Imus in the Morning--- September 6, 2005
September 6- Tim Russert discusses Hurricane Katrina and the fallout from the response
IMUS: All right, here from Meet the Press, NBC news, is Tim Russert. Good morning Tim.
RUSSERT: Good Morning, Mr. Imus, welcome back.
IMUS: Uh, thanks, how are you?
RUSSERT: Working hard.
IMUS: So -- wh, what happened?
RUSSERT: We don't know, but we do know the following: that as this hurricane began to bear down on New Orleans, that people understood there was a very high probability it was going to be a three, four or five category storm, and it was going to hit, and hit hard.
And so an evacuation began. Then come the unanswered questions: why weren't troops prepositioned, why weren't supplies prepositioned, in a way, in a capacity that could deal with hundreds of thousands of evacuees. I think there's -- The one thing that government is supposed to do, the reason we have a government, is to protect its people. And the local, state and federal government has failed miserably in protecting its people. No one can question that. Now we have to find out exactly who did not fulfil their responsibility.
The perception is, after September 11th, we created a Department of Homeland Security, because we were told it's not a matter of if, but when there would be another terrorist attack. And this time we would be better prepared. There would be command and control; there would be communications, and there would be preparation. Guess what? No command and control, no communications, no preparation. The state, local, federals couldn't talk to each other. Nobody was in charge.
And I have -- we've talked to the head of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University, who one year ago, Don, did a simulated computer model -- tabletop exercise, called Hurricane Pam in which they predicted this almost to the letter. And he called FEMA and said on Saturday or Sunday, "You have to have tent cities set up outside of New Orleans, outside the state. You're going to have hundreds of thousands of evacuees. You have to be able to absorb them or they're going to die in the streets." And the FEMA said to them, "Americans don't sleep in tents."
That is what went wrong and that is what we have to find out -- who's accountable. This notion that we're all too busy now to look forward, so we can't look back -- we can do both. Because to ignore what happened in New Orleans is to guarantee it will happen again.
IMUS: You had the Homeland -- well, as you obviously know, the Homeland Security chief on Sunday Morning, and it, in my view, was just outrageous, in that he just, uh, wouldn't answer any questions. And his cop-out was that we had all of these issues that needed to be addressed now and there would be plenty of time to look back, but I, I and I bet a lot of other people agree with you that we need some answers now. I mean, the, the fundamental -- I was talking to Evan Thomas early this morning -- ah, the fundamental observation that many Americans are making is that if Beverly Hills or Westport, Connecticut were twenty feet under water it wouldn't have taken five days to get the people out of there. It wouldn't have taken five minutes.
RUSSERT: You might think this was a deliberate, calculated plan to ignore poor people -- no. But the facts are, when you evacuate a city some people can get -- pack up their SUVs, some people can call NetJet, some people can get out. People who use public buses to transport themselves and their families aren't going to get out. So steps have to be taken to force that evacuation, when you see those pictures of school buses drowning that were never utilized. But the fact is Amtrak, Greyhound, Federal Express, UPS, cruise ships -- I mean, there are people capac-- with the capacity to evacuate people and then have a place to bring them. The question this morning has to be: Does anyone in this country have any confidence, if there was a terrorist attack or another hurricane, today or tomorrow, we would be it -- do it any better? That's the question we have to ask ourselves: what has gone on the last four years since September 11th? We were told that the preparation was being undertaken; the planning was in place; the bureaucracy had been created. And it reminds me so much of what happened after Iraq, and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. When no weapons were found, it was suggested then by the Administration: "Well, we're not gonn-, we can't talk about that now, we gotta keep looking forward we got to keep -- we got Saddam, we got rid of him, we now have to make sure this becomes a democratic state and we can't worry about that little issue of WMD."
Democrats and Republicans unanimously got together on Capitol Hill and said "No, no, we have to look into this." Because in the future whether it's a Republican President or a Democratic President. who goes before the world they have to be believed and trusted. And so too with this. It can't be brushed under the rug. It can't be well, you know how just some things just broke down. No, that's not what happened. There are probably close to ten thousand people dead. That's not communications breaking down. That's, that's a human disaster.
