JIM LEHRER: Now a Newsmaker interview with a key official in the government's relief efforts - Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - he joins us from FEMA's emergency operations center in Baton Rouge.
Mr. Brown, welcome.
MIKE BROWN: Good evening, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: First, how would you describe the situation in New Orleans tonight?
MIKE BROWN: To me, personally, it's very, very sobering, and I think the American public needs to understand that we have here a situation of catastrophic proportions. We have a disaster that has affected literally millions of people that live in this area, not just New Orleans but Mississippi and Alabama.
It has been very unusual in my history as an emergency manager and an official of this government that what we see is we've had a disaster, even unlike hurricanes in the past, continued long after the hurricane made landfall.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall you had what I would call the typical, you know, disaster of the wind damage, and the storm and the rain and power outages. And then it became even worse because the levees began to break, and suddenly we had a major American city, New Orleans, completely inundated by floodwaters.
And on top of that, even though there were mandatory evacuations and voluntary evacuations called for, literally hundreds of thousands of people for whatever reasons-- I'm not going to second guess - but for whatever reasons --chose or could not evacuate.
And now we're having to evacuate those people after the storm and get relief efforts to them just as rapidly and as efficiently as we can.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Brown, I'm sure you're aware that there have been enormous complaints today from the people affected, up to the officials in New Orleans, the disaster director of New Orleans in fact called the federal effort that you are in charge of a national disgrace because it's moving so slowly, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How do you respond to that?
MIKE BROWN: Well, I understand his frustration. You know, if I were in his shoes, I'd be very, very frustrated, too. But what the American public needs to know is that we have brought to bear the full resources of the federal government.
What we cannot do, and what we did not do immediately after the storm passed and as the levees were breaking, was to be able to bring in rescue workers and urban search-and-rescue teams and the medical teams because they themselves would have then become disaster victims. So we had to come in very carefully and very methodically. And it frustrated me, too because I would rather just have charged in there and done everything we could have.
But now we're at the stage where we we're getting the water supplies in there, we're getting the meals ready to eat. The Coast Guard, the U.S. Army, everybody is doing everything to now extract those people who could not or did not get out, to get the supplies on them and to continue this massive relief effort just as frantically as we can to get everything to them quickly.
JIM LEHRER: Peter Slevin of the Washington Post was interviewed by Ray Suarez a few moments ago here on this program. He's in New Orleans, spent all day there, and he said the most striking thing that he has seen is there seems to be nobody in charge. There's no information being disseminated to the victims of this, and people are in a state of panic. What's the problem, Mr. Brown?
MIKE BROWN: Well, we're -- first of all, it's amazing to me how much communications have been broken down. There literally is no communications within the city of New Orleans. The cell towers are down. It's difficult even to use the satellite phones and to make the communications with those like we normally do.
We're working very closely with Mayor Nagin to be able to communicate with him. We've taken Army helicopters and moved into the Baton battleship, a command post that he can use so that he can communicate with his people.
But he's one mayor trying to communicate to all of those people without a telephone, without a way to distribute a newspaper or anything else. So we're trying to give him all the resources we can to communicate to his citizens.
JIM LEHRER: What about the law and order problems in New Orleans, how would you describe that?
MIKE BROWN: Well, I think it's a little bit exaggerated. We're doing everything we can through the first Army and fourth Army to provide all the National Guard troops. There are about 4,700 in New Orleans now. By Sept. 4, there will be approximately 30,000 National Guard troops.
And I think what we're seeing is this tendency, sometimes, to focus on the few people that are trying to cause problems, and we forget about the literally thousands of people, the mothers with children, who are doing everything they can to take care of those children; the family units that are trying to stay together and getting on the buses and going to Houston or going to San Antonio or going to the shelters in Baton Rouge.
There are a lot of people that are doing a lot of good. A lot of citizens of New Orleans are sticking together and doing the right thing. And it's just unfortunate that a few of those thugs and a few of those people who just want to cause disruption and cause harm are getting a lot of attention.
We're going to focus on taking care of them through law enforcement, and we're going to focus on those other good people and get them all the supplies and relief as fast as we can.
