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AMERICAN MORNING

The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Aired September 10, 2005 - 9:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: FEMA has a new point man for hurricane relief, but is it too little too late? And what about those FEMA debt cards for hurricane victims? Hurricane victims find themselves in a state of confusion. We're live on that story this morning.
In New Orleans with the receding water comes a ray of hope. Authorities now expect far fewer deaths than the original predictions.

And keeping a close eye on Ophelia. It's a tropical storm now that could change, though. You're watching special weekend edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

ANNOUNCER: From the CNN Broadcast Center in New York, this is AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. Good to have you with us and good to have you back.

S. O'BRIEN: I'm very happy to be back. Lots of stories, I think, to share. We're going to talk this morning about people whose lives have been turned upside-down by Hurricane Katrina. What can the victims do to get their insurance claims paid? Louisiana insurance commissioner will have some answers for us.

M. O'BRIEN: We begin our coverage of the aftermath of Katrina with a look another mission critical news. The death toll in New Orleans may be far less than some officials feared. The cities homeland security chief saying initial recovery efforts have turned up fewer bodies than they thought. The mayor had estimated 10,000 dead at one point.

Another ray of hope, the Army Corps of Engineers now says it may take as little as one month to drain the water out of New Orleans. They had originally predicted it would take 80 days.

And FEMA says it is discontinuing that debit card program for Katrina victims. FEMA officials say they didn't have the staff to do it. Evacuees are still eligible for money through checks or direct deposit. However. Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: There's been a change at the top in overseeing hurricane relief efforts in a surprise move, FEMA Director Michael brown was pulled from the disaster zone and then ordered back to Washington. Elaine Quijano is live for us at the White House this morning. Elaine good morning to you. What's the fallout from this move?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well good morning Soledad. What I can tell you is that this switch is certainly highly uncharacteristic of this administration. President bush is well known not to like to be appearing to cave to public pressure, especially when it comes to personnel matters. But Michael Brown, as you mentioned now, out as FEMA's lead person on the ground in the recovery efforts and, of course, Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast guard chief of staff, is in. Now, Allen is widely regarded as someone who is no nonsense, someone who does have the ability to lead the current recovery effort.

As for Brown and what is next for him, unclear what his future role might be. Secretary Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary suggesting that he would be involved in other matters but as for Brown's immediate plans, this is what he told the Associated Press. Quote, "I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep. And then I'm going to go right back to FEMA and continue to do all I can to help these victims."

Now, Brown, of course, had been a lightning rod for criticism but here at the White House senior Bush administration officials continue to insist that this move was initiated by Secretary Chertoff, not President Bush. Michael Brown's fate was practically sealed Wednesday morning in a private meeting at the White House, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff told the president he wanted to remove Brown from the front lines of the disaster.

I trust you as head of Homeland Security, the president told Chertoff. And I support the decisions that you make. with that, Chertoff flew back to the Gulf Coast. Thursday as he toured the region with the vice president he told Mr. Cheney what he wanted to do. That day the vice president got an earful about Brown from state and local officials, including some Republicans. They were worried not just about Brown's leadership in the immediate aftermath but about his ability to lead current and future efforts.

That night Chertoff called White House chief of staff Andy Card to say he was pulling Brown from the disaster zone and sending him back to Washington. So will Brown ultimately be fired? That is certainly not this administration's style. President Bush made clear to Secretary Chertoff he holds him responsible. And the president's green light to go ahead and remove Brown from the disaster zone, certainly an indication that so far the results are unacceptable. Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Clearly as he said. Elaine Quijano at the White House for us this morning. Elaine thanks. Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: As you said a moment ago FEMA is scrapping its plan to give evacuees at the Houston Astrodome debit cards worth up to $2,000 each. More than 4,000 evacuees did get the cards before the plan was abruptly dropped. Betty Nguyen live at the Astrodome in Houston. Betty, it sounded like a great idea. Too good to be true, I guess. what happened? BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I guess that's what it was, just too good to be true because FMEA says it's scrapping the plan. They just don't have to staff to support it. Now yesterday things went smoothly when they handed them out their debit cards. Forty two hundred people got them and it went smoothly because they had 100 stations set up. But not today the debit cards plan is gone. Take a look at the front page of the "Houston Chronicle," debit card plan scrubbed. So everyone will now have to call the 1800 number and register or register online. What they're going to get is not a debit card. They're going to get a check or a direct deposit because these debit cards are all gone. Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much, Betty Nguyen in Houston.

