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American Morning

Fires Burning Once Again in New Orleans; Some People Refusing to Leave; Interview With Governor Blanco

Aired September 06, 2005 - 9:01   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A developing story in New Orleans. You're looking at live pictures right now. Fires burning once again this morning in the city. One more problem in a city with way too many problems to count.
One sign of progress, though, we're glad to tell you about. The pumps are working. Water finally flowing back into Lake Pontchartrain. It will take weeks, maybe months, to finish that job.

And from inside the flooded homes. Still a few survivors waiting to be rescued. Others who refuse to leave what little they have left on this AMERICAN MORNING.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Miles, good morning to you. We are on the -- right under, I should say, the I-10 Freeway. And you've been talking about that fire. We'll show some pictures now.

We can see the smoke really right behind me coming up. And it's growing. We're starting to be able to have -- see flames there.

The deputy sheriff we were talking to down here just a moment ago said it looked to him as if it was on dry land. He went to investigate. He's going to come back and tell us what he's seeing in just a few moments.

Also, behind us you can smell the bodies, frankly and grimly, in the water. And that's not going to be the focus today, because recovery of the bodies is not the primary responsibility. Some of the rescuers have just arrived with their boats. They're going to but those boats in the water, get back out there again today, to be able to look for people who may be trapped in their homes.

As you well know, the elderly, the infirm, they can't get out and they can't stand on their roofs and flag down choppers as they go by. And so they are going to try to see if they can get into some of these homes and maybe pull some people out who need help.

And then, Miles, you have the folks who just don't want to go. You know, we've been talking a little bit about, well, why. I mean, look at this water. It's brackish and filthy. And sometimes we see people wading across it and swimming in it. You know, you've got to remember, these are homes, people's homes, and they seem pretty confident that if they leave, they will never come back.

Do we have just a moment? I want to show you a shot.

Hey, Jamie (ph), do me a favor. Let's turn the camera around and let's give them a shot of the boat.

The first rescuers, if these guys move out of our shot here, are backing down the freeway here. And again, this is the on-ramp to I-10 as the boats start to -- start to come in. We're going to just basically try to move our equipment out of the way and stay out of their way while they begin their work.

They've been incredibly successful. And we're hoping again that, as time is of the essence, that they have another successful day and are able to be -- to pull people out of their homes. We're going to get a chance to talk to some of these rescuers a little bit later this morning -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: And Soledad, as we watch that air boat being backed down there, we really don't have a handle on how many people are out there, do we?

S. O'BRIEN: You know, you don't have a handle on anything. We've heard the mayor give an estimate of 10,000 people may be perishing. That's a guess, I think it's fair to say, on the mayor's part.

We've seen officially somewhere in the number of 70 bodies. But there was a report today of 40 bodies that hadn't been counted possibly in the refrigerators at the convention center, as grizzly and horrific as that is.

Again, not a real surprise, of course. Stay out of this water here. Whoa, all right. We're going to go to higher land so we don't get all this brackish, filthy water on us.

So, you know, I think, Miles, you're exactly right. It's a complete and total guess. And they have no idea. And they're not going to have any idea for a really long time.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Well, hopefully that effort we saw just begin this morning will yield some success in getting people out, people who want to come out, and convincing those who are determined to stay. And that seems to be the developing story here, is these people who -- Soledad, who really just want to stay put.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles, you know, if everything you own -- and certainly in this neighborhood and other neighborhoods that we've been to, people don't have a lot. But in many cases they own their homes. And if that's the only thing you own and your -- you know, you're a working person and you don't have a lot of disposable income, are you going to abandon the only thing you own?

And also, keep in mind that many of these people don't have access to the radio. Their batteries died days ago. Keep in mind that many of these folks really are out of touch. They have no idea of what's going on. And so they don't know how bad it is, frankly.

So we're going to move up a little ways because we're now kind of ankle deep in water. And we want to stay out of the way of the rescuers as they get to their work. So Miles, I'm going to throw it back to you and we're going to move our camera.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Soledad. I know that it appears to be from a Texas agency that is involved with oil spill cleanup. It's interesting to see how people have come to their assistance there all throughout the region, and really all throughout the country.

Soledad, back with you in a minute. You get reset up and we'll get back with you.

"Mission Critical" time, some issues facing other parts of the Gulf Coast region to tell you about.

Mobile medical units are setting up shop and treating hundreds of patients across coastal Mississippi. We just heard from one of them with Paul Simon.

One team of doctors saying they tried to go to Louisiana but were prevented from setting up because of red tape. We didn't -- apparently the Paul Simon group has not had any problems in Mississippi.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands still remain homeless in Mississippi. Senator Trent Lott has called on President Bush to authorize the immediate release of 20,000 trailers sitting idle in Atlanta. Lott said FEMA has refused to ship the trailers because of red tape. Getting tired of talking about red tape, folks.

And in Houston, government officials have delayed plans to move 4,000 evacuees to cruise ships off the coast. They said the evacuees told them they would rather stay put for now, focusing on finding their loved ones and other places to stay.

Each day emergency crews fan out across New Orleans looking for people who need to be rescued. Police are urging anyone left to get out, saying there are no jobs, no homes, no food, and no reason to stay. But as Christiane Amanpour found, there are some people who simply refuse to go.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Streets that are now rivers. Houses that are still flooded. Floated bodies that still bob in the putrid waters. And into this festering filth wades a man desperate to be rescued.

Forty-two-year-old Tommy Thomas has survived on M&Ms and chocolate bars for days now. Stunned, exhausted, he's pulled to safety and given food and freshwater.

TOMMY THOMAS, NEW ORLEANS EVACUEE: The water was so deep, you know, I had to come out. You know, I'm running out of food. That's why I came out. I was running out of food.

AMANPOUR: Locked and loaded, the Louisiana Wildlife Enforcement Agency is leading this rescue mission, going house to house in flat boats and these docks, sightseeing amphibious vehicles whose owners have volunteered their services. Amazingly, even now many of those who are left won't leave.

(on camera): But why won't you come out?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When this thing happened, when this thing happened, we got people shooting each other, stealing from each other. The only thing I trusted was my dog. So I'm not going to leave him.

AMANPOUR (voice over): Robert is one of many who won't abandon their pets, even though rescuer Pat Morpin (ph) now insists that everyone must leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys are going to have to shoot me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one's going to shoot you. We're talking about disease and everything. Look, no matter how much food and water you have, there's going to be -- you're in danger. You need to come to the craft.

AMANPOUR: But it's no use. Robert refuses.

So it's off to find more desperate cases, like 89-year-old America Romero (ph) and her family, eight people who had spent three days on their rooftop. But no amount of coaxing could get their neighbor off his front porch. And he's angry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why don't you turn the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) pumps into this (EXPLETIVE DELETED) city? Turn the pumps on. That will help us!

AMANPOUR: Many residents expected the waters to subside quickly. Now they're being told it could take at least three months.

Volunteer firefighter Shawn Craft (ph) has come from Massachusetts. He kicks in this door because he's heard people here need rescuing. But it turns out they were taken out the day before.

How was he to know? There is still virtually no coordination or communication between all the different agencies.

As the dock bus evacuates America and her son Jose, they take one last look at their city in ruins, the city they still hate to leave.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN, New Orleans.


S. O'BRIEN: Officials now saying they have to leave.

After days of bickering, Governor Blanco said that she and FEMA are a team now. And now after a second meeting that nearly didn't happen, Governor Blanco also says that she and the president have patched things up.


S. O'BRIEN: Governor Kathleen Blanco and the former FEMA director, James Lee Witt, join us this morning.

Nice to see you.

Governor Blanco, let's begin with you.

