Return to Transcripts main page

American Morning

City of New Orleans Falling Deeper into Chaos and Desperation

Aired September 02, 2005 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We're live in New Orleans this morning. Miles O'Brien is at the airport in New Orleans. We're going to check in with him in just a few moments. Sixteen-thousand people have been evacuated out of there. They've been taken to Houston. Well, now the Astrodome is overflowing. Nearby facilities filling up fast as well. We'll take you live to Houston in just a moment.
And on the ground today in the areas of the worst destruction, President Bush is expected to make his first visit to the worst damaged areas. It's another critical day in a national crisis, on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

The city of New Orleans just keeps falling deeper into chaos and into desperation. Now in just the past 90 minutes, some reports of explosions and fires just blocks from the French Quarter.

Let's begin with Chris Lawrence this morning. He's joining us by videophone. He's on top of a police station where he has literally been dodging the bullets from looters all night.

Chris, what is the latest from where you are?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Soledad, yes we are standing right here on the rooftop of this police station. We've got our light pointed this way because we don't want to be too much of a target. They have been shooting up here all night. At times, the police have had to return fire at people on the ground shooting up at them.

Right now, we are watching this fire. And I can give you a little bit of perspective now. It is actually across the Mississippi River. It is very hard to gauge distance and depth here, because the entire city of New Orleans is completely black. There is no light anywhere in the city. and you can see -- right now, we can see this orange glow right across the Mississippi River, where this chemical fire exploded in a building, a couple hours ago. We were downstairs and we heard a loud, boom! And it didn't sound like any of the gunfire we had heard all night. It had thick, thick, cloud of smoke.

S. O'BRIEN: We mentioned Chris Lawrence is on videophone, which means with the circumstances there, obviously, things are very tough. We're going to see if we can get more information from his report in just a few moments, re-establish that signal. We have to remind you, though, of course, very tenuous circumstance for the folks there who are trying to get out and certainly for our reporters as well who are dealing with technical issues and security issues also.

LAWRENCE: Well, the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, is pleading for more help from Washington. He's lashing at the federal relief effort so far. We will play you a little bit of his interview, took place last night, with Garland Robinett of WWL Radio.


MYR. RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: I give the president some credit on this. He sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is General Honore, and he came off the doggone chopper, and he starts cussing and people started moving, and he's getting some stuff done. They ought to give that guy -- if they don't want to give it to me, give him the full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people. I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. I need 500 buses. Man, we ain't talking about -- you know, one of the briefings they were talking about getting public school bus drivers to come down here and bus people out here. I am like, you got to be kidding me? This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus driver in the country and get their (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moving to New Orleans.

That's -- they thinking small, man, and this is a major, major, major deal! We authorized $8 billion to go to Iraq, lickety quick. After 9/11, we gave the president unprecedented powers, lickety quick, to take care of New York and other places.

Now, you mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through, a place that is so unique -- when you mention New Orleans anywhere around the world, everybody eyes light up. You mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died, and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man. You know, I'm not one of those drug addicts. I am thinking very clearly. And I don't know whose problem it is. I don't know whether it's the governor's problem, I don't know whether it's the president's problem, but somebody need to get their (EXPLETIVE DELETED) on a plane and sit down, the two of them, and figure this out right now!


S. O'BRIEN: Mayor Ray Nagin, we're going to -- in our next hour, hear much more of that interview. In just a few minutes, also we're going to hear from Mike Brown. He's the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That's just ahead.

The Houston Astrodome, the temporary escape for evacuees from New Orleans maxed out now. The buses, though, keep coming. We are told the evacuees are now being sent to the nearby Reliant Arena.

Sean Callebs is at the Astrodome for us this morning.

All right, Sean, what does it look like this morning? How many people are there? Is it chaotic, or is it sort of calm and orderly? SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is calm and orderly, but clearly, there is no rest for the weary. We were here last night around midnight Eastern Time when buses were still coming through the gate here. They are coming through the gate. They're basically coming over this way near the Reliant Arena, then people are getting out there, having a chance to get something to eat, perhaps a chance for a shower. However, authorities here tell us this is going to be very, very temporary, perhaps no more than 36 hours. Then the several thousand people, at least 3,000 people so far, perhaps another thousand today, are going to be moved to one of three cities in Texas, either Dallas, San Antonio or the city of Huntsville, Texas.

