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Response Efforts Shaping Up; Thad Allen to Head Relief on the Ground
Aired September 9, 2005 - 14:05 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR, LIVEFROM: Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security there, or excuse me, the Department of Homeland Security, making the final announcement. We, of course, told you that this announcement was going to come forward about an hour ago. Now you've heard it. The head of DHS announcing that Mike Brown, director of FEMA, is going to be moved back to Washington, D.C. His replacement there on the ground, Vice Admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff, U.S. Coast guard. He will be on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" by the way, 6:00 Eastern Time for a live interview. So please tune in to that.
But a number of things to tell you. Michael Chertoff saying that he feels the admiral will be perfect for this position to oversee response and recovery operations because he's already been there. This is something the Coast Guard does very well with. It seems to be a perfect fit, according to Michael Chertoff. Meanwhile, Mike Brown going back to Washington, D.C., to oversee the rest of the operations within FEMA. And that is keeping an eye on this Ophelia, this other storm that's brewing up, of course, we've been telling you about. And wants him to be prepared for other challenges that may face FEMA.
Now as you know, there's been a lot of criticism concerning Mike Brown and his position and how fast he responded to this disaster. Of course, the role of FEMA and FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security, well now Michael Chertoff coming forward and making the final announcement that Mike Brown back to D.C. Admiral Thad Allen in that replacement, running operations on the ground.
We have, of course, a number of people in various areas with response to this change of command. We've got Bob Franken at the White House. But Jeanne Meserve first, let's go to you in Washington, D.C. You're the one that told us about this change that was going to happen about an hour ago. Really didn't have a lot of information. Now it's out there. Let's talk a little bit about it. As you've talked to your various sources, how do they feel about this?
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are putting a very positive spin on the Admiral Thad Allen who will be taking over as the official federal official on the ground. One Department of Homeland Security official with whom I spoke says he has a style very much like Secretary Chertoff. The two of them will mesh well together. To read you a quote they described Admiral Allen as no nonsense. He gets stuff down now. He cuts red tape, he can help people get the aid they need, evacuate and rebuild the city and the other devastated areas along the coast.
Very little said in this press conference about Michael Brown and the job he's done. Secretary Chertoff simply mentioning that he has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the response. But as you've mentioned, Kyra, they have been taking a lot of criticism for a slow response, for an inadequate response. A lot of it very much focused on the specifics of Michael Brown. When a reporter tried to ask Michael Brown himself if this was preliminary to his resignation and if he had any response to questions that have been raised about his resume, Secretary Chertoff slapped that down, said, I'm the one who's answering questions here, and I'm not going to take that one." So they do not want to talk about Michael Brown right now, the person they want to talk about is Vice Admiral Thad Allen who they hope will do a better job. Kyra.
PHILLIPS: We should probably clarify, Jeanne that "Time" magazine reports that the reporter was asking Chertoff about, it was the article that just came out talking about Mike Brown's background. They interviewed a number of people from back in the 70's when he worked in Oklahoma is that right?
MESERVE: I believe that is correct. There's certainly a part from the "Time" magazine article, which, by the way FEMA contested. There have been many questions about whether Michael Brown brought to the table the skill set that was needed for the head of FEMA. He was most recently head of an Arabian horse association. He isn't somebody who comes from law enforcement or firefighting or emergency management. He may have had some glancing contact with those subject areas in the past. But there are many on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who say he wasn't the right guy for this job. Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Jeanne Meserve, thank you so much. Lets take you straight to the White House now, Bob Franken with response from there. Bob, the Bush administration taking a lot of heat, as we know within the past couple of days about FEMA, the role of FEMA and the position of Michael Brown.
BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And the heat in the last couple of days has been about whether he was qualified. There have been questions raised media questions and questions from adversaries of the administration over whether the administration had put politicians in this critical agency as opposed to people who were qualified in emergency management.
And in the last couple of days, you could hear and see the deterioration of Michael Brown and his growth as a controversy. It was quite a change from when the president encountered him on the ground less than a week ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to thank you all for -- and Browny, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24/7. They're working 24 hours a day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FRANKEN: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" has been a comment by President Bush that has been raised repeatedly, and now what we're hearing, the official word is that Michael Brown is going back to Washington to take the overall view of FEMA while others handle things on the ground. And coincidentally perhaps he'll be much less visible in that role. Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Bob Franken at the White House, thank you so much. We want to take you straight to Ed Henry now congressional correspondent; he is in our D.C. Bureau. Ed, a lot of talk from Republicans and Democrats. As we well know, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi calling for the resignation of Mike Brown days ago.
ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In fact, house Democratic leader Pelosi as well as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid are already saying this is not good enough. They're demanding that President Bush fire Michael Brown. In fact, even before that press conference, CNN obtained a letter that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and some of his colleagues are going to send it directly to the president, demanding the, quote, immediate removal of Mr. Brown. What they are basically saying is that when you heard Secretary Chertoff at the press conference he said it would be better to have Michael Brown in Washington getting ready for other hurricanes, terrorist attacks, any other disaster the nation may face.
Democrats are saying that's the very reason they want Michael Brown out, they say because of his resume padding that you mentioned, their feeling he's not qualified for the job, in over his head, the slow response in the beginning, also the fact that the $52 billion in new relief funds Congress passed last night the president just signed into law last night, they're saying $50 billion of that $52 billion goes directly to FEMA and they are worried Michael Brown will not know how to spend it and it will not go to the victims who need it. So the bottom line here is I think a lot of people in Washington will think this is a curious decision that the White House is basically acknowledging a problem by pulling Michael Brown out. But they're leaving him there as a punching bag, leaving him in place. And Democrats are very willing to pounce on him politically. Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Ed Henry, thank you so much. From a congressional standpoint to the White House to, of course the Pentagon. Barbara Starr here with us here on set. We've been talking so much just about the military cooperation. And in many ways, a lot of people not surprised that an admiral in the coast guard is being put in this position.
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I thought the thing that was possibly the most interesting is Michael Chertoff talked about, quote, the need for seamless interaction with military forces. That may be a signpost of things to come. It may be a signpost that at least Michael Chertoff expects he will have to interact with military forces for some time to come, that it may be one of the deciding factors that made them put this coast guard admiral in charge. That he will be somebody who will work hand in hand with General Honore.
Because the fact is while Michael Brown may be going back to Washington to work on other FEMA issues, to look at other storms and hurricanes, already General Honore has shown reporters that he is tracking the storm Ophelia while he's working on Katrina. It's the type of thing that both coast guard military people can do simultaneously and that they are already doing simultaneously.
So the notion that they need someone for this seamless interaction with the military, i think, was very important. When you look at Admiral Allen's resume, what he has done in his coast guard service, he has a lot of experience in coastal waters, in offshore environments. And Michael Chertoff, again, pointing to the issue, environmental cleanup, the offshore drilling, the oil industry, and a lot of environmental issues that will have to be dealt with in the weeks ahead.
PHILLIPS: It's interesting, if we look back at how things were, I guess supposed to operate, if you look at the levels of defense, right, the city and the state are supposed to go to the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security and FEMA working together. They are supposed to respond to a natural disaster. If, indeed, they thought that they needed help, and then they call in U.S. Northcom and say hey, we need military help.
I'm very curious to see, looking at this disaster and the response and the timing and all of that, if, I guess, that seamless desire, right, will change because there were so many different levels and so many different individuals that had to ask permission, at so many different levels, before the military could even get involved with regard to D.O.D. I'm just curious if that will change now.
STARR: I would suspect, having been there, like so many other reporters and seeing what's going on the ground, that are Admiral Allen and General Honore when they see a problem and they want to get something done, they'll probably pick up the phone and talk to each other and get it done.
PHILLIPS: There won't be an issue. Interesting to follow. All right. Barbara Starr, thank you so much.
If you are just tuning in, we've been following the developing story we first talked about. About an hour ago when our Jeanne Meserve was able to confirm with our sources, indeed the Department of Homeland Security Director, Michael Chertoff, was going to replace Michael Brown of FEMA with regard to who was overseeing operations within the hurricane disaster areas, that change now official. Mike Brown going back to Washington, D.C. Vice Admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff U.S. Coast Guard, now in charge, overseeing all those response and recovery operations in the areas of Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama.
We are going to quick break. Straight-ahead, thousands of Americans reaching out to help the hurricane victims, but how can you be sure the charity you're giving to is legitimate? Well the founder of Charity Navigator a fantastic Web site by the way, joins us later with guidance on giving.
