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Mayor Plans to Reopen Parts of New Orleans; North Carolina Residents Assess Damage from Ophelia; Louisiana Congressman Responds to Bush Speech

Aired September 16, 2005 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CO-HOST: I'm Soledad O'Brien. President Bush makes a bold promise in his prime time speech to the nation to rebuild New Orleans.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.


O'BRIEN: Tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars are needed. Not everyone in Washington agrees where the money should come from. This morning, we'll take a look at the president's plan and the fallout -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CO-HOST: Good morning, Soledad. I'm Miles O'Brien, live in Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish, about four miles from the French Quarter. Here the question is how long will it take to rebuild? Nearly every structure, 30,000 of them, will have to be bulldozed in this part of the world.

We'll talk to some people who lead the parish and will wonder -- the question they have on their minds this morning is what will happen when residents return tomorrow -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: And after hammering the Outer Banks of North Carolina for 24 hours, Ophelia starts to move back out to sea. Finally, they're surveying the damage there on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Lots to talk about this morning with the president's speech. We'll focus on that. First, thought, let's check in with Miles. As he mentioned, he's in St. Bernard Parish. It's right outside of New Orleans.

Miles, good morning to you. That's the parish where, when I was there last week, the leaders of the community said 100 percent -- 100 percent of their homes was their estimate that suffered some kind of damage.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. And it's hard to even comprehend, Soledad. Live from Chalmette this morning, and here the devastation is virtually complete. The term apocalyptic does come to mind, and that really isn't an overstatement. It would be as if a nuclear device were set off here in St. Bernard Parish.

Thirty thousand structures, 70,000 people, all of it affected. The town leaders say 99.9 percent of those structures will have to be bulldozed. This is an unprecedented disaster.

We've been focusing on New Orleans, the French Quarter, only about four miles of where I stand from where there, where is talk of phased repopulation and getting businesses back to work. In this case, there's talk about whether the parish will be able to bounce back at all.

And the rebuild, well, it's a matter of many years, perhaps decades, before St. Bernard Parish will ever resemble what it was before Katrina -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: The pictures are really, you know, they're devastating and they really tell the story, don't they? Miles, we're going to check in with you again throughout the morning, obviously.

First, though, we want to talk about President Bush' speech. Today, he has declared a national day of prayer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He's going to speak at Washington's National Cathedral this morning. Last night, though, he spoke from New Orleans, offered proposals on how the federal government is going to help the Gulf Coast recover.

Dana Bash is live -- live for us at the White House this morning.

Dana, good morning to you. Lay out for us the priorities that the president laid out last night.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a whole host of priorities, Soledad. Job training, healthcare, housing. The long list of initiatives he hopes Congress will pass.

But one of the other priorities that he had last night was to essentially show Americans that he had the same outrage that they have over the images of despair and desperation.

And he addressed the Katrina victims directly. He said, "A whole nation cares about you. You are not alone."


BASH (voice-over) Not only did the president take responsibility for inadequate government response to Katrina, he conceded he failed his own test.

BUSH: Four years after the frightening experience of September the 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation I, as president, am responsible for the problem and for the solution.

BASH: That stunning statement in a relatively pristine French Quarter of an otherwise devastated New Orleans, part of his first formal address in an attempt to regain America's confidence. He learned a lesson from the ill-coordinated government response.

BUSH: It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces.

BASH: Mr. Bush struck a hopeful tone, promising the government will pay for what he called one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.

BUSH: We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.

BASH: No new price tag, but the president asked Congress to pass several new initiatives, including a Gulf Opportunity Zone, tax relief for small business; worker recovery accounts, up to $5,000 for training, education, and child care for Katrina victims looking for jobs; and Urban Homesteading Act to help lower income victims rebuild.

The chief White House goal of this speech: to turn around the perception the president was initially detached from the tragedy. He delivered his own instructions for families trying to reunite.

BUSH: Please call this number: 1-877-568-3317. That's 1-877- 568-3317. And we will work to bring your family back together.

BASH: And try to move past allegations from some that race played a role in the slow response.

BUSH: Poverty has roots in the history of racial discrimination which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.


BASH: And the president set a goal of getting all evacuees out of shelters by mid October. Soledad, he also ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review all emergency plans in all major cities around the country -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Dana, we knew going in that the president would not name in this speech a czar for the recovery, but do you think that's going to happen one day? Many people are calling for that.

