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American Morning

State of Emergency; Gas Tax Relief?

Aired September 08, 2005 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Carol, good morning to you.
Going inside this morning, Carol, to a disaster zone. Total destruction we're going to talk about. St. Bernard Parish, just east of downtown New Orleans, a place many officials fear many people died. One heart-breaking discovery already, the bodies of more than 30 people who perished in a nursing home as the floodwaters rose. I was there. It is an utterly tragic scene. We're going to talk about that and also what's to come for the crews who are now recovering those bodies -- Miles.


Also this morning, a developing story from Houston, the Astrodome starting to empty as evacuees find other places to live. Officials now think the stadium could be vacant as soon as 10 days from now. We're live in Houston.

And in Mississippi, amid thousands of destroyed homes and washed out roads, we'll look at how relief agencies are getting the bare essentials to survivors of Katrina on this AMERICAN MORNING.

S. O'BRIEN: Good morning, and welcome, everybody.

We are on I-10 in New Orleans, right above Tulane Avenue. And you can see behind me the lights of some of the hotels now are on, a really good sign. You can see the Sheraton and the Marriott, as well. Inside, some of the police officers are staying, also some FEMA. People who are working on the infrastructure, basically, have moved in there and are essentially camped out there to do their work.

The water, still very deep, even in spite of the repairs on the levee. Not making a huge difference right here, although the water has gone down quite a little bit.

And we want to show you Tulane Hospital. It's this white building right over my shoulder. Some 1,500 patients and employees and visitors were evacuated safely from there. Looters, though, broke in and broke into the office that's next door and broke into the employee's cars. One employee said that they heard shots. People were shooting at some of the patients as they were trying to evacuate. And they had to get a police sniper to cover their evacuation so they could move all of their employees and patients and the visitors out safely.

A terrible story to tell you about this morning, the scene at St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish. Devastating news for the community there, more than 30 people found dead.

This is the sheriff talking about that situation.


SHERIFF JACK STEVENS, ST. BERNARD PARISH: It's one of those things that you hear so many rumors about. I heard that they had advised the Office of Emergency Preparedness that they had evacuated the -- that you know their residents there. And it turned out that they hadn't. The bodies were discovered there. And there were about 40 or 50 people eventually evacuated from the site.

Not everyone in the nursing home died, but it's a hard way to lose a mother or a father or somebody in your family. And knowing that they were trapped in the first floor, that wouldn't work. Can you imagine the fear in the last minutes of their lives, what that was like? That had to be awful.


S. O'BRIEN: Yes, that did have to be awful.

We're going to bring you many reports this morning from St. Bernard Parish. Utterly devastated. We asked one of the deputies, give me a sense of the percentage of homes here that have suffered some kind of damage. And he said I would put that number at roughly 100 percent -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Wow! All right, Soledad, back with you in just a moment.

Let's get a look at "Mission Critical" news now.

Evacuations continue in New Orleans so far without force. Thousands of people are still in the city this morning. Police say right now they're focusing their efforts on those people who would like to leave.

The death toll in Louisiana still unknown. The last confirmed number is 83. But, as we've reported, at least 30 bodies were found last night in a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish. Soledad just told you about that. Mississippi's death toll has climbed to 201, meanwhile. That, too, expected to rise.

And postal officials are urging evacuees to submit a change of address notification form, even if it means listing an interim shelter or a temporary location. This will help the agency deliver vital documents. The post office says it has handed out more than 15,000 Social Security checks at collection points throughout the region -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles.

Clearly just an indication of what a mess it's going to be to try to bring any kind of normalcy to people's lives. I think that's fair to say. A question now here across this whole devastated region is what's the death toll? And for many of the officials, they'll give you a number and then admit that it's a complete guess. In St. Bernard Parish, where they suffered really utterly devastating consequences of that storm, the estimates run anywhere from in the hundreds to a thousand. This is a parish that had a population of 70,000 people. The sheriff told us that.

Devastating news for that community out of this nursing home, we'll take you to the scene and tell you what happened at St. Rita's Nursing Home.


St. Rita's Nursing Home, a gruesome task today, recovering the bodies trapped inside when the flood came. You take a closer look, you can see the cars that were probably in the parking lot there. On top of those cars, lots of debris and grass, an indication, probably, that's at least as high as the water came up, eight feet, more. In some estimations we heard that more than 10 feet came in to this area.

The smell, of course, again, pretty horrific. You can tell that this water is absolutely contaminated and all kinds of things, at this point, are probably festering in there. That's why the sheriff's deputies are being really, really careful as the de-mort teams go in to try to recover the bodies.