PHILLIPS: New video just in. Tell me if this is a bright -- just a small bright spot for those that are staying at the Astrodome. This is the U.S. mail finally being delivered to the evacuees who are living in the Astrodome right now in Houston, Texas. In case you didn't know about the special zip code, you see it there on the bottom of your screen, 77230. At this point right now, you're able to just put the -- your friend or family member's name on there. And put the Astrodome, Houston, Texas, and this zip code, 77230. And now finally, U.S. mail being delivered to the evacuees who are living there inside the Astrodome.
Hopefully in that pile of mail, these folks are getting some type of aid, some type of check to be able to buy what they need as they are trying to survive there inside that Astrodome, living in Houston, Texas.
Well, for more than a week now, CNN has been using our vast resources in the Gulf Coast to connect families and friends displaced by the storm. CNN's Carol Lin has been at the forefront of that effort. She joins us now from our victims and relief desk. Hi Carol.
CAROL LIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there Kyra. This one is really important and terribly heartbreaking, the story of two lost toddlers in Houston. Child Protective Services does not know this little boy's name, but he's either 2 or 3 years old. His baby-sitter brought him to the Superdome, and Child Protective Services has been taking care of him since last Friday. And this little girl is only 18 months old. Her name is Shakim Williams who was dropped at the Superdome by neighbors. Foster parents are now taking care of her now. Obviously we don't know the circumstances of these adults who just dropped these kids and left.
If you have any information on these two toddlers, you can call 1-800-the-lost or logon to www.missingkids.com. We want to hear from you.
Also, have you seen Walter Joseph Shepherd? He was recovering from emergency surgery at New Orleans Charity Hospital the day Katrina hit. And that is the last time his sister saw him. Dionne Joseph Johnson has been missing also since then. Her mom says the last time she saw Dionne was at home in Eastern New Orleans, parts of which are still underwater. And IDA Dours of New Orleans also has not been seen since Katrina hit. Her sister says Dours has no car, no way to leave her home, and refused to evacuate because she was afraid she couldn't take her pets. Her family does not know if she was able to evacuate. And now, we want to show you pretty special video from our crews out in the field. They are collecting very moving messages sent from Hurricane Katrina survivors in Houston.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHALVANTA PRICE: Hi. My name is Shalvanta Price and I'm in Houston, Texas, and I'm looking for my fiance Jerome Depless (ph) and me daughter, Jacqueline Price. She's 15. Yesterday I got reunited with L'oreal and my son, Shawn. I was so happy. That's the best news I could have got.
LEON DOBY: I'm a very positive person. I do believe in god. And I do believe that my son is safe. I know the kind of mother he has. I know the kind of grandmother he has. I know the family members he has. I'm more than sure he's safe. I have to stay positive.
TYLER WILLIAMS: Hi. I'm Tyler Williams and I'm looking for my mother, Lavar. She was last seen at the New Orleans Superdome on Sunday, evacuating from the hurricane. She may be traveling with my stepfather, David G. Marie.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm looking for my mother, Dawn Marshall. Her husband, Gary Marshall, her brother, my uncle, Jerrold Campbell and my nephew, Wayne Johnson. I'm in Huston. I'm OK. The family is OK. We're all together.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LIN: OK you won't believe how many people we actually get back together because you e-mailed us. So whether folks are lost or found, we want to hear about your loved ones. E-mail us at HURRICANEVICTIMS@CNN.com. If you're looking for information to help, we also have a list of resources at CNN.com/helpcenter. But Kyra, your program has been instrumental in getting folks together. We've had a couple success stories we reported earlier because of the pictures that we showed right here on LIVEFROM.
PHILLIPS: Oh Carol that's great news. Thank you so much. You're the one working the long hours. Carol Lin thank you so much.
LIN: Thanks Kyra.
PHILLIPS: Well to say emotions are riding high surrounding the devastating aftermath of hurricane Katrina may be the understatement of the year. Strong feelings are being expressed everywhere, including this show. We have had huge viewer response to some tense moments that erupted during my interview yesterday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Here's a small clip of that heated exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PHILLIPS (voice over): There are so many people responsible for what has happened in the state of Louisiana.
REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) MINORITY LEADER: That is true. That is true. And I'm sorry that you think it's unfair. But I don't. I think it's unfair to the people who lost their family members, their live, their livelihood, their homes, their opportunity. And FEMA has done a poor job. It had no chance.
PHILLIPS: But what about all the warnings from the army corps of engineers? Years ago saying there's a problem with these levees. There's a problem with the city.
PELOSI: Kyra --
PHILLIPS: It's Kyra.
PELOSI: If you want to make a case for the White House, you should go on their payroll.
PHILLIPS: I'm not making a case for the White House, by all means. Believe me.
PELOSI: The White House has cut this year 72 percent of the request from Louisiana for flooding money. The White House has cut the Army Corps of Engineers by a large percentage. In this last fiscal year. But the point is not to argue about that. The point is, where do we go from here to help these people?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PHILLIPS: That wasn't the end of it. We received hundreds of viewer e-mails afterward, running a wide gamut of opinion. Here are just a few of those.
Gail in Ohio writes, "I'm a damned liberal and groaned out loud at Nancy Pelosi's trying to weasel out of any long-term responsibility for the neglect of our cities, our education system, our health care and the elderly. All we've had recently on both sides is partisan politics. Very disheartening to say the least.
Nancy says, "Has the reporter that is interviewing Nancy Pelosi and defending Bush and the FEMA disaster been watching the news this past week? The response of FEMA was an unmitigated disaster and it is indicative of the cronyism and incompetence of the Bush administration.
Marina from California writes, "Kyra is an unbelievably terrible journalist. Is this the Kyra show or what? A journalist should be objective. Yes, we Americans are all frustrated and stunned with the hurricane disaster. But either straighten up Kyra or fire her. Otherwise you will loose this viewer.
Thank you for holding Nancy Pelosi's feet to the fire in your interview. Many reporters are afraid of her but today you were not. Thank you for asking the questions and not letting her run the interview with her bias and political slant. As you saw, when pressed for real answers, she has none. Ron in San Diego.
Sally in California, "Please tell Kyra that we really don't want to hear her arguing with everybody and putting forth her opinions about what's fair. Nothing about this disaster is fair. She should stick to reporting and keep her personal opinions to herself. Enough is enough. I'm turning off her program."
And finally, Celia in Kansas, "Yes, two intelligent and articulate women lit up the screen just now. Great discussion!" Well, the bottom-line for us here at CNN, we're asking tough questions because you're asking tough questions. And we're going to continue that because we're journalists. Asking tough questions is our job and our responsibility. This is far from over. Our coverage continues straight ahead.
PHILLIPS: With the devastation in New Orleans so overwhelming, some people are questioning whether the city can ever fully recover.
Kevin Regan is not one of those skeptics. He's a New Orleans hotel executive who's been going nonstop since the storm hit, focused completely on recovery and rebuilding.
With that amazing story, here's our CNN's Drew Griffin.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You can find him under the only light that has been burning on Canal Street. The Sheraton sign has been battered, but bright since Saturday. How could it have electricity in a city still mired in darkness?
KEVIN REGAN, VICE PRESIDENT, STARWOOD HOTELS: Watch your back.
GRIFFIN: When you meet this New Orleans hero, you might think he's generating power all by himself.
REGAN: We go, we rock and roll, and get it done.
This is another portable generator we brought in.
GRIFFIN: Kevin Regan is vice president of Starwood Hotels, but on post-hurricane Canal Street, he is a king.
REGAN (on phone): Kevin Regan, (INAUDIBLE) Kendrick and Neil (ph).
GRIFFIN: His scepter is his radio. It helps him keep track of the three hotels he's trying to get up and running, bouncing between the Sheraton, the W Hotel French Quarter, and the W Hotel New Orleans.
REGAN: You guys see those guys come down?
GRIFFIN: He is trying to bring back to life not one but all three of his hotels in a city pronounced dead.
(on camera): Is this city coming back?
REGAN: Yes, it'll be back. I think, you know, we're going to be up and operating and probably have a few hundred rooms within the next couple of weeks.
All on this side of the building was where it sustained most of the damage.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Truth is, Regan's city is already being rebuilt. The W New Orleans lost 50 percent of its windows.
REGAN: The suction just pulled the windows right out of it.
GRIFFIN: Repair supplies are on the way.
