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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN
Gulf Coast Residents Eye Hurricane Rita; Return to New Orleans Halted
Aired September 19, 2005 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again, everyone.
And, Anderson, good evening to you.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Aaron, good evening.
Aaron, it was supposed to be a homecoming. Instead, tonight, people who returned to New Orleans are now riding the welcome wagon right back out again. And those who are waiting to return are just going to have to wait a little bit longer. Who knows how much longer, maybe a lot longer. This -- all that in a moment, but, first, the latest from Aaron.
BROWN: Anderson, thank you.
And the latest begins and ends with the next storm, Rita. It's now churning off the Florida Keys, on track for the Gulf of Mexico later this week, shaping up to be another powerful hurricane, even if now it is just, just -- just -- a tropical storm.
That said, it made the mayor of New Orleans eat his words and put a halt to his plan to bring 182,000 residents back to the city. Those who did come back are now being asked to leave again. As for Katrina, the death toll rose again today, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. It stands at 970, with 736 in the state of Louisiana alone.
And three weeks later, more than 600,000 customers across the Gulf are still without power, nearly 400,000 of those in Louisiana.
More on all of that tonight, but the story tonight is about the storm to come and the storm that was. Rita is on a path to cross the Florida Keys, then back into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And warm water is the fuel of a hurricane.
By midweek, it could hit the Gulf states. But when and where and with how big a punch are questions without firm answers. So, in lots of places, from the laid-back Keys to the weary Big Easy, preparations tonight for the worst.
BROWN (voice-over): They've been through the routine dozens of times over the years, but even the most common scenes look different because of Katrina. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have got be smart about it. And if you don't respect it after what happened with Katrina, I mean, it's disrespectful to not leave when they tell you to leave.
BROWN: That's exactly what Florida officials have done, ordering all residents of the Florida Keys to leave.
GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: Whether conditions will grow steadily worse tonight and tomorrow. At last check, the Florida Highway Patrol is reporting that traffic is heavy, but moving very, very smoothly out of the Keys.
BROWN: The governor also says plans for military help are in place.
J. BUSH: Floridians can rest assured that these battle-tested citizen soldiers will be there to provide assistance for them.
BROWN: While it's true that some first-responders from Florida are now in other parts of the Gulf because of Katrina, it's not clear how, if at all, that has impacted preparations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're doing everything we can with minimum staff, so that my staff can get home and get their windows boarded up.
BROWN: So, the pictures by now familiar, busy interceptions, very long lines for gas, some people taking their sweet time, some people, not all.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They feel that it's safer for us to go, since it's a mandatory evacuation. So, I'm pregnant also, so I need to evacuate where there's some kind of medical care.
BROWN: Some nursing homes have been evacuated already. So have some patients out of hospitals.
Down in Key West, Florida, CNN's Rob Marciano is there with his -- with what is a precursor -- Rob.
ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Hi, Aaron.
About 50 percent of the residents here in Key West have evacuated. The other 13,000 or so are still here and milling about the streets in their typical laissez-faire attitude. But one thing is for sure. This storm has flared up quite rapidly. I mean, in the Bahamas, it was nothing more than a handful of thunderstorms a couple of days ago. And now it's on the brink of becoming a hurricane, likely to do that sometime later on tonight.
So, with winds blowing there at tropical storm strength, now heading into the Florida Straits, where the waters are a toasty 88, 89 degrees, we do expect it to become a stronger hurricane in time. So, evacuation orders have been in place. People have been filtering out of the Keys all day long, a mandatory evacuation in place for all of the Keys. And come tomorrow morning, things are going to change rapidly.
It's a very pleasant night out here right now, Aaron. but, tomorrow morning, the rain bands will start to come in. The winds will start to pick up. And, by this time tomorrow night, the eye of what will likely be Hurricane Rita will be very close, if not right on top of us, in Key West, Florida -- Aaron.
BROWN: We look forward to talking to you tomorrow, in that case, then, Rob. Thank you, Rob Marciano , down in Key West tonight.
A short time ago, we talked with Ed Rappaport, who is with the National Hurricane Center in South Florida.
BROWN: What's the most important thing we should know about Rita right now?
EDWARD RAPPAPORT, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Two risks from Rita.
One is coming up in the next 12 to 18 hours for the Florida Keys, where we think Rita will be a Category 1, maybe Category 2 hurricane, and the storm surge threat, not quite the threat that we had in Katrina, but, then again, we have got very low islands. The Keys are very low, six- to nine-foot storm surge expected there.
Then, in the longer term, we have Rita moving into the central Gulf of Mexico, strengthening, and becoming a thread to the north central and northwestern Gulf Coast later in the week.
