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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Charges Brought Against Owners of Louisiana Nursing Home; President Bush Takes Responsibility For Hurricane Response Failures; Interview With American Red Cross President

Aired September 13, 2005 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Glad to have you with us.
Tonight, the legal reckoning begins. Thirty-four counts of negligent homicide, the first charges in a case where helpless patients were allegedly left to be drowned by Hurricane Katrina.

Here's what you need to know right now. The owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home, just outside of New Orleans, surrendered to authorities only a few hours ago. As we just mentioned, they face 34 counts of negligent homicide. I will be talking exclusively with their attorney in a few minutes, as well as the attorney general of the state.

New Orleans Health Department has raised the state's confirmed death toll to 423. That is up from 279 on Monday.

Louisiana's governor is lashing out at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for what she calls its lack of urgency in the body recovery effort.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), 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)

ZAHN: And just a short time ago, Vice Admiral Thad Allen, FEMA's point man now on the ground, answered back in a written statement. He says FEMA is committed to a process that treats the victims of the hurricane with dignity and respect. Autopsies are planned on the bodies of 45 patients discovered at the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. A Louisiana Hospital Association official says soaring temperatures, sometimes as high as 107 degrees, and the lack of working equipment led to many patient deaths during and immediately after the storm. Our Dan Simon is working on that one.

And Dana Bash has details of a stunning shift in the political landscape. Today, President Bush acknowledged serious problems in the government's ability to respond to national emergencies. He plans to address the nation from Louisiana this Thursday night. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers says as many as 160,000 homes all across New Orleans may be unsalvageable. However the city's mayor, Ray Nagin, today said he will allow part of the city to reopen for business on Monday, if water quality tests show it's safe.

Helicopters spent the day lowering huge sandbags to shore up the spot where a levee on the London Canal started leaking again yesterday. A district commander for the Army Corps of Engineers tells CNN that levees outside of New Orleans may have suffered even more severe damage than previously thought.

But tonight, there are also some signs that things are getting better. Commercial airliners are once again flying into the New Orleans International Airport, the first flight since Katrina struck earlier last week. Railroad freight -- that's two weeks ago, I'm sorry.

Railroad freight service also resumed after Norfolk Southern repaired its Lake Pontchartrain bridge.

Highways, though, are another matter. These are sections of Interstate 10 toppled onto Lake Pontchartrain. Boy, the pictures say it all, don't they? The Transportation Department says it will cost about $3 billion just to repair roads and bridges in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Hurricane Katrina is a natural disaster of almost unimaginable destruction and death. But tonight, some of that loss of life, the shocking deaths of some of the most vulnerable among us, has also become a criminal matter, a case of 34 counts of negligent homicide.

Drew Griffin has been covering this story, and he's just filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): St. Rita's Nursing Home had survived other hurricanes without evacuating its patients. This time, the apparent decision by its owners not to flee Katrina may have had deadly consequences.

CHARLES FOTI, LOUISIANA ATTORNEY GENERAL: We prepared an arrest warrant that was signed by a judge in St. Bernard Parish. We talked to their lawyer. And today, they have turned themselves in and are currently incarcerated while awaiting whatever bond procedures will happen at the East Baton Rouge Parish Jail. GRIFFIN: By Saturday afternoon, Bryan Bertucci knew Hurricane Katrina was heading straight for St. Bernard Parish and it was time to make his calls.

DR. BRYAN BERTUCCI, ST. BERNARD PARISH CORONER: Just to ask as a doctor, not as any parish officer, are you all evacuating?

GRIFFIN: Five nursing homes are in this parish, and they are filled with the doctor's patients. He says he asked each one if they planned to get out.

BERTUCCI: All were leaving except St. Rita's.

GRIFFIN: By Sunday, the storm was already coming ashore. It was 2:00 in the afternoon. Bertucci was no longer acting just as a doctor. He was a county official, picking up his role as coroner. At 2:00 p.m., he says he called St. Rita's with an urgent message. It was time to leave.

(on camera): And this is around 2:00 Sunday.

BERTUCCI: Around 2:00 Sunday. Now, I told her I had two buses with two drivers that would take them whenever they wanted.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): But inside St. Rita's, he says the decision was already made to stay. According to Bertucci, five special-needs patients could not be evacuated. Ambulances that would have taken the special-care patients to the Superdome were no longer available.

Bertucci says one of the owners, Mable Mangano, was betting on her experience that this nursing home was on high ground, had never flooded, and that New Orleans had been spared before.

