ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
After speaking with Mr. Chertoff, we were joined on the line by NPR's John Burnett, who had been to the convention center earlier in the day.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
Let me clarify for the secretary and for everyone else what myself and (audio loss) Hawk(ph) just drove away from three blocks from here in the Ernest Morial Convention Center. There are, I estimate, 2,000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it. They've been there since the hurricane. There's no food. There's absolutely no water. There's no medical treatment. There's no police and no security. And there are two dead bodies lying on the ground and in a wheelchair beside the convention center, both elderly people, both covered with blankets now. We understand that two other elderly people died in the last couple of days. We understand that there was a 10-year-old girl who was raped in the convention center in the last two nights. People are absolutely desperate there. I've never seen anything like this.
They have seen buses go past. They have seen police cars go past. They have had the National Guard visit them. But no one has brought them food or any provisions whatsoever. They're living like animals, very much what the conditions were inside the Superdome. Now the Superdome is being evacuated, and that's a very, very good thing. I think these people want to know, `When on earth are you going to look after us?' They feel abandoned by their city, by their mayor, and they are quite desperate.
There has been looting that's gone on. They broke into a lot of the shops along the riverwalk. And, in fact, a lot of the looters distributed the food and the water that they got to the rest of the group. And so actually very few people are critical of the looters because they've had food to eat because of them.
SIEGEL: Now the secretary spoke of there being distribution points. They want to get people to go to distribution points, where they might get food or water. Is there any place nearby where--obviously these people haven't gone there; there must be some obstacle. But is there someplace where authorities say they should be going to get some kind of supplies?
BURNETT: No. And, in fact, authorities have been telling people to go to the convention center, and they will be taken care of and they will be bussed out of the area. But they've been saying that for three days now, four days, and you can understand the desperation of the people. The Superdome has been getting all the attention, and the people that we interviewed were very upset that no one seems to know that they exist down there, living in this squalor.
SIEGEL: Is there somebody in charge of the convention center, some city official or some state official?
BURNETT: No, there is no one. There's no police. There's no anybody (audio loss) seem to find one person who is in charge of this effort. They seem to be throwing it back between the National Guard, the city police and the state police. As a city police official told me this morning, the plan is changing by the hour. These people at the convention center were told first go up to a (audio loss) to be rescued. Then they were told to go back to the convention center. Then they were told buses would pick them up. And so they are just livid because they keep being told things, and nothing ever happens for them.
SIEGEL: Now you have to give us a little bit of New Orleans geography here. You're at the Morial Convention Center. This is within walking distance of the Superdome, isn't it?
BURNETT: The Morial Convention Center is eight to 10 blocks from the Superdome.
SIEGEL: John, before I let you go, that's one horrible spot in New Orleans right now that you've described. At the Superdome we've begun to see buses take people out, begin to take them, I guess, 50 to a coach off to Houston and the Astrodome. Any general sense--for example, do you see more National Guardsmen around the city? Is there some sense that there are more authorities elsewhere in New Orleans?
BURNETT: It seems to me that because of the limited number of troops down here, they have set their tasks in a very focused way. And clearly what they're doing now is the Superdome. And I think once they get that evacuated, I know that they intend to get to other clusters of storm refugees, not (audio loss) the convention center, but they're waiting on tops of overpasses, on the interstate. They're all over the place. And the city knows that they're there. I can only imagine that they're sequentially going to try to get to them, but I just don't know how much longer these people can wait.
SIEGEL: NPR's John Burnett talking to us from New Orleans. Thanks a lot. Take care, John.
BURNETT: OK, Robert.
SIEGEL: And later this afternoon Secretary Chertoff's spokeswoman called to say that after our interview with the secretary of Homeland Security, he received a report confirming the situation at the convention center. And he says the department is working tirelessly to get food and supplies to those in need and also to save lives.
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