REGAN: We've got about 500 sheets of plywood coming in within the next couple of days. GRIFFIN: Dehumidifiers are drying carpets at the Sheraton. Three blocks away, at the W French Quarter, the chefs are organizing to restart the kitchen.
REGAN: To clean out the freezers and all that yet? Nope, they haven't. Nope, they haven't. W French Quarter, they're not going to get the diesel truck.
GRIFFIN: Regan oversees it all, working nonstop.
REGAN: We'll go back over towards the Sheraton. I have to check on some diesel fuel and make sure that we get the diesel truck here before they run out at 4:00 in the morning.
GRIFFIN: That's right, power.
REGAN: Do you see where the guys are, the electricians and everything?
GRIFFIN: Right in the center of the darkened city, Regan's first recovery plan was to get the lights back on.
(on camera): By Friday, even amidst all the chaos, the Starwood Hotel Group managed to energize, to power their hotel right here in the French Quarter, the W. It's now a police precinct.
How did you handle all three hotels when this town was going to hell?
REGAN: Very (INAUDIBLE). We had escorts everywhere. We were able to get these power guys and get our power up.
PHILLIPS: Straight now, the new man in charge replacing Mike Brown on the ground. You're looking at Admiral Thad Allen. Let's hear what he has to say.
VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD: ... gap between us and what we're trying to accomplish down there.
We are a unified effort on the ground in New Orleans, as I expand my responsibilities to the larger regional area in the three states that were impacted by this, and the states beyond that are handling evacuees. We intend to continue that partnership.
There are a lot of activities going on in New Orleans right now related to saving of life, search and rescue, door-to-door screening for evacuees, treating remains with dignity, looking at the dewatering of New Orleans, getting the pumps back online, and looking at the future for the city and the parishes around the city.
We will continue to do that. We will continue to work closely with General Honore and his staff, with our state, local, and federal partners, as we move forward in this endeavor. When we're through with this press availability here, I'm going to hold an all-hands meeting with everybody in this building. We'll have an open and frank conversation on the way forward, and we will move out.
BRIG. GEN. RUSSELL HONORE, U.S. ARMY: Well, our troops have decisively engaged with the first responders in completing the search and rescue mission from the land perspective. We still have people flowing to the evacuee center. Doctors are taking care of them.
And when I left New Orleans an hour and a half ago, we probably had 50 people on-site. The numbers have reduced somewhat. We had in the vicinity of 200 yesterday, and the day before, several hundred.
So as we make contact, I talked to a gentleman this morning. They were trying to hold out. And he and his girlfriend decided it was time to leave. And a lot of -- I see a lot of people coming out now with their animals. We're going to try to facilitate that by (INAUDIBLE) giving our soldiers some cages and the right equipment, so they can try to bring the animals to a collection point, as we go in and continue our reconnaissance looking for Those who would like to be evacuated.
That's all I have to say right now. A great team effort. And I admire the strength of the people of south Louisiana to deal with this at such a trying time with this great disaster.
ALLEN: Be glad to take a few questions, myself or General Honore.
QUESTION: Collecting the animals, is that a (INAUDIBLE) policy from before?
HONORE: Well, you know, focus (INAUDIBLE) first on people. And as we have capacity to do that, and the animal is there, there's a lot of effort and a lot of concern, a lot of people who left their animals or the animals became separated. Again, we got the capacity. It seemed like the right thing to do, unless you don't agree with that.
QUESTION: No, I agree.
QUESTION: What about people who, you know, in the Garden District area, where it wasn't flooded, this morning there are reports that there are people living there, with generators, they have food. And they're quite comfortable, considering, and they don't want to leave. So are you going to force them to leave?
HONORE: That's an issue for the local and state government. And they're working the process through that. The city is still under a mandatory evacuation. And right now, we are focusing on those that do want to leave. We know where they are, and we'll continue to work it in that way until the city and state (INAUDIBLE). If that does happen, that will not be federal troops involved with that. That will be a state and city issue, with law enforcement. If that happens, when it happens. I don't know. I would refer that to the governor's office and to the mayor's office.
ALLEN: (INAUDIBLE) one other comment, in addition to that, one of the more difficult things we're having to deal with in this very trying time is the fact there are areas of New Orleans that are dry. But all of New Orleans, whether it's dry, wet, or drying out, is all connected together by the same infrastructure regarding natural gas, electricity, water, and sewer. So just because an area doesn't have water and it doesn't mean that you can unilaterally reinstate those utilities and have it work.