I think about 7,300 people in the Astrodome now. That number diminishing -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Turning to Mississippi now, the death toll after Hurricane Katrina stands at 211. Meanwhile some residents along the Gulf Coast are getting closer to their familiar routines. CNN's Allen Chernoff is in Biloxi, Mississippi. Allen, good morning to you. How does the recovery effort look from where you are?

ALLEN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning Soledad. Well a lot of progress has been made. Step number one was simply to move the debris as side. And as you can see behind me it has been swept to the side of the road. The key issue here was simply for emergency vehicles to be able to pass through the streets. That's been accomplished. Power is coming back up in much of Biloxi, however, in many places you've still got wires down right over here and another one I can see beyond. Hopefully these are not live wires. We don't know.

The sewage system is a-OK according to the naval commander is who is camped out a block away from here. He's coordinating with the municipal authorities and the water they say also is potable. However, we still have plenty of work to be done, as you can see around me. In terms of the commercial aspect what we've got a local construction company that is now focusing on the hotels. These, of course, the hotels along the water. They had their casinos in the water. The casinos destroyed. The hotels still partially standing. And they, of course, are the economic life blood of this town.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHET NADOLSKI, YATES CONSTRUCTION: We're heavily in the assessment process, we are trying to save the buildings, and we had most of the casinos now are powered back up. We're trying to get the HVAC systems running, get the buildings dried out, repair the roofs, get them dried in to prevent further damage.

CHERNOFF: So most of these hotels can be saved?

NADOLSKI: All of them can be saved.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CHERNOFF: The casinos say they're all going to rebuild in the water, but in terms of this neighborhood, my goodness, who knows when these houses can actually be rebuilt. Of course, they'll have to be knocked down. The insurance companies have told some of the residents your damage is due to a flood, not a hurricane, so a lot of people here are feeling they won't be getting any checks or not too much from their insurance companies. At least they are getting the basic needs, medical care, and food being supplied down the road from the Red Cross.

And by the way, the sailors whose are camped out on the beach, they've also been coming to help relieve the Red Cross workers who have really been putting in very, very long days and nights. Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Allen, thanks. We're going to be talking in our next half hour to the Biloxi Mayor A.J. Hollaway about the city's recovery effort, including a move to rebuild those riverboat casinos on the land.

Time now though to check the headlines with Tony Harris. He is at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Good morning to you, Tony.

TONY HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Soledad good morning to you. Now in the news, Iraqi President Talabani says most U.S. troops could be out of Iraq within two years? Talibani making the comments at the start of his visit to Washington but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is still too early to set a time line.

Meanwhile, Baghdad International Airport is back up and running. It was shut down Friday. British contractors said officials had not paid the security bills.

A Pentagon plan to reconfigure dozens of military bases across the country is not as cost effective as thought. The Pentagon apparently over estimated the savings by $30 million. Nonetheless, the federal commission overseeing these recommendations has approved most of them. The plan has been sent to the president for his approval.

In Louisiana questions about the deaths of 31 people in a nursing home outside of New Orleans. The patients were trapped when the storm hit. A nurse at St. Rita's nursing home doesn't understand why no one came to evacuate them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAMMY DIGLE, ST. RITA'S NURSE: They knew they were elderly. They knew they were incapable of getting out on their own. They were sick, they were informed but they deserved to live. They did not deserve to drown and not know what happened to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: The nurse says she was told that administrators had no plans to evacuate the 60 residents. Several concerned relatives called the home. Some of them picked up their family members. Louisiana's Attorney General's office says it will investigate. And the defense department is said to unveil its plans for a 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon beginning next hour the public is invited to view the spot where hijackers crashed American Airlines flight 77 four years ago. They will also view the memorial model it features 184 illuminated benches arranged according to the victim's age from 3 to 71.

