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Interview With Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Interview With Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour

Aired September 1, 2005 - 07:31   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Miles O'Brien live from Baton rouge, Louisiana. Behind me is the operations center, where state and federal officials are trying to get a handle on this chaotic, burgeoning problem in the city of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
This morning, we are just reporting that that bus transfer of the refugees, 25,000 to 30,000 of them in the Superdome in appalling conditions, has been suspended, because shots were fired at a helicopter that was involved in assisting in that operation of moving those evacuees. We'll have more details on that for you in just a little bit.

We'll also move to Mississippi. We'll talk to the governor of Mississippi. And we'll ask him the question: Has the federal government done enough? Has it been to slow to respond in the wake of Katrina?

Let's get back to Soledad in New York.


Well, President Bush is promising -- quote -- "The most massive federal relief effort ever for residents in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast." Military ships and helicopters have been deployed to aid search and rescue missions. Truckloads of water and ice and food, as well as generators and tents are on the way.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff is leading the effort. Secretary Chertoff and Bonnie McElveen-Hunter of the American Red Cross are at Union Station in Washington, D.C., this morning. They are kicking off National Preparedness Month.

Thank you both for being with us. We certainly appreciate it.

Secretary Chertoff, we'll begin with you, if I may. The president this morning in a live interview said that a lot of help is coming. Many people would say, why is it coming? Why three days after the disaster is it not there already?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Well, Soledad, we've, in fact, been putting a lot of help into the area. What's made this a very unusual disaster is it's really been a double disaster. We had the hurricane. And even as the hurricane was leaving New Orleans, we started to send the first wave of supplies and the first wave of people in. And then on top of that, we had a flood when the levee broke.

And so, as we've been conducting rescue operations and supply operations, we've been contending with an ongoing disaster. That creates, you know, real physical constraints. We have to worry about impassible roads, flooded areas that we can't move in. And so, it's not a question of not having enough assistance there. It's a question of dealing with a very real an ongoing natural disaster as we are conducting rescue operations.

S. O'BRIEN: But both of these things, with all due respect, sir, were predicted. They knew it was a category 3 hurricane hitting the area 48 hours before it struck. People had been writing about the potential disastrous conditions of the levee system for a really long time, years and years and years. There is a sense that everyone knew a disaster could happen, and no one was really prepared.

CHERTOFF: Well, I don't think that's correct, Soledad. I think people were prepared. But I think a natural disaster has certain physical realities about it.

The critical thing was to get people out of there before the disaster. Quite rightly, the officials -- local and state officials called for a mandatory evacuation. Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part. Once the water is there, the physical reality is something that you have to contend with no matter how well-prepared you are.

And I think there has been a magnificent job, the courage and ingenuity of all of the forces that we've deployed has been remarkable. But remember, you have to wait until the hurricane passes. You can't fly helicopters in a hurricane. You can't drive trucks through a hurricane.

I have to tell you, one FEMA employee lost his life trying to get a truckload of supplies down to the area. We didn't want to have more of that happening. So, we've had to make sure that as we conduct our rescue operations, we do it in a way that preserves the safety of those people who are engaged in the rescue activities.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about the communications problems. It's obviously a huge issue. And in many ways, to me at least, it's very reminiscent of the communication problems during 9/11 four years ago. So what's been learned? Why hasn't the response been improved?

CHERTOFF: Well, actually, it's somewhat different. I mean, this is not an issue of lack of interoperability, where you had fire and police on different channels. This has to do with, again, the physical reality. The wireless towers are down. The land lines are flooded. That leaves only one other kind of communications method, and that's by satellite phone or by walkie-talkie.

S. O'BRIEN: May I interrupt you there, sir...

CHERTOFF: In fact...

S. O'BRIEN: ... sir, for one second?


S. O'BRIEN: Because all of those things, though, are expected when a hurricane passes through.

CHERTOFF: Well, that's right, and...

S. O'BRIEN: The wireless towers are going to go down, and you're going to not be able to communicate with cell phones.

CHERTOFF: That's right. And so, we have people equipped with satellite phones. We have the military in there with walkie-talkies. However, people who have cell phones are not going to have cell phone service. It's not a question of preparedness. It's a question of the physical reality that when the towers are down there's no cell phone service.

So, the responders, the National Guard, have their walkie- talkies. We have emergency communications vehicles in New Orleans. We have satellite phones with the first responders. But in terms of people's ordinary phone and communication service, I've got to tell you, Soledad, no amount of preparedness is going to eliminate the physical reality that without wireless towers, there's no cell phone service.

S. O'BRIEN: Let me turn a question, if I may, to Ms. McElveen- Hunter. Let's talk a little bit about what's happening at the Superdome and, of course, those people who are trying to at least be evacuated out to the Astrodome. You have people who were first turned away being sent to other shelters. It seems like it's very chaotic and very limited. Maybe only 25,000 people of the many people who need help are going to be able to get help. What kind of -- what will you do with these people?

