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Hurricane Katrina Batters Gulf Coast

Aired August 29, 2005 - 06:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, AMERICAN MORNING: The story that is breaking at this hour, Hurricane Katrina, the monster storm bearing down on New Orleans, coastal Mississippi and coastal Alabama. Katrina downgraded during the night, but she is still a very dangerous storm. Right now about 75 miles south-southeast of New Orleans. You are looking at a live picture. If we can show that. We have reporters live for us all along the Gulf Coast. They are in New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama. Miles O'Brien is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It is about 70 miles north of New Orleans.
Miles, good morning.


This is the nightmare scenario that many people have been talking about for so many years. The city of New Orleans, largely below sea level, protected by levies and pumps, now apparently headed for a direct hit with a very powerful hurricane, Category 4, borderline Category 5. Katrina with very strong winds; a very potentially devastating situation.

Massive evacuations, for the first time in history the city of New Orleans under a mandatory evacuation. And a good portion of the 1.6 million people in the metropolitan area have made their way to higher ground. We are in higher ground as well. We are all of 40 feet above sea level here. In Baton Rouge, where there is less concern than there is in New Orleans, but nevertheless, within 100 miles of the eye of Katrina, in very short order, we should be feeling hurricane force winds. So this is nothing to trifle with here, either.

CNN's Chad Myers is in the weather center. He's been watching this all night for us. Chad, what's the latest on Katrina?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST, AMERICAN MORNING: The latest is in from the Hurricane Center, here, I have some coordinates for you. A lot of you do track it at home: 28.9 north, and 89.6 west. That's about 35 miles south-southeast of Grande Isle, Louisiana.

Grande Isle, you are about to really get in it now, although you are still on the easy side, if there is such a thing. The winds there just gusted to 114 m.p.h. If you are on the other side, or the bad side of the eye, the winds there could be 130. Just nothing right there to measure it, yet. The storm is now, the eye wall coming on what we call the area, here, the land of Louisiana. Although you have to use that very sparingly because most of it is just swamp. That does not mean landfall. The official forecast for landfall happens when the center of the eye moves overland. That has not happened yet. But with the eye wall coming on shore and very, very heavy squalls, very close to Venice, winds there could be gusting to 125 at this point, as the storm is still that borderline Category 4, Category 5 storm.

Here it is. It was making a line right at New Orleans, on the east side, and Baton Rouge on the west side. It should have, if it didn't turn, moved right through the area where our reporters are. But in the overnight hours the storm turned a few degrees, probably 10 degrees there, and the shift now taking the storm farther to the north. Which means Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, you are now more in the dangerous part than you were yesterday, as that is where I expect the eye to continue. I expect the eye to move east of New Orleans.

Maybe New Orleans gets the western eye wall, which mean winds there could still gust to 120, 125. But you're not going to get the 155 eastern eye wall, unless it turns back to the left. Not expecting that, but these things wobble all the time. Here's the storm as it moves on up. Right there, all the way from about the Louisiana/Mississippi line over to Mobile, especially Base St. Louis (ph), Pastchristian (ph), over to Mobile, even into Pensacola. You guys are under the gun for the most dangerous part of this storm, as it rolls on shore this morning.

Still probably a couple hours from official, what we would call landfall, or swampfall, if you will, down here. And then another landfall up here that will happen later on this afternoon into Mississippi, possibly Alabama -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Chad Myers. Appreciate that. They don't call it the cone of uncertainty for nothing. As Chad just pointed out, even at this late stage, little wobbles and Katrina can make significant difference in what the impact will be in these parts of the Gulf shores. If, in fact, New Orleans is on the -- the eye goes to the east of New Orleans, that could be good news for the city. That might mean less flooding potentially. Very difficult to say right now.

But as you also heard Chad say, those cities to the east of New Orleans, right now, perhaps going to get more of the brunt than they had anticipated just a few hours ago. CNN weather department, Meteorologist Rob Marciano is in Biloxi, Mississippi with more on that part of the story -- Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLGIST, AMERICAN MORNING: Hi, Miles. We've moved ourselves from -- last night we were on the beach -- not a place to be, obviously, when the storm surge comes in. So we're about or six miles north of the beach, just north of I-10, which sits over my shoulder.

The wind all, now, is coming in this direction, directly out of the east, paralleling I-10. The center of the storm puts it in that direction right over my shoulder. And you can see how the wind-driven rains are scooting just past the lights. Which, we'd like to point out, there is still electricity here. We've easily seen winds gust over 40 and 50 m.p.h. throughout the morning. And obviously that is going to continue to increase.

