Skip to main content


Return to Transcripts main page


Hurricane Rita Headed for Gulf Coast?; Interview With Orleans Parish President Oliver Thomas

Aired September 19, 2005 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Glad to have you with us tonight.
For New Orleans residents, today is like a horror movie. Just when they thought it was safe to go back into the city, another storm may be on the way. Just a few hours ago, New Orleans mayor stopped his controversial plan to let people come back to their homes.

The suburb of Algiers opened today. And a few people actually trickled back in, despite the federal government's criticism that the mayor was letting them return too soon and that it simply wasn't safe. With a new storm now in the picture, that whole issue is moot.


RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: Our levee systems are still in a very weak condition. Our pumping stations are not at full capacity. And any type of storm that heads this way and hits us will put the east bank of Orleans Parish in very significant harm's way.


ZAHN: Well, here is the reason for all the worry. Rita appears to be heading for the Florida Keys and then on to the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier today, people were rushing to buy gasoline and groceries, as well as plywood to cover up their windows. Florida Governor Jeb Bush is calling for the evacuation of about five million residents.


GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: The hurricane warning is in effect from Key West through Miami Dade County, including mainland Monroe County. There are currently mandatory evacuations through the entire Florida Keys island chain and mainland Monroe.


ZAHN: And, just a few minutes ago, authorities raised confirmed overall toll from Hurricane Katrina to 970. That includes 219 deaths in Mississippi, where these pictures were taken, and 736 deaths in Louisiana.

One more does disturbing development tonight. Louisiana attorney general today announced six people have been arrested for allegedly using the Internet to entice and sexually exploit Louisiana children when they were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Now back to New Orleans, where tonight, Mayor Ray Nagin has called off the return of residents because of Rita. And there are signs of a bitter turf battle going on between Nagin and the man leading the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. Things got so bad today, at one point, the mayor called the admiral -- quote -- "the new federally appointed mayor of New Orleans" -- end of quote.

Well, late today, the two men got together.

David Mattingly joins me now with some of the details.

What do we know? Are they are cordial at all with each other tonight?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, according to everyone we have talked to, the meetings have always been cordial. This has been a disagreement they have had over how the mayor is bringing people back into the city.

But, at this point, there's nothing like a common enemy to put everyone on the same page and to put all plans and disagreements on hold.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): Even as the foul floodwater continues its slow retreat, the immediate future of New Orleans suddenly seems even darker.

NAGIN: We are suspending all reentry into the city of New Orleans as of this moment. I'm also asking everyone in Algiers to prepare to evacuate as early as Wednesday.

MATTINGLY: With pumping stations and a network of levees still ailing and crippled, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered his second evacuation of the city in less a month. As Tropical Storm Rita prepares to churn into the Gulf of Mexico, the possibility of just a three-foot storm surge could bring a new flooding disaster.

Nagin says buses are already being prepared and suggests the possibility of more forceful tactics for those who might try to stay behind.

NAGIN: Unless somebody gives me a different story of how we're going to protect the city from that surge, then we have to get people out.

MATTINGLY: The soon-to-be-hurricane enters the picture at a time when Nagin was feuding with federal authorities over his push to bring residents back into the city. It was an idea at odds with safety and health concerns voiced by the head of relief efforts, Vice Admiral Thad Allen, whose authority was questioned publicly by the mayor.

NAGIN: When he starts talking to citizens of New Orleans, that's Kind of out of his lane. There's only one mayor of New Orleans, and I'm it.

MATTINGLY: While agreeing on the vision of repopulating the city, Admiral Allen cited limited clean water, the lack of food, fuel and electricity, also the struggling medical services, as reasons to slow down. But Mayor Nagin says he was pleased with the current progress and plans to resume once the threat of the next storm passes.


MATTINGLY: But, for now, this is one feud that seems to be put aside in the face of a much bigger threat here, Paula. Again, just a six-foot storm surge could be more than the levees here could bear, according to the mayor.

ZAHN: The one thing that wasn't clear to me, David, was when the mayor said that they were going to be more aggressive in trying to get people out of New Orleans this time. Do we know exactly what he meant by that?

MATTINGLY: He was asked three times in that news conference by different reporters for details on what he meant by being more aggressive. And each time he did not elaborate.

But it's clear that, this time, they do not intend to have the problem with the stragglers or the holdouts, as they have called them, as they had with the last hurricane.

ZAHN: David Mattingly, thanks so much for the update.

Now back to the big unknown at this hour, the new storm threatening the Gulf Coast. Rita is getting stronger and everyone has been ordered off the Florida Keys. We heard the governor of Florida saying it was a mandatory evacuation.

Let's turn to meteorologist Rob Marciano, who joins me now from Key West.