Let's check in now with Bonnie Schneider she is at the CNN Center with latest on tropical storm Ophelia. Bonnie.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Tony, well Ophelia continues to churn out in the Atlantic. Right now it has broken apart but as we look at the latest pictures from satellite imagery you can see the confection is starting to burst up again, meaning some thunderstorms are firing up. So Ophelia is forecast to strengthen back to hurricane status. Right now it is a tropical storm, maximum winds at 70 miles per hour, the movements to the northeast. However, a turn is expected as early as tomorrow. And even when that occurs we're expecting hurricane strength to be regained by Ophelia.

Eventually the storm will head towards the southeast coastline. Where it will go still a wide cone of uncertainty. All of the way from southern Georgia back up to the northern sections of the coast of North Carolina. But we'll be watching for landfall to occur sometime early next week. After the storm makes its turn we will have a better idea of when and where exactly it will go. Currently our radar pictures show that we're not seeing rain along the coastline, so we have no watches or warnings posted for the coast, which is good news. The storm is still about 200 miles offshore. But the only effect we will feel Soledad and Miles, are those rip currents offshore. It's not a good day to head into the ocean because the surf will be really rough.

S. O'BRIEN: Which means all the surfers will be out and they really shouldn't be and everybody else will stay home.

M. O'BRIEN: We don't officially condone that.

S. O'BRIEN: Absolutely not.

M. O'BRIEN: Victims of Hurricane Katrina need so much help right now it's hard to tally it all up. Ahead on AMERICAN MORNING, what survivors of Katrina must do to get paid by insurance companies.

S. O'BRIEN: And the friends left behind, the heroic efforts to save thousands of pets after the storm. That story is ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

S. O'BRIEN: For almost any pet owner leaving a pet behind is like leaving your child behind. But in a hurricane like Katrina it's a life or death decision and many pet owners had to flee without their beloved cats or dogs. Willie Cirone is leading one of the animal rescue teams in New Orleans. I had a chance to tag along with him, see what his rescue effort is like. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIE CIRONE, HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE U.S: How many are you got, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot.

CIRONE: A lot, good. I've got a chase truck coming.

S. O'BRIEN: What are you going to do with them?

CIRONE: These guys are going to do go to -- there you go, easy now, easy. They're going to go over to midway facility to be triaged by some veterinarians and then from there they're going to be sent up to Lamar Dickson in Gonzales. That's our main holding spot.

S. O'BRIEN: It must break your heart. Obviously you're a dog lover and you see this, I mean this animal is cared for, clearly. He's in good shape.

CIRONE: The problem is he's separated. He's here and his owners are somewhere else because they're not allowed to be here. We still have people today in their home that's will not leave until their pets go with them. This is a horrific event, it truly is. For the people and for the animals. Look, there's another guy just running around, looking for his master. Just looking for somebody to take care of him.

S. O'BRIEN: Look at this little guy.

CIRONE: For every one animal we pick up, we find like 20 more. There you go, big guy. Yo.

S. O'BRIEN: Yo.

CIRONE: In New Jersey, it works.

There's one over here. Let's see if we can get him. That guy's very skidish. He's a runner.

S. O'BRIEN: He won't come?

CIRONE: No. No. So what we've got to do is take our time. We try to get -- we concentrate on spending our time on getting the ones that we can. What's going to happen is a lot of these dogs are going to have to be trapped? Dog will survive, animals will survive. They hold up actually a little bit better than we do. I think right now we have 3,000 homes to visit.

S. O'BRIEN: You have 3,000 people who called you and they want you to get into their home?

CIRONE: I believe so, yes.

S. O'BRIEN: And grab their animals?

CIRONE: Yes, and we have all the crews in the city working and doing all that.

S. O'BRIEN: How many crews?

CIRONE: Three other crews, I believe at this time.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah, but that, three -- four crews? 3,000 animals?

CIRONE: It is very tough. Hey, big guy, come here. Give me my leash back. Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: You're busy.

CIRONE: Yeah. It is -- it's amazing. It is amazing. Every time you look, you think, wow, you know, we picked up the animal on this street, it's looking good. And then you go down the next street and it's like the same as first street.

S. O'BRIEN: How many animals will you get today, do you think?

CIRONE: I think by 5:00, these two vehicles will probably pick up maybe 150. Whether people want to believe it or not, pets are part of the family. They're like sons and daughters. And that's just the way it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

S. O'BRIEN: In the short time we were with Willie, we saw easily 70 dogs just running around waiting to be picked up.

M. O'BRIEN: What a job ahead of them.

S. O'BRIEN: He's on his vacation, by the way.

M. O'BRIEN: He's just there volunteering.

S. O'BRIEN: OK.

M. O'BRIEN: And there are many people like him who care about animals. I think one thing you need to learn is that dogs down there do not respond to the 'yo' command.

S. O'BRIEN: Actually they did. He said yo! I said, yo. Does yo work on a dog? In Jersey, it does.

M. O'BRIEN: Come over, doggy dog. Y'all come.

S. O'BRIEN: Apparently it does work.

If you want to find emergency pet shelters and disaster resources for pets and owners, you can go to the Humane Society of the United States site, which is HSUS.org.

Still ahead on AMERICAN MORNING, what survivors of Katrina have to go to get paid by their insurance companies. We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

S. O'BRIEN: Residents caught in the path of Katrina are counting on their insurance payments to get them through these extremely hard times. So just how much help can they expect? Jay Robert Wooley is in Louisiana's insurance commissioner and he is in Baton Rouge this morning. Good morning, nice so to see you.

J. ROBERT WOOLEY, LOUISIANA INSURANCE COMMISSIONER: Good morning, how are you doing?

S. O'BRIEN: I'm well, thank you. It's still to be determined, isn't it, whether it's really flood damage or wind damage from the hurricane that's what's really going to be the focus of the insurance companies. When will they know? It's a billon-dollar question.

WOOLEY: Well, a lot of it's going to depend on a lot of the facts as they develop. We're going to see what was storm surge and what a lot of people don't realize is, you may have some coverage for wind-driven water, which would cover storm surge. So I don't want people just to panic and think, well, it's floodwater in my house so I probably don't have any coverage because I don't have flood insurance. That's the number one thing I want people to think about. You have to look at your policy because every one of these policies, even with the same company, are all different. It depends on what type of coverage you bought.

S. O'BRIEN: How do you look at your policy when everything you owned has been lost or it is under a foot of muck?

WOOLEY: Well, we have found that most people owe something on their property. And your mortgage lender will have a copy of your insurance policy. So we are already working with our office of financial institutions and some of the mortgage associations to find a network where we can obtain those policies if you didn't bring yours with you.

S. O'BRIEN: How can you start the procession when for so many people they can't get to their homes, they don't have any idea how much they've lost or if they've lost anything at all.

WOOLEY: That's correct. In the normal procedure you would be to contact your agent, but the agents have been displaced. So our first challenge has been an outreach to get people in touch with their insurance companies. We've done it through several ways. Number one we've taken out newspaper ads with 800 numbers for the companies. We've done some radio ads with our 800 number where you can contact our office. We can take your agent's name and find out the companies that they wrote for, send out to those companies and see if you are a policy holder with that company.

The other thing we're going is, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners has every insurance commissioner in a state where there is a shelter with our displaced citizens. They are going to go out and provide information. How do you get in touch with the Alabama Department of Insurance, how do you get in touch with the Mississippi department, Louisiana department, how do you get in touch with the National Flood Insurance Program, how do you get in touch with FEMA.

S. O'BRIEN: A lot of information coming to these folks. What if your house is OK? Your house did pretty well but you're in a neighborhood that's been devastated. Do you get compensation from that?

WOOLEY: Well, the only thing you will probably be able to get is a prohibited use where you've been not allowed to return to your home. You will receive something for your living expenses, that you will be entitled to while you've been away from your home because the civil authority won't let you back in.

S. O'BRIEN: Are you confident that, in fact, the insurance companies can pay what is sure to be a massive bill at the end of the day when it's all tallied up and they won't go under?

WOOLEY: I think so. What happened after Andrew, there were some companies that did fail in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. And the insurance industry learned a huge lesson then. And what they did was, they quit pricing so much based on competition, although they still do that to a certain extent and they started doing a better job of underwriting and charging enough premium. We in Louisiana have paid the second highest average homeowner's premium in the country.

S. O'BRIEN: Louisiana Insurance Commissioner, Jay Robert Wooley joining us this morning. Thank you. Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Still ahead on AMERICAN MORNING, the road to recovery. Steps to rebuild Biloxi, Mississippi, under way including talks of bringing those floating casinos on to dry land, perhaps. We'll talk with the city's mayor.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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