As this thing jogs a little bit to the east, even though it is only a Category 4 storm, the farther to east it jogs the better news it is for New Orleans, the worse news it is for Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. Two towns that were devastated by Hurricane Camille back in 1969. At this point it looks like, thankfully, at least here it won't come ashore as a Category 5, but certainly we'll have damaging winds in the Category 4 -- uh, category.

So, folks aren't looking forward to that. But right now not too bad, Miles. I would expect things to continue to go downhill. Landfall in this area, likely to be closer to 10, 11, maybe even noon time. So, we're just beginning the ride here in Biloxi, Mississippi.

We're trying to gather some information for you as far as what's been on going around southern Mississippi for the past couple of hours. It is a little bit sparse right now. But we'll try to get that information for you as we go on throughout the morning. We'll report on the casinos. Maybe get a report out of Keesler Air Force Base. See what the hurricane hunters are doing down there. They're based right here, ironically enough.

So that is the latest from Biloxi, Mississippi, Miles. Five to six miles off the beach. We don't want to be a part of any of that storm surge, but we're certainly going to banged around with quite a bit of wind throughout the morning and throughout the rest of the afternoon.

M. O'BRIEN: Rob, in Biloxi, have you seen much evidence of people? Did everybody heed the warnings? Obviously, it is very early in the morning, but are they out looking at the surf or anything like that? Or are people pretty much hunkered down?

MARCIANO: Yes, I haven't seen much in the way of -- the only -- one vehicle just passed by. It was a police officer. When we were down at the coast last night there were some people goofing off, but the authorities down there gave them a pretty stern talking to and go them out. So, at least as of last night it looked like people were certainly heeding the warning and this morning there is no sign of life on the street.

And right now, as far as where we are, we're pretty protected or we can be. And we can shift around a pretty secure building as the storm makes its turn and as those winds begin to shift around. So we're not going to be out goofing around in the storm, either. We'll take all the precautions necessary to bring it to you in a safe manner.

M. O'BRIEN: Worth pointing out to our viewers, we're not goofing around. We're just trying to tell the story and all of this is a calculated risk. Let's get close to the action and the concern, the city of New Orleans. A city that I was in yesterday and was talking with John Zarrella, who we are about to hear from about how best to cover a storm from there when you are talking about a entire downtown area that is below sea level. John joining us from the hotel, right now, where we were yesterday.

John, what are you seeing so far? And where are you?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're actually up on the 10th floor of the hotel right now, looking out a window. And you can see the sheets of rain just sliding down the sides of these towering hotels here in the center of the city, in the French Quarter.

The American flag is being whipped around. The trees down below us, on the street level, there are some that are bending. No cars, no people, fortunately, on the streets right now. The rain is really beginning to pound against the windows here. So, in the last hour the situation has certainly gone down hill, as far as the weather conditions here in the downtown area, in the French Quarter area.

And that rain getting heavier and heavier and the wind picking up. You can see it just rolling through in sheets every few minutes. Then is subsides for a few minutes, then it comes back again as another one of those strong rain bands and squalls comes through.

Now, many of the people who could not get out of New Orleans, there are about 100,000 they say, who just physically just do not have the wherewithal, the means to get out, spent -- have been spending the night inside the Louisiana Superdome.

They were in the Superdome; got in yesterday about 12,000 to 15,000 had all made it into the Superdome. It took about six hours for a lot of those people to get in, as the authorities went through and checked backpacks and check all of the belongings that the folks were bringing in. And in fact they did confiscate alcohol and in a couple of cases firearms that people were trying to bring in, those people who were going to be staying there.

Right now, with Katrina at a 4, and perhaps maybe sliding a bit to the east of the city, that is still going to potentially, with counter-clockwise rotation, bring a tremendous amount of water up and into Lake Pontchartrain. And then over the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, and out through that hurricane protection levy that surrounds the city, perhaps overtopping the levy, which is only designed for a Category 3 hurricane. So the potential exists, still, for some terrible flooding here in the city of New Orleans.

Now, the reason it is designed for a Category 3 goes back to 1965, Hurricane Betsy, which actually hit this city as a Category 3 storm; some tremendous flooding in the city of New Orleans from Hurricane Betsy, which killed more than 50 people here in the city. And Betsy was the reason why they decided to build that hurricane protection barrier around the city of New Orleans.

But again, Miles, as you know, six feet below sea level, the city. And you put 10-15 feet -- 10 more feet of water on that then it is certainly possible that the levy is breached or overtopped. That you could see in some areas in excess of 15 feet of water in the city. That's still a real possibility here -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's John Zarrella in downtown New Orleans.

