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Evacuating a Fetid New Orleans

September 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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AGENT: We may not be back in this area, and they’re talking 60 to 80 days before the water goes down.

RESIDENT: I understand.

RESIDENT: I understand that.

AGENT: So, I strongly urge you to get out now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Coaxing residents to abandon their homes is not in the job description of Louisiana State Wildlife and Fisheries agents.

AGENT: I understand you are loyal to your animals, but you’re going to run out of food and water, and you need to take care of yourself right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Normally, this time of the year, game wardens would be out in the countryside for the opening of the dove hunting season. But with some 60 percent of the city of New Orleans waterlogged, their department has dispersed a flotilla of flat-bottom boats for search and rescue missions.

SGT. RACHEL ZECHENELL: A lot of locals are used to flooding, and they still think this thing’s going to go down in a couple days. So, we’re having a hard time getting into their heads it could still be a few weeks before we get — even with them pumping out right now, getting all the water out.

RANDY TREADAWAY: Even if it’s a real, serious medical issue, then we may force them to leave.

SGT. RACHEL ZECHENELL: Yes.

RANDY TREADAWAY: So, if you could tell our airboat operator he’s number one, you’re number two, and when we get to 27, we’re going to start sending them out to the east.

JEFFREY KAYE: Teams from Louisiana and around the South have used hundred of boats. Armed personnel, including sheriff’s deputies from as far away as Albuquerque, provided escorts. Officials say the heavy weaponry and bulletproof vests were necessary protection. They worried about a repeat of earlier incidents in which snipers had fired at police and aid workers.

SGT. RACHEL ZECHENELL: In law enforcement, I never would have dreamed I’d have to wear body armor to come rescue people, unfortunately. But, you know, I think the last few days, they’ve gotten it under control. We really haven’t had any incidents and –

JEFFREY KAYE: But you’re wearing it?

SGT. RACHEL ZECHENELL: I am wearing it because you don’t know. I mean, there’s a lot of people that’s been in here for a week, and I’m sure there might be a sense of cabin fever, and they don’t know who to trust maybe at this point.

JEFFREY KAYE: This operation yesterday was in southwest New Orleans, close to the Garden District. Throughout the city, the waters are gradually receding, but they’re contaminated by toxics and waste, and the flooded neighborhoods lack basic services, including communication. Many stranded residents haven’t heard about the extent of the damage and thousands have insisted on staying put.

KORACE HOFFMAN: Yeah, I saw the water. Well, you know it’s going to rise up a little bit, but I didn’t expect it to go this bad. So, by the time it got to this point, I was like, “well, I might as well just stay.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Why?

KORACE HOFFMAN: It really ain’t no bother to me.

JEFFREY KAYE: Do you have any power?

KORACE HOFFMAN: No, sir.

JEFFREY KAYE: Running water?

KORACE HOFFMAN: No, sir.

JEFFREY KAYE: Sewage?

KORACE HOFFMAN: No, sir. I’ll make do somehow, some way.

JEFFREY KAYE: Independent of state agents, National Guards troops conducted their own search and rescue operations in heavy trucks, the U.S. Coast Guard patrolled from the air, and private boat owners came to offer aid. Shannon Gamewell brought his boat to New Orleans from Arkansas to be a nautical good Samaritan.

SHANNON GAMEWELL: I just talked to my wife, and I said, “Look, if you were here and Haley was here, I would want someone like me coming to get you,” you know? And that’s not — I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m just a redneck with a mud buddy, you know, but in this type of situation, that helps.

RESIDENT: We got transportation ’till we leave, we just here ’till the water go down, then we gonna go on out.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gamewell came across Shirley Johnson and her family and loaned her his cell phone so she could call the daughter in Atlanta.

SHANNON GAMEWELL: Do you have a phone number.

SHIRLEY JOHNSON: Tiffany? This is Sherrie. Yes! We stayed home. We waiting for the water to go down. I’m so glad to hear from you all because we have been sick and worried. Yeah, I know. (crying)

SPOKESMAN: It’s okay, Shirley, it’s all right. It’s okay.

