ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Conditions and public order continue to deteriorate in New Orleans today. Looting and violence spread. Evacuation efforts moved slowly. Four days after Hurricane Katrina people were still being plucked from rooftops. Officials reported little progress in plugging the damaged levees and flood walls. President Bush has proposed $10 billion for the flooded city and parts of the Gulf Coast hit by the storm. Congress will return to Washington from summer break to approve it.
Heavily armed National Guard were evacuating people out of the squalid conditions of the Superdome. They were boarding buses for the Astrodome in Houston. But it emerged that people stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center about eight blocks away were in more than dire straits. We'll have more on that in a moment.
Earlier we spoke with Michael Chertoff, Homeland Secretary secretary, who's overseeing the recovery operation. I asked him what a Louisiana official told one of our reporters that there are just not enough National Guard on the scene and that this is a federal disaster, not a local one.
Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): In fact, there is a significant National Guard presence not only in Louisiana but in New Orleans, and it's getting bigger every day. Let me tell that, as we speak, there are approximately 7,400 National Guard working on this in Louisiana; of those, there are 2,800 in New Orleans itself. Today, tomorrow and the next day we're going to be adding 1,400 additional Guard every single day. In addition, we are bringing federal and local law enforcement authorities from Louisiana and other parts of the country to supplement. There is, I think, going to be more than adequate--and there is a more than adequate--law enforcement presence in New Orleans.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you about images that many Americans are seeing today and hearing about. They are from the convention center in New Orleans. A CNN reporter has described thousands of people, he says, many of them--you see them in the pictures, mothers with babies--in the streets, no food, corpses and human waste. Our reporter John Burnett has seen the same things. How many days before your operation finds these people, brings them at least food, water, medical supplies, if not gets them out of there?
Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, first let me tell you there have been deliveries of food, water and medical supplies to the Superdome, and that's happened almost from the very beginning.
SIEGEL: But this is the convention center. These are people who are not allowed inside the Superdome.
Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, but, you know, there have been--we have brought this to the Superdome. There are stations in which we have put water and food and medical supplies. The limiting factor here has not been that we don't have enough supplies. The factor is that we really had a double catastrophe. We not only had a hurricane; we had a second catastrophe, which was a flood. That flood made parts of the city very difficult to get through. If you can't get through the city, you can't deliver supplies. So we have, in fact, using heroic efforts, been getting food and water to distribution centers, to places where people can get them.
SIEGEL: But if those people who haven't gotten them--if they ask our reporter, `When am I going to see those supplies? When does it get to me?'--what's the answer? How many days until it reaches them?
Sec. CHERTOFF: I think the answer is that we are as much as humanly possible--given the fact that we still have feet of water that have not drained out of the city yet, we are moving those foods and supplies as quickly as possible. People need to get to areas that are designated for them to stage for purposes of evacuation. We're contending with the force of Mother Nature and...
SIEGEL: But--and what is your sense? I'm trying--I mean, by the weekend do you expect that everybody in New Orleans will have some kind of food and water delivered by this operation?
Sec. CHERTOFF: I would expect that--unless people are trapped in isolated places that we can't get to, I would expect that everybody's going to have access to food and water and medical care. The key is to get people to staging areas. There are some people who are stranded but who are not in imminent danger. They are not people that we're going to necessarily rescue immediately. We're going to try to them, you know, food and water, so they can sustain themselves until we can pick them up.
SIEGEL: We are hearing from our reporter--and he's on another line right now--thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food, zero.
Sec. CHERTOFF: As I say, I'm telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone's anecdotal version of something, I think it's dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place. The limitation here on getting food and water to people is the condition on the ground. And as soon as we can physically move through the ground with these assets, we're going to do that. So...
SIEGEL: But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that there is--we shouldn't listen to rumors, these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes; they've covered wars and refugee camps. These aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people there.
Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, I would be--actually I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water. I can tell you that I know specifically the Superdome, which was the designated staging area for a large number of evacuees, does have food and water. I know we have teams putting food and water out at other designated evacuation areas. So, you know, this isn't--and we've got plenty of food and water if we can get it out to people. And that is the effort we're undertaking.
SIEGEL: Just like to ask you, there is said to have been a report in, I think, 2001 which listed a catastrophic hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three worst potential disasters the country could face. As someone who inherited FEMA and who came to this obviously with 9/11 being the preoccupation that faced us all, have you had a plan somewhere in an office near yours that says, `Huge hurricane hits New Orleans. Here's what we do in case of that catastrophe'?
Sec. CHERTOFF: FEMA has plans for all foreseeable catastrophes. They've had plans for this kind of catastrophe, and they've exercised and worked on these plans. Recognizing this was a possibility over the weekend, we prepositioned an unprecedented amount of food and water and ice. This mandatory evacuation was ordered and begun. But at the end of the day, as with any titanic struggle with nature, a plan only gets you so far in the face of the reality of struggling with miles of cities that are under water.
SIEGEL: And our reporter said 2,000 people at the convention center without anything.
Sec. CHERTOFF: You know, Mr. Siegel, I can't argue with you about what your reporter tells you. I can only tell you that we are getting water and food and other supplies to people where we have them staged, where we can find them, where we can get it to them. And, you know, if you're suggesting to me your--that somehow the National Guard missed a group of people, I will certainly call up and make sure they don't miss them. But I'm not in a position to argue with you about what your reporter is telling us.
SIEGEL: Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Secretary.
Sec. CHERTOFF: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who spoke with us this afternoon.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.