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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Nursing Home Deaths; Missing Children; Homeless Police Officers; Hospital Horror

Aired September 13, 2005 - 23:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: You are watching Hurricane Katrina, "State of Emergency," with Anderson Cooper and Aaron Brown.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everyone. It is the top of the hour. I'm Anderson Cooper. We are live in New Orleans.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Aaron Brown in New York. Much to tell you about over the next 60 minutes. A final chapter perhaps of a family reunion that's been playing out over four days on our air. And new details of criminal charges filed against a nursing home, where 34 elderly and helpless patients died in the flooding. Many of them drowned. And then there is the story of the homeless cops of New Orleans.

Like we said, we have much to talk about.

We start it all off with Anderson in New Orleans.

COOPER: Aaron, thanks.

Let's check out what is happening right now at this moment.

Today, a frank admission from President Bush. The president said -- quote -- "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right I take responsibility" -- end quote.

President Bush will address the nation live from Louisiana on Thursday night.

An about-face from Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco. Earlier today, she blasted FEMA, saying she was outraged over what she calls the agency's lack of urgency involving the recovery of bodies. But just a short time ago, the governor backtracked, saying the federal government is doing everything it can to recover the bodies.

In New Orleans at Louis Armstrong Airport, the first commercial landing today since August 29. It was a flight from Memphis with only 30 people aboard.

And the official death toll from Katrina rose once again tonight. The number of confirmed fatalities stands at 656 -- 218 of the victims are from Mississippi; 423 of those killed are right here in Louisiana. Tonight, some of that loss of life in Louisiana has become a criminal matter. The owners of a nursing home in St. Bernard parish are charged with negligent homicide for the deaths of 34 patients. We're also getting some interior pictures of the facility for the first time. As you might imagine, it is not a pretty sight we want to warn you.

CNN's Drew Griffin joins us with more -- Drew.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, those pictures come from our Japanese affiliate, TV Asahi. They went to this home, as I did today. But this time they decided to go inside. And when they did, they found the beds in a shambles, left just where they were, where the patients were.

And inside, if you can see, on the walls, the water lines far exceeded the level where these people were. Thirty-four patients, we now know from the coroner. No staff. No nurses. But 34 patients who just couldn't get out and, according to the coroner, most likely died, he says, peacefully in the water on their beds and in their wheelchairs.

It's some stunning, eerily stunning video of just how tragic this St. Rita's Nursing Home incident was -- Anderson.

COOPER: Drew, how can he say that the people died peacefully? Has he had time to personally examine the bodies at this point? Because generally people who drown, no one is to come peacefully into the waters. It is never a pretty sight.

GRIFFIN: According to the coroner who did remove all 34 of those bodies, he said they were in a peaceful state. And that the fact of drowning, he described to me, was somewhat like you become drunk, you become leery of your surroundings, and most likely died without any pain. He wanted the family members to know that, who are now waiting for their victims to be identified.

That's according to Dr. Bryan Bertucci. He is the coroner of St. Bernard, and he is the person, Anderson, who took every single one of those bodies out of that home.

COOPER: And he is the person who also called that home and offered to evacuate some of those people and was turned down. Earlier tonight on "360" I spoke with Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, Jr., who filed those negligent homicide charges against the owners of St. Rita's.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: What were the conditions like inside this home when your personnel got there?

CHARLES FOTI, JR., LOUISIANA ATTORNEY GENERAL: It was a total wreck. Water was everyplace. Equipment was scattered all over the place, and the place was filled with bodies.

COOPER: Is it just the administrator's job? I mean, that's the person who charges have been filed against. But does the city, do local government bear some responsibility here?

FOTI: I don't think they took enough precaution. We believe that 34 people died unnecessarily. You ask yourself, if this was your mother, your father, your sister, and they were in there, and you trusted them, and the government was paying for them to be there, what duty did you owe these patients?

COOPER: Well, tonight the nursing home owners are out of jail and on bond.

We've received hundreds of e-mails about this next story. It is about a father who was looking for his five kids missing since the hurricane. His name is Michael Thompson. And last night, after his long search, he and one of his children, 17-year-old Shelley, were reunited, at least electronically. It should have been a happy occasion, but that all changed when Shelley told us about what had happened to her boyfriend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: What happened to your boyfriend, Shelly?

SHELLEY THOMPSON, HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVOR: When we was on a roof, he tried to swim -- we swam to a higher roof, because his roof was too low. And we tried to swim to a higher roof. And we got on the higher roof, but it was a man across the street was trying to get us to his house, because he had a two-story building. And my boyfriend, he was going to float on the house.

But what had happened was I saw him, but he wasn't going to make it, because it didn't -- you know, it didn't look like he was going to make it, because it was too far of a distance he had to swim. So, I told him to come back.

