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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U.S. Gulf Coast Braces for Hurricane Katrina; Five-Hour Wait to Enter Superdome Shelter; Evacuees Stuck in Traffic Near Biloxi; Bush Declares Emergency Before Storm Hits

Aired August 28, 2005 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: ... just off to the east of Baton Rouge. But remember, you can still sometimes get some rotation slightly outside of these watch boxes? We've had one warning so far, but no word of any tornado on the ground or any type of damage. The winds have been coming and going. The sustained winds have been averaging about 15, up to maybe 20 miles per hour. These are the current sustained winds across the area at this time. Biloxi is at 14 miles per hour, 18 in New Orleans, also 18 in Lafayette. We have seen gusts at times between 20 and 40 miles per hour.
Watch those to steadily increase now as we head through the evening. And we are not too far away from some of those sustained tropical storm forces winds beginning to arrive. The water temperatures are just unbelievably warm, helping to support this Category 5 hurricane. The winds, sustained, right now are at 165 miles per hour, still getting some gusts beyond that. The wind speed, down a little bit from the last advisory. But there is very little difference between 165 and 175.

Basically we're talking about a huge tornado, about 100 miles wide -- or 200 miles wide, rather; 100 miles on each side of the center of the storm that will be making land fall tomorrow afternoon.

The water temperatures are unbelievably warm. There you see the center of the storm, and it is heading to even warmer water. Take a look, 85 degrees at this buoy down here. We're jumping up towards 90 degrees here, and nearly 90 degrees near Slidell and that is the past the storm is going to be taking. So there's still a possibility of more strengthening. We often see these fluctuations in intensities. It is very hard for a storm to maintain it's intensity, 175. It's dropped down to 165. It is possible we could go down a little bit more. It's also possible we could go back up just a little bit.

There's your forecast track. Keep in mind the margin of error, 50 miles on either side of this line is still a good possibility. So we don't want you to focus just on New Orleans only. And even if it does hit New Orleans, directly, remember, that it is just off to the east of that eye where the worst of the weather is going to be. So we will watch for those strong winds here. Very high storm surge 18 to 22 feet storm surge, possibly as high as 28 feet.

Hurricane Camille, if you remember Camille, the highest recorded storm surge in U.S. history, that was at 25 feet. This may rival that, just to give you a very good idea. And this would, really -- unbelievable what this will do. It will put much of New Orleans under water. It would takes weeks, possibly even more than a month for them to pump all of this out.

We also have more to talk about, believe it or not, into the Atlantic. There you can see a nice little wave out in the Atlantic. Still, well away from land right now, but it has turned into a tropical depression. This is TD number 13. It is forecast for some slow strengthening over the next two days. We are probably going to be talking about Tropical Storm Lee by Tuesday -- Fred?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR, CNN SUNDAY: Oh, boy. It just does not let up does it, does it Jacqui?

JERAS: No.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much we'll check back with you.

All right, New Orleans. They apparently are right in the path of Hurricane Katrina, as we have been hearing Jacqui and others report. Our David Mattingly is right in the middle of New Orleans. He is in Jackson Square.

He joins us on the telephone, where about an hour ago, David, you were talking about it being almost like a ghost town. Because it is an area usually thick with tourists, and so far, you've only seen a few stragglers. What is it like right now?

All right, David, are you there? All right, we are having a tough time with our telephone right there. Max Mayfield might be able to hear us. He's in the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

And, Max, if you are with us right now, we heard a little bit from our Jacqui Jeras, giving us an idea about where the storm is right now. Let's talk about where it could potentially go, once it makes its way, the eye wall, over land. How far inland do folks need to be concerned about?

MAX MAYFIELD, DIR., NATIONAL HURRICANE CTR: Well, those strong winds and the heavy rains, and the tornados, will spread very far inland. Ant the hurricane force winds will likely spread into about where this red line is, well into central Mississippi, between Meridian and Jackson. But even strong enough winds, near hurricane force, will spread well up into northern Mississippi and extreme northwestern Alabama.

So we are going to talk about this for several days. But it is very important that people understand that the greatest potential for large loss of life is from the storm-surge flooding near the coastline.

WHITFIELD: And, Max, we heard Jacqui explain that east of the eye is really where a significant bit of the strength of this storm could come. So, when we talk about that, what are some of the cities that are in that path right now?

