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American Morning

Massive Evacuation From New Orleans to Houston Coming to Sudden Halt; Looting and Lawlessness Continue to Escalate

Aired September 01, 2005 - 08:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A developing story this hour. That massive evacuation from New Orleans to Houston coming to a sudden halt. No more buses will be leaving the Superdome from now after someone in New Orleans fired shots at a helicopter being used in the evacuation. We've got live reports from New Orleans and Houston just ahead.
And New Orleans is now being described as out of control this morning, as looting and lawlessness continue to escalate. The mayor and the governor say they will use whatever means necessary to crack down on criminals in a city underwater.

And the disaster now being felt in startling ways at the gas pump. Prices soaring even to $5 or $6 a gallon in some places. The skyrocketing cost of Katrina on this AMERICAN MORNING.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning and welcome from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I'm standing in front of the emergency operations center, where state and federal officials have gathered together to try to offer up some sort of response in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

Clearly, they are overwhelmed by the events, as we have seen the thing -- the way things have unfolded in the City of New Orleans in particular.

Also this morning, developing news on that effort to move those evacuees who had spent so many days inside the Superdome under deteriorating conditions -- no electricity and sanitary conditions just appalling.

In the midst of that bus transfer, shots fired at a helicopter and now the transfer has been temporarily suspended.

Keith Oppenheim is in Houston for us -- Keith, what's the latest?

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Earlier this morning, things seemed to be going smoothly here at the Astrodome. We were seeing a few buses coming in and bringing folks into the Astrodome. And then we spoke to a county official just about an hour ago and she said -- she's a county official from here in Houston -- and she said because of violence in New Orleans, specifically that someone or some people from an unruly crowd near the Superdome, that there were shots fired at a Chinook helicopter. And so the transports were put on hold. Those helicopters, by the way, are used, in part, to take people out of the Superdome to buses that would then come here to the Astrodome.

How long will this delay be? Maybe five to six hours we're told. But given that a relatively small percentage of people have been taken out of the Superdome to the Astrodome so far it could be a problem.

Here now from Gloria Roemer, who is part of the rescue efforts here.


GLORIA ROEMER, HARRIS COUNTY SPOKESWOMAN: It's a very bad delay caused by very, very bad people and it's really, really quite unbelievable that somebody would be shooting at a rescue helicopter.


OPPENHEIM: The numbers so far, more than 2, 000 people have come to the Astrodome. You have 43 buses that have already arrived and 17 buses, we're told, that are en route. But, again, we're expecting probably a five to six hours delay and hundreds more buses that should be coming soon.

In the meantime, they are virtually setting up a city on the inside of the Astrodome, setting up thousands of cots. There are people coming in, getting medical screenings and sick people will be sent to hospitals. Everyone who comes in gets a comfort kit with toiletries and, get this, Miles, they are getting 800 local workers to serve food, three meals a day, a hot breakfast, hot dinner and cold lunch -- back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's Keith Oppenheim in Houston.

Thanks very much -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: We'll show you some pictures of what we're seeing right now actually in New Orleans, Miles.

As you can see, let's show the shot of -- this is an aerial picture and it looks like it's right around the Superdome. And you can see -- look at these people just hanging out. They are waiting to be transported, we believe, from the Superdome over to the Astrodome.

It looks like an ambulance, as well, that's either conked out or stopped, or maybe even on the scene to help people.

Looting and violence, general lawlessness have become the major concern now in New Orleans. The mayor there is calling on police to do whatever it takes to get things under control.

Let's get right to Chris Lawrence.

He joins us by videophone.

Here's on Canal Street, which is in downtown New Orleans, and much of which was underwater for a long time.

What's the situation there right now -- Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Still underwater. In fact, this is one of the highest points, where at least we do have some dry ground. But you walk literally 20 feet down, the water is up to your knees. And you walk a little further down the block, it could come all the way up to your waist. And, again, you know, you're talking about that shooting, a possible shooting at a Chinook helicopter, I remember being in Baghdad and lifting off in a Chinook, going to Ramadi, and how they had to lift off so quickly and dip and turn because they were afraid of getting fired on.