And on his way back -- on his way back, I told him that he wasn't going to make it to the house. But on his way back, he drowned trying to come back to the roof with me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, a number of viewers, as you can imagine, wanted to help Michael get back together with Shelley and his four other children. So, Michael single-minded journey to see his kids safe, and this is a guy who had gone shelter to shelter. He had been in the Superdome here. He had been through so much. A lot of you responded, wanting to help him out, wanting to get him back together with his kids. A little later, we're going to bring you all of what happened, and how you, the viewers, responded and got Michael reunited.

Tonight, Michael Thompson is with his children. But other parents, of course, are not so fortunate. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids say there are more than 1,800 children who, because of Katrina, are still separate from their moms and dads; 1,800 kids are still separated after two weeks.

CNN's Kimberly Osias joins us from Alexandria, Virginia, with more -- Kimberly.

KIMBERLY OSIAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the numbers are absolutely staggering, and they continue to rise. Caseworkers here say it is very difficult for them to sort of wrap their arms around this problem. They have never seen anything like it, because of the scope. I mean, we're talking about a tri-state area -- Mississippi, Alabama, of course Louisiana.

There are caseworkers also manning the ground, working out in the field doing everything they can to reunite these children with their parents, and parents with their children.

I want to show you a couple -- I mean, really spanning the age from several months all the way up into their teens.

Now, what is also difficult and sort of hindering this investigation is because, quite frankly, a lot of critical information, critical pieces to these jigsaw puzzles have simply been washed away. Critical pictures.

So oftentimes caseworkers are operating from really old pictures and having to enhance them, like this one here of Amber Cook. She is now 2 years old. Clearly, this picture was quite a bit earlier. And this little girl was last known to be staying with her mother, her father and her grandmother at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana, during Hurricane Katrina. Still not reunited with her parents.

Now, talking about some children, some children have been moved from shelter to shelter to shelter, or are in foster homes. And they are looking to be reunited with their parents, like this young boy, Terrell Louis, 11 years old, African-American, found in New Orleans, Louisiana, staying with his brother-in-law at a shelter, desperately looking to find his mother.

Now, calls are coming in from all over the country.

Now, this tip came from somebody like you just watching out there in Gonzalez, Louisiana. So, folks here are desperately working, the volunteers, very, very long hours to try and make these reunions possible.

Now, there are several ways that you can help. You can log on to the Web site at www.missingkids.com right here. And you can see, there are several states you can click on and find out which children are still active, which cases are active, who has been found. And then, of course, there is a number to call, 1-888-544-5476.

The good news is some 500 or so, even more, children have been found, so that is a ray of hope, Anderson, in this story that just continues to grow in numbers.

COOPER: Yes, it's sickening to think about these kids alone or in foster care or in shelters. You're kind of wondering where their moms and dads are.

Kimberly, we're going to check back with you a little bit later this hour. We want to get as many kids' photographs up there, as many kids' information out there and see if any of our viewers can make a connection.

For now, let's go back to Aaron in New York -- Aaron.

BROWN: Thank you.

It's good to remember that we are still in the middle of the hurricane season, and it has several weeks to go. And Hurricane Ophelia is off the coast of North Carolina tonight. Winds about 75 miles an hour, category 1 storm. Evacuation orders are out. It will be interesting to see in the wake of Katrina if those evacuation orders are being followed.

(WEATHER REPORT)

BROWN: Coming up in this hour, their job is to protect and serve even when at the end of their shifts they have no homes to go back to. How so many New Orleans police department also found itself homeless and are trying to make do.

Also tonight, the man who predicted the levees would break in a massive storm gets an aerial view of how right he was.

We take a break first. This is "State of Emergency."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Immediately after Katrina hit, word spread some of the police were abandoning their posts, letting the city of New Orleans fall into lawlessness. In fact, a majority of New Orleans police stuck with their job, saving lives, working nonstop for days. And for most of them, there is the added stress that when they do get a break there is simply no home left for them go back to.

CNN's Gary Tuchman reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Manuel Curry has been a police officer in New Orleans since 1946, just months after his service at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

(on camera): Sergeant Curry, how old are you?

MANUEL CURRY, 80-YEAR-OLD NEW ORLEANS POLICEMAN: Eighty since February.

TUCHMAN: Eighty years old, and you're living here in the Wal- Mart parking lot.

CURRY: Yes. TUCHMAN (voice over): Sergeant Curry is one of more than 50 homeless New Orleans police officers, who are now sleeping, working and, yes, living in a parking lot of a Wal-Mart.

(on camera): Did you ever imagine a way where a lot of your officers would be living in a Wal-Mart parking lot?

CAPT. TONY CANNATELLA, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: Never, never, never, never.

