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Hurricane Rita a Category Four and Getting Stronger; Interview with General Russel Honore

Aired September 21, 2005 - 13:33   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Back here in B control, we're talking about news this hour, Hurricane Rita a Category 4 and getting stronger, churning through the Gulf of Mexico, headed for landfall. Where exactly? Well, that's the big question. People living along coastal Texas and Louisiana are either evacuating or preparing to do so. We'll have the very latest position and track information from the weather center in just a minute.
Bird flu update, and a grim view from the crisis from health officials in Indonesia. The country's health minister says a sporadic outbreak that started in July could quickly become an epidemic. The warning comes after two young birds with symptoms bird flu died today in Jakarta. The discovery of 19 infected birds has forced the local zoo to close and two zoo workers are hospitalized with symptom of bird flu.

Top secret. No testimony. The Pentagon says that a military intelligence officer will not appear at a Senate hearing about the September 11th hijackers. The panel was scheduled to hear details of at least four of the terrorists known to military officials more than a year before the attacks, and defense officials say that information was gathered secretly, and due to security concerns won't be discussed publicly.


PHILLIPS: Galveston is taking no chances with Hurricane Rita, ordering mandatory evacuations and moving those unable to move themselves.

Joining me now on the phone from Galveston, Sharon Strain, executive director of the city's housing authority.

Sharon, tell me exactly where you are.

SHARON STRAIN, GALVESTON HOUSING AUTHORITY: Well, right now, I am north of Galveston with other evacuees, probably about 20 miles from Houston.

PHILLIPS: You decided you had to get out?

STRAIN: Well, it's necessary for me to get out, because I have to go some place and re-establish an office. We've taken all our computer servers and database off of the island, and we need to be able to set up, and know where people are located and try to help them from a different office. PHILLIPS: Now, Sharon, I know you've been very concerned about the residents with special needs. We've been talking about that all morning. I guess my first question is, have you been able to get everybody out, with special needs, the elderly, the sick, those that don't have vehicles?

STRAIN: I think the answer to that, Kyra, would have to be not everyone wants to go. But for those who have told us that they have a need to get out, certainly made transportation available to them. We had buses that actually went to the elderly high-rises that are part of our housing authority, and we picked people up there and took them directly to a shelter in Brian College Station. Many of them are special needs.

I guess all of us always worry about the ones who want to try to ride it out, because they will be without city services, you know, in those buildings, without anyone with them.

But the city has agreed to keep buses running, and what we're hopeful is that as more and more information comes out, that those who would not go today would take the opportunity to go tomorrow.

PHILLIPS: Sharon what about the group homes, the retirement homes, people that may not have anyone looking over them, individuals that may not be able to make that decision for themselves? Do we know if whoever's in charge of those types of homes, if they're making the decision for these individuals to get them out?

STRAIN: Absolutely. The mayor called an evacuation at 6:00 a.m. this morning for all people in nursing homes and in the type of facility that you're talking about.

PHILLIPS: Now you hired a Houston bus company to come in and get folks out, is that right?

STRAIN: I did. We had -- the city had 88 buses. And they used what they called their island transit or their city buses, plus buses that were furnished by the Galveston Independent School District. But just as a safety precaution, we had a contract also with Coach USA. And they brought down eight buses and those buses were also filled.

PHILLIPS: So, Sharon, final question, do you feel pretty confident that we will not see what we saw in New Orleans and in parts of Mississippi when it come to Galveston, Texas?

STRAIN: I will tell you that we have made a concerted effort from the mayor, the city manager, the housing authority, all across our community, even volunteers, of people who have volunteered to come and help us get people to buses. And so what I can tell you is that you won't see people who wanted to go left in a situation where they could not go, because adequate transportation has been made available for them to leave.

PHILLIPS: All right, Sharon, thank you so much. Sharon Strain there, executive director of the housing authority in Galveston, Texas, working to get all those individuals with special needs out of that area. She's doing so as we speak. She's actually on the road, on a bus, with a number of those individuals. Sharon, thank you so much.

And the Texas Gulf Coast getting ready for a direct hit from Rita, based on the current forecast track. They're not exactly welcoming her with open arms, though. The sign outside a Galveston restaurant says it best: "We don't need a Rita."

Recent history proves that city knows storms. In 1983, Alicia made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane, ripped away part of the Flagship Hotel on Galveston Island. Alicia spawned 23 reported tornadoes; 14 of those were between Galveston and Houston. And in 2001, the first named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Allison devastated areas of southeast Texas. The storm dumped nearly 37 inches of rain at the port of Houston.

