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Wildfires Threaten California; New Orleans Launches Investigation Into Allegations of Police Looting; Interview With Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator David Vitter

Aired September 29, 2005 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening from the nation's capital, where, tonight, we are not only keeping our eyes on the disaster zone along the Gulf Coast. We are also watching a potential disaster developing near Los Angeles, a huge wildfire threatening communities just northwest of the city. It is centered around the town of Chatsworth. And it is so big that people in the West hills neighborhood are worried, too.
And that's exactly where we find Thelma Gutierrez right now.

Thelma, what is the latest from there?

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, I can tell you that the winds are picking up. And that is not good news for firefighters.

Now, it is literally raining ashes out here. You probably are not able to see that. And the air is very thick with smoke. And I can move through this family's backyard and I can show you why. If you look out on the ridges that surround this community, they're all billowing with black smoke. Now, some of the homes out in that area are multimillion-dollar homes. They have been at greatest risk.

When the winds pick up and fan those flames, we have actually seen the flames come right up to their backyards, dangerously close. The residents in that area have been evacuated. A few hours ago, though, we did follow a strike team to a fairly rural area.

And they had several teams out there to establish a line of defense between the hills and the many homes out there. Now, there are some 3,000 firefighters who have come from all over the state to fight this fire. It's being called the biggest fire in Southern California so far; 17,000 acres have burned. And only one home has been lost. Many here say that that is testament to the fine work that these firefighters are doing.

And I can tell you, Paula, that people here have been just exhausted. The firefighters have been working about 29 hours nonstop. And, as we have been driving through some of these areas, we have actually seen firefighters sleeping on the side of the road, just exhausted, working in record temperatures -- Paula.

ZAHN: Thelma, I have been through a bunch of these before out there, having lived out there when the Santa Anas roll in. But what really scares me about this one is the fact that this fire doubled in size overnight, and that only 5 percent of it is contained at this hour.

So, how much progress do these thousands of firefighters actually think they're making?

GUTIERREZ: Well, you know, most of today, the winds were actually calm and they were able to be very aggressive with an air assault and get on top of this fire.

But I talked to a firefighter a short time ago and he said it's very difficult when you're working with this kind of terrain, when you have the winds. You're basically just leapfrogging across the area, trying to put out these fires.

And, you know, out here, hundreds of people have been evacuated to nine different areas. And the Red Cross says that 500 people have gone to about five area shelters out here. And we were talking to one man earlier today who said that he woke up to a knock on his door about 2:00 in the morning. He was told to be ready to go. And so, he packed up his car. He backed his car up into the garage to be ready for the word that he had to get out.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mainly what we did was, we put some clothes in a suitcase. So, everybody grabbed a suitcase and put some clothes in there, just in case we were going to be gone for a couple of days, grabbed the computers, some paperwork, some artwork. And then we filled up all the cars. My daughter filled up hers, my wife. And then I filled up mine as well.


GUTIERREZ: Paula, this is a populated area, but in many places it's very rural.

And so, we saw many, many animals, hundreds of animals, being evacuated from this area, horses, alpacas, goats, all these different creatures that were actually taken to a nearby city college and put in a parking lot there. So, it's a very curious sight for sure -- Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: Thelma Gutierrez, thanks so much for the update.

And we will be talking live with one of those firefighters that Thelma talks about that has been working around the clock to try to get a handle on this one a little bit later on in the hour.

Now I want to turn all of our attention to the disaster area along the Gulf Coast. Here's where we stand tonight, exactly one month after Hurricane Katrina.

A story CNN has been investigating is now a major headline. The New Orleans Police Department today launched an investigation into possible looting by at least a dozen officers in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Four officers have been suspended and one has been reassigned. Our Drew Griffin will have much more on this latest development in just a minute.

Meanwhile, the death toll from Hurricane Katrina has risen to 1,057, 923 of those deaths in Louisiana. We also learned today that the storm has put at least 279,000 Americans out of work.

There are estimates that it will take a year to clean up this mess. Katrina left some 22 million tons of debris. At least 140,000 homes and businesses are in such bad condition, they'll have to be torn down completely.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency says even, though people are going back to New Orleans, the city still has some serious health hazards, including bacteria in the floodwater, a lack of drinkable water, a broken sewage system, and mold everywhere.

When reporters asked Epa Administrator Stephen Johnson if he'd let his own family go to the city, he wouldn't say.

