JIM LEHRER: Now, an overview of the government's response to this disaster from the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Patrick Rhode. I spoke with him a short time ago.
Mr. Rhode, welcome.
PATRICK RHODE: Thank you, Jim, nice to be here.
JIM LEHRER: Is there an overview way to describe what this storm has done?
PATRICK RHODE: It's very difficult to put it in terms just yet as we are truly assessing it. But I will say that what you're looking at right now represents one of the most massive response operations that perhaps the federal government in conjunction with any state has ever undertaken.
JIM LEHRER: Give us the scope for why you say that.
PATRICK RHODE: We are looking at massive amounts of commodities, disaster assistance teams, we're looking at urban search and rescue teams, all of which were pre-deployed ahead of this pending cat. 5 hurricane when it was pending. Now that we've seen landfall and now that we're getting a better idea of what we're seeing on the ground, we're looking at major operations whereby response elements are going to be utilized here in the next of couple days. We're looking at some of the largest search and rescue types of responses that we've seen in this country in quite some time.
JIM LEHRER: There are still people trapped and unaccounted for, is that correct?
PATRICK RHODE: We believe that that is correct. Unfortunately it's going to be a couple of days of going through and making these very, very difficult assessments in the most damaged areas before we can truly know what we're looking at.
JIM LEHRER: Is there a system for doing that? Have you all worked out a grid system of some kind for checking out every place?
PATRICK RHODE: That's something that we're working on right now with both the cities and the states as we go through this. We're really relying upon a combination of their intelligence and also our intelligence, we're relying upon many federal partners that include the Coast Guard, which we've seen many pictures on today that have had the opportunity to, and successfully have been lifting people to safety. We're relying upon many different partners, ranging of course from the Coast Guard all the way to urban search and rescue teams, to disaster medical assistance teams, to really help us make those assessments as we're trying to deal with those most in need.
JIM LEHRER: Are we talking hundreds of people who may be still out there somewhere?
PATRICK RHODE: It's very, very difficult to say, Jim, but I think it's fair to say -- it's safe to say just given the scope of this that we have to assume that there are several hundred people out there that still need our help today and perhaps will still need our help in the days ahead.
JIM LEHRER: What about the death toll, the firm death toll we have heard, it's up over 50. Can you add anything firm to that?
PATRICK RHODE: I really can't add much to that at this time, however just given the wide scope of what we've seen over the last 48 hours, I think it's safe to say that that death toll, unfortunately, may be getting higher.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the search and rescue, I assume that's number one priority, correct?
PATRICK RHODE: That certainly is, it's the life sustaining elements of what FEMA does right now together with our federal family and together with our state and local partners that is really our paramount concern right now. Obviously we're very fortunate that many, many people have evacuated. There unfortunately are some who were unable to evacuate and we have to find those pockets of people so we can administer that life saving work as best we can to those individuals.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what is the number one need in a general way now? Is it health care, is it food, clothing? What, beyond the search and rescue effort, what's the number one need?
PATRICK RHODE: Unfortunately it's probably a little bit all the above. I think that we're looking at major commodity requirements that we're going to have for this area which of course includes a lot of the traditional requirements of water and ice and MREs and of course cots and blankets.
JIM LEHRER: What's an MRE?
PATRICK RHODE: I'm sorry -- Meals Ready to Eat -
JIM LEHRER: I see.
PATRICK RHODE: -- sort of the military term for meals ready to eat that we go to that are already prepackaged whereby people can have access to them quickly. We take a look at those sorts of things. We of course are very concerned about those who need health care of any kind -- those very young, the elderly population. We've got to take a look at a lot of those types of issues, and it's hard for us to pinpoint any one.
Of course housing is going to be a critical need. We fortunately have through our partners with the Red Cross and many other partners have many shelters that are set up that are speaking to not only evacuees but those who perhaps have been immediately impacted by the storm who have been able to seek shelter. Unfortunately given the size and scope of what we're looking at, we're going to be looking at some housing issues very much into the future.
JIM LEHRER: And can you give us a feel for how large, how many people are we talking about that you and your colleagues at all levels of government are going to have to find housing for over the next few days?
PATRICK RHODE: It's still a little bit too early to tell. We have a rapid needs assessment folks out in the field right now who are taking a large look at just the swath of this storm. It's -- you know, it's easy for us to take a look and just the metro area there within New Orleans and begin to try to make guesses as to what potentially is going to be needed, but we can't forget what we're seeing in Mississippi as well too, which is absolutely catastrophic there because they perhaps, even with some of the pictures coming out of New Orleans, Mississippi perhaps is going to have borne the brunt of a lot of the housing mission.
JIM LEHRER: Now FEMA is the number one agency on this, but are you all -- do you all have the power and have you also brought in the military and other branches of the U.S. Government?
PATRICK RHODE: We certainly have, we certainly have. When President Bush stood up the disaster declarations early on, the emergency declarations ahead of the storm, it afforded FEMA the opportunity to proactively lean forward together with all of our federal and state partners, those state partners include and you can see many of them actually behind me, you can see the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, the Red Cross -- just a myriad of different agencies and volunteer organizations that best help FEMA do its mission.
JIM LEHRER: Is it possible at this point to use a word like stabilized in terms of knowing when you will even know the full scope of the damage and the destruction that this storm caused?
PATRICK RHODE: Well, we're certainly hoping that we can get to that point very soon. That's why we're working so aggressively to try to assess exactly what it is that we're talking about. We're starting to get a better and better picture as we go through the day today. But unfortunately it's going to take us a couple of more days. And stabilization might an little relative, but we're certainly looking to try to institute some form of normalcy for all the citizens in these impacted areas as quickly as we possibly can.
JIM LEHRER: Your colleagues who have been through this before, has anybody said to you, my goodness, I've never seen anything like this before? Is this going to go down in history as one of the major storms of all time?
PATRICK RHODE: Well, I can only speak for my couple-year history here within the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but I can tell you there are a lot of folks walking around the halls saying they haven't quite seen anything like this in a long time.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, Mr. Rhode, thank you very much and good luck to you and your colleagues.
PATRICK RHODE: Thank you, Jim, thanks for having me.