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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Hurricane Rita Heads For Texas; New Orleans Braces For Threat of Heavy Rains

Aired September 20, 2005 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. Glad to have you with us tonight.
At this hour, we are watching as Hurricane Rita moves into the Gulf of Mexico, where it could grow into a monster storm. Here is what we know right now.

Forecasters now expect that, by tomorrow afternoon, that this hurricane could be a Category 4 storm with 135- to 155-mile-an-hour sustained winds. It may be heading for Galveston, Texas, and could hit there Friday or Saturday. Meanwhile, Galveston residents are already packing up and leaving. The city has declared a state of emergency and ordered mandatory evacuations starting at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow; 1,100 Texas National Guard personnel in Louisiana have been recalled.

Army and federal disaster resources are redeploying. They are also very worried in Louisiana. Just moments ago, we learned that the governor has asked President Bush to declare a new state of emergency. Heavy rain from even a near miss by Rita could overwhelm New Orleans' fragile levees and pumps. And get this. People are now being told to go to the now notorious Convention Center for evacuations. The Army promises you'll be safe this time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, COMMANDER, FIRST U.S. ARMY: We are not going to go by order of the mayor and the governor and open the Convention Center for people to come in. There are buses there. Is that clear to you? Buses parked. There are 4,000 troops there. People come, they get on a bus. They get on a truck. They move on. Is that clear? Is that clear to the public?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: I think we have got that, sir. But reporters still wanted to know why the Convention Center is being used as a staging area for evacuations, given all the problems there just three weeks ago, when help didn't arrive for days. At that point, the general got very testy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HONORE: Buses at the Convention Center will move our citizens, for whom we have sworn that we will support and defend. And we will move them on. Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You are asking last-storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Well, this afternoon, during his fifth trip to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina hit, President Bush got a briefing on preparations for Hurricane Rita. He also issued an emergency declaration for parts of Florida.

Let's see exactly what's happening right now there in Key West. Let's turn to Rick Sanchez, who has been there monitoring the storm.

We hear the worst has passed, but there could still be problems ahead there.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

As a matter of fact, the winds have somewhat picked up in the last half-hour. The storm was to the south. I mean directly south of us, Paula, some time around 2:00 this afternoon. Since then, and as you mentioned as you were beginning the show, it's moved somewhat in a westerly direction, which means the winds here have whipped around a little differently now and are coming to us more from the south and from the east.

So, it's affecting even this area here on Duval Street. There is no power. There's about 8,000 people here without electricity. Most of what is historic Key West is, for the most part, shut down; 50 percent of the people decided that they were going to leave. The rest of them stayed here. They're pretty much hunkered down, but there's no water. There's no electricity, although we are being told that they will be able to get that back going again some time tomorrow.

As far as the more populated areas of both Broward County and Miami-Dade counties, there, we understand that the effect was minimal, but, still, because of what they had to prepare for, there was no school today. And a lot of that, Paula, has actually to do with the fact that many of those schools are used as shelters as well.

So, they can't be two things at once. So, it definitely affects the area as well. And, as you can see, we're still getting affected here. And there is also plenty of flooding to speak of, especially down around the pier, down around where the Atlantic Ocean is. But we're told, they expect that that will dissipate in just a couple days.

I say that because I don't want to leave the impression that the effects here are anything like what we have been seeing in New Orleans with Katrina, for example -- Paula.

ZAHN: Although I was on the phone a short while ago with someone from Florida in charge of emergency operations, and he said, for the next 12 hours, you can still expect tornadoes being spawned and unpredictable gusts of wind.

SANCHEZ: There's no question. And you can see it now. I mean, we're sitting on the balcony just outside Duval. And you'd think that we'd be sheltered here somewhat, but we're still getting the gusts of winds. And that tornadic activity, that's a great point that you make, because a lot of people take that for granted, and that ends up being sometimes the most destructive part of any hurricane, not to mention the most life-threatening as well.

And it's usually in the outer bands, sometimes after the hurricane has gone by, that you get that tornadic activity and you get some people affected by something like this, especially with newly planted trees and some of the low-rooted trees that they have in this area in South Florida. The ground gets moist. It gets soaked. Trees fall over, oftentimes on top of people -- Paula.

ZAHN: And that's when people get hurt. Rick Sanchez, thanks so much.

Just an important note to remember: Some 26,000 people live around where Rick Sanchez just reported from. About half of them evacuated. That is twice as many as evacuated during the last hurricane.

Now, for the latest on Rita's track, let's turn to CNN's severe weather expert, Chad Myers.

I guess none of us thought three weeks ago we'd be talking about Rita.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: No.

