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American Morning

Grim Mission in New Orleans

Aired September 05, 2005 - 07:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Carol. I'm Miles O'Brien.
A grim mission in New Orleans. Teams going house-by-house to find the victims of Katrina who couldn't escape in time. The death toll expected to be in the thousands. How high could it go? Frightening to imagine. We're live in New Orleans this morning -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Soledad O'Brien on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. This morning, you're going to hear my interview with the city's mayor. He'll tell us very candidly about his response before Katrina hit. Is he responsible for some of the blame? Also, we'll hear some details of the conversation that he had with the state's governor and President Bush on Air Force One. That's ahead -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: And President Bush in the disaster zone again Friday and will be back there today. That's on this AMERICAN MORNING.

S. O'BRIEN: Good morning. And welcome, everybody. We're coming to you live from New Orleans this morning right near Bourbon Street. And you're looking at something we really haven't seen here before lately, and that is the Sheraton. And it's got power. They've got some massive generators working finally, and that means that they also have air-conditioning and lights, clearly you can see. The security there is working around the clock. They're trying to bring in a limited water supply as well in a city that has none of these things.

Also, we're told that the Sheraton has and had port-a-potties well before they had port-a-potties at the Superdome.

We also want to show you what they're working on today. You can see the water level here right by Bourbon Street. The entrance to Bourbon Street is still pretty high. And that means that in the neighborhoods that are even more low-lying, Miles, it's a massive problem.

They are going to be focusing on search and rescue again today, but really the focus is on recovering the bodies.

We went out yesterday with a search team to try to see who could be rescued. The neighborhoods are so eerily quiet that it's pretty clear that now we've entered another phase. And that phase, of course, is recovery of the bodies. And I have to say it's going to be a high count, one can tell as you just go through some of these neighborhoods -- Miles. M. O'BRIEN: Well, as the mayor said, Soledad, you just have to do the math on that one. Thank you very much. We'll be back to you shortly.

We begin with some of the mission critical issues facing Katrina survivors as we speak. President Bush making his second visit to the storm-ravaged Gulf region today. He'll make stops in staging areas in Baton Rouge and Poplarville, Mississippi.

The recovery and count of the dead has begun in New Orleans, as Soledad mentioned. The first confirmed numbers since the storm a week ago now, 59 bodies recovered, including 10 at the Superdome. But city and state officials say the count will ultimately be in the thousands.

Also in New Orleans, reports that police have shot eight people, killing at least five. Authorities say gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors crossing a bridge on their way to make repairs. Police then returned fire.

A plane carrying evacuees from Louisiana arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, overnight. It's the first group of evacuees to arrive in that state. About a quarter-million displaced people are already housed in Texas shelters, as we have been telling you. But officials say the shelters are overwhelmed there. The governor of Texas is asking other states to take some evacuees as well -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, clearly that is going to be part of this massive problem. The other fork, I think it's fair to say, Miles, in this problem is the sheer number of bodies, because, frankly, here in New Orleans, they really have no idea. The official number is quite low. What people are actually predicting will be the final number, though, astoundingly high.

Let's get right to Nic Robertson. He's been on this story.

No one has any idea, because there are so many people trapped in neighborhoods that no one has been able to access.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And they don't know until they knock on the doors of the houses, are they find somebody living there? Are they going to find somebody really sort of on their last gasp of breath upstairs? Or are they going to find a body inside a house?

And what we are finding, they are going on and they are finding bodies. And at the moment they can't do anything with the bodies. They just have to leave them there in the house, mark the house for a team to come back.

Those teams to recover the bodies are coming in now. The disaster mortuary operation response teams, they are coming back, 3 by 31-member teams. They are going to consist of coroners, medical examiners, morticians. They are going to be responsible for finding those bodies, getting information of where they are, finding the bodies, putting them in refrigerated trucks, moving them to a mortuary. At that mortuary there, a sort of formal identification process can be gone through.

And this is also going to be a very big and very slow and very cumbersome process. DNA analysis, dental records, fingerprints if possible. None of this, it seems, is going to happen quickly. And as we both know from watching the operation rescue and relief going on here, it's a massive area that they have to go through. And it's clearly going to take a long time. Nobody is out there saying, hey, come to this house, there is somebody here. They just don't know.

S. O'BRIEN: They have no idea, because they people are displaced everywhere. In addition, I think water is so destructive. As we saw in the tsunami, it really -- I mean, it's grizzly. But it destroys evidence of human bodies, and that's going to really compromise their ability to identify people. I mean, they had people -- floating bodies, floating down the streets, which basically were rivers.