MAYFIELD: Well, that's exactly right. The storm-surge flooding and the strong winds will be greatest on the east side of the eye. This area in red here, along the Mississippi coast, will have storm- surge values of probably 20 to 28 feet, possibly. Very similar to Camille back in '69. We're talking Pascristian (ph), Biloxi, Gulfport, those areas.

But also, we're very concerned, depending on the exact track of the hurricane, even on the west side, if the winds are strong enough, from the north, some of the water from Lake Pontchartrain could go overtop some of the levies in the city of New Orleans.

WHITFIELD: And Lake Pontchartrain is huge. You know, when you take a look at it, it almost looks like you are looking at a body of water that's like an ocean. Explain how significant Lake Pontchartrain could impact the outer lying cities.

MAYFIELD: We think it will have a very big impact, and it was large enough, as you say there, Fredricka, that the waves will actually be breaking over the seawall on the south side. And there is a good chance that some of the levies, even out to the west can be topped even near, you know, New Orleans International Airport.

No one can tell you for certain if the levies will be toppled. But it is a very, very big concern.

WHITFIELD: Yes, and even on a more typical large storm, it would seem it doesn't take much for the Lake Pontchartrain to rise quite significantly. With this kind of rainfall that's expected from this hurricane, we really are talking not just inches but feet, aren't we?

MAYFIELD: Well the storm surge will certainly be in feet. And then, we're forecasting -- a little bit of good news -- it will start move rapidly enough that I think five to 10 inches, with some isolated rainfall amounts up to 15 inches, should be all they get from that. But that pales in comparison to that storm surge.

WHITFIELD: Sure, a storm surge of 28 feet, that is just hard to imagine.

Max Mayfield from the National Hurricane Center. Thank you so much.

MAYFIELD: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: OK, we're going to try one more time in downtown New Orleans, really in the heart of the French Quarter, our David Mattingly is on the telephone with us from Jackson Square.

How it's it looking right now, David?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, we've been on the move a little bit for the past few minutes. I'm now on Canal Street, one of the major thoroughfares, if you are familiar with New Orleans, in the French Quarter.

It is usually so crowded with traffic that you really take your life in your hands if you cut across it without the benefit of a crossing light. Well, today, you might see an occasional car passing me. It is very quiet out here. This is also where you see a lot of these city's high-rise hotels. And looking up at them, some of the larger hotels are completely dark suggesting there aren't many people in them.

Some of the others, however, I see sporadic number of lights, possibly from one of the many stranded tourists that are here in New Orleans, because they weren't able to get a flight out, with their flights cancelled or they weren't able to find a rental care. Which sold out pretty early here in the New Orleans area.

But, again, we are in a driving rain. There are very few people on the streets. The people who are look like they have some place to go. And they are on the way to do that. Looking outside the lobby of one of the hotels here. There's a number of tourists standing outside watching the rain. Probably thinking how long they are going to be able to stand out here until the real heavy stuff gets in and forces them back inside.

Again, a situation where everybody is watching and waiting. They all know what could happen. They are just hoping that it doesn't -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: David, oftentimes when a hurricane approaches, you might get lucky if you are in a city that's directly in its path that a large hotel with a generator just may decide to stay open and help out the people who can't go anywhere. In New Orleans, does it appear as though any larger hotels are willing to take that kind of chance, given they are all already below sea level?

MATTINGLY: Absolutely. Quite a few have actually done that. The mayor made an exemption for the hotels, saying that because we have so many stranded tourists, we are allowing the hotels to stay open. There have actually been some of the hotels that have been accepting local residents coming in. But they had to have made a reservation ahead of time. So some local residents also taking refuge in some of the high- rise hotels.

WHITFIELD: All right, David Mattingly, there on Canal Street, in the center of the French Quarter, right on the border of the French Quarter, there in downtown New Orleans. Thanks so much.

You heard from David, a number of people who are stuck in New Orleans, well, by the way, millions of people have tried to make their way out by getting on either Interstate 55, 59 or I-10. Our Jonathan Freed has been on I-10 for a good part of the day, heading east trying to get out of New Orleans and make his way toward Biloxi, Mississippi. He is finally in Mississippi.

But along the way, Jonathan, it was slow going, wasn't it?

JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT, CNN SUNDAY: Very slow going. And things opened up just before the state line. We are about 10 miles on the Mississippi side now, and it's stop-and-go traffic again. A sheriff cruiser just passed us going very quickly on the shoulder and we're guessing -- we heard sirens earlier. We're guessing that perhaps there is some kind of an accident up ahead, although we can't see for sure. But we're back in that stop-and-go traffic again, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And when you look around at some of the vehicles, does it appear as though, you know, you're dealing with a lot of tourists, or, does it look like they are packed to the gills of residents who have been making their way out?

FREED: No, I'm seeing only Louisiana plates around me here. And most of the people that we've been are seeing very clearly locals that have heeded the warnings and are just getting out of town.

You see people making sandwiches, with what they have, and passing food around in their cars. And, just odds and ends, everything from beach bags, stuffed with whatever people could carry. I'm looking at a car right now that has a loaf of bread in a plastic box sitting on the front dashboard. People are just doing what they can to deal with this traffic.

WHITFIELD: And so Jonathan, before I let you go, give me a sense time-wise, approximately how long it took you to get from New Orleans to where you are in Biloxi area, now versus on an ordinary day what that commute would be?

FREED: I would say that right now, we are probably, probably at least 40 miles from Biloxi, so, we're roughly halfway.

WHITFIELD: It took you about how long to get to that point?

FREED: We left downtown at 11:30 this morning Central Time, and it is now about 10 after 5 Central Time. It has been a very long day. And it's been very interesting to experience the evacuation experience that everybody is going through.

And I'm really quite amazed at how calm everybody is around us. People are not ducking back and forth trying to change lanes the way people often do in traffic, becoming impatient. People have just resigned themselves to this situation. And I think they are content to simply be this far out of the city, because the alternative is quite frightening, as we've been reporting.

WHITFIELD: All right. A tenuous six-hour commute our of New Orleans, heading east. And you're close to an area that is still considered to be within the path of Hurricane Katrina so, not quite out of the woods in terms of what an evacuee would need to know.

WHITFIELD: All right. Well straight ahead, President Bush has a warning and a pledge for those in the path of Hurricane Katrina. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Welcome back to our continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Biloxi, Mississippi is among those Gulf Coastal cities that is apparently in the path of Katrina. The mayor, A.J. Holloway, the mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi, is beachside right now.

And you are preparing for this Category 5 storm? How does it look out there right now to you?

A.J. HOLLOWAY, MAYOR, BILOXI, MS.: Well, it's kind of calm right now. A little bit of drizzle rain. And the wind is picking up just a little bit, not anything to extreme right now. We expect that to begin picking up in the near 6, 7 o'clock this evening and continue to pick on up for the rest of the time until it peaks about 6 o'clock or 6 a.m. in the morning.

WHITFIELD: And you are among the cities that have mandatory evacuation in order. Have the majority there in Biloxi heeded that?

HOLLOWAY: We have a mandatory evacuation. We don't exactly know the number of the people that have left, but quite a few of them have, riding around the town and looking. We, are particularly concerned about Biloxi's peninsula. And we are particularly concerned about the people on the east end, the tip of the peninsula, that they have got to get out of there and get to higher ground and to safety.

This is a terrible hurricane, a huge storm that's coming, and we certainly want to -- our number one goal is to protect the lives of our citizens.

WHITFIELD: Mayor, how concerned are you that are large number of citizens that people who have made their way out of New Orleans, heading east on I-10, who are heading toward your city, are hoping perhaps that they can find safe ground there. How do you convey to them that they need to either keep going or find some other means -- or shelter -- once they get there around the time of the storm?

HOLLOWAY: I think that most of the people that are coming through here are coming from Louisiana. And they are familiar with the city of Biloxi. And I don't think they will be stopping looking for safe ground in the city of Biloxi. We have evacuated all the hotels and motels and casinos in our city. So, there's not any room at the inn, so to speak.

WHITFIELD: You remember, apparently, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and Camille, devastating storm in 1969.

HOLLOWAY: Yes?

WHITFIELD: What do you remember about that storm, and are you already starting to feel some sort of flashbacks from that?