Now back to our top story tonight, the New Orleans Police Department. The looting allegations have been the focus of a major ongoing CNN investigation. And now, as I just mentioned, the New Orleans Police Department has opened its own investigation.

Drew Griffin has been on this story for weeks. And he joins me now with some of the late details.

Hi, Drew.


And, for a week, they've been calling these looting allegations a simple misunderstanding. But, today, the new police chief of the city of New Orleans walked before the cameras to say, indeed, he has started an internal investigation into 12 or so officers accused of misconduct. Looting is the allegation. Four of those officers have been suspended, one reassigned.

And the chief, despite the fact there's been a turnover in the command structure, despite the fact there are several investigations going on into the conduct of his officers, said today that his officers, his department, is capable of policing the city of New Orleans.


WARREN RILEY, ACTING NEW ORLEANS POLICE SUPERINTENDENT: First of all, the department is not dysfunctional. We have 1,400-plus officers that are on the street.

I want to reaffirm my position that there is zero tolerance for misconduct or unprofessionalism by any member of this department. When allegations surface, there will be a complete and thorough investigation. If the investigation determines the members violated departmental policy or any laws, swift and decisive action will be taken.


GRIFFIN: Police admit, though, that the only reason they're doing these investigations is not because of the allegations but because of video showing misconduct or potential misconduct by these officers -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, Drew, now that the acting superintendent has confirmed that he's investigating these charges that you've been looking into for weeks, is there now a clear connection between that and the fact that his predecessor resigned?

GRIFFIN: At the news conference today, before any questions were asked, Paula, the police department said it would not answer any questions relating to Eddie Compass and his resignation just a few days ago as the chief of police. We have not been able to reach Mr. Compass now. And, again, the police officials here will not comment on why he stepped down.

ZAHN: Drew Griffin, thank you so much for the update.

Now, at this point, the New Orleans Police Department isn't really even really in charge of the city. The military is still in control, with lots of help from outside the city.

Here's chief national correspondent John King.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One month later, New Orleans remains very much an unfamiliar place, its landmarks scarred, most neighborhoods still empty, its streets patrolled and protected by strangers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anybody in there?

KING: Part of a not-from-here police and security presence that is striking and at times confusing.

LT. THOMAS EDDY, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: You have so many different agencies here, nobody knows what they're doing, basically.

KING: These Department of Veterans Affairs officers were sent here to guard VA hospitals that were evacuated. Lieutenant Thomas Eddy is not impressed by the New Orleans police force.

EDDY: Look around, you see plenty of their vehicles. But as far as seeing much of them on patrol, we really see very few of them.

In the area that we're at and we are located, I don't believe they're pulling their weight.

KING: The city's police department is in turmoil, to say the least, its chief just forced out. Some 250 officers allegedly left their posts when Katrina hit. A few are accused of joining the looting in what for a time looked like a lawless city. It still has the look and feel of a place very much under siege, checkpoints, military patrols, private security firms hired to protect hotels and businesses.

JOHN GESELL, INTERCEPT SECURITY FIRM: National Guard has complete control of the city right now. They're taking everything in their hands. And then the police also run patrols during the day just to maintain order.

KING: Keeping track of the firepower falls to the Secret Service. It has credentialed 1,352 members of the New Orleans police force to carry firearms in the city and 1,444 others, including Louisiana State Police, officers from local departments from across the country, and an alphabet soup of federal law enforcement agencies.

(on camera): These cruise ships serve as a floating barracks for much of the imported police help. Some of them have given the city known as the Big Easy a new nickname, Baghdad on the Bayou.

You see it even on Bourbon Street, known around the world as the city's festive center, the home of Mardi Gras, now the temporary home of a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

(voice-over): Tim Jones works for the Drug Enforcement Agency and predicts, what might look excessive at the moment will prove necessary in the days ahead.

TIM JONES, DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY: I don't think you can ever say you can have too much help. Once you start getting more people back in the areas, you're going to wish you had more help.

KING: The city's fire department is also relying on a little help, a lot of help, from its friends.

Bettendorf is in Iowa. Chicago, of course, is in Illinois. This is New Orleans in a post-Katrina Louisiana. Sitting around is the norm for many of the out-of-state firefighters. But they see busier days ahead and say, just being here helps.

RANDY TROBST, CHICAGO FIREFIGHTER: Now that the people are starting to come back in, the power is being turned back on, the gas. We're starting to see a lot more activity.

And we did give the New Orleans firefighters a break and allowed them to go see their family. That's turned out to be probably one of the most important things. Their heads were not really into firefighting.

KING: Nicole Scott joined the New Orleans police force Just six months ago and predicts she'll be making new friends for a long time.

NICOLE SCOTT, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: I'd say about a year, two years. That's what I see.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why, though? SCOTT: Because it's got a lot of work to do. I enjoyed them. They enjoyed us. And we all getting along. Everything's going to work out better for the city.


ZAHN: And that was John King reporting for us tonight.

The cruise ship that John King just mentioned in his report is worth another look. A lot of people are raising some pretty pointed questions about why it's in New Orleans in the first place. Could it be an outrageous waste of taxpayer money? Yes. Guess who's paying for it?


ZAHN: So, as you all know, the money just keeps pouring in to help people in the devastated Gulf region. Americans are giving millions and millions of dollars to charities and will be paying billions more.

But, if you don't like wasting any of that money, you could be in for a big shock. There are serious questions being raised tonight about hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on cruise ships that were supposed to shelter evacuees.

Our Chris Lawrence is covering that story from New Orleans and he joins us now with the latest.

Hi, Chris.


You know, the number is more than $230 million. That's how much FEMA paid Carnival Cruise Lines to basically buy out a few ships for the next six months. They had hoped to put up to 10,000 people on board. But here we are at the end of September and there are less than 2,000 people still on board.

Now, to be fair, FEMA did negotiate these contracts early on, when people were still crammed into the Superdome and the Convention Center. But what critics want to know is, why didn't FEMA negotiate contingency deals before the disaster, which they probably could have done at much cheaper prices?

ZAHN: And, Chris, clearly there are some elected members of Congress that are very upset about this. Let's listen to one of them sound off now.


REP. JAY INSLEE (D), WASHINGTON: We could actually send people on six-month cruises for the half the price that we are paying to actually have people sit at the dock.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ZAHN: Congressman Inslee is not alone. How much company does he have on this one, Chris?

LAWRENCE: A lot of other congressmen feel the same way, Paula.

In fact, they are -- he's just one of many that are calling for some sort of chief financial officer to oversee all the Katrina spending. To be fair, on the side of Carnival, just to make a point about them, when they negotiated this deal, they didn't do it on a per-cabin basis. They had to account for the amount of money that the company would have made if the ships were out in regular service.

So, you're talking about money from casinos, liquor sales, shore excursions, all the things that aren't available to the evacuees, but things that Carnival would have made money on.

ZAHN: We appreciate you trying to set the record straight tonight.

Chris Lawrence, thanks so much.

Now, more than 100 miles north of the Texas Gulf Coast is the small, remote community of San Augustine. It turns out that hundreds of Katrina refugees ended up there. And, until now, we have been cut off from them and they've been all but forgotten after Rita hit. It took an urgent e-mail to save them.

Here's Randi Kaye.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We are on the start of what will be a three-hour journey. CNN received an alarming message. Call it an Internet SOS. They need help in a remote area of Texas, San Augustine County.

(on camera): We started out in Cameron, Louisiana, made our way to Beaumont, picked up Highway 69, then 96, all the way up to San Augustine. We should be there in just a minute, see what we find.

(voice-over): The e-mail says 2,000 evacuees from Hurricane Rita are stranded and starving.

(on camera): This group is supposedly camped out at El Pinion (ph) Estates at Lake Sam Rayburn. They've been there a week. They're running out of supplies, and they haven't had any federal help at all.

(voice-over): The e-mail directs us to look for Mike McQueen (ph). He's the man who sent out the SOS.

(on camera): Where can I find this Marine, Mike McQueen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the second street over, turn left. It will be on your right.

KAYE: OK. That way down there? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you'll see a sign on his gate.

KAYE: It says McQueen?


KAYE (voice-over): Sure enough, McQueen is in his front yard.

(on camera): You sound pretty darn frustrated with...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, ma'am, I'm pissed as hell.

KAYE (voice-over): Angry because he thinks this corner of Texas has been forgotten, if not abandoned.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When an old lady comes up, and you have to estimate her in her 80s, and She says I need the albuterol inhalers because my oxygen tank won't work, and I have been going through about one a day, because she doesn't have electricity. And she's staggering like a drunk. And you've got to take her inside and put ice packs on her. How bad do you think it is?

KAYE: McQueen is a former Marine. He fled his home 100 miles away and came here. But he didn't escape the hurricane, no food, no water for a week. He climbed this tree to get a cell phone signal and call a friend, a retired New York City policeman, who sent the Internet SOS.