But the worst disaster for Galveston came with the hurricane in September 1900. The 150 mile-per-hour wins and storm surge killed 8,000 people. It's the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The city built a sea wall 17 feet high in the hopes that history will not repeat itself.

Straight ahead, much of America is on high alert, preparing for disaster after Katrina. Stocking up and packing heat, next.


PHILLIPS: Well, it happened after 9/11 and now Katrina's done it again. Thanks to seeing disastrous scenes like these play out, especially in New Orleans, a wave of emergency planning has broken out across the country, as you know.

And CNN's Peter Viles reports from Los Angeles on how a lot of people are now adopting the Boy Scout motto, be prepared.


PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What does Hurricane Katrina have to do with these earthquake survival kits? It's simple. Some Americans are afraid the next disaster might be handled as badly as the last one and they're stocking up for survival.

SHERRY HEITZ, QUAKE KARE: I think everybody is just appalled and scared and actually almost panicking at this point, and it's become a frenzy. Everybody needs to get a survival kit as fast as possible because they feel like they could be next.

VILES: And it's not just Californians who are afraid. At the Quake Kare warehouse, many of the orders for these kits -- containing food, water, blankets and first aid supplies -- are from the East Coast.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to order that?

VILES: One thing they all have in common...

HEITZ: Everybody is in a hurry. Everybody is scared and everybody wants it overnighted.

VILES: Pre-Katrina, Quake Kare shipped roughly 100 survival kits a day. Post-Katrina, they say that number spiked to several thousand a day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think I'll take the...

VILES: In a store best known for camping gear, Lily Chen was looking for a water purification system.

LILY CHEN, SHOPPER: After the Hurricane Katrina...


CHEN: ... everybody is sitting there waiting for the big (INAUDIBLE).

VILES: The store manger is using the "P" word, panic buying.

JUAN QUINTERO, REI: Well it's definitely panic-driven, it seems, at that point. We've seen a run on everything from space blankets to first aid kits to dehydrated food and self-heating food.

VILES: And it's not just food, water and flashlights. The National Rifle Association says gun sales have spiked after all the reports of looting and lawlessness in New Orleans.

WAYNE LAPIERRE, NRA: And the lesson is when one of these disasters hit, you can't count on the government. You can't count on police authorities, despite their good intentions. You can count on the lawlessness.

VILES: Back at the camping store, Lily Chen says she's not panicking, just being prudent.

CHEN: I think everyone realized it could happen to us. It's wise to be prepared. It's also wise to be prepared.

VILES: Peter Viles for CNN, Los Angeles.


PHILLIPS: And some post-Katrina follow ups. Happy news on the story of the "Gulfport Eight," the dolphins who were washed out to sea when their aquarium collapsed during the storm. The final four have been safely rounded up and have joined their tank-mates at a Navy holding facility. They'll all be sent on to temporary homes of other aquariums until the Gulfport Aquarium is rebuilt.

In Kenner, Louisiana, officials are looking into reports that city workers pilfered food, clothing, and other items that were supposed to go to hurricane victims. The employee in charge of distribution has been removed while that investigation proceeds.

And in Georgia, more than two dozen gas station owners may have to pay fines for hosing consumers when prices soared over the Labor Day weekend. Georgia's governor suspended the state gas tax, but some gas stations didn't reduce their prices accordingly.


PHILLIPS: I'll tell you what. He's the most difficult man to keep up with. Trust me, I tried to do it for a number of days. But luckily, we were able to track him down within the past couple of minutes. He's outside the Convention Center. You know this man well, General Russel Honore, leading the troops there in New Orleans. Good to see you, sir.


PHILLIPS: Are you hearing me okay? We're all linked up together now?

HONORE: I hear you loud and clear.

PHILLIPS: All right. Let's get down to business. A lot of people of course concerned about Lady Rita, as you put it so well, coming through there to New Orleans. I know you're prepared. I know you've got everything lined up and ready to go. But just so everybody can see it and hear it from you, tell me what you got set up, sir.

HONORE: Well, we're working to support the state of Louisiana and the southern parishes here and around New Orleans, who were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and the state of Louisiana under the leadership of Governor Blanco, has issued hurricane messages to our people, encouraging evacuation in the lower southwest parishes of Louisiana.

And what we're doing in the Katrina devastated area is making sure that our troops are actively helping to take care of the people. Behind me, you see we're still running an evacuation center. That's manned with medics and people who will take care of those who come and want to be evacuated. We're also setting up a hospital in the exposition area of the Convention Center.