What we're told in the area, there are areas that are covered with water, where natural gas is bubbling up from breaks in lines. I think we need to be very careful when we talk about how we should reenter these neighborhoods. There are areas where we may have hazardous materials that have been stored there that have been released by the water. This needs to be a very slow -- not slow, but very deliberate, focused, safe operation.
QUESTION: How much of the city is still underwater, would you say?
ALLEN: I don't have the percentage with me right now. I can tell you, the waters have receded somewhat since the breaks in the levees have been repaired, except for the London Avenue break. We do not have the required number of pumps online now that we'd like to have, either in St. Bernard's Parish or in Orleans Parish. That's being worked very hard right now by the Corps of Engineers and local engineers in the city.
QUESTION: Just to clarify what you said, did you say the search and rescue mission from the land respect has been completed? Is that what you -- meaning that they've (INAUDIBLE) the dry area?
HONORE: OK. No, we're working that area that still has water. Descriptively, if you know where the City Hall is, yesterday morning, there was water there. This morning, you can walk all the way to the Superdome. And the water is about ankle deep at the Superdome, at the ramp that we've been using to enter. So the water is receding. And we'll continue to monitor it.
QUESTION: And did you say that the -- that -- you were talking about the number of people that you saw that were being evacuated. You said there were 50 people onsite today, and 200 -- So you're saying the number of people who are left is -- that you've taken out is slowing down? Is that what you're saying?
HONORE: I think that is. Big number, little number.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, being in charge now of the federal response (INAUDIBLE), are we going to see any changes in (INAUDIBLE) strategy?
ALLEN: I'm sorry, can you repeat the question? QUESTION: Being that you're now in charge of the federal response here, are we going to see any changes in focus or strategy, (INAUDIBLE) on the recovery efforts at this point?
ALLEN: Well, I think the secretary laid out the priorities in his earlier announcement. That's my overarching guidance. Quite frankly, safety and human life is always the number one priority. (INAUDIBLE) some residual search and rescue activity going on in various locations. We are monitoring those areas to make sure that we -- if there's somebody out there that needs to be saved, that we are saving them.
We're moving to the point where we have a lot of evacuees that have been dispersed around the country. Quite frankly, one of our goals now needs to be to reconstitute communities and community capability to get on with life We need to find out where they have been sent. We need to make that information available to the communities.
We need to start talking about reconstitution of services and how we can assist in doing that.
Tomorrow I'll be having a luncheon with the parish presidents, the parishes in and around New Orleans. That would already have been scheduled before the announcement today. That's part of extending this reach-out. If we need to put more people in the field to make more contact, we will do that.
QUESTION: Admiral, what can you tell us about the current state of body recovery operations and what FEMA's plan is for that, and how you're coordinating with the state? We've heard that the state has yet to sign off on the FEMA plan for that.
ALLEN: Well, first of all, I would tell you there's no FEMA plan. There is no DOD plan, there is no PFO plan. There is one plan on how to respond to this emergency. That's the reason you see both of us here.
We have an agreement on what the role of the DOD is in this operation. I'll let General Honore speak to that in a minute. There is a role for FEMA as part of this, regarding mortuary affairs, and that has been established.
What we are working on now is to how do we treat those remains with dignity? How they are removed and handled with dignity, and how they are reunited with their families. And that is a combination of what DOD is doing as part of the sweeps that are being conducted. Ultimately, the mortuary services that FEMA is involved in, and then the removal and the transformation of those remains, keeping in mind the personal dignity to which they should be accorded.
General, you want to make a comment?
HONORE: Yes. As our team go with the search and rescue people, and our soldiers doing the detail search, and the intent of that is to be where a soldier will report, and the proper authorities will come forward under the protocols for handling remains.
We will not have any embed reporters in that operation.
QUESTION: Again, do you have an agreement with the state? You said you have an agreement between FEMA and the DOD. Is there an agreement with the state on this?
HONORE: Yes, we work for the state, in support of the state.
ALLEN: All this is being conducted in accordance with the general policies the state has for handling remains.