TUCHMAN (voice over): Captain Tony Cannatella is the commander of the police department's 6th district. The parking lot is now the precinct headquarters, because of damage to the real police building.

CANNATELLA: Where else can you come to work every day and sit in a police car next to another hero? Every day I come to work and look at the faces of different heroes.

TUCHMAN: They sleep in tents in the parking lot and some other creative places.

Officer Kristi Foret was stranded on the roof of her flooded house for days.

(on camera): Where did you sleep here?

KRISTI FORET, NEW ORLEANS POLICE OFFICER: Patrol cars.

TUCHMAN: You're here to sleep in the patrol cars?

FORET: Yes. There was nowhere else, or like someone's truck, you know.

TUCHMAN: It probably beat the roof of your house in the floodwaters.

FORET: Yes.

TUCHMAN (voice over): The 153 officers of the precinct have medical care inside the Wal-Mart, a store that was ransacked by looters in the days after the storm. All of the electronic products and jewelry are gone. But now, it may be the safest place in town with the cavalry of the 6th district in the parking lot.

(on camera): I think a lot of people are going to find it incredible that an 80-year-old member of the police force, who has been there 60 years, is living in a parking lot. Do you find that incredible?

CURRY: Yes, yes.

TUCHMAN: Would you consider an offer to move into a house or a hotel right now?

CURRY: No.

TUCHMAN: How come?

CURRY: Because I want to stay with the men. I've been with them. I will stay with them.

TUCHMAN (voice over): Sergeant Curry was actually ordered to leave and join his wife of 50 years who evacuated safely before the storm. But he won't go. So, he was given special accommodations.

(on camera): Where did this limo come from?

CURRY: I don't know. I don't know. I sleep in there.

TUCHMAN: Let's take a look inside there. You got your blanket, you bed.

(voice over): And the limo is where this World War II veteran will stay as long as it takes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

They call their new precinct Fort Wal-Mart. It doesn't exactly inspire fear in the hearts of criminals. But, trust me, these cops are not patient considering what's going on. And they have arrested many of those looters who looted the Wal-Mart.

COOPER: Of all the people who did go off the job, how many people actually went off the job from that station?

TUCHMAN: A hundred and fifty-six officers in district six here in New Orleans. Only three people left their jobs; 153 people are still working, and they're working out of that parking lot.

COOPER: All right. Camp Wal-Mart. Or not Camp Wal-Mart, what is it?

TUCHMAN: Yes.

COOPER: Camp Wal-Mart?

TUCHMAN: Well, Fort Wal-Mart.

COOPER: Fort Wal-Mart.

TUCHMAN: Some of them call it Camp Wal-Mart, but the new term, they think it's a more police-like term is Fort Wal-Mart.

COOPER: All right, Gary, thanks.

Just ahead, a question not only about a nursing home, 45 bodies found in a New Orleans hospital. The owners of it say that everyone has evacuated. So, what happened there? Is anyone responsible? We'll try to find out.

Plus, new details on Hurricane Ophelia. We'll get a live update from coastal North Carolina. Where does -- and this sounds familiar. Some residents are being told to evacuate. This is "State of Emergency."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: The storm and the rising waters meant for some horrible life and death decisions. One of them at St. Rita's Nursing Home where 34 people died, as we've told you, is now a matter for the courts in Louisiana. Another is Memorial Hospital, where 45 bodies were found. Many questions need to be answered.

We've just received some pictures from inside the hospital. Jonathan Freed is with us. Jon has been working on this story.

Jon, this is a picture, as you can see, where clearly the bodies have been laid out and in some sense -- you'll excuse the expression here -- prepared. This is not the kind of random event we saw in the nursing home. It doesn't tell us precisely what happened there, but it does give us a little bit of a clue.

JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We were told, Aaron, that the bodies that they were dealing with, they were trying to put them aside in as dignified a manner as possible. And the photo that you're looking at, I don't have a monitor here, but the photos that you're looking at involve the chapel. And let's take a look at more of that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FREED (voice over): This is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. These patients' bodies were moved to the hospital's chapel among 45 found in the building.

Doctors at Memorial say when a catastrophe like Katrina happens, no matter how prudent you are, some patients are going to die. And they say a shocking as this discovery may have been, it's not surprising, considering the scope of the crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Under normal circumstances, we have very sickly patients at our institution.

FREED: Dr. Glenn Casey (ph) was among those trapped at the hospital for days when floodwaters surrounded it. He says they evacuated everyone they could before the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cream of the crop were able to get out in time. Those patients that truly could pick up and walk out got out of the hospital Friday, Saturday, Sunday, because they had time to make these preparations. So, what we were left with are those more critically-ill patients at the institution.