Do you think the president was trying to snub you with that meeting yesterday? I mean, I heard from your spokespeople that you didn't even know about that meeting until you made the call. You saw it on CNN, apparently.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA: Well, in the heat of battle a lot of things happen. And we feel like we're in the heat of battle.

That having been said, we had a great day together. The president came in, and we believe that he's solidly behind our efforts without a doubt.

S. O'BRIEN: Solidly behind your efforts, although there's been much written about kind of a power tussle between the two of you. Specifically, the mayor was telling us about a flight on Air Force One. And he said that you and he and the president were all in a room, and finally you and the president went separately to have a meeting.

Listen to what the mayor told us, ma'am, if you will.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN (D), NEW ORLEANS: He called me in, in that office, after that. And he said, "Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor." I said -- I don't remember exactly what -- two options.

I was ready to move today. The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision.

S. O'BRIEN: Twenty-four hours. Is that right? Was that what came out of that meeting on the tarmac with the president?

BLANCO: Soledad, the mayor was not in my meeting. And it was -- I'll tell you, it was a meeting that did not affect what was going on out in the field.

They were talking about paper organizations, nothing else. Nothing more. And they gave me a very complicated proposition to look at.

It didn't help our effort in that instant moment. I needed a little time to understand exactly what it meant.

We went forward, all of us. All the resources were there. Nothing stopped. We ended up coming to terms and agreements. And I think that the effort's going great.

S. O'BRIEN: Coming to terms, meaning that you rejected after that 24-hour window, that you didn't have any interest in federalizing the troops or turning power over to the president. Why not hand it over, Madame Governor, when the first five days -- and I think that meeting was on Friday, so the first several days of the recovery were clearly disastrous?

BLANCO: The first five days of the recovery were heroic. We had -- we were the people who took control.

The National Guard took control of the city, brought order out of chaos, because we have law enforcement authority. The federal troops do not. I was very concerned about giving up law enforcement authority.

S. O'BRIEN: Heroic, but by a very small number of people who were on the ground. In fact, I believe it was Friday morning when I was talking to the FEMA director, who had only just seen that there were tens of thousands of people at the convention center. So at least by Thursday, let's say the first four days, those people at the convention center were actually not getting anything. If it was not coordinated...

BLANCO: Soledad...

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, ma'am?

BLANCO: Soledad, the mayor and I were both asking for the same thing. We wanted troops, we wanted food, we wanted water, we wanted helicopters. We asked for that early in the week.

I asked for everything that we had available from the federal government. I got it from the National Guard. I got as much as possible. And the federal effort was just a little slow in coming.

I can't understand why. You know, those are questions that are yet to be answered.


S. O'BRIEN: Governor Blanco and the former FEMA director, James Lee Witt, talking with us a little bit earlier this morning. And of course you can see where the blame game is going.

The mayor is blaming the governor, who is clearly blaming the feds and FEMA. The feds, who clearly blame the local authorities. And the people here who are now losing essentially everything are angry and desperate, and really ready to blame everybody. I think there's lots of blame to go around.

We want to show you what's going on, because lots is happening here, Miles.

First, let's show the boats now. We've gotten a couple more in the water. We've gotten two of these air boats and two of the 18-foot jumbos. They're going to put them back in the water. You see they've just been rolling down this ramp past us.

And then you can see behind me the flames. This fire clearly growing. Got a Coast Guard chopper in the air now. Still no information yet on exactly what is on fire. But there is something burning, and it has been for a while -- Miles. M. O'BRIEN: We'll try to get that tracked down and figure out what's burning there. Clearly, no signs that it's being put out.

We'll see you in a little bit, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you. Yes. All right. Thanks.

President Bush has a full day of meeting in Washington about Hurricane Katrina. Bob Franken at the White House with that.

Tell us about the president's agenda, Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the agenda today includes meetings, meetings, meetings, public appearances. Meetings with his cabinet going to occur in the next hour, meetings with the various non-government organizations, the charities who are going to be so critical to the recovery effort. Meeting with the bipartisan leadership of Congress, meeting this afternoon. He'll also be making an appearance in the Rose Garden to talk about the placement of the displaced children in schools around the country.

