JIM LEHRER: And now to Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen. He heads federal relief operations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I spoke with him earlier this evening from Baton Rouge.
JIM LEHRER: Adm. Allen, welcome.
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Good afternoon.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see the threat to the New Orleans area right now from Hurricane Rita?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Well, Jim, we're watching it very closely and as the hurricane moves across we've got several concerns. One of them is surge associated with the water that's moving on the right side of the hurricane as it comes forward; winds that will be generated on that side of the hurricane. And to the extent that there's substantial rain bands produced by that, that's also a concern. Once the storm makes landfall, if there's any reason that it might be stalled or moved back to the East, any substantial increase in rainfall, those are all areas of concern right now.
JIM LEHRER: And the rainfall specifically, how does that threaten New Orleans, the frail situation? Take us through that, what kind of rain and what kind of effect it could have.
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Well, as is well known, the levee systems in and around New Orleans and the surrounding parishes are substantially weakened following Katrina. And while we have done extensive repairs and repaired the breaches to many of the canals and levees, they are not as high as they once were and there is still an assessment going on by the Corps of Engineers about what other damage might be there that requires, you know, further more technical assessment of the levee strength. Because of that we've asked the Corps of Engineers to give us some estimates about what might be the implications of some kind of an extended rain event - three inches in six hours, six inches, nine inches, and so forth. And we're concerned that if we get a substantial amount of rain there could be re-flooding in the city.
We also have the issue of the pumps that are in New Orleans that are available to remove the water. They're working at limited capacity and some of them are out of service and have not been repaired yet, so all of that gives us concern for an extended rain event.
We need to move on with the rest of the recovery in New Orleans, including finishing the final sweeps of the houses, making sure there are not any more survivors or remains out there that need to be brought out and removed. This will potentially complicate that.
Reintroducing water back into the city could also slow down the repair of the infrastructure in terms of water, electricity, telephone, and so forth.
JIM LEHRER: Are you operating, you and your colleagues, operating under the assumption that this is going to happen, that there is going to be enough rain and those levees are going to have a problem and parts of New Orleans are going to re-flood?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Well, I think you have to act under the assumption that if you get enough rain and since you can't tell how much rain is coming -- that could be a possibility -- that that's the reason, in conjunction with the mayor that we've recommended that folks not stay in New Orleans. In fact, some of the folks that did not evacuate the first time have actually evacuated this time. And the mayor suspended the reentry into the city and the folks going in and taking a look at the business district, so you won't have a problem with trying to evacuate people in the city, they already will have been gone.
Then it's a matter of just trying to protect the infrastructure that's there so you can sustain the recovery after the storm has passed.
JIM LEHRER: So you don't believe any lives are going to be at stake if the worst case scenario happens along the lines you talked about a moment ago?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Well, we're hopeful that everybody's out of the city and we've taken great pains to communicate that. We have taken all the responders in the city, including the DOD personnel, the folks that are operating in other federal agencies and the local responders for the city themselves. And they'll be positioned in ground that's well above any flooding levels, and they'll be able to respond. That will be a much different position than the one we were in before the first storm.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. So no lives are in jeopardy as we speak from your perspective?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: We're taking every thoughtful approach to make sure that doesn't happen, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, you said the recovery work itself in New Orleans from Katrina was about to wind down. And where were you? I mean, you said it was - that most of the water is gone. Most of the houses have now been looked at. Can you quantify that further than that?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Yeah, I can, Jim. And maybe recovery is not completely done because you can probably make the case that recovery is just starting. What I was referring to is the sweep we made through the city to touch every single house. And we did that in three phases.
The first phase was called a hasty search while many of the parts of the city were still underwater; whether it was by wading or by boat we tried to touch every dwelling to make sure there wasn't somebody in an attic, on a roof, or there wasn't a search and rescue case there to be accomplished. And also in the process of doing that we were looking for any remains and trying to remove those remains out with dignity and respect.
The second phase is what we call a primary search. We went back to every dwelling again and did a more thorough search of the house, looking in the windows and so forth. But some of the houses were inaccessible because of water levels.
