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American Morning

New Orleans Six Months Later; Charity Controversy; Working Out at Work; Hoop Dream; Life After Work

Aired February 24, 2006 - 08:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: That's the skyline of New Orleans. But of course while it sort of looks all the same, it's much different when you get the closer picture. This morning we're going to be talking about the celebrations that are upcoming but going on, some of them, but upcoming, the big ones, the Mardi Gras celebrations.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, you know it's interesting, the skyline, like the Mardi Gras, if you were to take a quick look at it, you'd say everything is fine there.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, all the same.

M. O'BRIEN: Not so, not by a long shot. People are determined there to put on the party. You just heard Soledad speaking with one of the people who builds all these floats who is saying you know this is a billion-dollar business. This is the backbone of our economy here. We want to get off of our backs, collectively, and this is part of that process. There are others who would tell you, you know, this is sending out the wrong impression that everything is hunky-dory.

Also, I -- this -- the interview that I want to see this morning, what you got.

S. O'BRIEN: J-Mac.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: The man I love.

M. O'BRIEN: J-Mac, the man.

S. O'BRIEN: A young man I love. You saw him make the shot. There it is. Look at that. He had the most amazing four minutes, went from the bench to play on the court. The coach put him in. He's going to be our guest this morning, along with his coach. I love this story. I love this kid.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Got to find out why the coach is not, you know, starting him each and every day, but we'll talk about that a little bit later as well.

M. O'BRIEN: You're going to get him in, I can tell, yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Let's get right to top stories, though, Kelly has got that.

Hey -- Kel.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello there. And we look forward to that interview.

Good morning, everyone.

We're hearing about some reports of shots and an explosion at an oil refinery in eastern Saudi Arabia. The pan-Arab satellite channel, Al-Arabiya, says it could have been part of an attempt to break into that refinery. As soon as we have any more details, of course we'll pass them on to you.

Things appear to be relatively quiet in Baghdad this morning, despite a recent wave of violence. Security, as you might know, has been on high alert after a Shia holy shrine, one of the most sacred in Iraq, was damaged this week. Authorities say at least 132 people have been killed since that attack on Wednesday.

We're waiting to hear what President Bush says this morning about these new tensions in Iraq. He is set to take the podium just about an hour and a half from now. His comments will be part of an address on the war on terror. CNN will be carrying President Bush's speech live. It's set to begin at 10:05 a.m. Eastern.

The Teletubbies being banned in China. That's right. The country's main TV and film regulator clamping down on shows that use both animation and live actors. The move is aimed at promoting Chinese animators and aimed at curbing the use of foreign cartoons.

And how about some fine dining, yep, with your dog? Some Florida lawmakers, that's right, are considering allowing dogs to sit right alongside their owners at outdoor tables. The bill passed through the State House. It still needs approval from the State Senate.

Miles, Soledad, I don't really know, is nothing off limits to animals?

M. O'BRIEN: As long as you can teach them a little table manners.

WALLACE: I guess so.

M. O'BRIEN: And generally their manners are better than mine!

S. O'BRIEN: If they can hold a fork, why not?

M. O'BRIEN: That's right.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Thanks, Kel.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Kelly.

To party or not to party, that is the question, to liberally abuse Shakespeare there. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there is a major debate in New Orleans about whether Mardi Gras should go on so soon after the disaster. Is it a good idea?

AMERICAN MORNING's Dan Lothian posed that question.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The two faces of New Orleans, suffering and celebrating.

KARLIN DUKES, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: I think it's disgraceful that they're celebrating Mardi Gras.

LOTHIAN: In the Upper Ninth Ward, lifelong resident Karlin Dukes is trying to salvage pieces of the home he built with his wife, Yvonne (ph). Mardi Gras is good, he says, but not now.

DUKES: There's nothing to really celebrate about, as far as I'm concerned. With so many people that's having a hard time right now, some people don't even have a house to go to because the house is totally destroyed.

LOTHIAN: Katrina may have hit six months ago, but for some, it feels like yesterday.

(on camera): Many neighborhoods still look like this. And residents are struggling to figure out when or if they'll ever be able to rebuild.

RICK BLOUNT, OWNER, ANTOINE'S: This is what we would consider our main dining room.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): The owner of Antoine's, a landmark French Quarter restaurant, knows the meaning of the word lost.