Today they were able to get about half of the 30-plus bodies out, the victims of the flood, elderly people who were at this nursing home. They confirmed for us that about 40 people, maybe even as many as 50 people were able to get out when the flood came. They were successfully evacuated. It's unclear at this point, though, what happened with these other 30 or some odd people who could not get out.

There is questions now and there are questions about the staff. Were there staffers among the dead? Were there staffers who stayed behind to try to help the patients who were stuck inside? Were these patients who refused to leave? There are lots of peoples here in St. Bernard Parish that, in fact, don't want to leave. We met a woman today who said her house is intact, she has got water, she's got food and she does not want to leave her home.

And we have seen just utter devastation here. This scene continues for mile after mile after mile after mile as you ride down the highway. Just utter devastation.

We talked to a sheriff's deputy and asked him how bad is it? What percentage of the community is damaged? What percentage is devastated? And he said 100 percent. It is an absolute disaster here. This is what they call the worst of the worst.


Some people don't want to leave. We just heard that. In spite of that, the evacuations continue. We want to get right to Karl Penhaul. He is at Canal Street for us this morning. Good morning to you -- Karl.


Well, so far there are still no signs of those forced evacuations. I was out and about for all of yesterday afternoon and seeing what progress was. But what the law enforcement sources are telling me, both police and the National Guard, they're saying that what they're carrying out now are continued voluntary evacuations. They are saying that more of those people who decided they would stay behind initially and now deciding, no, this place is unlivable for the time being, and so they are asking for help to get out. So they're continuing the voluntary evacuations those who want to leave. But so far, no force being used.

Now the military, as you know, yesterday, the military were coming out and saying we're not going to help in those forced evacuations. I talked to some of the paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne yesterday. And they said that's still their position, they're not going to help with forced evacuations. But they have been putting the word around, they have been putting the word around to citizens saying, look, the mayor says you've all got to leave. We're not going to force you to leave, but maybe it is the best thing to do, Soledad.

Now here on Canal Street, I'm outside the police station. It's not an official police station. It's actually one of the city's casinos that's been transformed into a police post, meanwhile. And it's really here where all the police, both the police from New Orleans, from Louisiana and state troopers from other states across the country come. They pick up their assignments. This is where the coordination comes with firefighters and with other law enforcement officials.

And, as you can see, there's really not much there. They're not inside the casino. They post outside the casino. It's an indication of how difficult coordination is, because there's really not much communications. The other factor affecting police right now is that about one-third of New Orleans police, 500 officers, are still unaccounted for -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, accounted for. Who knows if they ran off from the job, Karl, or if they did not survive the flood or if somehow they're survivors but they're trapped and they can't get a word out to their colleagues.

Karl Penhaul for us on Canal Street.

Karl, thank you -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Soledad.

President Bush is sending his number two, as well as his first lady, to the Gulf Coast today.

Elaine Quijano at the White House this morning with that. Elaine, what's on the agenda for the two of them?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well they both have a number of events today, Miles, good morning to you. But after facing a barrage of criticism, White House officials here say that they continue to operate in problem-solving mode. And as part of that, as you mention, the vice president and the first lady will be heading down to the region in separate trips.

Now first, the vice president. He will be making three stops along the Gulf Coast, visiting hard-hit areas, first in Mississippi, then making two stops in Louisiana. This will be the first time that Mr. Cheney has visited the area since the hurricane struck. And officials here say that his focus will be on making sure the immediate needs of those on the ground are being met. Helping to ensure that bureaucracy and red tape don't stand in the way of people receiving help, like their benefits and Food Stamps.

Now, the first lady is heading back to the region as well. Before she does that, though, she will travel to a school in Iowa, along with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, before heading to Mississippi. Now on that first stop, they are expected to push for schools to donate supplies to other schools that have taken in students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Mrs. Bush will then go on to Mississippi. This will, actually, be the second time that Mrs. Bush has visited the area since the hurricane hit. Last week, of course, the first lady met with evacuees in Lafayette, Louisiana -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Elaine Quijano at the White House.

Officials in Texas now hope to close the Astrodome and other large evacuee centers perhaps as soon as one week from Sunday. Thousands of victims are finding more permanent housing.

Betty Nguyen is live at the Astrodome this morning.

Betty, what's the headcount inside the Reliant and Astrodome centers this morning?

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the four main shelters here in Houston we have learned late yesterday that the headcount is 9,259 people. Now, Miles, that's a far cry from the 27,000 that we had heard were staying here just two days ago. So obviously people are picking up, they're moving out and they're finding homes elsewhere, which is good news.

But also, they're looking for assistance. They need assistance to make that transition. There are long lines here at the four main shelters yesterday, people standing in line to get that FEMA assistance.