We're continuing to work on improving -- helping improve the communications, an dour troops are postured to weather out the storm. The National Guard is well displaced throughout the affected area of Katrina, prepared if there are any second effects from Rita as it comes through the Gulf, and we're in support of the proper personal (ph) federal officer, General Allen. He's over in Mississippi today.

And I'm here in Louisiana, along with General Alandoro (ph), who's maneuvering the National Guard forces to make sure we are set. The Corps of Engineers is constantly work on the levees and improving the pumps in and around New Orleans, to ensure we have max capacity.

The troops have been cleaning street manhole covers to try to remove debris and the Corps of Engineers are starting to pop those manhole covers out, so if it does -- when it rains, we'll be able to get water to the pumps and they can pump it out of the city, over.

PHILLIPS: General, you know, you never beat around the bush, especially when I ask you questions about the levees. And I want to know, if Rita come through there and if it's a Category 2, 3, 4, 5, can those levees hand what Rita could do?

HONORE: Well, there are limits to it. But right now we're not looking at Rita making a direct hit on Louisiana, in the New Orleans area. So that's a sign of relief. But Rita will go where she wants to go. And that would have us concerned if we had a direct hit from Rita. But under current projections, I think with some margin of risk always because the levees have been tested, we are going to be OK with the current projections, over.

PHILLIPS: Storm-proof communications, another big concern. We saw what happened prior to you arriving there. How do you feel about coms, how do you feel about being able to get in touch with all your men and women, no matter what they're involved with throughout that region?

HONORE: We have good coms now. We've transferred 1,000 radios from the 82nd Airborne over to the National Guard troops who have the mission here. In the coastal parishes, they have good coms. Our -- the police networks are coming online. We are putting in an improved communication system that we'll explain more in a couple days that will have a long-term impact on the state of Louisiana.

We also will have one -- we're working to get set for Mississippi and we're constantly working to try to improve. But this is a DOD initiative from FEMA to try and put in satellite coms that is more reliable after a storm than relying on cell phones or your normal telephone commercial infrastructure, over.

PHILLIPS: Sure, we saw what happened there. How about long-term shelters? When I was with you over the past couple days, that's one thing I really admired about you, General. You would disappear for a little while, I'd try to find you, and you'd be mingling in a shelter, whether it was Alexandria or there in New Orleans.

Tell me about the long-term shelters. Tell me about the people that are in those shelters. Are they going to be OK? And as you look forward to dealing with what you have to deal with, will they be taken care of?

HONORE: Well, I do that out of personal interest. You know, that is not my lane. I did visit the shelter in Alexandria and went to see some of the people in there and I was very impressed with the number of Red Cross and parish and other workers there, working with them.

There were medical people there. There were counselors. There with people at that time of the evening, which is around 7:00 o'clock in the evening, and I was impressed with the level of service there in Alexandria. But that's the only one I visited because we been focused on rescue mission and caring for the people along the Mississippi coast and here in Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish and Jefferson Parish, over.

PHILLIPS: All right. You know I have to ask you about this, a little bit of a lighter note, General. Your friend Wayne Newton in the area -- of course, he's very well known for supporting the troops. I know you're going to link up with him. What is he going to do while he's there? And I hear a rumor of Neal McCoy also, one of your favorite country singers, alongside with him.

HONORE: Yes, both of them are there. They're over entertaining the troops now. Their first show was at noon today. They'll do another show around 14:00, then another show later this evening in the New Orleans area. Then they'll fly back to Atlanta. They've been very supportive of troops around the world and we were in communication with Mr. Powell from the USO, offered the opportunity if we could get the USO in, to come spend some time with the troops.

And as you know, Mr. Wayne Newton, when called, he will come. So he's -- does a lot to support our soldiers around the world, as well as the entire cast of the entertainers that shared the talent in going to see our soldier, whether it's in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever the troops serve --in Korea. They've been very good about supporting our warriors around the world, over.

PHILLIPS: General Russel Honore, always a pleasure, sir. You're my hero. I'm curious, are you going to -- are you still with me?

HONORE: Yes, ma'am.

PHILLIPS: All right. Final question. Are you going to sing with Wayne Newton? Because I know you can hum a mean tune.

HONORE: No ma'am, I can't sing, but I will see him sometime today.

PHILLIPS: I'm just trying -- there we go, I got a smile. General, great to see you, sir.


PHILLIPS: All right. General Russel Honore. Quite a man. We're going to take a -- actually, know what we're going to do? We're going to start the second hour of LIVE FROM right now.


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