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Katrina Fallout: Louisiana

August 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Hurricane Katrina. We begin with the eyewitness accounts of Louisiana’s governor and senators. They, along with federal and local relief officials, flew over New Orleans today and later spoke with reporters.

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: The devastation that we witnessed is very hard to describe. The city of New Orleans, the region, St. Bernard, Blackman, areas of St. Taminy have more water than most of us have ever seen. The search and rescue mission is still under way. I can’t stress that enough. We passed over houses in New Orleans east neighborhoods that have very high water that people are still on the roofs.

So, as the governor asks, for those that evacuated, please understand that today at this moment people’s lives are still at risk. The search and rescue must continue. I know everybody wants to know about their neighborhoods, we try to point out as best we could and we’ll be giving information about those neighborhoods and areas. But I know and the governor knows and the Sen. Vitter knows, we have every boat that we have able trying to save people right now.

So if you have evacuated and you did evacuate, please get on your knees and thank God and count your blessings. Please be patient and let us try to figure out what to do with the people that are still there. It’s a very tough, tough situation. Plans will unravel, FEMA is here, the federal government I’m sure will spare no expense.

The final thing I want to say, as you all may remember, I did get to travel over the tsunami area. What I saw today is equivalent to what I saw flying over the tsunami in Indonesia. There are places that are no longer there. Please be patient with the local officials who are still rescuing people. And we will try to get information when people can get back. But as the governor said, there are no highways in many places to get back. So if you’re safe, if you have food, if you have water, count your blessings because there are thousands, potentially thousands, of people who do not have food, water or shelter.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO: I just need to remind people, there’s no electricity and won’t be any for quite a while. It’s impossible to even begin to estimate. There’s no water. There was a 50-inch main that severed in the city. In many, many neighborhoods there are no passable streets. You cannot drive on the streets there’s so much water on them. And there’s no food to be had. We are having to bring shipments of food in to the emergency personnel and to those people who are in shelters.

We’re going to try to get to people in shelters, because they’re isolated by water in most cases. But we’re going to try to get those people relocated as soon as we possibly can get a plan together. And a lot of people lost their lives and we still don’t have any idea, because the focus continues to be on rescuing those who have survived. We don’t want to lose any more people than we absolutely have to.

The rescue efforts are being manned by very courageous, hard working people. I’ve been hearing stories – at midnight last night a lot of the boat operators were told they needed to take a break — they needed to go get some sleep. They refused to do it. They couldn’t do it. They knew of some locations where a large number of people were in a tall building. They were high and dry and safe, although fearful, and didn’t know what was going on.

They couldn’t get to that building for the large numbers of people who called out to them and jumped off of their roofs. So they started taking people who had a higher level of risk in first. And we’ve evacuated hundreds — or we’ve saved hundreds of people from their rooftops, from the waters. And I know, I’m sure it’s in the thousands now. And there are many more that have to be saved.

COL. SMITH, U.S. Army: I know there’s been a lot of concern about the levee breaches. We had a conference call just about an hour ago with Col. Wagner, with the Corps of Engineers. He has been up in a helicopter surveying the entire situation, and they are diligently working on a plan that is going to close these breaches.

But one of the things that they want to make sure that they do is that the plan they come up with is one that will hold because certainly it would set the efforts back considerably if we do something that is not going to hold. They feel like the efforts will probably start by late this afternoon, and for sure tomorrow.

And they feel like that they can get this accomplished in reasonably short order, but you can imagine they’re not willing to commit exactly at this time how long it will take. But we know that they are diligently working on it. They realize the gravity of the situation; they’re not sparing any resources on getting this fixed. And we’re confident the Corps will come up with a solution to this problem quickly.

REPORTER: What about evacuating the Superdome, is that something that’s being discussed –

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO: Well, they’re putting more and more survivors into the Superdome, and it’s very, the conditions there are very difficult. But we’re worrying first about the medically needy. So we have to set up shelters and make sure that their medical needs can be taken care of. Then in the next phase, we’ll be looking for places to evacuate the rest of the folks who found themselves at the Superdome. It’s not a very comfortable situation right now.