Not since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when it barreled through Miami and southern Florida, has a storm threatened a metropolitan area as much as this one. Katrina bearing the brunt on New Orleans, while there is good news report, maybe a slight shift to the east, still a very strong storm headed right for a very low-laying, susceptible city -- Soledad?

S. O'BRIEN: Let's get more on this now, Miles. Thanks.

Richard Knabb is a hurricane specialist. He's at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Richard, good morning. Thanks for being with us.


S. O'BRIEN: We heard Chad describe Katrina as wobbling and shifting. Give us the when and the where. When is landfall? Where is landfall, as far as you know, from your models right now?

KNABB: Right now the hurricane is moving generally toward the north at about 15 m.p.h. and it's just to the east of Grande Isle, Louisiana. So the eye wall is actually on shore in extreme southeastern Louisiana. And during the morning hours is going to pass near or over New Orleans. And then by mid-day early afternoon, we think the eye of the hurricane will be generally of the vicinity of the border between Louisiana and Mississippi.

But as you say, hurricanes can wobble quite a bit as they are making landfall. So we can't be too exact on where the center is going to go, but it certainly is going to bring hurricane force winds to New Orleans. We're already seeing reports of wind gusts of hurricane force there. And the center could pass directly over or just to the east, perhaps, of the city.

And we're also very concerned about a potential very high storm surge on the coast of Mississippi. Perhaps storm surges that could overtop the levies, as John mentioned, in New Orleans.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, we'll talk a little bit more about that in just a moment. A Category 4 storm, it has been downgraded from Category 5. But, of course, downgraded is sort of a strange word to use, because Category 4 is incredibly strong. What kind of damage could this storm do when it hits a low-laying city New Orleans?

KNABB: Any Category 4 hurricane has the potential of causing extreme damage. Hurricane Charley last year was a Category 4 hurricane at landfall. This is a larger hurricane and this is impacting an area that is a little more susceptible to the impacts of storm surge. And so we could see storm surge values of 18 to 22 feet. Perhaps on the Mississippi Coast we could see values as high as 28 feet. And if the levies are overtopped, surrounding New Orleans, then we could see several feet of water inside the city as well.

S. O'BRIEN: In fact, that is what John was talking about, those levies being overtopped. Now, the levy is, I believe, 17 feet high. So how likely is it that the storm surge, in fact, is going to overtop those levies.

KNABB: I'm told I have about 30 seconds here, but I can answer that questions. We think it is going to be very close. That the storm surge values are going to be very comparable to what -- to the height of many of the levies. So it is still very possible that the water could overtop some of those levies and cause flooding inside the levy protection system.

S. O'BRIEN: Before I let you go, I know you have a few seconds left, the high winds. This could be another humongous problem, of course. I mean, some people are predicting that there are many, many homes that could be wiped out just by the winds.

KNABB: Yes, that's very true. Winds could extensive damage with this hurricane.

S. O'BRIEN: Richard Knabb is a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

Richard, of course, we're going to continue to check in with you throughout the morning. Thanks for your time this morning.

A short break, we're back in a moment. You are watching a little special coverage, early coverage from AMERICAN MORNING. We are covering the storm, Katrina, a Category 4, as it begins to come on land. We're going to follow it throughout the morning and the afternoon as well. Stay with us. A short break and we're back in a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: Hello, welcome back. I'm Miles O'Brien reporting live from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which relatively speaking is high ground. We're 40 feet above sea level. Where I stand right now and the effects of Katrina being felt as those early so-called feeder bands of rain and winds start to come in, but no where tropical storm level, much less hurricane levels just yet.

Having said that, given the strength of this storm and the size of this storm, it is very likely that hurricane force winds will extend 100 mile radius beyond the eye.

We've been telling you, just a few moments ago, that the storm is wobbling a little bit right now. Headed a little bit more to the right than it was, prior. It was headed straight for the city of New Orleans, which of course sits very low, below sea level and was of great concern. Any wobble to the right is good news for New Orleans, but of course, brings bad news elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. CNN's Gary Tuchman is in our Hurricane One mobile unit. He's traveling southwest from Gulf Shores, and Gulfport, Mississippi, I believe. Heading basically in this direction and he'll be checking in all throughout the route -- Gary?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Conditions have deteriorated very quickly. Hurricane One, is our vehicle that permits us to go live during a hurricane. It's the same technology we used during the beginning of the Iraq war. When the military vehicles are rolling across the desert, it allowed us to go live while we moved. And that is what we're doing right now.

The sun hasn't come up yet, but here, right now, the conditions in Gulfport, Mississippi have deteriorated rapidly. The road that we're on right now, this is U.S. 90, along the beach. There's flooding. We want to give you a shot right outside the front window, driving the car is our producer Chris Hern (ph), our engineer, Khadani (ph), is right here.

