As the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans continues, police and troops threaten to begin using force in order to make reluctant residents leave.
In a Q&A with MSNBC.com, NBC News correspondent Campbell Brown, a Louisiana native, reports on the latest from the embattled city and tells what it has been like to cover a story that has touched her family and friends so personally.
Can you describe the current situation in New Orleans?
We went back this morning and revisited a couple of the places where we had been a few days ago. You can see a noticeable difference in the water level. It has gone down several inches in many places — as much as five or six inches and a foot or more in other places. That’s very good news, obviously.
Now that the levee has been repaired, we’re seeing some minimal steps forward on that front. That is clearly step one.
The next thing will be contending with the water that remains because it is so contaminated. They have to worry about what is in the water here and what they are going to find, frankly, once the water is gone from the city.
The water is being tested in different parts of the city. They are warning rescue workers not to let it touch their skin and to thoroughly clean themselves if they do have any contact with it.
We haven’t seen any major outbreaks of illness yet. But there is a huge risk of that. The spread of disease could be the next phase of this crisis if they are not careful.
It is important to look at the long-term implications of this, too. There are going to be many homes and businesses in New Orleans that are not salvageable. There are many that are going to have to be destroyed and that can’t possibly be decontaminated after sitting in this water for so long.
No one has really quite grasped that, I think, in terms of the bigger picture. I have friends and relatives who lived in New Orleans and are sitting in Baton Rouge thinking that in a matter of weeks they’ll be coming back to their houses, and that’s just not the case.
You don’t realize that until you really see it up close and you can smell it. It is a long term problem and it is going to cost a huge amount of money, and the resources, frankly, aren’t there. The city of New Orleans doesn’t have them and the state of Louisiana doesn’t have them.
It is going to take a massive national effort to bring this city back to life and it’s not going to happen in a matter of weeks or months even. We’re talking about years.
That’s where we are taking the story next. Trying to convey to people the magnitude of the crisis here and how deeply it has affected the city in terms of the longer-term implications.
What is the situation with the forced evacuations at this point? Are they dragging people out of their homes?
They had hoped that the holdouts would go. But, let me be clear, not everyone here is a holdout.
There are people who are still trapped in their homes, waiting to be rescued and those rescue operations continue. We are still seeing even today, more helicopter rescues and they are still finding people who want to get out.
But, there are people here who are refusing to leave. Some who just don’t want to go because they feel so strongly about not leaving their homes and not leaving their city.
There are others who don’t understand what’s happened. For example, we met an elderly woman here in the city. One of our NBC producers spoke with this woman who wasn’t leaving her house because she was waiting for her pension check.
She was afraid that if she left, they wouldn’t know how to find her and bring her the check. And if she didn’t get a pension check, how could she live, pay her bills, or eat? That was why she wouldn’t leave.
But there was no convincing her that the pension check wasn’t coming to this address anyway. She couldn’t get her arms around what had happened.
There was another man who wouldn’t leave his home. He was running out of food and water and one of our camera crews was telling him, you’ve got to get out. He said, “No, no, if I need food and water, I’ll just walk to the school around the corner or the little market two blocks away.” He didn’t know that they were gone.
It's heartbreaking to talk to these people and realize that they don’t understand how their lives are changing, especially when they are elderly or sick and approaching the end of their lives.
Are the authorities beginning to force people to leave? Are they beginning to refuse people food and water?
Right now, it’s only a threat. They haven’t actually begun to force people out.
It’s a matter of safety for everyone in the city because of the threat of disease. For what is going to have to be done in order to decontaminate the city and to eventually rebuild, they’ve got to have these people out.
So they are saying that if we send our rescue crews to your house and you refuse to leave, they are authorized to put you in handcuffs and take you out.
They haven’t done that yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen over the next few days.
In other parts of the area, for example, St. Bernard Parish, which is just across the Mississippi River, 95 percent of the parish was under water, so they resorted to forcible evacuations a few days ago. They were so concerned about disease that they just couldn’t have anyone staying.
So, they had several people that they put in handcuffs and dragged them out. They were very clear about the fact that for the good of the community and the safety of everyone, people have to go to shelters.
These holdouts are putting the rescue crews — these very brave men and women who are out there on these dangerous waters everyday looking for people — in danger to have to continue to check on people who have no business being there in the first place. It’s just too dangerous.
Is there a palpable change in the city in terms of law enforcement? Does it seem to be more under control now?
Yes, the military presence here has certainly brought a calming effect to the city. There was a dramatic shift when the last of the evacuees left New Orleans from the Superdome and the convention center.
There was a lot of chaos given the conditions these people were living in. It was horrific, the most appalling conditions I’ve ever seen.
Those people are now gone. They have been evacuated to various shelters elsewhere. The National Guard finally got here. It was probably not until last weekend, but the military presence on the ground has certainly changed the dynamic.
Everyone is basically gone now, there is no one left in the city except for the military, the press and these 10,000 or so holdouts.
You are from Louisiana yourself, how difficult has it been to cover this story that’s really in your backyard?
It makes me want to be here all the more, obviously. You want to do anything you can to help and for me the best way to help is to help tell the stories. But it takes an emotional toll, there is no question.
At my father’s house in Baton Rouge, there are more than 30 people staying there. When we went to Baton Rouge to do a story, we had to spend the night at my aunt and uncle’s because there were no hotel rooms. My aunt’s sister was there because she had lost her house and her parents were there because their house was damaged.
So, so many people have been affected. Everybody I know and love, and who I’ve grown up with, has been touched by this.
In some ways it’s been fantastic in terms of how it has brought us together and made us so close — we are all leaning on each other for support. In other ways it’s just heartbreaking and painful on a personal level because these are my friends and family.
For the moment, many of my relatives are just waiting in Baton Rouge like everyone else and their future is up in the air. They don’t know when or if they are going to be able to come back here.
So, what do you do? Do you put down roots in Baton Rouge? Or in Houston? Or some place else? Certainly, you’ve got to think about that.
I have another aunt who lost her house and she is now in Shreveport. She has enrolled her daughter in school there because they obviously they won’t be back in New Orleans for at least six months.
Once her daughter is in school in Shreveport and she’s been there for a period of time, there is going to be a question, do we really go back now or do we now call this home? Many other people are in the same boat.
Campbell Brown is a co-anchor of NBC News Weekend Today Show and NBC News Correspondent. She has been reporting from the Gulf Coast region since before Hurricane Katrina hit and is currently on assignment in New Orleans.