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New Orleans Still Suffering

September 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We begin our hurricane coverage with an update from the devastated city of New Orleans. Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Slevin of the Washington Post has spent the last two days in New Orleans. Today he’s been downtown and near the Superdome, and he joins me by phone.

Peter, let’s begin with where you went today and what you saw on the streets of New Orleans.

PETER SLEVIN: Ray, I’ve been driving around much of the downtown, or at least the parts of downtown that you can get to without a boat. A lot of attention has been focused on the Superdome where the authorities are bringing in helicopters to take away the most sick and the weakest, most vulnerable people, and there have been buses lining up to take people to Houston.

But all across the city, on the elevated highways, on street corners, everywhere you on street corners, at the convention center, there are thousands of people who remain stranded.

RAY SUAREZ: Now the reports that have been coming out of the city all day keep quoting people asking for food and water. Is there, in fact, any regular, reliable place to go for either food or water?

PETER SLEVIN: There is no evident organization here. The authorities are completely over-matched. There doesn’t seem to be anybody particularly in charge. It is ad hoc. Now, the rescue workers are doing the best they can, the ones who are here are working doggedly to get food and water out, to keep rescuing people, to find ways for them to get out of the city, but they are overwhelmed by the challenges.

RAY SUAREZ: Why have the… such supplies as have been able to make it into the city been so meager and so disorganized, now that we’re several days into this?

PETER SLEVIN: New Orleans itself has very few reserves. What reserves and supplies it has are often inaccessible because of the flooding. It is very hard to see exactly who is coordinating what down here.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who are waiting for rides, who are looking for ways out, who are looking for help. One of their biggest frustrations is with the lack of information. No one is telling them where to go or what to do or they will find one police officer or a National Guardsman who will say, “Well, you ought to go over here and there you can get a ride.” And they go to that place and they’re told, “No, there are no rides here, I don’t know who would have told you that sort of thing.”

As the helicopters buzz the sky, and there are certainly flocks of them today, ferrying the weak out to the airport, some people have said, well, why can’t they rig up loudspeakers and just tell people where to go and what to do?

Several people I talked to today who are from New Orleans are mystified by this; they’re angered by this, and they wonder where the leadership is.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the people who are trying to get out of town just taking the position that anyplace is better than here, or do they leave with the belief that there is somebody on the other end, a place to stay and regular supplies?

PETER SLEVIN: At this point, there’s so little information that most people have no idea where they’re going. They’re just desperate to get out. There’s nothing for them here.

RAY SUAREZ: Have you seen the National Guard or the state police?

PETER SLEVIN: There are National Guard units working in downtown New Orleans. They’re directing traffic. They’re trying to keep the peace. That has seemed to improve in the last 24 hours, but they’re very few in number.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about regular New Orleans police?

PETER SLEVIN: Yes, they’re certainly out in force. The problem is that the challenges that they face, both in rescuing people and in trying to get people out of the city, as well as keeping order, has just… has simply overwhelmed them.

RAY SUAREZ: Two of the most prevalent images from the past couple of days have been people walking out of stores, their arms filled with stuff that they’ve just taken from the stores, and houses that are still up to their roof tops, up to their attics in water, and it’s hard to get a feel for what New Orleans is like in a way that meshes those two images. As you’ve been moving around, are the streets that aren’t underwater that chaotic?

PETER SLEVIN: Well, I’ll give you one example. I spent an hour today walking in the French Quarter, the historic part of the New Orleans that’s home to great nightclubs and bars and restaurants and very nice shops. And the French Quarter is actually very quiet. It is now being patrolled by police. There are New Orleans police with shotguns on a lot of the corners, a lot of the street corners. There are very few people who are left there, and the French Quarter itself is not underwater, at least there is some water, but it’s minimal.

There are certainly some parts of the city, although not very many, that are not underwater. They are mostly empty now. It’s looking more and more like a ghost town every day. But the vast majority of the city really is a wreck.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, thanks for being with us.

PETER SLEVIN: My pleasure.