You are getting a look right out the front window right now. We just had to turn this vehicle around because the roads have already flooded here at 5:20 in the morning, local time. You can tell already, hours before the eye is supposed to come close here to Gulfport, Mississippi, that this is going to be a very dangerous situation.

There is a mandatory evacuation in place right now in the area. The beach, just to our right; 71,000 people live in this city of Gulfport, Mississippi. There are 10 casinos along the beach here in this city of Gulfport. In Biloxi, which is about 15 miles to our east, and in Bay St. Louis, which is about 10 miles to our west, all the casinos were shut down yesterday. It is not clear when they'll reopen. Obviously, it is not clear if they'll survive this powerful Category 4 hurricane.

But we'll be in this vehicle, Hurricane One, all day driving as safely as we can. Obviously, we are going to be prudent. We all in this car, at least, have family members who love us and care about us and don't want us to do anything too dangerous. But right, this gives you an idea of what's going on here in this area. Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: That's Gary Tuchman in Hurricane One, who will make his way along the coast, going from east to west, headed in the general direction of where I stand right now, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

A lot of the reason we're here in Baton Rouge is, quite frankly, we weren't certain we could continue broadcasting in New Orleans all throughout this storm, given the possibility of significant flooding there. And at 40 feet above sea level there is less of a concern here. But having said that, the Mississippi goes right through Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And Anderson Cooper is right on the banks of that river and it is already showing some signs of swelling quite a bit -- Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Miles, just in the last 30 minutes or so, the water has started to come up a little bit, not anything huge. But we're definitely seeing more waves coming ashore. You can see there is this buoy, which is basically kind of washed ashore. I'm not sure how long that has been here.

But as you said, the reason we are here in Baton Rouge is that it is higher ground than New Orleans. This is, of course, at river level. Most of the city is built, you know, 50 to 60 feet higher than the Mississippi River. There are levies between where I am right now and the streets of Baton Rouge. So it is very unlikely that there are going to be the kind of storm surges that would actually precipitate some sort of flooding in the streets of Baton Rouge. And a lot of the flooding, if there is any in Baton Rouge, may come from rainfall, depending on how long this rain sustains.

Right now it is relatively light. I mean, it is not a pleasant day to be outside by any means. But it is not this stinging hard rain that we've seen in hurricanes past. Likely as these winds pick up significantly we will be seeing it. And even though Baton Rouge is out of the eastern part of that eye wall, the eastern part the most violent part of the storm, we are anticipating some very high wind here, sustained winds, Chad Myers said it could be 100-plus mile an hour winds. That is certainly nothing to take lightly.

The people here in Baton Rouge are not under mandatory evacuations. But earlier, hours ago, we have seen many, many people leaving, driving across I-10, down I-10, across a bridge which is over there on my right, over to the west side of Baton Rouge and heading all the way over to Texas, where there has just been lines of traffic for hours and hours and hours. Really never seen anything like it, as we were driving east from Houston, just the road heading west was just completely packed with cars. And we anticipate it probably still is, because it was moving very slowly, Miles.

But again, hard to tell how bad the storm is going to be here, but we'll be bringing it to you live, of course, as we always do, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Anderson Cooper, just a couple of miles from me on the banks of the Muddy Mississippi, as it swells this morning, as Katrina comes ashore. We're going to take a break.

When we come back we're going to an expert here at Louisiana State University, who spent an awful lot of time looking the potential effects of hurricanes. He's concerned if there is significant flooding in New Orleans, it will create a toxic gumbo. We'll explain what that is, as AMERICAN MORNING continues.


M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back. I'm Miles O'Brien, reporting live this morning from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the weather is actually a little bit better now. Those bands, as we say, heavy rain and heavy winds coming through.

We've been talking a lot about Category 4, Category 5. Let's try to give you a sense of what precisely we're talking about. First of all, Category 4 or Category 5, these are killer storms. We're talking about in excess of 130 m.p.h., gets you into the Category 4 range, all the way up to 154 m.p.h. And then beyond that, or at 155, it goes to Category 5, which is the strongest hurricanes we know of.

Only three times before in U.S. history have Category 5 storms hit the U.S. mainland. In 1935 an unnamed storm that hit the Keys, in 1969, Camille, which causes some tremendous damage in the Mississippi area. But didn't hit, fortunately, the city of New Orleans at that time. And, of course, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, which is, by far, the most costly storm ever to hit the U.S., $25 billion in damage.