BROWN: Is it -- I don't mean to minimize what might happen in Florida, but I think all of our attention is on, certainly, the Louisiana coast. Do we -- do you believe that it will hit Louisiana, or is that unclear right now?
RAPPAPORT: It's still a little unclear.
We can take a look at the forecast, though, and can describe what's going on. Here's the center of Rita now, again, passage near or over the Florida Keys during the day tomorrow, could be a significant event there. And then a track that takes the center of Rita into the central to western Gulf of Mexico, with then a turn more to the north after that.
And that puts the areas from Texas to at least western Louisiana at risk, with somewhat a somewhat decrease the threat to the east. At this point, it looks like there's about a 10 percent chance of hurricane conditions as far north and east as the New Orleans area.
BROWN: Just, I know you -- we have just got a few seconds; 24 hours from now, will you know a lot more?
RAPPAPORT: I would say -- well, we will certainly know what's happened in the Keys, but we will know some more, not a lot more, about where the ultimate landfall position is going to be on the mainland.
BROWN: So, we got a ways to go.
It's good to see you. I expect we will talk again this week. Thank you.
RAPPAPORT: Thank you.
BROWN: So, where we stand right now is, Rita will make its way across the Keys over the next 24 hours and then back over the Gulf. It strengthens again over the Gulf. And it either goes toward Texas or hits Louisiana.
How far east in Louisiana is the question. If it hits New Orleans, it's a problem. It could become a levee buster.
Here's CNN's Sean Callebs.
SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three weeks after Katrina and after the failure of the levee system that protected New Orleans, Walter White today got his first look at his mud-caked neighborhood.
WALTER WHITE, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: Damn. Damn. I knew it was bad. But I didn't think it was this bad.
CALLEBS: Two of three major breaches in the levee system happened along this narrow area at the London Avenue Canal.
(on camera): The need for repair was instant. But the Army Corps of Engineers says now it has taken on a greater sense of urgency. Katrina basically ate way a huge section of the levee. And with another major storm threatening this region, officials say breaches in the levee leave the city dangerously vulnerable.
(voice-over): In all, New Orleans is protected by 350 miles of levees. Federal officials say the three breaches are only the problems they know about. They have no idea how many areas have been dangerously weakened and expect it will be December before their exhaustive survey of the levee system is complete.
Army Corps of Engineers General Bruce Berwick calls the possibility for another storm frightening.
GEN. BRUCE BERWICK, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: It would be a serious setback that would require us to once again start pumping and removing water from the city.
CALLEBS: Fewer than half the city's pumps are up and working. With Rita threatening the Gulf Coast, the Corps of Engineers has been doing studies to determine just how much rain New Orleans can tolerate without the risk of another disaster. When Katrina hit the coast, it pushed a wall of water from Lake Pontchartrain down this narrow canal. Authorities don't want it to happen again. Here, crews are dumping tons of gravel to fill a 30- foot hole and:
BERWICK: We're prepared to close off the mouths of the canal with sheet pilings that would provide an additional layer of defense.
CALLEBS: Walter White waded through the muck trying to get family photos from his house. He knows, if another storm hits, he may not find anything next time.
WHITE: If it hit it, hit in the water like the last one just hit, we can't stand another hit.
CALLEBS: But another hit may be what this city gets.
Sean Callebs, CNN, New Orleans.
BROWN: Anderson, I think you could make the case that the emergence of Rita as a possible threat to Louisiana and New Orleans made it a little easier for the mayor to get out of what had become somewhat of a problem for him, his plan to repopulate parts of the city on a kind of day-to-day basis. That sort of ended with Rita today.
In fact, Rita's being used in a lot of ways here on the ground. I'm actually in Kenner, Louisiana. And the people in this housing project have been camping out here for the last, well, three weeks or so. Tonight, they were just told they're going to have to leave tomorrow. They're going to be forced out tomorrow because of Rita. They now say it's just a health concern to have them here.
We will have more on that later on in this special edition of NEWSNIGHT, Aaron.
The day started off simply enough, as these things go. We were covering the early implementation of a powerful statement of hope, of faith and the city's future. Instead, the day became simpler still, a lesson in avoiding a repeat of the immediate past.
Here's CNN's David Mattingly.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even as the foul floodwater continues its slow retreat, the immediate future of New Orleans suddenly seems even darker.
RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: We are suspending all reentry into the city of New Orleans as of this moment. I'm also asking everyone in Algiers to prepare to evacuate as early as Wednesday.
MATTINGLY: With pumping stations and a network of levees still ailing and crippled, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered his second evacuation of the city in less a month. As Tropical Storm Rita prepares to churn into the Gulf of Mexico, the possibility of just a three-foot storm surge could bring a new flooding disaster.
