So much so that their efforts fractured, between getting buses, supplies, or the elusive federal relief to the stranded people. So, nothing came fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what the state was doing, I don't fricking know. But I tell you, I am pissed. It wasn't adequate.

HARRALD: When the dust settles, there will be enough blame to share for everybody.

FOREMAN: State and local governments are not expected to maintain all the resources needed for a major disaster. But they are the first-responders. And, in Louisiana, their response to Katrina is being severely scrutinized.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: If there were buses, if there were water, if there were basic medical care and attention, not as many people would have died -- Aaron.

BROWN: That's pretty clear, yes. And we have been saying, Anderson, for a long time that, when all is said and done, there will be plenty of blame at every level, whether it's the mayor's office, whether it is the governor's office, whether it's the federal government. Everybody's going to get their share on this one.

In Baton Rouge, everything is upside down, it seems. Baton Rouge used to be the number two town in Louisiana, a sleepy distant second to New Orleans. But the flood forced migration from the Big Easy changed all that. The population of Baton Rouge has doubled from a half-a-million people. A local high school has gone to double shifts. And everything, it seems, is going up.

Here's CNN's Alina Cho.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Signs of change in Baton Rouge, the traffic, the long lines at the checkout, and the housing market. More people want to buy these days. Fewer homes are available. Post-Katrina, Baton Rouge is a boomtown.

STERBCOW: It's the best of times. It's the worst of times.

CHO: Arthur Sterbcow is the president of Louisiana's largest real estate company.

STERBCOW: There will be a lot of money coming into this town.

CHO: Thursday morning, he held a strategy session for 200 of his agent. He calls Baton Rouge the fastest growing city in America.

STERBCOW: Our agents are knocking on doors asking people, look, can you move to Phoenix for a while? We have got people who would like to buy your house or lease your home, whatever it takes.

CHO: Husband and wife sales team Darrell and Iris (ph) Davis are working overtime.

DARRELL DAVIS, SALESMAN: It's been, sell every house in Baton Rouge, rent every house in Baton Rouge, get home at 11:00 and do paperwork until 2:00, and come back at 7:30 and do it again.

CHO: The city says, Just last week, 3,500 home were on the market. Today, there are only 500 and prices are up 20 percent to 40 percent.

(on camera): Baton Rouge had about a quarter-million people before Hurricane Katrina. Since then, that number has doubled. The city's chamber of commerce says that's good for business. All of those extra people are pumping in an additional $10 million a day into the local economy.

(voice-over): Here at Big Lots, business is up 30 percent since the storm, so busy, the company hired eight new workers in the past three days. And new businesses are moving in. The city says all the best commercial real estate is rented. Hotels are booked solid. Schools are overflowing with new students. Brent (ph) and Ludwica Yous (ph), longtime Baton Rouge residents, say it's a burden they're willing to bear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Southern hospitality is well-known, of course.

CHO: The Youses say Baton Rouge may never be the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From a sleepy Southern great place to live, it probably will have changed our lives forever, and to a bigger city, to the hustle and bustle. But that's a price we have to pay.

CHO: The new Baton Rouge, the only thing certain is that it's going to change a lot.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHO: And the big question tonight is how many of those displaced residents, how many of those displaced business owners who have moved to Baton Rouge are going to stay here permanently.

Of course, that is still an open question at this early stage. But one city official told me that a lot of it may depend on how many of these residents and business owners are parents, the thought being, Aaron, that, if they have children, especially small ones in school here, they may want to stay here -- Aaron.

BROWN: It's actually -- I mean, there's so much that's unknowable.

Of the evacuees who have ended up in Baton Rouge, how many are in shelters, large facilities or medium-size facilities, whatever they are, and how many are in private residences, in apartments and motels? Do we know that?

CHO: It's hard to say, Aaron. That is -- they are still trying to count all of the numbers. In fact, when they said that the population had doubled from 250,000 to 500,000, one city official told me today, you know, we still don't know exactly if that is correct, because so many people are staying in private homes.

As you know, many of the media, including us, were staying with a private family, and so hard to say at this point, Aaron.

BROWN: Thank you very much for your work today.

It's just a -- it's a good reminder that in -- true in all breaking news stories, and this in some respects is still that, that numbers don't always hold. Sometimes, they're more. Sometimes, they're less. But the first reporting of numbers, generally speaking, ends up not being correct, through nobody's fault. It's just people making their best estimate.

This will all settle in Baton Rouge, and we will figure it out as we go.

Still ahead tonight, the toll that Katrina could take on the unborn, and just how bad the post-hurricane health crises will be.

We will take a break. This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: The Centers for Disease Control says four evacuees from New Orleans have now died from wound infections. They died in Texas and in Mississippi. We will talk with the head of the Centers for Disease Control in a moment.

But for other, more vulnerable hurricane victims, the effect of the poisons in the city's floodwaters may take far longer to manifest.

Reporting for us tonight, CNN's Elizabeth Cohen. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Being in this muck can't be healthy for anyone. But the most vulnerable, a developing fetus.

SHANNA SWAN, REPRODUCTIVE EPIDEMIOLOGIST: I'm very concerned about those fetuses, because they are being exposed to whatever the mother is exposed to.

COHEN: It's impossible to say how many pregnant women were stuck in this water or for how long. But there's no question: This water contains oil, viruses, bacteria, and more.

STEPHEN JOHNSON, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Our testing found that lead concentrations in the floodwater samples exceed what EPA considers safe for drinking water levels.

COHEN: A nurse at this shelter said some of the people here told her they were forced to drink the New Orleans water because they had nothing else. And, according to reproductive specialists, swallowing lead, or even absorbing it through the skin, or inhaling water particles, can cause miscarriages, developmental problems, and, later in life, learning disabilities.

SWAN: The fetus will then have this very high impact from these chemicals, much higher than the mother, potentially.

COHEN: The Environmental Protection Agency tested the water and found that, of all the chemicals and heavy metals, only lead was high. However, they did not account for what a mixture of all those chemicals might do.

SWAN: They more than add up very often so that the risk is far greater than can be predicted by one chemical at a time.

COHEN: Shanna Swan and others who specialize in environmental threats to unborn babies say this kind of thing has never happened before, so there's no good way to predict what will happen to the babies whose mothers spent time in the water.

But experts we talked to said most will probably be fine. But it's almost certain that some will suffer adverse effects, especially since fetuses can't fight off toxins very well.

SWAN: Their protective mechanisms are not mature until sometime after birth, so that they can't handle the chemicals as well as adults.

COHEN: Of course, there's nothing any mother-to-be can do if she got stuck in this, or this, or this. Just wait and be part of what one scientist described to us as a big, unintentional experiment, what swimming in toxic muck does to an unborn child.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: My, oh my.

Bacteria, parasites, chemicals. It's a whole new meaning to the phrase "pick your poison." There's no doubt that danger lurks in the floodwaters covering New Orleans, but authorities say that any danger from simple contact with an evacuee is premature and an exaggerated concern, but it is a concern, whether it should be or not.

We talked earlier today with Dr. Julie Gerberding, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, about the whole range of health problems.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Dr. Gerberding, we were talking just before we started here about the concern you have that people may think the evacuees, the people in shelters all over, all over the country, may be carrying some dreaded illness out there that's just not so.

DR. JULIE GERBERDING, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: Well, I think this is a concern. We were putting so much emphasis on water and infectious diseases that we have to remember, this is just about people, people like all of us, who have lost their homes and, in some cases, their families. And we want them to be able to find their way to a home without carrying any extra burden of stigma of being carriers of infectious diseases.

BROWN: At the same time, are there enough health screeners available to these shelters to make sure that people may have come through the area in reasonably good health?

GERBERDING: Well, I think the focus, from both the local and state health officials, has been on appropriate assessment of people as they've come in. Of course, when they came in so fast, that was not realistic.

But we've augmented that now with teams of public health officials, from CDC and many other agencies who are there helping. We've been looking very hard for evidence of infection outbreaks in these circumstances. And while we have seen some intestinal illness, it's been relatively mild and, so far, so good.

We're on the lookout. And if we find something, we'll deal with it. But they're doing a great job of containing the problem in these shelters.

BROWN: There's always going to be, in any population, particularly when people are sleeping close together and the rest, there's always going to be some illnesses. Are you surprised that, given the overall state of affairs in New Orleans and in other parts of the Gulf, that it actually hasn't been worse than it is?

GERBERDING: You know, we're very early in this process. And there are a lot of people crowded together and a lot of people under much stress. So I'm not going to make any predictions about what will ultimately happen.

But I am relieved that so far, so good, and we're just not seeing big outbreaks of diseases that could spread so easily under these circumstances.

BROWN: Back at, particularly in New Orleans and all these areas where there's a lot of standing water, but particularly New Orleans, the testing goes on in that water. There's no place -- I mean, there's nothing you can do about the fact that it's contaminated. That's just what it is.

GERBERDING: I mean, this is a flood. And anytime there is a flood, there is apt to be sewage and other contaminants that get into the water.

I'm impressed that EPA was out so early beginning the testing process, and this, too, is just beginning. What we can expect over the next several days is a lot more testing, testing in a broader area.