They're also looking for those debit cards. Those $2,000 debit cards which will be distributed to families. Well FEMA says they have 20,000 of them available here at these shelters, yet they're not ready to distribute them just yet. They're saying that there's some logistical problems.

And we learned that today they're not going to distribute them. There was word that it was going to happen yesterday, then word it was going to happen today. Well we learned early, very early this morning that it's not going to happen today. They still have some kinks that they want to work out. But obviously people are trying to get the money they need to get their lives started again. And they're standing in line. There are going to be waiting in line once again today to get that assistance.

M. O'BRIEN: What is the logistical kinks on those debit cards, do you know?

NGUYEN: You know that's a big question. We've been asking it for two days now and trying to figure out. We know that they're available. Why aren't they being distributed? The only thing that we're being told from FEMA and the Joint Information Center here is simply that there's some logistical problems.

So I don't know if it means simply that people have found these homes and they need to make sure they can come back in and get these cards. They need to be able to contact folks. I really don't want to speculate. All we know is that there are -- quote, unquote -- "logistical problems" with it right now. But hopefully they'll get it soon. They've been talking about it for a couple days now.

M. O'BRIEN: Betty Nguyen at the Astrodome, thank you very much.

Let's check the forecast now, Chad Myers at the Weather Center, no less than three storms to track. The good news is probably as far as landfall goes, 0 for 3, right?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It looks like that's the great news. Nate is going to turn south of Bermuda. This thing here, although making battering waves and a lot of beach erosion here. We'll have more thunderstorms coming on shore as one of the outer bands runs on by. The storm does not seem to have any westward movement whatsoever. And in fact, the official Hurricane Center forecast turns it back out into the ocean.

Now, it turns it very slowly, I will give you that. Look at this, even by Sunday, this thing has moved less than 150 miles. It could always do a loopy-loop and do something like these storms. I think it was Jeanne (ph) last year that did a complete loop out there in the Atlantic Ocean. So we have to be careful. We have to watch. We can't say things too early on storms that are only moving one or two miles per hour. And, in fact, the Hurricane Center right now calling it stationary.

There goes Nate. There goes Maria. And there, right there, that is Ophelia. That whole thing in there, that whole area there will still be affected with winds, battering waves from North Carolina down to Florida. But at least right now it's not headed to shore -- Soledad. S. O'BRIEN: And a little bit of good news there.

All right, Chad, thanks.

I want to show you some pictures of what looks like it's going to be a very beautiful sunrise. But if you could smell what is wafting over the water and the I-10 where we're standing, it's a complete contradiction.

Question today, how many people are still in New Orleans? And some estimates run as high as 15,000. This morning we talk to the Coast Guard official who is in charge of bringing all those people out.


M. O'BRIEN: Nobody does it better. Coast Guard search and rescue operations, thousands of them have occurred since Katrina. There may still be as many as 10,000 or 15,000 peoples inside the city of New Orleans this morning, and some would probably like to see those helicopters, some would not.

They are under the command of our next guest, Vice Admiral Thad Allen. He is the Coast Guard's Chief of Staff. And on Monday, he became the Deputy FEMA to -- excuse me, Deputy to the FEMA Chief Mike Brown.

Admiral, good to have you with us. Bring us up to date, how many rescues have your teams accomplished so far?

VICE ADM. THAD W. ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD: Well, good morning, Miles. If you're talking, particularly about the Coast Guard, it's well over 30,000, both by air and by water. Beyond that, with the extraordinary urban search and rescue effort by the state and local responders, the Department of Defense, goes well beyond that, well beyond 30,000.

M. O'BRIEN: That's an amazing accomplishment, and I'm sure your crews are very tired. Now the issue is slowly turning into one of people who are not as cooperative. How will the Coast Guard, if at all, participate in evacuations or really what amount to evictions?

ALLEN: Well, Miles, this really transcends Coast Guard missions and gets into the unified effort that's on the ground down here trying to move this response forward.

Today there's going to be a block-by-block sweep started in the city. That will be conducted by local law enforcement officers with extraordinary support provided by the Department of Defense under the Joint Task Force headed by General Honore. It will be a multi-agency support to those law enforcement officials as they go house to house to make sure these people understand there is a significant health risk. It is time to leave New Orleans.

M. O'BRIEN: Will the Coast Guard assist, if called upon, in those evictions? ALLEN: Yes, we will. Both surface and have an air asset standing by. If somebody is located that requires evacuation, search and rescue support, and so forth, there will be Coast Guard helicopters and surface support to do that.

