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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER
Interview With Thad Allen; Interview With Rick Perry
Aired September 25, 2005 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11:00 a.m. in Washington and here in Atlanta, 10:00 a.m. in Louisiana and Texas, 4:00 p.m. in London, 7:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for this special three-hour "LATE EDITION."
We'll get to our CNN reporters live around the Gulf Coast region in just a few minutes. First, though, let's get a quick check on what's in the news right now.
BLITZER: In the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, high water is again a big threat in Louisiana. Rescuers moved out at first light today. As many as 1,000 people could be stranded in flood waters.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is following that part of the story. He's joining us now live from Abbeville. That's in western Louisiana.
What is the latest there, Ed?
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Wolf, well here on the tarmac where we're standing is where the helicopter research and rescue missions are taking off from. We've seen a Coast Guard helicopter, as well as an Army helicopter take off from here this morning.
Right now, they're up in the air, kind of, surveying the situation, trying to pinpoint specific locations where emergency calls had come in to the sheriff's department here and that's what they'll continue to do for the next couple of hours.
Let's show you this dramatic home video taken by one of the residents here in Vermilion Parish who was caught in the flood waters. It was taken by a gentleman who gave us his video yesterday. He says he woke up yesterday, walked outside to, kind of, get a sense of what was going on. He says he that he saw his front yard moving. In a matter of hours, the water levels had risen to his window. You can see the water cascading inside of his house, refrigerators, chairs, all of the furniture inside, all of his belongings floating up and down in the water as it continued to pour into the house.
Incredibly dramatic, the man was eventually forced into the attic of his house where he took a shotgun, and blew three shots into the roof so that he could climb out onto his rooftop. He was later rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. Incredible video. We understand that so far about 250 people had been rescued yesterday. They did search and rescue missions into the evening as well using the GPS system.
We haven't heard of any other rescues taking part either overnight or into this morning as well, but they continue to do that search and rescue operations.
And the officials from this area also urging residents to stay away and not come back. That was actually part of the problem in the flooding yesterday. People had started coming back early after the storm had hit. And eventually and actually ended up being trapped. They thought everything was good, they came home, and the flood waters started rising.
They say it was just before sunrise yesterday when the water started going up, and it just took them a couple of hours before the water was nine to 10 feet deep. So a lot of incredible stories emerging here from Vermilion Parish.
BLITZER: Ed, so are we seeing those dramatic rescue operations with those helicopters, Coast Guard helicopters, other helicopters going over rooftops and literally lifting people off those roofs?
LAVANDERA: We've got crews out and about. We saw a little bit of it yesterday. We had one of our news photographers was able to make it in here relatively early when the search and rescue missions were just launching. But there were so many problems with those search and rescue boats because the winds were so intense still. This was a just few hours after the hurricane had blown through. The waters were choppy. Several of the search and rescue boats had capsized. Several of the search and rescue officers were actually tossed into the water. They were pulled out alive. There were no injuries, but it was a very delicate situation.
It is still windy today, and they anticipate that may continue to hamper the situation. But they feel, the Coast Guard official here just told us a little while ago, that they feel they have found about 90 to 95 percent of the people that they can pull out.
But, of course, there is the worry there might be hundreds of others or an exact number is hard to say. We've just heard from various different officials here say perhaps several hundred that might still be out there.
BLITZER: All right, we'll check back with you.
Ed Lavandera, on the scene for us in western Louisiana, thank you very much.
Hundreds of thousands of Texans are without power today in the wake of Hurricane Rita. Our national correspondent Bob Franken is joining us now live from Houston with more on that part of the story.
Bob, what's the latest?
BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we keep hearing from the Texas governor and other officials asking people in the Houston area, the literally close to a million or more who had evacuated, to not come back, to obey a phased return that is supposed to last for three days.
But everybody, and officials are well aware that people from Houston are just blissfully ignoring these orders, they're coming back. You can see the incoming here on I-45.
We talked to police officials. They just shrug their shoulders. They said they're certainly not going to block anybody from returning to home.
And the fact of the matter is Houston barely got hit. There are power problems, several hundred thousand homes are still without power and officials are concerned that people will come back and will have problems with that and some fallen trees and the like.
But the city, which has been pretty much a ghost town for the last couple of days, is beginning to fill up. The interstate highways are filling up. There are traffic jams. There have been traffic jams.
People are finding, if they look hard enough, finding gasoline. In the local radio stations, people are calling in and telling where gasoline can be found. They will encounter lines, but life is very slowly returning to normal.
Of course in Houston, they didn't really get the big push from normalcy that people got elsewhere. There was a big evacuation. People in the authority are not particularly apologetic for it, saying if there had been real problems this evacuation, as troublesome as it would have been, would have saved a lot of lives.
BLITZER: You're saying there is enough gas, at least for the time being based on the anecdotal evidence that you're getting?
FRANKEN: People are finding gasoline if they look hard enough. Now out on the roadways, maybe 50, 100 miles away, there could be problems.
But the report from Texas officials is that the resupply has been somewhat successful. So if people play their cards right, they will be able to get back in. They're just not waiting for that phased return. BLITZER: All right, it looks like the traffic is moving, sort of, nicely behind you. We'll continue to watch as a couple million residents of the greater Houston area begin to go back toward their homes.
Hurricane Rita is served up a discouraging reminder to residents of New Orleans just how vulnerable that city remains.
CNN's Mary Snow is in New Orleans right now overlooking the latest flooding there. Mary, looks sort of windy where you are?
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf.
And that reminder of how just fragile the levee system is. It's right behind me.
This is the area Industrial Canal Levee. This is the area Friday where water overtopped a section of this levee that had been damaged during Hurricane Rita. Engineers had tried to shore it up in the past couple of weeks but water overtopped it and poured into the lower Ninth Ward.
Water is receding here, but, still, New Orleans has to deal with this latest round of flooding.
Now, Army Chinook helicopters have just begun arriving for a second day to drop huge sandbags in order to shore up that damaged part of the levee. It's a very tedious job. They're dropping three of these sandbags at a time. They can weigh up to 7,000 pounds.
And once they are able to shore up that damaged breach over there, they then have to pump out the water from the lower Ninth Ward. That was an area that was absolutely devastated during Hurricane Katrina. No one is living there. The area is, once again, reflooded. And the Army Corps of Engineers are saying at this point, because pumping stations here are out of commission, they have to bring in mobile pumping stations.
They expect to start doing that later this week, and it will take about a week for all of this to dry out.
One word of encouragement, though, is that the other two levees that had been damaged during Katrina are holding up, and one person who is very much monitoring this is the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. He is saying that he's going to take a look, see what happens today, monitor it very carefully, and then as early as tomorrow, he may, once again, restart a plan to start bringing people -- past week slowly phasing in.
Business owners and residents of Algiers on the west bank of New Orleans, that was an area that was not as heavily damaged. It also has running water and electricity. He's saying he's watching the progress today, and that he may restart that program tomorrow.
BLITZER: All right, Mary, we're going to get back to you soon.
Mary Snow is on the scene for us in New Orleans.
We're getting some new video in over Texas. The governor, Rick Perry -- you can see him there looking out of this helicopter. He's flying over some of the more damaged parts of the coastline of Texas, specifically along the border with Louisiana. That's the most damaged area right near where that eye wall hit the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, we'll be speaking with him here on this special "LATE EDITION." That's coming up later during our program.
Just ahead, we'll get the latest on the Gulf Coast recovery efforts from the director of hurricane relief operations, the Coast Guard Vice Admiral, Thad Allen. We'll speak with him.
And later, Louisiana couldn't escape the effects of Hurricane Rita, as water surges back into New Orleans. We'll speak with both United States senators from that beleaguered state about the devastation their state has endured over these past several weeks.
Our special "LATE EDITION" will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(UNKNOWN): It's kind of hard on the body, you know? Get a little bit of stress. But, you know, your adrenaline is going.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: A member of the United States Coast Guard describing the rescue work his group is performing in the wake of these devastating hurricanes here in the United States.
Welcome back to this special "LATE EDITION."
Just a little while ago, I spoke with the director of hurricane relief operations, the Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. He was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
BLITZER: Admiral Allen, thanks very much for joining us.
We're hearing stories, reports that there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of people trapped in parts of western Louisiana. What can you tell us about that?
VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD: Wolf, I'm not sure it's hundreds and thousands. It's certainly something we need to look into. We heard early on that we had approximately a 95 percent evacuation rate out of Cameron Parish. As you move to the east into Vermilion and some of those other areas, they're very remote, and there are some pockets of people, but the reporting and status was uncertain.
Knowing that, as the storm advanced, we were very aggressive in moving forces into place. Working jointly with Russ Honore and state and local officials, we predeployed to Lafayette and into Lake Charles, and we have an extensive sweep and search and rescue operation under way now. BLITZER: How many people are involved in that search and rescue operation?
ALLEN: Well, the number of people moving forward with the 82nd Airborne is over 3,000. There are 300 Marines that are poised to go into (inaudible) and Morgan City. We have the Iwo Jima offshore, running search and rescue sorties of helicopters. And we have urban search and rescue teams that are sent in by FEMA that are staged at Lake Charles right now.
So we've pretty much got the area circled. They are doing sweeps. They are doing deliberate patrols with aircraft to try and locate any pockets of people. Overnight, Coast Guard aircraft rescued a little over 60 people down there. And it's a continuous assessment and search to make sure we get the entire area covered.
BLITZER: What about the flooding in western Louisiana? How bad was it?
ALLEN: Reports on scene indicate two to three feet, maybe deeper in some areas in and around Lake Charles. There is some infrastructure damage. We had one report of a barge that had impacted with a bridge. We're continuing those infrastructure assessments right now. And we just caution everybody it's not time to return south of I-10 until we get that assessment done and know exactly what we're dealing with.
BLITZER: Did anyone die based on the latest information you have?
ALLEN: Within the state of Louisiana, none that have been reported to me, Wolf.
BLITZER: And Louisiana is your responsibility as far as Rita is concerned. Texas is your counterpart's responsibility? Is that how you're dividing it up?
ALLEN: Just for the purpose of unity of efforts since I've had extensive interaction with the state government in Louisiana with Hurricane Katrina, I was advised that I would be handling any response associated with Rita also. Larry Hereth, my counterpart, as the principal federal official in Texas, is handling the response over there.
But I can tell you we're closely coordinating. I talk with him throughout the day. In fact, I talked with him this morning before I came on.
BLITZER: This has been, as everyone knows, a double slam for Louisiana. Rita, that has followed Katrina. How many people are still without power in Louisiana?
ALLEN: Quite a few. And in fact, most of the area to the west of New Orleans and south of I-10 is impacted. I was trying to get a handle on that this morning, because the reports are anecdotal. We do know from census data there are approximately 1.4 million people that live south of i-10 in Louisiana and a good deal of those folks have been disrupted and are without power. They're still consolidating reports on the power outages, and I should have those later on today.
BLITZER: We know the levees which were fragile in New Orleans to begin with, in the aftermath of Katrina, did not hold up as Rita was moving in. Give us a status report on how that flooding in New Orleans is right now.
ALLEN: Well, Wolf, we just about got it under control. We've been using large helicopters and sandbags to control the overtopping that resulted in the flooding of the lower Ninth Ward. The Corps of Engineers has very artfully staged those sandbags, and we're putting them in to close that overtopping.
We knew going into the storm that we could possibly handle a surge of about five to seven feet based on the height of the levees that they were able to build following Katrina. What we had was an overtopping of less than a foot over seven feet. And that's really what started it and ultimately caused erosion on the top of levees that resulted in some cases two feet of water rushing in, creating a significant problem in the lower Ninth Ward on the east side.
I would say on the positive side, we were fairly successful with maintenance on the levee system and pumping on the west side that we've been able to minimize the damage there. There is some standing water in the rest of the city as a result of the rainfall that we've not been able to pump out because we closed the entrances to the 17th Street Canal and London Avenue Canal between Lake Pontchartrain and the canal system so there wouldn't be back flooding. So right now the focus is on the lower Ninth Ward.
BLITZER: What about the whole nature of that flooding? How long is it going to be before you get back to where you were before Rita?
ALLEN: That's a good question, Wolf. And, in fact, it's, kind of, ironic. The day before we started making preparations for Rita, we had successfully unwatered the city to the extent that we could with six pumps and there were just a few small pockets left. So we had basically been successful.
The flooding that has occurred as a result of Rita, though, is far less extensive because we're able to seal off the 17th Avenue and London Avenue canals. So we're dealing with a small part of the western side of the Industrial Canal in the lower Ninth Ward. And we think that it should be able to be addressed much, much sooner than the original flooding.
BLITZER: The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, had some, I guess, controversial comments yesterday. Listen to what he said about people coming back into his city. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RAY NAGIN, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: It's my intentions, if everything goes well today and tomorrow, to reenergize the reentry plan that we had in place, starting as early as Monday and maybe as late as Tuesday.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What about that? Is that a good idea to start letting people come back he says to the Algiers district and the downtown area, which he says was relatively in good shape?
Is that a good idea to start letting thousands of New Orleans residents come back to their homes and businesses?
ALLEN: Wolf, I don't think it's a problem in those two areas.
In my negotiations with the mayor and talks with the mayor -- and I've had several over the last week or so -- I think we need to have clarity and distinction on what we're talking about in terms of the phases.
We had already allowed businessmen to reenter the city to look at their businesses, assess damage, and start repairs and allow people onto the west bank. And basically, that part of the parish was unaffected substantially by Rita and we'd already allowed reentry after Katrina.
I think the issue is the third section, and that's the rest of the city, where there was extensive flooding and the houses have been substantially damaged.
And I think the mayor and I are aligned on this: The first two steps, having the businessmen come back in and reenter the west bank, is not problematic at this time.
What there needs to be is a protocol and a way to have the remaining citizens of New Orleans come back in, take a look at their houses, get a sense of the type of damage that's occurred and then to think of next steps after that.
In some cases, these people are going to find that their houses are completely destroyed and are uninhabitable. And just going in an understanding that allows us to understand what the next steps are.
But the steps following the central business district and the west bank don't have any dates attached to them right now. And they're based on setting the conditions for reentry.
BLITZER: But how worried are you that the hurricane season still has a couple months to go -- it doesn't officially end until November 30th -- and those levees, those flood walls, that whole structure protecting New Orleans remains very, very fragile?
ALLEN: Well, Wolf, we should be eternally worried until the levee structure has been repaired to pre-Katrina heights and then the final decisions on what that levee system needs to be to create the boundary conditions for a new city of New Orleans.
In the meantime, any reentry into the city, any type of development or anything else, has to take into account what will happen if it exceeds the capacity of the levees. And you have to have an evacuation plan in place.
As I've said over the last couple of weeks, as far as their reentry into New Orleans, really the long pole in the tent is: Once you have people back in, do you have a way to get them out, to notify them and so forth?
And those are the types of conditions of entry that have to be established before you go on beyond the business district and the west bank.
BLITZER: What about the health concerns, the environment, the potential for disease? Are you still very worried about that?
ALLEN: Well, a lot of that was associated with the water that was pumped out. There were high levels of e. coli and fecal coliforms in the water. Most of that left with the water. There is a issue of sediment.
The EPA, Center for Disease Control, Health and Human Services continue to monitor that and do testing. That's the type of information we need to provide to the city to make sure they're making informed decisions as they repopulate.
BLITZER: Are you confident that it's safe to breathe the air around New Orleans?
ALLEN: The air testing that was done indicated there was not a problem for reentry. And both the mayor and I held that information before he made that decision.
To the extent that some of the sediment becomes dry, creates dust, and gets into the air, that may become an issue. But we're working very closely with the EPA, Centers for Disease Control. There's a task force that's been devoted to testing not only the air: the sediment and the water.
And that's one of those continual monitoring issues. And you need to establish those as gates on how much further you move into the city.
BLITZER: And you say that the evacuation of New Orleans, if there were another problem, that that plan is not complete by any means.
We saw horrible evacuation problems in Houston as a couple -- maybe 3 million people tried to leave in a day or two in those traffic jams. The gasoline shortages were enormous. Similar problems would occur, I assume, if New Orleans were repopulated and people tried to get out very, very quickly.
ALLEN: Well, Wolf, if you repopulate and you know how you're going to move the people, it's predetermined, there are predetermined points for access and egress, you know how you're going to handle the roadways, understanding that a lot of the roadways and bridges to the east of New Orleans are down and it'll be a while before they are back up, as far as connecting to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. So you've got one area of departure from the city that is basically blocked right now.
You could bring people in as long as you know how you're going to get them out. That just needs to be explicit. They're needs to be informed consent by the people going in and we just have to work the problem with the city.
We're prepared to do that and have been working it with them. Those are the types of things that just have to be very clear and explicit before you repopulate the city.
BLITZER: Vice Admiral Thad Allen, good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women working with you.
ALLEN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And coming up, we'll get a quick check of the hurricane damage assessment and other top stories in our news right Now. Stay with our special "LATE EDITION." special "LATE EDITION."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOVERNOR KATHLEEN BLANCO (D-LA): Rita has compounded Louisiana's pain, and we're hurting from the west side to the east side and the parts in between.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco, speaking yesterday in Baton Rouge.
Welcome back to our special "LATE EDITION."
Joining us now to discuss the current situation and the rebuilding efforts in Louisiana are the U.S. senators from that state. In Baton Rouge, Republican Senator David Vitter is joining us. And in our Washington bureau, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu.
Senators, thanks to both of you for joining us.
Senator Vitter, I'll start with you.
Before we get to the specific damage that was caused by Rita in Louisiana, the president today suggested that perhaps it's a good idea to give the U.S. military the lead role in dealing with these kinds of disasters. And he was going to ask Congress to consider that.
What do you make of that?
SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), LOUISIANA: I'm very supportive of it. Anything this big, at least on the scale of Katrina, I think we need a military response.
I can tell you after Katrina, the moment we began to turn the corner was the moment we had thousands and thousands of uniforms and boots on the ground, if you will, from both National Guard and active duty.
So in terms of something that big, not necessarily every hurricane, but in terms of something that big, I agree with that approach and we should look at it carefully.
BLITZER: Senator Landrieu, do you agree with your colleague?
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D), LOUISIANA: I think we should have a very strong military presence. And we are very grateful for all the contributions that the military has made both active and our Guard and Reserve led by the Louisiana National Guard.
But I think as we go through this, Wolf, we've got to have a partnership between our governors, our mayors, our county commissioners, our parish commissioners, the private sector with the military playing a significant role. I mean, it's going to take all assets, both civilian and military, to help protect people from the storms that come and then to rebuild once this devastation has occurred.
BLITZER: It sounds, Senator Landrieu, like you're not ready, at this point, give up the state's rights in these kinds of disaster, whether man-made or natural, that you're a little bit more close- minded than Senator Vitter, is that right?
LANDRIEU: Well, I don't know if I would say close-minded.
I'd say that we have a general agreement that the military has a very strong role to play, but so do our governors and our local elected officials.
I mean, we do have a democracy and a citizenship that has elected mayors, county commissioners and governors, particularly. I'm not sure the governors association or all the mayors in America would be willing to sort of step aside.
Having said that, the military has a key role to play and those will be big issues. The other big issue is how the federal government is going to step in and help this region, which is so crucial to the development and future economic lift for the whole nation. The river system, the oil and gas industry is just crucial, Wolf, for the development of this country.
BLITZER: You want to add anything on that specific point, Senator Vitter? VITTER: Well, just to clarify, Wolf, I'm not talking about superseding state authority or local authority, but I am saying when a disaster is as big as at least Katrina, and you have this full-scale mobilization, food and water and ice and rescue efforts, I believe the proper entity at the federal level are the uniform services to be in the lead of that, not FEMA. And so I think we need to go to that model in the future.
BLITZER: Senator Vitter, how much destruction was there in Louisiana this time around as a result of Rita, specifically in the western part of your state where we understand there are search-and- rescue operations underway right now for several hundred, perhaps even more, individuals who could be stranded?
VITTER: There's quite a bit, Wolf. And that's the headline of this storm, that we have significant coastal flooding, not just in southwest Louisiana, but all along our coast, including well east of there. Port Fushon (ph), which almost south of New Orleans, major, major flooding.
And so when you think about the path of this storm -- it didn't come up straight from the south, but almost skirted the entire Louisiana coastline with those southerly winds, pushing water all along our coast, really created havoc and coastal flooding all along the coast.
BLITZER; Do you want to add anything on that specific point, Senator Landrieu?
LANDRIEU: Oh absolutely.
I mean, both of these storms have just been devastating to all of Louisiana. And while the southern part has been hit directly by the water and the wind and the collapse of many of our levee systems, which we all should of done a better job of protecting, but particularly the federal government in investing in for the benefit of the nation, not just the people that live there, but, Wolf, all of Louisiana has been terribly hit. The agriculture industry, our forest industry, up central and north Louisiana.
So we're still rescuing people from Rita, but the combination has been devastating. But it's going to cause us to think again about how we invest in this great Gulf Coast region and what this river system, which Andrew Jackson saved from the British in 1815, and we have not done a very good job of saving it for ourselves since then.
So we've got to get back to the basics of investing in the Gulf Coast region for the benefit of the nation.
BLITZER: Senator Vitter you just heard -- you may have just heard my interview with Vice Admiral Thad Allen who said he agreed with the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, that two of those areas could be repopulated, if you will, the Algiers district of New Orleans, as well as the downtown business area which were not as hard- hit as so many other parts of New Orleans. But he raised some red flags about expanding that any time soon, given the enormous problems that New Orleans continues to face. Where do you stand on people going back to their homes and businesses in New Orleans right now?
VITTER: Wolf, there's a huge spectrum of different realities from folks, from places that are completely able to be repopulated now, like on the west bank, to those that will, frankly, take months and months, like the lower Ninth Ward.
So they need to take it neighborhood by neighborhood as they are doing, and I think the general plan that the mayor has laid out, starting with those neighborhoods that are high and dry, Algiers, then parts of the CBD and uptown, can definitely be sustained.
There's a balance. Of course, we need to make sure areas are safe as we repopulate, but, at the same time, we can't be so careful that we keep out everybody for six or eight months, and meanwhile, the whole city dodged because nobody and no business and no jobs are able to get back.
So it is a balance, and I do believe now with their improved relationship, the admiral and the mayor, striking that balance.
BLITZER: What do you by that, Senator Landrieu, the mayor's plans to try to get people to go back to their homes in New Orleans?
LANDRIEU: First of all, I want to thank Admiral Allen. He's just been a tremendous leader for us and a great anchor for us, and we thank him for the way he is working cooperatively with our local officials, particularly the mayor of New Orleans.
I agree with Senator Vitter in the sense that we've got to get the neighborhoods that we can get back, back. There are poor neighborhoods that were not flooded, Wolf.
And we can get people back, and middle-income families back in some of those areas. We also have the CBD, which is the central business district. Very important to get our banks and real estate companies stood back up again as this rebuilding effort hopefully will be led by the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Supported by everyone, but led by us.
And so, I agree. And I thank them for working so cooperatively together to get that done.