BASH: They are calling for that. In fact, some senior Republican senators were actually here at the White House in a private meeting, telling the president last week that he should do just that. They're not taking it off the table right now. They are sort of keeping it open.

But frankly, in terms of Republicans calling for things, right now I think the White House is a lot more focused on some of the criticism coming from Republicans at questioning how the president is going to pay for the number of initiatives that he put out last night.

S. O'BRIEN: Dana Bash at the White House for us. Dana, thanks.

Let's get right back to Miles. He is in St. Bernard Parish this morning -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning again, Soledad. Good morning to you. St. Bernard Parish, we just picked really any random street. We went down this street this morning and we found what you will see on every single street of this parish.

Take a look at this devastation behind me and what you see in the foreground is a thick layer of mud. It almost looks as if there has been a volcanic explosion here. Thick layer of mud in many parts, laced with oil. There was a huge oil spill here, as if to add to the apocalypse. That almost looks like a Hollywood movie set.

This is somebody's home right now, and it is uninhabitable, as are nearly every home in this parish. The number of homes that can be lived in can be counted on one hand. We're talking about bulldozing 30,000 structures in this one parish alone, about four miles from the French Quarter.


M. O'BRIEN (voice-over): The next steps for St. Bernard Parish are clear as mud. Now that the deep water is receding, the cold, harsh reality of an unprecedented disaster is staring Sheriff Jack Stephens in the face.

SHERIFF JACK STEPHENS, ST. BERNARD PARISH: We just never wanted to believe it could happen to us, and it has happened to us. We're living our worst nightmare with regards to a weather event.

M. O'BRIEN: Katrina covered more than 95 percent of the parish in deep water for days. Parish leaders say nearly every home and building here will have to be demolished.

STEPHENS: I don't think there's ever been a community that's had as hard a hit as we've had.

M. O'BRIEN: It is hard to comprehend an entire community of about 70,000 people obliterated during the course of a 12-hour lashing from Mother Nature. Now the sheriff is bracing for the grim returns.

(on camera) What's the reaction going to be like when they have the opportunity, start Saturday, to come in here and take a look? What do you think is going to happen?

STEPHENS: Well, a lot of these people are veterans of hurricanes. You know, in this area, it's something that we put up with our whole lives. So I think that they -- that they anticipate some damage, but I really don't think that they're prepared for what they're going to find here. This is a total wipeout. This is devastation.

M. O'BRIEN (voice-over): Serra Thibodeau says the damage is 10 times worse than she expected.

(on camera) What are you going to do now? Have you even thought about that? SERRA THIBODEAUX, RESIDENT: What can you do? At this point, what can you do?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

THIBODEAUX: Day by day. You can't make any plans.

M. O'BRIEN: Do you think you'll ever come back here and live here again?

THIBODEAUX: Probably not. There's nothing to come back to.

THARON BOASSO, RESIDENT: Everything is just totally, totally destroyed and just thrown everywhere.

M. O'BRIEN: Nothing to salvage?

BOASSO: Maybe a little whatnots that can you clean up, you know? My mom gave me this.

M. O'BRIEN: What is it?

BOASSO: A little box, like a little memory box and it had some words on it. You know, "When you're alone" and things like that.

M. O'BRIEN (voice-over): The parish is teetering on the banks of oblivion. The school system is shut down, and so is the hospital. Sheriff Stephens isn't sure how he's going to meet the payroll.

And yet amid this bleak landscape, there is talk of a new St. Bernard rising from the mud.

(on camera) Should St. Bernard be rebuilt?

STEPHENS: St. Bernard will be rebuilt. It may be a far different place than those of us that grew up here are used to, but I think it could be a better community. I know I might not live long enough to see it completed, but I know I'll live long enough to see it started.

M. O'BRIEN: You've maintained some optimism through all this.

STEPHENS: Well, you have to. If you didn't, you'd lose your mind.


M. O'BRIEN: Tomorrow, residents here in certain parts of St. Bernard Parish will have an opportunity to come back and see what has happened and see it with their own eyes.

In many respects what this will be is an opportunity for them to pick out just single items like you saw, that little memory book that that one man was able to recover.

But while the people of New Orleans are talking about getting businesses back going, repopulating the city, in this case, they're -- they're actually beginning with a clean slate or really a muddy, clean slate.

Let's move it on back to New Orleans, where the talk is of trying to get people back in, trying to get businesses back going.

CNN's Sean Callebs is on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in the northern part of the city. He has that story for us.

Good morning, Sean.


Louisiana likes to bill itself as a sportsman's paradise. Look behind me. Sail boats, pleasure crafts just tossed around in this parking lot as if they were tiny toys. Lake Pontchartrain is not terribly far from us, just off to my right. It is going to be some time before that paradise is reinvigorated again.

Meanwhile, we've heard Mayor Nagin talk a lot over the past several days about how he wants to breathe life back into this city. He has an ambitious plan that would bring about 180,000 people into the city over the next 10 days or so. He wants to open up the Central Business District, as well the Algiers section uptown.

And then a week from Monday, a big move, opening up the French Quarter, something everyone certainly is waiting for.

But a lot of obstacles as well, not the least of which, all the emergency vehicles that are tying up those narrow streets downtown. Police offices have been decimated. Where are people going to shop? How are we going to get gasoline?

We know they plan to use the civic -- the civic center in some capacity -- the convention center, rather, in some capacity. They want to put a grocery store in there, as well as have lumber sales for people who need that.

The mayor says it's going to be quite a step. Still, it's a way off from having all of the people back into the city the way he wants.


MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: My gut feel right now is that we'll settle in at about 250, 250,000 people over the next three to six months and then we'll start to ramp up over time to get back up to the half a millions that we had before and maybe exceed that, because I envision us rebuilding an incredible city that's so livable, so unique, with all the New Orleans wonderful things that everybody appreciates that everybody is going to want to come.


CALLEBS: And last night, President Bush said it's hard to imagine the U.S. without a city like this, but Miles, after driving around taking a look at all these areas, it's really hard to imagine it's going to be back any time soon with all of the work that lies ahead -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, Sean, I think we're in the same position as residents here. It really takes some time to really absorb the full magnitude of all this.

And unfortunately, as you watch this at home, to give you sort of a blinder eye view of various places it's hard to really get a sense of this. I'm standing in a place that is utterly devastated, and the comeback is going to take many years.

Let's go back to Soledad now in New York -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles. Thanks.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, now the aftermath of Hurricane Ophelia, and it is a tropical storm not leaving North Carolinas, although the wind levels have dropped now to tropical storm strength. Not expected to move on, though, till mid-day.

There's been considerable damage from three days of wind and rain, and officials are going to get a first look at the damage today.

Let's get to Rob Marciano. He's in Salter Path this morning.

Rob, good morning to you. And I can see behind you that the damage is pretty extensive in some parts.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's quite surprising, Soledad. You know, we mentioned how slow this storm was moving. And though -- even though it was a Category 1 storm that, as slow as it was moving, the constant pounding that it was giving North Carolina was going to do some serious damage.

And we showed up yesterday afternoon, and this is what we found behind me. This is actually on the north shore of Bogue Sound. This is -- part of this is storm surge, part of this is just debris that the owners of the restaurant have been clearing out all day long.

It's completely hollowed out inside. That is the Crab Shack. We were actually going to eat there a couple of nights ago. It's an institution. And I'm told it's just the best seafood on this strip.

The owner has got two shrimp boats that he parks right in the back, unloads that fresh seafood and boom, it's on your plate within a matter of hours.

Just beyond the banks of this, these palm trees, you can see the water. That's Bogue Sound. It's a sound. It's calm. Normally. But all of the water that came in from two inlets that surround this barrier island was forced in here from the high tide and from the storm surge. And then a north wind kicked in here as the storm passes and piled up all that water against these buildings. Unbelievable what it looks like in the back of the buildings.

Note the dates on these. The fire department came in here. That's yesterday's date. Fire department went in there and said, "OK, it's OK to go in there and clean things up."

But a lot of the buildings look like that. The bluish gray building there that. It says not safe. The backside of that is just blown to pieces. It's condemned.

Want to give you an idea of what it looks like behind that police tape that has been put up, because it's just not safe to get back there but yesterday we managed to swing back there for some video, and some of the shots are just tremendous. You really see the power of what the storm surge did to these buildings and the docks on the backside.