JIM LEHRER: "As fast as we can," what does that mean as we speak right now? Preceding you, we've had numerous people say they walked across the bridge and they got to the other end of the bridge and there was nobody there, nobody to help them. There were supposed to be buses. The buses didn't show up. It is one story after another. So what does "as soon as we can" mean at this stage of the game, Mr. Brown?
MIKE BROWN: Well, let me answer the question two ways: First, with regard to the evacuation of the Superdome and the convention center, we have had an ongoing supply food and water to there. They've had meals every day that they've been there. They had meals this morning.
We have five trailers moving into the Superdome this evening and to the convention center to provide both water and meals to those people, so they're getting regular amounts of food in the morning and evening in both of those places.
The second part of my answer, Jim, which, I think, again, the American people understand how fascinating and unusual this is -- is that we're seeing people that we didn't know exist that suddenly are showing up on bridges or showing up on overpasses or parts of the interstate that aren't inundated, and that now we're trying to get to them by Coast Guard helicopter to at least get them some immediate relief so we can start airlifting them out.
If there are groups of 40, some place where we can't get those helicopters in, so we have to move them out almost one at a time.
JIM LEHRER: What about the people who are still stranded in their homes? What's the state of that right now?
MIKE BROWN: That is, literally, a house-to-house search. The urban search-and-rescue teams, the swift water teams, the state of Louisiana -- excuse me, Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Service, all have boats out going house to house to house.
It is a Herculean effort that they're making on behalf of the citizens of New Orleans to get to each of those houses and go in, find out if there is still someone there, breaking into the homes and going upstairs if the downstairs is still inundated, trying to find those people literally, block by block, house by house.
JIM LEHRER: Are they still finding people alive and rescuing them?
MIKE BROWN: They are. The last figure I had there had been over 4,000 rescues just in the past couple of days and those are ongoing. I hear stories every single day, almost hour here about a Coast Guard helicopter or an Army helicopter that's running an evacuation mission or moving supplies in that happens to find some of those people.
And they may not have the capacity on some of those cargo helicopters to rescue people because they can't land on those decks, and there's not enough room to do that safely and still have the people there. So they have to radio back, get a Coast Guard helicopter. That Coast Guard helicopter then has to go to that place and maybe take five people off at a time or something. It's a daunting task; they're doing it. But they're doing it with all due Godspeed. They're doing it with all sincerity. They're doing it as rapidly as they can.
JIM LEHRER: Louisiana state officials - as I'm sure you know, Mr. Brown - have said that there could be thousands of people dead in New Orleans by the time all the bodies are found and counted. Would you agree with that?
MIKE BROWN: Unfortunately, I do agree with that because I'm afraid that, based on the numbers I'm seeing, and the numbers of people that could not or did not evacuate, that as the floodwaters recede, we may find people that have perished in their homes, and of course our hearts go out to all of them and their families.
JIM LEHRER: And these rescue teams are finding that as they go into these houses. They're finding a lot of people who didn't make it, as well as others, right?
MIKE BROWN: That's correct. And it's heartbreaking for these rescue teams because they're there to save lives, and as they go into these homes hoping to find somebody on the third floor or in the attic or something, they either don't find anybody -- which they hope is a good sign -- or they find someone who has perished.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Brown, as the man who is in charge of this and has the overview, is there anything you need that you are not getting?
MIKE BROWN: No, and I've got to tell you, President Bush has made it clear to the cabinet, he's made it clear to the American public that whatever resources I need, I'm going to get. And so far -- I mean, I'll give you an example. I now have the First Army general commander here, and everything that I've tasked him to do and asked him to go do, he's done -- just the example again is the 30,000 National Guard troops that we'll have - that we're ramping those up by several thousand every day. It increases exponentially.
He's running missions for me. We're going to have hospital ships here. We've got the USS Baton here as a command center for the mayor and others, and the full brunt and force of the federal government, and I hope eventually the full force and brunt of the spirit of the American people show here and recognize that New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama need all of our help.
JIM LEHRER: Mike Brown, thank you very much.
MIKE BROWN: Thank you, Jim.