And yet, the fatalities, the number of people who have died as a result, relatively low, about 40 as compared to more than 400 during that 1935 Category 5 storm. So clearly over time the amount of information that is out there and the amount of knowledge and the amount of ability to let people know about these storms has helped quite a bit.

Let's talk to somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about these things, modeling them, predicting what they might or might not do; he's with Louisiana State University's School of Public Health. We're on the campus of that school right now. Ivor Vanderhearn -- Van Heerden is with us now.

Igor, could you please first of all tell us what your concern is as you model this storm and the possible surge for New Orleans?

IVOR VAN HEERDEN, LSU PUBLIC HEALTH RESEARCH CTR.: Our concern was that we could have, because of the size of the storm, catastrophic flooding of New Orleans. In other words, the surge pouring into the city from surrounding areas. Some of these surrounding areas are highly industrialized, a lot of chemical plants, petrochemical facilities.

We know because of the winds that New Orleans is going to experience and a lot of stuff is going to come apart. Some of the models estimate 80 percent of buildings will be totally damaged. So the chemical plants we come across, those chemicals would leak, get in the water, then flow into New Orleans.

M. O'BRIEN: First of all, that figure of 80 percent is a staggering figure.

VAN HEERDEN: It is. And that is the latest estimate I saw at the state office of emergency preparedness, before I came here, was in some areas 92 percent of all buildings will be totally destroyed.

M. O'BRIEN: And so what we're talking about here is clearly, as there is flooding, all those things that are a part of industry, petrochemicals, they are going to be in that flood zone. And clearly, it is going to take quite sometime for there to be an effective and safe clean up?

VAN HEERDEN: Yes, because not only does it come from outside the city, into the city, there are all the chemicals within the city from the gasoline storage facilities, storage plants, and of course -- coffins. We will have a large release -- a large number of coffins released. This whole mix together in New Orleans is what we term as toxic gumbo.

M. O'BRIEN: And when you talk about coffins, because you have a city that is below sea level, that is what happens. And that is just a horrifying thought.

VAN HEERDEN: Yes, we have to bury our people above ground, otherwise, the coffins pop out. And we have the same problem with gasoline stations. We can't bury the gas tanks, we put them on the surface. Obviously, as the city floods those tanks will start to flood, sheer their couplings, release the product. And then we have the potential of major fires.

M. O'BRIEN: This city has an incredibly extensive system to try to guard against this, levies and pumps. It's just not enough is it?

VAN HEERDEN: No. Since the 1930s we've lost over a million acres of our coastal wetlands. And that is our outer line of defense for storm surge. That's what really used to knock the stuffing out of the storm surge. And as a result, every year the potential surges get worse and worse and worse. So this storm, a Category 4, Category 5, is our worst nightmare.

M. O'BRIEN: And when you say you've lost a lot of these wetlands, it is, in fact, the way that those rivers are channeled, those levies themselves that have caused a lot of those wetlands to go away. So, there's a bit of irony here that the levies you build to try to protect actually make things worse.

VAN HEERDEN: Yes. The levies that protect us from the river floods have actually caused us to starve our wetlands to death; starve them, because they no longer get the sediments they need.

M. O'BRIEN: What's your biggest concern this morning? As you hear of the storm, what it is doing, the fact that it might be wobbling a little to the right, are you a little less concerned?

VAN HEERDEN: Yes, we would like to prefer to see it wobble to the right than to the left. If it goes to the west, we'll see the surge increase dramatically.

M. O'BRIEN: And as it stands right now, the surge that you're predicting is on the order of what?

VAN HEERDEN: On the eastern side of the city up to 15-16 feet, maybe 18 feet. On the western side, 8 to 12 feet.

M. O'BRIEN: And the levies themselves are able to withstand how big a surge?

VAN HEERDEN: It depends where you are, but generally about 14 to 15 feet.

M. O'BRIEN: OK. So over the top is what the big concern certainly is here.

VAN HEERDEN: Yes. And the other thing is if we build the Lake Pontchartrain up to the level of the levies, we still will get over- top in because of the waves. We're going to have a very wide, wild wave field out there, and that will also over-top the levies.

M. O'BRIEN: Ivor Van Heerden, thank you very much for being with us. He's with Louisiana State University School of Public Health.

Just a horrifying thought, talking about this toxic gumbo, as he puts it, with all of these petro chemicals, all of the things that go along with an industrial base. And then on top of that to see the possibility of floating coffins, no less -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Thanks very much, Miles. We're going to obviously continue to check in with you throughout the morning.

