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Hurricane Ophelia Halts Off Coast; French Quarter to Reopen; COE Admits Some Fault in Disaster

Aired September 15, 2005 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where news and information arrive in one place simultaneously. Happening now, our special coverage of the John Roberts confirmation hearings and updates from your hurricane headquarters.
The president's choice for chief justice faces yet a day three of this marathon questioning on Capitol Hill, with no sign of major road blocks to his confirmation. Could there be any surprises ahead?

This hour, also, Hurricane Ophelia's punishing crawl along the North Carolina coast. We're tracking the rain, the winds and when this storm will finally move in.

And President Bush soon makes his fourth -- yes, fourth -- trip to the Katrina disaster zone, armed with a prime time speech and a blueprint for rebuilding.

New Orleans officials meantime say they're getting ready to reopen the famous French Quarter. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get the latest on Hurricane Ophelia right now. CNN meteorologist Chad Myers standing by in the CNN Weather Center. Update our viewers, Chad, on what's happening with this hurricane.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, still 80 miles per hour. The storm is still offshore. In fact, the storm never came on shore. The center of the eye never hit land. Although, obviously, the eye wall did. Eight-two, 92 mile per hour winds all the way from Wilmington right up to Morehead City and Atlantic Beach.

And now it really appears like this storm has just stopped. It looks like it's done, like it's just not moving at all. The hurricane center has it down to three miles per hour. But I'm not even sure it's moving that much.

Now, what does that mean? All these battering winds and waves from Cape Hatteras right on down to Ocracoke, that wind and rain just piling up at times. Everywhere on this map, it's hard to even see the land. Now, here's Cape Hatteras, Morehead City, Atlantic Beach. Right there under the word "Morehead," that's where our Rob Marciano is.

Everywhere you see red, 10 inches of rain or more. And every place that you see pink down here, especially down here south of Wilmington, almost down to Myrtle Beach, 15 inches or more. It's still a Category 1. It's an 85 mile per hour storm. At 8 tomorrow morning, it has barely moved at all. Then it gets picked up by a little piece of the Jet Stream and it gets dragged on up toward the north and to the north east. Doesn't come very far from the Cape Cod region.

In fact, Cape Cod, you are still in the cone of uncertainty. It could turn left enough to get to you, or it could turn right enough to get way out into the ocean.

You can see the colors here. The center of the line is the official forecast. But you always know about how these forecasts can go left or go right. Obviously, this has gone left and right a number -- a number of times.

Here's the latest radar picture showing those winds and waves, although not a lot of the heavy rain on shore now. Most of it is in the ocean, which is a pretty good place for it, after all.

I want to show you one more thing. I want to show you the loop, the loopty-loop, if you will, of what this thing did. It started here. That's the Bahamas. Here's Florida.

It came up and made a loop just east of St. Augustin. Then it came up here and tried to get out to the ocean. High pressure said, "Wait, no. Not so far." It came back, made another couple turns, and now it's stuck right off there, off the Carolina coast. Surf City all the way to the Virginia-North Carolina border, that's where the hurricane warnings are in this afternoon.

BLITZER: I take it, Chad, the good news is that the waters along -- in the Atlantic Ocean are colder as this moves north, which will effectively slow down this hurricane. Is that right?

MYERS: Know what, Wolf? It almost killed itself. If you think about the warm water that's in the Gulf Stream, it's not 1,000 feet deep, yet it's a good current. But with this storm, because it stayed in the same place, it churned up the ocean for days and days and brought that cold water from down deep up. It's called upwelling. And it actually gave itself cold water to use rather than warm water.

So when they're moving 15 miles per hour, they always have warm water and they're moving over. When they're sitting here doing zero or three, they actually can kill themselves.

BLITZER: All right, Chad, thanks very much. Chad Myers helping us better understand this Hurricane Ophelia.

Susan Candiotti is in the Outer Banks in Nags Head. Rob Marciano is in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Susan, let's start with you. What's going on? Can you hear me OK, Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. OK, Wolf. I cannot hear you, but we'll go ahead and talk about this now. I've got a pretty strong band of rain and wind coming in right now, even stronger than last hour when we last spoke with you. As you take a look here, you've got the Nags Head pier back here. And you still have people -- I don't think you can make the guy out, but he's standing underneath the pier, just standing out here watching the weather roll on in.