BONNIE MCELVEEN-HUNTER, AMERICAN RED CROSS: Well, and I think, Soledad, the incredible, overwhelming nature of this event, this is the largest deployment of the American Red Cross of resources for a natural disaster in history. We have 279 operating shelters as we speak. And that number is growing. We have over 70,000 people who are being sheltered, who are being fed currently.

And, obviously, this movement from the Superdome to the Astrodome is going to give an opportunity for individuals to get the care they need, to get the water, to get the food, to get the hot shower, to offer the basic services, simply the basic services to these individuals.

S. O'BRIEN: Let me ask our final question to Secretary Chertoff, if I may. Sir, why has there been no immediate efforts at an online registry? There are so many people that I personally know -- and I'm not from the area at all -- who are trying to track their family members, and there is no sense of who is where. In this day and age when everybody has access to a computer, you would think that that would be among the first things people would... CHERTOFF: Well, actually we are in the process of putting together an online registry. Remember, there are several elements to this. First of all, we need to have a list of people that are recovered. Many people evacuated on their own. We've got to locate those people. They would have to register in, people who are in shelters.

S. O'BRIEN: But are the 25,000 people in the Superdome, is there a registry of them?

CHERTOFF: Let me finish. Soledad, let me finish.

S. O'BRIEN: Sure, excuse me.

CHERTOFF: Well, the people in the Superdome in very difficult conditions were not in a position to start to fill out paperwork. What we will do as people come into our official shelters at the Red Cross, at the Astrodome, we are registering those people. As we get those names and data in place, we will then feed that into databases. We're setting up a call center. We're setting up an online registry.

But, again, you know, in the middle of an ongoing disaster, this is not merely a response to recovery after a disaster. This is a response to recovery while the disaster is raging, while the flood is going on. In the middle of that, the first priority is to save people. And I think it's important to remember that we've got to get through that initial stage. Then we've got to pull the data together, and then we're going to have that registry up and running.

S. O'BRIEN: Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff and Bonnie McElveen-Hunter with the American Red Cross. I thank you both for talking with us this morning. We certainly appreciate it.

MCELVEEN-HUNTER: Thank you, Soledad.

CHERTOFF: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: It's time to get a look at the other stories making news this morning with Carol Costello.

Good morning.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Good morning to all of you.

"Now in the News."

Friends and relatives are looking for loved ones after one of the deadliest days ever in Iraq. Mass funerals are now under way for the nearly 1,000 Shiite Iraqis killed in a bridge stampede on Wednesday. Another 465 are wounded. Most of the victims, the elderly, women and children. They were trampled or drowned in a panic, apparently sparked by rumors of a suicide bomber. A three-day period of mourning is now being observed.

Four men have been charged in what the Justice Department is calling a terrorist plot to attack a series of U.S. military and Jewish facilities in the Los Angeles area. The suspects appeared in court on Wednesday. The plot was apparently hashed at the California state prison in Sacramento and could have been carried out within weeks. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says had it been successful, an untold number of Americans would have suffered.

President Bush has announced a massive federal effort to help Katrina survivors. The president got a bird's-eye view of destruction Wednesday from Air Force One. He called the sites devastating, but said a recovery effort is under way.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now, the days seem awfully dark for those affected, and I understand that. But I'm confident that with time, you get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it. The country stands with you. We'll do all in our power to help you.


COSTELLO: The president has also reached out to former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to spearhead an international campaign to raise money for hurricane victims, similar to what was done for tsunami victims in Asia. And we are expecting to learn more about that today.

Stars are lining up to help Katrina survivors. Jazz legend Winton Marcelus, a New Orleans native, is among a long list of celebrities doing their part to help hurricane victims. He'll perform at a benefit that will air tomorrow. It's one of several projects in the works. And we're also going to talk with Winton Marcelus. He'll be here in the next hour.

Let's head to Atlanta now to check in with Chad.


M. O'BRIEN: Excuse me, while I grab the microphone here. The state of Mississippi has had a terrible toll in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It's not quite the story that we've seen unfold in the city of New Orleans, of course. But nevertheless, the toll is high. At least 185 dead. Seventy-five percent of customers in the state of Mississippi without power this morning. Many weeks before they'll see the first light bulb come on.

The governor of Mississippi is Haley Barbour. He joins us now live.

Governor Barbour, good to have you with us. Bring us up to date on the numbers. First of all, those numbers I just gave, are they accurate to the moment?

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR, MISSISSIPPI: Well, they're credible, Miles. They're certainly not official, but it's because the government has a policy of not counting fatalities until they've been certified by the coroner. But those numbers are credible, and we worry that they may go up some.