You can imagine — there’s no power. It’s hot. You know, difficult to get food to them. Now that the water is — there’s water lapping at the foot of the Superdome now. I would guess, I think I saw people walking in it about knee deep, as they were trying to get into the Superdome from the ground floor.

BILL LOKEY, Coordinating Officer, FEMA: Our basic plans right now are focusing on rescue of the people at risk. We acknowledge there are people that are uncomfortable and stranded, but if they are dry and safe they need to hang on until we can get to people that truly have a life safety issue. But we are looking at plans to get those people evacuated and get them, you know, to the airports and working on scheduling flights out and things like that. But right now our total focus is on life saving efforts.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill gets two reports now from other people on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the situation in Louisiana, we’re joined by Jim Ballow, deputy director of operations for Louisiana’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Jim, welcome.

JIM BALLOW: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Could you give us some sort of sense, we her from the mayor earlier today that 80 percent of the city is under water. Give us a sense of that.

JIM BALLOW: Well, various parts of New Orleans and surrounding areas, and for those that are not familiar, they have levy systems and some parts are more susceptible than others. There are parts that are under water, either from the initial storm or from a breach of some of the levy systems, which are allowing some of the water bodies to creep back in at a slower rate.

Now, the Corps of Engineers is addressing that situation as we speak. But, meanwhile we have to do is deal with the here and now and that’s trying to rescue people who are cut off or trapped and not necessarily under water, but cannot breach the water to get to higher ground.

GWEN IFILL: As we spoke about this last night, the water seemed to have receded in New Orleans. Today it’s continuing to rise, apparently even as we speak until those levees are repaired. What kind of search and rescue is under way?

JIM BALLOW: The search and rescue is from the inside out of course. We have a search and rescue task force, which consists of agencies that have that emergency support function in the emergency operations plan. They rescue people, move them to high ground. They are then moved to a further out station, which is a medical and redistribution point for further care. And then they are moved back out to either hospitals or general population shelters until they can be processed.

GWEN IFILL: All the state’s leading officials said today, after taking their helicopter tour, that they thought that it looked akin to tsunami damage with broken highways and flooded streets and people who are unable to get access anywhere. Is that your sense of having looked at it, having been on the ground there as well?

JIM BALLOW: Well, actually, I’ve been here in the operations center, I’ve seen some of the films and we have some fly-over photos dated back to us here for us to see that, and it is true. Some of the roads, as you may have seen in Florida, some of the highway sections pop out when they’re pressured, which is what they’re designed to do actually, they are impassable though at this point, some of them. And, yes, it is much like the tsunami. You see so many areas inundated that normally have not been, so forth. So while not as thorough as the tsunami was, I suppose it is reminiscent of that when you look at it.

GWEN IFILL: What do you do about the thousands of people who are stranded now at the Louisiana Superdome, but also people throughout the city who no longer have houses to get to or that they can get to? What are you telling them?

JIM BALLOW: Well, right now we’re trying to deal with immediate need. We have the National Guard and other task forces assembled in that area providing security and comfort in the way of food and water and any medical needs — evacuating those who triaged as needing help to medical facilities and so forth as that, to stabilize the situation.

Recovery efforts are a determination of who can go back home and is there a home or not and so forth will have to be the next step.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the food, the water, the communications, and electricity. Has there been any progress made in restoring any of that, or will that have to wait until another day?

JIM BALLOW: Electricity — remember there’s a lot of places outside New Orleans that were affected, here in Baton Rouge, the capital city, we have hundreds of thousands of people without power as we speak because it was in the tropical storm surge of wind. So that’s being repaired and it’s working its way in. Crews are, of course, getting close as they can to begin staging for power restoration in the impacted area, New Orleans and surrounding areas, but that hasn’t begun yet.

Communications is, as you may imagine, a problem because the phone system is overwhelmed. But we have commercial phone system companies now working with us to strategize, to restore some of these systems as we speak.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ballow, thank you very much for joining us.

JIM BALLOW: Thank you.