About the situation here, last night, very explosive. There have been people who had been on these buses for more than 12 hours. Each bus completely crammed. Somewhere between 50 and 65 people on every bus. They got off here thinking they've finally reached basically paradise considering everything they've had to endure over the past several days. When they got off, officers were there saying, get back on the bus. This is full. The county fire marshal has deemed the Astrodome full. You can imagine how that went over with this crowd. The buses were then moved back out of the parking lot on to the public street here. The fence closed and locked. At that point, people began getting off their buses and walking in. The officers had to stop them at that point.

And when we do talk to them, the horrific stories that they are talking about, the conditions in the Superdome, how quickly this disintegrated into chaos is really amazing. The stories of people said they saw criminal acts of violence. They heard gunshots, convinced people died in the Superdome at the time.

One other sad note here we can tell you. Last night at the Astrodome, an elderly woman who had been moved here passed away because of cancer. Her family was with her, we are told. Doctors were at her side. There was simply nothing anybody could do for that poor woman -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Sean Callebs for us this morning. Sean, thanks. We'll check in with you in just a little bit.

Well, just a few minutes ago, you heard an angry and frustrated mayor, Ray Nagin criticizing the federal relief efforts in New Orleans, pleading for more help from Washington D.C. and FEMA.


S. O'BRIEN: Mike Brown is the director of FEMA. He's in Baton Rouge this morning.

Mr. Brown, good morning. Nice to see you.

MIKE BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: Good morning, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: As you can tell, the situation clearly is deteriorating. You've got armed bandits roving the streets. They're heavily armed. You've got people living out on the streets with absolutely no protection, no help whatsoever, no food, no water. How many armed National Guardsmen do you have on the ground right now?

BROWN: There are approximately, I believe, it's 14,000. We're ramping that up to 30,000 by the end of the weekend. The state has come to us and said that they need the initial National Guard troops, so we've hooked up with General Honore and the First Army. We have all of the support that I'm going to ask for from the military. We're going to secure the area. We're going to make it safe so we can continue our relief efforts.

S. O'BRIEN: You know, when you hear the interviews with some of these families who are living on the street, completely and utterly unprotected from these armed roving troops of men who are attacking people and they're raping people, what are you doing to protect these people right now?

BROWN: Well, that's why we're trying to get additional boots on the ground, because we have to protect them.

And, Soledad, I want the American people to know that we understand how dire this situation is. And we're going to do everything we can to get that aid down to that individual level. You know, we're feeding stuff into the Superdome. When we found out about the Convention Center yesterday. We started diverting supplies to get them fed, too. And now we're finding literally as we do evacuations that more and more people are beginning to manifest and show themselves in areas that we didn't that they were there, and so we're doing everything we can to get to them.

S. O'BRIEN: You were unaware of the situation at the Convention Center until yesterday. When yesterday did you become aware?

BROWN: I think it was yesterday morning when we first found out about it. We were just as surprised as everybody else. We didn't know that the city had used that as a staging area. That shows how difficult communications are. And that is why we moved the USS Bataan, so that we could give the mayor a place to actually be able to communicate on a regular basis, to give us good intel about what he needs.

S. O'BRIEN: How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting? We had a crew in the air. We were showing live pictures of the people outside of the Convention Center. We had a National Guardsman who was talking to us, who was telling us he estimated the crowd at 50,000 people. That was at 8:00 in the morning yesterday. And also, we've been reporting that officials have been telling people to go to the Convention Center if they want any hope of relief. I don't understand how FEMA cannot have this information.

BROWN: Well, we're busy doing life-saving and life-rescue efforts. We rely upon the state to give us that information. And, Soledad, I learned about it listening to the news reports.

S. O'BRIEN: FEMA has been on the ground for four days, going into the fifth day. Why no massive airdrop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck. BROWN: That's what we're going to do here, too. And I think...

S. O'BRIEN: But, sir, forgive me...

BROWN: Soledad, just a moment, please.

We're feeding those people in the Convention Center. We have fed over 150,000 people as of last night. That is happening.

