NEW ORLEANS, La — As the situation in New Orleans grows more and more desperate with water continuing to pour into the largely below sea-level city due to failed levees, people are searching for answers amid the chaos.
NBC News Martin Savidge reports from one of the few dry spots still left in downtown New Orleans on how people are trying to escape the rising waters, the looting that has taken place and the search for some sense of civility in an Armageddon-like atmosphere.
There has been an evacuation order for the city of New Orleans. How is that working and what is happening now?
There was an evacuation order, of course, in place before the storm hit. It was estimated at one time that about 80 percent of the population had fled before the storm. I think that was an over-optimistic estimate on the part of the mayor because there seem to be a lot of people here, still.
As far as trying to evacuate those who remain, it’s a problem. It’s a big problem for the city.
Many of those who remain were people who didn’t have transportation to get out. The poverty level here is widely known and there were a lot of people who simply couldn’t afford to leave. They couldn’t just climb into the family car and go.
That problem still exists and has been exacerbated by the fact that the routes to get out of here have always been limited here in New Orleans — that’s why evacuations started way early. The water that has crept into the city has cut off routes even further.
The big question for many people are: What transportation do I use to get out ? If I had transportation, where do I go? No one seems to have the answers to either one of those questions.
So, to say there is an evacuation under way in this city, there are many people who want to leave and would like to leave, but they just don’t know how to leave.
What about using trains, buses or the Mississippi River itself as a route?
People have come up with all sorts of wonderful ideas — most of those being people who are desperate and trapped, not the officials.
The idea of using trains and buses was suggested early on. But, we don’t know where the water is regarding the Amtrak lines. I don’t know if a train could actually come in. A train would be welcome by many people. People have gone to the Amtrak and Greyhound station, which is one facility, but it remains closed. The water is surrounding it, so that seems like an unlikely avenue.
However, speaking of water, the Mississippi River runs right through New Orleans. Some people have asked — where are the ships? Where are the river boats that could run us north and we could literally fall back to the transportation system that worked a hundred years ago?
Many people say then they would be able to get to major cities along the river and use other avenues from there to get on trains, buses or planes to go anywhere.
So, why not use this river, this highway of water, that sits right here at the footsteps of town? But, so far, nobody has.
There are reports that the water is still rising and that there are all kind of things floating by, from bodies to debris. Can you describe the scene?
There are conflicting accounts. The mayor this morning said that he thought that perhaps the water that was coming from one of the levy breaches had been stopped, or at least slowed down significantly.
We are in one of the last remaining dry spots in the city, which lies a couple of feet above sea level, and we have not seen further encroachment of water into this area, so that’s a good thing.
It is very difficult to get minute by minute information, where the water is, whether it’s coming up or going down and, obviously, that is greatly on the minds of people who are still here.
Rumors fly, last night especially, that there had been some sort of breakdown and the pumps had stopped working and that the remainder of the city would be flooded. So people were frantic to get out. That didn’t happen.
So, you have a combination of a lack of information specifically on how much water is coming in and how severely people are threatened by it. It appears that perhaps it has been slowed down.
But, even if it has been slowed down, with 80 percent of the city under water and the pumping system — on a good day — only able to remove about an inch an hour, extrapolate the math. People are going to be under water in many parts of this city for at least a month, if everything works and no more water comes in.
The only good news we’ve heard, the Army Corps of Engineers says that the flood levels of Lake Pontchartrain, which is well over flood stage, should be back to normal in about 36 hours.
How are the relief efforts working? With the extent of flooding, how are they reaching those who need relief?
Relief is not something that we have seen or found in the city of New Orleans. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist somewhere outside of our view, and you have to keep in mind that our world is pretty limited to the major downtown areas accessible by land. But, we have not seen relief distribution areas that have been set up.
Now, that’s created a couple of problems, one of which has been very visible and widely reported: looting.
Many people have been breaking into stores to retrieve or take life-sustaining supplies like food and water.
There have been others, on a much smaller scale, who have broken in and taken things that clearly have no value now, but could later. Taking things such as television sets, computers, electronics, and so on. In a town without power they are no good now, but they could have a street value later.
So, the looting is not on a massive scale, but when it happens, it happens quickly and large amounts of things have been taken.
I went into a Wal-Mart yesterday and people were saying, “Well, Wal-Mart said we could take things.” I checked with Wal-Mart, and they said no they didn’t say that, but there was no way to stop anyone.
This was one of those “super centers,” so food was being taken out by the pick-up truck load. So were the bicycles, fishing rods, sporting goods, shoes, and purses. Those, of course, don’t seem like essential supplies.
But, getting back to the issue of relief, because people feel that there is no relief, they are taking it on their own.
The other situation that’s been created is the Superdome. Right or wrong, people think the Superdome is an “island’ of salvation – an island because it is now surrounded by water. People are desperate to get to it, because they have heard that there is food, water, and an escape from there to get out.
There were hundreds of people yesterday who were walking to the Superdome, only to see it cut off by water. So, they stopped since there was no way to get through, and camped out on the highway surrounding the Superdome believing that somehow there was relief inside.
How are the hospitals doing? Are they overwhelmed?
The hospitals have been putting out calls on the radio for nursing staff, especially. In fact, they put out an “all call” saying if you are a registered nurse and if you have documentation to prove it, please come to this or that hospital.
There is no way to really ascertain whether there are casualties or whether or not they are overwhelmed with that, or, if they are just trying to deal with the patients that they had.
We also don’t know the electricity situation in those facilities. They have emergency generators, and I’m sure that they have kicked in. But the problem is fuel. It has now been several days since those emergency generating systems have been going and they don’t have an unlimited supply of fuel. And whether they can get diesel in, I don’t know.
With the massive flooding, does it look like the city will ever recover and return to normal?
Well, there is no question that New Orleans will come back. The issue is when?
There are a lot of things that in the immediate aftermath, people haven’t grappled with yet or even remotely thought about.
You have a huge metropolitan area of high rise buildings. So, just think of your own downtown in any major city where you are. Then envision it with no transportation, no electricity, no flushing toilets, no running water, and no way for people to bathe. There is no way to climb on an elevator to take you to your office when it is 50 stories in the air, whether or not it still has windows
How does the city go back to work? How do people go back to school? How do people beyond just trying to recover in their homes, restore life as it was?
Do you call up the boss and say, “I may not be in today,” and your boss responds that you may not be in for a month? What happens to your pay check? What happens to providing a livelihood?
All of these things haven’t even been thought about, because right now, things are from hour to hour. So, how a major city will get on with life immediately afterward no one seems to know.
So, it seems like it will be sometime before a sense of civility returns to the city?
What is lacking from the city amid all of the debris, the chaos, the death, and misery and what is really needed, but in the shortest supply, is just hope.
People are desperate and they think the end is near and, unfortunately, when that happens, human nature gets a bit frayed around the edges. But it hasn’t collapsed, it’s just strained a bit.
Martin Savidge is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina.