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CNN Presents: Monster: Tracking the Storm
Aired October 2, 2005 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Carol Lin. CNN PRESENTS begins in just a moment, but first, here's what's happening right now in the news. A series of explosions killed at least three dozen people today on the resort island of Bali. More than 100 others are wounded. Indonesian officials are calling the explosion a terrorist attack.
And a typhoon has caused dozens of deaths in Vietnam and China. Meanwhile, people in Taiwan are bracing for an even more powerful typhoon that is forecast to hit tonight.
And firefighters are making headway on the massive Chatsworth- Topanga fire near Los Angeles. It's burned 24,000 acres but if the weather holds, the fire could be contained by Monday. A smaller fire in nearby Burbank continues to spread.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers has nearly finished draining the floodwaters. All that is left is water in the Lower Ninth Ward, which flooded a second time during Hurricane Rita. The work is expected to be completed by tomorrow.
And Geena Davis has a new show in which she is the U.S. president. At 10:00 Eastern Time I am going to be talking about Gloria Steinem. She says why the country could vote for a woman president very soon.
That's ahead on CNN SATURDAY NIGHT. I'll be back with more headlines at the half hour, but right now, CNN PRESENTS.
ANNOUNCER: This is a special edition of CNN PRESENTS.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once it gets in the Gulf of Mexico, it's going to hit somebody.
ANNOUNCER: On the trail of a killer storm. With lives hanging in the balance, forecasters struggle to keep up with a monster.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Category 5 hurricane.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We could see rogue waves upwards of a hundred feet. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I normally fly around this stuff.
ANNOUNCER: Hurricane hunters fly into the eye of the storm.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to the eye.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While people think we're crazy for flying into the storm, it's not a craziness, it's an empathy, it's a care for the community.
ANNOUNCER: As Rita roars towards the vulnerable Gulf Coast.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm getting out of here.
ANNOUNCER: Over the next hour, a different look inside a hurricane. From the ground, from the air and from those in the path of the storm.
With its 10-inch thick concrete walls and rooftop electronics, the National Hurricane Center is one of the ugliest buildings in Miami.
And it's a place of beauty.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you look at a satellite image of a hurricane with a perfectly round eye, it's absolutely gorgeous.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So this is a very favorable environment.
ANNOUNCER: Here, where they say favorable environment they mean favorable for hurricanes not the folks onshore.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to end up being a fairly gigantic hurricane.
ANNOUNCER: And when they say a storm is well-behaved, they do not mean it is weak.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this regard it means that we're able to anticipate where it's going.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The system appears to be still moving toward the west.
ANNOUNCER: On this day, Wednesday, the well-behaved storm is Hurricane Rita.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know with a hurricane like Rita, once it gets in the Gulf of Mexico, it's going to hit somebody.
ANNOUNCER: And likely hit hard. Because the Gulf's warm waters, at 87 degrees Fahrenheit, can turbocharge a storm.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like a high octane fuel. It's like adding high octane fuel to the fire.
ANNOUNCER: Sure enough, data coming into the Hurricane Center indicate Rita is building in the open seas.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And near the core of the storm we could see rogue waves upwards of 100 feet.
ANNOUNCER: The forecasters first thought Rita would grow to a Category 4 storm around 2:00 p.m. Wednesday.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, Rita did intensify but it became stronger quicker than what we had predicted.
ANNOUNCER: Predicting a storm's intensity is one of the major challenges scientists face. They have satellites in space to see it, buoys in the water to take the temperature and airplanes in harm's way to measure wind speed and moisture.
All of this data and forecasters have cut the margin of error for where a storm will hit by 50 percent over the last 15 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Track forecasting is a mature science. We do a very good job of that in general.
ANNOUNCER: But as for forecasting the intensity of a storm ...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We haven't gotten much better at all in predicting wind speeds in hurricanes. We don't do a very good job of that.
ANNOUNCER: By mid afternoon Wednesday, Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center is in charge.
He has just returned from Washington, testifying to a Senate committee about Hurricane Katrina. This time he hopes officials will heed the warnings and that emergency managers can make their evacuation plans work.
The forecast shows Rita will hit somewhere between the Texas- Mexico border and southwestern Louisiana.
MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Yeah, we've got it towards, I think, between North (ph) City or Grand Isle. Grand Isle? OK. Good. I like the way you think. ANNOUNCER: Dead center in the projected path? Galveston, Texas. Fifty-five thousand people on a sand bar. You say Galveston to a hurricane expert, they flash back in time, to 1900 when a hurricane flattened the city and killed at least 8,000 people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was the worst disaster in U.S. history.
ANNOUNCER: This time Galveston is urging people to leave early.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If the tidewaters get high enough and we can't get to you, we cannot rescue you, so please, make plans to evacuate.
ANNOUNCER: Just 50 miles inland from Galveston is Houston. The fourth largest city in the country.
With such high stakes, Mayfield decides to announce a hurricane watch sooner than he had planned.
MAYFIELD: Eh, let's go ahead and do the watch. What do you say?
Technically we could have held off but we really wanted to go ahead and do that with a little additional time.
ANNOUNCER: The decision to go early is a good one. Late Wednesday afternoon, more data from an Air Force plane in the center of the storm. Rita has become a monster.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Category 5 hurricane with 145 knots.
ANNOUNCER: It's only one step up from Category 4 to Category 5 but it sends shivers through the room.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't sound like much but each category is really five times as much damage.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to be one of the big natural disasters in our nation's history.
ANNOUNCER: Category 5 hurricanes are rare, but anything 3 or higher is dangerous and experts say expect more of them. It turns out that hurricanes run in cycles. A few decades of quiet, followed by another cycle when major hurricanes more than double. It's a pattern that goes back more than 150 years, linked apparently to the natural fluctuation of water temperature in the Atlantic and the atmosphere above.
The most recent cycle began in 1995.
CHRIS LANDSEA, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: It's probably going to last 25 to 40 years total. And what we're seeing today is very reminiscent of the hurricanes in the middle part of the 20th century.
But today is a lot different than it was, say, in 1950. Coastal populations keep doubling every 30 years or so.
ANNOUNCER: Given the high stakes, Texas Governor Rick Perry orders nearly everyone on the state's Gulf Coast to evacuate.
GOV. RICK PERRY, TEXAS: Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot.
ANNOUNCER: For those in Rita's path, the only hopeful sign is the storm could pass over an eddy of slightly cooler water and weaken.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So is that great news for Texas?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no good news for Texas.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to MONSTER, TRACKING THE STORM.
On Wednesday they said there is no good news for Texas.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Category 5 hurricane with 145 knots.
ANNOUNCER: But on Thursday there is some good news. Actually good news and bad news. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The good news is it has weakened a little bit. It is no longer a Category 5.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Air Force hurricane hunter planes are reporting this is still a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.
That's like the difference between being run over by an 18 wheeler or being run over by a freight train.
ANNOUNCER: For the southern coast of Texas, good news. Rita's track has shifted north.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is this track line holds out, Galveston Island will be on the better side of the storm and they won't see the worst of the storm surge. Unfortunately, northern Texas into western Louisiana will be the losers in the storm surge and could see upwards of 20 feet.
ANNOUNCER: Along the Gulf Coast, evacuations are well underway. Two and a half million people. Traffic jams 100 miles long.
The exodus is larger than anyone anticipated. The roads out of Houston become virtually parking lots.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We go a car length at a time. One car length, one car length, it's frustrating.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's been a disaster. We saw people camping on the freeway last night. They had pitched tents because there was no place to sleep. People were running out of gas.
PERRY: I want to say something to all those individuals that are stuck in traffic now. Stay calm, stay patient, you have done the right thing.
ANNOUNCER: In neighboring Louisiana, the governor is pleading with people to leave threatened areas.
GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO, LOUISIANA: Head north. You cannot go east. You cannot go west.
ANNOUNCER: She bluntly warns that those who stay and die will be unrecognizable when the water recedes.
BLANCO: If some people insist on staying and believe they can weather this kind of storm, perhaps they should write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink.
ANNOUNCER: Everyone is paying attention to New Orleans. Although not in the direct path of the hurricane, the city is close enough to feel the effects.
Oceanographers forecast four feet of storm surge. At least four feet because Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the coastal marshland. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no more plants, there's no more mud. There's no protection going into Lake Pontchartrain. The water is just allowed to come into that area.
ANNOUNCER: Sure enough, by Friday, some of the levees are giving way. Water pours into the beleaguered Ninth Ward. Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, there is little left to damage other than the morale of those who hope to rebuild.
While millions are fleeing the impending storm, the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is going in.
MAJ. CHAD GIBSON, USAF HURRICANE HUNTER: A lot of people think we're crazy for flying into the storm. It's not a craziness. We're doing this because we can make a difference.
ANNOUNCER: Known as the hurricane hunters, they fly into major storms to measure the barometric pressure, humidity and wind speed, all crucial for accurate forecasts.
GIBSON: You fly through storms hoping that the information you get causes people to leave.
ANNOUNCER: Major Chad Gibson and his colleagues have a personal respect for the storms they chase. They're working Hurricane Rita from Dobbins Air Base in Georgia because Katrina wrecked the unit's headquarters in Biloxi, Mississippi and wrecked many of their homes as well.
Gibson returned to Biloxi a couple of weeks ago to find his home destroyed, his neighborhood, shambles.
GIBSON: That odor was just repulsive and the next day we found out that one block away there was a family of four in their house that I had passed that was killed by Katrina.
ANNOUNCER: With Hurricane Rita, they hope things will be different.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's hell baby right there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we've got 100 knot winds, too.
ANNOUNCER: By late Friday night, as Rita has weakened to a Category 3 hurricane.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel some sense of relief. This is a powerful hurricane that is going to produce a lot of damage, but it's not the same, a 3 than a 5.
ANNOUNCER: Flooding is still a major concern because the storm is likely to move slowly over land, dumping as much as 25 inches of rain.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to the eye.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I normally fly around this stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, the majority of the brief today, of course, will be focused on Hurricane Rita.
ANNOUNCER: At the request of President Bush, monitoring the storm from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, the hurricane hunters fly through the storm for one last set of measurements.
GIBSON: Our last pass was a concern because it was three miles inland.
ANNOUNCER: The flight over land is risky because that is where hurricanes often spawn tornadoes.
GIBSON: That is not something any plane can deal with. The drastic shear can potentially rip a plane apart.
ANNOUNCER: The mission in the sky ends uneventfully. Rita's wrath is one the ground.
The strongest winds and highest storm surge hit the Texas- Louisiana border. Low-lying fishing villages are flattened. Cattle ranches are flooded. More than a million people across the region are without power.
Amid the devastation in Rita's path, one beacon of hope. In hard-hit Lake Charles, Louisiana, the staff at one hospital struggles to provide emergency care during the storm.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Somebody has got to do it and we're here.
ANNOUNCER: The story of courage and faith at Christus St. Patrick when we return.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to MONSTER: TRACKING THE STORM.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Hurricane Rita hurtles towards the Louisiana coast, Christus St. Patrick's in Lake Charles, Louisiana decides to do what few other hospitals in the area are doing, stay open for business.
In a hurricane, hospitals are one of the community's most precious resources, responsible for the sick and elderly and for taking in the injured in the storm.
Thursday morning, September 22nd, officials call for a mandatory evacuation. The staff races to get patients out as it becomes clear that Lake Charles and the hospital are in its path. More than 150 patients are evacuated by ambulance and helicopter in the two days before the storm, an emotional scene for nurses and others to watch.
(on camera): We are in a graveyard just outside Christus Hospital. The last few patients are leaving in this army helicopter, evacuating further north, further east, away from here.
Just outside Christus Hospital, a few patients, critically ill, still remain here in this hospital. (voice-over): Friday afternoon, four patients remain who are simply too sick to move. Twenty doctors and about 50 staff stay, waiting anxiously. But they are prepared, windows boarded up, supplies stockpiled, enough for five to seven days. But there are also recent lessons learned.
Katrina was a different story. Charity Hospital in New Orleans, the morgue was flooded, supplies were limited and the staff struggled to operate without power or running water.
Here generators are above sea level. Clear plans are made to move the emergency room to higher floors in case of flooding and surgery suites are prepared to operate on backup power.
Is this "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" or is this the real deal?
ELLEN JONES, CEO CHRISTUS ST. PATRICK HOSPITAL: I don't know. You never can tell with these storms. You just have to be ready.
GUPTA: Ellen Jones is CEO of the hospital.
(on camera): Why not just close down? Why not just take the critically-ill patients, move them a few days ago and shut the hospital down?
JONES: It probably is the safest mode to go to. However we do have the patients that we couldn't transfer. We are going to be here with the four patients that we have here at that point, maintain those services and the hospital services, we might as well have the ER here for the community. Somebody's got to do it and we're here.
GUPTA (voice-over): Among those who remain, four hospital chaplains, including staff chaplain Sister Mary Frances (ph).
Does it surprise you though, you're staying open? You're about to get a Category 4 hurricane.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is one way of expressing in reality through our faith that we live our mission to the people in the area.
GUPTA: With Hurricane Rita bearing down, her thoughts are drawn to another storm more than a century ago.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our sisters in Galveston went through the 1900 storm and 10 of them died trying to protect the children that they served, and as a matter of fact, they tied the children to themselves with rope in an attempt to save their lives.
GUPTA: The 1900 hurricane destroyed the orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word along with all the children. Legend has it the nuns were signing the hymn "Queen of the Waves as the water overtook them.
GUPTA: More than 8,000 people died after that hurricane hit Galveston. It was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Eight years later, in 1908, the local medical society in Lake Charles asked the Sisters of Charity to help found Christus Hospital.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's good to see that your faith is supporting you through all of this rough time.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's what you've got to hang on to.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
GUPTA: Sister Mary Frances is staying along with Jen Emmanuel (ph) whose husband Nick is recovering from heart surgery.
Now was that frightening? Because a lot of patients did leave the hospital.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was, but I mean, I wanted to take my chances here. I knew if we tried to evacuate or fly him out, he wasn't going to live. I knew that. And I mean there's still a chance that we're not going to make it but I'm trying to give him every opportunity to live.
GUPTA: With one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Lake Charles only hours away, Sister Mary Frances is tranquil. She says she's not worried.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're in together. We trust in the Lord.
GUPTA: As others prepare, neurosurgeon Eric Wolf (ph) performs surgery under generator power on a patient injured hours before landfall. An orthopedic procedure he has never performed before.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had a patient with an orthopedic type injury and we didn't have any orthopedic surgeons in house so we had to read up on it a little bit and we finally were able to get a hold of an orthopedic surgeon by phone and they were able to give us some direction on how to stabilize this injury.
GUPTA: A brain surgeon operating on a patient's leg, the reality of a hospital in a hurricane.
In case you're wondering, the patient did well.
2:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Hurricane Rita makes landfall.
(on camera): Over here you see the water start to come in now sort of swirling around behind me. This is the first that we're seeing of this.
DR. SUSAN BOYD, CHRISTUS ST. PATRICK HOSPITAL: The stress of the medical situations that might arise is nothing compared to the fear that I felt when that wind started blowing.
GUPTA: Rain pours down overnight. Gale force winds blow at over 125 miles an hour. The staff takes shelter by sleeping in the hallways. The ceiling leaks. But through it all, ER staff remains poised to take on incoming patients.
Late Saturday morning, the winds finally die down. After the hurricane, the Emmanuel family move Nick to a sister hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana in critical condition. They are faring relatively well, as are the remaining patients at CHRISTUS hospital.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had had the experience of going through a Category 4 hurricane and our founding sisters had that experience.
God's presence in our midst never fails. Never fails. It is the Lord that leads us, it is the Lord that guides us, it is the Lord that continues to work through us and everything else falls into place.
GUPTA: Whether it was faith, medicine or outstanding preparation, Sister Mary Frances and the rest of the St. Christus staff have weathered the storm.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, this time the military moves in early.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but with practice you get better.
LIN: Hi there. I'm Carol Lin. CNN PRESENTS continues in just a moment, but first, here's what's happening right now in the news. At least 36 people were killed in a bomb attack on Bali. More than 100 others were wounded. Indonesian officials are calling the explosions a terrorist attack.
And firefighters are battling wildfires in California. One blaze has scorched a thousand acres in Burbank. It is 15 percent contained but it still threatens homes. Firefighters also expect to fully contain a 24,000 acre fire northwest of Los Angeles by Monday.
And in New Orleans the floodwaters are almost gone. The Army Corps of Engineers just has to pump some water from the Lower Ninth Ward which flooded a second time during Hurricane Rita. The work is expected to be completed by tomorrow.
And a typhoon has killed dozens of people in Vietnam and China and an even more powerful typhoon is expected to hit Taiwan just hours from now. We are going to be live.
That is a check of the day's top news. At 10:00 Eastern on CNN SATURDAY NIGHT we are talking with Gloria Steinem. Does she think the new TV show, "Commander in Chief," can actually help pave the way for a woman to be president?
But first, back to CNN PRESENTS.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to MONSTER: TRACKING THE STORM.
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This time, this hurricane, it was different. Texas National Guard Special Michael Jackson (ph) and his fellow guardsmen made it to this parking lit in Orange, Texas, a town with no electricity, no water and no fuel, 48 hours after Rita made landfall.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were going to respond a lot faster this time then we did the other time. Alerts were put out long before everybody had it watching on television and all to make sure.
STARR: This time everyone moved more quickly, military and government alike. This time, commanders positioned troops and equipment ahead of the storm, ready to move in.
In Katrina, it was five days after landfall before President Bush ordered 7,000 active duty forces into Louisiana and Mississippi. This time the military did not wait for cities and states to ask for help.
The nation held its breath, ready for the worst when Rita hit. Two days before Rita's landfall at National Guard headquarters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is literally a race against time. The hurricane is moving at its pace and we have to move faster than the hurricane.
STARR: This time three senior army generals were determined it would go right. Inside the army they call it leaning forward.
Lieutenant General Steven Blum, a former high school history teacher and head of the National Guard just before Rita hit.
LT. GENERAL STEVEN BLUM, NATIONAL GUARD: I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but with practice you get better and this is our second go round of this in less than three weeks. And if we're not better this time, then shame on us.
STARR: Lieutenant General Robert Clark, a steely-eyed Texas native in charge of the military response to Hurricane Rita in his home state.
LT. GENERAL ROBERT CLARK, U.S. ARMY: We have been working intensely in preparation for this and I know you can see the focus and the seriousness on the faces of the people here before this thing hit landfall.
STARR: And Louisiana native Lieutenant General Russel Honore, the man who led the New Orleans military relief effort, once again went right to his front line, this time the badly flooded southwestern parishes.
LT. GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY: When you get here you've got to make things happen. People are not interested in filling out a requisition. In a crisis mode they want to start seeing stuff happen. STARR (on camera): Less than 24 hours before landfall it's an around the clock effort to make sure the military response is in place. But what happened last time is still fresh in everyone's mind.
BLUM: Hurricanes are a no-kidding life or death situation. You can see it on the faces of the people that work in this room. They are committed. They are committed to making sure we save as many lives as possible.
STARR (voice-over): This time there was one crucial difference. The disaster of Katrina had already happened so everyone was more aware of what could happen. And because of Katrina there were already thousands of National Guard and active duty military forces in the region ready to go.
Texas also learned from Louisiana. Order early evacuations. There were millions on the road two days before landfall, a mega-traffic jam. But those people were then safe. There was no need for the massive search and rescue in New Orleans where the mayor ordered mandatory evacuation just hours before landfall.
And in Texas over 3,000 sick, elderly and disabled were evacuated quickly by military aircraft before the storm hit. The Pentagon sent the planes immediately without waiting to be asked.
DR WILLIAM WINKENWERDER, JR., ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: We found that way to move quickly with Rita and it paid off. It made a big difference.
STARR: It was the sick and elderly and the poor trapped in New Orleans who became Katrina's message, one of human neglect.
There was another crucial lesson for the military. In Katrina, communications were wiped out as cell towers fell. Civilian authorities, active duty and National Guard commanders simply could not talk to each other in the early days in the crisis, slowing down relief efforts.
BLUM: That's unacceptable. That's unacceptable on the battlefield overseas so we don't tolerate. We have not given that enough attention back here in the homeland and we're going to overcome that very quickly.
STARR: Now the National Guard is using borrowed radios from the army and in advance of Rita, military satellite communications were installed in key civilian operation centers across the region.
In political circles the questions continue.
JOHN BREAUX, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: The local citizens, the local officials, could have responded faster. The state could have done a faster response. The federal government certainly could have done a faster response.
STARR: President Bush now openly asking if it is only the military that can manage in major disasters. BUSH: Is there a circumstance in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency?
STARR: At the end of the epic month of two catastrophic storms, the preparations across Texas proved a success.
RICHARD ENGELDAHL, WARRANT OFFICER, TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD: We're just trying to help as many people as we can and I think that's the biggest thing we've learned since Katrina.
STARR: But back in Louisiana, a battering. Towns across the southwest parishes gone and from one general, a reminder of the ultimate lesson learned. In any disaster, manmade or natural, those who cannot help themselves must be helped by others.
HONORE: Tragedies have their own multiplying impact on the poor. It hits the poor a little harder. I think there will be a lot of soul- searching in the future.
ANNOUNCER: Ahead, a grandmother turned homeless by Hurricane Katrina rushes in to help after Rita.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a bit of therapy for me just to help them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You consider this therapy for you?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I do.
ANNOUNCER: Now, back to MONSTER: TRACKING THE STORM.
ALEX QUADE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Vermillion Parish, Louisiana.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The storm surge is still coming in.
QUADE: Just a few hours after Hurricane Rita stormed through.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of water. Beaucoup water.
QUADE: The call for help is answered.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We going to be able to get out or what?
QUADE: Good ol' boys. Local hunters and fishermen bring boats. Trucks. Coondogs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can't launch the airboats because the winds are blowing too hard and it'll just lift the airboats.
QUADE: Cajun old timers who stayed in the marshlands need medical assist.
(on camera): You can't even get down there. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, we can't get to a point where we can launch the boats and run safely right now because the winds are still too high. Once the wind dies down we can get the airboats in.
QUADE (voice-over): The weather improves. Paramedic Karen Mellenthon (ph) climbs in the back of a pickup to volunteer. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you imagine we're actually having to drive through the water to get to the water?
QUADE: I joined this woman amongst men, mother of six, grandmother of three.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to hold on to each other.
QUADE: Riding along with two Louisiana Fish and Wildlife airboat man and a National Guard who is also a medic. Past houses, farms, past sunk airboats that went out too soon.
This is State Highway 82. Sixty-nine year old Wilson Milieu (ph) waits on his porch. He has prostate cancer and high blood pressure but won't leave his cows.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How you doing? I'm Karen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to meet you, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a paramedic and we're out seeing - making sure you're just still OK. You shaved and all, huh? How do you feel, though? Pretty good, huh?
QUADE: Karen checks him over.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm just going to put this on your finger real quick.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's nice of you all to come over. There's still people that care in this world.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ed's a little up there. It's like 160 over 100.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At 6:00 I take my pill.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sure you going to be OK?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (inaudible)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. I know. If you start feeling bad or dizzy or anything ...
It's about his cows and his ducks and his land so I'm sure he's going to be fine once everything starts settling down, this water starts going down. I think he'll relax a little bit more.
QUADE: We continued down Highway 82 towards Pecan (ph) Island.
As Karen listens to Preston Broussard's (ph) health concerns, the checkup turns deadly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Snake!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a cottonmouth, son. Leave it alone.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The waters come up and they've got to find high ground.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're lucky you had some medics with you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He tells Karen about a local swamp rat skinning champion down the road. A diabetic grandma who had open heart surgery. We jumped ditches and levees. Get stuck in the muck. Over concrete and through crawdad ponds.
Sixty nine year old champ Ruby Lamere (ph) is happy to see Karen.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... how you feeling?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm feeling good.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The only thing I was scared when I saw the water coming up, I was scared it was going to flood the house and I wanted to leave but my husband didn't want to leave.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She seems to be maintaining her blood sugar very well. She told me yesterday it came down a little bit.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a little bit overweight but who cares? Who cares at my age, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How's your husband doing?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's doing fine. He's had two heart attacks and he never quit.
QUADE: Seventy-four year old husband, Dudley Lamere (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You all are doing great. I'm just amazed that she told me how good she takes care of her blood sugar. (inaudible)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We both have our problems, I guarantee.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think you all are doing fantastic.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want to see her trophies?
QUADE: He takes us inside to see her trophies. The nutria-skinning, women's division first place.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you happy to see these folks coming in on you and making sure you're OK?
QUADE: He's overwhelmed by the kindness. Little do they know, their paramedic lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. This is Karen's two story house in Burress (ph), south of New Orleans.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My house was inundated with water. About 27 feet of water inside my house. The bottom floor actually looks like it had some kind of current running through it. Marsh grass is just four feet deep in my living room. There is no walls, there's no cabinets, my appliances are missing, they're gone. My furniture is gone. We have actually pieces of furniture in our has that wasn't there before that evidently came from our neighbors or whoever.
Our furniture is gone and things we don't recognize are in our house.