BLITZER: Senator Vitter, I spoke with the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, the majority leader Tom DeLay, yesterday. And he repeated what he has said on earlier occasions: He doesn't have any obvious plans, any obvious choices for so-called offsets in the current budget to pay for the enormous reconstruction, the relief effort in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and now Texas. And he also dismissed suggestions there was a lot of pork in that transportation bill that just passed.
Listen to what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE TOM DELAY (R-TX), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We have to have an infrastructure. And highways is our circulatory system for the future of this country. You can't have a strong economy unless you have a strong highway system.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: In other words, he is suggesting the federal government's going to have to borrow this money. Deficit spending, if you will, to pay the $200 billion, whatever it's going to cost to fix the situation where you are. What do you make of that?
VITTER: Well, Wolf, I think we can find some limited offsets in the short term. And we need to do that as a start to paying for all of this. But as a practical matter, I think it's very clear we're not going to find all of those offsets in that amount in the short term. And so we need to do it over the medium to long term.
That doesn't mean it should never get done, but we should start now, if only symbolically, and then move and find those savings in the medium and long term. I'm certainly against major tax increases right now. I think, certainly in Louisiana, that would completely counteract what we're trying to do in terms of tax and other incentives to get jobs and businesses back.
BLITZER: What about that, Senator Landrieu? How should the federal government pay for these enormous expenditures?
LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, I'd like to say, with all due respect to Tom DeLay -- and I know he was focused on the highway bill, but I would have to say that this hurricane has taught us that it's more than highways that run this nation. It's our port systems, our port structure, our river system that allows America to be the great nation it is. And we must invest more in our blue highways, if you will, starting with the Mississippi, the Industrial Canal, and other great port systems from Houston to Mobile and through the south and east and west.
I do believe that we're going to have to cut back where we can at the federal level, starting with some offsets, but it's going to be very difficult to find $200 billion, $300 billion, $400 billion when all is added up out of the backs of safety nets for the American public.
And again, Wolf, poor families were crushed. Middle-income families are staggering. And wealthy families have been just punched in the stomach. It is going to take a huge national effort for us to realize the importance of this Gulf Coast region. And I hope we, as our delegation has laid down, a joint unified plan. I hope everyone up here will look at it.
BLITZER: Senator Landrieu, Senator Vitter, thanks to both of you for joining us. Good luck to everyone in Louisiana as this recovery operation continues. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back with more live reports from the hurricane region. Our Jeanne Meserve and Jason Carroll are standing by in Louisiana as residents total up the costs of this storm.
Our special "LATE EDITION" will be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "LATE EDITION."
We continue to bring you reports from around the hurricane region. Searchers are fanning out over a wide area today.
Our Jeanne Meserve is with a search team in Sulphur, Louisiana. She's joining us now on the phone.
What do you know, Jeanne?
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I've been driving with an urban search and rescue team from Phoenix, Arizona through Sulphur, Louisiana, doing an assessment of the damage here at the request of local officials. There are a lot of trees down. In some parts, the smell of pine sap is really overwhelming. Some of those trees have come down into roofs. There has been wind damage to many roofs. A lot of power lines are down.
Some people are in the neighborhood, appear to have ridden this out. The one thing they want is ice. A lot of them out cleaning up already the debris in their yards. If I'd seen this six months ago, I would tell you there was pretty serious damage, but after Katrina, it just doesn't look so bad. They're continuing their assessments around here, Wolf.
BLITZER: Are you getting any inside information, Jeanne, how many people may be stuck right now?
MESERVE: We, this team just stopped and talked to a local police official a short time ago. The police official told them that they thought about 90 percent of the residents here had evacuated. One of the reasons this search and rescue team is going around, they're looking for people who might be in serious trouble.
At this point in time, they haven't been asked to go in and extricate anybody. So the situation here appears to be under control, but they're still looking at it. There's still neighborhoods that haven't been seen yet. We're told that outside of the city limits, there may be more serious damage. We'll go take a look.
BLITZER: As a lot of our viewers will remember, Jeanne, you were there in New Orleans right as Katrina struck. And what you're saying is the damage, the destruction you're seeing in the western part of Louisiana doesn't compare to what you personally saw in Katrina?
MESERVE: That's correct. Here, I've seen very little in the way of flooding in this particular community we're looking at and, yes, there are trees down but I think I saw more trees and bigger trees down when I was in New Orleans. So, heavy damage, but not catastrophic as I would characterize it.
BLITZER: Jeanne, thank you very much.
Jeanne Meserve reporting for us from Sulphur, Louisiana.
More than a day after Rita roared ashore along the Texas/Louisiana border the hard work of picking up, drying out, making repairs is only beginning.
One hard-hit area, Lake Charles, Louisiana. That's where CNN's Jason Carroll is right now. He'll give us an update what's happening.
JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, still a lot of work that needs to be done here in Lake Charles.
Although today, things definitely looking much better. And in fact, where I'm standing here today, it would have been impossible yesterday simply because the water levels from Lake Charles would have been too high for that. Today, things looking much better. Yesterday, a completely different story.
The lake waters had risen to a level that had caused flooding in much of downtown Lake Charles. We saw that when we were out here all day yesterday: flooding in some parts, several feet deep. Fortunately for now, most of that flood water has subsided from that point.
In addition to the flooding, Wolf, you heard Jeanne Meserve talk about downed trees. They've got so much of that here, they just don't know what to do with all of these trees. They're blocking so many roadways. They're going to be out there for days trying to get it all cleared.
In addition to that the downed power lines. The most severe damage, though, is the structural damage that we saw to buildings. Several buildings which had smaller homes and small businesses which had partially collapsed.
Most of the damage that we saw -- the most severe damage was down at the airport, Lake Charles regional airport, where the roof there at the main terminal there, a small airport, had partially caved in.
We took a tour today, though, just to, sort of, do a compare and contrast of what we saw yesterday in terms of what's happening out here today.
Emergency crews are already out on the street. Those shifts started very early this morning trying to clear away some of the debris that we've seen out here on the streets, tried to fix some of those downed power lines.
At this point, the entire area is without power. We drove at least 30 minutes to the east -- still without power as far away as 30 minutes. No water here in the area. Emergency crews are working with the water treatment plants trying to get those back up and running to help with the sanitary conditions out here as well.
Lake Charles police at this point are being inundated with phone calls from people trying to reach loved ones who are here in the area, perhaps loved ones who did not heed evacuation warnings and get out. Although most people did heed those evacuation warnings and did get out.
For those who did not, police are making a list of those folks. What they're doing is they're driving out to those neighborhoods and trying to check on each house one by one, trying to get an accurate assessment of who's left and who may need help. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Jason Carroll, in Lake Charles, L.A.: very hard-hit location as a result of Hurricane Rita. Thank you very much.
Coming up, the latest on the hurricane aftermath. And we want to let you know that the president of the United States has just landed in Louisiana after getting briefings in Texas earlier in the day. We'll have a live report.
Stay with "LATE EDITION." We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're going to go right to these live pictures. These are live pictures over the devastation, the reflooding of New Orleans. The chopper reporter, J.T. Alpaugh telling our viewers what's going on. Let's listen in.
J.T. ALPAUGH, HELICOPTER REPORTER: And we're still filled with water, but after this that levee you see at the top of your screen off the industrial canal was topped and breached. Water continued to pour in and make the waters run even higher.
That's a good spot right here, Mike. If we can just get in and show you almost the waterfalling, cascade damage these waters have caused.
The erosion here, just from the force of all these wind and waters is making evidence that this is still a long way from being over.
They're going to have to come in here and absolutely redo all the work that they did before, but the main purpose right now is what the Chinook helicopters have been doing and that is putting these sandbags in place starting to redirect the pull of water out of this intercoastal.
But you can see as whereas yesterday the waters were freely flowing up to this point. The waters in that canal have definitely gone down.
So the water levels of the storm surge back down to maybe the levels that they were a few days before Rita came to this area. So we're not seeing a lot of water coming back into the lower Ninth Ward right now. They've done an excellent job to get this diked up.
We're see a little bit of flow, not much, not like it was yesterday. You can almost see the current flowing from the left to the right. That's actually water that's being blown out of the lower Ninth Ward and back into the canal but really it has nowhere to go. You're just seeing a little bit of wind-blown currents. But you can see this water slowly trickling in here. And that's...
BLITZER: These are the first live pictures we're getting from the helicopter flying over New Orleans. The reporter, J.T. Alpaugh, explaining to our viewers what's going on.
We're going to go back to these live pictures, update our viewers not only on what's happening in New Orleans but what's happening elsewhere in Louisiana and Texas. More of our special coverage right after this.
BLITZER: This is a special "LATE EDITION: Rita's Trail of Destruction."
Welcome back. We're standing by to hear from the mayor of Houston, Bill White.
There you see a live picture from a news conference. We're expecting him and other city officials to come in and explain to residents of that area when the millions will be allowed to start coming back to their homes. We'll go there once it begins.
We're also standing by to speak with Senator John Cornyn of Texas in just a few moments. We'll find out how that state is faring after Hurricane Rita.
First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.
BLITZER: The Texas governor, Rick Perry, is taking a helicopter tour of parts of the hurricane-damaged southeastern part of Texas. I'll be speaking with the Texas governor in the next hour of "LATE EDITION."
One of the hardest-hit areas was Port Arthur. That's close to where Rita roared ashore.
CNN's Gary Tuchman is joining us now live from that city with more.
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, hello to you. There is great relief that this oil town of Port Arthur and the Gulf of Mexico are not one. There was concern that if Hurricane Rita hit here directly or just to the west there would be more than 20 feet of water throughout this entire town of 58,000 people. But the storm jogged east; they did not get the worst of it.
There is some flooding, as you can see. There's a car in the water there behind me. But this flooding is relatively sporadic. And while the damage is here, it is not catastrophic.
Very interesting scenario here in town: Only one hotel is open right now. Everyone was told to evacuate and they're into being allowed back at this point. But some stragglers are inside the Holiday Inn. What's interesting about the Holiday Inn, in addition to the sign that says "Good luck," which was a warning to everybody, I suppose -- but inside the hotel, a rather unusual mix of people.
It has become a police headquarters for this city. That's because the police station was damaged from the hurricane. So the police are all in there.
In addition to the police, the people who need housing, the media media, there is also, on the bottom floor, a makeshift jail -- that's right, a jail -- for looters -- for people who've been arrested for looting. They're brought to the Holiday Inn. Right next to the bar, there's a meeting room and that's where they are brought in to before they are brought to a regular jail.
One thing we want to mention to you, Wolf: a lot of oil refineries here. There was some damage to the refineries; lots of flooding to them. One of the refineries, very significant damage, we're told.
And for the police, it's tough because they had a repeater system set up there so they could communicate with each other at one of the refineries. It was damaged. So right now the police can't fully utilize their radios.
BLITZER: Well, are they giving any estimate, Gary, how long it will take to repair that refinery?
TUCHMAN: They're not sure because they're still doing a lot of investigating there at the refinery. It's a huge facility.
One thing we do want to say, though, is that, as far as people coming back here, Wolf to this town, they can kind of come back to their homes right if they had to. But right now, they want to give it a lot of time, get the power, get the water back on. So they're telling residents not to come back to Port Arthur just yet.
BLITZER: Probably good advice. Gary Tuchman, on the scene for us, thank you very much.
Major rescue and cleanup efforts continuing at the same time in Abbeville, Louisiana. That's not very far away. The city was pounded by Rita, experiencing some flooding up to rooftops.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us there and he's joining us now live.
Looks like you've got a helicopter behind you, getting ready for what, a search and rescue operation?
LAVANDERA: Yes, Wolf, just as you were getting ready to (inaudible) here, this helicopter pulled in. It doesn't look like anyone is on board. But it looks like the crew just stepped off and they're getting ready to take off back over the southern parts of Vermilion Parish, where they don't know how many people might still be out there. And what these crews are doing is actually taking a very targeted approach, using what emergency calls that have come in to target the people that they're searching for.
They say that so far, in the last day or so, they have found about 250 people in the southern parts of Vermilion Parish. There are no confirmed reports of death at this point.
But there is one situation that rescue crews are monitoring very closely. And that is the story of a family, a woman and her three children, who are in the small town of Intercoastal City. It is the very furthest southern point of this parish.
And I hope you can still hear me through this.
But in the days leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Rita, the sheriff's deputies in this parish were going to this woman, asking her to evacuate. She refused to do so.
We spoke with the sheriff last night who has no idea where that family is right now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHERIFF MIKE COUVILLION, VERMILION PARISH, LOUISIANA: The deputy begged the woman to let the three children leave with him. She advised, no.
This morning, she called. We attempted to rescue her. We couldn't get there by boat: The water was too rough; the current was traveling too fast, the water was rising too fast. We couldn't get in. We finally got helicopters in. We sent the helicopters to look for her, but we can't even find the trailer anymore.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAVANDERA: Wolf, the hope is, at this point, is that maybe, at the very last minute, the woman was able to escape with her three children. But still they have not found her.
BLITZER: Ed Lavandera, thanks very much.
Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us. We'll continue to watch that story. Let's go to Houston, Texas: the mayor, Bill White, briefing reporters right now.
BILL WHITE, MAYOR OF HOUSTON: ... aviation, those in pharmacies, in the food supply and delivery system; those in public entities who have important public service components to them, that those people make plans to serve the public, so that our community can recover well.
I'll ask Judge Eckels also to comments on the plans for getting people back and some of the announcements the governor and president made yesterday.
COUNTY JUDGE ROBERT ECKELS, HOUSTON, TEXAS: Thank you, Mayor.
I want to reemphasize again the importance of getting back to work and opening particularly the convenience stores and gas stations. We often don't think of critical personnel as being what seems to be the simplest type of things, but the city does not function without food or grocery stores or gasoline. And so it is important that those folks go back.
Continental Air Lines -- employees of the various airlines need to be back at work because those are operations.
At the county, there will be no jury duty on Monday and Tuesday. So anybody who has a jury notice for Monday or Tuesday does not need to come for jury duty to the county or the state courts.
At the same time, those courts will be open. All county and state district courts will be open with essential personnel on Monday, and people need to be aware those courts are there, and conducting business. They're just not going to be conducting jury trials.
All other county departments will be open. The employees should check with their direct supervisor if they have a question of whether they need to be there or not.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority will continue to be open as a free road through Tuesday. We will open again and begin charging tolls again Wednesday morning after the disaster has passed and people have moved back in to their homes.
The evacuation routes -- as people come back, we encourage people to follow the governor's and the state's reentry plan, coming back in again today, for people in the north and the west side of the county. They're well publicized on the maps on the local stations.
Tomorrow, moving further toward the south, toward the Aldine (ph) and the areas east or west of Highway 45 (ph) and south of 10, and then on Wednesday, for the other areas in Harris County.
So we encourage people to follow that plan as it was outlined at the state and maybe transmitted around the state. The reentry seems to be -- the return seems to be working relatively smoothly. We are seeing right now high traffic levels coming in, but the traffic is still flowing up from areas like Conroe and in from the Sealy area.
So we do appreciate everyone's cooperation, and the way that is working at this point. With that, I think that we have the FEMA director.
WHITE: Let's do one of those...
WHITE: Essential personnel that is at work, hard at work with the Center Point Power employee...
BLITZER: All right, we're going to continue to monitor this briefing in Houston. They're beginning to move slowly but surely to try to bring a couple million people back.
Joining us now from Austin, Texas, to give us his assessment of the damage caused by Hurricane Rita is the United States senator from Texas, the Republican, John Cornyn.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us. Are you satisfied with, A, the way things are working out right now, and, B, the buildup to Rita?
SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Well, I think we had a plan that was executed here, and the number one goal was to save human life.
People in Galveston still recall a terrible disaster 100 years ago -- 125 years ago where 8,000 people lost their lives. Some computer models say that if a Category 4 hurricane hit Houston, that $80 billion of property damage would have occurred. So we feel we're very fortunate.
That's not to say things were perfect, and obviously there's lessons that I think we have learned about mass evacuations and then now the repopulation of the region once the immediate danger seems to have passed Houston at least.
BLITZER: What worked -- then I'll ask you the next question, what didn't work -- what worked, first of all?
CORNYN: Well, the state, working with the federal government as a backstop, but primarily at the state level working with local leaders they had a plan and they practiced that plan time and time again.
So this is not something that they had to make up as they went along. They were executing a plan that they practiced, which I think by and large worked pretty well, notwithstanding some glitches.
The number one priority is to save human life. And fortunately, thank goodness, in Texas we were successful in having no direct casualties as a result of Rita.
BLITZER: What didn't work?
CORNYN: Well, all you have to do is look at 2.7 million people on the highways, trying to get out of a big storm and, obviously, we had a big parking lot. We had problems with gasoline supplies.
But again, I think in many ways, this response is sort of like what happens when -- in war. During the fog of war, your best-laid plans need to be constantly amended, and you need to change your response and be flexible. That's what the state officials did here in Texas, and I'm very proud of what Governor Perry and his team as well as the local leaders at county and city level have done working together with their federal partners.
BLITZER: It seemed like it took forever to get those highways, those interstates, those major expressways, all the lanes moving in one direction, away from Houston so that people could move at a much faster pace. Why did it take so long to get that so-called contra flow moving?
CORNYN: Well, I think that's one of the things that we're going to have to look at, as far as, sort of, when that -- when you handle those sort of orders, the fact is, we've never had an evacuation this size before: 2.7 million people.
Maybe that should have been handled on a different time basis, but the good news is that people ultimately did get out, and fortunately, Rita did the rest by taking a right-hand turn and avoiding the major population centers in our state.
BLITZER: As you know, there were countless, countless horror stories: people, 15, 20 hours in their car and moving maybe 20 or 30 miles, if that; running out of gas along the side of the road; gas stations all over the greater Houston area without gasoline. Clearly lessons are going to have to be learned from what happened.
CORNYN: No question about it. And I want to say how much I appreciate the patience and relative good humor of people who were under a lot of pressure and suffering a lot of frustration during this process.
But the bottom line is that people did get out, they did respond to the evacuation order as they should have, and now we're in the process, of course, about getting people back home, not before they're ready, because some places are still under water, without power, without gas and without food.
And so we need to make sure that we handle that on a case-by-case basis, based on the circumstances on the ground.
BLITZER: The federal taxpayers are going to be picking up a big tab, if not the entire tab, of what happened as a result of Rita in Texas. Where do you want that money to come from: from borrowing -- additional borrowing from Saudi Arabia and China and Taiwan and Korea, in other words, deficit spending, or do you want to eliminate current spending, so-called offsets, to pay for that additional expenditure?
CORNYN: Well, you're right: The money has to come from somewhere. I hope the money that is spent out of federal taxpayers pocket is spent responsibly and not wasted or thrown away.
I personally favor a proposal made by Senator Chuck Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee who said we ought to have an across-the- board cuts. My fear is if you start picking on different projects, each senator or congressman has their own pet projects, and in the end we end up just increasing the deficit and not really having offsets.
BLITZER: All right, we have to leave it right there, unfortunately.
Senator Cornyn, thanks very much for joining us.
John Cornyn, the junior senator from Texas, Republican.
Appreciate it very much.
We're getting some new video in. These are pictures of the president. He's on the ground now, just landed in Louisiana having spent most of his day, at least so far, in Texas getting briefed by officials there in both Austin and San Antonio, and now he's in Louisiana. He's about to get briefed on what's happening there in the aftermath of Rita.
New Orleans specifically suffering some major reflooding, as well as other parts of the state, in the western part of Louisiana, new flooding. Parts of western Louisiana did not suffer major damage as a result of Katrina, but it is suffering right now as a result of Rita, and we're going to monitor the president. He's expected to speak to reporters shortly, and we'll bring you those remarks once they're available.
We'll take a quick break, but coming up on this special "LATE EDITION," a closer look at the response to Hurricane Rita and Katrina. The two top members of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman; they're standing by to tell us live what went wrong, what went right, what needs to be fixed and what doesn't need to be fixed.
And later, pain at the pump: Will Hurricane Rita cause gas prices to rise even higher?
These are live pictures that we're seeing right here flying over some of the coastal region.
Much more of our special "LATE EDITION" right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
U.S. SENATOR KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R-TX): That is something that probably will be done a different way next time, because who would have known 2.7 million people would have evacuated.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, commenting on the crush of people that evacuated Houston cities before Rita hit land.
Welcome back to our special "LATE EDITION."
The federal government received a lot of criticism over the initial response to Hurricane Katrina. But did it fare any better with Rita, and what needs to be fixed down the road?
Joining us now to helps us answer those questions are the two top U.S. senators on the Homeland Security Committee, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine -- she's the chairwoman -- and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- he's the ranking Democrat.
Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."
Senator Collins, I'll speak with you. Why four years after 9/11, do you think the evacuation of a major American city turned out to be so problematic?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Well, that's one of the questions that our committee's investigation will seek to answer. You would think four years after 9/11 with billions of dollars spent to improve our emergency preparedness that the response to Katrina would be far crisper, far better coordinated and not marred by failures at all levels of government.
Now, I think we've seen the difference with Rita, where, although there were problems, the response was far better. But it still suggests that there are major gaps in our emergency preparedness, and that's why we need to find out what went wrong and rectify those problems.
BLITZER: Were you surprised that evacuating the couple million people, 2.5 million maybe, from Houston was not better organized?
COLLINS: I actually thought Texas officials did a very good job and that the citizens took the warnings very seriously. Obviously, when you're evacuating millions of people, you got to think through whether you should be doing it in a staged approach.
I'm sure that that will be taken a look at. When you look at hurricane Rita, whether is was local, state or federal officials, assets were prepositioned, we were ready to go, the evacuation was not as smooth as it should have been, but it was an enormous improvement compared to Katrina.
BLITZER: Senator Lieberman, what do you think?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, obviously, the great cities of America and the federal government have not been demanding enough in creating evacuation plans from our major cities in the aftermath of 9/11. We saw that tragically, infuriatingly in New Orleans, of course, and saw it less in the last few days in Houston.
But these have been cases, New Orleans, Katrina and Rita, where we had a warning. And of course, the nightmare that we all have is that, God forbid, there's a terrorist attack of some kind on a major American city that requires evacuation without warning. We need to be better prepared. And look, part of what happened as we watched Houston trying to evacuate was an intensification, a multiplication of what happens every day during the commuter rush hours in every city, around every city in America. Traffic is congested.
And tell everybody -- you just can't say to everybody, "Evacuate," and expect that there's not going to be the gridlock that there was. I think Susan mentioned one idea, which cities have to think about, which is staged evacuations, particularly when there's time when a natural disaster is coming.
BLITZER: Senator Lieberman, you have a major city in your home state of Connecticut, Hartford. Do you believe that Hartford has a plan in place?
You know, let's say there were a dirty radiological bomb, God forbid, in Hartford, and the entire community, the entire city had to evacuate. Do they have a plan in place?
LIEBERMAN: I'd be surprised if there was an adequate plan.
And let's be real direct about it. Hartford's a much smaller city than New Orleans or Houston. But I can tell you, every morning and every afternoon, there's terrible traffic congestion on 91 and 84 around Hartford. If there was an attack without warning, it would be hard to evacuate quickly.
And that's what every city, large and medium-size and small, has to begin to think about. And again, I spoke to Secretary Chertoff the other day abut this. The Department of Homeland Security has to do much more than just ask for evacuation plans. And they're beginning to do it, and we're going to give them the authority if they need it. They have to demand review, say, "Hey, this plan is not enough. How are you going to get your poor people out, as we saw in New Orleans? Or what other methods are you going to use?"
Here again, if a city is lucky enough to have mass transit, which they ought to have more of for a lot of other reasons, it's going to be easier to evacuate than if they don't. The roads are going to get clogged.
BLITZER: Senator Collins, you're going to hold hearings on some of the lessons, the immediate lessons learned from Katrina and Rita. And you're going to have the former FEMA director, Michael Brown, who's been under a lot of fire. He resigned, as all of our viewers know by now.
What's the point of your hearings?
COLLINS: Well, our initial focus is on the immediate needs of those who have been displaced by the hurricanes. We have some 450,000 families that are in need of long-term housing. We've seen evacuees going to other communities and placing a real challenge for their school systems, for example. So our focus, at first is on making sure that the resources and assistance are present to help those most affected by the hurricanes.
Then we're going to turn to an investigation of what went wrong. We're going to look at the leadership, we're going to look at the resources, we're going to look at planning, we're going to look at response. Because it's critical that we learn from this experience, fix problems, and move on to make sure that the next time we have a disaster in this country, whether it's from Mother Nature or a man- made attack, that we have learned from the lessons of Katrina.
BLITZER: Michael Brown will testify what day?
COLLINS: Michael Brown is actually testifying over on the House side next week, I think on Tuesday. And I think we'll learn from that.
Senator Lieberman and I, working with the members of our committee, are planning a hearing next week where we'll hear from mayors and FEMA officials who are involved right now in meeting the needs of the hurricane victims.
At the same time, we're starting to gather the documents, do the interviews and conduct the long-term investigation, really dig down deep to find out what went wrong. And I can promise you that that's going to be a bipartisan investigation.
BLITZER: Is that enough, though, Senator Lieberman? Congress has oversight responsibilities, House and Senate, but should there be a 9/11-type commission of inquiry to look what went wrong in the immediate aftermath of Katrina?
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, I believe there should be an independent 9/11- type commission to look into the response of Katrina and our general state of emergency preparedness and response.
But that's not enough. Congress has the responsibility to do its own investigation, do it as quickly as possible, as it did in the 9/11 case, because Congress, after all, creates these federal agencies, funds the state and local agencies and the federal agencies were supposed to have been prepared, ready to respond, and obviously at all levels let us down.
Senator Collins and I have worked together with our committee, certainly in response to the 9/11 commission. We decided then, as we have again here, you've got to put the Republican and Democratic labels aside. This is a national emergency. We're going to do this under her leadership in a totally non-partisan way. We're going to get to the truth and then fix what went wrong. Actually, some of it already seemed to be a little bit fixed in the response to Rita by all levels of government.
BLITZER: Senator Collins, do you understand why your leadership, the Republican leadership in the Senate and the House, as well as the president -- why they're resisting these calls for an independent outside investigation?
COLLINS: Wolf, since there's concern that Congress not abdicate our responsibility to investigate what went wrong. After all, an outside commission does not have the power to change the laws, to institute new reforms, to correct what went wrong. It's our job. So I think there's a feeling that Congress is supposed to be handling this issue.
From my standpoint, I think it's premature to see whether we need an outside commission. The 9/11 Commission was not signed into law until more than a year after the attacks on our country. It did not substitute for a congressional investigation.
So I think what we should do is proceed with an aggressive congressional investigation and then see if we do have a need for an outside commission down the road. It's too early to make that judgment.
BLITZER: I think we have to leave it right there, unfortunately. But I want to thank both of you, Senator Lieberman, Senator Collins. Thanks very much for joining us on our special "LATE EDITION."
We'll take a quick break. Up next, we'll get a quick check of what's in the news right now including the latest damage assessment on Hurricane Rita. Stay with us, we'll be right back.
BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "LATE EDITION." We're watching all the developments in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
Right now the helicopter reporter, J.T. Alpaugh, is flying over various parts of New Orleans.
These are live pictures that we're showing you. This was St. Rita's nursing home where so many residents were found dead in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It's been shut down, obviously.
Let's listen in to the reporter, J.T. Alpaugh.
ALPAUGH: This was a crime scene investigation for quite some time. I believe investigators were here for at least a week sifting through the evidence, respectfully removing the deceased from this caretaking facility of, I believe it's St. Rita's, ironically enough, if I remember correctly.
There's the sign there. Yep, St. Rita's. Just an irony that I just recently realized.
So many people perished and lost their lives here when they were allegedly left behind by the caretakers of this facility that these people trusted with their lives. Just a very, very sad story here in the St. Bernard Parish, St. Rita's. That's St. Rita's nursing home. We were out here during the investigation and saw numerous investigators and attorney generals, D.A.s, looking through this area, trying to actually look for additional bodies outside.
All this area was completely underwater when they were looking through here, but again very hollowed ground right now. A very sad story, and it brings back some very bad memories for at least myself here when we were over here and when they were doing the investigation and bringing the bodies out.
But again we're over the St. Bernard Parish in St. Bernard community. This is St. Rita's nursing home where so many people had lost their lives.
My name is J.T. Alpaugh. I'm along with Mike Monahan (ph), and the (inaudible) helicopter here bringing you these images live. It's 11:40 in the morning here in the New Orleans area.
Going through these areas in these parishes, looking for additional damage that may have been caused by Hurricane Rita. An already ravished area by Katrina made worse by the storm surge and rain from Rita itself.
So we're going to continue back towards the river here, as I pan around, as we leave St. Rita's nursing home where so many people, again, lost their lives in the St. Bernard Parish area, the St. Bernard community.
Story upon story of just an area that just is battered, absolutely battered.
Adding insult to injury, with Rita's rainfall and heavy winds -- and again, the wind's still blowing very harshly up here. We're getting gusts of about 20 to 30 miles an hour up here in our Helinet (ph) helicopter.
But we came in here yesterday and were battered even a little bit harder. But it was safe to fly. And we got in to this area as soon as it was safe to fly to bring the images of the breached and broken levees.
To recap what we've seen in the past hour: Again, the water level continues to rise in the lower Ninth Ward outside of the Industrial Canal where the levee was breached and overtopped, causing some flooding all the way up to about four miles or so, causing those areas that had nearly drained out to be flooded with water again.
The lower Ninth Ward never completely drained out. But again, more water's been put on top of that.
We went and checked out the 17th Street Canal this morning. And again, the waters between the 17th Street Canal and the Orleans Canal -- still, where those areas were completely drained out, have refilled with waters and are trying to get those areas contained.
But the levee itself looks intact. It did not breach, but it was topped.
We're now making our way back. This is, obviously, the bank of the Mississippi River, as we work our way back to the northwest, toward the downtown New Orleans area, passing over the Violet (ph) area.
Let me give you a little bit of a quick pan here to show you just how much water surrounds these communities, to give you a little bit of perspective of what they're up against.
Now, again, the Mississippi River, as we fly to the northwest, on the left side of the aircraft is the Mississippi River, as I pan through the Violet and the communities that run through the St. Bernard Parish. And off to the right, you can see all the wetlands and marshlands that lead to Lake Pontchartrain and to Lake Bourne.
So everywhere you look, just small strips of area and land completely surrounded by water. And when these storm surges of 10, 15 feet start to come through this area, you can imagine how these areas can become flooded.
They're already working with areas that are near or at or below sea level. And it is just inevitable that these marshlands and these wetlands cannot handle the storm surge like something -- they're designed to do that. And what you're seeing out here, as I pan back out to the right, what these areas of these marshlands normally look like is they look like a lot of vegetation, a lot of swampland, where you can barely see the waters. Now, it looks like a brand new lake. And it did right after Katrina.
But that's what those marshlands are designed to do, to act as natural water basins, to trap some of this water and protect these areas. But when there's so much water coming through like it did with Katrina, which was a surge from the north to the south, unlike Rita, which was a surge from the south to the north -- but Katrina brought all this water that you see on the to of your screen from the lakes of Pontchartrain and Bourne and the marshlands and brought them and flooded them all from the right to your left. That's where all the water came from.
But luckily, the storm surge from Rita here was not as hard and not as strong, obviously. But it also came from the left to the right, from the south to the north. And that's why we're seeing so much of that water come in from the Mississippi River and being pushed by those winds and surges up that Industrial Canal to that already repaired but then breached again levee, causing the flooding.
And, again, they want to get that stopped, and they're working very hard to get that stopped as we speak, using Chinook helicopters to sling-load very large white sandbags in there to stop that water.
They've made incredible progress. But again, the damage has already been done. As I push in here to show you some of the Chalmette and Araby (ph) areas that the water line stops about right here. That's where the water line stops. There's a canal there that stops that water. And all this area that you see, two days ago was dry, was already pumped out -- already those waters pumped back out to the marshlands and the wetlands.
So, again, at the top part of your screen, you can see barely -- in fact, we're going to slow down just a little bit if we can, Mike.
And I'm going to push in and show you: That is the Industrial Canal. And the breach is actually just a little bit further south. But to give you an idea, all these areas here, except for the lower Ninth Ward -- most of these areas that I'm showing you right here were already voided of water; the water was gone.
And now they have refilled up because that water continues to push from the west to the east toward us and pretty much stops right about where you see my camera ending, right about in here. In fact, this is where the water line stops. Everything on the other side of this canal -- and we're going to try to get you a name of that canal -- I think it's Gernach? Guichard (ph) Canal, right? At the bottom of the water, the Guichard (ph) Canal is where that water flow, so far, is stopped from coming in from the Industrial Canal.
BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to show you these pictures. These are live pictures from a helicopter that's flying over New Orleans. There are areas that were flooded by Hurricane Katrina that have been reflooded now by Hurricane Rita.
We're going to continue to show you these pictures, but I want to bring in our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.
Jamie, first of all, where are you?
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm at the Ellington Air Base just south of Houston. I'm travelling with Lieutenant General Clark, the Joint Task Force Rita commander. He's making his assessment tour.
And why don't I just put him on with you, Wolf? You can ask him directly what's going on, what he's seeing and what he's thinking.
Here's General Clark.
BLITZER: OK, thanks very much, Jamie.
General Clark, thanks very much for joining us.
You're the counterpart to Lieutenant General Russel Honore. You're doing in Texas what he's doing in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, is that right?
LT. GEN. ROBERT CLARK, U.S. ARMY: That's correct, Wolf. We are counterparts. He's got Louisiana; I've got Texas in terms of command and control of any federal troops that are committed to hurricane relief operations. And my area of responsibility is Texas and 200 nautical miles into the Gulf. BLITZER: Well, give us your assessment, General Clark. How did it go, the aftermath of Hurricane Rita? And how is it going right now?
CLARK: Well, I think it went very well, all things considered.
I think Texas had a great evacuation of citizens out of the densely populated areas and small towns. And as we flew into Houston just a few minutes ago, we saw a little bit of vehicular traffic on the highways, but considering the size of this city not very much, actually.
We're at Ellington Field and we're surrounded by great troopers from the Coast Guard and the Texas National Guard. And some of them have just come in from medical evacuation missions and are preparing to go back out. The place is a beehive of activity. One of the Coast Guard crewmen was telling me that some of the crews flew as many as 15 to 17 missions yesterday and last night. So they've been busy.
We're going to continue on and make a big circle through the area of southeast Texas that experienced the most damage and we'll have a better picture then. We were trying to get in by helicopter yesterday and just was not able to because of the weather.
BLITZER: Do you have reports, General, of people still stranded in flooded areas in their homes? They may be on their roofs.
We know that has occurred in the western part of Louisiana. What about in Texas?
CLARK: We have a search and rescue operation that is ongoing. And, in fact, all of this part of Texas is being looked at from the air by helicopters from the various services and the Texas National Guard.
I haven't received a report since we've been airborne, but I am certain that by the end of the day we will have checked the area of primary concern that has been outlined by the state of Texas -- the officials from the state emergency operations center.
So we will have had a pretty good look. And anybody who may be stranded that is visible from airborne assets will have been picked up.
From that point, we'll respond to requests for evacuation as they come in and we've got the assets to do that.
BLITZER: That was the next question: Do you have enough troops, or do you have too many troops now deployed in Texas, to deal with the aftermath of Rita?
CLARK: I believe Texas has enough troops from the Texas National Guard. There are other National Guard assets -- troops, helicopters and so forth -- who are here serving with them. We have federal troops on a short string at Fort Hood, Texas.
And I believe we have more than enough to meet any of the demands that we might experience for the state of Texas.
BLITZER: One final question, General, before I let you go.
We heard the president at that briefing he received earlier today in Texas. He seemed to suggest that he would like Congress to consider this: maybe giving the U.S. military the lead responsibility in dealing with disasters, whether natural disasters or manmade disasters like a terror disasters down the road.
What do you think about that?
CLARK: Wolf, that's above my pay grade. I'm here fulfilling a role as the joint task force commander responding to the needs of the governor of Texas and the lead federal agency, FEMA. And I'm working very closely with Admiral Larry Hereth and trying to fulfill our responsibilities to take care of the citizens of Texas.
And I really don't care to comment on the kind of discussions that will take place at higher levels.
BLITZER: Fair enough, General Clark. Good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women under your command.
Lieutenant General Robert Clark has got a huge mission ahead of him.
CLARK: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.
And thank Jamie McIntyre for us as well.
Coming up next on our special "LATE EDITION," we'll get a quick check on some of the more severe weather in the Gulf Coast region. There's a possibility of tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama, just what they don't need in those two states.
Stay with us.
BLITZER: Following the path of tropical depression Rita is our meteorologist Brad Huffines. He's joining us now live with what we can expect.
Brad, what's the latest?
BRAD HUFFINES, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, there is good news that the storm is now moving, and much of the flood concern is now dissipating. But what is replacing the flood concern is a concern for tornadoes and gusty winds along this line of thunderstorms now that goes from near Jackson, Tennessee all the way down east of Jackson, Mississippi. And this new tornado watch includes cities like Birmingham, also Huntsville, Alabama, up toward Nashville. And that's because along this line of thunderstorms, every county that you see lit up in red, those are active tornado warnings, meaning that Doppler radar is likely indicating possible circulation in some of these thunderstorms.
So what looks to be a flooding concern that is dissipating now in southern sections of Arkansas, into much of Louisiana and eastern Texas, as that water continues to drain, we are now seeing the chance of severe weather that extends all the way from Jackson all the way down through Mississippi. Worth staying up for and watching throughout the day.
BLITZER: All right, Brad. Thanks very much.
Before we continue with the coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, an American soldier far from home and in the hands of enemy. In the opening days of this second Gulf War, Shoshana Johnson's face brought the reality of war stateside.
As part of CNN's anniversary series, "Then and Now," our Aaron Brown has a closer look back at Johnson and where she is today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(UNKNOWN): What's your name?
SPECIALIST SHOSHANA JOHNSON (USA): Shana.
(UNKNOWN): Shana. Where do you come from?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: She's the first African-American woman to become a prisoner of war. Shoshana Johnson was a cook for the 507th Maintenance Company when it was ambushed in Iraq in March of 2003.
JOHNSON: I was terrified. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And I was in a lot of pain.
BROWN: The 30-year-old mother was shot in both ankles, captured with five other soldiers.
JOHNSON: I feared for my life the whole captivity.
BROWN: She was rescued three weeks later, and came home to instant celebrity.
Johnson will soon retire from Army. She's had to fight to keep her disability benefits. Because her injuries were less severe, she receives much less than her fellow soldier Jessica Lynch, but says she doesn't begrudge her friend.
JOHNSON: Things don't bother me as much, you know. Quite frankly, I'm just very happy to be still on this Earth. BROWN: Johnson spends time with her daughter. She does some speaking engagements. And she's still undergoing both physical and emotional therapy.
JOHNSON; Everything happens for a reason. I've had a lot of good fortune. I'm healthy. My family is healthy, my daughters, my nieces. I don't ask God for anything more than that.
BLITZER: Coming up in our next hour of our special "LATE EDITION": Texas residents heading back home after evacuating for Hurricane Rita. And that's creating some new problems, potentially, for the beleaguered state. We'll speak with Texas Governor Rick Perry.
That's coming up at the top of the hour.
These are live pictures that we're seeing, sandbags over New Orleans. They're trying to repair those fragile levees that didn't make it, didn't work during this second hurricane within a month. Much more of our special coverage right after this.
BLITZER: This is a special "LATE EDITION: Rita's Trail of Destruction."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
R. DAVID PAULISON, FEMA DIRECTOR: We have power lines down everywhere across the roadways. There's a tremendous amount of debris in the streets.
BLITZER (voice-over): Hurricane Rita slams the Gulf Coast. The hard work begins on another major recovery effort.
PERRY: Stay put. Don't come back into southeast Texas today.
BLITZER: Rita was no Katrina. And while people in Texas are thankful, it's still not safe for residents to return home. When will it be? We'll ask Texas governor, Rick Perry.
Tens of thousands in shelters across Texas and Louisiana. Are they getting the food, water and medical attention they need? We'll ask Red Cross president Mary Evans is the organized stretched too thin?
(UNKNOWN): Trying to get gas is a hassle. I've been sitting here for three hours already.
BLITZER: The oil industry seems to have weathered the storm. When will production resume? And what prices will you see at the pump? We'll get insight from two experts, New Mexico Governor and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and the president of the American Petroleum Institute, Red Cavaney. Plus we'll get the very latest from our reporters and guests all over the Gulf region.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Live from the CNN center in Atlanta, this is a special LATE EDITION with Wolf Blitzer: "Rita's Trail of Destruction."
BLITZER: Welcome back. My interview with the Texas governor, Rick Perry, is coming up shortly. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.
BLITZER: From Louisiana, stories of fast-rising water and survival in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is keeping watch in Abbeville, Louisiana, a town that was very hard hit.
What's the latest there, Ed?
LAVANDERA: Hi, Wolf.
We're seeing the activity of helicopters and planes and boats kind of pick up as the day moves on here. They've done one solid day of search and rescue missions throughout the southern part of Vermillion Parish. And authorities here say that they are still at a search and rescue mode.
About 250 people, roughly, have been rescued so far from their homes and in the small towns in the southern part of this parish, where flood waters started rising yesterday morning. Residents say it just took a couple of hours for things to get out of control.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HANK MOSS, VERMILLION PARISH RESIDENT: Some were in the attics. Some were on the top of their roofs. This water came up early this morning from 4 to 7 a.m. The storm surge came in and just came over the roads, over the levees and the people's homes, and they just had no place to go. They were trapped.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAVANDERA: You heard that resident's description. Now watch the real thing.
I cannot imagine you'll find any other video images that capture what it must be like to be in one of these flood situations. This is home video taken by a man who had woken up yesterday morning to see what was going on outside, to find that his front yard, as he described it, as moving.
In a few short hours, the flood waters had reached into his windows and were cascading inside this house. Refrigerators, furniture all over the place.
The water eventually rose another up to nine to 10 feet. The man had to crawl into his attic, used his shotgun to blow a hole through the roof. He climbed to his rooftop and was later rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Incredibly dramatic pictures.
And every resident we've talked to, was in this area, say that the flood waters -- it was just before sunrise, and they thought that they were out of the worst of the storm. In fact, many residents had already started coming back to check on their homes. And those people who had come back were later trapped in the flood waters. But the rescue missions continue. There are no confirmed deaths so far. But authorities here say that there are still many people that they're looking for, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right.
Ed Lavandera in Abbeville, Louisiana.
Let's head east right now to New Orleans. The hurricane was a serious setback and a source of new flooding to that city. Pressure is on for fresh repairs and a new schedule to try to allow people to return to their homes.
CNN's Mary Snow is on the scene for us. She's joining us now live.
SNOW: Wolf, New Orleans is getting a bit of a break today with the weather, and this is because water is receding. We'll show you how.
Right across from me is the lower Ninth Ward. And if you could take a look at that truck, earlier today, in the time we've been standing here, you couldn't even see the tires on that truck. So we are seeing the water levels going down. And that will help somewhat.
However, this area is still flooded. And that is because of the storm surge that happened on Friday, when eight feet of water came in and went over an area in this Industrial Canal levee that had been breached. It topped over into the lower Ninth Ward, once again flooding this area. This area had been so hard hit in Hurricane Katrina.
What's been happening now -- and we'll see a chopper on its way -- helicopters one by one have the tedious task of coming by and dropping these huge sandbags onto this damaged area of that levee. These sandbags range in weight between 3,000 and 7,000 pounds. Now, we had been seeing military Chinook helicopters. Now also we're seeing some private helicopters coming in.
What engineers are trying to do is to shore up, once again, this area and patch it up. They had done so. It was only last week that this Ninth Ward had been dried out, before water topped over it once again and the Ninth Ward flooded. No one has been living there, because the devastation was so strong.
And you can see this chopper just now about to drop another sandbag. This is a pretty tedious task.
Once this is all done, engineers are going to have to pump this water out. They believe they can start later this week. And they think it's going to take about a week, once again, to dry it out. But it is really a very tedious process here.
Now, one thing that did occur over the weekend is the mayor of New Orleans is saying that he is monitoring this situation very closely today. He wants to see how it goes. And he's going to try and get the program to get people moving back to New Orleans perhaps as early as tomorrow.
BLITZER: We did hear, Mary, Vice Admiral Thad Allen say here on "LATE EDITION" earlier today, that he was basically on the same page with the Mayor Ray Nagin, as far as allowing people to go back to the Algiers district and the downtown area. He's a little bit more concerned about opening the city to more than that, at least for the time being.
Any reaction you're picking up there?
SNOW: Well, the two areas that Nagin wants everybody to start try to get back into are areas that suffered the least amount of damage. And one concern that people have been sharing is that, you know, there are six weeks left in the Atlantic hurricane season, and there's concern. Because this is an example of how fragile these levees are.
And one concern has been raised is an evacuation plan to make sure that if people come in, that they'll be able to get out once again. And with storms potentially in the next few weeks, there are some concerns that perhaps there are also faulty lines on these levees that haven't been detected yet.
So it's still a tense situation in terms of trying to see how far these levees can hold up and how quickly they can be repaired.
BLITZER: Mary Snow in New Orleans, thanks very much.
These are live pictures we're getting from a helicopter that's flying over New Orleans right now. The reporter on that helicopter, J.T. Alpaugh, is narrating what he's seeing. He's describing the situation. Let's listen in briefly.
Workers clearly on the scene trying to repair some of the damage from the flooding in New Orleans. You see those pipes there. J.T. Alpaugh was talking about this. He's clearly taking a break right now.
We'll continue to watch these pictures. These are live pictures coming in from New Orleans, where they have a mammoth job under way, not only from Hurricane Katrina but also now from Hurricane Rita.
Just ahead, we'll get an update from Texas. Can the residents return to their homes? And how is the cleanup progressing in the wake of Hurricane Rita? The Texas governor, Rick Perry, will join us.
"LATE EDITION" will be right back.
BLITZER: These are live pictures we're getting from Interstate 45 north of Houston. Doesn't look like a lot of traffic today as people are starting to come back. That could pick up, clearly, in the hours and days ahead. We'll continue to monitor the traffic situation in the Houston area.
Just a little while ago, I spoke with the Texas governor, Rick Perry, about the current state of operations in Texas.
