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Wildfires Burning Out of Control Near Los Angeles; Katrina One Month Later

Aired September 29, 2005 - 08:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wildfires burning out of control this morning near Los Angeles, doubling in size overnight. Some evacuations ordered. More could be coming.
In New Orleans, Katrina one month later. Despite health concerns over the water, the air and the ground itself, the mayor is bringing some residents back.

And Republicans in Washington trying to regroup after a conspiracy indictment against Congressman Tom DeLay. A look at the next move for the GOP on this AMERICAN MORNING.

ANNOUNCER: From the CNN broadcast center in New York, this is AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: Good morning to you.

I'm Miles O'Brien.

We're glad you're with us.

Soledad under the weather this morning. No voice.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, she is under the weather. The mold got to her in the City of New Orleans, and we do have a lot to talk about, though, from New Orleans.

But there is another dangerous situation we want to talk about first that's developing out West.

O'BRIEN: Let's start there.

Wildfires in four southern California counties raging out of control this morning. About 700 firefighters desperately trying to gain an upper hand. At least one home destroyed in the town of Chatsworth, north of L.A. in the San Fernando Valley. Hundreds more threatened. Evacuations ordered. More expected today.

Take a look at this satellite image as we go down to the region. More than 10,000 acres already scorched in the L.A. Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

Dan Simon in Los Angeles County, near Chatsworth -- Dan, how many evacuees there?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are several dozen people just kind of standing around here. They're wondering what is going to happen to their homes. We talked to several of them. They tell me that they actually went into their homes last night, tried to grab whatever they could. And they're basically congregating here. In the words of one firefighter, this could be a very long day.

This fire doubled in size overnight. We're talking 7,000 acres so far have been charred. And the concern today is the wind. If the winds continue to stay calm, as they are now, firefighters just may be able to get an upper hand on this blaze. But the concern is, is that they're going to pick up. And if they pick up, then several hundred homes could be in the flames' path. And, of course, that could be a devastating situation.

As you mentioned, so far, several hundred people have been evacuated and there actually might be more a bit later on. There is actually talk that they might have to evacuate the town of Malibu, which is just a few miles away from here -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Dan Simon in Los Angeles County.

Thank you very much -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Washington is buzzing this morning over the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay is accused of conspiring to break campaign finance laws.

Congressional correspondent live on Capitol Hill -- Joe, what's the reaction there?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, as you know, it's already been a tough year for congressional Republicans and now their leader in the House of Representatives is in the fight of his political life.


JOHNS (voice-over): On the grand jury's final day, Travis County's district attorney, Ronnie Earle, dropped the hammer on Tom DeLay.

RONNIE EARLE, TRAVIS COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Criminal conspiracy is a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in the state jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

JOHNS: The immediate impact was pure politics. DeLay was forced to temporarily give up his position as House Majority Leader, his title, his suite of offices, his control over the House floor.

And he lashed out at the man who took it all away.

REP. TOM DELAY (R), TEXAS: This act is the product of a coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution, the all too predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.

JOHNS: The one count indictment related to an impressive bit of political choreography, a Texas two-step. First, the political action committee that DeLay founded helped take over the statehouse in 2002. Then the Texas legislature redrew congressional districts.

It paid off big. In 2004, Republicans picked up five extra Texas seats in Congress, adding to DeLay's power.

But was it legal? Earle says DeLay broke Texas campaign laws by conspiring to funnel corporate money into state elections through the National Republican Party -- $190,000 in all.

EARLE: The law says that corporate contributions to political campaigns are illegal in Texas. The law makes such contributions a felony.

DICK DEGUERIN, DELAY'S LAWYER: These corporate contributions were not illegal. They were made properly, they were made at a proper time and they were spent on proper things.

JOHNS: Behind the legal fight, a clash of two very different and powerful personalities. DeLay is known as "The Hammer" for his ability to impose discipline on House Republicans and his impressive legislative track record. Earle is a true believer in the cause of getting the big money out of politics. Some say he's a zealot.