HOLLOWAY: With Betsy I was a little bit young, but I was in my early 20s when Camille came through. I can remember Camille very vividly. We lost 200 people on the coast. We certainly don't want to see that happen again. This storm is a killer storm, and it will probably kill again before it is over with. But we hope that people heeding the advice that we have given, and getting out -- mandatory evacuation, and we have a curfew coming in at 9 o'clock. So, we hope that people will -- that haven't left, please do. And those who have no other place to go, to go to one of the shelters that we have open.

WHITFIELD: All right, Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi, Mississippi, thanks so much. And we wish you the best as you ride out the storm there.

HOLLOWAY: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Thanks so much.

HOLLOWAY: Yes, well, thank you very much.

WHITFIELD: Mandatory evacuations, as you heard from the mayor there, in Biloxi, Mississippi. The same applies to New Orleans, Louisiana. However, there are about 100,000 people in New Orleans who don't have the transportation to try to get out. And that's why the Superdome, the home of the New Orleans Saints, has been now been opened to many of the people who are stranded. Already 10,000 people inside, and John Zarrella is outside the Superdome where the lines are very long. Still about 2,000? More, or less?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT, CNN SUNDAY: I guess a few less because the line has actually moved a bit. It has crawled along. You see right behind us, here's the end of the line, at least here on the first floor. The second floor line, still winds all the way up there, and then on up and around over the catwalk. And continue to follow that up and in. So, probably close to 2,000 people, Fredricka, here in the line to get into the Superdome.

And again, this is really the refuge of last resort here. You have special needs people who are getting in on the other side. And on this side are just all of the folks who had no other place to go, no way to get out of the city. And this is it. This is where they are going to ride out this Hurricane Katrina.

I wanted to talk to a couple of them over here. First, Officer Green, how long have you been in line here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe five hours.

ZARRELLA: Five hours. Who is with you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My family, my kids. My knew friend, that I just met.

ZARRELLA: She's from France -- from Canada, I understand, right? And you are French teacher?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, a French teacher, elementary school.

ZARRELLA: And you just moved here, and just got an apartment, new furniture, and it's on the first floor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything on first floor. So, I -- life is more important than the furniture and all that stuff, you know, so.

ZARRELLA: Now, officer, why did you decide to come here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I was calling for shelter, they told me that the Superdome was the shelter. We didn't want to stay home.

ZARRELLA: What about leaving? You didn't think about getting out of the city with your family?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not really. Too much traffic, you know?

ZARRELLA: Bill, how about you? You've been here for how long?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five hours, same thing.

ZARRELLA: Five hours. Why did you guys decide to stay, just to come here instead of trying to get out of the city?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I just came back from New Jersey on the Greyhound. OK? And then when I get back to town, this is when this is hitting and now I'm stuck here. I live in Slidell.

ZARRELLA: So, you really had no way to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't have no way to get out, right now. So that's why I'm here.

ZARRELLA: Same for you, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

ZARRELLA: It's a tough situation?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it is. No water, you know, no restrooms, no convenience for you, at all. And it's hard.

ZARRELLA: It's difficult for everyone here. The city is doing the best they can in what is obviously a really, really difficult and unprecedented situation.

Look at the cloud formations behind us now. You can see some of these first thunderstorms beginning to roll in. Really impressive storm clouds, the outer bands of Katrina beginning to move in over the city. We're seeing some of the rain come down now.

No wind at this point, Fredricka, but just a lot of steady rain, and those clouds, those ominous cloud, a foreshadowing of what we can expect here for the next 24 or so hours, as the storm moves closer to us. And then, perhaps over us, the eye wall, very close, if not right on top of us.

These people are all going to have to ride it out here. As we mentioned before, you know, there's no real science or engineering that says that the Superdome is going to withstand this storm. They believe it will. They do believe that the first floor, down on field level, where the field is, that could very well be under water. So, the people are all going to be up in the bleachers.

And you can see a lot of them bringing their supplies. They have coolers here. They're bringing clothing and bedding and anything that they possibly can carry with them.

But one final thought, what they are doing is going through everybody's bags and they have found alcohol. And they have found firearms. So, that is why, Fredricka, the line is taking so long to get in, as they go through everybody's personal belongings before they allow them in -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: So, John, you talk about no one inside the Superdome allowed in the field area because it will likely be flooded. What are the concerns about the loss of electricity, the loss of any kind of means of air conditioning for these -- what could be upwards of 12 ,000 people -- inside the Superdome. Are there generators or other kind of measures?

ZARRELLA: Yes, there are generators. Whether they will continue to work in the storm, after the storm, that's another story. And they do not know the answer. You're right, it could be very, very hot in there.

WHITFIELD: Wow. All right. John Zarrella outside the Superdome, there in New Orleans. More of our continuing coverage ahead.

Plus, President Bush already putting measures into place in the case of a hit from Hurricane Katrina.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Safety first, that's what President Bush is cautioning residents in Katrina's path to be mindful of, and he's pledging federal resources to help hurricane victims recover. CNN White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is outside the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas -- Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Bush has been receiving updates at his Crawford ranch today from federal, as well as state officials about the developments of this hurricane. The president of course urging residents, saying, look, if you need to seek higher ground, do so. Get out, follow orders.

He also pledged, as well, to make sure the federal government will do everything in its power to provide resources for those that are most effected by this colossal storm. The president, this morning, was making calls. He called the four governors of the states that are expected to get the worst of this hurricane.

He also, about noon Eastern, made a video teleconference call, participating in that, talking about preparation and response to this hurricane with state as well as federal emergency officials, those from FEMA, Homeland Security, looking at a map for what is the possible devastation, the area affected, and then that morning, he issued this warning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Katrina is now designated a Category 5 hurricane. We cannot stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf Coast communities. I urge all citizens to put their own safety and the of their families first by moving to safe ground. Please listen carefully to instructions provided by state and local officials. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And, Fred, in a rare move, of course, before the hurricane even hits he declared states of emergencies in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, disaster in Florida, that to make sure that federal aid, that there are no delays in getting that money to the states that need it the most.

Now as far as the president's schedule, he's expected to travel to Arizona and California in the next couple of days. He's going to be talking about Medicare. He is also going to be attending a World War II commemoration ceremony. But if there is any change in the schedule, of course, we will let you know the updates on that -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Suzanne Malveaux, in Crawford, Texas. Thanks so much.

After Katrina makes landfall, it could take weeks for cities and towns to see power and water services restored. And as the president has promised, FEMA and other emergency teams are standing by ready to spring into action to help victims of the hurricane. Our Gary Nurenburg is at FEMA headquarters in Washington -- Gary?

GARY NURENBERG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well for days, Fredricka, officials here at FEMA's national headquarters have been urging those in the path of the hurricane to evacuate and get out of town. Today, some who took that advice ended up here in Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NURENBERG (voice over): Some of Katrina's refugees arrived at a Washington airport at mid afternoon, after a scramble to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very crowded. Lots of people, not that many flights.

NURENBERG: To make it, one evacuee paid a cabbie 100 bucks for a ride to the airport, and ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Left my hotel about 3 o'clock this morning.

NURENBERG: They know it will be bad, and worry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Losing my house, everything in it, you know, everything I've worked for.

NURENBERG: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been working for years to prepare for a storm like this. At the agency's Washington headquarters, participants in FEMA's mid-day video conference among primary agencies preparing for the storm, were told when it comes to evacuation, quote, "People are already running out of time."

The biggest obstacle to getting ready?

MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA UNDER SECRETARY: Primarily making sure that as many people as possible get out of the way of the storm. The more people that are in the way of the storm, the more potential they have of becoming a disaster victim.

NURENBERG: President Bush took part from Crawford.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with -- with the loss of property. And we pray for no loss of life, of course.

How likely you can escape this without any loss of life?

MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA UNDER SECRETARY: Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to be reasonable.

NURENBERG: FEMA's National Response Coordination Center has been preparing 24 hours a day since midweek, moving staff and resources to preselected staging areas where stores of emergency medical supplies, construction materials, food and water await dispersal to the hardest hit areas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NURENBERG: Urban search and rescue teams from the midwest and New York have been brought in. The official feel something that unfortunately, those are skills that will be needed before this one is over -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Gary Nurenberg, thank you so much. Out of Washington FEMA headquarters.

We want to show you a picture right now of just what it looks like in the New Orleans, Louisiana area. You're looking at Lake Pontchartrain, which is a very significant lake there in Louisiana. It is one of the largest estuaries in the United States. These live pictures coming from our affiliate WVU.

You are seeing the wind kicking up very choppy waters, as well as the trees that are blowing. 1.5 million people, a third of Louisiana's entire population lives around the Lake Pontchartrain basin.