The waves look absolutely furious at this point, but so far, I call this more of a tropical storm force winds that we're experiencing, as opposed to hurricane force winds.

And we are on steps, beach steps that were built just a few years back. And it dropped off just in front of me when Isabel came through a couple of years ago. I don't suspect there's going to be a problem this go around.

Here this is a sand dune that goes up about 30 feet and affords protection to the shoreline here.

Governor Mike Easley, just a little while ago, gave a press conference where he talked about the effects not being as bad as they had prepared for, given the fact that the eye wall has stayed offshore.

However, they are expecting some flooding, certainly, from the Pamlico Sound and other rivers. As the storm passes on by, some expressways, parts of them, might be underwater, of course low-lying areas certainly.

And but here on the Outer Banks on this end of things, emergency management officials are not expecting any major damage. Once the storm passes, the problem is you'd really like to light a fire under Ophelia just to get it moving along. But for now, we're just going to have to wait her out as she slowly, slowly creeps along the shoreline here. Thankfully, she isn't making a direct hit.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Susan, thank you very much. Let's head a little bit south to Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Rob Marciano is covering this very slow-moving storm for us.

It seems a lot better where you are, Rob, right now than where Susan was.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Susan is experiencing a little bit of what I had about 24 hours ago. That's how slow this storm is moving. I mean, typically a storm like this would be in and out of a state within 12 hours. This one is taking upwards of 48 hours to get through.

So that's been the punishing part of this storm: the longevity of it, the amount of time it's spent battering the coastline.

And I think Susan pointed out something that rings true down here in the southern part of the coast, as well, in that officials have compared this to Isabel. They were preparing for Isabel. So far the damage that we've heard in is not as extensive as Hurricane Isabel was, as a Category 2 making landfall two years ago.

However, some of the latest -- one of our crews that just came back with some fresh video showing some damage from winds, some wind damage, some structural damage, which I was surprised to see. And also, some water -- some flooding on the southern exposed -- or the northern exposed parts of the bay.

Now, the strong north winds that we experienced last night must have piled up the water, and some neighborhoods now are underwater, you know, maybe one or two feet, but they're underwater nonetheless, from the strong north wind that took the water from Pamlico Sound and pushed it into those neighborhoods.

So you know, it's a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. But there is damage, and there has been some flooding. And even though it was a Category 1 and not making a direct strike on North Carolina, Wolf, a hurricane is still a hurricane, especially when it gets this close and moves this slowly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fifteen inches of rain, Rob. That sounds like a lot. Is there any evidence that significant flooding has developed anyplace around you?

MARCIANO: Well, not right here at the beach. Obviously things drain off into the ocean quite quickly. But the crews just came back that were closer towards the sound. Yes, there's some flooding there.

And I believe it's a combination of the wind pushing the water from the sound up and over docks and into neighborhoods, and also the rain. I mean, we didn't get much of a break from the rain at all last night. It started steadily -- it was on and off yesterday morning. And then it was steady from about 1 p.m. yesterday afternoon to at least 1 a.m. last night, probably closer to 6 a.m.

So we're talking about a 15-hour rain event with rainfall amounts or rainfall rates upwards of an inch or more an hour. So you know, those estimates of 15 inches definitely believable, and we're seeing some of that pile up in some of the neighborhoods.

BLITZER: Thanks, Rob. Rob Marciano reporting for us from Ophelia.

Back to Katrina. Let's head back to New Orleans. The mayor, Ray Nagin, answering reporters' questions.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: Two days ago. And I talked to the governor yesterday about potentially releasing $102 million that's scheduled to be released to New Orleans for emergency funding. So we hope to have that money forwarded very shortly.

If that does not happen, we've also talked to our bank. I think it's Chase is our bank, and they are prepared to support us in the short term, as well as we have some other financiers that are working with us on alternatives.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) How are you going to deal with that?

