Return to Transcripts main page

American Morning

Signs of Hope From Astrodome; 30 Bodies Recovered Inside St. Bernard Parish

Aired September 08, 2005 - 08:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning and welcome.
I'm Soledad O'Brien coming to you live from New Orleans this morning.

Today we're talking about the worst of the very worst. Inside St. Bernard Parish, a scene of nearly 100 percent destruction. Thirty bodies were recovered here on Wednesday, people who died inside a nursing home were recovered. We'll talk to the sheriff of the parish about what's still to come.

And in Houston this morning, signs of hope from the Astrodome. Evacuees there are leaving by the hundreds. That stadium could be empty in as soon as 10 days. And with so many people in such great need, why are teams of professionals being turned away? Looking for ways to cut government red tape all on this AMERICAN MORNING.

And good morning.

Welcome back, everybody, to AMERICAN MORNING.

I'm Soledad O'Brien coming to you live from on top of the I-10 Highway. We're overlooking Tulane Avenue.

Good morning -- Miles.


I'm Miles O'Brien in New York.

Let's begin with a look at the mission critical news.

Evacuations continue in New Orleans, so far without the use of force. Thousands are still in the city. 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 was 83, but at least 30 bodies were found yesterday in a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish. Mississippi's death toll has climbed to 201. That, too, is expected to rise.

And officials in Texas say they'd like to have all three shelters around the Astrodome closed, perhaps as soon as a week from Sunday. About 9,000 evacuees are currently staying at the four main shelters in Houston. Thousands of victims have already found more permanent housing -- Soledad. S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles, thanks.

We want to take you about St. Bernard Parish. We spent the day there yesterday. We can show you some of the pictures we took. Utter devastation. One deputy said he thought the percentage of devastation in his community about 100 percent. And we met somebody else who said that they thought maybe there were two homes that were unaffected by hurricane Katrina.

Some devastating news out of there, as well. They confirmed that more than 30 bodies were found inside St. Rita's Nursing Home. The demort teams -- that's the team that goes in to try to recover those bodies and then process them through the morgue -- they went in with a big refrigerator truck and were able to remove about half of those bodies. Obviously, much more work is ahead.

And also, while we were people kept coming in. Some of the people were evacuated and very happy to be so. They were recovered after spending 10 days foraging for food and eating what they had in their backpacks. Others not so thrilled. They felt that they had been evacuated from their homes when they really wanted to stay.

That brings us right to Karl Penhaul.

He is on Canal Street this morning talking about the mandatory evacuation orders that go into effect -- Karl, good morning.


Well, no sign yet that those forced evacuations are actually being carried out. It does seem, according to what we could glean from the streets yesterday and last night walking around, talking to the police and other law enforcement officials such as the National Guard, that first off they are helping the people that now want to leave.

Some of the ones now wanting to leave were the ones initially that wanted to stay. But they found that the conditions have really become unlivable. They're running low on food and water and so have just decided well, you know, let's go for now and see what can happen.

So those are the people that law enforcement officials are helping out for now. And then what they're saying is that they expect then to move into this phase of forced evacuations. It has been a controversial measure, especially for some citizens, who say no, it's our choice to stay.

But talking a few minutes ago to the police superintendent, Eddie Compass, this is what he had to say.


SUPT. EDDIE COMPASS, NEW ORLEANS POLICE: And once all the voluntary evacuation is completed, we're going to do the forced evacuation. I'll make it analogous to something that everyone can really understand. When you bring your child to the pediatrician to get a shot, it's a very painful thing to do to see your child in that much pain. I've got four kids and one on the way. But you know if your child does not get that shot, they could die.


PENHAUL: Now, as the evacuations continued, the body bags are also arriving. We hear today that there are now 25,000 body bags in Louisiana. The death toll confirmed so far only 83. But we expect a further announcement later in the day from the Department of Health here in Louisiana -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: We're getting word, as well, that FEMA, apparently some 25,000 body bags are arriving to deal with the situation here.

I want to ask you a question about the number of police officers.

Karl, as you well know, estimates of the numbers, the percentage of the police force that's still on the job has shifted over the last many days. The number the police chief told me is something like 1,200 officers.

So what do people think happened to the other 500 who are unaccounted for, Karl?

PENHAUL: Difficult to say. There's a range of theories as to what may have happened to them. Some of them, in fact, like other New Orleans citizens may, in fact, have died in this disaster. Others may still be trapped or in those pockets of the city where people have not arrived to evacuate and save those people still trapped in their homes. And others my have decided simply to leave with their families.

We also know that officers have been traumatized by this whole experience. Some simply may have just walked off the job -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh, you know, considering the circumstances, you could certainly imagine that.

Karl Penhaul for us this morning.

He's in the French Quarter.

Karl, thank you very much.

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

M. O'BRIEN: Thanks.

Good morning, Soledad.

Vice President Dick Cheney will be in the central Gulf States today. President Bush has put him in charge of trying to cut through any red tape that is slowing aid to the victims of Katrina.

Alina Cho live now in Baton Rouge -- Alina, tell us about the vice president's itinerary. ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, good morning to you.

Vice President Cheney will begin the day in Gulfport, Mississippi. He will move on to New Orleans and then end the day here in Baton Rouge, where he will meet with state and local officials.

Now, the federal government, as you know, has come under fire for what critics call a slow response and for not using resources already available in the region.

Just yesterday, we caught up with hundreds of firefighters who want to help, but who have not yet been deployed.


CHO (voice-over): These firefighters like a game of football. But that's not why they came to Louisiana. They came to work. They drove 24 hours straight from Illinois, arrived in Baton Rouge, Tuesday, still waiting to get into New Orleans.

(on camera): And you are basically waiting for the order.

KENT TOMBLIN, PEORIA FIRE DEPARTMENT: We're waiting for an assignment, right. Correct.

CHO: How frustrating is that for you?

TOMBLIN: Well, you've got 600 firefighters down here that are all, you know, ready to go. That's what we do. We want to get out and do our job.

CHO (voice-over): But most here can't, because FEMA has not yet sent them. So, they eat, sleep and play football at Louisiana State University's campus, nearly 70 miles away from New Orleans.

(on camera): Is it fair to say that precious time is being wasted?

TOMBLIN: Well, any time we have a job to do, our job is to react in a timely fashion, quick response. That's how we're raised as firefighters. Yes, we want to get down there in a quick response, do what we've got to do and, you know, help them as best we can.

CHO: These firefighters were told to be self-sufficient for at least two weeks. They brought plenty of food and water, extra fuel, even mechanics to keep them going throughout their deployment.

CLINT KULMAN, PEORIA FIRE DEPARTMENT: Let us help. Let us get in there and do our job, the reason we came here.


CHO: FEMA director Michael Brown responded by saying resources already on the ground in New Orleans are being utilized. And when I asked him about Democratic calls for his resignation, Miles, he told me the president is in charge of that, not me. M. O'BRIEN: Alina Cho in Baton Rouge.

Thank you very much.

Let's check out some headlines.

Carol Costello with that -- good morning, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Miles.

Good morning to all of you.

Now in the news, President Bush is set to get final recommendations today from a federal panel working to restructure U.S. military bases. But federal judges have already geared to temporarily block some of those recommendations. At issue, proposed changes to two National Guard air bases in Tennessee and Connecticut. Under the Pentagon's plan, the Bradley Air National Guard would lose its fighter jets. The Justice Department is appealing.

New details this morning about the death of Yasser Arafat. The long time Palestinian leader reportedly died from a stroke. That's according to the "New York Times" and an Israeli newspaper, which conducted the first review of Arafat's medical records since his death last November. It's still not clear what caused Arafat's health to deteriorate so quickly in the weeks leading up to the stroke.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is saying that people have already said no to same-sex marriage in California. Schwarzenegger announced Wednesday that he would veto a bill that defines marriage as between two people, not specifically as between a man and a woman. A proposition was approved five years ago that prevents California from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states.

And Galveston, Texas is now hosting evacuees from hurricane Katrina. But over a century ago, it was the center of disaster itself. Galveston was nearly destroyed when it was hit by the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history -- 105 years ago today. The unnamed hurricane in 1900 killed more than 8,000 people. After the storm, the city built a seawall and raised the elevation of the entire island.

To the Forecast Center now and Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: At that time, Galveston had more people than Houston. Boy, what a hurricane will do for you, huh? It may change the landscape of that city forever.

And here's another storm we're looking for, Ophelia. There is the storm itself. It's kind of winding up and then winding down, depending on the time. Sometimes in the overnight hours it's getting bigger and then now in the sunrise it seems to be getting smaller.

There is the storm right there on radar. There's Titusville. There's Cape Canaveral. That's where they launch the shuttle, right there. The storm not moving very much and part of that non-movement is part of the problem. The official hurricane center forecast does take it out to sea, but by the time it gets there and then Monday and Tuesday it turns it back and does a little later complete curl.