(on camera): Mayor Nagin says the buses are already being prepared and suggests the possibility of more forceful tactics if anyone chooses time to try and stay behind.
NAGIN: Unless somebody gives me a different story of how we're going to protect the city from that surge, then we have to get people out.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The soon-to-be-hurricane enters the picture at a time when Nagin was feuding with federal authorities over his push to bring residents back into the city. It was an idea at odds with safety and health concerns voiced by the head of relief efforts, Vice Admiral Thad Allen, whose authority was questioned publicly by the mayor.
NAGIN: When he starts talking to citizens of New Orleans, that's Kind of out of his lane. There's only one mayor of New Orleans, and I'm it.
MATTINGLY: While agreeing on the vision of repopulating the city, Admiral Allen cited limited clean water, the lack of food, fuel and electricity, also the struggling medical services, as reasons to slow down. But Mayor Nagin says he was pleased with the current progress and plans to resume once the threat of the next storm passes.
MATTINGLY: But the strongest voice tonight belongs to a storm named Rita. And that storm will have a lot to say about where this city goes in the very near future -- Anderson.
COOPER: David, it came as something of a surprise to a lot of people here when the mayor first announced -- I think it was actually even on "LARRY KING LIVE" that he announced that he was going to let people back in. Any sense of when he may resume that plan?
MATTINGLY: He says as soon as the storm, the threat of a storm has passed, he'll be happy to go back to his plans and resume it just the way he was doing, sort of telling federal officials in this news conference today that he was very happy with what he saw going on today, with people coming back being, and he was going to pursue that.
Of course, everything now depends on Rita. And, tonight, we're watching what that storm does. And the mayor is watching what that storm does to find out what he needs to do next.
MATTINGLY: David, thanks.
Of course, a lot of people still concerned about the lack of a hospital, emergency services in New Orleans, lack of schools for kids, if families do move back. So, there are still a lot of questions to be answered, even beyond just Rita.
A short time ago, Vice Admiral Allen appeared on CNN's "LARRY KING LIVE." Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")
VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD: Larry, there's no friction between the mayor and myself or the mayor and the federal government, because we all want New Orleans restarted. We need a really robust city there on the Mississippi River. And we know America wants that.
I think there are different approaches. We felt that the timing was a little fast, especially in regard to the infrastructure was in place regarding drinking water, a usable 911 system and so forth. Plus, the weakened state of the levees really called for an evacuation plan that could handle whatever population reentered the city.
So, we didn't have any big argument with the in-state. And we were all kind of driving to that. It was how quickly it was going to happen and we thought there needed to be a more deliberate approach.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: That was later -- earlier on "LARRY KING."
Aaron, do you notice politicians never have any friction between each other. It's quite amazing.
BROWN: No, they don't, except when they do. And the mayor made it pretty clear that they did, even if the admiral wasn't about to cop to it.
Thank you. We will get back to you in a moment.
Coming up, a New Orleans cop who has plenty of friction with his colleagues. He went AWOL. The reasons for that and the reaction to that coming up.
But, first, at about a quarter past the hour, time for some of the other news of the day, Erica Hill back with us from the state of Mississippi. She's back in Atlanta.
Good to see you again.
ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And you as well, Aaron.
We start off with news on Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahri releasing a second videotape this month. It aired on the Arab-language TV network Al-Jazeera. Al-Zawahri said Americans would not allow an Islamic regime to govern itself and praised those responsible for the London bombings.
In Iraq, Iraqi protesters stoned and set fire to two British tanks in Basra today after a British armored vehicle and a tank crashed into a police station and rescued the two soldiers. British forces had surrounded a police station after Iraqi police refused to release two British soldiers who had been detained following a shooting incident.
Army Reservist Lynndie England will go on trial tomorrow to face seven charges she mistreated prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. England has now abandoned attempts to plea-bargain. Her lawyer says his defense will center on England's mental health problems.
And two former Tyco execs who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the company have now been sentenced each to 25 years in prison. Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz were found guilty of grand larceny, conspiracy, fraud and falsifying business records.
And, Aaron, both of them say they will appeal.
BROWN: And both of them, because of the state trial, could be paroled in eight years. But eight years is a long time to spend in the slammer anywhere.
HILL: It is.
BROWN: Thank you. Good to see you again.
Much more ahead on the program tonight, starting with the final days at the Lafon Nursing Home and the fight to keep nearly 90 patients alive.
Also coming up, a police officer who went AWOL and the reaction to that.
LT. HENRY WALLER, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: In a time of ultimate crisis, who needs me more, the police department or my wife? And it was a no-brainer for me.
BROWN (voice-over): He walked off his job in the wake of Katrina.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you doing, man?
BROWN: Hundreds of other cops made the same choice. Those who stayed behind are furious.
