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Transcript: Chertoff on 'FOX News Sunday'

The following is a transcribed excerpt of "FOX News Sunday," Sept. 4, 2005.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: We're joined now from Louisiana by Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security and President Bush's point man on the crisis along the gulf coast.

Mr. Secretary, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

What is the best information you have at this point on how many people still need to be rescued and evacuated from New Orleans and the rest of the region?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Chris, we don't have firm figures. We have very active, ongoing operations. We have essentially evacuated people from the Superdome, although more people have come in. We are in the process of evacuating them from other parts of the city. We have an airlift operation under way that takes out 10,000 a day. We've got trains running so that we can get hundreds out that way.

So the tempo of evacuations has continued. What's happening is, as the waters begin to recede, people who are trapped in attics start to leave, and we have to find those people and then get them to evacuation sites.

WALLACE: I know that you've got a lot more to do, Mr. Secretary, but do you feel that you turned a corner this weekend in the federal relief effort?

CHERTOFF: Well, there's no question that with the addition of National Guard and regular troops, we have secured the city. We've got adequate personnel now who are able to make sure that we have a comprehensive evacuation effort, so you can see and hear behind me some of the tremendous resources that are being applied here.

But I want to emphasize, Chris, this is a tremendous medium-term and long-term challenge. We are basically moving the city of New Orleans to other parts of the country. We have to shelter people, we have to feed them, we have to educate their kids, we have to get them medium-term housing, and we've got to give them hope.

So we are very much in the middle of the crisis, and we've got to continue to look forward, as well as continue with our ongoing operations.

WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, I know you're in the middle of the operation, and we're sensitive to that, but as you also know far better than I do, there's been a lot of questions asked about this past week.

The hurricane hit Monday morning. The levees broke in New Orleans late Monday. Why did it take until Friday afternoon for those caravans of National Guard and supplies to finally reach New Orleans?

CHERTOFF: Well, actually the levees -- I think we got word of the levees breaking on Tuesday. The levee breach continued to widen, and it was pretty clear, I think, Tuesday, the middle of Tuesday that we were going to have a total flood situation in large parts of the city. We then began the process of mobilizing the National Guard, mobilizing additional resources.

Obviously, there will be a chance to go back and take a look at what are the lessons we have to learn about dealing with this kind of ultra-catastrophe. But one of the things we're doing now is thinking about, what do we need to avoid in the next weeks and months? Because the worst action would be one in which we are so focused on looking back that we're not taking the steps needed to avoid aggravating the crisis we're in.

WALLACE: But, Mr. Secretary, you know there are an awful lot of people around the country that are asking these questions and want to hear answers from you today.

During the week, during this past week, you seemed to minimize or not to know about a lot of the problems on the ground in New Orleans. Let's watch some of those, sir.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

CHERTOFF: We are extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners have made to this terrible tragedy. There have been isolated incidents of criminality. We've all seen pictures of looting.

CHERTOFF: I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the Convention Center who don't have food and water.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, how is it possible that you could not have known on late Thursday, for instance, that there were thousands of people in the Convention Center who didn't have food, who didn't have water, who didn't have security, when that was being reported on national television?

CHERTOFF: Well, Chris, you know, that's one of the issues we have to look at. I mean, we were in constant touch with what was going on in the field, getting information from state and local officials. As it happened on that very Thursday, I was in a videoconference with state officials and didn't get any information about this. And one of the things we will look at is, why it is in the middle of this emergent crisis there was kind of a conflict in the information.

But again, what's important now is this. If we get very distracted doing the after-action review, which we will most assuredly do, we are going to get ourselves -- we are not going to be prepared for what's going on now.

And I really want to underscore that, although people have been moved, the enormous challenge of taking care of hundreds of thousands of people is unprecedented. There are going to be many, many crises that arise in that process, and what we have to do is make sure we are prepared to meet those.

WALLACE: Well, we do want to talk about, though, how systems are working, and as you say, how they're going to work going forward. And while the feds have taken most of the heat, I want to ask you about the effectiveness of state and local officials.