Anybody left tonight, Rob, but you?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: No, actually, about half the folks are still here.

The mayor just held a press conference about an hour ago. About 26,000 residents of Key West, he estimates about 50 percent, have left. The other 13,000 are still here and will ride out the storm. So, not everybody leaves. Mandatory evacuation, it's really more of a liability issue. And that's why they proclaim that.

But they would you to get out. When the winds get to 50 miles an hour, there's not going to be any calls going out by police or fire department officials there. The local National Weather Service put out an alarming statement a little bit earlier. Hurricane George came through in 1998. That was a Category 2 storm, a strong storm. And the National Weather Service here in Key West is saying that this storm is likely to be worse than that. And with the storm surge and the winds just battering waves, some of the bridges to the Overseas Highway could very well be impassible come Wednesday morning. So, there could be a stranding situation here. So, it's looking a little bit worse now.


ZAHN: And, after the storm hits Florida, describe the expected path.


Well, it's on a west/northwesterly movement right now. Let's look at the satellite picture. It has gotten better organized today, although it's not yet a hurricane. We do expect it to strengthen overnight. When it goes past Key West, then it will come very close, if not take a direct hit tomorrow, it will go out into the open waters of the Gulf, still warm, and likely gaining more strength, maybe Category 3 or higher.

And then our track will take this, once it gets past Key West, anywhere from Corpus Christi, Texas, to, say, as east as Lafayette or, dare I say, New Orleans, Louisiana. So, it could very well get to a place that would like not to see another hurricane. That's for sure.

ZAHN: Rob Marciano, appreciate your bringing us up to date on that.

And just a reminder once again. We just heard the mayor say that a simple storm surge of some three feet could cause enormous damage to New Orleans once again, particularly because the levees are so weakened and the pumps are not at full capacity.

Now, one of biggest scandals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was that some members of the New Orleans Police Department actually walked off their jobs. Their fellow officers called them traitors and worse. And, for the first time, one of the policemen who walked away tells us why.


ZAHN: And we're moving up on just about 11 minutes past the hour.

It is hard to believe that we are just three weeks to the day past Katrina hitting and we have yet another storm to talk about tonight.

But, before we get to that, let's go to Erica Hill at Headline News for the other stories.

Apparently, we're having some technical difficulties. But the big story that we're reporting tonight is the fact that there is a lot of concern about what Tropical Storm Rita may unfurl, particularly in the Florida Keys. And, ultimately, Rob Marciano, our meteorologist, just reported, there is concern that the storm will strength once it passes through the Keys. And he just reported it could become a Category 2 to a Category 3 hurricane when all is said and done. So, there's a great deal of concern in New Orleans tonight and all across the Gulf Coast about how to prepare for that.

There's another story that we have focused a lot on in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And that is the fact that, one point, it was believed that a third of all New Orleans police officers walked the off the job, some after the storm hit, some even before it hit. And what would you call a police officer who leaves his or her post during a crisis, a turncoat, a traitor or worse?

Well, because of all the chaos after Katrina, many New Orleans police officers, as I have just said, simply vanished. And their fellow officers called them all that and more. Well, tonight, for the first time, in an exclusive report, you're about to hear from one of those who left, a high-ranking officer, and hear why he made that choice.

Here's Jason Carroll.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you doing, man? Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the days of lawlessness, looting and flooding, something happened few people in New Orleans imagines was possible. Hundreds of police officers, like Lieutenant Henry Waller, abandoned their fellow officers and thousands of evacuees when they were needed most.

LT. HENRY WALLER, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: I defend it by saying that I left them in a bad situation, but I have would have been leaving my wife in a worse situation.

CARROLL: Waller has been a New Orleans cop for eight-and-a-half years. He's stationed at the First District downtown. And he's one of only a few high-ranking officers, the department says, who went AWOL, absent without leave.

H. WALLER: The one time that I know that I did the right thing and made the right decision, it's going to vilify me, that's difficult to deal with.

CARROLL: Waller explained how it happened, saying, Tuesday, August 30, the day after Katrina hit New Orleans, the situation was grave.

H. WALLER: We listened to the radio. And we're hearing the things, the water is still rising. The water is still rising. The water is still rising. The looting is this. The looting is that.

CARROLL: Waller says police superiors had no plan of action, and he was reprimanded for saying that to his unit.

H. WALLER: I got with another lieutenant in the First District, who essentially told me, look, you're a supervisor. You can't scare these guys. If they know you're scared, they're going to be scared. And I said, flat out, I said, you know what? I am scared. Everybody here is scared. And the bottom line is, I'm not going to tell these guys everything is going to be OK when it's not going to be OK.