LT. TROY SAVAGE, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: Everybody had a wife. Everybody has got families. Everybody needed to see them. But we didn't. We all didn't flee.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know what? We got to get his stuff.
BROWN: She rode into town on her Hummer, a mission to help those left behind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had an angel watching over (INAUDIBLE) You know, she's a legend in New Orleans.
BROWN: Tonight, the difference one woman made.
From New York and New Orleans, a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.
COOPER: Welcome back.
We're live in Kenner, Louisiana, tonight.
Along with the strength and the nobility and determination of an awful lot of people, Hurricane Katrina laid bare some pretty ugly facts, among them, this. When the call for duty came, a good many cops in New Orleans failed to answer.
CNN's Jason Carroll spent the day with one such officer. Here's his exclusive report.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you doing, man? Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!
JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the days of lawlessness, looting and flooding, something happened few people in New Orleans imagines was possible. Hundreds of police officers, like Lieutenant Henry Waller, abandoned their fellow officers and thousands of evacuees when they were needed most.
H. WALLER: I defend it by saying that I left them in a bad situation, but I have would have been leaving my wife in a worse situation.
CARROLL: Waller explained how it happened, saying, Tuesday, August 30, the day after Katrina hit New Orleans, the situation was grave.
H. WALLER: We listened to the radio. And we're hearing the things, the water is still rising. The water is still rising. The water is still rising. The looting is this. The looting is that.
CARROLL: That Tuesday, as 80 percent of New Orleans lay under water, Waller says he told another officer he would get supplies. Waller drove an hour away to Baton Rouge, where stores were open. It was also where his wife was staying with his family. She was upset, fearing something had happened to her father in hurricane-damaged Mississippi. Still, after getting the supplies, Waller says he went back to New Orleans, where he heeded a state trooper's warning at the city's checkpoint.
H. WALLER: And I started thinking. I said, well, you know, we have been hearing this story about the levees breaching all day. What if they're right and I get stuck in this car? I'm no good dead. And so, we will go back tonight. You know, and I will head back in the morning, once we have a better grasp of what is going on.
CARROLL: But Waller did not go back Wednesday morning. He stayed with his family and canceled plans to return to New Orleans Thursday, when his wife got news her father may have drowned. He's listed as missing.
CYNTHEIA WALLER, WIFE OF NEW ORLEANS POLICE OFFICER: I need my husband. And if they want to blame somebody for him leaving, tell them to blame me, because it was me who was literally begging him to stay. Call me a coward. Call me selfish.
H. WALLER: In a time of ultimate crisis, who needs me more, the police department or my wife? And it was a no-brainer for me.
CARROLL: Lieutenant Troy Savage says officers like him, who stayed, resent fellow cops like Waller, who didn't.
SAVAGE: Everybody had a wife. Everybody has got families. Everybody needed to see them. But we didn't. We all didn't flee. We all didn't run in a time of crisis. And he did that.
CARROLL: Two hundred AWOL officers like Waller have asked to or already have returned to work.
EDDIE COMPASS, SUPERINTENDENT, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: I knew who the warriors were and who wasn't.
CARROLL: Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass says all AWOL cops will have hearings to determine whether they can keep their jobs.
COMPASS: We are going to evaluate our whole police department and after-action program. The heroics will be rewarded and the cowardice will be punished.
CARROLL: Compass suspects many officers will be fired. But Savage think there's a worse punishment.
SAVAGE: If I had done that, how do you face your children and try to make them do the right thing ever again? Where is your moral authority over your children or your spouse or anybody? You have -- you've lost it.
H. WALLER: People are going to have their opinions. I can only hope that, over time, people will understand.
CARROLL: Maybe, over time, some people will find understanding. But forgiveness might be more difficult.
Jason Carroll, CNN, New Orleans.
(END VIDEOTAPE) BROWN: I have wondered all day how you, how viewers, are going to see that story and how -- where you'll come down on the right or wrong of it all.
You might be wondering what you're seeing on the left side of the screen, information about children who were separated from their parents during Katrina or the days that followed, names, pictures, when they're available, places they were last seen, when available.
Since Katrina hit, nearly 3,300 children have been reported missing; 883 cases have been closed, we're pleased to report. These information screens are one way we're helping the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Since we started running them this weekend, we have helped close 12 missing children cases. More than 2,000 cases still need to be closed. There's much work to do.
Still ahead on the program tonight, inside the nursing home where 14 patients died in the days after Katrina. What those final days were like in the words of someone who was there.
Also, the doctor who wanted to help, but FEMA said no. Why?
This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.