S. O'BRIEN: But I guess the point is, as of last night -- sir, forgive me, I have to stop you here.

BROWN: What we're hearing, is that we're hearing people's frustrations. There are people that are beginning to manifest themselves out of the community that we didn't know that were there, and we're doing everything we can to find those individuals, case by case to get them help as quickly as possible.

S. O'BRIEN: But it begs the question, why are you discovering this now? It's five days that FEMA has been on the ground. The head of police says it's been five days that FEMA has been there. The mayor, the former mayor, putting out SOS's on Tuesday morning, crying on national television, saying please send in some troops. So the idea that, yes, I understand that you're feeding people and trying to get in there now, but it's Friday. It's Friday.

BROWN: Soledad, what's going on is in this situation, we have people who have gone, for example, to the Superdome, and we're feeding those people. And as we do the evacuations, as the water recedes, people begin to come out wherever they've been trying to keep themselves safe. They go to the bridges. They go to the overpasses. We find out about those people. We have every urban search-and-rescue team in this country out trying to find them now. We don't know where everybody is. And as they come out and they show themselves, we're rescuing them and moving them to places. I understand their frustration. I understand your frustration. This is a catastrophic event, and as these people continue to show themselves, we rescue them and take care of them.

S. O'BRIEN: Do you look at the pictures that are coming out of New Orleans? New Orleans? And do you say, I'm proud of the job that FEMA is doing on the ground there in a tough situation?

BROWN: Soledad...

S. O'BRIEN: Or do you look at these pictures and you say, this is a mess and we've dropped the ball; we didn't do what we should of done.

BROWN: Soledad, I look at these pictures and my heart breaks. My heart breaks just like the rest of the country's heart breaks. And so what we're doing is ramping up. I've asked the military to come in and help us and do -- I mean, I've mission assigned the Army, and the Coast Guard and the others to get those supplies in to all of those pockets. I don't want to see any American suffer the way some of these people are suffering, because of the consequences of this disaster.

S. O'BRIEN: Mike Brown is the director of FEMA. Mr. Brown, nice to see you. Thanks for talking to us.

BROWN: Thank you, Soledad.


S. O'BRIEN: So far, Americans have given more than $108 million to help pay for what will be the largest relief effort in U.S. history. That's according "The Chronicle of Philanthropy," which tracks charitable giving. The American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other nonprofit groups say hundreds of millions more dollars are needed. To find out how you can make a donation to help the victims of Katrina, you can go to

Also this Saturday night, Larry King is going to host a three- hour special. It's called "HOW YOU CAN HELP." And that's on Saturday starting at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Also AMERICAN MORNING is going to have special coverage of Katrina's aftermath, from 7:00 a.m. to noon Eastern. That's tomorrow, on Saturday, and also on Sunday, from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

Still to come this morning, we're going to talk to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, get an update what is doing to help restore order in New Orleans. Right now, thousands of extra National Guard troops are on their way. We'll update you on their progress as well.

Stay with us on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: The situation in New Orleans appears to be deteriorating today at the New Orleans Airport. They have set up a MASH unit with critically ill people they're trying to get out. They're trying to get help. It's where Miles O'Brien is. We're going to check in with him in just a little bit. Time, of course, is running out for a number of patients, those who are trapped inside some hospitals as well. In fact, evacuations had to be stopped at Charity Hospital downtown because a sniper opened fire at some of the rescuers.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us by phone from Charity Hospital.

Sanjay, good morning.

Give me a sense what it is like at that hospital right now.


It is one of the most unbelievable situations I've seen as a doctor, certainly as a journalist as well. There is no electricity. There is no water. There's over 200 patients still here remaining. That was startling to me, because I've been varying reports that maybe the hospital had been evacuated as early as this past Tuesday. Still over 200 patients here. We came in via -- we just found our way in through a chopper and had to land at a landing strip across the way here, and then take a boat over to the hospital. And it is exactly in that boat area where the boat was traveling where the snipers actually opened fire yesterday, halting all the evacuations, at least for a while yesterday, Soledad.

It is really just impossible to take care of patients anymore. Any patients who are critically ill at this point have either died. And there have been a few that have literally died in the parking deck waiting to be taken out by choppers. Or they are still having their bags pumped, they're air-pumped into their lungs by hand bag, as doctors, and nurses and health care professionals sit their for hours on end just pumping air into their lungs.

So it is truly an impossible situation out there. They're hoping that the evacuations resume today, Soledad, but as you mentioned, one of the problems is that at the New Orleans Airport, we're hearing as well, that they just don't seem to be standing ready yet to be able to accept some of these patients, and that is a huge problem as well.

S. O'BRIEN: Sanjay, is it chaotic? Are people panicking? Are they just resolved it's not going to get better any time soon? What's the mood like?

GUPTA: I think the mood is becoming somewhat despondent, not so much chaotic. I think they've probably already gone beyond that stage. I think when patients started dying, it just became very despondent. It became beyond frustrating, beyond angry, to, you know, oh, my gosh, people are going to die because of this now, and we can't get them out.

And I should remind you, and maybe this is already obvious, that a lot of these patients were already in the hospital. So these weren't patients who were necessarily injured by the hurricane or even affected by it necessarily, but now, they just can't get care that would otherwise be absolutely standard and they're dying as a result of that, and that is a frightening.

And, Soledad, it's gruesome, I guess. I guess that is the best word for it, in the sense that, you know, if you think about a hospital, for example, the morgue is in the basement, and the basement is completely flooded. So you can just imagine the scene down there. But when patients die in the hospital, there is no place to put them really, so they're in the stairwells as, you know, and it's a -- like I said, I've never seen anything like this as a physician.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, you know, Sanjay, when you say that and you're a guy who has operated on people in war, I find that very concerning. My question for you is this, how can you get in and the National Guard can't get in? I mean, why are you there going through potential sniper fire and the National Guard is not in there evacuating these people?

GUPTA: Yes, you know, well, a lot of the -- when we walked through the door yesterday, a lot of the doctors and nurses asked us that same question, how did you guys get in here? You know, I don't know, Soledad.

And to be fair, the National Guard has been here intermittently. What the doctors have told us after that sniper fire the National Guard did show up for a little while. And the doctors that were evacuating assumed that they would stay so that the evacuations could continue. But when they went back to their post to resume evacuations, the National Guard had left again. And that was a huge concern to them.

It's like any other situation, I guess, when things become a little bit out of control. The -- when we traveled through that area, we, obviously, were very diligent looking for snipers. Thankfully, there didn't appear to be any when we went through that area. But I don't know, It's a very fluid and dynamic situation here.

S. O'BRIEN: Did you see as you were travelling in, did you see any armed personnel on the streets? I mean, give me a sense of what it's like in New Orleans. Are there armed guards? Is there any kind of show of force, any kind of presence?

GUPTA: Yes, well, you know, this boat ride from the parking deck, which was across the street from Charity Hospital to Charity Hospital was perhaps the most vulnerable, and there was an armed guard traveling with us at that point on the boat who, basically was just looking for the skies, looking on the rooftops, had a rifle and was just sort of standing ready. But there wasn't much more beyond that. You know, the helicopters, I know the helicopter pilots I was talking to them as they were flying in. Veteran guys, obviously, a lot of these guys helicopter pilots during wars, and they were appropriately concerned. They didn't know they were going to have the protection. They needed to be nimble and move quickly if fire was opened on them.

S. O'BRIEN: Sanjay, stand by for a second, because Miles is at the airport, and you know that that's sort turned into its own MASH unit. Let's check in with Miles with what he's looking at, and also, I think he has a question for you as well.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad.

This is a disaster medical assistance team that you're seeing in action here. We're in the west terminal of New Orleans Armstrong Airport, and hundreds of patients which come from places like Charity Hospital, come through here, are evaluated, triaged, as they say in the medical profession, and then sent on to other medical centers that are able to help them. These are the elderly, the infirmed, handicapped people, who were unable to evacuate on their own. And many of the medical personnel have actually come from those hospitals.

As a matter of fact, Sanjay, I was talking this morning to an E.R. doc from Charity Hospital who was describing these tremendous scene that you are relaying there, and he was very hopeful that they would be able to get those patients out in due order, but it sounds like it is very difficult for them to do their jobs. We've been hearing from the air crews, saying it's next to impossible to do their work. Do you have any sense of how long it will take?

GUPTA: Well, you know, really difficult to say. There were a couple of doctors who thought that the evacuations would continue today in larger numbers, and possibly be able to get out the majority of the rest of almost the 200 patients here.