BLITZER: Governor Perry, thanks so much for joining us. Perhaps you could give us a status report right now. In Texas, how many people were killed as a result of Hurricane Rita?
GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: No, that's a real blessing. At this particular point in time, no casualties from the hurricane itself, and you know, obviously a lot of residential, commercial buildings -- it appears the refining industry, the oil and gas industry, a glancing blow at worst, and so hopefully they will be back in production very soon.
But the most important part of this whole story is that this time, other than the tragedy of the bus in Dallas on the evacuation, there's been no loss of life by the actual impact of this hurricane.
BLITZER: Well, you raise the issue of that horrible bus tragedy with that assisted living center. The Houston Chronicle is reporting today -- and let me read to you what they say. They say: "Under an emergency order issued by Governor Perry last week, however, some requirements for motor carriers were suspended to allow every available vehicle to be used for the evacuation."
Do you fear that that order may have contributed to that horrible tragedy, that bus accident?
PERRY: We took no safety precautions away at all. I mean, we were very clear, this was to get as many vehicles on the road, to get people out of harm's way. But the safety requirements were absolutely not waived. So the answer to that is no.
We needed to get people moved, and we did an extraordinary job of moving 2.5 million, 3 million people over a 36-hour period of time out of a massive storm.
BLITZER: A huge area.
Do you have a good idea in your own mind right now how that bus tragedy occurred?
PERRY: No, I have no idea. You know, we'll have to let the experts do that.
I know we had 20-plus elderly people on there with oxygen cylinders. And I don't know, and I think it would be wise for all of us to wait until that investigation is done before we come to any conclusions.
BLITZER: We're seeing today people starting in relatively big numbers to want to get back to their homes, which is understandable. Are you still telling people of the Houston area, "Hold off for the time being"?
PERRY: We're asking them is to listen to their local officials. And we've got a plan to get folks back in in an orderly way. There's -- those -- Monday, Tuesday, directions are forthcoming if they're not already out there.
But the folks over in southeast Texas, these eight, nine, 10 counties that were impacted by the storm, we're asking them, "If you're comfortable, you got food, you got clothing, stay where you are. This is still a dangerous place here, and it's secure, with law enforcement. Let us start cleaning this place up, get electricity, so that water and sewage and those types of things are back for this area. Stay put; don't come back into southeast Texas today."
BLITZER: But this is a voluntary request. There's no penalty, I take it, if people don't heed your request.
PERRY: That's correct. But by and large, this entire process has been a voluntary. Even though we have a mandatory evacuation, there are no penalties for that.
These are people who have seen the impact of Katrina. They've seen very vivid pictures of what an 18- to 20-foot storm surge would do to Galveston, Corpus Christi, to Houston, to Beaumont, and these people wisely moved out of harm's way. And we saved a lot of lives.
BLITZER: There were those horrible traffic jams, trying to get millions of people out of the Houston area. This is the fourth largest city in the United States, a metropolitan area of about 4.5 million people. The mayor, Bill White, seemed to suggest that the state could have done a better job in handling this. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WHITE: Everybody knows that it was just totally unacceptable, and that there were not adequate fuel supplies stashed around the state, And that, as the judge has said before, that's a part of the state plan that's going to need improvement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, you want to respond to that? PERRY: Well, I think you can improve on any plan. And these local officials have been great to work with, and we'll continue to work with them.
The fact of the matter is, on the heels of Katrina, the entire fuel supply situation in the state of Texas is a little bit stressed.
But the fact of the matter is, we're not interested in pointing fingers right now. We're interested in getting these people in southeast Texas back into their homes and back into their businesses and to flow as many supplies as we can.
I know the mayor will sit down with us after this is all over with, and we'll collectively and appropriately analyze and deconstruct and put together an even better plan for the future.
That's what we've been doing in this state for years and years now. The last four, we've had over 150 different exercises, and a lot of different mayors working with us and county judges. So it's one of the great things -- one of the reasons that we were able to move 2.5 million, 3 million people in 36 hours: the largest evacuation in American history. And it went rather well. Next time, if we have to do it again, hopefully, we can do it even better.
BLITZER: Are you going to have enough gas at the gas stations to allow these 2.5 million, 3 million people to drive back to their homes?
PERRY: We do. That's one of the things that we're really focused on now. The terminals in San Antonio and Houston: reports are that they're full. And we're going to station those tankers in places where we make sure that these folks don't run out of gas. And if they do, have the spotter trucks to be able to move in and keep this traffic flowing.
As we flew over from Austin yesterday, Wolf, I-45, I-10, 290, all of those major thoroughfares were flowing very nicely. We didn't see any stackups at all. I'm sure there were some with accidents and what have you. But, you know, we have huge traffic jams in the state of Texas every day on normal days, so it's one of the reasons that we're focusing on building more highways in this state.
BLITZER: One of the other problems that we saw was at the Houston airports, especially George Bush International Airport, the TSA screeners, about 100 of them, failed to show up. They were worried perhaps about their own lives, their own families.
What can we learn from that? One suggestion being, bring TSA screeners in from other parts of the country, if necessary, in an emergency evacuation like that.
PERRY: There's probably some good back-and-forth between Secretary Chertoff's office and those folks that need to occur.
But again, that's a federal issue that I'm sure they'll listen to our instincts and our information on it, but one that looks to me like it's pretty easily fixed.
BLITZER: We're almost out of time, but do you have a preliminary cost estimate: how much it's going to cost to fix all the damage from Rita in Texas?
PERRY: You know, we've seen some numbers from our homeland security and our emergency management folks well up over $8 billion. So again, that's preliminary damage and, you know, our expectation is that our congressional delegations and the administration will pay fully the cost of this.
And, you know, Texas has already been impacted in a rather substantial economic way with Katrina and the great job that Texans opened their hearts and their arms and their homes and their pocket books. And so, our expectation is that the federal government will be generous, and appropriately so, with Texas, with the Katrina and the Rita impact on our state.
BLITZER: Good luck, Governor Perry. Good luck to everyone in Texas.
PERRY: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: We wish you only the best.
PERRY: Appreciate your prayers, bud.
BLITZER: Coming up: A new challenge for relief workers; my interview with the American Red Cross president, Marty Evans. She's standing by live. We'll speak with her.
We're also looking at these live pictures -- check this out -- live pictures coming in from New Orleans right now in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. There was renewed flooding, as you know. We're watching what's happening in New Orleans.
We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
ALPAUGH: ... getting out. It's interesting to me that there's still traffic getting through this area.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID PASSEY, SPOKESMAN, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: We're concerned about the physical health and safety of people returning to their communities.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Passey, speaking earlier.
Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."
Across a wide swathe of Texas and Louisiana, relief workers, private and public, coping with the deadly one-two punch of Katrina and now Rita.
Joining us now in Washington, the president of the American Red Cross, Marty Evans.
Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Thanks very much, Marty, for joining us.
How is the American Red Cross doing right now in terms of getting relief from the victims?
MARTY EVANS, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN RED CROSS: Well, Wolf, we're on the job. We opened shelters in places like San Antonio, Austin, through North Texas. Last night we had 246 additional shelters opened for the evacuees for Rita, in addition to the 220 that we had open for Rita.
So the Red Cross is on the job. We're flexing as necessary in order to provide the shelter people need, the feeding. And then we'll be gearing up to provide the emergency assistance as people come back into the area.
BLITZER: In these past four weeks since Hurricane Katrina landed, I take it the American Red Cross has raised more money than ever before. Is that true?
EVANS: You know, Wolf, the good news is Americans have been generous. But unfortunately, when we look at the number of people impacted, the people that need emergency financial assistance -- over 900,000 families for Katrina and now it's a little bit too early to tell what the needs are going to be for Rita -- we've only raised about half of what we need. We're looking at at least a $2 billion operation.
BLITZER: You've raised a billion dollars, though, already, right?
EVANS: Not quite; just under $900 million.
BLITZER: Under $900 million. Well, that's -- but that is a record. You've never raised anything even close to that before, is that right?
EVANS: Well, we're almost at the 9/11 mark.
BLITZER: After 9/11, within the first three or four weeks you raised $900 million?
EVANS: Just about that.
EVANS: But, you know, 9/11 we had not nearly as many people. I mean, we're talking about the largest relief operation by, oh, a good 20 times.
Just to give you a comparison, after the four hurricanes last year, all four hurricanes, we served 73,000 families with emergency financial assistance. And as I said, we're looking at well over 900,000.
BLITZER: And so would you say, again, you have $1 billion, but you really need $2 billion?
What about in terms of volunteers? How are you doing with Americans stepping forward and trying to help?
EVANS: Well, the good news is that we had a good cadre of volunteers before the storm hit. We had over a million volunteers. Many of those volunteers are working in their local Red Cross chapters, helping to recruit and train additional volunteers.
Altogether on the job, on the Katrina operations, we've had about 165,000 people dedicated to those operations and more coming into the region now with Rita.
BLITZER: I was surprised to read this in the New York Times yesterday. Let me put it up on the screen and get your reaction.
"A county official in Georgia this week asked the Red Cross to leave a relief center for hurricane evacuees in suburban Atlanta, saying the organization's operations were chaotic and antiquated."
Did you see that story?
EVANS: Well, we did. And, you know, Wolf, we have opened many, many service centers in the areas and, actually, we've had operations going on in 48 states and we've had 19 states with shelters. The circumstances in the Atlanta area involve some demands, some requirements and conditions that the Red Cross was not prepared to adhere to.
We are trying to provide as much relief as we can, in as many ways and as many different locations to reach the impacted people. And so we've made adjustments to that situation.
BLITZER: Is that an unusual situation? Or have you had similar experiences elsewhere?
EVANS: You know, Wolf, it's a one-of-a-kind situation.
What we normally do is have our volunteers and our staff members; they work within the community. In some cases they recruit additional community volunteers.
The focus is on getting the relief to as many people as need it. And that's what we're doing in Atlanta. We're using some alternative locations, and we're speeding that relief to people.
BLITZER: Marty Evans is the president of the American Red Cross.
Marty, thanks very much for the American Red Cross and the important work you're doing.
EVANS: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll get a quick check of what's in the news right now, including the latest damage assessment following Hurricane Rita.
Then the winds and the waves of the hurricanes hitting us at all potentially at the local gas stations and our pocketbooks. We'll talk about fuel prices with New Mexico governor, the former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and the president of the American Petroleum Institute, Red Cavaney. They're standing by to speak with us live. What does this mean for you?
Stay with us.
BLITZER: These are live pictures coming in from the Houston, Texas area. Traffic moving relatively simply. A lot of people are planning on coming back. They're clearly not coming back yet. Two and a half million people got out of the Houston metropolitan area, but eventually they will be returning to their homes.
The two hurricanes of recent weeks did more than scare a wide area of the Gulf Coast. The storms jacked up gas prices around the country and set off new questions about fuel supplies, and what's fair, what's not fair for oil companies and for consumers.
Helping us sort through this aspect of the hurricane story, two guests. Joining us from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the governor of New Mexico, the former energy secretary of the United States, Bill Richardson. And in our Washington bureau, Red Cavaney. He is the president of the American Petroleum Institute.
Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.
Bill Richardson, we're hearing that the refineries along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Rita suffered some damage, but clearly not as much as had been feared. That's very good news for American consumers, I suppose you agree with that?
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, it's very good news in the sense that these are vital refineries, that they are key for our energy supply and production. You have to look at that area in the Gulf Coast of Texas; 25 percent of our supply comes from there. So the less damage, the better.
One of the big problems, Wolf, is that too much of our energy supply on refining is concentrated in that Gulf area. We have got to diversify it and move it around. In New Mexico, we have four refineries.