This place is especially at risk because of who lives here most of the year. San Augustine is popular with snowbirds and retirees, elderly left without food, water, medicine, and the gasoline to get supplies for some reason dropped more than an hour away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't that amazing? You put it out a broken arrow and everybody and the pope shows up.

KAYE: McQueen is thrilled. His cell-phone-to-Internet SOS worked. In fact, he says, he hopes President Bush is listening. He says the president's plan to respond to the so-called golden triangle communities closer to the water completely overlooked this community.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd take him and I would show him all this, and then I would kick him right square in the butt and we would sit down and drink a beer. And I would explain to him that these people are up eating tree bark, while everything that he's got pre-staged is ready to go into the golden triangle and not coming in to these people.

KAYE: What infuriates McQueen is the government, he says, trying to have it both ways, telling evacuees, stay where you are, but not getting them vital supplies and medicine. McQueen's neighbor, a diabetic, passed out. He's now borrowing insulin from a friend. About an hour after we arrive with our cameras, so does the Red Cross. Is it a coincidence? Or did they get the same Internet SOS?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How did you do this so quick? I just talked to you an hour ago, and now you've got first -- the Red Cross out here.

KAYE (on camera): Is this the first you've seen the Red Cross?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First I have seen the Red Cross.

KAYE: Since the storm?


KAYE: So, why did it take the Red Cross so long to get here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have been up in Lufkin for three days without any -- any food or any water. At first, we didn't have any trucks. Yes, it's just logistics, I guess.

KAYE: But people here wonder how is it their community got so completely overlooked in the planning for the second hurricane and why it may have taken an Internet SOS to get them help.


ZAHN: Something I think we all need to debate. That was Randi Kaye reporting.

And no matter how many times we see it, the scale of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina just seems unreal. And then you add Rita on top of that, terrible. So, please stay with us.

And when we come back, we will catch up with my colleague Soledad O'Brien as she takes us up close into piles of rubble that used to be people's most prized possessions, their homes.


ZAHN: And it's an absolutely stunning night in the nation's capital tonight, which is in direct contrast to so much of what we see out of the Gulf states.

No matter how many times you see the devastation of the Gulf Coast, the scale of the catastrophe is almost impossible to take in. And my colleague Soledad O'Brien is on the ground in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans, reporting on the disaster. And the devastation is so extreme and so extensive, even after a month, seeing it still takes your breath away.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The sheriff of St. Bernard Parish calls this ground zero and here's why. See back there? That's the levee. Now, that levee is intact. It's -- it never breached. In fact, what happened was there was an overflow of water.

Imagine how hard and how fast that water had to come over that levee, at what speed, in order to take out the houses here.

Look at this house. You wouldn't know it was a house. There's nothing left of it. It has been utterly shredded.

Take a look at this one over here. Massive, just chunks out of this home. This is a new development. It is probably the most up to code of any of the other structures here in the parish. You're talking about homes that are 3,500 to 4,000 square feet, homes that cost in the range of $400,000. And just shredded by the force of the wind and the water.

And then you take a look down this street and you see the same story repeated house after house after house after house after house. Keep in mind, this same picture repeated for the length of the canal. And, again, a canal that was not breached. It wasn't flooded slowly.

The sheriff believes that something like 10 feet, 11 feet of water came in here in three minutes.

We're kind of looking right through where six homes stood. The reason you have a shot of the house behind them, of course, is because just the foundations remain, and not a whole heck of a lot else.

The water came this way. right over this canal here, and right over this levee here. It topped that levee. That levee is now actually really structurally in very good shape.

Back another mile is another levee, and the oceanographer we spoke to not very long ago said that he was sort of surprised at the force with which the water, Hurricane Katrina hitting as a four, maybe, you know, almost five hurricane really slammed in. It looks right exactly here, and that is partly because you can see how the storm surge being two levels high just took out the homes here, and then it only took out the first floor a little bit further down and blew everybody's stuff miles down the road.

The mud here is easily a foot, probably at least two, maybe even two and a half down here.

This middle class neighborhood, and everything, everything -- it's a total loss. I mean, house after house after house after house after car on top of a fence, or a wall after house is just wrecked.

Well, clearly, here at 505 Jeannie (ph) Street there is nothing to save. Look at the mud. I mean, look at this.

This is, well, what, at least six inches of just -- there's no way to describe it. It's just mush and it smells. It smells like sewage.

And then you can see where the mold -- well, the water line, of course, is up to the rafters. And then the mold, everywhere. And it smells like it, too.