So, while this entire area has a mandatory evacuation in affect, warnings are coming from those specialists that it is likely that areas around Lake Pontchartrain are going to experience some significant flooding once Hurricane Katrina makes its way. The wind gusts right are 24 miles per hour.

More of our continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Well, welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. As we continue our continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina, a look at other news now in the news.

After several delays, Iraq's constitutional committee has delivered a final draft constitution to Iraq's national assembly. Sunni negotiators still object to key provisions, but Iraqis will vote on a charter in a referendum dated for October 15.

A suicide bomber blew himself today at a bus station in Southern Israel. 21 people were injured, two of them seriously. Two Palestinian militant groups have claimed responsibility. It is the first suicide attack since Israel withdrew Jewish settlers from Gaza and the West Bank.

And you were looking for good news about gas prices, well, keep looking. Nationwide today, the price at the bump is the highest ever, again, the fourth record high this year. Coast to coast average, $2.63. Prices may level off a bit over the Labor Day weekend. Small comfort, however.

Now back to our top story, Hurricane Katrina. This extremely powerful storm is zeroing in on the southeast cost of Louisiana, and New Orleans lies directly in its path. For the latest information now, let's turn to meteorologist Jacqui Jeras who is in the weather center -- Jacqui.

JERAS: Fredricka, conditions are deteriorating now. We've seen some of the live pictures with the clouds rolling in, the thunderstorms are rolling in. And those winds are starting to pick up. We still haven't quite gotten to tropical storm force strength. We think that's going to be happening over the next couple of hours.

This is enormous, enormous storm here, more than 400 miles wide. The hurricane force winds extend out more than 100 miles from the center of this storm, so that's 200 mile wide. The winds are 165 miles per hour. But still, some stronger gusts than that being reported.

Let's go ahead and show you on our radar picture, there's the eye, the center of circulation here. There are the thunderstorms on New Orleans. We are going to put a distance tracker on this for you. Since our latest advisory was 4:00 Central time, and the storm is obviously gotten closer since then, approximately, 190 miles away from New Orleans.

It is moving on a northwesterly track. But it is expected to be pulling a little bit farther up to the north as we progress through the evening and overnight hours for tonight.

There you can see some of the thunderstorms, strongest right along the coastal areas. And here are some of the wind reports. Out of Grand Isle, 25 miles per hour, 21 up in New Orleans.

Our meteorologist Dave Hennan (ph) running the true view system here for us, our Titan radar -- 30 miles per hour, 12 miles per hour over at Homa. So, we're looking at those winds starting to increase. We've seen gusts at times between 20 and 40 miles per hour, mostly just from those thunderstorm. gusts. We've had very little in way of tornadoes so far, but a tornado watch has just been issued about an hour or so ago. It includes much of Eastern Louisiana, into Mississippi, Alabama and even into the Florida panhandle. Very common to get weak tornadoes in tropical systems like this.

Storm surge: We've been talking a lot about that today. Forecast storm surge with Katrina is somewhere between 18 and 22 feet, could go as high as 28. If it does that, it would be the highest in recorded history in the U.S.

This is a map that kind of details of what we are anticipating the storm surge to be across the region. And remember, it is going to be worse just to the east of the center. But we're still going to be seeing significant storm surge all the way through the Florida Panhandle, even possibly into the big bend.

Take a look at that, Pensacola, 10 to 12 foot storm surge, into Mobile Bay 12 to 20 feet will be possible, even extending over towards Lake Charles area, getting close to 6 to 12 foot storm surge. So, that is very significant. That's that big wall of water that makes its way on shore.

Forecast track, no changes here. Right on target. Of course, it could go a little west, could go a little east. And that will make a big difference as to what happens to New Orleans. But right now, it looks extremely, extremely devastating.

And we are now talking about massive damage. Well-built homes may be leveled unless this storm weakens very significantly. 165, down from 175, but not a whole heck of a lot difference there.

And one other thing to talk about, Fredricka, is once this thing moves inland, we are still going to see the hurricane force winds about 100 miles, at least, inland this is still expected to be a category 4 once it gets close to Mississippi, believe it or not.

By the time we get into Tuesday into Wednesday, we are going to see this storm in the Ohio Valley, and there may be some flooding too, 4 to 8 inches. So, if you are sitting at home in Cleveland, and you think, oh, Katrina is not going to effect me, you bet your bottom dollar it will.