And my view is that the companies that my good friend Red Cavaney represents, they're not investing enough of their profits -- and it was $70 billion this year for the four major oil companies -- in refining capacity, in infrastructure, and thirdly, in renewable energy. The problem now is these huge increases in gas prices are forcing me as a governor to call a special session for gasoline relief and home heating oil relief, and we're going to look at price gouging.
BLITZER: All right, Red Cavaney, what do you say about that?
RED CAVANEY, AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE: Well, I say that we too agree with the fact that there is a large concentration of our industry down in the Gulf, but we're there because -- in part because of government policy. To be efficient, you want to put your refineries near where the sources of oil is from a domestic standpoint. We're not allowed to basically produce oil off the east and west coast of the United States, or off the east coast of Florida.
So we would like to expand, but it's extremely hard to get permits. We have the NIMBY phenomena, this not-in-my-backyard. And let me give you an example: Arizona, there is a group out there trying to put a refinery together. They've been doing it for more than 10 years, and they still don't have all the permits to go forward. So there is some real challenges.
And I hope that Americans will appreciate the fact that having ready supplies and diversifying the geography of our industry is a big help to all consumers, and that we can get some changed attitudes among the elected officials and so forth about what this industry needs to meet the demand of its consumers.
BLITZER: Governor, he makes a fair point, that a lot of these states simply don't want these refineries built anywhere near where a lot of people live. What do you say to that?
RICHARDSON: Well, at the same time, there's no question, the new energy bill makes it easier for refining to take place. We do need to refine more.
But you just can't blame the population and the politicians and people. I want to see this oil industry, which has record profits, invest more in new technologies, in renewable energy, in refining capacity.
They're not doing it. Yes, they have a few figures that show that they've increased over the last year, but you can't just blame the people. In my view, is that the current energy situation in our country, where we're overly dependent on foreign sources -- 60 percent -- is causing this huge price fluctuation. And my concern is that it doesn't make sense statistically to have $3 per barrel per gasoline pump oil, with $65 a barrel. There's a lack of correlation there.
In the past, I've always felt that market forces dictated these fluctuations. But I'd like Red to explain why we have such a huge diversity and differentiation of prices.
BLITZER: Mr. Cavaney, Governor Richardson is one of eight governors that wrote a letter in recent days to President Bush on this specific point. One of the points they made -- and I'll put it up on the screen -- is this: "Oil companies were obviously using the most devastating natural disaster in our nation's history to reap a windfall at the expense of American consumers. To price-gouge consumers under normal circumstances is dishonest enough, but to make money off the severe misfortune of others is downright immoral."
This is very, very severe criticism from eight major governors around the United States.
CAVANEY: Well, I clearly don't agree. Our industry has a long history in circumstances that where they've been investigated for violating the law, and there's never been a single instance where the industry itself has been guilty. We've been exonerated in all circumstances.
We live in a market where the market forces determine where it goes, and the high prices that people talk about were a mere spike for a few days, and after Katrina they were falling down, back to pre- Katrina levels. And then along came Rita. So we're seeing an unusual circumstance where two hurricanes came together in the same year.
The last time that happened was in 1915. So these are unusual circumstances. The industry spent, for example, $80 billion in the last 10 years on environment improvements to provide the world's cleanest fuels to de-sulfurize diesel gasoline and other things, and all of that money, basically, is used to get technology to provide cleaner fuel but not increase capacity.
BLITZER: Mr. Cavaney, what about the other point that Governor Richardson makes, that these record windfall profits that the oil -- the four major oil companies are making, tens and tens of billions of dollars, and that you're just taking the money and running?
CAVANEY: Well, that's clearly not right. All you need to do is look at public data that will show that the industry's quarterly returns are at about the all-industry average they were the last quarter, they had been for the last five years and the last 10 years. We are a huge, huge industry. And so, the numbers are large, but the percentage of return on the dollar isn't any more than the average of industry. There are many that make more than we do.
We make significant investments. We reinvest huge amounts of money to both explore, to produce and then ultimately to refine the products that people demand. And that takes long lead times and huge capital investments.
BLITZER: Governor Richardson, you want to respond to that?
RICHARDSON: I used to believe that. And Red is a good man. But oil prices right now and prices at the pump, there's no correlation, and I want, to the average consumer, this is what they wonder, how is it that prices at the pump, locally in my neighborhood go up within one day by 30 cents? And you don't see any extra movement?
I do believe now that a national investigation involving price gouging -- I'm doing it in my state, because we don't right now see that correlation. I think we got to get to the facts. I think there's too much disparity. It should be $65 a barrel at $3 per pump. It isn't. It's right now -- $95 should be the barometer for $3.
So I don't believe that these profits that are being generated are being done without some kind of manipulation.
BLITZER: You know, Mr. Cavaney, there is a poll that came out not that long ago, the Opinion Research Corporation poll, which asked the question, are big oil companies currently gouging -- currently gouging consumers at the gas pump? Fifty-seven percent believe a great deal of that is true; 30 percent, some price-gouging by the oil companies.
Your industry, and you represent the American oil industry, you have a huge problem out there with the American public.
CAVANEY: We do. We clearly -- we said it publicly in testimony, in ads, and all. We condemn price gouging. We do not practice it. We don't condone it. We think that people should not be taken advantage of when they're in dire circumstances.
But let me say again. What happens here is the focus is on a period of time when we had two extraordinary emergencies facing our industry, and looking at a circumstance that's already heavily overburdened. World demand for oil and surplus inventory are almost nonexistent, and that's a perfect prescription for high prices across the world. This isn't only a unique phenomena here in the U.S. The current one is a short-term phenomena created by these hurricanes, and you'll see that move by as we bring -- ramp up production back to the American consumer.
BLITZER: We're almost out of time. But Governor Richardson, right now, the current price, price per gallon, national average is $2.76. This according to the Automobile Association of America. Should Americans be concerned about $4 or $5 a gallon gasoline down the road?
RICHARDSON: Yes, they should be. And I disagree with Red that it's just because of these two hurricanes. Prices of gasoline have been going up in the last two years dramatically; in fact, they doubled in the last three years. So this is a phenomenon that is dependent on our lack of national energy policy. What we should be doing is reducing our energy dependence on foreign oil. It's 60 percent, $200 billion it costs American consumers. And what I would like to suggest is maybe Red and his company would consider voluntary price rollbacks for the average consumer. This is something that should be voluntary. I don't think they should be mandated, but I can tell you, the American people want lower gas prices, and they're hurting.
And this is why in New Mexico, in the absence of any action by the Congress effectively, and by the White House, I'm taking the steps of calling a special session and turning back money to the consumer to pay for gasoline prices, for home heating oil, and other necessities.
BLITZER: Red Cavaney, we're out of time. I'll give you the last word, but why don't you respond to the governor, consider his proposal and part B, will we be seeing $4 or $5 gasoline in the United States? CAVANEY: Oil and gas is an international business, and when the governor was secretary of treasury (sic), we had 5 million barrels a day of surplus capacity, which kept prices down and made it easy for us to get fuel. Right now, there's only about a billion -- a million barrels of spare capacity per day, which is too, too thin with the rapidly growing global market with China, India and ourselves even still growing fairly heavily. So we have too much demand, too little supply. We need more refining capacity. And that's where all of our investment ought to go, and that's where the consumer is going to get the kind of relief that they deserve. We recognize that it's too, too difficult for people to end up paying high, high prices and continue to have the enjoyment of the lifestyle that they lead and would like to lead.
BLITZER: So will we see $4 or $5 a gallon gasoline in the United States, Mr. Cavaney?
CAVANEY: If you look at past history, what we're going to see now is we're going to see that the supplies will increase and the volumes will follow as we recover from this second hurricane, and -- but I don't (INAUDIBLE), but I think it will definitely be in the downward trend.
BLITZER: Well, we'll wait and we'll see. Thanks to both of you very much for joining us, Governor Richardson, Red Cavaney. Good discussion here on "LATE EDITION."
Coming up, we'll go live to our correspondents, including our reporter traveling with President Bush as he makes his tour of the hurricane zone. Our special "LATE EDITION" right after this.
BLITZER: We're bringing you the latest on the damage from Hurricane Rita on our special "LATE EDITION." President Bush is visiting the region once again, and he's speaking. He's eventually going to be speaking with reporters. He's meeting with the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco. He's been meeting with other officials. Our Elaine Quijano is on the scene for us, traveling with the president. She's in Baton Rouge.
Elaine, update our viewers on what's going on.
ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon, Wolf.
Well, President Bush arrived here in Baton Rouge a short time ago. This is really his fourth stop on his pre- and post-Hurricane Rita tour, if you will.
While here, as you mentioned, he's meeting with the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, and state and federal emergency officials. Now, we understand that the president and the governor are being briefed by Thad Allen, of course, the vice admiral who is the point man for FEMA on the ground here in Louisiana. But earlier at a briefing in San Antonio, Texas, the president got another update, but the conversation turned to Hurricane Katrina, specifically one general bluntly answering a question from the president, saying a national plan is needed to better coordinate rescuers' efforts.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAJ. GEN. JOHN WHITE, JOINT MILITARY TASK FORCE: Certainly that was a train wreck that we saw in New Orleans. And I know everybody is jumping in, trying to help at one time, and that's the right thing to do. But if we can have a national plan that would address the search and rescue of this magnitude, that's what we're ought to try to do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
QUIJANO: Now, that was Major General John White. The president after that saying that he would take that information back to Washington, talking about the coordination issue.
But Mr. Bush also indicating that perhaps he is looking at another role for the U.S. military to play in the event of disasters. The president saying perhaps the Department of Defense should take the lead when it comes to disasters, not only natural disasters but man- made ones as well. The president after his trip here in Baton Rouge returns to Washington this afternoon.
BLITZER: And that's it, any additional trips planned later this week? He's been to the region, as we know, at least five times, based on my recollection, but maybe more.
QUIJANO: That's right. Nothing public right now on the schedule, Wolf, but as you point out, the president has been to the region a number of times, and of course this is all coming at a time when the president certainly although the events ostensibly are about Hurricane Rita, the president trying to undo some of the political damage after Hurricane Katrina. So undoubtedly, the president will be making more stops to the region, but we don't have anything announced right now.
BLITZER: Elaine reporting for us from Baton Rouge. She's traveling with the president. Thank you very much. The president has been meeting, as she reported, with Kathleen Blanco, other officials in Baton Rouge. They spoke with reporters. We're standing by for that videotape. CNN will air it for you once we get it.
In the meantime, that's your "LATE EDITION" for this Sunday, September 25th. Please be sure to stay with CNN throughout the day and the night for all the latest information about the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. "CNN Live Sunday" will continue right at the top of the hour. I'll be back in Washington tomorrow in our "Situation Room," 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern.
Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Center in Atlanta.
We leave you now with these pictures, these images flying over New Orleans just a little while ago, helicopter reporter J.T. Alpaugh narrating what he saw.
ALPAUGH: My name is J.T. Alpaugh. Along with me today, Michael Monahan (ph) on the controls of this A-star B-2-350 (ph).
That's the lower 9th Ward area. Right now, we're just -- right now, we're just east of the Industrial Canal or the intercostal waterway. I'll tilt up and show you. Everything on the other side of this coastal way is the New Orleans Parish area.
Absolutely no relief for these areas, for this neighborhood. This is some of the hardest hit -- this is the area that we came into the first day or two after Katrina came through, and we documented hundreds of rooftop rescues by the United States Coast Guard and their Dolphin helicopters, and the Army National Guard helicopters, pulling hundreds of people out of this very area that were stranded on rooftops for days. Now made worse. And just when there was a little bit of hope and a little bit of ray that maybe these waters -- this is the one of the last areas to drain out, the areas in the Jefferson Parish area and New Orleans Parish area near the 17th Street Canal.
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