BERTUCCI: She said, I have five nurses. I have a generator, and I have spoken to the families, and they said it was OK to stay.

GRIFFIN: The state Department of Health and Hospitals Officials say they were under the assumption that St. Rita's had filed its required evacuation plan. But, as with all facilities, it was up to St. Rita's to decide when to evacuate. A last-minute desperate attempt by the owners was only partially successful because the water rose faster than boats could arrive.

Two days later, Dr. Bryan Bertucci learned what happened. It's the first time, he says, he cried.

BERTUCCI: I think, by the time they tried to come back, since these people are bedridden, wheelchair, walker, some with organic brain syndrome, four feet of water would probably be enough for most of them to drown.

GRIFFIN: Were they all patients, as far as you could tell?

BERTUCCI: As far as I can tell, they were all patients.

GRIFFIN: So, there were no nurses there or any employees? BERTUCCI: I did not see any nurses or employees.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The owners saved some residents, their staff and themselves. So far, those owners are not talking. Their attorney says they are good people, telling CNN, "I can promise you there's another side to the story."

Jim Cobb says any criticism of his clients, whom he says risked their lives to save others, are 100 percent out of bounds for people who lost everything.

Tom Rodrigue lost his mom. Like Bertucci, he says he called St. Rita's urging them to evacuate. He says the owners risked his mother's life by not getting out, adding she is the one who lost everything.

TOM RODRIGUE, SON OF HURRICANE KATRINA VICTIM: She deserved a chance, you know, you know, to be rescued, instead of having to drown like a rat.

GRIFFIN: Now all 34 of the dead are part of a growing list Dr. Bryan Bertucci keeps in his red book. There are 70 victims listed from his parish so far. Those who died at St. Rita's, he says, were completely unnecessary deaths, ones the owners will have to live with the rest of their lives.

BERTUCCI: This was a very good home, provided very good care. The owners are very conscientious toward the patients.

GRIFFIN (on camera): And just made a very dumb decision?

BERTUCCI: I think they made a poor decision.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Paula, these people were in business for 20 years there. This was a poor decision, made with complicating circumstances, under the threat of a Cat 5 hurricane bearing down on them, a poor decision that the Louisiana state attorney general now says is a crime.

Back to you.

ZAHN: Drew Griffin, thanks so much for the update.

Joining me for an exclusive interview, Jim Cobb, the attorney for the owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home, who are the folks who are charged with negligent homicide. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

The attorney general laid out his case today, essentially saying that your clients absolutely violated their own evacuation order. They violated the evacuation order of New Orleans, that they had a contract with an ambulance company, that they never even bothered to call for help, and that St. Bernard's Parish actually called and offered to help them evacuate patients, and they didn't respond.

How will your clients fight these charges? JIM COBB, ATTORNEY FOR ST. RITA'S NURSING HOME OWNERS: Let me first say, Paula, that our hearts go out to the relatives of the families that were lost.

And with respect to what the attorney general of Louisiana has said on your air, I can say that it's categorically false. In the first place, the owners of this facility, as has been reported previously, stayed in the facility, not just by themselves, with their children, their grandchildren, their nieces and their nephews.

They abandoned no one. They saved over 52 lives after the water rose precipitously. Under that set of circumstances, the attorney general, to indict them for a crime, is, in my view, out of bounds and a prosecutorial abuse of discretion.

ZAHN: But, sir, why didn't they evacuate? They had orders to evacuate. They have a charter that stipulated they needed to have their own evacuation plan in place, which the attorney general says has been violated here.

(CROSSTALK)

COBB: Well, the attorney -- that's the attorney general's view.

Our view is that we absolutely had an evacuation plan. That plan was of record with the Department of Health and Hospitals. It was of record with St. Bernard Parish. That plan, they had it.

ZAHN: Why didn't they execute it?

COBB: The evacuation -- they did execute it. They sat and waited for a mandatory evacuation order from the officials at St. Bernard Parish. It never came.

I just heard Dr. Bertucci indicate that he called them and told them to evacuate. That is not the recollection of everybody at the nursing home. And they were in the facility, not someplace else. I might also add...

ZAHN: So, you're saying your clients had no knowledge of any specific evacuation order on the part of St. Bernard's Parish or any other city official in New Orleans?

COBB: They have two kinds of evacuation orders, Ms. Zahn. They have a voluntary evacuation and they have a mandatory evacuation order.