Back to you, Fred.

WHITFIELD: And Jacqui, when you talk about this storm, if it were to weaken significantly, maybe some of those structures would stand a chance. But what are the chances that it would weaken that significantly?

JERAS: Well, we typically see changes and fluctuation in a storm like this. And when it was up at 175, it is very hard to maintain a storm like that that strong. I don't expect -- there's nothing environmentally right now to weaken this storm at all. In fact, it is moving towards warmer water, and the water is the big engine that drives these things. I don't see this dropping below major hurricane status.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jacqui Jeras in the weather center. Thank you so much.

Ordinarily we see Rob Marciano in the weather center. This time, we're checking in with him in Biloxi Mississippi, because a number of people from as far west as New Orleans, and as far east as Biloxi, Mississippi are expecting to feel the storm what do you see right now, Rob? What are you experiencing right now?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, the main problem with this storm, Fredricka, as you're implying, is the size of it. I mean, we've had major hurricanes come on shore, like Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Camille in this part of the country, but the size of those hurricanes, although strong, were smaller than this storm which seems encompass the entire Gulf of Mexico as it heads this way.

We are in Biloxi, Mississippi. This area is no stranger to hurricanes. Just down the road, Hurricane Camille came ashore in 1969 -- in August of 1969, killing over 200 people with winds near 200 miles an hour.

Officials here say that evacuations are going relatively smoothly. There is some apathy. But when that happens, they remind them of 1969.

There have been changes in the laws here. If there's a mandatory evacuation and you don't evacuate, the law can come in and physically remove you from your site and get you out of there. Or, they can have you sign a release form, and that release form, they will warn you will also be used to identify your body later on.

So, they're taking this very seriously. And a lot of folks here remember vividly back to '69.

It's an area very dependent on tourism. Behind me, you see one of the many casinos that line the beach here. The hotels can be on solid land, but all the casinos here -- the Mississippi state law -- have to be out over the water. So, they are tied down, via moorings. And it's very possible that if we get a serious storm surge here, some of those casinos could actually break away from their moorings and start flowing down the beach and maybe out to see.

We are along the boardwalk. The beach pretty narrow. And then the Gulf of Mexico just at my feet. Very calm tonight, very small breakers. Maybe 10, 12 inches breakers coming in. But see the clouds behind it.

Storm surge expected here, 10 to 15 feet. That means we're getting out of here, Very soon, likely around 10:00 -- 10:00, 11:00 tonight, we're going to pack up our gear and head a little bit further inland across the causeway, across Biloxi Bay and get to a safer spot, as this thing looks like to be serious business, Fredricka. A category 4 or 5 storm in this area. They've seen it the past. They remember it. They're taking things seriously, as well they should. Right now, I should say, the current weather conditions, pretty tranquil. You see, not big surf, not big wind. There are squall lines that are coming through as feeder bands start to wind their way around this system. Back up to you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Rob Marciano, thanks so much. And let's hope that those people walking the beach there will heed some of those warnings and seek higher ground. 10 to 15 foot storm surges, that's pretty significant. Thanks so much.

Straight ahead, the geography of New Orleans is made for disaster. We'll show you why straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: The latest now on Hurricane Katrina. It is still a ferocious category 5 storm with 165 mile an hour winds. It's eye is about 150 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The storm is expected to make landfall in southeast Louisiana tomorrow morning. Forecasters predict New Orleans will get hit in the afternoon. Mandatory evacuations are right now in effect. And thousands of people are seen leaving. You're looking at some of the highways that are clogged, jammed with people, all heading in one direction, out of the city. Officials say a storm of this strength could create a 28 foot storm surge in New Orleans alone, completely inundating the city with water.

President Bush has declared both Louisiana and Mississippi disaster areas. And today, he urged anyone in the storm's path to move to higher, safer ground.

Katrina's dire statistics have prompted President Bush to declare a state of emergency for Louisiana while the storm was still far from shore. The city of New Orleans is six feet below sea level. And CNN's John Zarrella reports the threat of a direct hit is chilling.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New Orleans is all about attitude. From its music to its streetcars and river boats, it oozes charm. It's a city that moves a bit slower, saving its energy to party a little harder. It is also a city that flirts with disaster nearly every hurricane season.

DR. WALTER MAESTRI, JEFFERSON PARISH EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: It's going to happen, you know. We can't continue to beat the odd. We've beaten the odds for a long, long time now.

ZARRELLA: Walter Maestri is the Jefferson Parish emergency manager. Of the 1.3 million people living in metropolitan New Orleans, he is responsible for nearly half a million, which during hurricane season leaves him with many sleepless nights. Maestri is keenly aware there is little he can do to keep people from falling victim to a natural disaster or to save his city.

MAESTRI: Very, very rapidly, within a 10-hour period, you know, the metropolitan New Orleans area is totally devastated, gone.

ZARRELLA: Several expert studies and computer models show New Orleans even more vulnerable than anyone previously thought. Maestri says levees and flood walls designed to protect the city from moderately-intense hurricanes might be overtopped and fail in just such storms.

MAESTRI: The way it's described, we describe it here is, Lake Pontchartrain has now become Lake New Orleans.

ZARRELLA: Maestri estimates most of the dead would be people for whatever reason did not or could not evacuate, left trapped in the city as the water rises. The problem is, population has mushroomed. Evacuation routes are limited.

And New Orleans is like a bowl. The city sits below sea level. On three sides, there's water: the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi River.

(on camera): The experts say, in a major hurricane, the water here in the French Quarter could be up to the nose of Andrew Jackson's horse, or as high as the second-story windows on the cathedral behind it.

(voice-over): Jackson Square, the cathedral, and just about everything else in New Orleans would be under water -- 12 to 15 feet of it. In the storm's aftermath, water would sit in the city for an estimated six months. Pumps needed to get the water out would be, themselves, under water.

MAESTRI: This is the one agency in government that not only is allowed to pray, it's demanded. We've got calluses on our knees in this business.

ZARRELLA: Divine intervention, good fortune, the winds of nature: whatever it is, it is all that separates this city on the Mississippi from Walter Maestri's nightmare.

John Zarrella, CNN, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFEILD: Straight ahead, the casinos along the Gulf coast are not a safe bet right now. Find out what those who make their living from gambling are doing as Katrina bears down.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Many of you are adding to our hurricane coverage by sending in your own photos and video of the storm when Hurricane Katrina blew through South Florida on Thursday. Here are some of the images that you viewers sent in.

Bruce Gilling (ph) snapped this shot of a sunken boat in Miami. And Jim, also from Miami, also sent in this photo of a plane that was completely flipped over from the storm's strong winds. If you'd would like to be a citizen journalist, log onto to CNN.com/stories. Please include your name, location and your phone number with your photos or video. But remember, your first priority when taking some of these pictures of the hurricane should be your own safety.

As Hurricane Katrina nears, people along the central Gulf coast are trying to get out of harm's way. Many residents who make their living on the water aren't taking any chances. Casinos in the coastal city of Biloxi, Mississippi are usually packed with tourists. Not today. Their mostly shut down. More now from Leon Petite of affiliate PMI.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEON PETITE, PMI CORRESPONDENT: Tourists came to Biloxi this week looking to gamble. But they are not willing to bet on a hurricane. Folks in Gulf Port and Biloxi are cashing in their chips and getting out of town.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're leaving. We packing up and leaving out of here tonight or in the morning, right Lis?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. In the morning at 11:00.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I been through Camille. So, we not going through another one.

PETITE: For people who live and work in Biloxi, the stakes are much higher.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm nervous. I would like it to like it skip across -- just keep going, because of the fact this is my job, you know, and I've only been here for two years. And, you know, my insurance is fixing to kick in in about a week. And I do not want it to blow the boat away. I don't want anybody -- no casinos getting blown away, because these are people's jobs.

PETITE: Where the storm will make landfall remains a crap shoot. The only sure bet so board up and leave.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are in full preparation. We are preparing for the worst, and of course hoping for the best. But we are getting a lot of the things out of our fort, the building in front of our boat, get everything off the floor. We're making arrangements to get all of our cash off the boat before we close.

PETITE: The last major hurricane to directly hit this portion of Mississippi was nearly 20 years ago. Hurricane Elena, a category three storm, hit Biloxi in September 1985.

In Biloxi, Leon Petite, NBC 15 News.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: Stay with CNN as we continue our coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I'll speak with Gulf coast resident determined to ride out the storm.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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