ROBERTSON: And the longer they are left in the water -- yesterday, the mayor was talking about his concerns about disease with the bodies being in the water. But the other concern, as you say, is, you know, the longer the bodies are in the water, in these temperatures here, decomposition. And, you know, you lose the fingerprints. So that's -- one of the quick analysis is gone.

Then you're going to have to perhaps go to dental records or DNA. These things take a lot of time. You've got a lot of cross- referencing matching to be done. So, yes, very slow.

S. O'BRIEN: There will be some influx back into the city, because some people will be allowed to come back into their homes. And that's going to be a whole other huge problem, I think.

ROBERTSON: Jefferson parish today, 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., curfew lifted for families who lived here. They have to have photographic I.D. and show they have residency in the area. They've been advised to bring cash, bring food, bring water with them. They won't find any of that here. But it is a hard curfew. They have to be out by 6:00 p.m.

S. O'BRIEN: I think that's going to be tough certainly for those families. Nic Robertson, thanks as always.

Let's get right back to Miles -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Soledad. Thanks, Nic.

An hour from now, President Bush will leave Washington, head to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He'll also stop in Mississippi today.

National correspondent Bob Franken at the White House.

Bob, what is the president's mission today?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he was stunned by the charges that his administration had at least initially indifferent response to the tragedy that unfolded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. So, he's making his second trip in three days. The president is going to be showing the presidential flag as he stops in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the capital of the state. He's going to be meeting with some of the people involved in the massive rescue operation.

Of course, we now know that there's a blame game going on of sorts, and the administration discussed with officials of Louisiana at least a partial takeover. That was rejected by the state, a federal takeover of some of the state functions.

In any case, after all that, the president will move to Poplarville, Mississippi. He'll be taking a helicopter flight to Poplarville. There are many people in Mississippi who believe that there just hasn't been enough attention to their plight. The president will be appearing at Pearl River Community College in that area. We know of 17 who died.

So, the president is now trying to provide reassurances, to provide the symbol of leadership that many people say was lacking at the beginning. He is now trying to, in the words of many administration people, make up for lost time and end the discussions of the past and try and move forward -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Bob, let's talk about this federalization of this whole effort. Clearly, the federal government is the entity that can best afford and handle this kind of a scope of a problem. We know the president asked the governor of Louisiana, apparently has been in some talks with the governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour. Is that going nowhere with both governors?

FRANKEN: Well, there is a lot of dynamic involved here. First of all, the state of Louisiana makes the argument that the local officials, the state officials best know their areas. They should be the ones who maintain the tradition of being in charge.

But there is also the question of who is to blame for what now many people believe was an inadequate response. And federal officials are now saying they were at the mercy of state officials and local officials who didn't do the job. And the state and local officials are saying that's absolutely not the case. There was an inadequate federal response. So all of that is going on.

At the moment, everything is staying the same. And at the moment, the White House officials are telling us they don't need to impose the powers they have under the Insurrection Act, under the ability of FEMA, to expand its powers if it wants to, saying that there is a belief now they can work with state officials.

M. O'BRIEN: Bob Franken at the White House, thanks.

Let's check some weather for you now.


M. O'BRIEN: Now let's go to Indonesia, where a passenger jet has crashed into a residential area. A Mandela Airlines jet crashed just after takeoff from the city of Medan. It was heading for Jakarta. Conflicting reports this morning on whether anyone survived. The jet was carrying 112 passengers, 5 crew members. Residents on the ground expected to be among those killed.

Still to come on the program, tough words from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Find out what he has to say about Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and how she handled the crisis. And later, what kind of progress is the military relief effort making? We'll talk with the man in charge, the raging Cajun, Lieutenant General Russell Honore, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


CHERYL HARDIN, LOOKING FOR UNCLE: I'm Cheryl Hardin. I'm out of Houston, Texas. And I'm looking for my Uncle Henry Smith Jr. He's out of Louisiana. And he's been missing for some days now. And if you could, give us a call if you see him at 713-614-6900.



S. O'BRIEN: One week after Hurricane Katrina struck, we're in New Orleans. And you can still see the damage, and you can still see the rescues that are continuing to be under way often with volunteers, often with the police department as well. It is a big problem. They're getting some people off the roofs, but in many cases when you're talking about an elderly population that cannot possibly pull themselves up on the roof or wave to a helicopter, you are certainly to see at this point now people dying. They cannot survive without water and food for this long, especially the older populations.

