Update From New Orleans
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JIM LEHRER: Now Jeffrey Brown gets the latest on New Orleans’ struggles. He spoke a short time ago with Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, who’s been traveling throughout the city.
JEFFREY BROWN: Peter, yesterday you told us there was no evident organization and no one particularly in charge. How does it feel today?
PETER SLEVIN: Today there’s still very little evidence that there is a coordinated effort. It’s hard to find anyone running the show. Relief is coming in a trickle and not in a flood, but that said, there has definitely been progress made in getting people out of the city. There are fewer people stranded on the interstate– although there are still plenty– and they’ve made some progress over at the convention center, which was the scene of some pretty terrible conditions as recently as this morning.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was going on there at the convention center today?
PETER SLEVIN: Today the National Guard has moved in and provided significant security over there so that it feels like a safer place, but there are still thousands of people camped out all around the convention center. No buses have come for them yet. Apparently not enough buses can be provided.
And so what the Guardsmen are now doing is trying to set up water and food stations so that people can be at least somewhat more comfortable five days into this calamity.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is this increased presence of the National Guard visible as you drive around the city generally?
PETER SLEVIN: It is — I tell you, it’s modestly visible. It doesn’t feel as though there are Guardsmen on every corner. In fact, the police presence in some ways, I think, has diminished, maybe because parts of the city are actually quite a bit safer than they were when the looting and the mayhem was worse, which was a couple of days ago.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about the convoys bringing in supplies, have you been able to see whether they’re reaching the people most in need?
PETER SLEVIN: The convoys are getting to people who need help. There does seem to be quite a lot of water being distributed on the interstate, under the interstate where there are still significant numbers of people gathered. They have been delivering MRE’s — meals ready to eat — the military meals to people, because they’re aware, the authorities continue to be aware that they can’t get people out as fast as they want.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I understand you were at the airport this morning and I gather that has been turned into something of a field hospital and evacuation center. Tell us about that.
PETER SLEVIN: Yes, the transformation of the airport in the last 48 hours has been nothing short of stunning. Yesterday morning, it was still a fairly sleepy, out of the way location that was still operating on emergency power, but they got the power back and someone somewhere realized that helicopters were going to be a very efficient way of getting people out of the city and then to a place where they could be sent out.
But to walk through there last night and this morning was to walk through a combination hospital and rescue ward and nursery. You had volunteer nurses and doctors from FEMA who were treating people who had been rescued from hospitals and nursing homes, assisted living facilities.
People were coming in having been rescued from rooftops by the Coast Guard and needed a lot of help. They had — they set up mash tents, just like the ones on the TV show, in Terminal D and were running critical care units and hurrying to get people out of the city as fast as they could.
JEFFREY BROWN: You also met today with some members of the Baton Rouge Fire Department working in New Orleans who were making rescues by boats. Tell us about that.
PETER SLEVIN: You know, I did do that; I was curious to get farther away from downtown, where so much of the action has been lately, just to see what’s going on in the rest of the city. I drove through the garden district and the rather upper-crust uptown area of New Orleans and things were actually relatively normal there.
I drove the other direction on I-10 and I came to a group of 21 crews connected with the Baton Rouge Fire Department who were running rescue operations by boat in the Ninth Ward, which is the part of the city that is in the deepest water. They had just set up their randomly– it looked like a good place to start working– three days ago, and since then have pulled more than 900 people out of their houses.
JEFFREY BROWN: Peter, finally, you know the president is visiting the area today. Have you been able to assess the attitudes of people on the ground there towards him and federal and state officials at this point?
PETER SLEVIN: In a word, people who are still in New Orleans, people who are stranded here, are furious. They simply do not understand how it is that a city that was known to be below sea level, that was known to be at a risk for a hurricane, ended up in such dire straits.
They talk about the mayor and they point out that, in fact, he’s not even here; he’s off in Baton Rouge, albeit doing what he can, and they wonder where on earth is the federal government, because everyone here is convinced that it is only the federal government, it is only the Army, that can come in here and start fixing the place up.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, thanks again.
PETER SLEVIN: You’re very welcome.