HONORE: But back to the point of there will be no embed. We've given total access to the operation. There will be no -- zero access to that operation, as I would ask that all of you respect that and work with us. It's not -- it wouldn't be good light to have pictures of people who are deceased shown on any media.
Everybody knows it's a horrific event. But I want you to think about and hold yourselves accountable for what someone's seeing and being able to recognize from home, or the location that their loved one passed.
In the military, we have very strict rules on the notification of next of kin. And someone told me this morning, there was a Web site with some pictures on it. And I wish those who put it there would take it down.
I mean, we've had total access to everything we've done, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And that, you know, operation will be conducted with dignity and respect for those families for the intent, so the process can happen in the tone that it should happen. And we do this expeditiously and as efficient as we can. And that we will do.
QUESTION: Are you going to restrict access to journalists, in that cases, to New Orleans at some point?
HONORE: Not in the area you're going. The area in -- it's open access. But as we go to -- in the areas that have water, and as the areas start to dry, we will. That is the agreement with the mayor's office and with the governor's office as to how we would do that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: A sweep in New Orleans this morning found fewer bodies than expected. I'm wondering if you guys have sort of a downward revised estimate of what the body toll might be. Because we're hearing, we heard somebody...
ALLEN: We're making no estimates on that at this time. We really don't know what we're encountering. There's still a large number of houses that are underwater. Any release of information regarding fatalities will be the state's purview.
QUESTION: Admiral, can you explain exactly how FEMA's going about dispensing money to survivors, meaning both in the Astrodome, and how does that differ, if it does at all, from the way people around the country and other places are going to go about getting FEMA money?
ALLEN: Well, as you know, I'm about 30 minutes on the job now. I'm about ready to meet with my staff up here. I've been focused what's going on in New Orleans. I'm going to let my deputy answer that question, if that's all right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This assignment was also a surprise to me.
The recovery process is beginning, but not at the expense of the admiral's response. And FEMA recognized that. But it's a good question. And we are beginning to move. In the last two days, over 230,000 individuals and/or families have received close to $460 million.
And that is disbursed in a number of ways. We have people here that can answer you in detail. But you've heard of a couple of the ways, and checks, electronic transfers, and et cetera. So we're beginning to move, we're beginning to get DRCs, disaster recovery centers, in place, and we will do so in full support of the admiral. We will do so at no expense to the response and the critical work of the general and admiral.
Our people are here. We're growing in size. I would expect us to have a couple of thousand people shortly and be prepared to hit the field running, even to a greater degree than we are presently.
QUESTION: What do you expect to do to make it just as easy for someone in Baton Rouge, for example, as it would be for someone in Houston?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will have representatives in all shelters, out of state and in state. And again, I have people here that can answer detailed questions, but...
QUESTION: Why the debit cards in Houston, and not here? You have people here (INAUDIBLE) bank accounts. You're going to give them money, and have them walking around with $2,000 ((INAUDIBLE)...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understood the question, and your concern is correct. We have people here that I'd like them to answer that, because I wasn't that deeply involved in that. And if I answer that question, it would be inappropriate.
But I do agree that we need to get assistance to families, and we need to do it quickly, and we need to use every mechanism that's available to us, and we will. The admiral asked us to go back and do that carefully.
ALLEN: Let me just make a general comment. As we're making this transition, we're going to establish a set time for a press briefing, so you'll know when I will be available to answer questions, or when the staff will be available.
And knowing what your concerns are, we will have technical experts available through the media center. But you can expect, in the next couple days, when we have these ongoing operations briefings, you'll get more detailed answers. As we're making the shift in the leadership today, we'd ask you refer any technical questions and detailed questions on exact process to our media center.
QUESTION: Admiral, when did you find out that you would be taking over the field operations here?
ALLEN: I was told by the secretary this morning.
QUESTION: Early this morning?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last question.
ALLEN: Ten o'clock.
QUESTION: Is the operation in New Orleans now primarily to recover bodies, or has it shifted from...
ALLEN: No. The primary mission is to save lives, to provide food and water, to provide shelter, to increase communications. Beyond the human suffering and tragedy that's gone on in New Orleans, there's a devastation to a municipal area, and services have to be restored.
Our priorities -- there are two priorities aside from the human aspect of what's going on in New Orleans right now that we are concerned with. Number one is the removal of the water. And to do that, we have to close up the levees, the London Avenue levee is the last to be closed up. After that, we have to get the pumps online to be able to sustain and keep the water out.