IMUS: Well, Kanye West said on Concert on NBC that George Bush doesn't care about black people, which I don't believe is the case; but I do believe that neither he nor anyone else cares enough about `em. And if you're a black person in New Orleans what else are you supposed to think? I mean, the facts are the facts.
RUSSERT: Well, I'm -- you can't say things like that, because you know, there's absolutely no evidence of that, and, and I think --
IMUS Well, the evidence is -- [chuckles] there's plenty of evidence
RUSSERT: Well, no -- the idea that somehow the federal -- the mayor of New Orleans is African-American. Okay. I mean, the notion that he somehow turned his back on his own people or the Governor, a Democratic governor, turned her back on her people, or the President turned -- but, but there was a level of bureau-- paralysis that is inexcusable. And we have to find out why. For example, when the President went on television and said: No one expected the levees be breached.
IMUS: It's not true.
RUSSERT: That is just so far from being the --
IMUS [in whisper]: not true
RUSSERT: -- from being so misinformed Who told him that? Why would he say that? Every computer model. Every one. And the one I talked about earlier, Hurricane Pam -- FEMA was there. The White House was there. There's a CD that exists -- says if there's a hurricane level three or more it's going to breach the levee. The levee was breached -- it was posted on the New York Times-Picayune [sic] website at 10 p.m. Monday night. And Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff told me that he didn't know until Tuesday afternoon. There were tens of thousands of people at the convention center without food and water and any security. On Thursday, Chertoff and the head of FEMA, Michael Brown, said they were not aware of that. Command and control? Communications? Come on! I mean, there's nothing disloyal or not being patriotic asking tough questions. It's why we're here! We have to call the government accountable particularly when there are bodies floating in water through the streets of New Orleans.
IMUS: See, I know this -- I'll be accused of being simplistic -- but I believe in my heart that not, that the right people didn't care enough about these people, period. I know what happened and I hear you, and I've read and tried to absorb everything I can absorb, but I think fundamentally it goes to the very fabric of how people think in this country and I just think that, and really I believe in, as I said, my heart, that they just don't care enough.
RUSSERT: Do you believe that if a hurricane was boring in on Miami, or there was a -- well, an earthquake you don't have that, as much warning -- but do you have any confidence now that the government, at any level, has the capacity to evacuate and protect people?IMUS: Well it depends on how many rich white people there are there.
RUSSERT: Oh, oh, take Manhattan -- do you believe if there was a terrorist attack today in Manhattan that the communications systems, command and control, and evacuation, are in place? Do you believe if, if they -- IMUS: No, no I don't, no.
RUSSERT: Do you think if they attacked the nuclear plant up there on the Hudson, people would know where to go and what to do? You know in Washington D.C. the local police in Washington, and the police in Alexandria, Virginia, where the Pentagon, in Virginia, you think they can talk to each other? This is what's been going -- the last four years, this is what we were supposed to be doing: preparing for a disaster that was inevitable, whether it was a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. And this, where someone has to step forward and say, "Damn right we're going to take accountability here, and if heads have to roll heads have to roll." And its not in any way going to detract from delivering services to these people. I mean, we are now demonstrating right now what the United States of America can do in fixing that breach and rescuing people with helicopters and going house to house. There's no one who's more humanitarian and efficient, when we're mobilized and focused. But the fact is for several days, maybe as many as three days, we were paralyzed.
IMUS: And we were paralyzed from the Oval Office on down, that's where it started. I mean, I was talking to Evan Thomas earlier and he said "you can't expect the President to be God" and I said, "No, but you can expect him to be Rudolph Giuliani."
RUSSERT: Heh, that's --IMUS: That's a fair criticism.
RUSSERT: I, I think criticisms are extremely fair at this point, we -- people have to be held accountable. People have to be measured on their performance.
IMUS: I mean, his initial response was like the road washed out at that stupid ranch of his!
RUSSERT: The fact is, on August 24 there was a sense the storm was building. That's why on Friday, Saturday, Sunday people were urging evacuation. That's why -- that was the critical time where the resources had to be positioned. How can you send people to a Superdome as a place, a safe haven, and not have the necessary supplies there to take care of them? How can be -- people be urged to go to the convention center with no food or water or cots or security? That, that's -- that's not idle criticism, that's fact.
IMUS: Superdome's an awful place to watch a football game. Why they ever, why they thought it would be a place to try to save these people lives, is inexplicable. And to tell these -- I mean -- to, to, and tell these people to evacuate the city and then to, as you said at the beginning of my conversation, they don't have an SUV or, you know, a NetJet or something to get out. I mean a --
RUSSERT: [sighs] It's so painful. And I don't, I don't -- the one thing that Secretary Chertoff said on Sunday I agree with, I don't think the country is prepared for what we're going to see this week. We're going to see body after body being pulled out of attics, pulled out of bedrooms, pulled out of basements, I mean I just -- . And we have to ask why. We have to ask why. The job of the government is to protect its people. And it's not finger-pointing, it is asking for accountability at all levels. I think the mayor, the Governor and the President all have to be asked these tough questions and all have to be held accountable.IMUS: Part of the police force there quit.
RUSSERT: Yeah. That's, you know, that's the biggest difference between what happened in New Orleans and New York . Well, obviously, one a terrorist attack and the other a natural disaster. But the attack on New York and Lower Manhattan -- the rest of the city and other boroughs were a -- still able to function. This just took out the entire region, and so, many of the police that were able to come so heroically from Queens and from Brooklyn and the Bronx and other places in New York, that didn't happen here. And a lot of policemen were off and will never be heard from again. The, tho-, the, it's the bre--
IMUS: The New York City firemen, I mean, going, and those people were going back in the building, not throwing their badges in the street but going back in the building.
RUSSERT: Yeah, they went back in and up, they were going up the steps. They went back up the steps, carrying those huge tanks, trying to get people down. And yet, when you read those haunting tapes and transcripts, the breakdown in communications that happened on September 11. And we l-- we vowed, we pledged in their honor never to let that happen again. It, it, there's nothing more important than protecting our people. That's why government exists. Someone has to get control of this. Someone has to say there's going to be another hurricane. There's going to be another terrorist attack. And we need, you need to ex - to mobilize and exercise and train. There's no substitute for it, for preparation. None. That's why we have rehearsals, and that's why football teams practice. You got to get it right. And will something always happen that's unexpected? Of course! But then you play at least a level of 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% of predictability. That's not what happened in New Orleans.
IMUS: When I was -- I'm talking to Tim Russert of NBC News -- when I was watching Meet the Press on Sunday, and Aaron Broussard, ah -- we played the cut a couple of times this morning. I don't think I've ever -- well, I don't think, I've never seen anything like that on television or any place else.
RUSSERT: I've never, never in my life. And I cannot tell you how hard that man was sobbing.
I've seen my own dad cry twice in my life. And to see a grown man sit on national TV and just break down uncontrollably, and I, he couldn't talk any more and I tried to comfort him the best I could and let him gather himself and I know he appreciated that, but he, he was not to be consoled. He had been living through this past week in the harsh reality of his experience and it just conflicted so much with what he was hearing at news conferences.You know, there's a lot of issues in politics you can spin on. You can spin on tax cuts and spin on social security, and he said, she said, this view, that view, right, left, and center -- you can't spin on this. People see it, they feel it, it they smell it. And you can't say something that conflicts with the harsh reality of what happened there. And that's why it's imperative, I think, for everyone -- for their political survival -- for the mayor, the Governor, the President to step up and say "This was wrong, and we c-- we pledge it will not happen again, and this is what we're going to do." Maybe we need a disaster czar -- we need something, because the construct we have now did not workIMUS: People are dead --.
RUSSERT: In huge numbers, Don, huge numbers. And it, it was a gruesome, painful death. Gasping, trying to hold on, as the water kept rising. Think about it. I mean, that's someone's mother.
IMUS: I know.
RUSSERT: It just haunts me, it, I cannot tell you. But, um, we have to do our job and get it right.
IMUS: All right, man, well, thank you for taking the time to talk with us this morning, I appreciate it. Tim Russert.