NAGIN: Well, you know, FEMA has been dealing with that issue, and I'm hoping that we're going to get organized in the shelters. And if someone comes to us with -- they know their Social Security number and their date of birth, hopefully we'll have a process in place where we can issue them a temporary identification card.

But that may be a little delayed process because then we're going to have to verify where they live, and hopefully we'll have computers on-site when we do this. I'm not sure about this process. So I'm kind of thinking of a process on the fly, just so you know this, OK?


NAGIN: And we would have a computer process, a computer system there where we can verify who they are, where they live or where their businesses are, and then they would be able to answer.


NAGIN: You know, there's always been bodies in charity hospitals, so I'm not surprised at that. I haven't gotten a firm report on exactly how many. We're starting to do the searches in the deeper areas of the city where most of the water was. So the body counts, I'm expecting to go up.


NAGIN: I'm going to let that truck get out of the way.

You know, John, I don't have a good answer for you on this other than to say our strategy is to repopulate the city in the safest areas first and to get enough critical mass going so that the economics of the city starts to flow.

Then simultaneously, we will be involved in this -- probably the biggest urban reconstruction project in the country's history. When that starts to kick off and grab momentum in earnest, then the people who are outside of the city of New Orleans, who are New Orleanians that want to come back and work, we're going to give them first preference.

And as they come back and work, we're going to work with the HUD officials to build housing to make sure that there are places for them to come when they get back to work.

My gut feeling right now is that we'll settle in at about 250,000 people over the next three to six months. And then we'll start the ramp up over time to get back up to the half a million that we had before and maybe exceed that. Because I envision us building an incredible city that's so livable, so unique with all of New Orleans, the wonderful things that everybody appreciates, that everybody's going to want to come.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) How long do you plan on keeping them here (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the way down, plan on getting rid of the rest (UNINTELLIGIBLE) residents come back (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NAGIN: Well, you know, the military is -- has said that they're going to stay here for the duration. Not in the numbers that they have today. I would anticipate the burn rate on this recovery by the federal government's probably pretty awesome. I hadn't heard of any numbers.

And in my opinion, we're over resourced right now. There's way too many people, way too many other police agencies here. So we're going to start to reverse that trend, if you will.

As it relates to our police department, you know, there have been troopers. I think we have 1,200 -- 1,350 police officers that we have been able to account for. They will be patrolling in a much more concentrated area.

So instead of them patrolling for 500,000 people, they will only be patrolling for 250,000 people, you know, based upon the initial -- as far as the residency is concerned, I'd like to talk to the city council, and I would like to have the authority, based upon my executive order, to rescind and change some of those types of laws, based upon this emergency.


NAGIN: You know, everything we do is based upon a priority matrix. And you know, we are trying to make sure the city is safe, make sure it's repopulated in an orderly manner, and then we will start to re-establish relationships like you talked about as time goes on.

We only have 24 hours in a day, so we can only get to certain things. But as the city starts to come back, as these groups start to reconnect with each other and organize, we will be touching base with them to find out their thoughts in the rebuilding of this city.


BLITZER: All right. We're going to listen and monitor what Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, is saying. He does say and he has announced that parts of that city will reopen in the coming days, including the historic French Quarter, the mayor saying it's a good day for New Orleans. Progress clearly, he says, is being made.

We'll watch this story. We'll watch all of the day's other news.

The president of the United States will be addressing the American public tonight from New Orleans, 9 p.m. Eastern. We're going to assess, look ahead, what we might be hearing from Mr. Bush tonight.

Hurricane Ophelia off the coast of North Carolina. We're watching that.

Another horrible day of death and destruction in Baghdad as well as we're monitoring the John Roberts confirmation hearings. Lots of news happening in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Let's go right back to New Orleans. CNN's Sean Callebs is on the streets of New Orleans. He's going to update our viewers now on what has happened on this day.

It looks like a mess still behind you, Sean.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Without question. This is just a microcosm of the city. There are thousands of buildings like this that could possibly have to come down, make way for new facilities.

But the mayor says this is a bright day for the city. This is something he's been looking forward to for some time. He has a grand plan to bring as many as 182,000 people back into the city within a matter of 10 days, beginning first in the Algiers area on Monday, the Central Business District, and also the historic French Quarter. Without question, the mayor very excited about this news.