But we went to -- we went to sleep on Friday night with an O., Ophelia. And, all of a sudden, you wake up Monday and you got an R. storm, Rita, that's now going to be a Category 4 in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, taking a pretty similar pattern, at least for a while here, to where Katrina was, a similar increase in speed, like Katrina did, in this very warm water of the Gulf of Mexico.

A couple of notes here, Paula. Every time one of the outer bands goes by, feeder bands, if you will, every time one goes by -- and there will be more tonight through Key West, through the middle keys, through Marathon, right on up even to Key Largo, your wind speeds are going to increase. The highest wind speed we got out of Key West was from a ham radio operator of 104 miles per hour.

Now that storm is actually 65 miles to the southwest of Key West, but these bands continue -- there's another one right there -- from Key Largo all the way on up, almost to Florida City, right across the 18-mile stretch and into Card Sound Road. South Miami, you got hit with a number of outer bands all day long. It looks like now you are out of that, out of that story, because the storm is moving far enough to the southwest away from you that the outer bands will be moving into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rick talked about the tornado, the tornadoes possible with the storm. The big problem with the tornadoes is usually in the right- front quadrant, this L. shape here. So now that is actually moved offshore. There may be a few tornadoes in the rear quadrant, but that's atypical of a hurricane, not a typical scenario.

Here's the forecast for right now, for tomorrow, Category 4. Those 4's that you see in the number there, Category 4. Look at the sustained winds, 105. If you're keeping track, 24.0, 82.6, still moving to the west at 12 miles per hour.

We show you these computer spaghetti lines every once in a while, 14 different computers, 14 different outcomes, all of them right now, though, taking it into Texas. How has that changed from yesterday? Well, there's the storm, still spinning, still obviously -- still a hurricane at 105, going from about a Category 2 possibly to a Category 3 overnight. Need a few extra seconds to let this high pressure center right there develop.

This high pressure is going to keep Rita in the Gulf of Mexico. As this high move away, Paula, this Rita is going to be able to turn around the backside of this bubble. The faster this high moves away, the quicker Rita turns to the right. And if this thing moves very quickly, it could easily still get to New Orleans. Right now, though, that's not the forecast.

ZAHN: Chad Myers, thanks so much for the update.

And, as Chad was just saying, the biggest city that now seems to be in the path of Rita, if she stays on her current course, is Galveston, Texas. About 60,000 people live there on a barrier island on the Gulf Coast. As we mentioned tonight, the mayor declared a state of emergency. And she ordered mandatory evacuations of nursing homes to get under way tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. And then she said mandatory evacuations from other parts of the city would start just 12 hours later.

I happened to be a local reporter in Galveston in 1983 during Hurricane Alicia, a storm that ended up killing 21 people and did $2 billion in damage. And I can tell you, getting everyone off that island will not be easy.

As you can see from this map, there are only two roads leading off Galveston, and only one of them, Interstate 45, goes directly inland. So people in Galveston certainly have their work cut out for them over the next day.

Right now, though, it does not look like Hurricane Rita is headed directly for New Orleans, but officials there are taking no chances this time.

Jeff Koinange joins me now from New Orleans.

And, Jeff, I guess the most startling thing the mayor had to say earlier tonight is, if New Orleans simply gets -- or actually someone from the Army Corps of Engineers -- three inches of rain, you could be talking an additional two to four feet of water in some parts of the city.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Paula. and, again, you have to look back three weeks ago. What happened? What was the reaction like? Today, a very different Mayor Ray Nagin. Basically, what he's saying is, it's a classic case of once bitten, twice shy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: National Guard. There's another storm coming. You need to evacuate.

KOINANGE (voice-over): Just when it seemed safe to come back, residents in New Orleans are now being urged to pack up and leave again. More than three weeks after Katrina left a city under water, the state may be in the path of Hurricane Rita, and the National Guard isn't taking any chances.

SGT. GEORGE JOHNSON, ARMY NATIONAL GUARD: Because the recovery efforts, I guess right now, are in a real fragile stage, we just want to let people know, based on the mayor and the guidance that we are getting from the Army chain of command, that things could get worse. So, we want to let people know about that.

KOINANGE: President Bush made another visit to New Orleans. His fifth since Katrina swept through, and urged that precautions be taken to avoid the kinds of mistakes made after the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We were watching very closely of course its track. All up and down this coastline, people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be yet another significant storm.

RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

KOINANGE: The beleaguered mayor of New Orleans, who has been facing criticism from the federal government for inviting residents to return home, did an about-face for what he called safety reasons.

NAGIN: We have been through it before. We have learned a lot of hard lessons. And now we fully understand what it takes to mobilize under the threat of a significant hurricane that hits a major urban area. So we're much better prepared this time.

