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Federal Response to Katrina Begins to Take Hold

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff plans to spend several days in New Orleans to help oversee relief efforts there. The federal government and the Homeland Security Department in particular have come under stinging criticism for not acting faster to assist victims of the hurricane. At last, the situation in New Orleans appears to be fairly calm. Residents who took refuge in the Superdome and convention center have been evacuated, but others remain at Louis Armstrong Airport, which is just outside the city. We're joined now by NPR's John Ydstie.

Good morning, John.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: You were in the city yesterday. Describe the situation.

YDSTIE: Well, you know, there's a lot of talk now in the city about a turning point here and that relief officials are getting the upper hand, and that was obvious when I went into town yesterday. I followed a caravan of buses going to the convention center and expected to see them picking up thousands and thousands of refugees. But when I got there and parked the car, I noticed the buses rolling away empty. I got up to the convention center and there was no one left there. I talked to some officers from the Arkansas National Guard and they said all the refugees had gone. They'd swept the center; there was no one left.

So most of these storm victims are now away. As we said, many are still at the airport, but the Superdome is empty, the convention center is empty. There's still a place at the I-10 causeway, that there may still be some people. But now we're hearing word from Texas Governor Rick Perry that his state is full, so I'm not sure exactly where those folks at the airport are going to be going. We've heard a lot about people going to Arkansas. But certainly in the case of the storm victims, things have finally turned up.

HANSEN: But what about searches elsewhere in New Orleans? What about private homes or other places where people may have taken shelter?

YDSTIE: Well, as late as yesterday afternoon, Liane, I was hearing reports that people were still calling on cell phones from attics asking to be rescued. And I saw helicopters hovering over neighborhoods, so the search and rescue still goes on. There is beginning to be talk now about going into collect the dead bodies, and there's hope that that might begin in the next day or two.

HANSEN: Now what's the physical condition of the city as well as you can determine? Is the water receding?

YDSTIE: Well, the water has receded. Less than 50 percent of the city is now covered by water; it was up to 80 percent as you recall early. And there's hope that they can begin to pump out the water sometime early next week. The estimates of how long that will take range from 36 to 80 days, so it's going to be a long time before the water gets out. And I don't believe the electricity can be turned on there until that water is out, so it's going to be a long recovery.

The city itself is--you know, in the very downtown area, the damage to buildings looks like it can be repaired. There aren't buildings that need to be razed. Lots of trees down, lots of trash. One Arkansas National Guardsman who'd just been in Iraq said, `This looks like Baghdad when I arrived,' but the authorities seem to be under control. There's a great military presence there now, and things are relatively calm, though when--late yesterday afternoon when we were at the police station, the police told us you should get out of town by dark because things can still get very difficult here.

HANSEN: So there's no power in the city, no power being restored. Any clean water being restored anywhere in New Orleans?

YDSTIE: Well, not in the city, but in the outer parishes, Liane. The electric utilities say they've connected upwards of close to 300,000 people. So things are improving in the outer areas, but not in the city itself.

HANSEN: Now what's happening politically because there's been quite a lot of finger-pointing going on?

YDSTIE: Well, the Bush administration has certainly been scrambling to get on top of this. The president even admitted that relief efforts were unacceptable, and now Michael Chertoff is coming down here to sort of take control of the situation. There have been calls for FEMA Director Mike Brown's resignation. Senator Landrieu said she wants a Cabinet-level official appointed to direct the recovery. And we're also seeing--The Washington Post reports this morning that the Bush administration is blaming state and local authorities. I think certainly things have not gone well and it'll take a while to sort this out, but we'll hear more about this story as it goes along.

HANSEN: NPR's John Ydstie. John, thank you very much.

YDSTIE: You're welcome, Liane.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.
John Ydstie
John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.