JOHNS: Congressman Roy Blount of Missouri takes over as temporary majority leader, assuming this case gets to trial. There's a lot of betting right now that won't happen until some time next year -- Carol.

COSTELLO: OK, so I've got to ask you this, Joe. I mean there's an investigation into the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist. And Mr. Blount, he may also be involved in the Tom DeLay case.

I mean how concerned about Republicans about their leadership?

JOHNS: Well, certainly there's a lot of concern up here. There was a lot of surprise, obviously, about what happened, as you know. I think probably the bottom line is how will Democrats use this? There's a news conference scheduled today for them to talk about what they call the culture of corruption on Capitol Hill. Democrats think they can do something with it -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Joe Johns reporting live from Capitol Hill this morning.

Later on AMERICAN MORNING, we'll hear from Tom DeLay's lawyer.

We want to get a check on the weather now.

Let's head to Atlanta and check in with Chad.


(WEATHER REPORT) O'BRIEN: A month after evacuees poured into the Louisiana Superdome, initial cleanup of the arena is now completed. Workers removed nearly 3,000 tons of debris in just the past 19 days.

A CNN customer crew was able to get inside and see what the Superdome looks like now and what needs to be done next.


FRANK OBREGON, PROJECT MANAGER, J&J MAINTENANCE: But the worst we've ever seen. The bathrooms was one of the areas that was just horrendous. There was a lot of damage. It looked like they were looking for either valuables or food. The room was locked. They came in through the back side, broke the glass.

What we're seeing here is damage from Rita and from Katrina. There was more rain that came in here, soaked all the tiles and as they're getting heavier and heavier and they're drying out, they're getting heavier and then they fall down. And that's what we're seeing throughout the whole Dome right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you say there's been a major leaking problem?

OBREGON: Yes. It's pretty much throughout. In order for them to continue to get any further damage, they need to repair this roof, get it into conditions where it'll keep it from deteriorating more, because they're going to continue to flood.

A lot of the employees that we did hire wanted the work, but more so, they wanted to be part of the cleaning up of the Superdome.

You've got them working out here, right?



We started by cleaning all the exterior part of the Dome, moved into the corridors. But it was really full of tremendous amounts and tonnage and tonnage of different debris.

This is a thousand percent better.


OBREGON: A thousand percent better. The whole floor, the toilets were overflowing. So we had our guys totally dress up in protective to remove it all. But this is a thousand percent better.

The official status of this building right now is that all debris has been removed, has been decontaminated to make it accessible for all other contractors to come in and assess the Superdome.

It was a tremendous task and we took it on and we went ahead and did the best we could. (END VIDEO TAPE)

O'BRIEN: Now, maintenance officials say the Superdome was sprayed down with hospital grade disinfectant, though mold may continue to grow until roof repairs are completed there.

What a job that must have been.

COSTELLO: That guy seems so proud of the job they did. It was good to see.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

Coming up, we have the governor of Mississippi. We're going to be talking to him about rebuilding his state, specifically focusing on the issue of casinos. Where will there be, floating offshore? Or perhaps on land?

COSTELLO: I think it's a better idea on land, don't you?

And later, one of the success stories in the relief efforts. Coast Guard rescue missions -- we'll talk to two lieutenants who helped save thousands of lives.

That's just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: It's been one month now since hurricane Katrina came ashore, devastating the Gulf Coast. The death toll now stands at more than 1,100 people killed in five states, more than 200 of them in Mississippi. Entire towns wiped right off the map by Katrina's force struggling to get back on their feet.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is now proposing a controversial move to relocate the state's big moneymaking casinos ashore. Current law says they must stay on water. Many of the state's casinos were destroyed by Katrina.

Governor Barbour joining us now from Jackson, Mississippi.

Good to have you back on the program, Governor.


O'BRIEN: What -- you want to move them in 1,500 feet.

That really wouldn't have done much to protect them with this last storm, would it?