QUADE: This is the fire station she worked 911 calls during Katrina, then evacuated, renting a small apartment in Vermillion Parish, now shared with her six adult children.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's my oldest son and his wide, the dog - Those are my twin daughters, Desirae (ph), her husband Corey (ph) and their brand new baby. That's Logan Seth (ph).
QUADE: They rode out Rita together.
(on camera): How do you keep such a good attitude when everyone has lost their houses in Katrina and now Rita and yet you're out here making sure other folks are doing OK?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I thank God I'm not asking you to help me find my children. I know where they are and that makes it all OK. We have an opportunity to help the people here who helped us when we came in.
It's a bit of therapy for me to help them.
QUADE: You consider this therapy for you?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I do.
QUADE: Is it just to keep you busy to keep your mind off?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That also. I've been a paramedic for 13 years and work has always been my therapy and this has proven to be way more therapy than I even thought it would be.
QUADE: Paramedic Karen Mellonthon (ph), homeless evacuee, survivor.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to MONSTER: TRACKING THE STORM.
FRANK SESNO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For a month we have lived these killer storms, seen the searing images they leave behind, the destruction, displacement, death.
Storms of special fury that we're told may be part of something bigger, inescapable, a cycle of more frequent, more intense killer storms that will churn hurricane seasons for a generation or more.
So even as we cope with the present, we confront an uncertain and very expensive future.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are no homes left here ...
SESNO: Specifically, whether and how to rebuild along a vulnerable Gulf Coastline where the population has soared. Up 45 percent between 1980 and 2000, now nearly 10 million people.
There are also the exposed shores of Florida and the Carolinas, shaped by pilgrims who alter the object of their worship, the development. All of them drawn by dreams and destiny, as people always have been, inexorably to the water. To its serenity and beauty, its opportunity, but also to its power and destructive unpredictability. Just one contradiction.
Like our instincts to rebuild despite the warnings. Better, stronger, seemingly at whatever costs.
BUSH: Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature and we will not start now.
SESNO: But we have been humbled by Katrina and Rita. And are challenged by the predictions of more to come. Perhaps it will be different because it has to be. Some coastal areas and barrier islands probably won't be rebuilt, either because they're uninhabitable or because they may be needed as part of nature's defenses.
Oren Propie (ph) from Duke University is a leading expert and advocate on the shifting landscape of barrier islands.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to come down and recognize what we're doing to 1,000 miles of shoreline all lined with property, all eroding. If that isn't the final madness, I don't know what it is.
SESNO: They're already talking about moving Mississippi's floating casinos, flattened by Katrina, inland, if only by 1,500 feet.
Some believe whole communities should follow. Joe Cockpin (ph) is an author who suggests a 21st century Homestead Act to encourage people to move.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The movement back into the heartland of America I think is starting and I think is inevitable given the tremendous pressures environmentally and economically that are hitting people on the coast.
SESNO: Insurance premiums will go up, Cockpin says, government assistance should go down.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we need to make a serious assessment. Which areas can be saved and which areas maybe are going to be repeatedly threatened by conditions of water, wind, hurricanes.
SESNO: But people won't easily leave their homes, jobs, dreams. They won't run from history and heritage.
Martin Muller (ph) studied architecture in New Orleans and is now with the National Building Museum in Washington.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is time to rethink what's happening but it certainly is not time to abandon places on the Gulf Coast like New Orleans and other communities.
Venice floods constantly and we don't think of tearing down Venice.
SESNO: The story of these last weeks is a familiar one. Humanity versus the elements. In America's experience sometimes prevailing. San Francisco rebuild after the 1906 earthquake. Sometimes vanquished. The 1930s Dust Bowl forced out hundreds of thousands when nature changed the rules.
We live within reach of nature's fury in so many places, still pushing the limits.
In New Orleans, nearly 300 years of challenge and contradiction have forged a unique history and culture.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's always been this sort of strange mentality about life and even death in New Orleans.
Obviously, the famous jazz funeral. Where they play seemingly happy music literally just after depositing someone in a tomb. To most people that just seems so perverse.
SESNO: But in New Orleans they say, "Life goes on."
There will be more hurricanes. Bad ones. The proverb says, "The good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid, and avoids the storm he cannot weather."
So we must decide where and how to build. At what cost. What to avoid and what to weather.
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