BROWN: Fourteen elderly and essentially helpless people died at the Lafon Nursing Home in New Orleans after the hurricane. That much we know. Piecing together the rest is quite a challenge. Why were they not evacuated before the storm, on whose orders and why? What happened after the storm? How long did they live? How did they die?
Tonight, the picture becomes a little clearer.
Here's CNN's Drew Griffin.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When they left New Orleans, Sisters Dianne Lindsey and Valerie Brazil (ph) thought their 74-year-old mother was safe. Dorothy Tashon (ph) was a resident at Lafon Nursing Home, run by the Holy Family Sisters for three years. And this Catholic family felt their mother was in good hands.
DIANNE LINDSEY, DAUGHTER OF VICTIM: We felt really safe with her being in Lafon.
GRIFFIN (on camera): You thought that, even in all this craziness and you're trying to evacuate your entire family, and it was a mandatory evacuation, you felt sure...
LINDSEY: Oh, definitely.
GRIFFIN: ... that Lafon was going to take care of your mother and do... LINDSEY: The right thing.
GRIFFIN: The right thing?
GRIFFIN: Is that what happened?
LINDSEY: There's no doubt about that.
No, that's not what happened.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): On Monday night after the storm, Dianne was able to call Lafon. And she says a nurse said her mother was alive, the home was fine. They'd made it through.
LINDSEY: And she told me that she told my mother that we love her and that we were going to see her after the hurricane. And my mother just looked up and said, well, how do they know I'm here?
GRIFFIN: That was the last communication they had with the staff. A week passed. Then came the news they dreaded. Dorothy Tashon (ph) was one of 14 patients who died inside the nursing home. To this day, that is all they know.
LINDSEY: And they couldn't give us any answer. They couldn't give us why they didn't evacuate, why they didn't have an evacuation plan. All she can tell us, that my mother expired. My mother did not expire. There's nothing that she could have told us that made us feel that my mother expired.
GRIFFIN (on camera): And that's where it stands now? You don't have any idea what happened?
LINDSEY: No, not at all.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no closure, no nothing.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): And it is hard to find out exactly what did happen. On the advice of their attorneys and under the threat of a state investigation, the Holy Family Sisters have chosen not to discuss publicly what went on inside Lafon in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
But one woman does know. Terry Smith does not want her face shown, because she fears she will be hounded by other families, but she was inside Lafon the night of the storm, choosing to stay with her sick father and help, instead of evacuating. On the night the hurricane struck, she said the water did rise. It was rainwater and the staff quickly had to move 90 patients upstairs.
TERRY SMITH, LAFON VOLUNTEER: We started with the water underneath my feet. By the time we finished, it was to my waist. And I'm 5'6.
GRIFFIN: Upstairs and out of the water, the nursing home began to organize, a kitchen set up. There was food, water. Once the storm was over, the flood began to recede. On Tuesday, Smith took these pictures, showing a flooded parking lot, a picture of the first floor showing the mess left behind.
Smith says she, too, believed they had all made it. But the nightmare was just beginning.
SMITH: The dilemma began that Tuesday night, I would say. Tuesday, it was stifling. I cannot even imagine how hot it is in there. I don't want to imagine. And these frail people begin to break down.
GRIFFIN: A frail woman on a feeding tube was the first to go, then another. In the room where Smith was staying, she says two or three simply faded away.
SMITH: The nurses would come in and check and -- and they...
GRIFFIN (on camera): Move them, leave them, cover them?
SMITH: No, they'd cover them and they'd get body bags and the men would take them out.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Two days went by and no one came. Then finally, a National Guard truck stopped. Smith learned how bad things were on the outside. The guardsman told her she was on dry land and had food and water and was told 90 frail people without air conditioning in unbearable heat were now a low priority.
SMITH: So I guess in the grand scheme of things, maybe we weren't.
GRIFFIN: The 14 who perished are represented by a spray painted number on the wall. Smith says the Holy Family Sisters of Lafon Nursing Home cared for each and every one of them until the very end.
SMITH: But I can sit here and say, and this is the rent for me holding this interview, I can sit here and say definitely that that staff did all that they could humanly do to make those people comfortable. No one on that staff defected.
GRIFFIN (on camera): Nobody left?
SMITH: Nobody left.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Diane Lindsey and Vallaria (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Brazil have no doubt the nuns did all they could after the storm. The question they have, why didn't somebody do something before the storm.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And we knew one day our mother would leave us.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not like this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not like this, she didn't deserve that. We are hurting so bad about our mother.
GRIFFIN (on camera): Drew Griffin, CNN, Lafayette, Louisiana.
BROWN: Katrina leaves lots of questions. Dr. Mark Perlmutter is an orthopedic surgeon in Pennsylvania. He rushed to New Orleans after Katrina hit to offer his help. What happened to him when he first got there is a crime, even if it is not exactly criminal. He joins us from Kittson, Pennsylvania tonight.