BARBOUR: Well, actually it would. Because the casinos were all floating, every one of them on the coast was destroyed, every single one. Many of them were thrown across the highway, hit hotels, hit buildings, hit vehicles. And only because we had evacuated did it not kill a lot of people. So coming back with then sitting in the water is not the right thing to do. I propose just bringing them ashore a few hundred feet. You know, in a state 400 miles long like ours, Miles, a few hundred feet is irrelevant. But they can be put safely, securely on land that way and it'll solve that problem. It'll also allow them to grow so they can be more than just gambling, so they can really become world class resorts.

O'BRIEN: Well, let me ask you about a floating casino, though.

If you had a bad storm, couldn't you move it out of the way?

BARBOUR: Well, they're so big that when this originally started in the early '90s, that was the theory. But they are so big that ultimately it became clear that the thing to do was to chain them down, to moor them. And, you know, for the small hurricanes, that has not been a problem. But when you got this hurricane, it was the worst natural disaster in American history, a hurricane worse than Camille, which I never thought I'd say, it just threw them across the highway, threw them on land.

It's -- we want them back open as fast as possible because they employ a lot of people. And so we're trying to deal with this now so that we can get them back open and get them open in the safest way.

O'BRIEN: Now, you were elected promising not to expand the casinos' presence. This, depending on how you look at it, could be viewed as an expansion. It's certainly a foothold. It's maybe, if you're an opponent, a Normandy invasion. They're on the beach now.

How do you respond to your critics on that one?

BARBOUR: Well, I said when I ran for governor that was opposed, and I continue to be opposed, to expanding gaming beyond the counties where it is now. I don't believe there's any part, any area of our state that wants gaming that doesn't already have it.

But we're not talking about expanding it to any other county. This has no affect on any counties but two counties on the coast that have gaming. And for them, we're talking about a few hundred feet. They can't go up to the Interstate. They can't go to other towns. They could move onshore a few hundred feet, which is for safety reasons and it is no material change. It is certainly not putting gaming in any area where it isn't now.

We can -- we'd want to put them about as far as I can hit a driver, if I hit it solid.

O'BRIEN: Well, there are a lot of conservatives who are on the right side of the fairway there who would, you know, they're a little mad at you for all of this, because they see this as using a terrible, you know, a real tragedy, a catastrophe, as an opportunity to give the casinos more of an upper hand than they have now.

BARBOUR: Well, you know, I was elected with the support of virtually all the religious conservatives in the state, including my own family. But the fact of the matter is we've had gaming in our state since the early '90s. I've been very straightforward about it, that I'm not going to allow it to go into any other counties other than where it is now.

But what we're talking about is public safety. We're talking about improving development and expanding gaming beyond -- expanding these resorts beyond just gaming. If we limit them to staying on the water or above the water, then they're not going to grow. They're going to be minimal. They'll be just gaming, nice hotels but just gaming.

If we do this right, they will have the opportunity, and I think some of them will choose, to go way beyond what they are now, way beyond just gaming.

O'BRIEN: Let's shift gears here for just a moment.

The president is on record saying next time around, it might be better if the federal government took control of the response to these kinds of things almost immediately.

Do you think that would have helped in Mississippi?

BARBOUR: I really don't think it would have helped in Mississippi. The federal government has been a good partner to us. They haven't done everything right and we haven't done everything right and I think if you talked to the mayors and the local governments they'd tell you they haven't done everything right.

But the fact of the matter is they have been a good partner. But we in Mississippi, we know better how to take care of ourselves. We're familiar with what's going on. You look at the recovery on our coast, where schools are back open, businesses are back going. We're deep into the cleanup of debris.

Our people are resilient and self-reliant. We don't need a czar. We don't need somebody to come in here and take this over.

O'BRIEN: But wouldn't it be better, Governor...

BARBOUR: And so I don't agree...

O'BRIEN: Wouldn't it be better, Governor, if the presumption was, when something bad was going to happen, that the federal government would be coming, unless you called them off? That way there wouldn't be as much time wasted.

BARBOUR: Well, look, the federal government is an important partner here. But what would be best is if the federal government, 48 or 72 hours in advance, notified the state, you have the authority to move resources and we will help you pay for it.