The early tests were primarily done in residential areas. So we've got to find out what's going on in the more industrial sections of the water. And it'll be a changing situation, because the floodwaters are going to be pumped out and things will change.

But I think, so far, we understand that the major problem is the sewage in the water. And that's why it's so important that people get out of the city, unless they're properly attired rescue workers.

BROWN: That battle, to get people out of the city, continues to go on. Can you understand why some people just don't want to leave?

GERBERDING: Absolutely. This is home. And no one wants to leave their home. And there are so many compelling reasons to stay.

But I think many people might not realize that this isn't a short-term situation. This is a long-term problem. And even if the water is pumped away, the sewer system is in need of great repair. And there's much to be done to assess the hazards in the environment.

So they're not going to have clean drinking water for a long time. And they just simply can't stay in these homes.

BROWN: There's been a -- final question -- there's been a lot of talk about sort of four years out from 9/11, that this has been a test of a lot of government systems and how we respond. As you assess to this point -- and as you said, we're still early in all of this -- how the public health system has responded, the centers have responded, are you OK with it?

GERBERDING: I'm impressed with the heroism that I've seen throughout the medical and public health system. I didn't expect this kind of outpouring of people and the incredible capacity of the local and state officials to really get their hands into the middle of this and set up these emergency medical response centers. But I'm sure we'll have lessons to learn. We always do. Each time we have a situation, we need to learn from it so that we can be even better prepared the next time.

BROWN: Good to see you. Thanks for your time tonight.

GERBERDING: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: The head of the Centers for Disease Control.

Anderson, I think we're lucky so far, or maybe good fortune, that there hasn't been, for all the horror that we've witnessed and all the possibilities there are, there hasn't been a major outbreak of disease.

COOPER: Yes. No, that's true. And especially when you consider CDC says -- I mean, there are high levels of E. Coli in this water. Some had worried about cholera in the water. That has not turned out to be the case. So, yes, we are lucky indeed, Aaron.

And, you know, every day, new numbers frame the story here in New Orleans. One of the grimmest numbers from yesterday was this: More than 30 bodies found inside a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish. Why weren't these people evacuated before the storm struck? That is a question that is both glaring and tonight remains unanswered.

Here's CNN's Susan Candiotti.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tom Rodrigue is living a nightmare. He knew his 92-year-old mother, Eva, was in deep trouble. And he was helpless to get her out of harm's way.

TOM RODRIGUE, VICTIM'S SON: We've had numerous storms before, and they know that, if they evacuate, she needs to go with them.

CANDIOTTI: His mother, Eva Rodrigue lived, and apparently died, with more than 30 others in St. Rita's Nursing Home, which was flooded after Katrina swept into New Orleans. Some were evacuated, but many were not moved to safety in time and drowned.

RODRIGUE: She didn't have Alzheimer's. She knew who people was. She remembered things. And she could still get around on a walker. So she wasn't an invalid, you know? So she could move around.

CANDIOTTI: Tom Rodrigue, himself a former emergency management director for Louisiana's National Guard, was out of town when Katrina turned toward New Orleans. He started calling the nursing home Saturday, urging that it be evacuated.

RODRIGUE: You know, they indicated they were not going to leave. CANDIOTTI: Sunday night, as Katrina struck, Rodrigue was 30 miles away directing emergency personnel for Jefferson Parish. He called the nursing home in St. Bernard Parish again, pleading with officials to get the residents out. He was told they were going to try.

RODRIGUE: I called the St. Bernard officials again and, you know, told them that, you know, they've got to get, you know, these people out. And they said they notified them, and that they weren't -- they refused to leave. And I said, "Well, you need to send the sheriff's office down there and make them leave." And he said, "I'm doing everything I can."

CANDIOTTI: On Wednesday, 10 days after Katrina struck, authorities began removing bodies from St. Rita's Nursing Home. Eva Rodrigue's remains have not yet been found.

CNN has been so far unable to reach the nursing home owners to find out whether they had an evacuation plan and if the workers did all they could to clear the place out. CNN reviewed St. Rita's records on the state's web site. It indicates the home's license expired last July, but we couldn't reach state authorities to confirm that.

For Tom Rodrigue, the pain is overwhelming.

RODRIGUE: She may not have been able to withstand the ordeal, even if they would have rescued her. But she deserved the chance, you know, to be rescued, instead of having to drown like a rat.

CANDIOTTI: Susan Candiotti, CNN, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, still to come on this program, why can't disaster assistance be made easier?

And you've lost your home, your way of life. What exactly do you do next? We'll look at that. This is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back. We are live in New Orleans.