Let's bring you up to date on what exactly is happening with Hurricane Katrina. The National Hurricane Center is now telling us that the northern eye wall has made landfall. It's happening just east of Grand Isle. We are watching very closely as this hurricane heads right to the Gulf Coast.

A couple of things you need to know. It looks like the winds are about 150 miles per hour. That makes it a category 4 hurricane, downgraded from a category 5. But, of course, as Miles pointed out just a few moments ago, both of those are killer storms. It's looking also more and more as if coastal Mississippi is going to bear the brunt of this storm. All eyes have been on New Orleans, of course, with all of those issues they have being below sea level. But it seems as if the storm is turning slightly. And that, in fact, might lessen some of the damage to New Orleans.

We have reporters all around the area. We're also going to continue to check in with the CNN weather center in Atlanta for the very latest on Katrina's path. That's all ahead as the special edition of AMERICAN MORNING continues in just a moment. Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back to special and early edition of AMERICAN MORNING as we keep all eyes on Hurricane Katrina, now a category 4 storm. It is 35 minutes past the hour on this AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Soledad O'Brien in New York.

We've got breaking news on Hurricane Katrina. She's coming onshore along the Gulf Coast.

We're also watching the conditions as they continue to deteriorate from Alabama to New Orleans and way beyond as well. We've got reporters across the entire region, including Miles O'Brien. He's in Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

Miles, it's really higher ground, isn't it?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. We're all of 40 feet above sea level. But for Louisiana, that's practically nosebleed country, Soledad, certainly compared to where we were yesterday when we came into New Orleans and considered the possibilities of where you can set up and continue to tell the story when you have a city that is below sea level.

We just talked to an expert who talked about this huge storm surge coming through, topping over those levies, overwhelming those pumps and potentially causing significant flooding to the city of New Orleans, even though the storm has wobbled, as it is said by meteorologists, a little bit to the right, which is good news for at least the city of New Orleans.

Of course, what it gives, it takes away from somebody else. Chad Myers is watching that very closely for us.


M. O'BRIEN: So, a couple of things to consider. First of all, a wobble that goes to the right can wobble back to the left possibly.

MYERS: Absolutely.

M. O'BRIEN: Secondly, we probably haven't been thinking as much about the effects of Lake Pontchartrain on all of this and how much water it might add to the picture.

Let me just ask you this. We always talk about this cone of uncertainty. At what point can we say with any more degree of certainty where it will make landfall?

MYERS: I'm pretty much sure, we're absolutely certain now that the center, Miles, of the eye cannot get over New Orleans. But the western eye wall can. And if you remember a couple of weeks ago when Anderson Cooper was in the western eye wall, that's when those buildings started coming apart.

So, there is still a lot of danger there whether you're in the eye on the eastern side or the western side. But the eastern side always has a little bit more damage off there toward Mobile, Biloxi and the like.

Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: Chad Myers in the weather center, thank you very much.

MYERS: You're welcome.

M. O'BRIEN: In the city of New Orleans, it is -- well, you know, the term "ghost town" comes to mind. People really did pay attention to those warnings to evacuate. It's the first time this city has been under a mandatory evacuation ever.

Well, we're told by the mayor of upwards of 80 percent of people heeded those warnings. And some of them who didn't have places to go, didn't have cars, didn't have hotels, didn't have the wherewithal for one reason or another, ended up in shelters. And one of the biggest shelters -- no, I should say the biggest shelter is, in fact, the Louisiana Superdome, where upwards of 20,000, perhaps 30,000 people are riding out the storm this morning. And that's where we find Jeanne Meserve -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi. I actually am in a parking garage adjacent to the Superdome. We have a vista over a good part of New Orleans from here, and we can see that the power has gone off to a good part of the city at this time. Periodically you'll see huge flashes of light, and then another sector will go dark. It's certainly something we've expected.

From our vantage point, which is pretty high, I also can survey the streets all around this garage. And I can tell you that we see no sign of flooding at this particular point in time.

Of course, there's a lot of puddling. The rain can be very intense at times, as can the winds.

Periodically we hear huge roars, and you look to the sky and you think, my gosh, is something flying up there? Of course, there aren't any aircraft at all. What you're hearing is the wind just howling through the skyscrapers here in New Orleans. It's really quite an incredible thing to hear.

As you've mentioned, a ghost town, that's certainly the way to describe it. We have not seen anybody on the streets here, and that's appropriate. The conditions are very, very tough here. I may not look like I'm in a particularly difficult situation, and you're right. We found a short of sheltered perspective here. But if you went to the other end of this garage, I'd have trouble standing on my feet. It's really quite gusty here and a lot, a lot of rain.

