NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
And here are the headlines from some of the stories NPR News is following today. A stampede on a Baghdad bridge killed nearly 700 Shiite pilgrims today. The stampede followed rumors that a suicide bomber was present somewhere in the religious procession. Some people were trampled and crushed against barricades, other drowned in the Tigris River. Most of the dead were women and children. This is the single biggest loss of life in Iraq since the invasion in March of 2003. More on that story this afternoon on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
And of course the lead story is Hurricane Katrina, which is where we go now. The mayor of New Orleans said today there might be thousands of people dead in his city. That's according to the Associated Press, which covered an impromptu news conference by Mayor Ray Nagin. The mayor said that at least--at least--hundreds of people have been killed in New Orleans, but the number is, quote, "most likely in the thousands." He says authorities know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water that now covers much of the city and that others died in attics.
The governor of Louisiana, meanwhile, is telling all non-emergency personnel in the city to leave. A plan is in the works to bus 23,000 people who've been living in the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston. Officials are telling anyone who's already evacuated to stay away.
Among those heading away from the city, like hundreds of university students, L. Evelyn Wellborn(ph), a junior at Tulane University. She joins us now from the road somewhere in Arkansas.
And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. JEWELLYN WELLBORN(ph) (University Student): Hi. Nice to be on.
CONAN: And your name is Jewellyn (pronounced joo-ell-in), is that right?
Ms. WELLBORN: Yes, it's Jewellyn (pronounced joo-wa-lin).
CONAN: Jewellyn (pronounced joo-wa-lin). I apologize for mispronouncing it.
Ms. WELLBORN: That's OK.
CONAN: Now classes should have started this week and next. They've all been cancelled, right?
Ms. WELLBORN: Today would've been the first day of class, yes.
CONAN: And some city universities are being used as makeshift hospitals in the absence. So what are you doing in Arkansas?
Ms. WELLBORN: I am on my way home to Colorado, where I'm originally from. I'm trying to get back to where my parents are. I evacuated on Saturday night with my aunt and uncle and three cousins who live in Metairie. From what we hear, their house is destroyed and underwater. And we went to Jackson, Mississippi, where we have some more family. And that's where we stayed.
CONAN: When did you actually leave New Orleans?
Ms. WELLBORN: Saturday night. We're never ones to play around when hurricanes come in. My uncle is on the police force and he usually has to stay, but this one had him so scared we all just took off.
CONAN: And how were things in Jackson?
Ms. WELLBORN: Well, as we--we watched as the storm came ashore, but we lost power shortly thereafter and weren't able to hear anything from New Orleans. By the time we got to Jackson, it wasn't too bad. We did have a tree fall on the house, but it only poked three holes in the roof and didn't actually fall through, fortunately. There's a lot of trees down. Power was still out when I left. And I believe it's still out even now. So I'm--it's getting better. I know that the Entergy people are working really hard to get power back in Jackson, but I can't imagine what New Orleans is like.
CONAN: Yeah, I was going to ask, I understand you have family there. Have you been able to find out what's going on with them?
Ms. WELLBORN: I'm unable to get a hold of my aunt's mother who took shelter in Covington, which is just north of the river. We aren't sure if she's OK. Most people that I know were able to get out. I do have a few friends who I haven't been able to get in contact with. Most--my roommates are safe. A couple of my sorority sisters, I know, are safe. But there's a few people I haven't been able to get in touch with and I really don't know.
CONAN: As we've been hearing the last couple of days or especially today, it looks like there won't be any economic activity in New Orleans. Power's not expected to be back for two, three months now. What are you going to do?
Ms. WELLBORN: I really am not sure. My parents went by the University of Denver yesterday and apparently spoke with the vice chancellor, and he has agreed to accept applications of special status students and admit some Tulane students. I know that I was the fifth person apparently to contact them. Since power won't be--I heard--I went by Jackson State University yesterday, knowing that that's where 400 students were evacuated to as well as some of the administration, to see if I could find any information about my school and about what might be happening. I really--no one knows anything. Nothing is really--there's such a shortage of information, it's hard to figure it out. So I've basically decided I'm going to do the semester at DU and hopefully be able to go back to Tulane next semester.
CONAN: Did you have to leave all your stuff here?
Ms. WELLBORN: Yeah. I have a suitcase with me with some clothing and I grabbed some of the pictures of my family, and I actually took my school books for the semester with me thinking that if it was flooding, I would be able to save those. I just spent $500 on them. But everything else is still uptown, is still in the apartment. And I haven't heard anything about uptown and whether or not it's flooded.
CONAN: Uptown, is that a particular part of New Orleans?