Governor Bob Riley of Alabama has proposed this and I think it's a good solid proposal.

And I have to tell you, I spend most of my time looking forward, because we've got a tall mountain to get over in rebuilding and renewal. But I think what Governor Riley has talked about is the right way to go with this, not for to have a federal takeover.

O'BRIEN: Governor, a final thought here.

You have a blank canvas there, in many senses, and you've talked about how there were missed opportunities in Mississippi after the Civil War, after the flooding of the Mississippi in the 20s, after Camille.

How are you going to not miss an opportunity this time?

BARBOUR: Well, we're going to put the very best ideas on the table and give the local governments and the private sector -- those are the people who will make the decisions.

I've got a commission to make sure that they are -- have illuminated for them the choices, the options, the alternatives, the ramifications. And we've got a very inclusive, participatory process headed by Jim Barksdale, a Mississippian who is the former CEO of Netscape. And we're going to make sure that everybody understands what we can do and how to get there, what it would cost and what the result would be. And I am sure when you turn around five years from now, you'll see that south Mississippi and the Gulf Coast will be bigger and better than it's ever been before.

O'BRIEN: Good luck, Governor.

Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, thanks for your time.

BARBOUR: Thanks, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Carol.

COSTELLO: Still to come, two lieutenants from the U.S. Coast Guard will join us live.

They were part of the rescue effort that saved thousands of lives in Katrina's aftermath. They'll tell us what the experience has been like.

That's next on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Yesterday when I was asking Senator Susan Collins of Maine who the heroes were of Katrina, it was scenes like this, the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard rescued 33,000 Gulf Coast residents in the days following Katrina -- 33,000. That is -- do you know how many chopper missions that is?

Well, these guys would.

Coast Guard chopper pilots Lieutenant Roberto Torres and Lieutenant Taylor Carlisle joining us from New Orleans this morning.

That is a lot of sorties.

Lieutenant Carlisle, let's begin with you.

First of all, are you exhausted?

LT. TAYLOR CARLISLE, U.S. COAST GUARD: Yes, sir, we're still in a pretty high pace. Things have definitely slowed down. But, yes, there's definitely some fatigue.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I bet it's kind of a blur to you as you look back on it. I know you kept at least a journal on the first day. I'd like for you -- would you share a little bit of it? This is the Wednesday after Katrina. This is the day after the levees burst in New Orleans.

Read a little passage for us, would you?

CARLISLE: Yes, sure thing, Miles.

This is just from the first day and my first hoist with Roberto.

"The first people we picked up were standing on a little balcony and water had flooded the entire first floor and all the surrounding homes. We loaded a swimmer and then he brought up seven babies in just diapers from probably about age infant to a year-and-a-half.

I was able to hold them back with my arm behind my seat so they wouldn't fall out while the rescue swimmer and flight net continued to bring up more children. They were all very well behaved and quiet, and lying against each other, and only one little guy cried for a little bit.

Then we proceeded to hoist two adults, one pregnant woman and another young woman, to take care of the babies."


CARLISLE: "And then we took them to the collection point."


And, of course, you were, I'm sure, very busy doing your job at that point, trying to keep a nice, steady hover and make sure they get up safe and sound afterward.

Did it dawn on you what you had just been through saving all those lives?

CARLISLE: Oh, I think we're still kind of processing that every day slowly. During the whole thing, not very much, we were working so much. We just kind of -- we had to keep focused.

O'BRIEN: I should say so.

Lieutenant Torres, we can take a quick look, too, at your bird there, the H65B, the Dolphin, which has served you all very well there. It became, you know, kind of a standard sight there over New Orleans.

What went through your mind as you were doing it? I know, you know, there's a lot to do when you're just flying a helicopter.

Did you sort of think of the gravity of what you were doing and how important your mission was or was it just, you know, just another sortie, as you would say?

LT. ROBERTO TORRES, U.S. COAST GUARD: Well, we tried to compartmentalize, like we're trained to do. But honestly, being one of the first crew members to get here within hours of the storm, it really dawned on us pretty quickly how large scale this was and how really historic. And we just started working right away and it seems like we just haven't stopped since.