BLOUNT: All this was gone. All this wall fell.

LOTHIAN: Rick Blount's business was damaged by wind and water. Revenue dried up when the city shut down and the homes of several close relatives were destroyed. But he sees Mardi Gras, not as a slap in the face, but as a lifeline.

BLOUNT: If the rest of the country does not do business with New Orleans now, there will not be a New Orleans to do business with.

LOTHIAN: The show must go on, he says, despite the pain.

BLOUNT: If this was Christmas, would you not have Christmas because you lost your home? I don't think so. For New Orleans, Mardi Gras is what's normal. Mardi Gras is what we should do.

LOTHIAN: It's always been that way. In 1966, about six months after Hurricane Betsy flooded New Orleans, the carnival celebration continued. In fact, natural disasters have never shut it down.

While some argue money for Mardi Gras could be better spent, McHenry Littleton, whose home was heavily damaged by Katrina, says rebuilding and celebrating should not be mutually exclusive.

MCHENRY LITTLETON, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: Our money should be spent to help rebuild New Orleans. That is one factor. But Mardi Gras is a part of our culture.

LOTHIAN: But back on Karlin Dukes' front steps, there is no celebration. He and his wife are focusing on rebuilding their lives...

DUKES: It's too old, anyway, too try and go somewhere else, you know.

LOTHIAN: ... in the city they've always called home.

Dan Lothian, CNN, New Orleans.


M. O'BRIEN: Well it really is a tale of two cities. Stephen Perry of the New Orleans Metropolitan and Visitors Bureau is with us now from our New Orleans bureau.

Mr. Perry, good to have you with us. Psychologically it's important to have this party, isn't it?

STEPHEN PERRY, N.O. MET. & VISITORS BUREAU: It's not only psychologically important, it's economically important. You heard Bryan Currant (ph) earlier on this program talk about the billion- dollar economics of Mardi Gras. And the reality is this is when we tell the world that the private sector, and Mardi Gras remember is paid for by private citizens, private organizations and social clubs across every neighborhood and every economic and social group in the city, to celebrate our culture. It's not just a party to us; it's a celebration and a reaffirmation of what we are.

But the most important point, Miles, is that it is an announcement and a putting a flag in the ground to the world that we're rebuilding ourselves. Because when you invest money in Mardi Gras, the return is 20-30 (ph) fold in jobs, in wages, in being able to provide monies to bring those citizens in other cities back.

M. O'BRIEN: Are you concerned, though, and that is important, everybody understands that. Are you concerned, though, that somehow folks outside are going to get the wrong impression and in some way shirk their overall responsibility to help you get back on your feet there?

PERRY: You know I think it's going to have the opposite effect. Because in the convention, in the meetings, in special events business, we have major convention planners from all over the country that are in here to watch how we operate in special events.

The very fact that you guys are coming, and you and Soledad have put the attention of New Orleans and properly put it on the two tales of New Orleans, the tale of the city that's recovering and the tale of the city that was severely damaged and, frankly, is struggling to come back. This is the message that has got to get out to the world. It's a message that we're self-sufficient in some ways but we need dramatic assistance in others. And Mardi Gras illustrates that story, both sides of the coin.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's talk brass tacks for just a minute, though. I know you know the hotel room availability is very minimal. You've got emergency workers still there, you've got the media still there. Where are people going to stay?

PERRY: Right.

M. O'BRIEN: How is it all going to play out?

PERRY: Well it's actually worked out well. We're sold out over the next several days. We have scattered rooms here and there. We've got 25,000 of our 28,000 hotel rooms in the central part of town open. Of those, about 8,000 to 8,500 are occupied by FEMA, construction companies, insurance companies, media outlets, government entities. All the remainder went to tourists and in fact have been sold.

One of the interesting things that we found out anecdotally that's wonderful, so many of the people that are here working on the recovery from businesses around the country, instead of leaving during Mardi Gras, they've invited their friends and family to come stay with them. So they're actually going to enjoy it. And it's going to be like a full tourist celebration.

We'll actually, Miles, this year probably have the equivalent of a Super Bowl in terms of economic impact. Probably close to $300 million overall. And the fact is, if the city hadn't had Mardi Gras, if we had just rolled over and not reannounced to the world that we're opening and recovering, it would have cost the city tens of millions of dollars.