M. O'BRIEN: And when you say, "They may go up some," you've obviously been down there. I've been down there. I've seen the extent of the wreckage. I get the sense that they may go up quite a bit. What are you hearing about people who have missing loved ones or friends?

BARBOUR: Well, you have been down there, and between the coast and the railroad for an area of probably about 50 miles, there's total devastation. I mean, there's virtually nothing standing. Homes that are just totally obliterated. And going through that debris, some of which is waist deep or as tall as a man, going through that takes time. We've rescued a lot of people, and we've found a lot of people. But under all of that debris, it's realistic to believe there's going to be more people.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the response and what was put into position in advance of this storm. We knew about Katrina. We knew it was a strong storm developing for several days before it ever made landfall. Do you have the sense -- because it's quite clear that state and local officials cannot handle this on their own. This is too overwhelming. Do you have the sense that the federal government has dropped the ball here, sir?

BARBOUR: I really don't. And I think it's very unfair for the federal government, for you to say we knew this was a great powerful storm. This was a category 1 hurricane when it hit Florida. Now that's the truth.

M. O'BRIEN: Governor, it was a category 5 storm.

BARBOUR: The federal government...

M. O'BRIEN: A category 5 storm when it was...

BARBOUR: No, it was a category 1 -- it was a category 1 storm when it hit Florida. It was a category 5 storm a few hours before it came ashore.

M. O'BRIEN: No, no, Governor Barbour...

BARBOUR: The federal government have been tremendous partners in this. They have helped...

M. O'BRIEN: Governor Barbour, surely there was enough knowledge in advance that this was a huge killer storm a matter of days, not hours, before it ever struck landfall. And it seems to me the military...

BARBOUR: Now, Miles, if this is an interview or an argument, I don't care. But if you want to let me tell you what I think, I will.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, go ahead. BARBOUR: And what I think is this storm strengthened in the Gulf. We begged the people to leave, and thousands of people left. Thousands of people left New Orleans. The federal government came in here from the first minute -- in fact, in advance. They have been tremendously helpful, whether it's the Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers, FEMA.

M. O'BRIEN: But...

BARBOUR: I don't think it's at all fair...

M. O'BRIEN: But...

BARBOUR: ... and I'm not going to agree to that, because I don't believe it's true.

M. O'BRIEN: But conspicuously absent from that short list you just gave us was the military, the Pentagon. This is a type of situation that cries out for the kind of support, the kind of logistics, the kind of coordination the military is ideally suited for. Why weren't more military assets pre-positioned and ready for the possibility here?

BARBOUR: We pre-positioned more than 1,000 National Guard, 175 on the coastal counties, 1,000 more 60 miles inland, so that they wouldn't be swept away in the storm. And as soon as it became clear where the storm was going to hit, even Alabama had sent us National Guard. Pennsylvania has offered us and is sending us 2,500 National Guard.

M. O'BRIEN: But...

BARBOUR: Would I have liked to have had 5,000 National Guard on the ground on Tuesday morning? Yes, that's not -- other states are not going to give up their National Guard until they see what's happening to them. I don't blame them.

M. O'BRIEN: But I'm talking about assets, like, you know, amphibious vehicles that the Navy has. It has helicopter support, hospital support, the ability to generate power, that sort of thing. We haven't seen that kind of thing, the kind of thing we saw, incidentally, in the wake of the tsunami.

BARBOUR: Well, I'm not going to be critical of what the federal government has done. We're very grateful for it. You know, it's easy to go back and pick the bones, but we feel like they have tried very hard.

This is the worst natural disaster that's ever struck the United States. Everybody down here is trying hard. Everybody is tired and fractious. So, I don't want to argue with you about it. But a lot of people from all over the country are helping us, and we really appreciate them, because we're making progress. And we're going to recover from what has been a grievous blow to our state, not just the coast. And we're going to rebuild, and it's going to be bigger and better than ever. But we're not going to do it by nitpicking. M. O'BRIEN: Governor Haley Barbour, Mississippi. Thank you for your time, sir.

BARBOUR: Thank you, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: We're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll bring you up to date on that transfer of evacuees from the Superdome to the Astrodome. One official in Houston is describing the situation in New Orleans as out of control; that, after shots were fired at a helicopter involved in that evacuation. We'll have details for you in just a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: The bus transfer of evacuees, about 25,000 or 30,000 of them maybe, from the Superdome to the Astrodome, suspended this morning after shots were fired at a helicopter that was involved in transferring some of those evacuees to the point where they would get on those buses. The situation in New Orleans is being described as out of control. That's probably perhaps an understatement, given all that we have told you about over the past few days.

Nevertheless is the hope that things can get in control so that the people that have been in the Superdome under terrible conditions for several days can get to the Astrodome, where things will be significantly better, we hope for them.

Judge Robert Eckels is involved in coordinating that 320-mile journey from New Orleans to Houston and getting those people safe and sound in the Astrodome.