Nature has been unbelievably good to us in the last week, because there's been no rain in a rainy part of the year. We've also had some help with dehydration as a result of that. So we need to get the water out of the city.
After that I've talked with city officials, the number two priority is to reconstitute their emergency services, the fire department, the police department. We need a place for those people to live, to be able to function. We have contracted with a company to bring two cruise ships into New Orleans to provide berthing and a base of operations to reestablish those basic services in the city.
We'll continue to move beyond that to talk about infrastructure, to talk about electricity and the other utilities, and move the city back towards functionality as we move into a long-range planning phase, and that's yet to be determined. We'll be working on that next.
Thank you very much, folks.
PHILLIPS: Now, that sounds like a man in charge, Vice Admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff, U.S. Coast Guard. He is the man. He found out this morning, he said, that designated to replace Mike Brown, head of FEMA. Mike Brown heading back to Washington, D.C.
And now you saw right there in that live news conference, those are the two men running the show on the ground, in charge of all recovery and response efforts taking place throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Once again, pictures coming in, new aerials that we're just getting in via our helicopter pilot there in New Orleans. You can see the military chopper from what appears to be -- not quite sure what they're moving, probably some type of supplies there -- across the city, across those high waters.
But you've seen the two men in charge for the first time, live together. It seems like they've known each other.
And those are being sandbags. Thank you very much. Those are sandbags being carried via military helicopter to be dropped within the flooded areas there of New Orleans proper.
Meanwhile, what you just saw, of course, General Russell Honore side by side with Vice Admiral Thad Allen, now the man in charge, as Mike Brown, head of FEMA, goes back to Washington, D.C.
So as you can imagine, we'll be checking in with the admiral and the general on a regular basis, as we continue to follow many more success stories coming out of this devastated area in three states since Hurricane Katrina.
We'll take a quick break. More LIVE FROM... right after this.
PHILLIPS: From the dangers of Baghdad to devastation back home, few comforts await members of the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Brigade Combat Team.
The troops are en route to their home state after a tour of duty in Iraq. About 50 Guardsmen say they have family members who are unaccounted for. More than 500 are believed to have major damage to their homes, and some will remain on active duty to help with those relief operations.
We saw these pictures come to us within the past 20 minutes or so as the Guardsmen were just getting off this chartered plane. They actually came from Kuwait. And we actually talked to the head of this brigade about a week and a half ago, when they first found out they were going to be coming home.
And I asked them, Have you talked to family members? Have you talked to friends in Louisiana area? And that was one of the biggest concerns on behalf of these Guardsmen. A lot of them had not touched base with their loved ones, with their spouses, with their parents, with their children, and their friends. And so a lot of these individuals coming back to Louisiana from Iraq, not even knowing if their home is still standing, if their families are OK. Many of them still unaccounted for. So it should be an interesting mission, to say the least, for these soldiers just returning from Baghdad.
And I'm being told now we've got a live picture up of the families waiting. These are many of the family members, of course, that survived that storm and can't wait to see their loved ones as they are getting home now.
I'm being told you -- we saw that earlier video of the soldiers coming off the plane, but a lot of them had to go through the process of customs and other formalities before they could actually head over to their family members.
So still, within the past 45 minutes or so, when we first brought you these pictures, they haven't been able to hook up with their family members yet, as you saw for that live picture. Lot of moms and wives and dads and children waiting to see their loved one come home.
That reuniting, or that reunion, of course, will happen as soon as they're finished with all the logistics that they have to deal with there are the airport.
But here they are, the hundreds of National Guardsmen and -women that were serving in Iraq, now coming home to their home state of Louisiana, family members here waiting to greet them.
And I told you we had talked to the head of this combat team when they first got word that they were going to have to come back. A lot of them even saying, Wow, after seeing the pictures out of New Orleans and other areas, this is going to be an even harder task than what we've been dealing with here in Iraq. Pretty powerful statement.
Well, that wraps it up for this Friday edition of LIVE FROM... Thanks so much for being with us. I'm Kyra Phillips, the CNN Center, Atlanta. Have a great weekend. We'll see you back here on Monday.
Now Wolf Blitzer is live in "THE SITUATION ROOM."
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