There are, of course, many questions about the blame that we just heard about from the governor. Scott McClellan, who -- the president's spokesman, resumed his regular daily off-camera meetings -- they're called a gaggle here -- said repeatedly they're not going to engage, using his words, in the blame game.

The president says that he is going to keep a flexible schedule, according to McClellan. Flexible in the next several days, with the probability that he will return to the region.

So it's a busy day of meetings, and a schedule that's going to be changing as events unfold down in the Gulf -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Bob. Tell us what is the latest on the presidential strategy on the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice now?

FRANKEN: Well, the nomination will go forward. The Senate Judiciary Committee will be expected to announce within the next day or so when it is going to begin its hearings.

Democrats are saying that the stakes are higher, that this could be more complicated. And, of course, there arises the question, what about nominating the replacement, the new replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor? We get the same answer repeatedly, it will be occurring in a timely manner. Although there is a widening belief that the president is going to wait until the Roberts nomination is handled before he brings in somebody else.

M. O'BRIEN: Bob Franken at the White House. Thanks much.

Still to come on the program, the latest on the search and rescue effort in New Orleans. We'll talk to one of the officials heading up the operation ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Let's show you, first and foremost, a picture of this fire.

You can see a Coast Guard chopper has been dousing the fire, trying to, at least, with some water above it. It's grown in the last little bit that we've been here. We've seen the black smoke coming out.

We're told that it's a house fire. And that's about all the information that we have at this time.

We're going to try to get up there, get some better pictures. And we've got some people who are heading to the scene to get us some more information as well. But that's what we know right now.

It's been really burning strongly. We'll follow that ahead.

Also, right over my shoulder this way you can see now one, two, three, four, five boats in the water. These are boats from the Texas General Land Office. And Jennings Ewing is the team leader.

They were called in last Wednesday. And they have been rescuing literally, literally hundreds of people from this location.

As we talk, more of your boats are coming in. Thanks for talking with us.


S. O'BRIEN: What's it -- what's it been like? And how are the rescues going?

The rescues are going pretty good. They're slowing down now. We're finding very few people left out in their houses. We probably pulled out about 500 since we've been here.

S. O'BRIEN: Yesterday I heard you got about 100 people, is that right? A hundred?

EWING: Two hundred and eighty-three, I believe the number is. I don't get the full number. If they don't announce it in the briefing in the morning, I don't get it. I didn't get it this morning.

S. O'BRIEN: And that's just this neighborhood alone?

EWING: Yes. Well, this is a combined task force of 1,500 people. And that's that whole group.

S. O'BRIEN: What's the condition of the survivors when you get to them?

EWING: Anywhere from they've been very happy because there has been food and water dropped to them from helicopters and getting to them by boats. But some of them we found yesterday who had been in their attics for six days without any food or water.

S. O'BRIEN: And they were in bad shape, rough shape?

EWING: Very bad shape and survived.

S. O'BRIEN: Tell me how you got called in and how quickly you were able to mobilize.

EWING: We mobilized within one day. We were called in by Captain Taser (ph) with the United States Coast Guard, captain of the court, and Captain Ritchie (ph), captain of the court of Texas called us to come assist.

S. O'BRIEN: A couple of things I noticed. I see everybody's armed. Have you had any sort of problems at all? As you know, there were initial reports of some resistance and some shooting. Did you see any of that?

EWING: No, we haven't seen anyone that had any resistance or were hostile in any way. We did happen to have two gunshots fired out here yesterday that were probably someone dispatching something else. But nothing -- any hostile people at all.

S. O'BRIEN: Have you seen the people who don't want to go?

EWING: Oh, there's plenty of people out there that do not want to leave. They want to stay in their houses and they just want food and water.

S. O'BRIEN: You know, the mayor says, "I'm not dropping any more water."

EWING: Yes. And they quit doing that yesterday.