The drainage system here in the garage is having tremendous trouble handling the load. We can see puddling occurring as water backs up through the system. I have to imagine that's symptomatic of what's happening all over this city.

Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's Jeanne Meserve who is near the Superdome in the city of New Orleans, where she is weathering the storm as safe as it can be.

Of course, we said 80 percent of the people did, in fact, evacuate. That means 20 percent, 20 percent of about a 1.6 million person metropolitan area are still there. And Soledad has some more on that -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, that's absolutely right, Miles. You know, Jena Longo is the deputy press secretary for Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. And normally when we're talking to her we're talking politics. This morning, though, she is not on Capitol Hill. She's actually stuck in a Hilton hotel in downtown New Orleans. Longo grew up in the city. She was home on a family visit when she was stranded. And she joins us by phone. Jena, thanks for talking to us. We sure appreciate it.

Give me a sense of where you are exactly in this hotel.

JENA LONGO, STRANDED IN NEW ORLEANS: I am at the Hilton, which is on the river a couple of blocks away from the French Quarter. So, unfortunately we're right on the river. But I'm on the fifth floor. And right now, I'm actually sitting on the floor.

We still have power, but there have been several announcements urging people to go down to the ballroom, especially for the higher floors obviously, because of the wind.

In the last 15-20 minutes we've definitely seen the lights blink out, and the air has been off for some time.

And we're also hearing the wind at this point. So, it's just starting to get pretty scary.

S. O'BRIEN: It is. I was going to ask you, what does it sound like? Do you feel the hotel, the fifth floor where you are, do you feel it creaking? Do you feel safe? And you're with several members of your family, right?

LONGO: Yes. I'm with a large group of my family. That's sort of why I guess we're here, and we didn't evacuate. I personally was trying to get out on a flight and get back to D.C., and I was told all of the flights were grounded. So, I'm stuck here with my family. I'm glad that I'm with my family, of course. But, yes, there's a large group of us.

And I don't know if I mentioned this, but they do have the third floor as sort of an evacuation area. They have all of the ballrooms open. There is the New Orleans Police Department here. There is EMS, fire. So, you know, there is a bit of safety here, I guess. I think most people haven't been through anything like this before.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. I would imagine that also just having those folks around makes you feel a little bit more secure.

Now, you said you couldn't get on a flight. Did you ever think about hopping in a car and just heading out of town?

LONGO: I did. I tried to talk to some of my family, and, you know, I went to school in Baton Rouge. And I thought about moving west as they encouraged everyone to do. I was supposed to fly out yesterday. So, it did get to a point to where I was sort of in a crunch. And I found out last minute that I wasn't going to be able to fly out.

So, at that point, I was trying to fly out from different airports and fly into different airports in different regions, but at that point I was just told that I couldn't get out. And that was about 8:00 yesterday morning.

S. O'BRIEN: We mentioned that you are, Jena, from New Orleans. And I know you're with your grandmother, and she's 86 years old. And she's got two of her sisters who are also elderly. What did you do with the family home? Is it boarded up? Did you just pack up your stuff and go?

LONGO: You know, we tried to secure things as far as move things inside. you know, we've been told growing up here all of our lives that, you know, you always move everything inside, because these things become weapons in a way as far as just the strength of the wind can end up -- you know, they can end up destructing your house. So, we brought things inside and tried to do as much as possible as far as securing the house.

But at this point, honestly, the mood in the hotel, because most of the people here are local people, I think most people are just concerned about their safety. And a lot of people now, you know, are saying, I don't know if my house is going to be there when all of this is over, but we just hope we get out safely. So, I think that's really -- you know, that's the mood around here right now.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, when you're facing a killer storm, I'm sure that it kind of gives you a little bit of perspective there. Jena Long, we're going to continue to check in with you, Jena, to see how everybody is doing inside that hotel throughout the morning and the afternoon as well. And, of course, we wish you the very best. We hope you ride out this storm very safely. Thanks for talking with us.

Let's get right back to Miles.

Hey, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Soledad.

You know, for a lot of people, it's an opportunity to stop and think and consider the risks and make their own personal decisions. What really struck me yesterday was listening to the mayor of New Orleans say, you know, make sure when -- you know, they always say draw a bath full of water for fresh water. But make sure it's on the second floor, because the flood waters could rise. And then, make sure you can get into your attic in case you need to get there. And if you're in your attic, make sure you're able to hack through your roof if need be.

So, when you consider that, you have to wonder in many respects why anybody would stick around. Of course, being in the Hilton hotel is entirely different from being in a low-lying house.