FREED: The hospital's CEO says emergency officials were unable to come get those who were left.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We found out later that Wednesday that Tenet Health Care was notified that pretty much to use any assets they could put together to secure to start evacuating the hospital.

FREED: So, the hospital says it used boats and even hired its own fleet of helicopters to get everyone out. Doctors say between 8 and 10 of the 45 bodies were in the morgue before the storm. They say the rest were critically-ill patients, many so badly off they were in a long-term care clinic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's difficult because, you know, we saw our community just destroyed. You know, that's my neighborhood. Those are my friends, you know, my patients, my colleagues.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FREED: Aaron, the doctors that we spoke to today were clearly having a difficult time still even days later dealing with the magnitude of this. And they say that one of the things they're trying to grapple with how they really feel that they were largely left alone, and the hospital had to resort to helicopters, hiring them, like the ones behind me here in order to evacuate the patients that they could -- Aaron.

BROWN: I have actually at least one, maybe two questions, depending on the answer. Of the 40-plus people, 45 people found dead there, were they all patients, or were any of them staffed -- any of them staff?

FREED: We understand that they were all patients.

BROWN: So at some point in time -- we don't know what day this was, perhaps it was Sunday, Monday, probably Monday -- they were left alone.

FREED: That's right. They say that when the storm cleared, they breathed a sigh of relief and said, OK, we made it through. The building itself didn't take that bad a hit. Then when the levee broke, the situation changed. That's when they asked for more help, and they say they were told by officials, look, we just can't get to you right now; you're going to have to do what you can to get your people out yourself.

BROWN: That's an amazing story. There is so much more work to be done there. Thank you, Jon. Jonathan Freed down in New Orleans tonight.

Coming up, Hurricane Ophelia continues to make its way towards the coast. And we'll take you to the coast before we're done tonight to take a look at what it's doing.

And later, a CNN viewer helps reunite a New Orleans family. God bless you.

We'll take a break first. This is "State of Emergency."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back. We're live in New Orleans. When Katrina first made landfall in Florida, it was a category 1 hurricane. Right now, there is another category 1 hurricane just off the coast of North Carolina. It is named Ophelia.

CNN's Susan Candiotti joins us live from Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

Susan -- what's the scene?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, it's a balmy night here. Over my shoulder, you can barely make out some of the waves crashing ashore. But really it's not very windy at all yet.

As you know, Hurricane Ophelia, a category 1 storm, not expected to strengthen. But any hurricane, as we all know, must be taken seriously. And here, the governor of the state, Mike Easley, is warning people to do so.

And so, people are making storm preparations, particularly along the eastern coast of North Carolina. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered in low-lying areas, including Hatteras Island, which is not too far south of where we are reporting to you now.

Thirty-six shelters have been opened up around the state. But at this hour, only about two dozen people have gone there. Of course, they have many options available to them.

So, as a category 1 storm, structural damage not a major concern, but, of course, flooding is. They are expecting a lot of rain, up to 8 inches, a storm surge of perhaps up to 8 feet over the next couple of days. But because it was a dry summer here, and the rivers are relatively low, authorities are hoping that it will absorb a great deal of that rain.

But they are particularly concerned about people driving into flooded roads and possibly getting stuck and possibly having some dire circumstances there.

But just to go to show you, the level of sensitivity involving FEMA, they put out a press release about then Tropical Storm Ophelia before it even became a hurricane. And we've seen power companies lined up with their trucks, moved out of Louisiana into place here just in case they are needed, and they probably will be -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Susan, it's going to be a long night. Thanks very much.

Just a few hours ago an about-face from Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco. She backtracked, saying the federal government is doing everything it can to recover the bodies. She's talking about the people who died here, who has remained in their homes and in their cars have yet to be recovered.

Earlier today, however, she didn't quite see it that way. Listen to what she said earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO, LOUISIANA: No one, it seems, even those at the highest level seems to be able to break through the bureaucracy to get this important mission done. I cannot stand by while this vital operation is not being handled appropriately. In death as in life, our people deserve more respect than they have received.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: The people who are working to recover the citizens who have died are people like Anna Stiltner, who joins me now.

You're an EMS worker. You're from Texas. What is it like going out there every day and bringing back -- bringing these people home?

ANNA STILTNER, EMS WORKER: It's sad. It's really sad. But, you know, this happened to these people. They didn't get out in time. And they were left there. And now, it's our job to take care of them.

COOPER: And do you -- you know, people refer to them a lot as "bodies" and "corpses." I mean, they're not. They are people. They're our neighbors. They're our fellow countrymen.

STILTNER: They are people. They -- you know, as I said earlier this evening, they are -- they were somebody's baby. They grew up. They were children. They were cuddled. They were held and caressed. And there's nothing that's changed just because they died.