Completely obliterated any docks that were back there. Cinder block -- cinder block walls were actually blown down. It looks something reminiscent of Biloxi on a much, much smaller scale. Unbelievable to see the damage that a Category 1 storm can bring, Soledad and all because Ophelia was moving so slowly.

Well, at least now it's off the shores of the Outer Banks, winding down a little bit and hopefully heading out to sea.

That's the latest from here, Soledad. Back up to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Rob. Thanks. Yes, you think Category 1, and you don't really think that much damage. I mean, that's pretty remarkable to see. Rob Marciano for us. We're going to check in with him again.

As Rob mentioned Ophelia may not be finished. Let's get right to Chad Myers. He's at the CNN Center.

Chad, good morning to you. That damage looks so much worse than I think many people thought they would get from a Category 1.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Didn't we say the same thing after Katrina hit Miami as a Category 1? "Wow, this can't be a Category 1." That's why they call it a hurricane, people. You need to get out of the way.

This was a water piling up problem, and water has a lot more force than wind does. Go and try to stand in a three-foot wave coming off the Atlantic Ocean, it's going to knock you down. Well, obviously, it knocked down a bunch of walls, too, as that wave came back from the other side as the wind shifted direction.

Now what's going on with Ophelia? Winds 65. Still off the coast. You saw the spin there. There are the numbers. Thirty-five, one, 74, eight. Plymouth, Massachusetts, Cape Cod, Nantucket all the way over to Rhode Island, tropical storm watch in effect.

Why? Because this storm is going to get very, very close to the North Carolina coast today, come on up, make huge waves for New Jersey, and then possibly even hit the northeastern section of the United States again, a double whammy. That's going to come up tomorrow morning. You have to keep watching this if you live in the northeast -- Soledad. S. O'BRIEN: We are all watching it, of course. All right, Chad, thanks. We'll check in with you again.


S. O'BRIEN: Still to come, reaction to the president's plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Is the congressman who represents part of New Orleans satisfied with what he heard last night?

And then later, we're going to meet one of the hundreds of evacuees who are now living in Utah. For him, Katrina may have been a blessing in disguise. We'll explain, just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.



BUSH: All who question the future of the Crescent City need to know, there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.


M. O'BRIEN: The president of the United States in Jackson Square last right, right in the heart of the French Quarter last night, promising to rebuild the city of New Orleans, promising to address some of the underlying issues of poverty and race that came to the fore and promising that the federal government next time will be better prepared for a natural disaster or an act of terror, some four years now after 9/11.

Joining me now for some reaction to the president's speech, was it the right tone, was it the right substance? Congressman Bobby Jindal, who is in Baton Rouge this morning. The reason he's in Baton Rouge is his New Orleans district was hard hit by Katrina.

Congressman Jindal, good to have you with us. First of all, let's talk about the substance of the president's speech. You talked to us a little while ago about how you've got to be careful about just simply throwing money at this situation. The president had pretty much a laundry list of programs and ideas and federal spending initiatives to help people out. Was that the appropriate course of action, do you think?

REP. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: Well, I think there were three or four good things he did talk about, a team of inspector generals for accountability. He did make a commitment to rebuilding a region. He talked about job incentives, which I think is very important. It's not just about spending money. It's also about creating jobs. He did talk about being better prepared next time.

Two things I would have liked to have heard and I hope to hear in the days to come, one, I'm still an advocate for having somebody from the private sector, having somebody that can cut through the bureaucracy. And I've suggested a Colin Powell, a Jack Love, somebody like that. I think it would be very helpful to reassure taxpayers and people on the Gulf Coast this won't be business as usual. This won't be the same old -- same old bureaucracies that we were fighting the first days after the hurricane.

And then certainly, secondly, I'd like to hear more details on the tax incentives to allow jobs, allow businesses to come back, allow individuals to have some hope that when they come back, there will be jobs for them.

But I think the speech was a step in the right direction. Look, you don't expect the president to outline 30 different policy proposals. I think the most important thing was the tone, was the theme that we are going to rebuild, that there is a bright future for the people that have survived the hurricane down here on the Gulf Coast.

M. O'BRIEN: Some of the people on the other side of the aisle are saying he needs to offer more. Nancy Pelosi, a congressman from California, is saying the president really needs to offer up what is tantamount to a Marshall Plan. In other words, the rebuilding of Europe after World War II, that kind of scale of project.