Let's move a little bit farther down the coast to the east. Mobile, Alabama, is another place. Of course, we've been focusing on New Orleans so much, because it's a population center, because it's below sea level, and because that's where the storm has been headed. But this is a huge, huge storm, and it's going to have an impact all up and down the Gulf Coast.

CNN's Kathleen Koch, as a matter of fact, is from this part of the world, not Mobile, but she's from the Louisiana area. So, she's in many respects at home this morning. She certainly grew up with these storms.

And you're there, Kathleen, covering this story, it must bring back some interesting memories.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does, Miles. And it's been really difficult for me. We moved -- my family moved to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, which is, again, not too far from the Louisiana/Mississippi border and is really expected to get hammered by this storm. We moved there in 1973 just four years after Hurricane Camille.

So, I went to middle school and high school with kids who survived Camille, and really always had a huge amount of bravado about that. They have been through Camille. They wouldn't run from any storm.

Now, I'm talking to them today. I'm getting e-mails from them. And they have run from Katrina. They have left homes in New Orleans. They have left their homes in Bay Saint Louis and Long Beach, and they have gotten out.

And it's worrisome. It's worrisome to me that they finally are taking a storm very seriously.

Now, here in Mobile, as you can see behind me, the streets are empty. There is no curfew here right now. There is curfew in areas south of here, the resort areas -- Gulf Shores, Orange Beach. Those areas as of 6:00 a.m. began having a curfew.

As you can see, we're just starting to get whipped, again, kind of intermittently by the bands from Hurricane Katrina. And this has kind of been going on since yesterday afternoon. We've also been under rolling tornado warnings, because, Miles, as you mentioned, we're on this northeast quadrant of Hurricane Katrina, which is the area where they do tend to see a lot more tornados spawned.

But anyway, we're hunkering down here, preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, thank you very much, Kathleen Koch, who is in Mobile, not far from where she grew up.

Let's move a little bit to the west and go to Biloxi, Mississippi. We're getting whipped a little more here in Baton Rouge as well. But as I understand it, Rob Marciano, you're really beginning to feel the effects there.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Oh, yes. And I think it's going to come at us probably for six or eight hours increasingly so throughout the morning.

Being in the northeastern quadrant of this storm is by far the most dangerous part of the storm, especially now since it's taken a bit of a jog to the right. So, people across southern Mississippi have been nervous for the past several days, and they have a right to be nervous as they wake up this morning and this thing, the center of which looks to be getting a little bit closer to us.

I don't care, 4 or 5 or even category 3, Ivan was a category 3 last year when it came on shore. You saw the destruction that it did then.

We are in Biloxi. We're actually just north of I-10. I-10 sits in that direction. The wind is coming at me in my face, so I-10 goes west to east. The wind is paralleling that. So, the center of this storm is over I-10 and down by the beach, and then another 80 miles offshore.

So, we have been -- we have removed ourselves from the beach for fear of the storm surge, which took out quite a number of lives back in 1969 and Camille. It's been the number one killer up until a few years ago in hurricanes. So, we're definitely respecting the ocean at this point.

Flooding is not going to be an issue as far as a storm surge, of course. But the wind is going to be an issue. So, we're going to have to respect that a little bit later as well and kind of move our position as the winds begin to turn.

Right now, we've got winds sustained at about 30-35 miles an hour with the higher gusts, obviously a wind-driven rain. We still have power in this area, so that's impressive right now. But we expect that not to last too much longer.

As far as what's going on in Mississippi, last night they had three shelters that were set up, two of which had filled up by 8:00 that night. And another two shelters in another county actually had to be closed and moved, because the Wolf River was feared to flood. And officials are scrambling here to protect the folks. And I'm sure they'll be scrambling more this morning when they find out that this storm is going to get a little bit closer to us.

Here comes a puff! All right, Miles, it's ticking up. Landfall here is likely to be five hours from now. So, it's going to get ugly.

Back to you.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Rob Marciano, please be safe there in Biloxi, Mississippi.

And we are going to take a break now, and when we come back we will check in with medical personnel and get a sense -- obviously there's a great concern about injury in any sort of situation like this. This is a deadly storm, a category 5 -- 4, I should say, a low category 5. We'll talk to some medical personnel who are standing at the ready this morning. Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. As we track the path of Hurricane Katrina, we want to check in with Chad Myers to get the very latest on her path at this moment.


S. O'BRIEN: We've got more information to give you. Lots of people obviously, Chad, were making preparations before the storm came onshore. We're waiting for actual landfall, though it looks like the northern part of the eye wall has made landfall. We'll continue to check in with Chad and all of our reporters who are stationed all in the area.

A short break. We're back in just a moment with our special coverage, an early edition of "AMERICAN MORNING." Stay with us.


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