Evacuation Speeds Up in New Orleans

NPR's Greg Allen is in New Orleans and talks with Robert Siegel about ongoing evacuation efforts.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

NPR's Greg Allen is in the New Orleans area as boats are evacuating stranded people.

Greg, what's going on there?

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Well, Robert, I'm here at Algiers Point, which is on what they call the west bank of the Mississippi, right across the river from the French Quarter. You can see Jackson Square and the World Trade Center and the Hilton Hotel. It's dry over here. On the other side of the river, there's lots of water. The west bank has stayed very dry, and that's where they're evacuating very many people from, especially people from the 9th Ward, which was severely flooded when the canal--the levee on the canal broke, and also especially from Chalmette, a town in St. Bernard County. And that's the county--parish, I should say, that, as you know, has been very greatly flooded.

SIEGEL: Now you've talked to some of these people who are being evacuated. What do they tell you?

ALLEN: Well, it's one heart-wrenching story after another, of course. You talk to people who had to get out by wading up to their chins in water, walking blocks to try to get to a location where they could be picked up by a boat. And, of course, the one thing you hear time and again from people here in St. Bernard Parish is, `Nobody came to help us. We had to help ourselves.' I was talking to neighbors who jumped in flatboats and rode out the storm that way. I talked to one amazing kind of extended group of neighbors who had a generator. They had roast beef and gravy last night for dinner. They were doing great, but they realized that it is finally time to go.

So in St. Bernard County--St. Bernard Parish, again, sorry--it's a very self-reliant group, people who are taking care of themselves. But when time came to get out, they came.

SIEGEL: Just more on that point of people feeling--asking, `Why didn't somebody come to help us before?' The people who are doing the evacuations, people in the boats, have they explained to you why they're only doing it today?

ALLEN: Well, you know, the boats have been out here on the river since at least Tuesday--and I'm a little fuzzy on that, maybe even starting late Monday. They've had boats. They brought down ferries very early, but they've had lots of problems. The New Orleans ferries were raised up on the riverbank by the storm surge, and they were inoperable. In fact, going down the river, you see all kinds of boats just tossed around like toys. They brought down ferries very quickly, but then they had a problem. Really, the logistical problem here, a lot of it has to be attributed to the buses. They held up people on the Chalmette Slip, a boat dock on the other side of the river in St. Bernard County, for days. Some people spent four days there on the slip, and we know that a hundred people died there. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that there just weren't enough buses on this side of the river to get them out. And also, I don't think there really were enough boats to get thousands of people out in such a sort amount of time.

SIEGEL: Well, when you speak of a hundred people dying just there at that point, have you heard anything that gives any estimate of how many people in New Orleans in general may have died over these past few days?

ALLEN: Well, you know, the number we hear is thousands. And we've heard that from the mayor. We've heard that from the governor. We've heard that, I believe, from Senator Landrieu. Time and again, that's the number they go on, and I think just because they want to keep it vague. I think, honestly speaking, they don't know yet, and that FEMA has just now sent in a DMORT team, six DMORT teams to start that grisly collection of corpses, and they've set up a morgue. I'm thinking they probably have some numbers yet, but we haven't quite heard. We'll probably hear more in the next couple of days.

SIEGEL: A DMORT team is a term of art I'm not familiar with.

ALLEN: Well, I believe it's the people who go around and collect the people who've died in a disaster or any kind of event like this.

SIEGEL: And that will be their assigned task right now, to do that.

ALLEN: Yes, that's right.

SIEGEL: Do you get any sense--I mean, is there any sense of significant change today compared with the past couple of days that you're getting?

ALLEN: Well, you know, I've been here just on the ferry slip on both sides of the river with the crews here, and it is actually much improved when everybody tells me--everybody from the boat captains to the National Guardsmen to the Coast Guard crews who are helping run this operation, they all agree that they've started today to get a lot more support through the Baton Rouge command center from people, and there's school buses lined up all around the block down here.

SIEGEL: NPR's Greg Allen.

Thanks a lot, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome, Robert.

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