And in places like this, people come back, they have no idea how bad it's really going to -- they know it's going to be bad. They have no idea how bad it's going to be.

One of the stranger things, though, that we have seen -- this mud is kind of hard to walk through -- are these.

This is a large Catholic community in this neighborhood, and in the parish as a whole. And what we have seen time and time and time gone are these icons. Not even heavy. I mean, look at the -- this is very light, 20 pounds, maybe, 30 pounds. The Virgin Mary completely untouched.


ZAHN: It's just so hard to believe, given what Soledad said, that, in some cases, these residents saw 11 feet of water coming in within a three-minute period. That was, again, Soledad reporting from St. Bernard Parish, a place that will take a very long time to rebuild.

While New Orleans and Louisiana have gotten plenty of attention during the last month, we shouldn't forget what Katrina did to Mississippi. That's where we find Anderson Cooper there tonight. Are there any signs of progress, or at least any hope?


ZAHN: Back to the wildfires in Southern California that so far have scorched nearly 17,000 acres. But we're looking at a fire tonight near the Los Angeles area, just north of there, that so far has consumed 7,000 acres. It is considered to be burning out of control, although firefighters did get a bit of a break when the winds died down. But they still consider it only 5 percent contained.

And at least 300 residents have left their homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties so far. And officials say that several shelters have already been set up for evacuees.

We have been just joined by Kim Shaw, who lives in the West Hills and is waiting for her call to potentially leave her home. How close are you to the fire right now?

KIM SHAW, REASON OF WEST HILLS: We're pretty close. I'd say maybe a mile from the fires.

ZAHN: And when you look at the flames from the picture that we see on air, it looks pretty darn intimidating. Do you expect to go?

SHAW: I don't know. We are packed and ready if it comes to that. But -- and it looks pretty ominous out here. But right now we're sitting tight and hoping we don't have to do anything.

ZAHN: Are you getting any advice at all from city officials at this hour?

SHAW: We are not. We have got two fire trucks -- or we did have two fire trucks out front. And they will notify us when the time comes. They did tell us that we'd have probably 15 minutes to clear the area. And that hasn't happened yet. So, we are watching and waiting. And it's pretty scary.

ZAHN: So, Kim, that's the kind of notice you're going to get, just 15 minutes to clear out?

SHAW: Correct. But we are -- our car is already packed and ready. I have got all my photos and albums. And they're in the back of my car and ready to go. So, that's really all that I cared about.

ZAHN: We learned at the top of the hour from one of our reporters, Thelma Gutierrez, that they have really been fighting this fire pretty aggressively from the air. How much activity have you seen there tonight?

SHAW: Oh, amazing. It's unbelievable.

The firefighters are out in force. I mean, there are hundreds and hundreds of them. We have seen them go by all day. Helicopters have been swirling overhead all day long. There are just tons of them ought here. I can't even begin to count how many helicopters are out here fighting this fire. It's just unbelievable.

ZAHN: Well, if it brings you any solace, we're told that some 3,000 firefighters are working on this fire. And they are hoping that, if it stays as still as it was earlier today, they might make some progress.

So, Kim, we are wishing you and your family and the rest of your neighbors in that area tremendous luck.

SHAW: Thank you very much.

ZAHN: Thank you for joining us tonight.

It has been one month to the day since Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Take a look at these pictures, Waveland, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast before Katrina hit land on August 29, and then Waveland now, almost nothing left.

Waveland is also where my colleague Anderson Cooper started reporting on Katrina. He's leaving the Gulf Coast tomorrow. But, before he goes, I wanted to talk with him about some of his experiences on the ground there. He joins me from an area, the border between Waveland, Mississippi, and Bay St. Louis.

Hi, Anderson.

I vividly remember some of the first pictures you fed back to us live. Do you see any signs of progress from those days when you saw homes just completely decimated, where you saw bodies piled on top of each other?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, progress is hard to measure here. It's not really measured visually.

It's not -- Waveland basically looks exactly the same as it did a month ago. Some of the roads have been cleared of debris, so you can actually drive down roads. But, frankly, that just allows you to drive closer to some of this wreckage and see some of these communities that have been completely decimated. You know, people are trying to get insurance to help them out. Some of them are running into trouble, as they're not covered for flood insurance or they're told, this was a flood; it wasn't storm damage; it wasn't hurricane damage.