We'll have to keep watching it because it has so little movement right now that it's hard to forecast. In fact, it's impossible to forecast.

There goes Nate, south of Bermuda. We just got the latest advisory on Nate -- 85 miles per hour, but not approaching Bermuda. In fact, it'll miss it by 100 miles -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, that's a little good news there.

All right, Chad, thanks.

Sheriff Jack Stevens is a busy man. As the head of law enforcement in the devastated St. Bernard Parish, he is now in charge of search and rescue and recovery, as well. We asked him what it's like to have to pick up the pieces in a region that they're calling the worst of the worst.


S. O'BRIEN (voice-over): The worst of the worst -- that's what they say about St. Bernard Parish. Devastated, destroyed, words don't even come close to describing just how bad it is. Mile after mile of the parish is blown apart or underwater or now a marshy swamp.

Sheriff Jack Stevens says he's learned a lesson from this storm.

SHERIFF JACK STEVENS, ST. BERNARD PARISH: For literally five days we were isolated, no communications at all and, you know, found out the two things you need to survive in life -- water and communications.

S. O'BRIEN: The parish lacked both. It's been a terrible 10 days. Stevens' men and women, true heroes. They've been working around the clock.

(on camera): How high is the water here now, do you think?

(voice-over): Major Jimmy Pohlmann is the chief of field operations. He gives us a tour and points out his own home as a total loss.

At Camp Katrina, a staging area for supplies and the sheriff's resources and even volunteers, as bad as it is, Sheriff Stevens says it could have been worse.

STEVENS: We evacuated enough people and I think we saved lives. We were fortunate that the water came up in the day and not at night, because had it come in at night, it would have been -- I think the casualties would have been twice the size they were.

S. O'BRIEN: In a community of 70,000 people, some predict 1,000 may have lost their lives. This is where 3,000 evacuees sat and waited until they could be moved to safer ground.

STEVENS: We commandeered 146 deck barges with no rails and no cover. We were putting women on it. Their flesh would hit the deck and it was so hot, it would scorch their flesh. You could have fried an egg on it. Not one complaint. People were talking about how grateful they were just to be alive and begging for a half a cup of water.

S. O'BRIEN: So what went wrong?

STEVENS: Our water went from six inches to 10 feet in about an hour.

S. O'BRIEN: The storm was huge, the flooding even greater.

STEVENS: It was like a tsunami. I mean you could see -- you could look down these long streets in this community and look five to six blocks down and just see a wall of water coming up that street.

S. O'BRIEN: Ten days later, the telephone poles still sag heavily. On the roadways, small vehicles are strewn about. Animals lie dead and abandoned. This home used to face the highway. It just washed off its foundation. Big homes and mobile homes all destroyed.

STEVENS: And at night, when that sun would go down and the lights were off in the city and all you could see was fires burning along that riverfront and us not being in communication, but just getting bits and pieces of what was going on, we thought the city was burning down. We went to martial law. I gave my deputies full fire authority -- anybody that crosses the parish line that does not turn back, we were going to shoot, because this was not going to happen down here.

S. O'BRIEN: And maybe the very worst sight -- St. Rita's Nursing Home, where more than 30 people were found dead, drowned in the high water.

STEVENS: It's just now starting to sink in a little bit. You know, I'm sure as time goes on, you think about individual instances more than others. But a nightmare. A nightmare.


S. O'BRIEN: Sheriff Stevens is one of the many sheriffs we've spoken to over the last several days who wanted to emphasize the heroism of the men and women who work for him, talking about how they have really operated in some of the most horrific conditions, often when their families were at risk, often when they had nothing themselves, continuing on the job, helping to save people.

And then it brings the question -- why do people stay? We've showed you the horrific conditions. This morning, we're going to talk to a woman who says she's staying. She rode her bike here to tell us why. That's just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

We've been talking about some of the residents who refuse to go, even though there's a mandatory evacuation order.

Well, Delia Labarre is one of them.

She joins us this morning after riding her bike to our interview.

Good morning.


S. O'BRIEN: Is this pretty much how you're getting around?

LABARRE: Yes, when I go out. Someone loaned it to me, actually. But -- so I found my way here.

S. O'BRIEN: Do you go out a lot?

LABARRE: Yes, I do.

S. O'BRIEN: What's your day like?

LABARRE: I've been staying in the past couple of days doing household things, taking care of business around there. But I -- before, when the refugees were still here, I was making calls for them, trying to get rides for them, getting -- letting relatives know they were OK...

S. O'BRIEN: Where do you live?

LABARRE: ... cooking for them, because I have access to a gas stove. I live over in the Arts Warehouse District and...