Ms. WELLBORN: Uptown is where Tulane is located. Tulane is consider--it's right on St. Charles Avenue right near Ottoman Park, right near the zoo, which I haven't heard anything about the zoo animals. So I did hear--the Tulane officials I spoke with yesterday said that Tulane had experienced flooding of up to six feet. So I'm not really sure how accurate that was, for one, or two, what that means for the rest of the properties around Tulane. So...
CONAN: This was to be your junior year, as I understand it.
Ms. WELLBORN: Yes. Yes. I'm a junior.
CONAN: Can you--the city that you've now lived in for two years as a student at Tulane, this has now been utterly transformed.
Ms. WELLBORN: I'm scared. I'll be honest, I'm scared to see what has happened because everyone hears about New Orleans as the Mardi Gras city, the place where--all of my friends who go to college in other states are jealous that I'm going to school in New Orleans for the infamous Bourbon Street. But no one realizes the rich culture of that city and how you gain weight not because you're drinking too much but because the food there everywhere you go is phenomenal. The people there are so kind and it's just such a different culture. It feels almost European when you go there. And the French Quarter is so beautiful and so rich history, I just--it would be such a shame if it was all gone. I just can't fathom it.
CONAN: Jewellyn, good luck to you.
Ms. WELLBORN: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Jewellyn Wellborn is a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans--at least she thought she was. She left the city Saturday night; she's on her way home to Colorado.
Hurricane Katrina forced many of Louisiana's schools to close down just as students were getting started. Cecil Picard is Louisiana state superintendent of education. He's with us now from his offices in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
And it's good of you to join us today.
Mr. CECIL PICARD (State Superintendent of Education, Louisiana): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And how many school districts have been closed down by Katrina?
Mr. PICARD: Well, we've had quite a number that were closed right prior to the hurricane, Neal, but this is--we have never experienced a hurricane like this before because normally after a hurricane comes through, at least the peripheral areas are opened within just a few days. This situation in New Orleans is just continuing to exacerbate. And what's happening as we speak, they're continuing to evacuate people from New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston. They have already evacuated thousands to the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, which is about 150 miles west of New Orleans. And so we still have about five districts, five parishes around the metropolitan area that are still shut down. Others beyond that that did not sustain considerable damage are now able to continue to open their school system.
CONAN: Are school facilities in some places being used for--well, to house refugees or...
Mr. PICARD: Absolutely. There are some. And what we're trying to do in the capital city of Baton Rouge here, which is only about 65 miles from New Orleans, we're now trying to get businesses and other public buildings to help relieve some of the schools that in fact were used as refugee centers before and during the hurricane. So we still have--we do still have some of the school systems that are being used as shelters.
CONAN: What would you say your top priority is now? It looks like it's going to be months before things begin to get back in order.
Mr. PICARD: Well, our top priority of course in New Orleans is still search and rescue, evacuate, because we're very concerned about disease. We try to get everybody other than essential personnel out of the city. Beyond that, what I am doing as state superintendent of education, I'm going to have a press conference in about an hour and I am encouraging not only Louisiana but other states where some of our citizens, like Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, have gone to to flee the storm, to enroll our students immediately, not to worry about immunizations, not to worry about records, not--and the second thing we're asking is for our displaced teachers who want to teach, please hire them if you need them. We're going to worry about pay and certification at a later date. So we want our students, our top priority, to be in school. We want our teachers who are available to be employed. We think that as far as the New Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines area, it's going to be probably into 2006 before they're even thinking of opening schools.
CONAN: And a lot of those facilities themselves will have been damaged and all of the textbooks and supplies and everything inside.
Mr. PICARD: We have reports--we have no way of knowing, but just from the information I'm getting, there are several schools in New Orleans that have been absolutely blown away.
CONAN: Blown away. As you say, it's going to be next year before you can project things getting back to normal.
Mr. PICARD: Absolutely, Neal, 'cause what we're talking about now is between 20 and 25 percent of the state's population has been displaced, student population. Our student population is about 701,000. We have probably 135 to 140,000 students that have been displaced.
CONAN: Cecil Picard, thank you. We know you're busy; you're about to have that news conference. We appreciate your time today.
Mr. PICARD: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Cecil Picard is Louisiana state superintendent of education. He joined us from his office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Fay. Fay calling from South Carolina.
FAY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I've been listening to the news all day and I'm heartbroken and concerned for all the folks who are suffering right now. But my thought was, I heard today that the plan was to transport people from the Superdome to the Astrodome, and it's 375 miles away and they didn't know how they were going to get buses to the people. And all of a sudden the thought popped into my head that it would be a swell idea to put all of those displaced people on cruise ships.