M. O'BRIEN: Let me ask you this, if we had had this discussion just a few days after Katrina, when the full weight of that storm became evident, the levees were breached, would you have ever predicted that there be a Mardi Gras this year?

PERRY: Miles, I have to tell you honestly, no. I think in those days after the storm, those of us down here had tremendous worries about the future of our city and whether it would take years to recover. The tourism industry and the fact that the entire historic core of New Orleans, Forward Mariney (ph) and the French Quarter and warehouse and arts district and uptown in the garden district (ph), the fact that the original core of New Orleans was preserved made it possible to rebound quickly.

So what we've got to do is portray that really the tale of two cities, and your lead-in was absolutely perfect, you guys are continuing to hammer the story that though New Orleans is open and the tourism experience is incredible still here, there is devastation that's incomprehensible. And we can't let the country take its eye off the ball and especially our government.

M. O'BRIEN: Stephen Perry, thanks for your time. We'll see you in a couple days. Stephen Perry is with New Orleans.

PERRY: See you down here.

M. O'BRIEN: Looking forward to it.

He's with the New Orleans Metropolitan and Visitors Bureau. Appreciate his time.

And next week, of course, we will be there in New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast as well, for the first Mardi Gras since Katrina, six months since the storm. We'll tackle some of those problems as we've talked about. We'll tell you about the parties. We'll also tell you about the heartbreak that still continues all this time after Katrina. That begins on Monday. We hope you'll be with us -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Hard to believe it's been six months...

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, it really is.

S. O'BRIEN: ... in many ways, isn't it?

M. O'BRIEN: It really is.

S. O'BRIEN: Andy's got business news coming up. What you got for us?


A billionaire donates $165 million to his alma mater, then puts it back into his hedge fund. Plus, how to lose weight and get in shape at your desktop. No joke, no gimmicks. Coming up next on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Here's a story for you, billionaire makes a wonderful, charitable contribution. Oops.


S. O'BRIEN: Kind of takes it back, kind of, sort of.

SERWER: Yes, it's -- this is one that's getting some interesting play here, Soledad. We're talking about oilman T. Boone Pickens. He gave $165 million to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, the Cowboys there, OSU. Gave it to a small charity called OSU Cowboy Golf, a golf charity. The money stayed at OSU for exactly an hour. This, according to a story in "The New York Times," and then went back into a hedge fund controlled by Boone.

Now Boone's people say well he's waiving all the fees and they're not making any money off of this. Other critics say well, yes, but he's using that money to make investments that he couldn't otherwise do. And on and on they go.

Interestingly, also he took advantage of a special provision in the tax code in Hurricane Katrina relief that allows wealthy people to make 100 percent deduction of their AGI, their adjusted gross income. So Boone kind of taking advantage of the hurricane relief tax code provisions to do this. And again, he's not benefiting directly, but you know it does raise some questions, I think.

S. O'BRIEN: So he's still -- I mean that charitable contribution still goes to the golf group?

SERWER: The golf team. Yes, the golf.

M. O'BRIEN: The golf team still gets the dough.


M. O'BRIEN: It passes through.

SERWER: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: It's not illegal.

M. O'BRIEN: It becomes a non-profit deal.

SERWER: It's not illegal at all. It's just it raises questions.

M. O'BRIEN: It's cute, perhaps.

SERWER: Yes, I would say it's a little cute. It may actually even go to the overall athletic department, in fact, they're saying now.

Want to get to this story about losing weight and getting in shape at your desk. I mean this is the fountain of youth or the Holy Grail here we've been searching for in America and it's here. At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. James Levine got tired of seeing people being overweight and not working out, so he invented a desktop computer rigged to a treadmill. OK, so now he can answer e-mail, do calls and work on his PC while working out.


M. O'BRIEN: And the power that he creates generates...

S. O'BRIEN: He powers it.

SERWER: No, I don't know about that.


M. O'BRIEN: Because you know they have that for kids.

SERWER: Yes, well they have those things. Now there's another thing also, this is at the Mayo Clinic, makes sense, there's another thing they have there which is a track, a so-called meeting track. So when they're having meetings with people, you walk and talk.