The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, made a number of comments this week. Let's listen to a few of those.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY NAGIN, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, are those kinds of comments helpful in terms of spreading calm as the process moves forward?

CHERTOFF: You know, Chris, for many, many people, hundreds of thousands of people, this was the worst crisis and the worst experience of their life. They were traumatized. I mean, the city officials and the state officials were literally overwhelmed by this one-two punch of a category-four hurricane coupled with the destruction of a major part of a levee.

So, I mean, you've got give people a little bit of a break in terms of the pressure, people letting off steam. People were frustrated, I was frustrated.

I got to tell you that hearing reports on TV and then calling the field and hearing something different is not what the secretary of homeland security wants to see happening.

But again, you know, there's an old expression that the battle plan starts to change as soon as the enemy is engaged. One of the things we had to do here was to adapt. We moved quickly to mobilize. Obviously, it's not something you can do instantly, and we adapted, and we are now in a position where we have a lot of boots on the ground. And that's going to give us the kind of visibility and control that we need to have.

WALLACE: I want to also ask you this, Mr. Secretary. Looking forward, why did the Bush administration late Friday ask the governor of Louisiana, Governor Blanco, to let feds take over the evacuation effort? Is that an indication that you lack confidence in the state and Governor Blanco's ability to handle that situation going forward?

CHERTOFF: You know, we have been in constant contact with the governor and Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi and the governor of Alabama all during this crisis. We are constantly saying, "Is there more we can do to help you, is there more we need to do?"

We know that because the infrastructure in New Orleans was completely destroyed, it's been very, very difficult for the state and local officials to work. So we are here to make ourselves as helpful as we possibly can be, using whatever tools are available, bringing in, as you now see, a massive federal presence to give us the ability to have perhaps a little better awareness of the situation than we had a couple of days ago.

WALLACE: Is that true, though, sir, that the federal government asked Governor Blanco to let the feds take over the evacuation?

CHERTOFF: You know, Chris, I think we owe our -- all of the people that we talk to, you know, the kind of confidentiality of discussions. But what I will tell you is that we have consistently told the governor that we want to be available to help her in any way.

She, I think, said at some point she wanted thousands of troops to come in. We're in the process of doing that. She's talked about the desire to have us be involved in helping her, and so we are working with her to see what is the way in which we can be of most help.

WALLACE: A couple of final questions, sir.

Is there any consideration being given to replacing Mike Brown, the head of FEMA, who has come under such heavy criticism, or perhaps putting someone else -- Rudy Giuliani's name has been mentioned, Colin Powell's name has been mentioned -- in charge specifically of this massive relief effort?

CHERTOFF: Well, this relief effort is undergoing, and I have to say FEMA has done a terrific job. Remember, FEMA does not come in with a large army of people. FEMA has always been designed to come in and work with state and local governments.

Now that we have the U.S. military fully engaged, boots on the ground, I think we are in control of what's going on in the city, and I think Mike Brown has done a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances.

WALLACE: Finally, Senator Vitter, the Republican senator from Louisiana, and other officials are talking about thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people who have died in this terrible tragedy. Do those numbers sound right to you, sir?

CHERTOFF: The number -- I can't tell you what the numbers are going to be, but I think we need to prepare the country for what's coming. What's going to happen when we de-water and remove the water from New Orleans is we are going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, you know, got caught by the flood, people whose remains are going to be found in the streets.

There's going to be pollution. It is going to be about as ugly a scene as I think you can imagine. Certainly as ugly a scene as we've seen in this country, with the possible exception of 9/11, which was obviously also a terrible scene. So people have got to be ready.

We've got all kinds of personnel coming in, public health, others, to manage the situation, but I really want to tell people that we have got some tough days ahead of us, and we've got to keep our eye on the ball.

We've got to -- now that we've got a real physical presence here, I have confidence that we now know what's going on, and that's where our priority is going to be.

WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, we want to thank you so much for talking with us, and I know I speak for everyone when I wish you the best of luck in the relief effort.

CHERTOFF: Thank you.