NAGIN: The city of New Orleans starting on Monday, starting this weekend, will start to breathe again. We will have life. We will have commerce. We will have people getting back into their normal modes of operation and the normal rhythm of the city of New Orleans that is so unique.


CALLEBS: Indeed, a unique city; 182,000 people, but make no mistake about it, this is going to be an exhaustive amount of work.

We'll give you some idea. People are going to be here for several months trying to get all the services restored. The mayor said today at his news conference that water won't be back up for some time. So even those people coming in are told not to drink the water.

Wolf, we'll right now take you into the storeroom for our situation room, if you will. This is where CNN is headquartered, and just some of the immense supplies. I'm showing you this not to say "Look what we have here," but this is an indication of just how long CNN and a number of other journalists are going to be covering this ongoing story.

There are palettes and palettes of water, Gatorade, other beverages. There are particle masks here, surgical gloves, coffee makers, everything you need to keep a large news staff up and going for some time. And it is going to take some time. Yesterday the mayor talking about an EPA report he is eagerly awaiting on. He's had some discussions. And we know that report shows that there are pollutants in the air that come from coolants and fuel oil.

Also concerned about possible PCBs in the soil once all this floodwater goes down, so some very lingering concerns.

Once again, 180,000 people back in the city with all the emergency crews here. You know the narrow streets of the French Quarter. It's going to be crowded, but the mayor says it is worthwhile. He is very excited about this. CNN is taking you all over the world in some hostile environments, but did you ever think you would see the network stocked up like this in its own backyard for an ongoing disaster?

BLITZER: That's pretty amazing when you look at that, the supply center that we have there. The area outside where you just were, Sean, was that once underwater and now dried up, or was that always dry?

CALLEBS: No, that was always dry. That apparently -- wind damage, a telephone pole coming down, hitting the side of the building. It's really interesting, because this is almost a tale of two parts of the city. Those underwater, the damage is just so extensive. We showed you some yesterday. Even once they get that floodwater out, thousands and thousands of homes are going to have to be razed.

However, if you go into the French Quarter, to be honest, I've never seen the streets so clean. Crews have done amazing work in that area. However, E. Coli still in the water. The health concerns are still out there. So this disaster is still, still very serious, even with these people coming back in, trying to get the Central Business District back up and bring some commerce into the city that dearly needs it at this point.

BLITZER: All right. Sean Callebs reporting for us from New Orleans. Sean, thank you very much.

Our meteorologist, Chad Myers, is standing by. He's got some interesting graphics on the extent of the flooding in New Orleans. Update our viewers on that, Chad.

MYERS: This is an amazing graphic put out by NOAA. This is at the peak of the flooding, Wolf. Now a couple things I need to you look at, because this legend is going to stay on only for right now. So kind of keep some colors in your mind.

Up to a foot, about orange. Right here at four feet, somewhere around yellow. But when you get to blue, the colors you see on the map will be 10 feet underwater. So here we go. Here's the tour.

We'll take you over to the French Quarter. Why is it dry? Because it is the highest spot in the area that was flooded. The water came from Lake Pontchartrain, came through the 17th Street Canal and a number of other canals, and it flowed down toward the French Quarter. But it never got to the French Quarter because it is one of the highest spots along the Mississippi River.

Now, you can use your imagination. You can see some of the deepest spots here. But we'll take you in. We'll get you a whole lot closer here.

Here's downtown. The French Quarter right through here. This is the Mississippi River. This is the end of the one-foot water. The water never got here. It stopped. This is the highest spot.

Now we'll take you to some other parts of the city. And you'll probably recognize some of these spots in the city, too, if you're from there or if you've ever visited.

Here the Superdome. That white spot right there, the Superdome. We also talked about 70115, that ZIP code. That's the Garden District. That's down south. That's dry as well.

Now we start to get to mid city. We're looking at about Carrollton, South Carrollton, North Carrollton and then Canal Street. The yellows, oranges, remember the greens? Now we're into about five feet of water.