KOINANGE: Despite the calls for evacuation, rescuers continued combing neighborhood after neighborhood. With the water levels considerably lower in many parts of the city, they are now able to reach homes that were until recently submerged, While recovery units continue their gruesome work under tarps, recovering more and more bodies.

The death toll is still steadily climbing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOINANGE: Search, rescue and recovery missions -- and, Paula, search, rescue and recovery missions will be put on hold in the coming days, as the city prepares for a possible onslaught of Hurricane Rita.

ZAHN: Jeff Koinange, thanks for the update.

Once again, I guess the thing that so concerns all of us is, even if the storm passes west of New Orleans, which it is predicted to do at this hour, even just a couple inches of rain could cause parts of the city to become flooded again.

And, tonight, we are going to do the best we can to keep our eye on Hurricane Katrina, which is expected to be, at this time tomorrow night, a Category 4 storm. Right now, if it stays on its current course, it is expected to make landfall in Galveston, Texas, some time Friday or Saturday.

When we come back, we're going to take an exclusive inside look about what happened inside this nursing home. The nuns stayed, but 14 patients died. Why? What went wrong?

Please stay with us for the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we are back now with the very latest on Hurricane Katrina. It has gained strength, with its highest -- did I say? -- Hurricane Rita, with its highest winds now being clocked at 105 miles per hour. It is expected to continue to strengthen by this time tomorrow.

In fact, a little bit earlier in the afternoon, it is expected to become a Category 4 storm. We will bring you all the latest throughout this hour and where it is expected to make landfall once it passes through the Gulf of Mexico.

But, tonight, for the first time, we are getting an inside look at what happened at one New Orleans nursing home, where 14 patients died during the Katrina disaster. It comes from someone who rode out the storm at the Lafon Nursing Home and then watched the water rise and the temperature climb to lethal levels.

Drew Griffin has this exclusive report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When they left New Orleans, sisters Dianne Lindsey and Valerie Brazil (ph) thought their 74-year-old mother was safe. Dorothy Tashon (ph) was a resident at Lafon Nursing Home, run by the Holy Family Sisters for three years. And this Catholic family felt their mother was in good hands.

DIANNE LINDSEY, DAUGHTER OF VICTIM: We felt really safe with her being in Lafon.

GRIFFIN (on camera): You thought that, even in all this craziness and you're trying to evacuate your entire family, and it was a mandatory evacuation, you felt sure... LINDSEY: Oh, definitely.

GRIFFIN: ... that Lafon was going to take care of your mother and do...

LINDSEY: The right thing.

GRIFFIN: The right thing?

LINDSEY: Right.

GRIFFIN: Is that what happened?

LINDSEY: There's no doubt about that.

No, that's not what happened.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): On Monday night after the storm, Dianne was able to call Lafon. And she says a nurse said her mother was alive, the home was fine. They'd made it through.

LINDSEY: And she told me that she told my mother that we love her and that we were going to see her after the hurricane. And my mother just looked up and said, well, how do they know I'm here?

GRIFFIN: That was the last communication they had with the staff. A week passed. Then came the news they dreaded. Dorothy Tashon (ph) was one of 14 patients who died inside the nursing home. To this day, that is all they know.

LINDSEY: And they couldn't give us any answer. They couldn't give us why they didn't evacuate, why they didn't have an evacuation plan. All she can tell us, that my mother expired. My mother did not expire. There's nothing that she could have told us that made us feel that my mother expired.

GRIFFIN (on camera): And that's where it stands now? You don't have any idea what happened?

LINDSEY: No, not at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no closure, no nothing.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): And it is hard to find out exactly what did happen. On the advice of their attorneys and under the threat of a state investigation, the Holy Family Sisters have chosen not to discuss publicly what went on inside Lafon in the days after Hurricane Katrina.

But one woman does know. Terry Smith does not want her face shown, because she fears she will be hounded by other families, but she was inside Lafon the night of the storm, choosing to stay with her sick father and help, instead of evacuating. On the night the hurricane struck, she said the water did rise. It was rainwater and the staff quickly had to move 90 patients upstairs. TERRY SMITH, LAFON VOLUNTEER: We started with the water underneath my feet. By the time we finished, it was to my waist. And I'm 5'6.

GRIFFIN: Upstairs and out of the water, the nursing home began to organize, a kitchen set up. There was food, water. Once the storm was over, the flood began to recede. On Tuesday, Smith took these pictures, showing a flooded parking lot, a picture of the first floor showing the mess left behind.

Smith says she, too, believed they had all made it. But the nightmare was just beginning.

SMITH: The dilemma began that Tuesday night, I would say. Tuesday, it was stifling. I cannot even imagine how hot it is in there. I don't want to imagine. And these frail people begin to break down.