Mayor Ray Nagin says the big problem too, now, is disease, because the bodies that are, frankly, in these homes and in the water, along with the sewage, could breed some disease. We got a chance to speak with the mayor yesterday, and asked him very bluntly, how much blame should he shoulder for all of these problems now?


S. O'BRIEN: There are people who say your evacuation plan, obviously in hindsight, was disastrous.


S. O'BRIEN: Your evacuation plan before -- when you put people into the Superdome. It wasn't thought out. You got 20,000 people in there. And that you bear the brunt of the blame for some of this, a large chunk of it.

NAGIN: Look, I'll take whatever responsibility that I have to take. But let me ask you this question: When you have a city of 500,000 people, and you have a category 5 storm bearing down on you, and you have the best you've ever done is evacuate 60 percent of the people out of the city, and you have never issued a mandatory evacuation in the city's history, a city that is a couple of hundred years old, I did that. I elevated the level of distress to the citizens.

And I don't know what else I could do, other than to tell them that it's a mandatory evacuation. And if they stayed, make sure you have a frigging ax in your home, where you can bust out the roof just in case the water starts flowing.

And as a last resort, once this thing is above a category 3, there are no buildings in this city to withstand a category 3, a category 4 or a category 5 storm, other than the Superdome. That's where we sent people as a shelter of last resort. When that filled up, we sent them to the Convention Center. Now, you tell me what else we could have done.

S. O'BRIEN: What has Secretary Chertoff promised you? What has Donald Rumsfeld given you and promised you?

NAGIN: Look, I've gotten promises to -- I can't stand anymore promises. I don't want to hear anymore promises. I want to see stuff done. And that's why I'm so happy that the president came down here, because I think they were feeding him a line of bull also. And they were telling him things weren't as bad as it was.

He came down and saw it, and he put a general on the field. His name is General Honore. And when he hit the field, we started to see action.

And what the state was doing, I don't frigging know. But I tell you, I am pissed. It wasn't adequate.

And then, the president and the governor sat down. We were in Air Force One. I said, 'Mr. President, Madam Governor, you two have to get in sync. If you don't get in sync, more people are going to die.'

S. O'BRIEN: What date was this? When did you say that? When did you say...

NAGIN: Whenever air Force One was here.


NAGIN: And this was after I called him on the telephone two days earlier. And I said, 'Mr. President, Madam Governor, you two need to get together on the same page, because of the lack of coordination, people are dying in my city.'

S. O'BRIEN: That's two days ago.

NAGIN: They both shook -- I don't know the exact date. They both shook their head and said yes. I said, 'Great.' I said, 'Everybody in this room is getting ready to leave.' There was senators and his cabinet people, you name it, they were there. Generals. I said, 'Everybody right now, we're leaving. These two people need to sit in a room together and make a doggone decision right now.'

S. O'BRIEN: And was that done?

NAGIN: The president looked at me. I think he was a little surprised. He said, "No, you guys stay here. We're going to another section of the plane, and we're going to make a decision."

He called me in that office after that. And he said, "Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor." I said -- and I don't remember exactly what. There were two options. I was ready to move today. The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision.

S. O'BRIEN: You're telling me the president told you the governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision?


S. O'BRIEN: Regarding what? Bringing troops in?

NAGIN: Whatever they had discussed. As far as what the -- I was abdicating a clear chain of command, so that we could get resources flowing in the right places.

S. O'BRIEN: And the governor said no.

NAGIN: She said that she needed 24 hours to make a decision. It would have been great if we could of left Air Force One, walked outside, and told the world that we had this all worked out. It didn't happen, and more people died.


S. O'BRIEN: The mayor making it clear that much politicking was going on, even as people here were continuing to suffer. The mayor clearly thinking that the governor did way too little, way too late for her part.

We put a call into Governor Blanco's office. They declined to come on our show this morning and talk to us. Her spokesperson did say, though, that it was a -- this was a tragedy now that was being reduced to politics.

I think, though, Miles, there is certainly lots and lots and lots of blame to go around. The mayor, of course, for his part, advising elderly people to be sure to grab an ax and be able to climb out on your roof and cut your way out. Obviously, not going to be feasible. Many of the people, it is believed, who perished in the subsequent flooding were elderly.

And we've seen entire neighborhoods where the bulk of the population is elderly. No way they're going to grab an ax and stand on their fridge and cut their way out of their house, and then lift themselves up and flag down a chopper as it flies overhead. That's just not going to happen.