Surely, there were plenty of voluntary evacuation orders in effect. Mandatory is a different animal. And what you need to understand and hasn't been explained to your viewers is, if you evacuate these patients, many of whom are on oxygen, many of whom are on feeder tubes, many of whom won't survive the evacuation, if you pull that trigger too soon, those folks are going to die.

In this particular storm, Ferncrest Manor Nursing Home evacuated in advance. Twenty people died on a bus. Last year, for Ivan, dozens died in buses sitting in traffic, dehydrating and dying. This particular facility had weathered every single storm for 20 years without a drop of water. The difference this year was, we relied on the protection of the levee system designed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. It failed. Perhaps Attorney General Foti ought to look at them for their negligence.

ZAHN: Do your clients accept any responsibility for the deaths of 34 patients in their care?

COBB: What do you mean by responsibility?

ZAHN: Well, didn't families send those patients there and pay for the care, fully expecting that they would be safe there?

(CROSSTALK)

COBB: Well, that's exactly right. And I'm glad you brought up that point. This facility is -- is -- the residents there, 85 percent of them come from right there in St. Bernard Parish, Ms. Zahn. Their relatives picked this facility because it was an outstanding facility. You just heard Dr. Bertucci say that. These folks cared for these people, lived with these people, took care of them.

And, at the end of the day, the relatives of these people decided that it was best for their relatives to be there. I will tell you that the facility made phone calls to every relative of every resident, telling them what our plans were. We're going to stay. We have a generator. We have food for 10 days. We have water for 10 days. We have gone and picked up your relatives' medicine for 10 days. We're ready.

If you do not agree with that course of action, please come get your relative. Six did. Six did.

ZAHN: All right. But, Mr. Foti (sic), you know that some family members are accusing your clients of playing God here, that they simply violated an order. And it's still not clear to me. And I want you to clarify this before I let you go.

COBB: Well, OK...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: They were aware of a voluntary -- you said a voluntary evacuation order.

COBB: Correct.

ZAHN: But you claim that your clients were never aware of a mandatory order to get out.

COBB: That is absolutely correct. As a matter of fact, we were talking to Dr. Bertucci on Sunday afternoon at 3:30. We had a resident die before the storm came. An elderly patient simply died. We were trying to evacuate her body before the storm hit, because we knew we would probably lose power for a particular period of time. Dr. Bertucci talked to us at 3:30 in the afternoon and said to Ms. Mangano, I will call you back in 30 minutes. He never called.

ZAHN: But you certainly heard from St. Bernard's Parish that was offering to help you get patients out, or your clients did.

COBB: Well, that's -- that's an interesting and self-serving statements by the authorities in St. Bernard Parish. It strikes me, Ms. Zahn, that St. Bernard Parish, its residents, have been shortchanged by the federal government, by the state government and by the local government. And now Attorney General Foti has added insult to injure by indicting two 65-year-old innocent people who provided health care for elderly folks for 20 years, a spotless record. It's a shameful action by the attorney general of the state of Louisiana.

ZAHN: Mr. Cobb, we have got to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us tonight.

COBB: Thank you.

ZAHN: We are going to turn to Tammy Daigle. She was a nurse at St. Rita's and was on duty the Saturday before Hurricane Katrina hit. Thank you for joining us.

I don't know how much of my conversation with Mr. Cobb you could hear. He was defending the owners of the home, basically saying they were aware of a voluntary evacuation order, but they weren't aware of a mandatory one.

Tell us what went on during that Saturday. Was an evacuation even talked about?

TAMMY DAIGLE, ST. RITA'S NURSING HOME NURSE: Well, there was a voluntary evacuation order first. Then, Sunday, I think the conditions worsened, and there was a mandatory evacuation put in progress by the parish.

That Saturday night, there was no talk of evacuation. There were families calling, and they were told that they were not leaving the building -- that they could pick their loved one up, but they had no plans to leave.

ZAHN: Were families really as supportive of that as Mr. Cobb just suggested?

DAIGLE: I don't think all of them were, no. Some were extremely worried. You've heard from Mr. Rodrigue yourself. He was trying to -- calling and calling. There were several who called and asked, if they were asking. So, I don't believe that they all knew that they were going to stay.

ZAHN: But, by Friday, it was pretty clear that this was going to be a powerful storm. Why do you think the owners didn't try in advance of the voluntary evacuation to start getting some of these extremely vulnerable patients out of there?

DAIGLE: Well, I think they were concerned about a few patients that they knew wouldn't survive an evacuation. So, instead of endangering their lives, they thought they could stay safely in the building with all of them. I mean, so many times, storms have turned and didn't do what they had they -- what -- thought they were going to do. But this time, it just came head on.