GRIFFIN: A frail woman on a feeding tube was the first to go, then another. In the room where Smith was staying, she says two or three simply faded away.

SMITH: The nurses would come in and check and -- and they...

GRIFFIN (on camera): Move them, leave them, cover them?

SMITH: No, they'd cover them and they'd get body bags and the men would take them out.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Two days went by and no one came. Then finally, a National Guard truck stopped. Smith learned how bad things were on the outside. The Guardsman told her she was on dry land and had food and water and was told 90 frail people without air conditioning in unbearable heat were now a low priority.

SMITH: So I guess in the grand scheme of things, maybe we weren't.

GRIFFIN: The 14 who perished are represented by a spray painted number on the wall. Smith says the Holy Family Sisters of Lafon Nursing Home cared for each and every one of them until the very end.

SMITH: But I can sit here and say, and this is the rent for me holding this interview, I can sit here and say definitely that that staff did all that they could humanly do to make those people comfortable. No one on that staff defected.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Nobody left?

SMITH: Nobody left.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Dianne Lindsey and Valerie Brazil (ph) have no doubt the nuns did all they could after the storm. The question they have, why didn't somebody do something before the storm.

LINDSEY: And we knew one day our mother would leave us. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not like this.

LINDSEY: Not like this, she didn't deserve that. And we are hurting so bad about our mother.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Paula, Terry Smith says these were the frailest of the frail who perished in that nursing home. One of them needed a feeding tube. In fact, several needed feeding tubes that she saw. And Dorothy Tashon (ph) was paralyzed on one side of her body with a stroke. These were people, she says, the nuns felt couldn't be moved. If they were to be evacuated, then they'd be evacuated to the Superdome, and she just didn't think that they could take it.

ZAHN: So, you've talked about that, and you talked about the horrible heat in the home. But, ultimately, why did these people die?

GRIFFIN: And the question is to the nursing home why they didn't evacuate in advance. They were prepared, from all we can tell. They had a generator that was four feet above the ground. Unfortunately, the water came five or six feet above the ground.

They just could not survive that length of time in that heat, Paula, and they just -- as Terry Smith said, they faded away.

ZAHN: So, it was the dehydration, then, that was the final straw?

GRIFFIN: We will have to wait for the medical examiner's report. They are going to have to go through every single body. But from what we're understanding, even in the attempts to keep them hydrated, they just could not stand the shock, and their frail bodies just gave way in that heat and in the waiting.

ZAHN: How terribly sad.

Drew Griffin, thank you for that story.

It's going to take years for people to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina, but what about the scars you can't see? What does the trauma of this storm, of losing everything, do to a young child? We're going to get some answers for you in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We're keeping an eye on a very powerful storm tonight, a Category 2 Hurricane Rita, which is expected to, by this time tomorrow night, to develop into a Category 4. The storm has just passed 65 miles west/southwest of Key West. And if it continues on its current path, it will make landfall in Galveston, Texas, sometime Friday or Saturday.

In the meantime, even if this -- this storm passes west of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana has called for a state of emergency. Even three inches of rain could cause tremendous flooding once again in New Orleans.

One of the stories we have also been watching is a story of children of the storm. Right now, we need your help in reuniting them, particularly those that have been separated from their families by Katrina. We have been working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has received more than 2,000 reports of families divided by the storm.

And, so far, we know of at least 29 children reunited with family as a direct result of our team effort with the center.

Let's turn to Brian Todd, who joins me now from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a place where he basically has lived around the clock for the last three weeks.

Hi, Brian. It's nice to hear about progress being made.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Paula. Good evening to you.

We have been hearing about these numbers now for two weeks. We are going to put some of those numbers into context. First, let's tell you the number of cases that have been resolved since the Katrina missing-persons hot line has been set up; 966 cases of children who were separated from some family members have been resolved.

Many of them had already been with a parent or an adult guardian, but other family members just didn't know about it. The number now of children listed as either missing or separated from some family members is 2,686. And we're going to show you a couple of those right now.

One of the ones that has been recovered, we were just told, is Kayla Green, 9 years old, last seen at her home New Orleans. We were told moments ago that she has actually been covered, her case resolved. One still listed as separated from family members, 2-year- old Jaleal Hampton. Jaleal just turned 2 yesterday, actually. He is last known to be with his grandmother in New Orleans. Neither have been seen since Katrina hit.

I'm now joined by Ann Scofield. She is the director of Project ALERT, which brings these former law enforcement officers here.

And we're hearing some criticism that the numbers are inflated; the numbers of children listed as displaced are inflated. How do you address that criticism?