We have all of our helicopters worked, you know, flew 24 hours a day, practically, and all of our folks at the air station. Then we had people come in from all parts of the Coast Guard, all around the country.

O'BRIEN: You know, that mission that Lieutenant Carlisle just described, you know, the seven babies, that's one you wouldn't forget.

Are there any others that stick out in your mind? And, you know, I imagine one of the things you -- that cropped up frequently as we looked at that picture inside the helicopter is you probably had more potential customers, so to speak, than space, frequently. You probably had to make a lot of tough decisions.

TORRES: Absolutely. I think that's probably one of the things that really started wearing on all of us is that we had to decide, you know, what -- who we were taking, honestly. And we were initially triaging elderly children, women. And then we -- because, like you said, the helicopter is fairly small in cabinet space and we don't have a lot of, you know, we can't take too much weight on, we were very much triaging. And we had to make some really tough decisions.

We had to split up families, in some cases. But we made every effort to come back to that same place and pick up the rest of them. And it was very tough. And I think just talking amongst ourselves in between missions, that was probably one of the larger issues. You know, we were kind of wondering who are we to make these decisions, to be honest with you.

O'BRIEN: Yes. It's really a tough one. And it's stuff you've got to make right literally in the heat of battle there.

Lieutenant Carlisle, let's go back to you.

Those vexing decisions, you know, you take babies from parents because they want to get their babies safe and sound. And this is why there are so many families that are separated, in many respects, because of these sorts of rescues where parents would give up their babies and say come back and get me.

You couldn't always get back, could you? CARLISLE: That's correct, sir.

Sometimes we'd go drop off them at the collection points or the hospitals, on the way two or from, you'd see maybe someone else on the roof or more babies or other people in maybe more need or there might be a critical MediVac that you had to go do.


O'BRIEN: What was the biggest challenge through all this? Was it emotional? Was it physical? Was it a mental challenge?

CARLISLE: Well, Miles, for me it was probably a bit of a mental challenge. We get trained to do rescues every day and we do lots of training at the -- at Air Station New Orleans. And there was definitely fatigue involved. But believe it or not, you can push all that aside and fly all day if you have to.

O'BRIEN: Adrenaline is a powerful thing. I think you probably have a complete lifetime filled with actual rescues now, don't you both?


TORRES: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And we hope to never experience anything like that again, to be honest with you.

O'BRIEN: Boy, we will share in that with you, for sure.

Coast Guard Lieutenants Roberto Torres and Taylor Carlisle, great work.

Congratulations on being really -- and you may not accept this role -- but you are the heroes of this so far. And we appreciate all of your efforts.

TORRES: Thank you, sir.

CARLISLE: Thank you, sir.

O'BRIEN: All right -- Carol.


Still to come, a closer look at the confusion at the Superdome in Katrina's aftermath. Did the media make the problem worse? We'll talk to a reporter who was in the Dome when the storm hit.

That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Just about half past the hour on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning to you.

I'm Miles O'Brien.

COSTELLO: And I'm Carol Costello in for Soledad today.

O'BRIEN: Soledad lost her voice down there in New Orleans.

And thank you for being here.

We appreciate it.

COSTELLO: Any time.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Coming up on the program, hundreds of thousands of people have left New Orleans, spreading out across the country. Many have no intention of moving back. We'll talk to two evacuees about why they've decided Houston is just about right for them. That's ahead.

COSTELLO: And right now we want to get you caught up on other stories in the news this morning.

The Senate is getting ready to vote for the next chief justice of the United States. Cameras caught Judge John Roberts leaving his home earlier this morning. Take a look.


JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE NOMINEE: I'm looking forward to the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you comment on the process now that you've been through it?

ROBERTS: I'm looking forward to the vote.


COSTELLO: There he is, not exactly answering the question, as usual.

The Senate is getting ready to reconvene in the next hour and Roberts is pretty much assured confirmation. There is also word that President Bush could announce his pick for retiring judge, Sandra Day O'Connor.


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