CARROLL: That Tuesday, as 80 percent of New Orleans lay under water, Waller says he told another officer he would get supplies. Waller drove an hour away to Baton Rouge, where stores were open. It was also where his wife was staying with his family. She was upset, fearing something had happened to her father in hurricane-damaged Mississippi. Still, after getting the supplies, Waller says he went back to New Orleans, where he heeded a state trooper's warning at the city's checkpoint.

H. WALLER: And I started thinking. I said, well, you know, we have been hearing this story about the levees breaching all day. What if they're right and I get stuck in this car? I'm no good dead. And so, we will go back tonight. You know, and I will head back in the morning, once we have a better grasp of what is going on.

CARROLL: But Waller did not go back Wednesday morning. He stayed with his family and canceled plans to return to New Orleans Thursday, when his wife got news her father may have drowned. He's listed as missing.

CYNTHEIA WALLER, WIFE OF NEW ORLEANS POLICE OFFICER: I need my husband. And if they want to blame somebody for him leaving, tell them to blame me, because it was me who was literally begging him to stay. Call me a coward. Call me selfish.

H. WALLER: In a time of ultimate crisis, who needs me more, the police department or my wife? And it was a no-brainer for me.

CARROLL (on camera): What if all of the officers did something like that? Once you've taken an oath of protection, who is there to protect the people?

H. WALLER: That's a tough question to answer, only because I know that not all the officers are going to do that.

CARROLL (voice-over): But enough did. Nearly a quarter of the entire force went AWOL. Lieutenant Troy Savage says officers like him, who stayed, resent fellow cops like Waller, who didn't.

LT. TROY SAVAGE, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: Everybody had a wife. Everybody has got families. Everybody needed to see them. But we didn't. We all didn't flee. We all didn't run in a time of crisis. And he did that.

CARROLL: Waller stands by his decision, but says it costs him sleep.

H. WALLER: The nightmares were horrible. Every time I fell asleep for a couple of minutes, I was having a recurring nightmare that one of my guys was -- needed help somewhere, was drowning or being beaten up. CARROLL: Finally, nearly a week after being AWOL, Waller radioed the First District, saying he wanted to come back and was told, don't bother; 200 AWOL officers like Waller have asked to or already have returned to work. Animosity is so strong, some can't go back to their stations, so they meet at this local high school, where they're assigned various jobs in the city. Officers call this place the leper colony.

EDDIE COMPASS, SUPERINTENDENT, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: I knew who the warriors were and who wasn't.

CARROLL: Police department Superintendent Eddie Compass says all AWOL cops will have hearings to determine whether they can keep their jobs.

COMPASS: We are going to evaluate our whole police department and after-action program. The heroics will be rewarded and the cowardice will be punished.

CARROLL: Compass suspects many officers will be fired. But Savage think there's a worse punishment.

SAVAGE: If I had done that, how do you face your children and try to make them do the right thing ever again? Where is your moral authority over your children or your spouse or anybody? You have -- you've lost it.

H. WALLER: People are going to have their opinions. I can only hope that, over time, people will understand.

CARROLL: Maybe, over time, some people will find understanding. But forgiveness might be more difficult.


ZAHN: He's going to have a lot to face if they ever really accept him back. Jason Carroll reporting for us tonight.

One of the tiniest victims of Hurricane Katrina is little baby boy. He couldn't have been taken off of life support and couldn't be brought home to his family until some volunteers decided something had to be done. You are going to see what they accomplished just a few hours ago.


ZAHN: The one thing that's kind of hard for all of us to believe, that, here we are tonight, some three weeks after Katrina took a big, direct hit at New Orleans and then the Gulf Coast, and you still have more than 2,000 children separated from family members because of the storm.

And I want to call your attention now to the left side of your television screen. We are going to be showing you the names and -- when we can -- and pictures of children separated from their families by Hurricane Katrina. You will eventually that picture, I promise. And we are working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to reunite them.

We know of at least 21 children reunited with family as a direct result of this. And if you have any information about any of these children, which you'll eventually see, please call 1-800-843-5678. That's 1-800-THE-LOST.

In the meantime, let's check in with Brian Todd, who joins me now from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the organization that's behind many of these reunions.

Brian, good to see you tonight.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good to see you, Paula.

And we have been telling you that we are entering the 15th -- this actually is the end of the 15th night that this center has been in operation. You mentioned three weeks since the hurricane hit. It's been two weeks since they set up this call center here in Alexandria, Virginia. It's the Katrina missing persons hot line.

Paula mentioned the numbers a moment ago. What we have now is 2,393 listed as missing from the hurricane and its aftermath; 883 cases have been resolved. Now, we are going to tell you one good story about one of those. And this is one of the ones that had to do with CNN's reporting.