But one of the things, Miles, you know, they were actually coming, a few patients, critically ill patients requiring ventilators, actually were flown to New Orleans Airport yesterday. This is according to the doctors that I interviewed yesterday, and were basically told at New Orleans Airport that these critically ill patients could not stay there, because while New Orleans Airport has developed a MASH unit, they haven't developed a MASH unit that is capable to take care of these critically ill patients requiring ventilatory support, and as you might imagine, those are the most difficult patients of all.

Miles, they have to actually transport a patient on a ventilator across the moat by boat into a parking structure, carry them up eight levels on to the parking deck and wait for a chopper to land on this modified landing zone, then they get to New Orleans Airport and told that they cannot stay there. So I actually linked up with this chopper crew in Baton Rouge where they were forced to fly with these few patients, because there was nowhere else for them to go.

M. O'BRIEN: So this as a trans-shipment point, or whatever you want to call it, is not a good place, because of the need for ventilators. While they are being transported though, Sanjay, can't you use sort of a hand ventilator, bagging them, as they call it in the medical profession?

GUPTA: That's right. That's exactly what they are doing. An ambu-bag is what it's called. Not all helicopters have the capabilities to do this. They either don't have the medical staff on the helicopters. For example, we see thee large Chinook hospitals -- I'm sorry, choppers landing on the parking deck, and nonessential personnel, the walking wounded as well, are getting onto these helicopters, while patients who are critically ill are forced to remain behind still.

So you have to have -- you certainly can bag somebody as they're flying along, but you have to have the medical personnel available to do that as well -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, you know, it's interesting you should mention that, Sanjay, because if over this way, in that next terminal, the east terminal down there, are people that are evacuees that do not need medical attention, several thousand as a matter of fact. I think what is happening is just that. A lot of people are getting on these Chinook helicopters who don't necessarily belong there, who do not need medical care, and they're ending up here. So it's certainly a chaotic situation, certainly an overwhelming situation. I was told yesterday, however, Sanjay, that between 2:00 and 9:00 p.m., they were able to dispatch out of here, if you will, 500 patients to various medical centers around the region. So that is progress, but there's still a lot of work to be done, isn't there? GUPTA: Yes, you know, I think triage, the word you mentioned earlier, becomes of critical importance in a situation like this, getting out the most critically injured, and patients who need the most medical care first, and they have not been able to do that. Triage has sort of been abandoned in some sense because of the circumstances here. The patients on ventilators. The patients who are requiring constant bagging so somebody has to be sitting there for hours on end bagging air into their lungs. Those patients have been harder to get out. Maybe that's just obvious why. You know, they're just more difficult to transport. Not all of the helicopters can take them out. But it is a very challenging situation.

Miles, you know, on this parking deck, after carrying them up eight flights of stairs, two of them died yesterday just waiting for a helicopter to take them out. I was mentioning, I think that that just turned everyone's mood from frustrated and angry to just simply despondent at that point.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, and I'm sure you have seen there, and what I have seen here, is truly a heroic effort on the part of these medical personnel. No one has slept here. Everyone is very committed. It is truly remarkable what these people are doing. If you had to pick heroes in this terrible chaotic situation, these would be the people, wouldn't they be, Sanjay?

GUPTA: Yes. You know, and here at Charity Hospital, Miles, a large hospital in Louisiana, typically servicing the indigent population, really an amazing place just every day, a lot of these doctors came in because of the hurricane. They knew that they might be needed. They've been here since Saturday. They plan on staying until every patient has been taken out, and they've really -- again, I've seen a lot of situations. I was in Sri Lanka for the tsunami. I was in Iraq for the war. I've seen a lot of different situations, where people have to make shift, make due with what they have. This has been as bad as any of those. I mean, no food, no electricity, no water, and surrounded by this cesspool of potential infectious diseases as well. They've been very, very diligent about taking care of these patients, which is remarkable. I think a lot of lives that otherwise would have otherwise have been lost have been saved by these doctors who have not slept in several days, have very little food and water themselves and are operating under the most remote conditions really possible.

M. O'BRIEN: It is a remarkable story, a story that we will hear more about as time goes on. It's really only emerging, but what we know about it now, truly the term heroic applies.

We're going to take a break. We'll be back with more AMERICAN MORNING in just a moment.