ANN SCOFIELD, NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING AND EXPLOITED CHILDREN: There are a numbers that could be the possibility of an explanation for this.

Certainly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we were given augmented authority by the U.S. Department of Justice to expend and expand our services to these critical care areas. What are the factors? We can speculate. Perhaps a child, as you said, has been recovered and may be with the parent. The caller may not know. Secondly, perhaps a child is with a licensed government caregiver, such as Department of Public Services. The parents' whereabouts are unknown. Perhaps the child is with a caregiver, a trusted caregiver, and the parent is unaware. And, certainly, the last and most tragic possibility is that a child may be deceased. And we are all waiting for identification of that.

TODD: All right. Well, best of luck to you and to the rest of the people at the center. Thank you very much for joining us.

Any information, you can call 1-800-THE-LOST.

That is the latest from here, Paula.

ZAHN: Easy number to memorize. Hope people call in if they have any information.

Brian Todd, thanks.

Whether or not children of Katrina have actually been separated from their families, they have certainly been through hell. And now they have to face the awful memories of seeing homes destroyed, lives ended, and brand-new lives.

Here's medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen on how some of those children are finally getting some help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What Caroline Green has a hard time saying, Parrot says easily.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the Parrot lose his house, too?

CAROLINE GREEN, NEW ORLEANS EVACUEE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened to Parrot's house?

GREEN: He had a hurricane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He had a hurricane.

GREEN: The hurricane came and blowed down his house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh.

GREEN: And Parrot was lonely, didn't have any friends.

COHEN: Caroline tells her story through her puppet. Her New Orleans home is gone. She's in a school where she doesn't know anyone. And when she sleeps, the monsters come.

GREEN: The monster got the big teeth. He has the big eyes.

COHEN: It all comes out in the play and art therapy these evacuee kids do with counselor Eric Green (ph). Playing with the puppets brings out just how much 9-year-old Caroline misses her home, which she now says is under water.

GREEN: When I first moved to my new house, I was scared, because I thought -- I thought I wouldn't make no friends.

COHEN: Her family now lives in a church shelter more than 100 miles away from New Orleans in rural St. Landry Parish. Counselors came from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to volunteer in the local school system, now home to about 1,000 evacuee children.

Dr. Green asked Caroline to make a scene in the sand, any scene she wants, and she does this.

GREEN: Katrina just washed away my whole house. My house just fell down like that. Everything just started falling like this.

COHEN: The plastic toys turned upside down, reflecting her real life, a devastated home, cousins missing, friends missing.

GREEN: I think that they got flooded and think that they must have swam somewhere. But I don't know, because I really do miss them.

COHEN: In another part of the room, 13-year-old Tommy Kumba (ph) shows a collage of what he misses most, like his cat.

(on camera): Do you think he's alive?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he is. I have my hopes.

COHEN: You loved your cat?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So much.

COHEN (voice-over): Tommy and his family survived a week in their attic before being rescued.

(on camera): You've been through a lot in the past couple weeks. How do you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel that I'm very grateful. It could have been worse.

COHEN (voice-over): Dr. Green says he worries these children will have post-traumatic stress disorder, but that, in general, these kids are resilient. He watches them work out solutions to their problems on their own.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't have to be scared. You're my best friend.

COHEN: Frog and Parrot, in the end, homeless, but not friendless, help deal with the trauma of a life turned upside down.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Elizabeth Cohen reporting for us tonight. Tonight, as we have been reporting all night long, Hurricane Rita is heading for Texas and could potentially be a Category 4 storm this time tomorrow night. And Galveston, which, of course, is on an island, has a long history of killer hurricanes. What happens if Rita is just as bad or worse than Hurricane Katrina? Will Galveston and the government be prepared? At this hour, population there getting prepared for mandatory evacuations that get under way at 6:00 a.m. off Galveston island tomorrow morning.

Stay with us for more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Some big developments to talk about on the hurricane front. We have been tracking Rita all day long. Its rain and wind have been lashing the Florida Keys all day long. The eye of the storm has threaded the needle between Cuba and the Keys.

For the very latest, let's go now to Key West, where meteorologist Rob Marciano has been on duty all day.

You're still getting whipped around there, right? And I understand, for the next 12 hours, it's going to be pretty tough.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, the thing is, Paula, this storm is strengthening. And you're right. It did thread -- did thread the needle.

I mean, when you look at the amount of water between Cuba and the Keys, the Florida Straits there is almost like a bowling alley. And Rita pretty much took a strike. And that's good news for the Florida Keys. It could have been a lot worse here. Also, if the storm had strengthened as quickly as we thought it was, it would have been a lot worse as well.