COOPER: Is it -- I mean, what is the mood as you are out there? We've been out there, and, you know, seeing it is just a difficult thing. I know you're an EMS worker. I know you're a lot tougher probably than I am and most of us. But it is somber. I mean, it is extraordinarily difficult work, which is a stupid thing to say, but, of course, it's true.

STILTNER: Yes, it's really difficult. But sometimes you have to try and distance yourself from it so you don't get so emotionally pulled in. Once that happens, then you're unable to complete your task.

COOPER: Does it frustrate you that these people have not been picked up sooner? I mean, for two weeks now we've been seeing them. They were tied, their bodies tied to lampposts in some cases, or street signs so they didn't float away.

STILTNER: Right. It's really heart-wrenching to know that these people have been there for so long. But then you have to look at, you know, the fact that the water is contaminated. And if we get these things on us and we get contaminated, then we get sick. And we take it home to our children.

Now, I don't think that these people who have perished because of this disaster would want, you know, this to spread beyond this town.

COOPER: Well, you know, all of us who are here and all of you who are doing that work, I mean, you know, God bless you for what you're doing, because everyone appreciates it. And I know the families who are watching will be happy to know that someone like you, Anna, is out there bringing these people home and restoring their dignity. And we appreciate you.

STILTNER: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you very much.

STILTNER: Thanks.

COOPER: Anna is just one of the people who we see here every day just doing this kind of work. And as you can imagine, it's hard and it's difficult. She's going to be sleeping in her ambulance tonight. She's hoping to get maybe a hot shower or even a cold shower. I think a cold shower would be all right, too, wouldn't it?

STILTNER: A cold shower would be good and a cup of coffee.

COOPER: A cup of coffee, I know. I know. Well, just hope maybe tomorrow.

Let's go back to the story we began with tonight. A family from New Orleans is now back together. It's a story you first heard about here on CNN about a father who had lost everything in the hurricane except his family. Then suddenly he lost them too.

They were separated during the evacuation. What had happened to Michael Thompson's five kids? That's what he wanted to know. What happened to his mom too?

So many of you called and offered to help, and now we can thank a generous viewer for making it all possible. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice over): You can see the pain in Michael Thompson's face. You can hear it in his voice.

(on camera): How are you holding up?

MICHAEL THOMPSON, REUNITED WITH FAMILY: It hasn't been easy not knowing if they're well or not or what kind of shape they're in.

COOPER (voice over): Michael is talking about his mother and his five children. When we first met him last Friday night, he didn't know if they were alive or dead.

After Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Michael made his way to the Superdome, but his family was missing, and Michael was desperately searching shelter after shelter to find them.

M. THOMPSON: It's been difficult, but I've been trying to keep a positive outlook a hold myself together in the hopes that I can find them soon.

COOPER: After we put his cell phone number on CNN, Michael received a call from a Red Cross worker, who said his mother was safe in Louisiana and his children were taken to Georgia.

Last night, Michael joined us from Baton Rouge as we spoke to his teenage daughter, Shelley, who was in Atlanta.

Through her tears, the 17-year-old told us about losing her boyfriend during the hurricane.

S. THOMPSON: On his way back, I told him that he wasn't going to make it to the house. But on his way back, he drowned trying to come back to the roof with me.

COOPER: Michael wanted to be with his kids, but there was a problem.

M. THOMPSON: As far as money goes, at this moment in time funds are nil to none.

COOPER: That's when this woman stepped in, Shannon Denton. She was watching CNN from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and she knew she could help.

SHANNON DENTON, GOOD SAMARITAN: This was something that I absolutely knew one person would definitely benefit from my intervention. And so, I feel rewarded for that that I can make someone else's day really happy and reunite someone who -- a family who really needs each other.

COOPER: Shannon called CNN and paid for Michael's plane ticket. This afternoon, Michael arrived in Atlanta, and Shannon was at the airport to greet him.

DENTON: How are you?

M. THOMPSON: It's nice to meet you.

COOPER: Michael's children were waiting for him at a hotel near the airport.

When their father appeared, it was a moment they were waiting for, a moment all of us hoped would come true.

One by one, Michael hugged his children -- Michelle, Shelley, Christopher and twins, Randon (ph) and Tashi (ph).

Like many evacuees, Michael and his family's future is uncertain. But one thing is certain: They have each other, and they are safe.