S. O'BRIEN: And what's the condition of your house?

LABARRE: Well, it's high and dry and...

S. O'BRIEN: No damage?

LABARRE: No damage. A few shingles that got blown off during the wind, during the storm and a few panes of glass, window panes broken.

S. O'BRIEN: So when you hear about these forced evacuations, when the mayor says and the police chief says...

LABARRE: I'm hearing about this forced evacuations. I'm horrified. It's -- I don't quite understand it. They're not giving us much information. I talked to some state troopers just now and they say they're trying to get the bad elements out. But I, you know, and they said we don't know the difference, so we're just trying to get everyone out. So now they're looking... S. O'BRIEN: But even...

LABARRE: ... they're looking at all of us as criminals.

S. O'BRIEN: But even if you're not talking about bad elements or good elements in the population, I mean smell this water. It's horrible.

LABARRE: You're the one who chose to be here. I don't choose -- I didn't choose to be here. I just came to visit you (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

S. O'BRIEN: But this is an indication of what it's like.

LABARRE: This is where you're camping out and this is what you're showing the world. You have everybody in the world believing that the whole city looks like it. I would suggest that you go over there and start -- and film a little bit where it's not flooded.

S. O'BRIEN: But even if your neighborhood is good this is toxic. I mean everyone...

LABARRE: Well...

S. O'BRIEN: ... agree it's a (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

LABARRE: And why are you breathing it, you know? I mean how many days have you been here?

S. O'BRIEN: That's an excellent question.

LABARRE: I think it is.

S. O'BRIEN: We should wrap up our studio...

LABARRE: I think it is, you know?

S. O'BRIEN: But -- and I get your point. But I'm not going to live here. And I'm...

LABARRE: Well...

S. O'BRIEN: And some people would...

LABARRE: I mean the water is going down and I would not, I would go, I would have gone before the storm hit if I had been living in a low lying area. I know enough about how the city lies, the elevations at various points. I knew I was on one of the highest points in the city. I was above ground. And I had placed my fate with the city. My ancestors were original colonists of the city and they didn't tuck their tail between their legs and run.

S. O'BRIEN: You have electricity yet?

LABARRE: Not yet. It should be on any day.

S. O'BRIEN: Do you have water?

LABARRE: I have running water now. I have lots of bottled water. And lots of other people are in the same way.

S. O'BRIEN: There's no stores. Where do you get your supplies from?

LABARRE: We have plenty. We stocked up, you know? I mean, you know, this is -- people in this country, the majority, are so used to real conveniences, lots of conveniences, and they just -- they can't imagine how to exist. But, you know, some of us are, you know, take it or leave it. But we have, you know, we can exist with far less.

S. O'BRIEN: When you see pictures of people who are surrounded by water and sloshing through that dirty water...

LABARRE: Yes, well...

S. O'BRIEN: ... and they are saying a lot of the same things you're saying...

LABARRE: I understand.

S. O'BRIEN: ... which is I live here, this is my home, I don't want to leave...

LABARRE: I understand.

S. O'BRIEN: ... should they be evacuated?

LABARRE: But, you know, the alternatives that they've been offered have not been humane. And I sympathize with them.

S. O'BRIEN: What do you mean?

LABARRE: Well, I mean I saw where they were putting them. They promised them a bus. They promised them a nice place to live and they put them at -- in hellacious conditions at the Superdome, at the convention center. I talked to those people. They were made promises and they didn't come through with them. And they -- I'm sure they're making promises to them now that they're not -- if they don't come through, you know?

So, and I think that there's a lot of media hype right now. I'm questioning whether or not there's not a little bit of a manipulation of the media so that when the death toll starts coming in, that the mayor and other officials can say see, you've been reporting it for all this time. People refused to leave and that's why there's so many dead.

That is not true.

S. O'BRIEN: That's an interesting...

LABARRE: They did not offer these people a way out to begin with. They offered them a ride to Superdome. They never offered them transportation out of the city.

S. O'BRIEN: Do you have a working shower?

LABARRE: Well, we have a -- the water is on.

S. O'BRIEN: All right.


S. O'BRIEN: So can we come and see where you're living?


S. O'BRIEN: Open up?

LABARRE: Yes, you could, if you like.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. We'll talk about that afterward.


S. O'BRIEN: We would like it.

LABARRE: Oh, wait. Could I just ask one more thing?