S. O'BRIEN: And what do you think of that?

EWING: Well, they're trying to get them out. And I think that's the only way they're going to get them out.

S. O'BRIEN: Why -- it's so hard to understand. I mean, people at home cannot fathom how disgusting this water is and how much it smells like sewage...


S. O'BRIEN: ... and how there are bodies floating around behind us.


S. O'BRIEN: Why do they want to stay?

EWING: Some of them have furniture that hasn't been destroyed in any way. It's on the second floor. They don't want any looters coming in, is what they're telling us.

They have their pets. They don't want to leave their pets behind. And those are some of the things we're coming up against.

Some say they're fine, they've got plenty food and water. And they'll stay as long as they have to until the water goes down.

S. O'BRIEN: They have no concept that the water's not going to go down for -- I think the estimates are at least 30 days.

EWING: Yes. The last hurricane that came through here was Betsy, and they think it's going to go down in the next two or three days. But we're trying to tell them that there's no power to the pumps and the pumps are broken, so it may be as many as 30 days.

And then they kind of have a second chance, you know, to look at it. We did convince some of them to come out after telling them that kind of stuff.

S. O'BRIEN: Jennings Ewing, good luck. I know you've got a busy day ahead.

EWING: Yes we do.

S. O'BRIEN: Thanks for talking with us briefly. We certainly appreciate it.

EWING: All right. Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Take care.

EWING: Bye-bye.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles, back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: Thanks, Soledad.

Officials in Texas say shelters there have reached capacity. Some evacuees from New Orleans will have to be relocated now to there states. But some people who have gone to Houston stay this new city will become their permanent address.

Sean Callebs with that.


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For thousands of evacuees, this was the first glimpse of Houston, not a crowded shelter, but a community willing to embrace them when they needed it most.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: God bless you. Thank you so much.

CALLEBS: Many of the 250,000 evacuees in Texas said they want to make Houston home for good. So that means asking a lot of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is it you're looking for, Social Security?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, FEMA, the housing, where they're gonna --



CALLEBS: Today, 38-year-old Mona Lisa Wright ventured outside the Astrodome complex for the first time since arriving last Thursday. She wants to bring her 13-year-old son here from where he is temporarily staying in Mississippi and start a new life. Mona Lisa says she has 15 years' experience as a certified nurse assistant.

MONA LISA WRIGHT, NEW ORLEANS EVACUEE: I'm going to be looking at hospitals, looking at places to find a nice area for my home, and be able to get back and forth, going shopping, getting household stuff.

CALLEBS: Wal-Mart is vowing to find jobs for any of its workers displaced by the storm. Like Estelle Lewis, who is starting work in the deli of a Houston Wal-Mart. Four days ago she was sleeping on this now-notorious overpass in New Orleans wondering if she'd live or die. It won't be easy, but Estelle says she's never going back.

ESTELLE LEWIS, NEW ORLEANS EVACUEE: That's my goal, to make Houston my home. Live here and get an apartment which I haven't gotten because I don't have the money to get it.

CALLEBS: Robert Eckels is the top Harris County official working with the evacuees.

ROBERT ECKELS, OFFICIAL, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: These are not the people that you are seeing looting on the streets of New Orleans. These are families with their kids. These are folks who had jobs there in New Orleans. They may have been on the lower rung of the economic ladder, but they are hard working folks who are ready to make a new life here.

WRIGHT: I like that. I like the atmosphere. I like the people. They're nice and kind. I think this is where my new life is going to start right here in Texas.

CALLEBS: In the coming weeks people are going to debate what to do about New Orleans. But like Mona Lisa Wright, many evacuees won't wait for that. They have to rebuild their lives starting right now.

Sean Callebs, CNN, Houston.


M. O'BRIEN: We wish them well wherever they end up.

Still to come, a New Orleans congregation exiled by Katrina. Find out how one minister is tending to his flock's needs, both spiritual and financial.

Stay with us.