You just never expect something like that to happen in the City of New Orleans. But a lot of the police officers here have been telling us they feel like they're overwhelmed by the situation, that there are people, literally groups of people just walking through the streets. They are all armed. A lot of the hardware and sporting goods stores have been looted. The police say the first thing they took were the guns. And the police say what they have done, at some point, was to go in to some of these stores and loot themselves, taking the ammunition just to get it off the streets, because they're so concerned with the security situation -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, Chris, we're looking at some live pictures, aerial pictures of people. It looks like they're just sort of camped out or standing around on the street. It looks like it's near the Superdome.

Any idea of what is happening -- obviously the transport to Houston has stopped for now -- but what the scene and the situation is like there?

LAWRENCE: Yes, well, I can tell you what it's like right here. I mean right here at the convention center, which is just a couple of blocks away from us, as we were driving in, there were thousands, thousands of people just sleeping on the streets of New Orleans. I mean mothers with their children, entire families have nowhere to go. You walk by and people don't have water. They're running out of food. They have no communication whatsoever with the outside world and they're literally just sleeping on the street because there's just no way to take them out of here right now.

S. O'BRIEN: And, of course, they're completely traumatized.

How do the crowds seem to you? I mean honestly from here, I can't even imagine what a massive number of just utterly traumatized people in downtown New Orleans would look like.

LAWRENCE: It's, you know, it's something that you just -- I mean, especially if you've been to New Orleans before and you know it's such a lively city. And it just seems everything completely shut down. There is not a building operating down here. Power completely out. And, you know, you walk by these groups of people and people will -- some will scream at you because they're so angry and frustrated. It's not personal, it's just they want answers and they can't call anybody and they can't find out what's going to happen. So they'll scream at you and they'll get mad because they want answers and they think you have them.

Other people will say please help me, I've got somebody who's bleeding, I need a first aid kit. And, you know, you just -- there's no way to help these people. And the police were saying, you know, sometimes they can give out a little bit of water if they get their hands on something, but you've got to be careful because the police will tell you, you know, you show up with a little bit of water and you might have the best of intentions, but that can very, very easily just become a stampede, because people are so desperate down here right now.

S. O'BRIEN: Very, very scary. And, of course, they're hungry and they're hot and they're tired and they're filthy and they just want some relief.


S. O'BRIEN: Chris, we're going to check in with you again.

Chris, thanks.

Let's get right back to Miles -- Miles, good morning again.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning, Soledad.

It's just so hard to imagine we're seeing this unfold in a major American city.

Let's shift our focus to the east a little bit, to the State of Mississippi, where really much of the Gulf Coastline was wiped out by Katrina.

The unofficial death count -- we haven't had it confirmed by the governor just a few moments ago, because they're still in the midst of the grim task of counting -- but the unofficial death count is 185, and that number is sure to go up.

Seventy-five percent of customers in the State of Mississippi still without electricity this morning and that will be the case for quite some time to come.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is in Biloxi.

He joins us with more -- Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, a much dramatically different scene here than there is in New Orleans, albeit a very depressing scene, though. This is a horrible situation going on here and indicative of what we have behind us. This is an example of what is happening around the whole entire Gulf Coast of Mississippi. And the problem here is trying to find any sign of life. And there has not been much success with the search and rescue crews.

There is some good news to report today for the folks of Mississippi. The National Guard has made its presence well known and they are taking over some of the security duties that local police had been doing for the last three days, giving those people a break. These are the local people that lost their own homes that were trying to also keep the order. The National Guard is helping with that.

There is also medical help from FEMA and there is the constant search and rescue that continues to go on. They are going house to house, or what is left of these houses. They're going into these pieces of rubble, these areas of rubble, looking for signs of life. Unfortunately, they are finding more signs of death and they're finding more bodies as the day goes on, as the day goes on, and as you mentioned, they expect that death toll to rise dramatically over the next few days -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's Ted Rowlands in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Let's check some other news, other headlines.

Carol Costello with that -- good morning, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Miles.

And good morning to all of you.

Now in the news, funerals are being held in Iraq today for victims of a massive bridge stampede in Baghdad. Nearly 1, 000 people were trampled or drowned, apparently after hearing rumors of a suicide bomber in the crowd. That incident still under investigation.

U.S. Marine warplanes are pounding what they call "identified terrorist safe havens" in western Iraq. Military sources tell us troops dropped some 500-pound bombs near the Syrian border. A train station where weapons were stored was apparently destroyed.

A moment of silence across Russia to mark the one year anniversary of the Beslan school siege. Victims, friends and families placed flowers near the ruins of the school gymnasium. That's where the bloody three day siege ended with the death of more than 330 people, mostly children. The only hostage taker who survived is now on trial.

Two pipelines supplying the Southeast with gasoline have resumed partial operations, but supply problems have created some panic at the pumps. Some drivers in Atlanta were facing gas prices of more than $5 a gallon. Take a look at those prices. Georgia's governor, Sonny Perdue, says this is just a temporary problem due to Katrina. And gas was said to be so scarce in Mobile, Alabama that motorists waited in some very, very long lines. That's a line of people waiting to get gas. We just go those in, actually.

As far as prices go, experts warn that the national average could potentially go as high as $4 per gallon soon. Of course, we'll keep you posted.

And, you know, Chad, all the rumors of gas shortages are fueling people's desire to stock up on gas. And that's why there are long lines.


COSTELLO: But there's no need to panic yet.

MYERS: No. And I think -- I gassed up all my cars about three days ago, but I was gassing up at $2.49. And I drove by it today, it was $3.19.


MYERS: So I'm kind of glad that I did. I save $0.70 a gallon. You know, three cars, that was like, what, 50 gallons worth of gas. So there's a couple bucks, $35 I saved. So just be careful out there anyway.

Tropical storm Lee, overnight, L, the "L" storm, came and went. Now it's a tropical depression getting into this colder water up here. This storm here looking pretty impressive right now. No name. But it could be Maria, unless there's a storm down to the south of here, yet you can't even see. It could be Maria and this could be Nate. Those are the next two, the "M" and the "N" storms for today and for maybe tonight, later. We'll see.

Rain showers moving away from with this Katrina, northeast. Absolutely sunny all over the country today. A couple of showers possible around New Orleans. We'll get to that a little bit later -- back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Chad, thanks a lot.

Still to come this morning, we have much more on that crisis in New Orleans. Officials there are gravely worried about the spread of disease. We're going to take a look at what the biggest concern is right now.

And we'll talk to one of New Orleans' native sons about efforts to save his hometown. Musician Wynton Marsalis will join us live ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: A desperate situation in the City of New Orleans. As we speak, the effort to move those evacuees from the Superdome to the Astrodome now halted after shots were fired on a helicopter that was involved in that effort. And then, as you just heard from CNN's Chris Lawrence, just scenes of desperation everywhere. People in need of water and food, desperate for it. Just hard to imagine all this happening in the great City of New Orleans.

Congressman Bobby Jindal is a representative who has -- his district is actually Kennar, but all part of the general area of New Orleans.

As you look at those live pictures of your city, you've seen it in person, having flown over it. What was that like, flying over your district and seeing it inundated?

REP. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: It was devastating. Indeed, you can't really understand it until you see it for yourself. My district actually goes into New Orleans. We have parts of New Orleans. And I think the vast majority of my district, the vast majority of my constituents have been impacted one way. They've either had water in their home, they were evacuated from their homes. You know, the roads look like toys. The homes look like match sticks. You look at water up to people's roofs. You look at -- I don't know what happened to my home.

You look at the areas that you're used to being looked at -- I looked at my children's school and you just see this devastation and you think even seeing the pictures don't prepare you for it. What's even worse, we spent hours in the shelters. We've been trying to comfort people and bring them assistance. Even worse than seeing the physical damage is talking to people.

When you talk to families, you realize families are separated. People don't know where their kids are. They don't know where their parents are. People -- they're, a lot of people are still in shock. I think a lot of people evacuated thinking they were going to get to go home in a couple of days, not several weeks.

M. O'BRIEN: It is a shocking scene. And it might be much more than several weeks, for that matter.

Your background is as the secretary of health and hospitals. So you have some insight into what is going on in the hospitals. We've been reading these accounts -- and I'm sure you've heard them directly -- about no power in a hospital, having to hand ventilate people, for example. Truly a desperate situation in these hospitals.

What can be done about that?

JINDAL: Absolutely. They're beginning to evacuate cases -- not beginning. They've been evacuating cases, for example, from Children's Hospital. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified thousands of beds where these patients can be taken to. Here in Baton Rouge they've stopped admitting non-life threatening cases so they can take the patients from New Orleans. There are literally convoys of doctors and nurses traveling into the region to relieve those doctors.

And so there are efforts to evacuate those hospitals, get people out. The infrastructure simply isn't viable to keep patients there for a long time. They had already pre-evacuated many nursing home residents, many of the less serious cases. Part of the challenge is you've got people that are hard to move. You've got new cases coming into the hospital.

So the goal is to get those patients out. A lot of these hospitals, the generators are running out of fuel. A lot of these hospitals, they have structural problems. They've got water coming in. And so it's not sustainable to keep people where they are. Here they have the benefit of more hospital beds.

M. O'BRIEN: As shocking as these scenes are -- and I think as we see them, it's just -- it's hard to imagine what we're seeing unfold here -- but this was the nightmare scenario and had been discussed for many years as a possibility, a big storm hitting New Orleans. Everybody knew about it and yet I think we all have the sense that there really isn't an operative plan in place, that this is -- they're making it up as they go along here.


JINDAL: You know, and some things have worked well and some things haven't worked well. They pre-positioned the medical teams and the search and rescue, and some of that's gone very well. They've rescued thousands of people in boats. They've rescued people off rooftops. Some of the things like security you look at and you think why haven't we -- why haven't they established earlier -- the prisons, why haven't they been able to crack down?

Now, some of it is the scale of the catastrophe and that, you know, it's hard, you know, when you -- it's hard to plan for something on that massive of a scale in terms of the storm.

But really at this point, I don't think it's time to be critical of the state's efforts or the federal efforts while they're rescuing people off roofs, while they're picking people up out of the water. I think it's important they rescue every single person. I think it's important that while there are people's lives are in danger, that they get them away.

I think there will be a time when we look back and say now clearly this didn't go the way it should have gone. Why didn't it? So that improvements can be made. For example, in Congress, we've been fighting for years, saying if we don't restore our coasts, if we don't improve these levees, if we don't improve these pumps, we're going to pay a much more serious cost in federal disaster relief. We're going to see a much more serious cost in the loss of life.

We've been making the argument that if we don't make the communications gear interoperable -- we should have learned this lesson on 9/11. We've been saying if the fire and the police departments and the federal and the state and the local first responders can't talk to each other, we're going to have another tragedy.

M. O'BRIEN: Congressman, looking at this, you see live pictures, of course, of the Superdome looking rather battered itself, with its Teflon roof peeled away, largely. And what we're seeing there, of course, is a stalled effort, at least a wide scale picture of a stalled effort to remove those evacuees and get them on their way to Houston and the Astrodome.

When you hear about that, when you hear about pot shots being taken at a helicopter, you're a citizen -- this is your city. It's just got to break your heart. JINDAL: Absolutely. You know, there was some legal squabbling early on in the attorney general's office and the governor's office about whether -- what could they do under martial law. I think the time has come -- the time has passed to impose a no tolerance set of rules where I know the National Guard is stepping up their efforts. I know they're bringing in military police. But we really need to establish a situation where people understand looting, violence is not acceptable.

And I think that this chaos is going to result in the loss of life. People need to understand, the vast majority of people -- I don't want people to get the wrong impression. The vast majority of people have been very generous, have opened up their homes, opened up their hearts and taken in strangers. A small minority, a small number of people are abusing the situation. I think we need to empower our law enforcement officials and our military officials to say let's adopt a zero tolerance attitude. Let's take these people off the street. Let's take them so they can't be causing this danger.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, there is no excuse for looting, but as you look at that scene there, and you consider the desperation and the conditions that have transpired over there the past few days, you can certainly understand where it comes from. Not to justify it, but you can understand it.

Bobby Jindal, you have a long road ahead and a lot of work ahead here.

We wish you well as you and your constituents try to rebuild your great city.

JINDAL: Thank you very much.

M. O'BRIEN: Back with more in a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Before Katrina, mention of New Orleans brought to mind visions of Mardi Gras, the French Quarter and jazz.

But one of New Orleans' own, musician Wynton Marsalis, and others, are now coming to the aid of their hometown.

Wynton Marsalis joins us this morning.

It's nice to see you.


S. O'BRIEN: First, personally speaking, you've got lots of friends, you're from New Orleans.

How -- have you gotten word out? What are you hearing?

MARSALIS: Well, it's a -- we all are calling each other and talking to each other. And people are devastated. Of course, as the time passes, it's going to sink in more and more, but many of my friends are saying just thank the good lord we have our lives.

S. O'BRIEN: You've been watching the pictures, obviously. You've heard the mayor and the governor now saying do whatever it takes to restore order. You've heard the stories of somebody firing shots at a Chinook helicopter that's trying to take people out of the city. I mean this must just rip you apart to see this happening.

MARSALIS: I mean, it does, but this type of behavior is kind of -- it's in keeping with kind of the way that our culture and things have developed. I mean it's, in many ways, we live a very harsh way. We're used to living that way in our country. We have police, a lot of jails, a lack of education, a lack of jobs for people, a lack of concern for kind of poor people. In American cities, there are teeming masses of people who are poor and ignorant, and they spill over into the culture.

I don't think it's as many people as is being reported, because, of course, violence and ignorance is always good news. But I feel like, you know, that's an unfortunate side bar to our way of life.

S. O'BRIEN: We're looking at the French Quarter flooded, obviously.

Can the city rebuild? I mean outside of the lives lost and everybody's personal loss for the tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands of people, what about, you know, New Orleans as the city that kind of belongs to everybody? I mean everybody has been there.


S. O'BRIEN: Everybody has a memory of New Orleans.

MARSALIS: I think if everybody contributes, we will rebuild faster. If we look -- if we think about the fact that 300 or 400 years ago, everything was wilderness, you know, human beings, we build. That's what we do. And in the American way of life, we build constantly. So at one time New Orleans was a swamp. So, yes, we'll rebuild it. Of course.

S. O'BRIEN: But you're going to need some financial help. And I guess that brings us nicely into the concert that you are, you're holding, really.


S. O'BRIEN: First of all, who's taking part? What's -- how -- who are you going to give the money to?

MARSALIS: We don't have everybody in place and we're still looking at where we're going to -- we're going to send the money to the best place to get to the people who need the help the most. It's on September the 17th at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose Hall. And we're going to have a lot of our friends that we've played with down through the years and many styles of music to come and play and celebrate New Orleans and the feeling and spirit of New Orleans' music. It's called Higher Ground, Moving to Higher Ground, because that's what we're going to have to do as a culture. We have to come to grips with the soul of -- the soul inside of ourselves and realize it's a national tragedy that afflicts all of us. There's a lot of images we see, you think New Orleans only has black people in the city. But New Orleans is a modern American city that's a fully integrated city.

And of my friends, you know, we're all talking to each other and we're all races and ages and we're saying man, you look at our city and the nation, it's a time for us to reach down and help a response that is the size of the tragedy. That's what we need.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, that's some of the more optimistic words that I've heard all morning, and, really, over the last couple of days.

So good luck to you in the concert.


S. O'BRIEN: September 17th.

How can people contribute if they want to?

MARSALIS: Just check...

S. O'BRIEN: Buy tickets, go online?

MARSALIS: Buy tickets, go online. I don't really know the Web site and stuff. I'm never informed like that.

S. O'BRIEN: That's OK. You know, you can Google it and find it that way.

Nice to see you, Wynton, as always.

Thanks a lot.

MARSALIS: All right, thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: More to come, much more on the crisis going on in New Orleans. The situation quite dire in and around the Louisiana Superdome. As you can see there, folks who are trying to be evacuated waiting and waiting as that now has been halted. And there's news that a National Guardsman has been shot. We'll have the very latest on that just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Stay with us.