Now we get back up to some of the lowest spots, some of the lower parts. This right here, this circle, you can hardly even see it, that's the fairgrounds. That's where they have the big jazz fest every year, under water, under five feet of water.

Now we get back to where the water really came in. Here's the canal, the 17th Street Canal, Bucktown, that lake, completely dry on that side of the canal. The water flows here all the way over to Gentilly from this area, continued to flow to the east.

And here, this is the University of New Orleans. High and dry. Built on high land. Right there, right there by Lake Pontchartrain and then areas here, Gentilly, just under 10 feet of water.

And then this spot right here, the infamous picture, Wolf, under five or six feet of water, that triangle, that's where all those school buses were parked.

Back to you.

BLITZER: That's an amazing graphic. And it's very revealing of the extent of that flooding. Big chunks of that city, though, drying out finally. Those water pumps beginning to work. Chad, thank you very much.

MYERS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. He's getting information on what the Army Corps of Engineers are doing to get this city -- try to get this city back in action. What are you picking up, Jamie? JAMIE MCINTYRE, SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We had a briefing here at the Pentagon from Lieutenant General Carl Strock, who's the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. A couple of interesting things came out.

First of all, predicting now that by the 20th of September, they'll have some large areas of the city unwatered, as they call it. And maybe by the beginning of next month, a lot of the city, perhaps all of it, will have the water out. That doesn't mean it necessarily would be habitable.

Also, an admission, a concession today, an acceptance of responsibility that perhaps the Corps of Engineer could have done a better job pre-positioning sandbags and helicopters for that emergency repair to the broken levees. They knew the possibility that the levees could be breached. They pre-positioned people and equipment, but an admission from the general, Carl Strock, that in retrospect, they probably could have done a better job of doing that.

As we look now as they're rebuilding the levees. Now again, this would not have prevented 80 percent of the city from flooding, but it might have been able to repair the levees faster than they were able to, given the logistical challenges.

And then probably the other most interesting thing that he said when he was taking a look forward, about what they might do to protect New Orleans in the future, he referred to a plan that was considered, and then eventually rejected because of environmental concerns, back in the '60s and '70s, to create walls that could be raised, preventing the Gulf of Mexico storm surge from going into Lake Pontchartrain.

And as you know, the reason New Orleans flooded was because Lake Pontchartrain filled up from the storm surge. That created the pressure on the levees.

And perhaps the solution, he was suggesting, might be to go back and take a look at that plan, which might be more practical and effective. Again, having a barrier much like the Netherlands has or even the Thames River in England that you can raise in advance of a hurricane, preventing the level from rising in Lake Pontchartrain and therefore not perhaps needing as extensive a levee system.

But he emphasized the Corps of Engineers doesn't make this decision. They're going to evaluate the feasibility. They'll make recommendations. He did emphasize they're going to look at everything.

BLITZER: And Jamie, these are live pictures that our viewers are seeing now from a helicopter flying overhead. And clearly, the relief operation still very much ongoing. The floodwaters, although a lot lower than they were, there are still plenty of floodwaters there.

Are the Army Corps of Engineers offering any price tag on what they believe it will cost to rebuild the levee system, the flood walls, in New Orleans to make sure it can withstand a Category 5 hurricane? MCINTYRE: Well, they said that the estimate before this event happened was somewhere around $2.5 billion under the study that was already under way to try to figure out how to do that.

But obviously they've learned a lot from this actual event, and they've suggested that as they move forward and take a look at all the different options, it may, in fact, end up being a more costly event.

But one of the things they look at is how much money they're spending versus how much property they're protecting. And the study they had going into this suggests it was about a 1 for 17 ratio. That is, for every dollar spent, they were saving -- protecting $17 worth of property and economic investment. And that could be much higher now after this event, making the cost benefit seem much better.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre, thanks very much. Jamie, reporting from the Pentagon.

We're going to take a quick break, as we continue to show you live pictures coming in from New Orleans. The recovery operation under way.

The president of the United States getting ready to fly down to New Orleans for his primetime 9 p.m. Eastern address to the nation tonight on what he and his administration are planning to do to rebuild that Gulf Coast.

Much more of our coverage coming up here in just a moment.



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