So, there are people -- you know, the battles that people are waging now are battles, long waits on phone lines or on lines to register with FEMA. It's -- you don't see much change on the ground. There is small change families to families, people, you know, getting more established. It has been a month. And it's hard to believe it's already been a month, Paula.

ZAHN: So -- I know it is, I think for all of us, particularly when you're saying you can't see any progress visually.

Finally tonight, tell us a little bit more about the continued sense of outrage, the sense of abandonment there.

COOPER: You know, people are just confused. And it's been -- you know, the emotions are still very raw. I talked to one gentleman just a short time ago who, you know, in the -- when I met him 30 days ago, he was outraged that there wasn't more response on the ground.

What he has seen in terms of response is really individual response. It's private organizations. It's church groups here. There's one church group here who has been serving food to thousands of people every day. And they continue to do that, three meals a day, hot meals at that. You know, yes, FEMA has come now. People can register. The Red Cross is here now.

But it was really in those first days that people's opinions were formed about this response. And they haven't wavered too much since then, Paula.

ZAHN: I guess we can understand why. Anderson Cooper, thanks so much. Travel safely.

To give you an idea of the enormous amount of work ahead in the disaster zone, Louisiana officials say 140,000 homes and businesses are in such bad shape, they'll have to be torn down.

And, earlier, I spoke with Louisiana's two U.S. senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter. Each has been touched personally by the disaster. The house where Landrieu grew up was destroyed. Vitter fled with his wife and four small children in their minivan. The family is still stuck in Houston. But now both senators have a bigger job than rebuilding their own lives. They have to fight for federal money to rebuild Louisiana.


ZAHN: I wanted to start off tonight by allowing both of you to react to some of the most criticism in the -- that surrounds the blame game. Most recently, the former director of FEMA basically said, my big mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional. And he said that dysfunction between Mayor Nagin and the governor of your state led to people not evacuating and led to people dying.

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D), LOUISIANA: Well, Paula, so much of that has been disproven by the media, by this station and other print reporters.

And that's why Michael Brown isn't the head of FEMA any longer. The president has stepped in and gotten new leadership in FEMA. And both Senator Vitter and I have said, and others, that said FEMA is not working as well as it should.

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), LOUISIANA: Paula, what I would say, I guess I have a slightly different take.

I think there were serious, serious problems at all levels of the response, absolutely FEMA and the feds, absolutely the state, in my opinion, absolutely the local situation, particularly before the storm hit. I have said that very clearly.

But for Michael Brown to lead the critique of the state and city is pretty laughable on its face. I mean, it's sort of like the head of Enron criticizing another company over corporate ethics.

ZAHN: Now that you're so forcefully trying to fight for rebuilding funds for your coast, you've been accused of being looters by a "Washington Post" editorial for asking for $250 billion in federal funds. That's in addition to the $62.3 billion Congress has already appropriated.

And, according to "The Washington Post," you're asking for $40 billion worth of Corps of Engineers projects, which is 16 times more than the Corps says it would need to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane.

LANDRIEU: Well, Paula...

ZAHN: So, are you not -- are you looters or not?


LANDRIEU: We're not looters. We're taxpaying American citizens representing a great state of Louisiana. And the investment is worth it.

Paula, this is not a local issue. It's not a regional issue. It's a national challenge. This was the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States. So, that price tag is not just for Louisiana. It's the nation. And, Paula, let me also just say one thing.

ZAHN: Do you see how the perception could be, that's excessive?

VITTER: Yes, but...


LANDRIEU: I understand that, but our region is not excessive, and the contributions we make to the nation...

VITTER: Paula, let me also say, already, they're saying, we will get back to pre-Katrina protection by June of next year, by the beginning of the next hurricane season. That's ridiculous; $2.5 billion will not do the protection we need. Number one, it only counts New Orleans, the city of New Orleans. We need all of south Louisiana.

Number two, it doesn't touch the coastal erosion issue, which is directly related.

ZAHN: The two of you have had to confront some very testy issues, including the question that the speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, threw out, which is whether it makes any sense to rebuild parts of New Orleans.

LANDRIEU: But, Paula, you wouldn't walk away from New York City; you wouldn't walk away from San Francisco; you wouldn't walk away from Los Angeles.

ZAHN: But they're not...


ZAHN: ... below sea level.

LANDRIEU: Well, but the Netherlands is. And we didn't walk away from -- the Netherlands didn't walk away from itself.

There are many places that are low and below sea level. But this is valuable. We need to do smarter, better, and build it higher.


ZAHN: All right.