M. O'BRIEN: I like that idea. S. O'BRIEN: That's a good idea.

SERWER: Right.

M. O'BRIEN: That is a great idea.

SERWER: Isn't that cool? I really like it.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

SERWER: Instead of sitting down, can you have another soda while we talk, and you actually just walk.

M. O'BRIEN: We could do the entire program -- you know we've got four hours.

S. O'BRIEN: I had a treadmill in my office once.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.


S. O'BRIEN: Thing was never used, not even once.

SERWER: It took up space. I saw it. You used to hang clothes on it, didn't it?

S. O'BRIEN: I did, I leave my clothes all over it.

SERWER: I remember that.

S. O'BRIEN: So you know what, the bottom line is it could be there and you still won't use it.

SERWER: That's true.


SERWER: But if you actually have to get on it, maybe you can, or use your PC unless you're on it, maybe that would work.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: Why don't we do the whole show moving. What do you think four hours?

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, kill that idea.

SERWER: Don't tell the crew.


You know what we have coming up this morning?


S. O'BRIEN: That kid. From the high school kid who...

M. O'BRIEN: J-Mac.

SERWER: All right (ph).

S. O'BRIEN: He proved himself on the basketball court.


S. O'BRIEN: Years on the bench. Played just for four minutes and brought the house -- so there he is, along with his coach. We're going to chat with that -- and that is the ball, the winning ball.

SERWER: Yes. All right. Game ball.

M. O'BRIEN: Keep that one. He better keep that game ball, yes.


S. O'BRIEN: J-Mac, we love you, man. We're going to talk to him in just a moment.

Also ahead, we've got an hour devoted to our health series for people who are in their 30s and their 40s and their 50s. Kind of covers a lot of us here.


S. O'BRIEN: We're going to answer your questions, so feel free to e-mail us with your questions live straight ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. There is the e-mail address right there.


S. O'BRIEN: We had such a great time watching this videotape on Thursday. Much more than just a high school basketball game. Jason McElwain hit six three-point shots in his first-ever game for Greece Athena High. J-Mac, as he's known, normally the team manager, not the shooting guard, although it looks like you know maybe he should be. J-Mac also has autism.

Jason McElwain and his coach, Jim Johnson, join us from Rochester, New York.

Nice to see you guys. Thanks for talking with us.

J-Mac, am I allowed to call you J-Mac?


S. O'BRIEN: Fantastic. Then let's start with that. Listen, you're the team manager, which means generally you don't spend a lot of time or any time on the court. The last couple of minutes, the coach taps you, says put on a uniform, you're going in. What did it feel like to suddenly be heading into the game?

MCELWAIN: Well, it felt like it was like a dream come true. And it was my last home game of my high school basketball career, so.

S. O'BRIEN: Because you're 17 years old. You're about to head off to college?


S. O'BRIEN: You said afterwards let me play a little clip of you right after the game.

MCELWAIN: The team was excited. Everybody else is excited. I was on fire. I was hotter than a pistol.

S. O'BRIEN: I was on fire. I was hotter than a pistol. What was it like when you started hitting three-point shot after three- point shot after three-point shot after three-point shot, a couple more after? Twenty points overall. I mean what did it feel like?

MCELWAIN: Well, I was just hot as a pistol. The bucket was just bigger than anything. It was like free throws. I was shooting three- pointers like it was free throws!

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, you were.

MCELWAIN: It was like a big old used bucket.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, you absolutely. Well you're not kidding, you definitely were.

Hey, Jim, let me ask you a question, why is J-Mac not starting for your team?


S. O'BRIEN: Why he is the manager? Why is he not in your starting lineup?

JOHNSON: That's our secret weapon! Surely a great inspirational story for us. He's been great for our program and we're just so happy that this worked out for him.

S. O'BRIEN: Why did you decide to put him in in the last couple of minutes?

JOHNSON: Well, it was his senior gift. We had talked about before his senior year that we would like to suit him up for his last senior home game and, hopefully, get him in the game. And we were fortunate enough to get him in the last four minutes. And he missed his first shot, so I was worried he wouldn't score at all. And then all of a sudden, the fireworks started. And after that, it was just truly amazing what happened.