But we will be in it, it looks for several hours, probably another six to eight hours. See those gusts? They just keep coming, Paula. Just when you think it's starting to move out to sea, another -- another gust comes. So, we will be in equally weather for a good several hours. And they won't be able to really start cleaning up and trying to get the power back on here until at least tomorrow morning.

ZAHN: So, Rob, is it clear that of the 13,000 -- I guess 26,000 is the population of Key West. About half of them evacuated. Do we have any idea how those fared who didn't leave?

MARCIANO: Word is, we -- there have been no major injuries, one head injury, I'm told, by somebody driving a bike. There is a 13- year-old girl who actually has appendicitis.

So, she's in a lot of pain, but they've closed the hospitals, Paula. So, no serious injuries from the storm, but right now there's a 13-year-old girl who can't get medical treatment because they've closed and evacuated the hospitals, and we can't get her to Marathon, where there is a hospital, until the winds die down and those bridges are more passable. So, the 13,000 folks, most of them have survived the storm fairly well, but there is concern over this 13-year-old girl who needs medical attention.

ZAHN: I guess it's interesting to note, Rob, at this time that the 13,000 who decided to leave, that happens to be twice as many as those who evacuated last time. I was talking to an emergency preparedness person from Florida who said that that is a direct result of Katrina, that more than twice as many left as usual.

MARCIANO: Yes, I think that's a fair assumption to make. The folks that did stay, they're a little more festive, a little bit more carefree, probably have survived, have gone through a number of storms, and were willing to take the risk.

But to see 13,000 people get out of town after seeing Katrina hit New Orleans three weeks ago, that's certainly -- I think everybody has a little greater respect now for hurricanes, especially as strong as this one got and how quickly it gathered strength. I mean, it was just a handful of thunderstorms in the Bahamas just less than three days ago, Paula. This thing has just exploded over the last couple days.

ZAHN: And, Rob, I think we need to explain to our audience, you right now are relatively cut off from pictures of the storm track. But I know you have a good sense, you know -- simply because phones are down almost everywhere around Key West. But you have a pretty good sense of how this storm is expected to gain strength as it continues to pass through the Gulf of Mexico, maybe late tomorrow afternoon, becoming a Category 4 hurricane. What else can you tell us about that?

MARCIANO: Well, we think that's going to happen.

For one thing, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico are really warm, 83, 84, 85 degrees. One of the reasons this storm strengthened in the Florida Straits is because the water temperatures here, even warmer than that. And then there's nothing in the Gulf of Mexico really to stop it, very calm air, very tranquil conditions in the atmosphere.

So, it will strengthen. And the track at this point wants to bring it to Texas, maybe southwest Louisiana. We certainly hope we keep it away from New Orleans. That would certainly be a back- breaker. But it's -- it's pretty -- we're pretty confident taking this thing into some sort of landfall Friday or Saturday somewhere in Texas or southwest Louisiana, likely, as a Category 3 or Category 4 storm.

That means we could have a storm surge and damage similar to what Katrina brought Alabama and Mississippi. We don't think we'll see the amount of flooding and devastation in Katrina, because New Orleans is a very unique situation. But if this thing were to hit Galveston as a Cat 3 or Cat 4, it's going to be another nightmare. That's for sure.

ZAHN: Yes. And, Rob....

MARCIANO: We are hoping that doesn't happen.

ZAHN: That is something we're going to talk about now.

But we're going to let you go.

Just remind everybody, because of Rob -- what rob just reported, you've got a state of emergency being declared in Louisiana, the governor, just a short while ago, asking the president for that. In addition to that, we now know that the Galveston mayor has called for mandatory evacuations, starting with hospitals and nursing homes, getting under way at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow, and then 12 hours later by the general population. We're going to show you a map in a moment. It will give you an idea of how these evacuations work.

I happen to know a little about this, because I was a reporter in Texas during Hurricane Alicia in 1983. Two ways out.

And joining me on the phone right now, I understand, we have Steve McCraw. He is director of the Texas Department of Homeland Security.

Thank you very much for joining us tonight, sir.

Give us a prediction of how you think the evacuations will go out of Galveston, certainly an island that is very used to hurricanes coming its way.

STEVE MCCRAW, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND: Well, yes, ma'am.

Obviously, we, like the mayor and the county judge down there, were concerned. And, of course, we're treating this as a potential Category 4 hurricane or even higher, anywhere from Brownsville to Port Arthur, which certainly covers Galveston. There's no way to predict right now, as I know that a number of experts you've been talking to have been saying.

And Galveston being an island, we do a number of surge models here in all our zones and across the coast. And, clearly, when we do it with a Category 4 hurricane, in effect, it ceases to become an island. It becomes submerged if it does -- if a direct Category 4 hurricane hits it. So, obviously, the most important thing is getting people out.