You get to the airport, which is now the medical staging area, and just describe the scene there in terms of patients and needs and doctor availability.
DR. MARK N. PERLMUTTER, TURNED AWAY BY FEMA: Well, first of all, there were no doctors available outside on the tarmac where I was assigned to work. There was an OBGyn doctor that was triaging on the asphalt where the people were coming off the helicopters being lined up head to toe at the baggage receiving area below the terminal. They were head to toe, four people wide, 100 yards long, ranging from people with just shock or people in coma to people with tremendous needs for insulin or medicines they hadn't had in eight days and people who were dying.
I'd done chest compressions on one person and watched her die because of lack of assistance and at that point -- and I was assigned to be there by a FEMA officer. He then came down and grabbed me and said that you're not FEMA certified and therefore, you must leave. I needed to talk to his director. It was a commander French, a Coast Guard officer who was in charge, the local officer in charge of FEMA.
I turned to the green medic who was there, who by her own admission had no experience with medicine and asked her, how would you treat this patient with diabetic cedoacidosis (PH) and she asked me to define what that was. I had to leave that patient, not even being able to give her the insulin that I brought from home to give to her that could have saved her life. I was taken to speak to Commander French. He told us that we had to go. And then when I went back to get my supplies, that woman had expired.
BROWN: All right, let me just -- let me recap and move us forward. You get on the tarmac, and basically, the FEMA guy says, "you don't have the right paperwork." And people are sick and in some cases dying around you. You go talk to his boss and he confirms that and that's their concern is, what, they'd get sued?
PERLMUTTER: Exactly, my colleague who went with me, Dr. Clark Gerhardt, specially asked him why, because we were bewildered, there was no FEMA doctor there to replace us, FEMA registered doctor. He said, specifically, tort. They were afraid of the government being sued, because I'm protected by Good Samaritan laws.
BROWN: What sort of paperwork, I mean, assuming that, honestly, I'm a patient on the tarmac, I care that you have a medical license, not that you have something from FEMA, but that's me. What sort of paperwork was it that you needed? How long would that have taken?
PERLMUTTER: Well, we did eventually register that very day. It took two seconds to register.
BROWN: Is there any reason why they couldn't have had someone there on the spot just filling out the form?
PERLMUTTER: Oh, obviously not, the egregious violation of the responsibility dictates how many people really died. I've had colleagues who went into the morgue, a room that they called the expectancy room, where people were still living in the morgue. One FEMA member, he's a Chaplin in the -- in FEMA, was in the stadium and he prayed with 200 people, he tells me. And of those 200 people when they had to evacuate the stadium, he eventually saw them in the airport. He saw 80 of the people in the morgue, and 60 of them were still alive, in the morgue, waiting to die in a room they call the expectancy room.
BROWN: That's amazing.
PERLMUTTER: He begged for -- he begged for four of those people to be removed. For all of them to be reevaluated, the chief medical officer at the time, whose name he didn't catch said, "I'm sorry, they have to stay there to die." He then went to another chief medical officer who allowed him to take four people out and Reverend Noland tells me that alls they needed was water to come back to life. And I believe that, because I've seen that myself.
BROWN: Dr. Perlmutter, there -- actually, there are a number of other parts of your story that we should talk about on another night. But when people talk about decisions made and decisions not made, but whatever the level of government they need to member that what happened to you down there. We appreciate your efforts to save lives. Thank you.
Still to come on the program tonight, a pistol packin' single mom who let nothing stand in her way, including FEMA red tape on her mission to help.
Later, the postal packin' letter carrier doing the same thing. From New York, and New Orleans, this is NEWSNIGHT.
COOPER: In the days after Katrina struck, when it became clear a natural disaster had morphed into a man-made debacle, donations began flooding relief agencies, a generous response for certain, but also the easiest thing to do. Getting into your car and driving nearly 2,000 miles to the scene of the disaster to help make things better with your own two hands, that is nowhere close to easy. Here's CNN's Peter Viles.
RENA SALOMON, EVACUATED FLOOD SURVIVORS: We've got to get his stuff. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) kick the door in.
PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If doors had to be knocked down, she did it. This time, to get a wheelchair and some medicine left behind by an evacuee.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right here, here's the wheelchair.
SALOMON: OK, grab the wheelchair.
VILES: What can you say about Rena Salomon, that she came to town in a black Hummer wearing a tank top, ripped jeans, a knee brace with a video camera, a handgun and her own theme song.
That she drove to some of the roughest parts of New Orleans and evacuated people who were afraid of the shelters, but trusted her.
SALOMON: Any other children? Your kids are on my -- are your kids on here?