S. O'BRIEN: You know sometimes sportscasters say the crowd went crazy! But we see pictures the crowd is going crazy. Everybody has their little J-Mac faces on little sticks. You know you could see it right there. They come running out.


S. O'BRIEN: J-Mac, what it's like when your teammates come and then pick you up and put you on their shoulders, carry you off?

MCELWAIN: It was like we won a national championship in college basketball.

S. O'BRIEN: That must be awesome. I know you're heading off to college in the fall, right?


S. O'BRIEN: You know I've got to ask you a question.


S. O'BRIEN: OK, yes, go ahead.

MCELWAIN: And I'm going to be working at a job, too.

S. O'BRIEN: Are you really? Good for you. That's going to be a ton.


S. O'BRIEN: You know my...

MCELWAIN: Most likely at Wegmans.

S. O'BRIEN: Really? Good. Well I hope you can juggle both.


S. O'BRIEN: That's hard to do, school and work, too. You know my nephew has autism as well. And I'm curious to know, and a lot of the times we heard this story over you know the last couple of days, people would always say J-Mac who has autism. Is it something that bothers you when you feel that people describe you that way or do you think this is part of who I am and you're fine with it?

MCELWAIN: It's just part of who I am. And I don't really care about anything else, so.

S. O'BRIEN: And I bet it's that kind of spirit that led to those 20 points, huh, coach?

JOHNSON: It sure did.

S. O'BRIEN: Well it...

JOHNSON: Really -- it makes dreams do come true.

S. O'BRIEN: Man, they sure do.

J-Mac, we have run that tape, I think just on AMERICAN MORNING like 500 times. We have enjoyed it so much. Thanks for talking with us.

MCELWAIN: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Jason McElwain and his high school coach Jim Johnson joining us.

JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

S. O'BRIEN: Thanks for the great story.

MCELWAIN: Thank you. Thanks very much.

S. O'BRIEN: We have loved it, Miles.

MCELWAIN: Hang 10 (ph).

M. O'BRIEN: They did win the game, though, right? We never did the final score.

S. O'BRIEN: Who cares, but I think they did.

M. O'BRIEN: Of course, they won. Yes, I guess.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Fantastic. What a great young man.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, isn't he great?

M. O'BRIEN: What a great young man.

Today's top stories are next. The deal to hand over U.S. ports to a state-owned Arab company delayed. Iraq establishes a daytime curfew to control violence. The Philippines declares a state of emergency amid massive protests. A big court hearing could impact millions of BlackBerry users today. And our health series, "30 40 50," we will answer some of your e-mail and aim questions live. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: When it comes to snowboarding, the U.S. rules the slopes and the halfpipe. And one New Jersey grandmother wants to keep it just that way. She gave up her career to pursue a faster and more rewarding path.

Jennifer Westhoven with the story.


JENNIFER WESTHOVEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the early '90s, teenage snowboarders started shredding the slopes at Killington Resort in Vermont, and Chickie Rosenberg decided it was time to try it out.

CHICKIE ROSENBERG, SNOWBOARD INSTRUCTOR: I switched because I felt it was safer for me in terms of injury. And once I got on the snowboard, it was just much more fun!

WESTHOVEN: Chickie left her job as an English teacher when her daughter was born and bought her first snowboard for her 50th birthday. She started training, and 16 years later is one of Killington's top instructors.

ROSENBERG: Stay on your toes and pick up a little speed.

Once I got involved, snowboarding, that's all I really wanted to do, so I stopped doing everything and just taught snowboarding.

WESTHOVEN: Now 65, Chickie says the age difference doesn't matter in the teen snowboarding culture.

ROSENBERG: I was always a counter-culture person myself, and I've always related well to teenage kids. The snowboard instructors, they're all the kids and they're all my buddies!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What a sweetheart.

WESTHOVEN: You might not expect a grandmother of two out on the slopes teaching fearlessness and the thrills of snowboarding.

ROSENBERG: Come across the hill.

And I had these two girls and they had a bad morning and they were terrified. And they had the best afternoon. And that's a wonderful thing and that's a gift. It's a wonderful thing to be able to teach and to be able to make a happy day for somebody.


ROSENBERG: The most important thing I teach people is to have confidence in themselves. That's really what I give them.

WESTHOVEN: Jennifer Westhoven, CNN.