ZAHN: And the issue is that there is no extensive flood control there, right, very little protection from the sea?

MCCRAW: That's correct.

ZAHN: So, are you satisfied with the level of preparation tonight? Are you ready?

MCCRAW: I am satisfied that you're prepared enough, but clearly we have a system in place that's a deliberate process.

It started last week in terms of activation, that we followed all the way through. We did -- over the last year, we did exercises in each of our hurricane evacuation zones. We came up with recommendations in the mandatory evacuation law which hadn't been there before when you were talking about Hurricane Alicia.

And also we set up a regional command structure and, in fact, tested it this last year. So, we were good before. We're better now. But you can never be too good, as you know, when it comes to a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane.

ZAHN: Oh, sure. And we were mentioning that some 60,000 people live on Galveston island. How long do you think it will take for the island to become completely evacuated?

MCCRAW: Well, our traffic management models call for, you know, them at T-minus 48 as a good time for them to start leaving. And we don't want to see anybody straggling after T-minus 33. And we use -- the model we use here is that T-minus zero is, in fact, when the gales first start hitting the coast, not when the eye hits landfall.

ZAHN: Sure.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: So, T-minus 48, you're talking 6:00 a.m. tomorrow?

MCCRAW: Yes.

ZAHN: All right.

Well, we wish you a lot of luck, Steve McCraw. I know you've got a lot of work to do.

He's with the Texas Department of Homeland Security.

Good luck. Thanks.

The big question is, exactly where will Rita go if it stays on its present path? A lot of concern not only in Texas, as you've just heard, but in Louisiana, the mayor telling us earlier tonight, even if it passes west of New Orleans, just a small amount of rain could cause anywhere from two to four feet of flooding in New Orleans once again.

We will have the very latest forecast for you coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Hurricane Rita is pushing through the Gulf of Mexico tonight, a Category 2 storm, but could reach Katrina's strength, a Category 4, tomorrow.

Right now, forecasters expect it to hit the Texas coast some time Friday or Saturday, depending on how the storm proceeds through the Gulf of Mexico. But people in Louisiana are already getting ready for the worst. The governor there has already asked the president of the United States for a state of emergency to be called. That's a new one. The same thing happened in the wake of Katrina. Joining me now on the phone, Colonel Terry Ebbert, the emergency operations chief for Orleans Parish.

Thank you so much for joining us.

We just heard earlier this from the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. His concern is that your pumps are only operating at 40 percent capacity. And he's saying just three inches of rain could make a real mess of things in New Orleans once again. What's your chief worry?

COL. TERRY EBBERT, EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CHIEF, ORLEANS PARISH: Well, that is our chief worry down here, Paula.

We have spent a number of hours late this afternoon with the head of the Corps of Engineers looking at our situation, and are prepared to take action to protect our weakened levee system by blocking the canals where the repairs have been in. But, when we do that, the disadvantage is, we have to shut the pumps down that are used to pump the city out, so that basically then the rainfall that we get into the city would flood large areas of the city, because the pumps would be shut down.

ZAHN: Yes, I guess that's something that's hard for us that don't have your experience to understand, how just three inches of rain could cause two to four feet of flooding in some parts of the city.

(CROSSTALK)

EBBERT: That's -- it's, I guess, best explained by taking a look at a bowl. And if you pour water in it, it's going to be deep in certain places and still shallow around the perimeter. So, high ground would not be flooded, but the lower portions of the city, if we don't -- we're below sea level, and we need those pumps to pump the water out into Lake Pontchartrain or the Mississippi River.

ZAHN: Finally tonight, Colonel, are you pretty confident that people will take this evacuation order seriously?

EBBERT: I have no doubt that they will. We don't have a very large population in because, on the east bank, which is the largest portion of the city, we have not repopulated. We have only allowed reentry for examination day in and day and -- and night out for the last four days.

So, we have probably more contractors in town and FEMA employees, along with our city employees, than we do civilians. So, we have not repopulated any of the east bank, because we don't have the infrastructure, water, sewer, electricity, to support the population at this time.

ZAHN: Well, we will be thinking about you as you're thrown yet another curve ball.

Colonel Terry Ebbert, thank you. Just a reminder that the Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen had confirmed for all of us a little bit earlier on, who is the federal point man for the recovery efforts there, that there are some 500 buses standing by at the Convention Center in New Orleans to transport people out of the city, even though we just heard from Mr. Ebbert there are not that many left.

Now, as you know, Rita, the new storm that we have to worry about, ripped through the Florida Keys today.

We have got on the phone with us the mayor of Key West, Jimmy Weekley. He has been riding out the storm at his emergency operations center.