JEFFREY KAYE: Later, as seen in video shot by a NewsHour producer, Gamewell encountered Warren Mahoney, a stroke patient.

WARREN MAHONEY: Since I had the stroke, you know, I need my medication. I got nothing to last but a couple days, I need that blood pressure medicine.

SHANNON GAMEWELL: Now you stay right there, put your cane down. And — I mean use your cane, lean on your cane because I’m coming, I’ve got to come up, okay.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gamewell helped Mahoney to his boat, flagged down a passing Air Force helicopter and helped carry the disabled man to the chopper so he could be evacuated.

SPOKESMAN: Anybody home?

JEFFREY KAYE: Game wardens hoping to find more residents like Mahoney yelled through open doors and windows. (Dog barking) The welfare of pets was a main reason many people chose not to evacuate. Carolyn Mitchell was worried about the fate of the animals in the house she shared with three other people.

JEFFREY KAYE: How long you figure you can stay here?

CAROLYN MITCHELL: Another couple of days. I mean we’ve been trying to get out and make plans. We just really want to make sure that our animals will be taken care of before we go.

MAN: Thank you, I appreciate it,

RESCUE OFFICER: No problem.

JEFFREY KAYE: Eventually, the game wardens persuaded the residents to put their own safety before that of their animals. They quickly packed their belongings and were evacuated. In the next few days, officials may use more than persuasion. The New Orleans mayor has ordered all residents to leave the city.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more on this story. She spoke with New Orleans Police Captain Marlon DeFillo a short time ago. He’s the commander of the Public Affairs Department.

MARGARET WARNER: Captain DeFillo, welcome, thanks for joining us. Give us the latest on the evacuations. How many people were you able to evacuate today?

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: A couple of hundred, nearly one thousand individuals we evacuated today. We still have a lot more people who are willing to be evacuated. And that’s where we stand right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Do have a good sense of how many people there are and, say, where they are so if you want to go in and get them, you can?

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: Many of the areas that we are focus on now are public housing developments where we have a number of people who remain in their homes on the second and third floors. Their first floor is underwater. But we are working to, mainly at this point, to relieve the city of those folks who are willing to leave the city who have been stranded for the last eight or nine days without food and water. Those are the people that we are concentrating on now.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you still — are you all delivering food and water to anyone who is stranded whether voluntarily or whether they are refusing to leave?

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: Yes, we are. But that can only go for so long. We don’t know if this is going to last a week, two weeks, a month, six months. So there is a mandatory evacuation because it is unsafe. It is unhealthy to be in the city at this time. We have not completed the recovery process. We are still recovering — rescuing people. There is no running water. There is no electricity. So it is a hazardous situation at this time.

MARGARET WARNER: So when do you think you may have to resort to forceful measures?

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: Let me just say that New Orleanians are smart. And once we begin to tell them that there are no other options, that it is apparent that you have to leave your home — and many folks will heed to that warning. Many folks, once you take those options away, they will comply and leave.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, you’re saying that the mayor’s new order last night, when you’re able to tell folks that, that is having an effect, that some people who had refused to leave now are ready to?

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: There are some people who once they learned what the new message was, are leaving. Now there are some people who want to stay to protect their property, to protect their animals. We understand that. And they’re good people. These are good, law-abiding citizens. What we have to do as a law enforcement entity is to convey to them the importance of leaving, the importance of their personal safety and to let them know that there are no other options. And we believe that once we go back into those communities and express those concerns, then they will do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the chief of the Pentagon’s joint task force, General Honore, has said that the U.S. active military won’t participate in any forced evacuations. And I gather that the question about the National Guard is up in the air. They said they haven’t been asked. What is your understanding of what kind of help you all would get if you had to go to forced evacuations?

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: We have a tremendous amount of resources and help at this time to do what is necessary to keep the people of this city safe. We have a unified command. We have everyone on board that — who are willing to support this organization and to support their city. So we don’t think it’s going to be a problem to try to — to get the resources, if needed, to have a forced evacuation.

MARGARET WARNER: Captain Marlon DeFillo, thanks for being with us and good luck.

CAPTAIN MARLON DE FILLO: Thank you very much.