Seven-year-old Tyrielle Guillot, she had become separated from her mother during the hurricane. She had been taken by her grandmother. She and her grandmother made their way to Texas, but they didn't know if the mother was alive. We put up this picture of Tyrielle Guillot over the weekend. The grandmother and Tyrielle saw the picture. They realized that the only way that this could have gotten out is if the mother had sent it to someone.

They realized then that her mother was alive. They called the missing persons hot line as a result of seeing Tyrielle's picture on CNN. And they were connected together. That's a good story.

We have a few, however -- there are at least two here that we want to show you that are still active cases of kids missing. Hannah Ellis, 5 years old, she was last known to be at home at Kiln, Mississippi, with an adult female. Hannah Ellis not been seen since Hurricane Katrina hit.

And Terrance Montgomery. You will see a picture of Terrance here. He's 10 years old. He's from New Orleans, went missing with his brothers, Eric (ph) and Antoine (ph). They have not been seen since the hurricane hit.

Paula mentioned the number a moment ago. I'm going to repeat it now, 1-800-THE-LOST, 1-800-843-5678. Or go to for an update on some of these cases.

They will be running this center until midnight tonight. They'll pick it up at 8:00 a.m. Eastern time tomorrow morning -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thanks, Brian.

And to make sure the viewers out there don't think we are completely confused here tonight, what they were seeing on their screens is entirely different from what we were seeing on our screens. So, it's a good thing. They actually saw the names and some of the images of those children. And, hopefully, that will lead to some more reunions.

Brian Todd, thanks for the update.

TODD: Sure.

ZAHN: The last thing anyone in Louisiana needs is a new storm. And we're told that's exactly what they might get. But they may not have a choice at all. What's being done to get ready for Rita and what's the latest forecast for that tropical storm that's expected to gain force and turn into a hurricane?

Stay with us for the very latest on that.


ZAHN: Tonight, we're monitoring the new storm threat in the Caribbean. Rita is getting stronger and stronger and heading for the Florida Keys. There are mandatory evacuations going on at this hour. And it might hit even Louisiana.

Let's get a quick update on Rita's track now from Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Weather Center.

How does Rita look right now?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, it looks like it's in an intensifying trend right now and probably going to be a hurricane, we think, even as early as 11:00 advisory, 70-mile-per-hour winds now. There, you can see the location as moving through the central Bahamas, 315 miles east-southeast of Key West, or about 140 miles south- southeast of Nassau.

It's taken a little wobble off to the west, but we do expect it to resume it's west-northwesterly track, and moving along at a pretty good speed, about 13, 14 miles per hour. Hurricane warnings from Golden Beach all the way over here to East Cape Sable, and then down through the Keys and into the Dry Tortugas, also for the central Bahamas, where we have the hurricane warnings. Means hurricane conditions are going to be arriving in less than 24 hours.

Forecast track has it continuing to get stronger, Category 2 hurricane as it gets close to the Keys. This will be happening, we think, tomorrow afternoon. This is a forecast of the winds. And watch how this wind field expands. These are tropical storm force winds of at least 30 miles per hour as it moves over Andros Island tonight. And then tomorrow we think we will feel the tropical storm force winds over the Keys as early as tomorrow morning, maybe around daybreak, with the hurricane force winds coming in before 12:00 noon. There, you can see the position, with 100 mile-per-hour winds Tuesday afternoon, 2:00. It will be leaving the Keys then overnight Tuesday and into early Wednesday morning.

The main thing you need to know about Keys, six-to-nine-foot storm surge expected, roof and moderate structural damage, rainfall of six to 10-plus inches expected into the Keys. And then, after that, we are expecting it to move into the Gulf of Mexico, intensify more still up to a Category 3. So, that's a major hurricane, could get stronger than that, has its eyes on the western Gulf.

We have been talking a lot about New Orleans. None of the models right now, by the way, are bringing it into New Orleans. But we can't quite rule you out. Our best bet right now is looking towards Texas -- Paula.

ZAHN: Nevertheless, there is a great deal of concern in that city tonight, Jacqui Jeras.

Just a reminder of what the mayor had to say to his residents earlier tonight, that this storm could pose a -- quote -- "significant threat" to his city. And because of the storm warnings, he has halted the phased-in returns of residents back to their homes and certain parts of New Orleans. He actually tonight called for the mandatory evacuation of the east bank, a part of the city he believes could be flooded if there is a three-foot storm surge, which is not major compared to what we saw during Katrina.

But he talked a lot about the pumping stations not being back at full capacity and in fact being just about 50 percent of where it should be. And there continue to be a lot of weaknesses in the levee system overall.