I'm standing in St. Bernard parish. And it sure looks like there was a war was here and it sure looks like they could use a Marshall type plan.

JINDAL: Absolutely. And again, I think hopefully this is just the beginning. We need some very aggressive tax incentives to make it attractive for people to be able to come back and rebuild.

I've been in St. Bernard Parish a lot. We've been delivering private supplies. You and I were talking before. The sheriff there is worried how is he going to pay his deputies? He's got people that have been on the job around the clock. They've not deserted. They're saving people. And these are men and women who don't know what happened to their own property, don't know what happened, in some cases, to their own families.

Certainly we need to make sure that they're not worried about their paychecks. Certainly, we've got to make sure they've got the support they need to do their jobs, whether it's equipment or vehicles or other kinds of goods and services.

So, absolutely. This is going to be an unprecedented rebuilding effort. It's not just throwing money at the problem, but it is going to require a public effort, both public and private. We're going to need private companies and faith-based groups. I was happy to hear the administration say we need to welcome the efforts of corporations and faith-based groups. This is going to take a lot of work.

M. O'BRIEN: Congressman Jindal, a final thought here. The president, I detected a change in tone there, an attempt to, you know, project to the world that he is very much in charge here. But what this crisis here has lacked is that bullhorn moment post-9/11 when he went to Ground Zero. Is the time passed? Is it too late for the president to really capture that level of immediacy and leadership that he was able to capture after 9/11? JINDAL: I think there's no question in the first few days after the hurricane, there was not the kind of coordination between the federal and state governments. There wasn't the leadership of the state and federal level we would have liked. But now we're going to a recovery or rebuilding phase. We don't need the same red tape and bureaucracy in that phase.

I think it's a very good thing that you've got the president this week accepting responsibility at the federal level, the governor at the state level. You've got the president saying, "We're going to do what it takes." We'll need some follow-up in terms of specific policies and actions to help, like the people in St. Bernard and the greater New Orleans area.

But I think it's never too late. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. The people on the ground here aren't interested in blame. They're interested in getting on with their lives, rebuilding their future. And I think the president can be a very big part of that.

M. O'BRIEN: Congressman Bobby Jindal. It's going to be a long run here, a couple of decades probably just for this part of the world, St. Bernard Parish. Many, many election cycles. Many leaders will come and go. And there really needs to be a sustained effort for these people. Thanks for your time.

JINDAL: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Miles, thanks.

Still to come this morning, Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business." He's going to tell us how the bankruptcies of Delta and Northwest could end up affecting your pension. Stay with us on AMERICAN MORNING. We're back in a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Bankruptcies of Northwest and Delta airlines could threaten an already shaky pension backup plan. Andy Serwer's "Minding Your Business" this morning. This plan has taken lots of, really, hammering over the last few months and years.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: That's right. Because United Airlines had to tap into this when it said it was not going to be paying its pension. It defaulted on the pension, essentially.

And there's more concern this morning, Soledad, that the problems with Delta, Northwest their bankruptcies could add to this. This is the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corps that the government has to basically back up pension plans of companies that go bankrupt.

It already has a $23 billion shortfall. And experts are suggesting that if these two companies renege on their pension plans, it could add another $12 billion to the shortfall. Now, the problem here, of course, is that companies are the ones that pay the premiums for this. It is not supported by the taxpayers, but if the gap gets too big, taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill here.

Delta already saying it may not pay part of this pension plan. And there's brinksmanship going on here, because the head of the PBGC has said, "No, no, no. Don't do that. These are still your obligations." And so we go back and forth in the bankruptcy court.

S. O'BRIEN: But they're obligations, but they don't have the money?

SERWER: Right. Then what can you say? And this is -- you know, what is bankruptcy for? Is this a corporate strategy where you're supposed to use this to not pay your workers what you promised to pay them? I mean, these are real big questions.

S. O'BRIEN: Everybody's savings. They're going to wipe out all these employees, not only not having any jobs but then not having any savings.

SERWER: Right. That's right. And we would end up paying as taxpayers.

S. O'BRIEN: Gosh, that's so sad.


S. O'BRIEN: Andy, thanks.

SERWER: You're welcome.

S. O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning, we're going to take you back to St. Bernard. Katrina, as you've seen from the pictures, virtually wiping that parish out. Are the people who live there, or used to live there satisfied with what they heard from the president last night? A look at of that is ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.


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