VILES: That she took three survivors back to her home in California, and they say she saved them.
WENDELL PAUL, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: We had a angel watching over us, which was Rena. You know, she's a legend in New Orleans. Everybody -- the name going to follow, only in New Orleans, the angel with the black Hummer.
VILES: A single mother who owns a contracting business, she left California Thursday morning, September 1.
SALOMON: When I started watching the TV coverage of the women wading through the water with their children and their children dying and them dying, and hearing their stories of nobody helping them, it compelled me to get out there, because there wasn't enough manpower, time to keep them alive.
VILES: She loaded up the hummer with her son, Peter and three of his buddies and headed east, near Baton Rouge, she met Wendell Paul, who was looking for his grown children.
Paul: I figure I stand a better chance in finding my family with Rena than I would with anybody else. But, like I said, I asked for help, nobody wouldn't give it to me. National Guard turn their back, FEMA turned their back, Red Cross turned their back.
SALOMON: Where is our song? Ah, here we go.
VILES: For days, she cruised New Orleans in the hummer and a rented RV, finding the forgotten, like this extended family of 22 and driving them out of town.
(on camera): And about how many people do you think you took out of the city?
SALOMON: About 84 total. VILES (voice-over): She helped fine Wendell's sister and later his four kids at a shelter in Austin, Texas. She was gone 12 days and says she spent $15,000 of her own money.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Angel in a hummer. She come by and rescued everything out the city. Thank god for that woman. I don't think there'll be another like her.
VILES: We asked her why she did it. And after a long silence, she told us about a night 19 years ago, when her son, Peter, was very sick with child hood leukemia.
SALOMON: And the doctors pretty much told me he had a 50/50 chance of living and hold to him through the night, that he may be dead by morning. So, I pretty much prayed and cried through the night, you know, and prayed to god that if he helped me have my son's life, I would forever serve him in saving his other children. And I can't turn my back on it.
VILES: Which explains why, after all she's done, she's still haunted.
SALOMON: And there's people I left behind I promised they were my responsibility, and they need food, they need housing, they need cars and I don't know what to do.
VILES: Rita says she'll likely fly back to Louisiana this week, this time leave the Hummer at home.
Peter Viles, CNN, Santa Clara, California.
COOPER: We have met a lot of people like her, people who just did what need to be done to help others.
Ahead on the program, we'll have an update on the status of Tropical Storm Rita as it takes aim at the Florida Keys. This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT: STATE OF EMERGENCY.
BROWN: About a quarter till the hour, time once again to check on some of the other stories that made news on this Monday, Erica Hill again in Atlanta.
Good evening again, Ms. Hill.
HILL: And good evening to, Mr. Brown. A day old agreement between North Korea, its neighbors and the U.S. could actually be threatened by a new demand by Pyongyang. North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear program, but now is saying only if the United States provides a light water reactor for civilian power.
Meantime, counting has become in Afghanistan's historic poll to elect national and local leaders. An estimated 50 percent of voters turned out despite threats of violence from Taliban guerrillas and at least 14 deaths.
The racketeering trial of George Ryan, the former republican governor of Illinois began in Chicago today. Jury selection expected to take until Thursday. Federal prosecutors say Ryan gave big state contracts to political insiders and 79 others, many of them state employees, have also been charged.
And NASA today unveiling more details of its plans for the future. The Crew exploration vehicle will replace the space shuttle and will take astronauts to the moon in 2018. Now, the first missions will put four people on the moon's surface for about a week -- Aaron.
BROWN: I think $104 billion, something like that.
HILL: It is a very large price tag.
BROWN: Yes, it is.
Coming up on the program -- thank you -- coming up on the program, neither rain nor heat nor hurricane, as it turns out, a special delivery. Because this is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.
BROWN: A story now about honoring promises, one eternal, the other nearly so. That hope must be nurtured and that the mail must go through. Here's NEWSNIGHT's Beth Nissen.
BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After days of being held in postal facilities further not north, the mail is coming into southern Mississippi again. A million pieces a day.
ROBIN WARE, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE, GULFPORT, MS: The residents of Gulfport and its surrounding areas, right now many of them don't have television, they don't have radio, they want their mail back and they want that sense of normalcy.
NISSEN: That's what mail carrier Joel Saucier is trying to deliver. With the Gulfport postal plant operating, he has mail to take to people on his route in Waveland, Mississippi.
JOEL SAUCIER, U.S. POSTAL CARRIER: My route's consisting of 1,047 possible deliveries. My route's 46 miles long. There's two small restaurants, there's a gas station, a school, a catholic church, a Methodist church, and a condominium complex. The rest is drive-up mailboxes -- houses.
NISSEN: Almost none of them still standing. Not this house on Third Street.
SAUCIER: The house is not even there. A wood house, white with green trim. They had two Corgies, used to bark pretty -- used to chase you around the yard.
NISSEN: The house across the street is gone too.
SAUCIER: Family rented it. They had -- she had two Dalmatian dogs. She used to load them up in that van all the time and take them to the beach to let them run.
NISSEN: Street after street on his route, it's the same. No houses, no people.
SAUCIER: Delivering people's mail every day, you know, 300 days a year, you learn every name for every address. See, I see a lot of these people every day. Summertime, I see their kids. I actually thought there would be a few things standing, but I guess that was just hope.
NISSEN: He sees signs that people have survived. This person even put his mailbox out with the flag up.
SAUCIER: Federal regulations say we cannot deliver mail to a house that is not occupied or is vacant. And 1,047 stops, I haven't seen one that's livable -- or there.
NISSEN: He is unable to deliver a single piece of the mail in his trays.
SAUCIER: Cable bills, mortgage payment, home depot flyer, American Express credit card, a wedding invitation from San Francisco, California.
NISSEN: He'll take these trays back to the post office in Bay Saint. Louis, Mississippi where the newly homeless can go and pick up their mail, fill out change of address cards. He's been relieved to meet a few people from his route in line, is anxious to learn what happened to a few who stayed through the storm and haven't been seen since.
He was especially worried about those who lived in a beachside condominium complex, gone now except for twisted steel beams and one set of mailboxes.
SAUCIER: It's 35 units, probably 50 people, everybody did leave. Everybody is OK.
NISSEN: It's so hard to imagine what used to be here just a few weeks ago. What life used to be like, what so many here feel like they'd give anything, just anything, to have again.
SAUCIER: I can drive down the street and see smiling faces. Give people their mail, you know. I hope people come back.
NISSEN: Beth Nissan, CNN, Waveland, Mississippi.
BROWN: In our next hour, the question that still has not gone away. Where is FEMA? And next, where is Rita? The 11:00 update from the National Hurricane Center. From New Orleans and New York, this is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.
BROWN: She was an American soldier far from home and in the hands of the enemy in the opening days of the second Gulf War. Shoshana Johnson's face and the terror in that face brought the reality of the war home. As part of our anniversary series "Then and Now" and were she is today.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's you're name?
SHOSHANA JOHNSON, U.S. ARMY: Shana.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shana.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are do you come from?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's the first African-American woman to become a prisoner of war. Shoshana Johnson was a cook for the 507th maintenance company when it was ambushed in Iraq in March of 2003.
JOHNSON: I didn't know what was going to happen to me and I was in a lot of pain.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The 30-year-old single mother was shot in both ankles, captured with five other soldiers.
JOHNSON: I feared for my life the whole captivity.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was rescued three weeks later and came home to instant celebrity. Johnson was to retire from the Army. She's had to fight to keep her disability benefits because her injuries were less severe, she receives much less than her fellow soldier, Jessica Lynch. But she says she doesn't begrudge her friend.
JOHNSON: Things don't bother me as much, you know. Quite frankly, I'm just so very happy to be still on the earth.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Johnson spends her time with her daughter. She does some speaking engagements and she's still undergoing physical and emotional therapy.
JOHNSON: Everything happens for a reason. I've had a lot of good fortune, I'm healthy, my family's healthy my daughters, my nieces, and I don't ask god for anything more than that. (END VIDEOTAPE)
BROWN: "Then and Now." The biggest now of the moment is Tropical Storm Rita off the coast of Florida making its way to the Keys and then on to the Gulf Coast.
Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Weather Center with the latest on that -- Jacqui.
JERAS: Well, Aaron, it's still a tropical storm. The 11:00 advisory in a little bit early. The winds are staying the same at 70- miles-per-hour, however the pressure in the center of the storm has been dropping steadily over they last six hours and that is a sign that the storm is strengthening. We just haven't seen that translate yet with the wind speed, but I do expect we're going to see that still later on tonight, through the overnight hours. So when you wake up tomorrow morning, I'm sure we're going to have Hurricane Rita here. The location about 270 miles east-southeast now of Key West and it's really bringing a good lashing now across parts of the central Bahamas, particularly over Andres Island. There you can see those outer bands which are getting closer and closer towards the Keys. We've been seeing some isolated showers and thunderstorms on and off throughout the day there.
Here's your forecast track. Looks like it should be a Category 2 as it brushes near or makes landfall near Key West. Back into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and strengthening to a major hurricane with another landfall likely late on Friday or early Saturday. Still too early to tell exactly where, but best bet right now is on Texas -- Aaron.
BROWN: Jacqui, thank you. We'll check in again shortly.
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