We go to Mississippi now, visited today by both First Lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. The battered state is about to receive about 22 tons of supplies sent from the United Kingdom and from France. There are 10,000 troops, almost 3,000 civilian personnel, already on the ground or on their way to help out.

The governor is promising a, quote, "renaissance on the Gulf Coast," but with infrastructure and homes in ruins, hundreds of thousands more still without power, the future is more murky than the water in New Orleans.

Allan Chernoff reports. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): How do you rebuild when a hurricane has invaded your home and destroyed virtually everything? Betsy Ramsey is wondering, especially because her insurance company said this damage came not from a hurricane but a flood.

BETSY RAMSEY, HURRICANE VICTIM: Water is water and this is flood, and I don't have flood insurance. So therefore, it's not going to be covered.

CHERNOFF: Trucker Bill Stallworth is wondering, too. Not only did Katrina flood his home but also his rig. And his insurance company says it will take at least three weeks to make an assessment.

(on-screen): Three weeks. Is that too long?

BILL STALLWORTH, TRUCKER HINDERED BY HURRICANE AFTERMATH: That's very much too long. That's my own personal truck, so I'm very much out of business. No income, no nothing, and I don't have a house to live in. It's totally destroyed.

CHERNOFF (voice-over): Vice President Cheney Thursday promised help.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But everybody I've met with is positive and upbeat we're going to get it done. We're going to rebuild. We're going to get our schools opened again. We're going to get our businesses back in business.

CHERNOFF: FEMA is also promising assistance, up to $2,000 for the hardest-hit families. The brochure that FEMA is handing out around here says "Disaster Assistance Made Easy." Biloxi residents, though, are finding it anything but.

KATRINA ROBINSON, BILOXI RESIDENT: I called them, and they told me to call back in 14 days, don't call back until 14 days.

EDWARD FARLEY, BILOXI RESIDENT: They told us that, basically, they would get back in touch with us. They'll send us a packet. Somebody will be, you know, coming out, contacting us. And we told them we didn't have a phone, we didn't have mail, so how were they going to contact us?

CHERNOFF: Volunteers are offering plenty of food to help people get by day-to-day. But the financial aid to get people back on their feet is harder to come by, causing Katrina's victims to wonder, how exactly are they going to rebuild their lives?

Allan Chernoff, CNN, Biloxi, Mississippi.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: As you're watching the program tonight, realize this: There are a quarter of a million Americans, a quarter of a million of our countrymen, homeless tonight in shelters. And life for them is anything but easy.

This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT: STATE OF EMERGENCY.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: In a moment, a day in the life of an evacuee. But first, at about a quarter until the hour, time once again to check on some of the other stories that made news today. Erica Hill again in Atlanta -- Ms. Hill?

ERICA HILL, CNN HEADLINE NEWS ANCHOR: Hello again, Mr. Brown.

Turns out diabetics may soon be breathing a little easier. The Food and Drug Administration has now recommended the government approve a form of insulin that can be inhaled. Exubera could offer an alternative to insulin injections, although the FDA does say here it may not be safe for some people, including smokers.

In California, lawmakers approving a bill that would let illegal immigrants apply for a driver's license. The licensees would look different -- the licenses, rather, would look different from your standard license. They wouldn't be considered valid identification. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to veto that measure.

And Los Angeles police spent the day trying to catch the second alligator to show up in the city in a month. If you remember, we told you about the other guy a little earlier. In the end, the three-foot reptile evaded his captors, as did the first one. And in case you weren't positive about this, alligators not native to California.

Both renegade gators are believed to be discarded pets, Aaron.

BROWN: What do you mean, discarded pets, Aaron, like I'm somehow responsible for that?

HILL: No, no, no, no, no. I know that you take very good care of your alligator. That's fine.

BROWN: Thank you very much, Ms. Hill. The chances of getting an alligator in our house...

Our special coverage, NEWSNIGHT: STATE OF EMERGENCY, continues with a day in the life of an evacuee. We'll take a break first.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back. We're live in New Orleans.

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to go inside the New Orleans convention center. I went for a walk with Dr. Henderson (ph), one of the only doctors who was inside there when that place was packed with 15,000 people.

It is basically a garbage heap right now, but sometime they're going to clean it up and sweep it away. And we think it's important to focus on what happened inside that building. And especially, tomorrow on CNN, tomorrow evening, we are going to be focusing on that, exactly what happened and what went wrong to cause so many deaths inside that building.

Still ahead tonight, they are used to being in control of their lives. Katrina has changed all that. We're going to show you a day in the life of an evacuee. This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT: STATE OF EMERGENCY.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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