The third phase is what we call a secondary search, and that's going back into dwellings that are now dry that can be entered, and then there's a decision by local law enforcement on whether or not the houses should be entered to search for either survivors or remains. The reason it's a local law enforcement decision, we have a lot of houses that were locked when people evacuated, and they have belongings in there, and there's an assumption that there will be some kind of security or integrity to their dwelling so the decision to go inside a house even that was partially submerged we're leaving to local law enforcement to see whether or not they want to enter it, and then that's the secondary search.
JIM LEHRER: That's what's underway now?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: That is correct. And that is being done with urban search and rescue forces from around the country that are working with the local state law enforcement officials and where remains are involved the state medical examiner.
JIM LEHRER: And remains are still being found?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: That's dropped off quite a bit, Jim. But we are on occasion finding remains. These are in houses where they were inundated up to the eves and we're just now gaining access to - not large numbers but some remains.
JIM LEHRER: How close are you to being finished?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Well, I think we're pretty close to the final secondary searches and the water being pumped out of the city. It remains to be seen with Rita and what kind of a water effect we're going to have in relation to that.
But I would only say is once the water has been removed that is only the beginning of the larger recovery and a lot of stuff to do with the city. We're working with the city right now, with their planners on where the city needs to go next in terms of how they're going to repair the infrastructure, how they're going to create the enabling infrastructure and elements for what the new New Orleans is going to be like. And that includes probably a dwelling-by-dwelling assessment against some kind of a checklist against building code, environmental regulations. And in some cases we even have historical buildings where we're going to have to consult on what the disposition should be.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: That painstaking almost dwelling-by-dwelling work is going to be long, arduous. It really is going to have to establish what the baseline is going to be for the new city.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. But as we speak, all that work has stopped until Rita has done its job, is that right, one way or another?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: That's correct. The only work that hasn't stopped and will continue up until the time that we don't think it's safe to do it anymore is continuing to work on the levees, making sure they're reinforced as much as they can be through the Corps of Engineers and making sure all the pumps are working, so whatever rain event we have associated with Rita that we can deal with as quickly as possible.
JIM LEHRER: Are any of the resources that have been available to you now being switched over to the Rita effort?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Well, some of them are, but I would caution everybody to understand that New Orleans has not been left alone. We are still making sure that New Orleans is being cared for and in particular, as say DOD forces are moved out of the city they're being replaced with National Guard and should National Guard forces be needed elsewhere in the state of Louisiana, because of Rita response, I had a meeting this afternoon with Gen. Honore and Gov. Blanco and Gen. Honore is prepared to reinforce any - any force vacuums that may exist with the 82nd Airborne, so I think we're in pretty good shape.
JIM LEHRER: I noticed that the governor of Texas has asked the 10,000 Texas National Guardsmen who are in Louisiana and Mississippi to come back to Texas. Is that going to affect your operations?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: I don't think it will affect it substantially. The Adjutant General for the state of Louisiana is actually working now with the National Guard Bureau and there are other forces around the country that can be flown into Louisiana and/or Texas to the extent that they need to do that. And I think those force adjustments are being negotiated right now with the National Guard Bureau. But based on my meeting with Gov. Blanco, the Adjutant General and Gen. Honore I think we're in pretty good shape.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral, is there an Adm. Allen-like figure for the federal government in place for Hurricane Rita?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: There is; it's Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, and I believe he's probably in Austin right now.
JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to him?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: I did. He came through on his way. We had a chance to basically share some experiences and organizational issues about how you stand up -- principal federal official type function. This storm and Rita are the first time we've really vigorously exercised this principal federal official role in anything other than a planned event. So while there's a lot of doctrine out there on how to do it we are, as you know, sometimes writing the book as we go. But we've been able to exchange some experiences, and I think it's been good for both of us.
JIM LEHRER: Did you have one single piece of advice that you thought was the most important that you gave him?
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: Pick a very good chief of staff.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, Admiral, good luck to you and thanks a lot for being with us this afternoon.
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN: My pleasure, Jim.