CONAN: Apparently great minds think alike. I have seen stories today that authorities have approached the Carnival Cruise Line--they run a couple of dozen cruise ships--and they are considering--they haven't worked out a plan yet--but they are considering the idea of moving some of those cruise ships to the Gulf Coast area to take up some people. And depending on the size of the ship, I guess they could take between, I don't know, 12, 1,500, maybe 2,000 people apiece.
FAY: Wonderful news. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Well, we don't know if they're going to go ahead with it, Fay, but it's an...
FAY: Hope so.
CONAN: ...interesting idea. We're...
FAY: It is. Bye-bye.
CONAN: We're talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
To give us a sense of how police are assisting efforts in New Orleans, we turn now to Sergeant Cathy Flinchum, public affairs officer with the Louisiana State Police. She's with us by phone in Baton Rouge.
And I know you must be busy as well. We appreciate your time today.
Sergeant CATHY FLINCHUM (Louisiana State Police): No problem, Neal.
CONAN: Where are the state police focusing their efforts?
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Currently right now we're in the city of New Orleans. We are helping with search and rescue efforts. That is our first priority. We still have some reports of folks that are trapped and we're in there now attempting to bring them to safety.
CONAN: Any idea of how long that phase of operations is going to continue?
Sgt. FLINCHUM: No, sir, I don't have a time frame. I can tell you, though, that state police has sent all available resources to that area and attempt to get those folks out of harm's way.
CONAN: And are the--I assume the state police are coordinating with other agencies, local and federal.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Absolutely. State, local and federal agencies are all working together, as I said, in attempt to save human life and assist down there any way we possibly can. It is definitely, definitely a joint effort.
CONAN: Can you give us some impression of just how critical this effort is? It's been a couple of days since that storm went through there, a couple of days for a lot of people without water, without food, without power.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Yes, sir. Currently we have troopers that are escorting the 18-wheelers in that have some supplies on them for the rescue workers to, you know, continue the efforts. Again, there are so many contingencies going on right now that the different agencies along with us are attempting to put into place, to bring folks down there some needed aid and, as I said, get them out of harm's way.
CONAN: We have a quote from the New Orleans police captain, Marlin Defillo: "Rescue, recovery, stabilization of looting. We're trying to feed the hungry." Awful lot for everybody to do there in New Orleans.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
CONAN: The looting situation, a lot of people are curious about that. Obviously, saving lives right now is your priority.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Yes, sir. We are getting sporadic reports of looting and we are watching obviously the TV reports, the cable TV reports. And those folks are on video. There are going to be attempts made to identify them after this crisis passes and take appropriate action on their actions during this time of crisis.
CONAN: There are--if you're stranded in a city like that, obviously, there may be some people who are looking for food and water, desperate to try to survive.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Absolutely. There's a difference between going in and looking for things that sustain life as compared to carrying out television sets, VCRs, things that have nothing to do with survival and everything to do with taking advantage of someone at a time of crisis.
CONAN: There is a report we saw on the Associated Press that looters chased down a state police truck full of food.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: I have not heard that, but I definitely will check into that.
CONAN: Yeah. And I guess you've seen also the reports of people commandeering a forklift and opening up drugstores and that sort of thing.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: We're hearing all kinds of reports. Currently we're still establishing our communications in the city with our troops there on the ground. And we're hearing the rumors and just can't substantiate a lot of them right now.
CONAN: What is the--is there martial law, a state of emergency? How could you describe the situation?
Sgt. FLINCHUM: I believe that three days ago the governor declared a state of emergency. There are curfews in several of the outlying parishes. New Orleans has been shut down. All the roads leading into New Orleans have been shut down except to responding personnel. So, folks, I'm asking you, stay out of the city. You cannot get to the city. If you attempt to, you're going to be turned around.
CONAN: And those who are in the city, we heard yesterday the governor say they have to leave. We can't--are the state police going to get involved in that effort as well?
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Well, again, it's a joint effort and they are coordinating the other agencies in order to attempt to move folks out of the city. If I can, sir, I'd like to give some Red Cross phone numbers out because I know there are folks--and again I sympathize with them...
CONAN: If you could do so quickly. We have about 30 seconds.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Absolutely. If you would like to donate, please call 1 (800) HELP-NOW; that's 1 (800) 435-7669. If you want to get info on your family members, 1 (866) GET-INFO, 1 (866) 438-4636.
CONAN: Sergeant Flinchum, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.
Sgt. FLINCHUM: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Cathy Flinchum is a public affairs officer with the Louisiana State Police and joined us by phone from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Of course stay tuned to NPR for continuing coverage of the aftermath of Katrina. You can also go to our Web site at npr.org.
I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.
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