Let's turn right now to Oliver Thomas, who is the president of Orleans Parish.

Good of you to join us tonight, particularly given these warnings, sir.

Is your city ready for what Rita might unleash?


I mean, of course, the city, after what it just went through with Katrina, our levee system being soaked, battered, abused, and knocked down, there's no way that the community is ready to withstand a tropical storm, or a tropical depression, let alone a hurricane, Paula. We just wouldn't be able to deal with that right now.

ZAHN: What concerns you most at this hour?

THOMAS: Well, I think the storm surge and the possible water.

You know, I learned Chief Parent (ph) in our briefings that what happens, especially when the water runs through the coastal canals and it runs along the levee system, if the current is real swift and strong, it kind of cuts at the earth part of the levees. We don't know if the water has tunneled and burrowed under some of those levees. You still may have pockets, similar to what happens in a mudslide. You know, it's kind of soaked and saturated and then maybe, weeks later, or a few days later, it kind of slides down.

The levee system could be in the same condition. We need to be extremely careful. We need to err on the side of caution.

ZAHN: And, Mr. Thomas, there's been a lot of talk about the fact that your mayor, Mayor Nagin, has not been on the same page with the feds, maybe with the exception of this meeting two hours ago, where he came out of the meeting with Admiral Thad Allen and said that they were on the same page and they were ready to move forward. Do you really believe that to be the case?

THOMAS: Maybe with this incident, but it doesn't seem like -- it seems like very few people have been on any page at all, along the same page, whether it's the president, the mayor, the governor, the council, business community, or the residents.

I don't think anyone understands where we are and where we're going. And I would hope that the mayor, the general, FEMA, and the Corps would sit down and design a plan and an outline for reentry, something that assures us that water quality is where it needs to be, air quality is where it needs to be, that the infrastructure is where it needs to be to support us rehabitating the city.

I went into the city with some family members today, and their comments were, well, you know, I don't think we want to be here right now. So, I think we need to get the city to the point where, even if people come in, they're not so depressed that they want to leave and not come back.

ZAHN: Well, President Thomas, as you know, the mayor has been criticized by the federal government for -- for saying that certain parts of city were ready. You know, they were phasing it in by zip codes.

THOMAS: Yes. Yes. Yes.

ZAHN: And now it seems it's a moot point tonight because of what Rita might cause.

THOMAS: Right.

Well, I think it's important that the mayor get in the room with the experts, environmental quality experts. The earth, soil samples, what's the condition? Are there toxins in the city? What areas are habitable? And what will it take to get those areas to the point where people are comfortable that they have schools, businesses and jobs to go to?

If those things are not there and available, hospitals available for people, why would you come back to a community where you don't have a hospital, you can't shop, air quality isn't right, you can't flush a toilet because maybe one drainage -- pumping station is working. So, the mayor is as anxious as all of us to get our city back up and running.

But I think the mayor and the general and the admiral and all of the big people -- council people, we're little people. They don't really talk to us about too much that is going on. But maybe they'll even start communicating with us, since we're communicating with the people and we seem to understand what the people in our community want.

ZAHN: Well, Parish President Oliver Thomas, we appreciate your candor tonight. And I can't say any of us are too pleased about what you're saying, that even a tropical storm, if Rita does not strengthen, could cause you guys a tremendous amount of headaches.


THOMAS: Paula, thank you for your reporting and allowing at least the American people to understand where we are with this city. Thank you very much.

ZAHN: Well, good luck. We hope you get the help that you need. Oliver Thomas, again, thanks for your time.

Now, people who trickled back into New Orleans before Mayor Nagin suspended the return because of Rita bearing down on the Florida Keys right now have learned that there are some heroes on every street, not just the rescue and relief workers who have come the help, but their own neighbors.

With one hero's story, here's Jeff Koinange.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hurricane Katrina transformed 44-year-old Lily Duke (ph) from independent film producer to rescue worker. After the storm hit, she put away the camera and picked up the phone. Duke and several other volunteers started making calls to get help where it was needed most.

She called the Church of Christ disaster relief organization. Within days, convoys of trucks carrying food, water and other essentials made it to New Orleans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People are walking. People are driving here. They're coming on their bikes. You know, it's -- we need more food.

KOINANGE: Duke's home in the Algiers district was partly destroyed by the storm. She hasn't left her post since. And, as more New Orleans residents return, the crowds at Duke's open-air warehouse continue to grow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We started out at about like 300, 400. And then our average last week was 400 to 500. Yesterday, we were just under 700. Today, I'm averaging 250 every two hours.