S. O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

LABARRE: We would like to ask the mayor to meet with us, those who are here, instead of just this forced evacuation, which I understand is actually illegal, according to our attorneys. We would like to ask him to meet with us, those who are here and would like to stay, and those who are wanting to come in. They're all over the country. They will come in. They will drive to sit down and talk with them about rebuilding the city.

S. O'BRIEN: We'll see what the mayor says to that request.

LABARRE: Thank you very much.

S. O'BRIEN: Delia Labarre, it's so nice to meet you.

LABARRE: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Good luck to you.

LABARRE: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: And we're going to take you up on your offer.

LABARRE: Yes, you're welcome.

S. O'BRIEN: We haven't showered for a long time by (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and we'd like to just come and see how you're living.

LABARRE: OK. I'll fix you a cup of coffee.

S. O'BRIEN: I'll take that, too.

LABARRE: Thanks.

S. O'BRIEN: Karen, thank you.

Let's get right back to Miles.

LABARRE: Don't touch me.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad, were you angling for a shower there? Is that what that was?

S. O'BRIEN: Well, I'm doing both. We're going to follow up. I'd like to see her -- I want to see what kind of conditions she's living in because the truth is, from what we can see, a lot of the city is underwater and the water, I mean the smell is bad. It's -- we're actually on I-10 right above a gas station. It smells horrible and the water smells putrid. But, also, yes, we haven't taken a shower in days, and that might be a nice little treat.

M. O'BRIEN: I've got to tell you, if I had to choose a person to ride out a storm with, I think it would be Delia.

All right, thank you very much, Soledad.

Good luck on your fact finding mission there.

Still to come on the program, the latest on efforts to save the pets of flood victims. We'll ride along with an animal search and rescue team ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: One of the main problems authorities are running into as they try to convince stragglers to leave New Orleans, many, understandably, refuse to abandon their pets.

CNN's Adaora Udoji looks at everything that goes into reuniting people with their animals.


ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pat Boezman is living one nightmare after another. Her city's flooded. Now, she's frantically searching emergency animal shelters for her two dogs.

PAT BOEZMAN, PET OWNER: Nicky, no, that's not him. That's not him.

UDOJI: On New Orleans' waterlogged streets, you can hear the dogs for miles. They are trapped on boats, roofs, porches, surrounded by blackened, putrid water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One block that way is General Persian (ph).

UDOJI: But the cavalry, led by Louisiana's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has teams from as far away as Boston tracking them down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have an address on your list, it's a Forette Street address, the Forette Vet Clinic?

UDOJI: Chief Craig Warren sent his four teams out with inflatable rafts, armed with a handful of hundreds of addresses pet owners have called in. The work's hot and painstaking for this volunteer San Diego team we followed. The first dog we see, a Labrador mix, is not on their list, so they keep going. The dog follows us four blocks to the team's first address, where they find nothing. So they pick the dog up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, oh, good boy.

UDOJI: The lucky Labrador turns out to be a female. The teams rescued two dozen this day, which are sent 50 miles north to the Lamar Dixon Center, where every day, hundreds of people come looking; some, like this man, forced to leave his pet when he was evacuated.

It's a sweet reunion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Glad I came and got you, huh, boy? I know he's happy, too.

UDOJI (on camera): Who do you think is happier, him or you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Both. Probably both.

UDOJI (voice-over): So far, 600 animals have rolled in -- dogs, cats, pigs; surprisingly, most in good shape, say animal workers. The rescued Labrador from earlier comes in on one of them. Like all animals, she's photographed, checked, then decontaminated, so dehydrated, she laps up her shower. All stations fully manned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm volunteering to help the animals.

UDOJI (on camera): Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because it's a fun thing to do, and to help save them.

UDOJI (voice-over): Dozens of volunteers are caring for the animals, feeding them from tons of donated pet food.

But a crushed Pat Boezman doesn't find her dogs here.

(on camera): You must be a little disappointed.

BOEZMAN: Yes, but I hope they're at LSU.

UDOJI (voice-over): She moves on, driven by her faith her family pets will be found.

Adaora Udoji, CNN, New Orleans.


M. O'BRIEN: And there's a devastating loss of marine life in New Orleans to tell you about. The hurricane killed most of the fish at the New Orleans Aquarium of the Americas. It's considered one of the leading aquariums in the world. It has 10,000 fish, including more than 530 species. The city's other animal centers mostly weathered the storm, however, including the Audubon Zoo.

Ahead on AMERICAN MORNING, thousands of evacuees will likely start new lives in Houston once they leave the Astrodome. But is the city really ready to handle all of its new residents? We'll talk to you the mayor about that ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.