Senator, I know you say you need to do it smart. But how do you defend a statistic that "The New York Times" came up with, when they looked at the fact that 80 percent of the $15 billion in contracts that have been signed by FEMA so far have been signed without any bidding of any kind?

VITTER: I don't defend that. I have been trying to change that. I talked to the FEMA director four days ago and said, that has to stop, for two reasons. Number one, it's a raw deal for the taxpayer, no-bid contracts.

Number two, from the Louisiana perspective, we're not employing virtually any Louisiana workers or Louisiana businesses. Both of those reasons are vital reasons that needs to change immediately. For my view, I think we need to make sure, for the American taxpayer, that money is spent and well spent.

ZAHN: You have so much work to do.

We thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule tonight. (CROSSTALK)

VITTER: Appreciate it.

LANDRIEU: Thank you.

ZAHN: Good luck.


ZAHN: They certainly do have a lot of work ahead for themselves in Washington and back home in Louisiana.

This story just in: CNN has confirmed "New York Times" reporter Judith Miller has been released from jail. Miller was ordered to jail on July 6. She has spent 85 days, more than 12 weeks, in prison for protecting her confidential sources in the White House-CIA leak case. A source with detailed knowledge of the case tells us that Miller's release came after she received a personal and voluntary waiver directly from her source, encouraging her to provide evidence in the case.

The Associated Press is reporting that Miller has now agreed to testify to a grand jury.

Well, our next story really brings it home, because it isn't just a story about damage. It's about people. Coming up, a family tries to put their homecoming into words, even though they can barely recognize this as their home.


ZAHN: The one warning that just about everyone heard who fled Hurricane Rita was, expect the worst when you see what's happened to your home.

Well, tonight, a week after the evacuation, one of the towns people -- people are returning to is Delcambre, Louisiana, in Vermilion Parish, where no one alive seems to remember such a devastating flood, flood -- the waters rising sometimes as much as a half-foot to a foot an hour.

Ed Lavandera went along with one family as they returned home. All the warnings could never prepare them for what they were about to see.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Taking pictures and...

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ken Leblanc (ph) can now stand on dry ground in front of his house. On this very spot last Saturday morning, Leblanc could only travel this road on a boat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My window is busted in my house.

LAVANDERA: With his video camera, he captured his home sitting in five feet of water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unbelievable. It's a sight to see, a sight to see. And this window blew out. The rain started coming on in right here.

LAVANDERA: Almost a week later, Leblanc and his family are starting to clean up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what we got salvaged right here.

LAVANDERA: What they've been able to save barely fills half a bedroom. And the experience is taking its toll on this young father.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very depressed. I want to sit down and cry. Nowhere to live. No house.

LAVANDERA: Just when you think you can't be shocked or stunned anymore...


LAVANDERA: You come across the Thibodeaux family just a few miles down the road. They're salvaging what they can from their house, as a cow sits rotting on the porch next door. But Diana Thibodeaux is too numb to care.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm beyond being blown away. We're in a state of, I guess, shock or disbelief or, I don't know what you'd call it. Just unbelievable. We're homeless.

LAVANDERA: The Thibodeauxs say their ancestors have farmed this land for 200 years. Now they're not sure if they'll ever be able to rebuild here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can I cry now or later?

THIBODEAUX: We cry now. We cry later. We cry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, we cry. We cry. We cry. We cry.

LAVANDERA: There's so much mud all over the house, it seems futile to scrape it out. Rudy Thibodeaux likes to say he's a Cajun with a strong sense of history and a spiritual approach to coping with this tragedy.

THIBODEAUX: When you die, Jesus said, in my father's house, there are many mansions. So, maybe when I go home, there will be a mansion for me up there.


ZAHN: So much for them to have to take in there -- Ed Lavandera.

Even though it has been a month since Katrina hit, we are still finding people who have incredible images of what happened. Would you believe the story that goes with these pictures? It's actually romantic.

Stay with us.


ZAHN: Even though it's been a month since Hurricane Katrina, some of the most dramatic survival stories are just now being told. And this is one of them. As the floodwaters rose around their home, a Mississippi couple grabbed a video camera and saved each other by tying themselves together.

Michael Schulder narrates this amazing story of love and loyalty.


MICHAEL SCHULDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was the view from Harry and Linda Sanders' back deck in Biloxi, the day before Katrina came.

HARRY SANDERS, HURRICANE SURVIVOR: Sunday, 1:00 p.m., storm's coming.