ZAHN: So, do you think the owners of this home were negligent, or do you think they really did the best that they could do with what they had available?

DAIGLE: I think that they should have evacuated, that they should have. If they knew it was a Category 5, they should have known the levees would not hold up. And they should have gotten those people to safety.

But, on the other token, you know, why didn't somebody in the parish call them up and make sure they were gone? I mean, they should have given them a call.

ZAHN: Well, there are a lot of very important questions that are being raised as this investigation is launched.

Tammy Daigle, thank you for joining us.

DAIGLE: Can I say one more thing, please?

ZAHN: Yes, real briefly here.

DAIGLE: OK. We have a -- I had prayed Sunday over the patients' welfare. And I had a lady named Jody (ph). She contacted me. Her grandmother was a resident at St. Rita's. She found her grandmother after searching five states. She is safe now. She's been moved to another facility. But, anyway, what I'm getting at is, there are 50 family -- members -- I'm sorry -- and they've joined together, and they're helping each other to band together, and they're trying to find their loved ones.

ZAHN: Sure.

DAIGLE: They have so far found 27 residents. They're still missing nine.

ZAHN: Well, that's fantastic progress.

(CROSSTALK)

DAIGLE: These residents -- can I give you an e-mail?

ZAHN: Yes, Tammy. Unfortunately, I'm going to lose my satellite shot with you, so I have got to run. But we will try to get that e- mail from you a little bit later on in the show. Thank you very much.

DAIGLE: Because we need donations for these patients for wheelchairs and walkers and clothes. They have nothing.

ZAHN: OK.

DAIGLE: OK? ZAHN: We will try to get that on the air a little bit later on.

DAIGLE: Thank you.

ZAHN: Tammy, again, thanks for your time.

ZAHN: We're going to turn quickly now to Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, who has filed negligent homicide charges against the owners of St. Rita's.

Mr. Foti, thank you so much for being with us tonight.

I don't know if you could hear any of my interview with Jim Cobb, the attorney representing these two people charged today, but he says that a lot of what you are saying or put forward in your suit today is categorically false. He says that the owners of this home weren't even aware of a mandatory evacuation order.

Your reaction to that?

FOTI: Let me just say this -- that we did an investigation. And in criminal law, you have what's known as probable cause. We then made an affidavit and took it to the judge, where we alleged -- we alleged we had probable cause to proceed. A judge in St. Bernard's signed that order, saying we did have probable cause. We then asked them to turn themselves in, which they did today. We feel that they deviated from the standard of care that was necessary to take care of people that were confined to their home.

ZAHN: Now...

(CROSSTALK)

FOTI: Any extenuating circumstances they want to do, they can come forward and talk to us at any time. We invited them to come forward before this, but they could not be located.

So, we took the necessary actions to protect the health, safety and welfare of not only the family members, but every patient that is in any nursing home or hospital or critical care. We will investigate. We have probable cause. We will go forward with this case. And then the judge and a jury will decide on what has happened. And that is the American way.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: One of the things Mr. Cobb pointed out, that there was a great concern on the owners' part to move this very vulnerable patient population, because the simple act of movement could end up killing some of them. Does that have any credence with you at all?

FOTI: She's responsible for each and every patient. You have to follow the rules, the evacuation plan. They know these patients. They knew the storm was coming. They had a contract with Acadian Ambulance company. They should have -- they could move these patients. They should have gone with the patients and moved them out of harm's way. They have evacuated that -- to the best of my knowledge, they have evacuated that facility before. You may put stress on a patient, but is it worthwhile when a Category 5 storm is hitting you, to say that I'm going to try to ride it out?

St. Bernard's Parish has flooded before. And so, they had to exercise due care for the protection of their patients, all of their patients.

ZAHN: Attorney General Charles Foti, thank you for your time. I know you've been a very busy man today.

The more we learn about what happened to the most vulnerable of Hurricane Katrina's victims, the more outrageous it becomes. Coming up next, the emerging story about what took place at New Orleans' hospitals, both the neglect and the heroic efforts to save lives when it seemed like help would never arrive.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: I think one of the most disturbing things we have all heard today is the prediction that many more bodies will be found in Louisiana hospitals.