M. THOMPSON: What do you say after something like this? I just want to hold them and let them know that I thank God for them. I'm just so glad that everybody is all right, that we're a family again. And even though we may be separated temporarily right now by states and a considerable distance, we're all here, we're all OK, we're all in good health, and that's all that matters to me.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: That is all that matters indeed for now. Michael Thompson and his daughters, Shelley and Michelle, joined me a little while ago. I began by asking Michael if he was surprised by Shannon Denton's offer to pay for his trip to see his children and by all of the offers and sympathy and kindness he's received.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

M. THOMPSON: I was really quite surprised that a lot of people had taken such a keen interest in my personal struggle to find my children and be reunited with them. In particular, Ms. Shannon, she was very kind and very passionate about my finding my children. And I appreciate that very much.

COOPER: How many -- in the shelters that you have been in -- and you've been in a lot of them as you've been searching for your kids and your mom -- how many people have you met in similar circumstances to your own, I mean, still looking for loved ones after all this time?

M. THOMPSON: Quite a few. There were -- it's impossible to number them all. Actually there were a lot of people who had misplaced children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, you name it. It was just astronomical.

COOPER: Shelley, I mean, you have been through so much for someone your age. Seeing your dad, does it -- I mean, does it help? Does it add another layer to what you're going through?

S. THOMPSON: Yes, it helped a lot, because I didn't know if he was all right or not. You know, me knowing that he was all right and being able to see him today was, you know, some stress relieved off of me.

COOPER: You've experienced a terrible loss, your boyfriend who helped you in the storm, who drowned in the storm. What happens now? Where do you go from here?

S. THOMPSON: I don't really know. I'm just trying to live, you know, each day, you know, trying to be stronger than what I have been, you know. I'd feel better if, you know, I could get in contact with his family members, you know. If I could, you know, I want to leave a number, you know, so they can contact me, because, you know, I haven't been talking to them ever since the storm.

COOPER: And if you were able to get a message from them -- to them, what would you want to tell them?

S. THOMPSON: To please call me at 504-710-9184.

COOPER: Michael, how difficult is it for you knowing what Shelley has been through, knowing what your daughters have been through, I mean, for a father, it's got to be -- I can't imagine.

M. THOMPSON: It's very difficult, because on the one hand, I wish to God it had never happened, that they never had to go through things they have gone through, experiences that they've experienced at such a young age. And on the other hand, I really I feel a great sense of guilt on my part for not being able to shield them from this, not having been there with them when they went through these things.

They were in one part of the city, and I was unfortunately in another. We were separated by the storm. I had no means to get to them. I waited too late to react to the storm. To a degree, I do blame myself for a lot of that.

COOPER: Well, it's probably at least some consolation to know that your family is OK, to have seen your kids and to know that your mom is all right as well. And we wish you the best, and to Michelle and Shelley as well. And we appreciate you talking to us tonight.

M. THOMPSON: Thank you.

S. THOMPSON: Thank you.

M. THOMPSON: Thank you, sir.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: And, Aaron, it is so remarkable when you think, you know, that's just one family. There are so many families like them and so many people, hundreds of thousands of people in shelters tonight, you know, separated from their loved ones, separated from their homes, and let's hope they get back as quick as possible -- Aaron.

BROWN: Well, you just keep in mind that this even that we've been talking about, this hurricane that we've been talking about for now the better part of two weeks has caused the largest mass migration in U.S. history. As many as a million people are scattered around the country in almost every state. Some are in shelters. Some are in private homes. But "scattered" is the word.

Katrina literally tore families apart. No one is sure how many children exactly have been separated from their families. But the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, has reports of more than 1,800 children who don't know where their families are. And it is their task, and it is a considerable one, to try and put those families back together.

Kimberly Osias is at the center tonight, and she joins us again -- Kimberly.

OSIAS: Aaron, well, scattered indeed. I mean, the stories, each of them unique and heartbreaking. But the good part about covering stories like this is you get to be there for the successes, the big successes.

Just now we got an unconfirmed report that a father may be reunited with his 12-year-old son believed to have been found in a shelter in Orlando, Florida, with his mother. And, of course, I mean, you mentioned scattered all over the country.

There are close to 1,900 that are still missing, haven't had that happy reunion yet. We want to show you some brothers and sisters, some whole families in fact. This brother and sister pair were believed to have last been seen with their parents when the hurricane hit. Chase Cannon believed to be about 2-and-a-half years old, blonde little boy. His height, weight and eye color are unknown.

A lot of the difficulties in putting these pieces together in these various investigations are really hampered, because they simply don't have the pictures. They don't have the evidence that they need that is critical. It is gone. Relying oftentimes on memories.

Now, his little sister, Kaylee Cannon, believed to be about 4- and-a-half years old. Her height, weight and eye color also unknown.

Now, working tirelessly in this effort are a number of retired investigators from all over the country, from Wyoming, from Honolulu, Hawaii, from San Diego, where John Tenwald (ph) is from.