SCHULDER: And this was the view the next morning when it was too late to escape.

H. SANDERS: The levee's on my back deck. I hate to see it.

I started taking videos of the water coming up and told my wife that, I said, We, I think we need to move up to the upper level in our house. I said, Things are not looking real good.

LINDA SANDERS, HURRICANE SURVIVOR: I put on my wedding band and I grabbed my rosary, and I went upstairs. And he kept telling me I was going to be safe. We were going to be OK and we were going to get through this.

H. SANDERS: The next thing, the water was pouring into the house.

SCHULDER: The winds of Katrina blew the waters of Biloxi Bay into the Sanders' house with such force, they ripped apart the walls of the entire first floor right down to the studs. Harry shot this video from the top of the stairs.

H. SANDERS: We was trapped, with no way in, no way out. She were just about to pass out at one point, and I just grabbed her and I threatened her to stay with me. Stay with me. You got to stay alert. You just can't -- this is not time to break down. We got to keep our wits.

SCHULDER: Linda manages to reach 911. It was not a call for help.

L. SANDERS: When I called 911, I figured somebody just needed to know where we were. And I actually was thinking that they would just come and find our bodies, because we weren't going to be there anymore.

H. SANDERS: And I had some life jackets stored in an upstairs space, an attic space.

L. SANDERS: He said, We need to put them on now. He said, Now is the time.

H. SANDERS: I put two on her and one on me.

SCHULDER: Life jackets on, Harry and Linda Sanders then confronted their very worst fear, that the rising waters would carry them away from each other.

L. SANDERS: He decided that we needed -- if we got into the water, that we could not be separated. And that was a fear. I didn't want to go into that water alone and not ever see him again.

H. SANDERS: We took the sheets off the bed and tied them together. And then, we tied one on her end and one on my end.

L. SANDERS: And then he thought about it a minute and he thought and he said, No, the sheet is too heavy when he gets wet. He thought it would make us sink. So he's sitting there again and he's looking at the Venetian blinds that we had up there, what was left of them, and they had the triple cord. And they're really -- and he just jerked it off the wall.

SCHULDER: Harry pulled out his knife and cut the cord.

L. SANDERS: Having owned boats for years, he's great at tying knots. And he tied me. With the life jacket on, he tied the rope to me and then, he tied it to himself. And we just waited and not knowing if we were going to go into that water or not.

SCHULDER: There was a third member of the Sanders family who was with them on the second floor. Her name is Magnolia Blossom.

L. SANDERS: That dog is our child. I mean, she just is our, our whole life. But I need him and I didn't want to lose both of them. And I just couldn't bear the thought of losing Harry.

H. SANDERS: I had a bag around my neck I was going to stick my dog in. And she said, if you go down, just let her go. I said, No.

L. SANDERS: I wanted him...

H. SANDERS: No way. No way.

SCHULDER: With so many homes around them collapsing, Harry and Linda sat by the window, tied to each other, holding Magnolia, ready to jump. It never came to that.

H. SANDERS: Finally, you could see the water start going out and I told her at that time, I think we're going to be OK. I think we're going to be OK. SCHULDER: After more than four hours of watching the water rise, the water receded. Their house drained. The Sanders walked out, including Magnolia.


ZAHN: They were so lucky, what a beautiful love story -- that report from Michael Schulder.

Coming up next, we turn our focus back to that huge wildfire burning in Los Angeles, 7,000 acres burned so far, hundreds of people forced from their homes.

The very latest for you right after this short break. Please stay with us.


ZAHN: Before we go, I want to take one more look at the situation northwest of Los Angeles. The picture says it all tonight, as feeble as it is with the transmission.

Wildfires are burning in the hills along the Los Angeles-Ventura County line. This is a really hard number to absorb: 17,000 acres have been consumed. Crews are working to keep the fire from jumping across Route 101. They say, if that happens, thousands of homes in Malibu could be at risk and the fire could burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Now, at least 300 residents tonight have already left their homes. Officials say several shelters have been set up for the evacuees. The fire started Wednesday afternoon near Chatsworth -- that's northwest of Los Angeles -- quickly spread by the Santa Ana winds.

As of right now, only 5 percent of the fire has been contained, once again, 300 firefighters working around the clock to try to contain it. And, right now, we're told that the aerial attempts at dousing this fire are very aggressive. So, hopefully, they'll make some headway tonight.

That's it for all of us here from Washington, D.C., tonight. Thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate your dropping by.

At the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE" will join you.

Good night.


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