Today, we're seeing a lot of blame, again, going around. And I think there's enough blame for everybody to share, frankly -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Soledad. That is for sure. There's about as much blame as there is water in New Orleans right now. Thank you very much.

Let's go to Jefferson parish. Jefferson parish is fortunate to be on the higher side of that canal with that levee that breached. And as a result today, the parish president is allowing people, as he puts it, the head of the household to go to homes in Jefferson parish and make an assessment on the damage, perhaps recover some items and so forth. Also encouraging people to carpool doing that. As you can see, there's a long line of cars there as people have been waiting to do this, knowing this was going to be happening.

Our Elizabeth Cohen is in Jefferson parish, and she is witnessing this scene as it unfolds -- Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, I'm watching people pour in. There are hundreds of probably thousands of cars pouring into Jefferson parish.

Now, they let people in starting at 6:00 this morning. So that was just about 20 minutes ago. People had been waiting all night to get in. The line, we're told by police, was three miles long. It stretched from one parish line to another parish line.

Now, people are allowed to stay for just a matter of hours. Jefferson parish President Aaron Broussard told them to come in, get what they needed, clean up a bit if they can, and then get out. He warned women not to travel alone. He also advised that people leave their children at home, less that image of their devastated home would be etched forever in their minds -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: I assume one of the big concerns here would be -- and this is the dark side of all of this, Elizabeth -- this would be an opportunity for looters. What are they doing to control that?

COHEN: I don't think that they are really, per se, so concerned about looters going into people's homes. They have secured this area. When I talked to the head of the emergency office, Dr. Walter Mastrie (ph), yesterday, he said that they really felt that this was secure, that they had gone, that they had made sure as much as they could that that was not going to happen. The concern seems to be more about just the congestion, the mechanics of getting this many people in and then this many people out.

M. O'BRIEN: Elizabeth Cohen in Jefferson parish, thank you very much.

Still to come on the program, Katrina dealt a devastating blow to a vital part of Mississippi's economy, the casino industry. A closer look at whether it can really bounce back, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) M. O'BRIEN: In Mississippi, shipments of relief and aid are getting through, and the cleanup is making progress. But the death toll is more than 160. And that is expected to rise as the cleanup accelerates.

Chris Huntington live in downtown Biloxi.

Chris, are they getting the relief they need there?

CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, yes. The essential supplies of food, water, extra clothing, even basic sanitation needs are being delivered to the folks here. A lot of it by private donations, folks from all over the country bringing goods down here, helping to set up tent areas, distribution centers.

The streets are being cleaned. The Mississippi Power Company, with help, again, from all around the region, is trying to restore power. But just as an example of how this process goes, two steps forward and sometimes a step backward. Just in the last 20 minutes, there have been amazing green and red blares up into the sky here in Biloxi. A police officer just now confirming to us that transformers have been blowing all over town, he said, this morning, as they try to restore the power.

We've seen the light crews out. Amazing falances (ph) of these trucks with cherry-pickers and big drills erecting new light poles, putting up, restringing the power all over town. But clearly now, maybe getting ahead of what the current grid can withstand.

The military presence is impressive. We've got a Navy amphibious unit camped out on the beach here near us. Checkpoints up all over the place. That's good. That's calming things down. It does make travel a little bit slower.

This is Labor Day, Miles, and, you know, a time when people would be taking a day off from work, celebrating the fact that they get a little rest here. No rest here. The big concern looking forward here in this area of Mississippi is, what are people going to do for work? The bulk of the jobs here in coastal Mississippi are either directly with or related to the casino industry.

And if you look over my shoulder here, you can see a damaged building. And this back here may look like a building. It's actually one of the casino barges. By law, the casinos had to be floating on the water. So there are these massive barges, the size of ocean liners. This one is about 500-feet long. It's essentially a 50-story building that's been thrust up here about 200 yards onto the ground here.

Sixteen thousand jobs in Biloxi alone, about $100 million into the state coffers of Mississippi. A huge debate over whether you even rebuild the casino business on the coast, because it will be vulnerable again. There is talk about bringing it inland. But that sets off a whole other debate. Do you allow casinos across the state?

So, casino workers are feeling the pain. They're really concerned about whether this industry can revive in any meaningful time -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Chris Huntington a Biloxi. Lots of questions still there obvious this morning. Thank you very much.

Still to come in the program, have military relief efforts turned the corner in New Orleans yet? We'll ask the man in charge on the ground. He is definitely in charge. Lieutenant General Russell Honore, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.