I guess I actually am going to get to see you, after all. We were worried about the shot.

How do you think your city fared?

JIMMY WEEKLEY, MAYOR OF KEY WEST, FLORIDA: I think we fared quite well.

We were kind of -- I was kind of surprised, riding around earlier this afternoon, at the lack of damage that was done. I know that during Hurricane Dennis and the other hurricanes, that there was a lot more flooding, there was a lot more trees down than I have seen earlier today.

Now, we will go out again tomorrow morning and assess the situation to see what damage has occurred during the night. And we were very fortunate. You know, yesterday, they were telling us it was going to be a Category 2 or a Category 3 hurricane. And, this morning, the storm had moved a little bit to the south. So, that put us at a Category -- a Category 1.

As the day progressed, of course, Rita started picking up again. And by the time it started passing us, it was a hurricane 2 again. But it moved far enough south that we were still getting winds as a Category 1. So -- but, overall, the city looks fine. There's not as much flooding as we thought there was going to be. We were told yesterday we were going to get probably about nine feet of water. And we got a heck of a lot less than that. The areas that normally flood when we have a storm were, in fact, flooded.

ZAHN: Well, you were very lucky, Mr. Mayor. And we hope that, 12 hours from now, when I guess most of the storm will have passed through, that you can say the same thing.

Mayor Jimmy Weekley, good luck.

WEEKLEY: Thank you.

ZAHN: And we have been telling you this all night long, but it bears repeating. Hurricane Rita, which is a category storm at this hour, keeps getting stronger and stronger, now clocking winds of 105 miles per hour. We're going to go straight back to our severe weather expert, Chad Myers, in a little bit for the very latest on where it is right now and where it's headed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We're going to have the very latest on Hurricane Rita in a moment.

First, though, some of the hour's other top stories, these from Erica Hill at Headline News -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, the first major opposition to Judge John Roberts has surfaced. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid says he'll oppose the president's nomination of Roberts to be chief justice of the United States. Other Democrats may follow. The Senate Judiciary Committee votes on Roberts later this week.

Roadside bombs killed an American soldier today and eight others on Monday in Iraq. The nine deaths pushed the total number of American dead over the 1,900 mark. It now stands at 1,904.

Security cameras captured three of the four London suicide bombers in what appears to be a rehearsal for their deadly July 7 attacks on the London underground. The tape was made nine days before the bombings that killed 52 people, as well as the bombers.

One month after it bought the May Department Store chain, Federated Department Stores is cutting more than 6,000 jobs. It's all part of a slim-down to compete with Wal-Mart and other discount retailers.

And the Federal Reserve raising interest rates again today. They now stand at their highest level in more than four years -- Paula.

ZAHN: Erica Hill, thanks for the update.

We're going to get one more check on Hurricane Rita. Where is the storm now? Where is it headed? We are going to get the very latest from the Weather Center when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Before we go tonight, one more update on Hurricane Katrina, the governor of Louisiana saying a short while ago -- quote -- "We are praying that the hurricane dissipates or that it weakens," as she declared a state of emergency in her state and went on to say, "This state can barely stand what happened to it."

Not so sure, based on what meteorologists are telling us, that that prayer will be answered. The storm whipped past the Florida Keys and Cuba today. Now it is heading west into the Gulf of Mexico, aiming for Texas, possibly. It could be a Category 4 storm, the same as Katrina, by this time tomorrow night.

Let's go to severe weather expert Chad Myers for the very latest. Hi, Chad.

MYERS: Hi, Paula.

The storm now really gaining some strength, even as we speak. The last couple of frames, you can really see the eye of this storm. Hurricane hunter aircraft flying through the storm right now, they just found a wind gust to 119 miles per hour. Now, sure, that's where the planes fly. That's not at the surface. But that means that the storm is already gaining in intensity. This number four in the middle of the screen right there, that's a Category 4, Category 4, Category 4, and, at landfall, right there, about midnight Friday night, south of Houston.

Now, that's the line. I always say, don't look at the line. Look at the cone. It could go left. It could go right. One of the latest computer models has that storm into Lafayette, Louisiana, not into Texas. We look at these models kind of as guidance. When they're five days away, four days away, they're a little tough to actually say that this is exactly what's going to happen. You have to keep your guard up.

Look at these storms lined up that are headed into Tavernier and Key Largo, had tornado warnings a little bit ago for Key Largo. And the storms continue all the way up to Naples, almost up to Marco Island with some of this weather -- big storm, getting bigger.

ZAHN: Thank you, Chad.

We will be keeping an eye on it around the clock here for you at CNN.

Galveston Island already being evacuated at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow, a process that could take some 48 hours.

Again, thanks for joining us tonight. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next.

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