As Dan Simon reports, no one seems to know who died, when they died, or what actually killed them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the days after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' hospitals became fortresses under siege. Doctors and nurses stayed on duty even as conditions grew more and more desperate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't have electricity. We don't have water. All the toilets are full. You know, we can't run labs. We can't take X-rays. I mean, we're basically back to primitive medicine, just kind of guessing and treating patients for whatever we think they have.

SIMON: It took nearly a week to evacuate the doctors, nurses and patients from New Orleans hospitals. That may have been too long for a number of seriously ill patients. This past weekend, searchers discovered 45 bodies inside the 317-bed Memorial Medical Center.

(on camera): The hospital's operator, Tenet Healthcare Corporation, says some of the bodies were in the morgue before the storm hit and that none of the deaths were due to a lack of food, water or electricity to power the medical equipment.

(voice-over): But the Associated Press quotes a hospital assistant administrator as saying at least some of the patients died while waiting to be evacuated, as temperatures inside the building soared to 106 degrees. Today, the head of Louisiana's Hospital Association said the heat and lack of working equipment led to what he calls many deaths in a number of New Orleans hospitals before everyone was evacuated. Those bodies had to be left behind. So, we face the probability that even more bodies will be found as searchers make their way through New Orleans' hospitals.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: That was Dan Simon reporting.

My next guest has his very own horror story so tell about hospital conditions after the hurricane and about his staff's heroic efforts to save patients' lives.

Les Hirsch, the CEO of Touro Infirmary, joins me now from Baton Rouge. Thank you so much for being with us, Les. First of all, how hard is it for you personally to accept the deaths of these people in this hospital?

LES HIRSCH, CEO, TOURO INFIRMARY: Well, it's always very difficult when one dies. Our main goal is to take care of the safety and welfare of our patients. The situation that we found ourselves in was just a horrific situation. And given the fact that we were under such duress, I believe that our staff did just an outstanding, courageous job.

We did lose 12 patients that were at high risk for mortality. Who's to say what might have happened, but our staff just did an absolutely heroic job. I'm very proud of all of them.

ZAHN: Do you think, though, if they had been evacuated, they would have lived?

HIRSCH: Well, Paula, again, I -- I can't say. What I do know is that we needed to evacuate that hospital. I made the decision on Tuesday evening that it was very clear that the hospital needed to be evacuated, because we were losing our essential services. Power was sporadic. We were losing the building, so to speak. And I knew that the patients had to be evacuated.

We began that the following morning, on Wednesday, with 13 neonatal intensive care unit babies that we evacuated. Then, later in the day on Wednesday, we began an evacuation that ultimately ended Thursday at about 1:00 p.m. under some very, very difficult conditions, as we were under siege and we were literally an armed fortress at that point.

ZAHN: And tell us about the situation with the rescue helicopters, because you had a very difficult time making any of those rescues work.

HIRSCH: Well, the first 48 hours were difficult. Communications were bad. We had no communications to the outside world.

We actually had one telephone line that was in my office that was reestablished. And that was the command center as a result. Beginning on Wednesday, we actually had a good evacuation under way. We moved all patients, most of our patients, to the roof, adjacent to the heliport.

And the private company, Acadian Ambulance, who operated the helicopters, did a great job, assured us we'd be out by 10:00 that evening. But then, later in the day, things really slowed down. And my instincts told me something was wrong. And what in fact had happened, I was told that some of the resources for our helicopters were redirected to other rescue operations. So, literally, we were shut down on Wednesday evening. And, at the same time, we couldn't take any more patients to the airport, even though the helicopter wanted to fly, the private company. But apparently, the airport could not receive any patients after dark.

ZAHN: What a nightmare. And we laud all of you folks who worked around the clock to try to work around those tremendously challenging curveballs that were thrown your way.

Les Hirsch, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

Two weeks ago, President Bush was heaping praise on his administration's hurricane response effort. Well, today, he did a complete about-face. What does it mean now that he's taking -- quote -- "responsibility" for the all-too-obvious failures?

Our Dana Bash has been looking into that. She joins me with some answers straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Just a short while ago, I promised one of our guests, Tammy Daigle, that we'd put up an e-mail address for people who want to help the surviving patients from the St. Rita's Nursing Home.

Here it is, St. Rita's Angels. They're at stritasangels@yahoo.com. We are going to leave that up there for one more second if you want to grab your pencil right now.

Certainly, a lot has happened to President Bush over the last two weeks. He came off his vacation two weeks early. He's now planning to take a fourth trip to the disaster zone. And he now has done a complete about-face on how his administration failed Hurricane Katrina's victims.