KOINANGE: Among them, mother of six Eva Irvin (ph), who had evacuated to Houston. She just saw her house for first time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a little caught up right now, because I just went into the house and the whole inside of the house has completely just fallen down to the floor. And my mom just passed in June and that was her house. And it's just a real trying time for me.

KOINANGE: Or Clara Allen (ph), who is taking care of her great- granddaughter and her extended family. She said she would be helpless without Duke's efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, lord, God, it's great. I will tell you, our soap supplies and cleaning goods, it means so such. It really is. It's a blessing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure. Every little bit of sanity that we get helps us out. And this is something that really helps, something we really needed.

KOINANGE: Duke says she's just happy to be able to help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The bottom line is, we're all Americans. It wouldn't matter what state I live in. I'm just glad to be living in the United States. That's the bottom line. We're all Americans. Let's take care of each other.

KOINANGE: Seeing this real-life drama through the end, Duke says, is more important than any movie.


KOINANGE: And, Paula, standing here in the suburb of Algiers, that's the New Orleans skyline right there you see behind me.

Now, we have been talking to a lot of people here in this suburb ever since Mayor Nagin's latest press conference. Getting mixed feelings, a lot of people saying there's no way they can endure another storm, some people saying, we have just returned; how can we just leave? Others just resigning to fate, saying they feel cursed -- Paula.

ZAHN: I guess that's not too surprising, is it, Jeff? Jeff Koinange reporting.

I want to share with you something that we just learned from the governor of Louisiana. She has had a televised address, where she has now urged, because of Tropical Storm Rita, expected to gain strength and potentially turn into a hurricane, and maybe hit Louisiana, that residents of coastal southwest Louisiana also make preparations to leave. But she also warned that more evacuees could strain some of the shelters in Texas, so she's urging these people that will be evacuated to head for central and northern Louisiana instead.

A lot of different issues for the folks of Louisiana and that whole Gulf Coast to worry about tonight. Let's find out how they are getting ready for this one.

Joining me now, Jefferson Parish emergency management director, Dr. Walter Maestri.

Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

We know you have been very critical of FEMA and the federal effort early on complicating what it was you're trying to do. Do you think it will be any different this time around, if Rita turns into a hurricane?


We're not going to let them get too far from us. We're going to watch them very, very carefully and make sure we know where they are. But, in truth, we're gearing up again, watching very carefully just what Rita is going to do. And, shortly, we will have to make some decisions as to just what the response will have to be.

ZAHN: You say you're going to keep a close eye on them. At one point, you said of FEMA -- quote -- "They weren't there. The cavalry didn't show up."

Well, now they're on the ground and there's been a lot of concern how local and feds are crossing wires. What has changed that will prevent that confusion? You had fuel literally stolen from you, fuel that you had ordered in advance of the storm that you accused the feds of stealing, basically, or poaching, or whatever word you want to use.


MAESTRI: Yes. They took the fuel. They pulled our truck out of the line and said, this fuel is now going to us.

We are not sure exactly what that is. FEMA now claims that didn't happen, that this was in essence an act of theft, that somebody claimed to be their representative. But the reality is now that FEMA is here. We're coordinating with them. We're watching and working with each other very carefully.

And, truthfully, in my area, we have made a very, very significant comeback. We have got about 90 percent of our folks on the west bank of Jefferson Parish back in their homes, living their daily lives. We have got about 75 percent of our folks on the east bank. And, of course, now Rita comes along and we have got to rethink everything. And, of course, that's the big issue here right now.

ZAHN: And we mentioned, Dr. Maestri, earlier on, the mayor is calling for the mandatory evacuation of the east bank. I guess what concerns me most about what the mayor had to say in his news conference a short while ago was the fact that even a three-foot storm surge could cause tremendous flooding. Is that where you think you are most vulnerable?

MAESTRI: Well, flooding is always our problem, Paula. As everyone now knows, New Orleans basically and its surrounding areas live in a bowl. And any kind of tidal surge, particularly now with weakened levees, levees that just took a hit from a Category 4 storm, is a great concern to all of us.

We are going to watch this very, very carefully and pay particular attention to what happens with surge, with projected landfall, with the exact area, because the interesting thing with this storm, although it's projected to stay below us, mostly, it is on the worst side, or the communities are on the worst side. This storm is obviously going to make landfall somewhere to our west.

And that's the major problem, because that right-front quadrant comes right at us.

ZAHN: Well, we hope things work better than the last time.

Dr. Walter Maestri, thank you for your expertise tonight.

And, once again, the governor of Louisiana, in a televised address just a short time again, urging residents of coastal southwest Louisiana that Dr. Maestri was just talking about to make preparations to leave.

But, in an interesting twist, she is telling them not to head to Texas, because she feels that those shelters are already overburdened. She's encouraging them to head for central and northern Louisiana. We will keep you up to date on that.