Judge, just bring us up to date. What do you know about this morning and the suspension of those bus trips for now?

JUDGE ROBERT ECKELS, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: Well, the suspension will slow it down from New Orleans, bringing those people directly into the dome complex here in Reliant Center in the Astrodome in Houston. But it doesn't really affect our operations. We expect to have about 3,000 people that will have made it here by about 8:00 Central Time this morning.

We continue to have folks that have come in on buses from the Louisiana area and New Orleans areas. Some of them have come from the Superdome and as, you know, plans change as the disaster unfolds. Some of these folks were living on bridges and were just picked up as they were wading along the side of the highway and have been brought here.

So, we're trying to coordinate that, contact families, loved ones. They're mostly just glad to be here today.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's clarify a few points, because I think -- excuse me -- there has been a little bit of misunderstanding as to who qualifies for a stay at the Astrodome. First of all, if somebody makes it there on their own steam, and they're able to prove that they are an evacuee from New Orleans, will you allow them to stay? BARBOUR: Well, we have a number of shelters. And we were encouraging folks over the last night as we were setting this shelter up, we have been turning folks in to other shelters. We have six or eight shelters in the Houston area. This is the largest. This was designed to accommodate the folks from the Superdome, specifically being escorted here by the Texas State Troopers who went to Louisiana to bring them in.

We do have a limit on the capacity of this facility. But there are other shelters here as well. And we're working with the Red Cross on logistics this morning on how we accommodate folks, whether we go ahead and triage some of those people here and to maybe move them on. Or if we take them directly to other shelters.

But no one is being turned away from a warm bed or, in this case, maybe an air-conditioned bed, a square meal and a hot shower. We've got places either here or someplace else to accommodate those folks.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. So, if the people affected could hear us, and they can, of course -- communication is one of the big issues here -- you would tell them not to come...

ECKELS: Well, yes, that's one of the...

M. O'BRIEN: ... to the Astrodome, right?

ECKELS: I would tell them as they're coming into Houston that there is -- they will see on the signs a number to call, a toll-free number to call. It's 866-get-info in Houston. And through that number they will be referred to an appropriate shelter for their needs.

Again, we're re-evaluating right now how we're handling the dome. It's a central location that people know. But if I wind up with 30,000 or 40,000 people here, then I've got buses coming in that I have no place to turn that may have some needs that only we are equipped to handle here at this facility.

So, we are working with the Red Cross this morning on how we handle those people and where we put them. Again, we're talking about a small city being moved, again, into the Astrodome and into the Houston area. We've probably got 50,000 people in the Houston area today from Louisiana.

We have a tremendous amount of stress on the health care systems, the social services that we expect and are seeing in this Houston region. But we've also got a lot of people who just are really desperate for help. And the folks of Houston have opened their hearts and opened their arms and are taking care of folks who have showed up with their kids and with their families who are just scared and frustrated.

As you said, they've got no communication. A lot of them really just don't know what's happening. They don't know how bad the flood is around the country. They don't know where their other family members are. And we're working with the Red Cross to try to coordinate those kinds of activities to deal with the psychological side of this storm that goes beyond the physical comforts of the facility where we have them today.

M. O'BRIEN: Judge Robert Eckels, we always say that events like this bring out the best and the worst in people. We've seen the worst in New Orleans, and I think we're seeing the best of the people of Texas. Our hats are off to you for opening your doors and your arms to these people in their time of need. Thank you very much.

Back with more in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Business news now. Unfortunately, it's almost inevitable after any disaster, scammers trying to take advantage of people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in this case.

Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business" this morning.

You know, every single time there's a disaster, there's this part of the story, which is people who take advantage of people who have absolutely nothing. It's disgusting.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: It really is bad. And thousands of Americans are looking to step up and help, but the Red Cross is warning that at least in two states, Soledad, there are scammers out in force. In Colorado and South Dakota, apparently people posing as Red Cross solicitors have been trying to get money from people looking to help.

If you are looking to help, please beware of emotional appeals, telephones and e-mail solicitations. On-the-spot cash demands, of course, you should really beware of, and celebrity -- sort of phony celebrity endorsements.

Also, the Securities and Exchange Commission is warning this morning as well, Soledad, to be wary of trying to profit from this from penny stocks. There is one e-mail out there saying investors could double their money in just days from certain oil refinery stocks. Just really be careful. Be generous, but be careful here.

S. O'BRIEN: And it happens every single time, doesn't it?


S. O'BRIEN: Andy, thanks.

SERWER: You're welcome.

S. O'BRIEN: A short break is ahead. When we come back, we're going to tell you the very latest of what is happening in those evacuees and for those evacuees who are trying to make their way out of the Superdome over to the Astrodome, where they can get some food and some water and some bed or shelter. The latest on that situation in just a moment. Stay with us.


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