Here's White House correspondent Dana Bash.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a dramatic change in tone, a contrite president uncharacteristically admitting a major failure.

BUSH: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. BASH: The new admission is striking for a president who prides himself on no regrets leadership, and even more stunning because of his combative tone when asked a similar question just a day earlier.

BUSH: Look, there will be plenty of time to play the blame game. That's what you're trying to do. You're trying to say somebody is at fault. And I want to know.

BASH: Shifting from talk of a blame game to taking responsibility is the latest tactic by a Bush team still searching for the right strategy to erase intense criticism the president did not help Katrina victims fast enough

MICHAEL BROWN, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR: Today we're going to fly from Mobile along the coast.

BASH: They started to accept fault with another highly unusual move for this president, getting rid of a top aide under fire, FEMA's Michael Brown.

One Democratic veteran of White House damage control calls this an about-face two weeks too late.

JOE LOCKHART, FORMER CLINTON SPOKESMAN: Taking responsibility gives you an awful lot of running room to get it right in the long run, and not taking responsibility, the way this president did and this administration did, I think really put them in a box.

BASH: What worries Bush aides is the steady decline of an asset they thought was sealed after 9/11, leadership.

In August after a month of high profile protests against the Iraq war, the president's appeal of the strong leader was 60 percent, already a Bush low. Now it's down 8 points to 52 percent.

So on this fourth trip to the Katrina devastated areas, the president will give a speech to the nation, the kind of rally-the- country moment the White House hopes will show Mr. Bush, whatever the initial failures, is on top of the crisis.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And it's a pleasure to have Dana Bash with us here in person.

BASH: Pleasure to be here.

ZAHN: She's usually traveling all over the country, following the president.

So -- so, my question is, what would have been the risk of the president making the same move a week ago or a week-and-a-half ago?

BASH: Well, that is the question that we have been asking, certainly. And the answer tonight from a senior official is, well, they have been trying to have the president say this. And he has, they believed, had some iterations of this. But the bottom line is, the reason why -- one of the reasons, I should say, why they wanted the president to come out this directly and distinctly, saying he takes responsibility, because at this point, they don't want Mike Brown to look like a scapegoat, FEMA Director Mike Brown, who resigned yesterday.

They understand that a lot of the blame was on him. And people understand that the president -- the buck stops with the president. And the president wanted to say, I get that.

ZAHN: And isn't part of the calculation, too, he has a big speech on Thursday night from New Orleans, and they didn't want that to be -- the mea culpa to be the headline in the Friday morning papers?

BASH: That's exactly right. I have talked to an official who said that they were planning on putting this "I take responsibility" line already into the speech. It's likely to be in there. And they also have some substance they want to move forward, talking about a potential road map on how to rebuild the Gulf Coast. They want people to try to focus as much on that and not as much on what we have been calling for a couple weeks the blame game.

ZAHN: Dana Bash, thanks for dropping by.

BASH: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

It's absolutely startling, but the list of children missing two weeks after Katrina continues to grow and grow at this very hour. The latest from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows 1,878 children are still separated from their families. That's 125 more than last night at this time.

Kimberly Osias is at the center's headquarters near Washington with an update now. Hi, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY OSIAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Paula. Well, the numbers are staggering, as you mentioned, and they are continuing to rise, in part because of the sheer nature and scope of this problem. Of course, we are talking about a tri-state area. And oftentimes, these children are in shelters. They are looking for their patients, as well as parents looking for their children. These children are moving from shelter to shelters and in various foster homes.

There is a little bit of a ray of hope. So far, 552 children have been reunited with their parents. But there are some, of course, that haven't. I want to show you a couple. They really span all different ethnicities, all different ages.

This is little Chase Cannon. He was last known to be with his parents when Katrina hit in Chalmette, Louisiana. He's believed to be 2 1/2 years old. His height, weight and eye color are unknown. A lot of information is very scant because parents don't even have pictures. A lot of times, birth certificates are all gone. Basically, people here are telling me things have just been under water and parents are just dealing with memories.

His little sister, Kaylee Cannon, also blonde, believed to be about 4 1/2 years old. Her height, weight and eye color are also unknown.

You know, there are a number of volunteers that have been here manning these phones some 16 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to reunite people as quickly as they can, very, very tough, emotional work.

But it's very important for folks to call in if they have any kind of tips to this number, 1-888-544-5475, or also using the Internet, www.MissingKids.com.

Paula.

ZAHN: And there is no doubt, when people respond, it makes a huge difference, given the number of success cases we have been reporting on over the last week or so. Kimberly Osias, thanks so much.

There are a few very precious signs of normal life in New Orleans tonight, but so much still needs to be done.

I am going to be checking in with Deborah Feyerick at our status alert desk and take you to the city itself next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Some important things going on in New Orleans tonight. We want to get you caught up on the very latest on the Gulf Coast, as people there deal with this state of emergency.

Deborah Feyerick has been working the phones and her sources tonight. She joins me now from our status alert desk. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula. Well, the status alert in New Orleans, a private company that does security in Iraq has been brought in to protect communications towers, federal buildings and petrochemical facilities. Blackwater agents are also providing security for insurance adjusters tallying up the damage in the region.

Status alert Shreveport. Immediately after the storm, the city in northwest Louisiana set up three shelters housing some 3,500 people fleeing the hurricane. Nearly three-quarters of them have found long- term housing, leaving just one shelter up and running for some 800 people. Police slapped down rumors of chaos and crime, saying the only spike they're seeing is a few petty thefts.

That tops our status alert at this hour. If you have any information on a parish or town, please e-mail us here at StatusAlert@CNN.com.

Paula.

ZAHN: Deborah Feyerick, appreciate the update. Thanks. Most of New Orleans is shrouded in darkness. For nearly all of the city's neighborhoods and many surrounding communities, it is the sixteenth night without power. Still, at this moment, pumps are working furiously to get the toxic water out. But in vast stretches of the city, you still can't see the streets. Almost everywhere, an army of workers is struggling to get the city back on its feet.

Jeff Koinange has been in the city all day. And he joins me now. So, when do you think the city will be dry? Any way of knowing, Jeff?

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, officials tell us, Paula, anywhere from 36 to 80 days.

But it's very surprising. On this street where we are right now, about a week ago, the water level was about four or five feet. Today, bone-dry -- great sign, Paula, that at least the city is getting drier and drier even quicker than officials thought. That 80 days may be a little pessimistic or may be too optimistic. It's getting drier by the day, Paula.

ZAHN: One of the more depressing statistics we have to absorb tonight, Jeff, is this dramatic jump in the death toll, going from 279 yesterday to 423 today. How did that happen?

KOINANGE: Well, the basic deal is, it's been search-and-rescue throughout the last 15 days. Now it's becoming search and recovery. National Guard units, police units from across the country are literally going door to door now searching for bodies. That's why that dramatic rise.

Remember, Ray Nagin had said the body count could be as much as 10,000? Well, now officials on the ground are saying that was a little on the high side. But, again, don't be surprised if it goes from 423, jumps a little higher in the coming days, because crews are literally going door to door looking for bodies and corpses.

Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Jeff Koinange. And according to -- appreciate that update.

According to the governor of Louisiana, the FEMA teams just aren't working fast enough on the recovery of those bodies. And she made some pretty pointed comments about that process earlier today.

The numbers certainly are staggering, but so is the need. Can the Red Cross keep up with one of the biggest challenges it has ever faced? I will ask its president in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Tonight, perhaps as many as a million Americans are out of their homes because of Hurricane Katrina, many with no idea of when they can ever go back.

At this moment, 65,000 of them are being sheltered by the Red Cross in 18 states, fanning all across the country from Utah to Michigan to Florida. The Red Cross expects to give financial assistance to 750,000 people. And, still, the Red Cross needs a lot of help. It's asking for 40,000 volunteers just to answer the phones. But even as people give their time and money, there are those among us who prey on generosity.

Right now, I'm joined by Marty Evans, president of the American Red Cross. Nice to have you back.

So, Marty, first of all, I understand that one of your bigger problems is that you're trying to get this financial assistance to these people who are in dire need. They're trying to get on the hotline. They can't. Or they're put on hold forever. How do you plan to combat that?

MARTY EVANS, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN RED CROSS: Well, you know, Paula, we concentrated right after the hurricane hit on providing shelter and feeding for the enormous number of people, well over 200,000 in our shelters, in 800-plus shelters.

So, this phase of the operation, as some of those shelter numbers wind down a little bit, we're trying to gear up to provide the financial assistance. We have several different ways. Some chapters are providing checks. Some are providing debit cards. We have also opened a 1-800 number. And we're adding not just additional call takers, but we are adding additional phone centers.

And so, we're gearing that up as quickly as we can. We're asking people to be patient. We expect to have significant more resources online to handle those calls in the next four or five days, plus additional debit cards out in some chapters. So, we're trying to attack it on many different fronts.

ZAHN: How big of a problem is fraud right now?

EVANS: Well, sad to say, in every single disaster, there are people who come forward claiming that they were affected when they weren't, claiming to have more family members. We do have significant databases with addresses. And so, we can check. And usually, with one or two probing questions, people will say, well, maybe I really wasn't in the area.

We do have system and processes in place, and we work closely with law enforcement and with prosecutors to deal with cases that surface.

ZAHN: And there are also cases, are there not, of shelters pretending to be Red Cross centers and they simply aren't?

EVANS: Well, we have that occasionally. That's probably less overall of a problem than some of the Internet sites that pop up purporting to be Red Cross sites. And, again, we recommend that people know the site, know the charity they're donating to. Redcross.org is the Red Cross charity online. And we prosecute those -- well, we help -- work with the FBI to prosecute those. ZAHN: Finally, Marty, how much of a difference do you think it will make to America that the president has admitted to taking responsibility, in his words, for the federal government's response to Katrina?

EVANS: You know, Paula, we have focused so much of our efforts on helping people that have desperately needed the help. And, quite frankly, I don't have time to worry about blame, to point fingers. What we're trying to do is get the Red Cross systems geared up even more powerfully than they're already working.

ZAHN: Well, we wish you a lot of luck...

EVANS: Thanks.

ZAHN: ... because there are hundreds of thousands of people who need it.

Marty Evans, thanks again for your time tonight.

EVANS: Thank you.

ZAHN: You're about to meet some of the most important people in New Orleans right now. Their job is simple, to get rid of all the water. How's it going? We're going to find out next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We have just gotten some news in from the recovery effort. Three New Orleans suburbs, Gretna, Westwego and Lafitte, will reopen tomorrow morning. All three are in Jefferson Parish, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River from the city. Residents can come back to clean, to stay and to finally put their lives together starting at 5:00 a.m.

Right now, though, as the waters slowly start to recede in New Orleans, stories of unsung heroes are just beginning to emerge -- among them, the men and women who operate the city's pumping system, who have been working around the clock. They've got at least 41 of the city's pumps going again out of a total of 174.

Here's Keith Oppenheim.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes. That is a beautiful sight.

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The water is finally flowing at pumping station number one. And it's moving because of the muscle, sweat and bravery of the people of the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board. They're the ones you don't see much, but everyone is counting on them to drain billions of gallons of contaminated floodwater from the city.

RENAULDO ROBERTSON, NEW ORLEANS WATER AND SEWAGE BOARD: I have been working for -- this is my eighteenth day around the clock for 24 hours. And I'm not giving up.

OPPENHEIM: Renauldo Robertson is a supervisor here. This father of five, supporting his family on a meager city salary, risked his life during the storm when he climbed up this precarious catwalk, 30 feet up, to escape the rising water.

ROBERTSON: We brought our belongings up there, and we tried to get as comfortable as possible. But the bugs was eating us up. The heat was terrible. So, we had to actually stand in the water.

OPPENHEIM: Robertson says he's been working nonstop for more than two weeks, since before Katrina struck. The conditions are stinky, hot and dangerous.

ROBERTSON: It's OK. I'm not going to...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You OK?

ROBERTSON: I have been doing that for 18 days. The things that I smell is undescribable. It's just -- it's just stink, filthy, dirty water.

OPPENHEIM: Robertson knows the quirks of these antiquated pumping stations, this one more than 100 years old. Today, at long last, progress.

ROBERTSON: I am enthusiastic about this, because this is one of the last sections of the city that need to have some flow.

OPPENHEIM: The immediate goal is to move a massive flow from one city station to the next, until the polluted floodwater can be spilled into Lake Pontchartrain or the Mississippi River.

ROBERTSON: Without this gate being open, we would still have stagnated water in the mid-city area.

OPPENHEIM: The Sewage and Water Board workers are getting help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

CWO THOMAS BLACK, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: This is where I need to be. This is what I need to do. He's not leaving without me.

OPPENHEIM: Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Black came from Virginia. He has become fast friends with Renauldo Robertson. On the surface, theirs is a military-civilian connection.

BLACK: But I'm the one lucky enough to be here to help these guys, because this is a rewarding experience, working with them.

OPPENHEIM: Busting their backsides together, they fly off to the next station, knowing what they do now will make all the difference to the recovery of New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Well, it already has. Keith Oppenheim reporting. We are going to take a short break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And that's it for all of us here tonight.

Thanks so much for being with us. LARRY KING LIVE is next.

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