And, as many of you know, it's three weeks to the day since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Would you believe it? Some people are still waiting for FEMA to help or even to answer the phone. They are absolutely furious and they are sounding off, as you'll see when we come back.


ZAHN: Despite some of the extraordinary progress FEMA has made in the three weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit, don't think for a minute that the outrage over the initial slow response to Hurricane Katrina is over, far from it. It may seem unbelievable, but, tonight, some people who lost almost everything are still waiting for help, still desperate.

And that desperation is reaching a boiling point, as Ed Henry found in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.


ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The devastation in southeast Mississippi is staggering, cars left along the highway, their gas tanks ripped out by looters, desperate for drops of fuel. One-time homeowners say FEMA has still not returned their telephone calls, three weeks after the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We pray and ask your blessing for all who are homeless and suffering from the ravages of that dreadful storm.

HENRY: That's why 100 people pack into D'Iberville City Hall, which is a makeshift relief center. They vent their frustrations to an equally fired-up Democratic congressman, Gene Taylor, who says more heads need to roll at FEMA.

REP. GENE TAYLOR (D), MISSISSIPPI: Where were the tents? Where were the MREs? Where were the food? Where were generators?

HENRY: Taylor also rails at insurance companies threatening to deny claims to residents who had wind insurance, but no flood insurance, because they lived high above sea level.

TAYLOR: If the wind knocks a telephone poll into my house, I sure don't expect my insurer to say, you didn't have telephone poll insurance.


TAYLOR: Right? So, this was -- the wind pushed it into your house.

HENRY: Taylor is considered the most conservative Democrat in the House, voting with the president on key issues like the war in Iraq. But he's frustrated with the administration's response to the crisis.

TAYLOR: I'm only asking for Mississippi the exactly same things we're doing for the people of Iraq now. We're building them sewer lines. We're building them water lines. We're building them sewage treatment. We're building them roads. We're building them schools, basics. I'm not asking for any frills. And I think -- and I have absolutely no regrets asking for those same things that we're doing for the people of Iraq right now. OK?


HENRY: If Taylor sounds angry, that's because he's not just a congressman. He is almost a victim of Katrina.

(on camera): So, this used to be the front porch?

TAYLOR: This was the front porch, actually.

HENRY (voice-over): Taylor feels lucky he and his neighbors listened to the evacuation warnings. They survived. Picking through the wreckage, he's only recovered a couple of pieces of furniture, including the rocking chair his daughter used as a child. He's also found plenty of Mardi Gras beads.

TAYLOR: There will be better times again. This was a wonderful place to live. This is going to be a wonderful place to live again.

HENRY: Taylor also urges patience. People should understand there are limits to how much Mississippi can get from the federal government

TAYLOR: You're almost at the point of, gee, I got to get a date to the prom. And now you are saying, I don't want a date to the prom unless it's Ms. Mississippi.


TAYLOR: OK? Let's get a date to the prom first. And then we will try to get the prettiest girl we can find, OK?

HENRY: People here know from experience this area is prone to hurricanes. So, even after they dig out from Katrina, they might need to call on Washington to help deal with yet another crisis.


ZAHN: That was Ed Henry reporting.

Of course, the question tonight is, what have any of us learned from what went wrong after Hurricane Katrina, particularly as there is a new storm brooming -- brewing, that is -- Tropical Storm Rita, where mandatory evacuations are now under way in parts of Florida?

Rob Marciano has made his way to Key West, Florida. And he is going to have updates for us about where the storm is supposed to hit first and what might happen after it spins through the Gulf of Mexico.

Please stay tuned for that update on the other side.


ZAHN: And it's just about nine minutes before the hour. Time for a look at some of the other top stories tonight with Erica Hill of Headline News -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, energy prices are on the rise again, this time thanks to Rita. Traders pushed crude oil and wholesale gasoline prices up against, while natural gas hit a record high because of the latest storm heading toward the Gulf of Mexico.

In Basra, Iraq, British armored vehicles were attacked by a mob throwing molotov cocktails. Crew members had to escape through a wall of flame, dodging rocks being thrown by the crowd.

Meantime, a new al Qaeda video sent to the Al-Jazeera network shows Osama bin Laden's top aide promising, in his words, rivers of bloods and volcanoes of anger. It is the second tape in a month from Ayman al-Zawahri. He also downplayed U.S. gains in Afghanistan and again claimed responsibility for this summer's London attacks.

North Korea's offer to abandon is nuclear program for economic help was greeted with caution by President Bush. The agreement was reached in five-party talks with North Korea.

And former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski sentenced today to up to 25 years in prison. Kozlowski's chief financial officer got the same sentence. Both were ordered to pay $134 million, Paula, back to Tyco.