And this has got to be incredibly difficult and certainly emotionally draining for you. How do you guys deal with this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, you know, Kimberly, it is a challenging effort that we're performing here. However, I know I speak for my colleagues when I tell you that we're motivated, in fact energized, by knowledge of the fact that what we're doing is very important. And we're enjoying success.

OSIAS: Well, thank you very much. And we hope that you continue with all of this good work, and we have more success stories to come. Thank you so much.

And again, that number for folks to call is 1-888-544-5475. And you can log on to www.missingkids.com -- Aaron.

BROWN: Kimberly, the pictures you're showing us of those kids, do we know where those kids are, but we don't know where their parents are? Do we know where the parents are, and we don't know where the kids are?

OSIAS: Not sure where the kids are. Not sure where the parents are either. It is believed that they actually were all at a prayer meeting and had to rush out at the last minute. Very scant information.

And fortunately some folks, as we've been doing this, more things are coming in. It gets put into a database, and then sort of that amalgamation hopefully can result in happy reunions.

BROWN: OK. Kimberly, thank you. Kimberly Osias in Alexandria, Virginia.

Coming up, a bridge too far where people finally reach safe ground, turned back in Jefferson parish outside of New Orleans. We'll follow up on a reporting of last night. And we'll figure picture literally, a view from above the devastation.

This is "State of Emergency" on CNN. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: You know, so much of what we've been doing here the last two weeks is trying to piece together these pieces of the puzzle of exactly what happened here. Where was the breakdown in decision- making? Where did things go wrong? And that's why we're staying here until we get some answers.

Last night, we told you about a bridge from New Orleans to the suburbs that was closed to evacuees during the flooding. Now, we heard from two people who said that police with shotguns wouldn't let them cross. Their story was also confirmed by two people we talked to on the phone.

There have been other accusations as well, including some charges of racism. We wanted to know what the police had to say about these allegations. That's why yesterday I talked to the sheriff over in Gretna.

Tonight, I asked Sheriff Harry Lee of Jefferson parish to join me earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHERIFF HARRY LEE, JEFFERSON PARISH, LA.: There's some misunderstanding. It wasn't Jefferson parish deputies. It was the Gretna City Police. As you come across the bridge, you enter Jefferson parish. A couple of hundred yards into Jefferson Parish there is the city of Gretna. I didn't know about it until that night. And I went out there, and there was armed guards there holding the crowd.

COOPER: Because the chief of the Gretna police that we talked to last night said that your personnel were on that bridge. And, in fact, he said he was doing one small part of the bridge and that you guys...

LEE: Oh no, no. That was after the first or second night.

COOPER: Right. He's talking -- what we're talking about happening, the allegations that are being made are about Thursday and even on Friday, that people -- a large group of people, about several hundred people, tried to cross over. And that, you know, a combination, whether it was your officers, the Gretna officers, other officers, fired into the air.

LEE: I understand a shot was fired down at the bottom. Just a shot was fired into the air. But when I got involved in it, what we agreed to do -- the people coming across the bridge, rather than going into Gretna and being stopped down there, we would have a bus there and take them direct from the bus directly to the airport to an evacuation shelter.

COOPER: But that didn't happen?

LEE: Yes, that was eventually worked out when I got involved in it.

COOPER: OK.

LEE: Because the first thing, they wouldn't let them into the city of Gretna the first night, or the second night.

COOPER: Right. But it wasn't just they. I mean, the Gretna police chief says your officers were there as well. Why wouldn't you just let these people into Gretna or to your parish?

LEE: What was there in Gretna for them?

COOPER: Well, I don't know. Probably not as bad as it was over here.

LEE: No, no, no. There was nothing in Gretna. There was no electricity. There was no water. There were a lot of houses that were vacated by citizens who left.

COOPER: Right. Were there people looting and killing each other over here, I mean, in Gretna?

LEE: No, no.

COOPER: Was there water on the ground?

LEE: No, there were -- and the reason Gretna did what they did was because of what was going on in New Orleans did not want to happen in Gretna.

COOPER: Right. But, I mean, if there's no water in Gretna and in those areas where they could have gone, you know, some people would say it would be the decent thing to just let these people at least to dry land. Because sending them -- I mean, what was the point of sending them back into New Orleans?

LEE: I didn't send them back.

COOPER: Right.

LEE: You know...

COOPER: But the officers wanted...

LEE: ... as I said before, that we got on the bridge after the confrontation there. The following day I said, here's what we'll do. Rather than walk down and saying you can't get in, we'll meet you at the top of the bridge. When we get a busload, we'll have a police escort to take you directly to the airport.

COOPER: Right. But what they're saying is that actually on Thursday when they arrived and tried to get across, they weren't allowed across. And even on Friday that some officers came and took food and MREs that they had, because they were camping out on the bridge, and told them basically get off the bridge. Go back.

LEE: I didn't know anything about that. I didn't know anything about that.

COOPER: You hadn't heard anything about that?

LEE: My agreement to assist the Gretna so that we didn't have the problem they had the night before, where they have buses waiting on the top, and there would be a police escort to take them directly to an evacuation site.

COOPER: If it did happen that multiple shots were fired into the air by officers with these people waiting on the bridge, would that have been appropriate?

LEE: I don't know who fired the shots, and I don't know why they were fired.

COOPER: But would it have been appropriate police procedure to fire onto -- you know, above the air of several hundred people who were simply trying to get to safety?

LEE: I'm not going to speak for the city of Gretna. It's my understanding that we didn't fire any shots. And I understand that one shot was fired early on. At the bottom, a shot was fired into the air.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: If anybody else was on that bridge who is listening, just send us an e-mail to CNN.com/360. We'd love to hear your perspective of what happened there.

You know, about the only thing more painful than standing on the ground looking out at New Orleans is looking down on it from above.

Today, I took a helicopter tour with a man who predicted the devastation, and now wants to know why more wasn't done to prevent it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice over): Flying above New Orleans for the first time, Professor Ivor van Heerden is stunned by what he sees.

DR. IVOR VAN HEERDEN, DIR., LSU HURRICANE CENTER (voice over): The devastation to this part of New Orleans is incredible, because most of the houses have been totally destroyed by the wind. And then they would have been flooded, which is the absolute worst case scenario for a survivor.

COOPER: Professor van Heerden is director of LSU's Hurricane Center. He's feeling not just frustration, but anger as well.

HEERDEN: I couldn't believe what I was seeing, you know, both as a professional and as an American. As a professional, I just couldn't believe that we weren't in there with all our resources as quickly as we could have got in there. But as an American, I was absolutely disgusted. COOPER: For weeks, politicians have been saying there was no way to predict what happened here. The flooding, the failures, the needs of the people. The truth is, Professor van Heerden did predict it a year ago. He simulated a major hurricane's effect on New Orleans and had briefed local state, and federal officials all about it.

HEERDEN: We tried our absolute damndest to warn everybody. And unfortunately, here reality is unfolding in front of our eyes.

COOPER: From the air, you can see the signs for help, the holes people punched from their attics to escape the water, the school buses that could have been used to evacuate residents. Professor van Heerden believes the levees weren't just overrun by high water; he believes the levees massively failed, because of inadequate design and years of neglect.

HEERDEN: To me, in my opinion, once again it was a catastrophic failure of those levees due to a pressure burst.

COOPER: New Orleans is still vulnerable, Professor van Heerden believes. He wants to make sure this doesn't happen again.

(on camera): What questions do you still want answered about, not only the failure of the levees, but the failure of governments to respond?

HEERDEN (on camera): The number one question is, as best as we can tell the levees failed on Monday afternoon. Why weren't the people told? Why weren't the media told that the levees had failed? A lot of people in New Orleans went to bed thinking it was over. They were dry. They woke up in the middle of the night. They had water in their homes. Why, why, why weren't we warned?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Why indeed.

Coming up, more from New Orleans and Aaron has a look at the morning papers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: OK, a quick check of the morning papers from around the country. I just like this. This just tells you something, but I'm not sure what.

"Washington Post," "Roberts avoid specifics on abortion issue."

Or, the "Washington Times," "Roberts defends Roe as a precedent."

Both are actually true. But they leave you with a very different impression, right?

The "San Antonio Express News," "I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong." That was the president today. Can you zoom in a bit on this picture? They found a man alive today in New Orleans. That is remarkable. He looked barely alive. But he is alive. And they brought him out. That is a great picture shot by the Associated Press.

Saints tickets on sale today. They're going to play some games in San Antonio. The owner of the New Orleans Saints was asked, Tom Benson was asked if he would donate the proceeds or any of the proceeds to the hurricane relief fund, and he said a victory would do more for the spirits of the people of New Orleans than any money. Yes.

Weather tomorrow in Chicago. A little money, OK? According to the Chicago "Sun-Times," amicable.

CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues 24 hours a day. We'll wrap up our portion in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Every night in this leaves you, Anderson, with a moment. There was a moment when the last staffers left Memorial Hospital, knowing there were 35 or 40 or however many patients and that they were going to die. And I'm not saying those people did the right thing or the wrong thing, but they're going to live with it for the rest of their lives.

COOPER: As well they should. And those people in that nursing home who were just waiting for the water to come in, old people, incontinent people, people laying in their beds. You know, I hope they didn't know what was coming. I hope their end came swiftly.

Aaron, thanks for the coverage tonight. Join is again tomorrow for a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

Catherine Callaway continues CNN's coverage right now from Atlanta.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com.

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