M. O'BRIEN: Tell us, in general, how things are going. What do you see as the biggest needs right now?

ALLEN: Well, it's kind of a series of events. You've got to take care of the most pressing needs first. And of course, right away, it's safety of life, evacuation, treating people, getting water and food to people, fuel, communications. But beyond that, we have to start the task of drying the city out, getting the water pumped out, making sure that the pumps are sustainable, that the city can stay dry.

In my conversations with the director of Homeland Security for the city of New Orleans, there are two primary issues once you get past the safety of life issue. One is to get the city dry. And the second is to reconstitute support. The fire department, the police department and emergency services, these are the people that New Orleans is going to have to rely on, and we need to make sure they're successful. We need to support them.

M. O'BRIEN: That's a pretty tall list you just laid out there.

ALLEN: Yes, sir, it is.

M. O'BRIEN: What, in your role as deputy to the FEMA director, how does that transcend your role as a Coast Guard admiral?

ALLEN: Well, while I'm wearing a Coast Guard uniform and I'm enormously proud of my organization, I'm really here working for Secretary Chertoff and Mike Brown to bring focus to the local, state, federal, DOD effort that's going on here in New Orleans.

M. O'BRIEN: Admiral, so...

ALLEN: In that respect, I'm really an employee of DHS.

M. O'BRIEN: ... why didn't it have focus in the first place?

ALLEN: Well, you know, this is a wide-ranging event that impacted multiple states. Moving in and trying to run an operation like this with the extraordinary focus of disaster and impact here on New Orleans makes it extremely difficult. I was asked by the secretary to come down and give specific focus to the New Orleans area and the parishes surrounding New Orleans and so we can move this response forward.

M. O'BRIEN: Is that focus occurring now, though? Do you feel like the effort has finally turned a corner?

ALLEN: I think it has. There's been an enormous amount of effort put out down here by all the local urban search and rescue teams, the Department of Defense, National Guard, Coast Guard, fire department, police departments. There was a saying a few years ago, we need 1,000 points of light. I think it's time to make that a laser beam, unify the effort, focus on what needs to be done with precision and move forward. That's my job.

M. O'BRIEN: What we hear time and again, though, are all these stories about mid-level bureaucracy, red tape that is getting in the way of helping people. Have people died as a result of this ineptitude?

ALLEN: I can't comment on what transpired before I got here. I can tell you this, where I've encountered a problem, I have seen no red tape. If there is red tape, we will cut it. We will move this response forward. Our job here is to move forward and make sure things happen. I'm committed to doing that.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, thank you very much, sir.

Vice Admiral Thad Allen, Coast Guard Chief of Staff and Deputy to the FEMA director.

Still to come in the program, Hurricane Katrina helped push gas prices to all-time highs, but drivers in some states may soon get a break. Andy Serwer will explain that. That's next on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Well, is hasn't been good news at the pump of late, but Andy Serwer is here with a change of pace in the news flow here.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: At least for some drivers, Miles. And of course, oil prices have dropped since Hurricane Katrina hit last week, but gas prices have stayed stubbornly high, over $3 a gallon. Still, gas stations basically are able to charge whatever they want.

But a big component of gas prices are taxes, both state and federal taxes. The state of Georgia has now cut state taxes to help out motorists in that state. The 7.5 cents a gallon tax and a 4 percent sales tax combined both cut.

Now we can break it down for you and show you what state taxes look like across the nation. These are the states with the highest, taxes, gas taxes. Now this is not only the state taxes, Miles, but it also includes the federal tax, which is 18 cents a gallon. You can see here the range is tremendous. These are the highest. The lowest, Alaska, Wyoming and New Jersey and South Carolina. Interesting that New Jersey and New York right next to each other. A lot of people arbitrage that, as you well know.

But so the state taxes can go from 10 cents to over 40 cents. Other states, like Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, considering this, but there's some downside. Number one, the states lose hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. And number two, it may discourage conservation. On the other hand, maybe we all need a break. And so you're going to see people discussing this one as we go forward.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, I think there's a lot of people who will tell you long term raising the gas tax would be a good idea.

SERWER: Yes, that's right, but it's politically suicidal to suggest that, as we've seen.

M. O'BRIEN: If not worse.


M. O'BRIEN: All right.

SERWER: Right.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Andy Serwer, appreciate that -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles, thanks.

The question for you, how many residents of New Orleans remain in their homes and what exactly will law enforcement officials do to get them out? We talk to New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass just ahead. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: To the southeast of downtown New Orleans, the water is starting to recede in St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas worst hit by the flooding. Search teams are recovering bodies. They are also still bringing people out alive. Some people have spent the last week struggling to survive, waiting to be rescued. Others, whose homes were not so badly damaged, well, they say they want to stay right where they are.