ZAHN: Thanks, Erica, for the update.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush has ordered the Florida Keys evacuated to get people out of the way of Rita. The storm is now gaining strength and its current track will take it through the Keys and then on to the Gulf Coast.

Let's check in with Rob Marciano, who joins us from Key West tonight with the very latest.

Hi, Rob.

MARCIANO: Hi, Paula. You mentioned those evacuation orders issued, mandatory for all the Keys, including Key West.

The mayor of Key West mentioned that probably about 26,000 folks who live here, about half of them have gone. An interesting bunch that live here, that's for sure. And now they're starting to come out and head up and down at Duval Street in preparation, I suppose, of the storm.

All right, where is the storm right now and where is it going to go? Still a tropical storm, but expect it to gain hurricane strength overnight as it heads into some warm water. There's your satellite picture. Let's look at the track. The track of this continues to bring it very close, if not directly over, Key West tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow night as a Category 2 storm. That means we could have winds of 100 miles an hour or more.

And then, after that, Paula, we are looking at a possible second landfall somewhere either Texas or Louisiana, closer towards the weekend.

That's the latest from Key West, Florida -- back to you.

ZAHN: And that is of course, Rob, what is making folks so nervous along the Gulf Coast. Appreciate the update.

Our Rusty Dornin has found a sure sign that at least part of New Orleans is getting back to normal.


LEE ARNOLD, "SAVE OUR BRASS" COORDINATOR: They walk through neighborhoods uptown, downtown. And they represent...

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And everybody joins in.

ARNOLD: Yes. They represent. And the whole neighborhood comes in and join. It's a party. Look at it.


ZAHN: All right, so, how can anyone resist an invitation like that? Stay with us and join the party.


ZAHN: We have talked a lot about the resiliency of the New Orleans people in the wake of Katrina.

Just look and listen to what Rusty Dornin found, a New Orleans band determined to beat the Katrina blues.


DORNIN (voice-over): A brass band leading smiling, dancing people down the street. It happened every Sunday in New Orleans. But this is Baton Rouge and these parade participants haven't had much to smile about lately.

They are evacuees who have taken refuge at the Southern University shelter here. Like pied pipers, Hot 8, a well-known brass band in the Big Easy, lured evacuees out of the shelter, bringing a bit of home to those who don't have any, something New Orleanians call the second line.

ARNOLD: Social clubs have -- what they is the first line, which is the band, then a second line, which is the people in the neighborhood. They walk through neighborhoods uptown, downtown. And they represent...

DORNIN (on camera): And everybody joins in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. They represent, and the whole neighborhood comes in and join. It's a party. Look at it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they help us. They're bringing back the New Orleans tradition of second line. And, yes, they brought tears to my eyes.

BRUCE DAVE, EVACUEE: Bless them, because they give everybody a little diversion from the everyday situation which we have in the shelter.

DORNIN (voice-over): The band knows firsthand how people here are feeling.

DICK SHAVERS, HOT 8 DRUMMER: We're no different from them. We lost everything, too. So, but we have something that everybody don't have. And it's our music. And we're using the music to the best of our ability to show our appreciation and show that New Orleans don't die.

DORNIN: All the band members lost homes, belongings and some of the most precious things in their lives. Drummer Harry Cook was rescued off the roof of his house.

HARRY "SWAMP" COOK, HOT 8 DRUMMER: So, they told me I couldn't put my drum on the helicopter. And I told them, well, this is my life right here. You know, this is my job. So, I had to leave it back in the project.

DORNIN: LSU music students loaned them some instruments and others were donated. The band has already played for evacuees at the River Center shelter downtown.

RAYMOND WILLIAMS, HOT 8 TRUMPETER: We are in traumatic times right now. So, the music is something that is uplifting people, keep their spirits up and...

DORNIN: Keep your own spirits up.

WILLIAMS: Yes. They keep our spirits up, too. When we see the people happy, enjoy themselves by listening to us play the music, it make up feel good also.

DORNIN: Hot 8 is part of a project known as "Save Our Brass," organized by local music lovers, it's designed to reunite the brass bands of New Orleans.

(on camera): The whole idea is to keep this circle of giving and music going. They're asking for instruments and donations. They plan to pass those on to other musicians from New Orleans who have nothing to play.

(voice-over): The band members didn't find each other until last week. They are not taking any money for shows at the shelters. These gigs, they say, come from the heart, a way of making sure the spirit of New Orleans lives on one note at a time.


ZAHN: Well, at least the music lives on tonight -- Rusty Dornin reporting.

Thanks so much for being with us tonight. Appreciate your joining us.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is next.


© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines