JIM LEHRER: Joe Contreras of Newsweek Magazine has been driving from the Baton Rouge area toward New Orleans all day today today. He spoke by phone with Ray Suarez a short time ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Joe Contreras, welcome. Why is it so hard to get back into New Orleans?
JOE CONTRERAS: Since the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on Monday morning, law enforcement authorities have been sharply restricting access to the New Orleans metropolitan area and in particular the center city.
All major access routes have been blocked. And because of the unique topography and geography of New Orleans, there are very, very few access roads under normal circumstances. I just got turned back about maybe five miles outside the outskirts of the city. And essentially law enforcement authorities want to keep a very, very close control on the number of people entering the city in view of the deteriorating security situation on the streets of New Orleans.
RAY SUAREZ: Well you're finding it hard to get back in. Are people still pouring out of the area?
JOE CONTRERAS: I have not seen a lot of vehicles streaming westbound out of the city today. I think that there are some people who remained in the city who are being bussed out but by no means is it an exodus at this point -- I suppose in view of the very restricted supply of available vehicles for transporting people out of the stricken area.
RAY SUAREZ: You had tried to get on a boat, didn't you? What came of that?
JOE CONTRERAS: I've been trying to organize maritime transport for the last 36 hours. And have yet to find either a boat owner willing to brave the security situation in the city or willing to risk having his vessel possibly damaged by overturned trees floating in the water, pieces of metal debris floating in the water. So, yes, that has proved to be a dead end.
RAY SUAREZ: It's estimated four million people are without electricity in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. As a practical matter, what has that meant to daily life in southern Louisiana?
JOE CONTRERAS: Well, it's meant, for example, that no one can get gasoline in large stretches in that portion of the state. I'm at a gasoline station near a rural area called La Plus and I just heard a refugee complaining to a friend of hers on this very pay phone that they are stuck. They have only a quarter tank of gas. They can't get back into their homes. They're being told by authorities to go to Tennessee. They don't have enough fuel in their tanks to get much past the border with Mississippi.
In Baton Rouge, the state capital, which really emerged only with cuts and bruises relatively speaking from Hurricane Katrina, there are long lines of cars at gasoline stations that do have power. And I spent the night in a very, very up-market suburb with a family. We all just sweated out the brutal humidity of a Louisiana summer.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, I noted you used the word refugee. Now, you're someone who across your career has covered a lot of calamities in Central and South America. Is this a word you use with care in this situation?
JOE CONTRERAS: I do use it with care but I think it is applicable because the term evacuee does not quite capture the full human drama and suffering that people in this part of the country are enduring. As I said to your colleague Neal Conan yesterday, the images I've seen, the motels and hotels of east Texas and southern Louisiana packed with people from all walks of life brought to mind images of Parisians fleeing the French capital as the Nazis advanced in may of 1940.
It brought to mind scenes that I have witnessed in El Salvador, in Angola, in Mozambique, in Nicaragua of people who are displaced. But in those cases they had their worlds turned upside down by military conflict, as opposed to natural disaster.
I covered the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 that killed 20,000 people. And I never witnessed anything like the drama, the human suffering, and the sheer quantity of people whose lives have been turned upside down by a natural catastrophe as what I have witnessed in the last 36 hours.
RAY SUAREZ: What have people been telling you about what's happening to them, what they're going through?
JOE CONTRERAS: Well, frankly, they're saying that life as they knew it will never exist again for a very, very long time. I heard the president of the New Orleans City Council, Oliver Thomas, saying earlier today that there's so much water in the city that it should be rechristened Lake New Orleans. He said that he remembers how the twin towers at the foot of Manhattan were renamed Ground Zero. And to him, New Orleans should be called Lake Zero.
This is a city that will require decades to rebuild, reconstruct, and many people are frankly walking around like zombies, like people out of a horror movie because of the dimensions of the biblical scale of the disaster that has happened to their lives.
RAY SUAREZ: Joe Contreras from Newsweek, thanks a lot for joining us.
JOE CONTRERAS: Thank you.