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THE SITUATION ROOM

Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco and Adm. Thad Allen Briefing

Aired September 20, 2005 - 16:58   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go in the meantime, go back to New Orleans. The Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco, is speaking.
GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO, LOUISIANA: ...in the Southeast region. But I have asked all people in coastal parishes and the affected area to pay very close attention to weather reports and to make preparations. Know where you will go. Our shelters are filled.

We are making preparations to move people from shelters below I- 10, if the storm does approach Louisiana, and if it becomes a serious problem. We will move them into shelters north of I-10. We have to free up some shelter places, because we know that people will have learned the lessons of Katrina. And besides that, some years ago, a hurricane named Audrey demolished Cameron Parish, which would be the parish right next to Texas that would be the most high impact parish. We lost a lot of lives in that hurricane, so we are very concerned -- I am always concerned about hurricanes anytime they threaten my state. And we will take extraordinary precautions. We have a coordinated federal, state and local efforts moving in place, as we speak.

We will take all precautions necessary to save lives. And once again, as it was in Katrina, our first mission is to save lives, to save as many lives as possible. And we would urge people to evacuate, take precautions. It's much easier to take a car ride -- even though it might get a little frustrating in some traffic -- than to risk losing a life.

And that will be our mission from here on out. We are praying that the hurricane dissipates, that it weakens, that it becomes simply a tropical storm of sorts -- even though tropical storms can injure us to some extent.

A devastation of a hurricane Category 3, which is what it is projected to possibly increase to, could hurt us once again.

This state can barely stand what's happened to it. We could hardly stand to think of what we'd have to deal with if southwest Louisiana were also impacted.

But we are working on it. We will deal with it. We want to protect lives, again.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE) VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD: The governor and the mayor and I just came from a very extensive brief with the president. The brief was divided into two parts. One was a forecast on where Rita may go and the implications associated with that. That's already been referred to by the mayor and the governor.

The second brief was the status of the current conditions in Louisiana as it relates to our response to Hurricane Katrina.

He is fully briefed and understands that we are adequately addressing both threats. We are redeploying military forces where they are needed in case Rita comes ashore and we need those forces there.

We are repositioning forces in and around New Orleans. I have General Honore and his staff behind me here. They can answer specific questions about the military force adjustment, if you'd have any questions regarding that.

One of the major moves was a field military hospital into the Convention Center that can support medical emergencies as we pass through this time of threat here. We are also providing extra medical assistance teams and trauma units to the extent that they are needed inside the city of New Orleans.

We have been working throughout the day with the state and parish and city planners to preposition equipment, should we need it. We have nearly 500 buses that are staged and ready to be used in an evacuation, if that is necessary. We have water and MREs ready to support a population of about 500,000 should that be necessary.

We are in continual consultations with the state. And around the clock, we are doing reassessments. And if there is an evacuation order at some time in the future or a higher alert status is obtained, we will be ready to act.

As the governor said, this is a combined federal, state and local planning effort. We are ready to execute. We will keep our people out there. We are providing services on scene. If and when a decision is made to move people out of parishes, that's when our people will leave. But until then, they will be there with the people, providing those services.

Are we taking questions, Mr. Mayor?

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: I think Chief Compass has a little update. And then we'll take questions.

EDDIE COMPASS, NEW ORLEANS CHIEF OF POLICE: First of all, I want to thank everybody for coming. We have our communication systems that are up. We have our police officers at the checkpoints. We have some vehicles that have come in, so we're on patrol. We're doing everything we can do disseminate our personnel into the areas as the city dries out.

We have been working very closely with the federal agencies and with the military. And the city of New Orleans is very, very safe.

I want to let you know that this police department is prepared to do whatever it takes to keep this city safe. I will have to put on another hat because Captain DeFillo is not here, so I'm going to be in charge of questions.

I saw him do it enough. From the left to the right.

ALLEN: The mayor was kind enough to give me a T-shirt. We were talking the other day in one of our meetings, and I told him it might be useful, especially for me, to understand where the evacuees have gone to because we're trying to reconcile demand and supply for housing and transient housing.

To know that, you've kind of got to know where the people went. And it's been very difficult for us to reconcile to what part of the country they went to. And the mayor was very interested in that.

I told him I would put my people on it and see what we could come up with. And I promised him this chart that I'd like to show you all. And what it is, it's a density plot of where the people in the United States have evacuated have gone to and then applied for the assistance, so you can see the concentrations of where the people left and have gone to.

Mr. Mayor, per our discussion...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

ALLEN: We will.

QUESTION: Will that be available today?

ALLEN: We'll get it up as soon as we can.

What we've done is we took the information from the registration, tracked it over to GIS, and then put it on a chart, so you can get an idea of where the concentrations of the people who were displaced went.

And we'll be continuing to support the mayor with this type of information through the federal planning and support process.

QUESTION: Admiral, can you talk generally about what you (OFF- MIKE).

ALLEN: Well, as you can see here -- and, again, for the folks that can't see from the camera, there are symbols for concentrations of personnel that aside from the area right here around the Gulf Coast and Louisiana, you can see that there are high concentrations around Atlanta, Chicago, the middle Atlantic area from Washington, D.C., up to New York.

There are some concentrations around Detroit, Denver, Memphis, Los Angeles, Seattle and the Bay area. There are some others there, but that's generally where outside Louisiana we are finding concentrations of people who are (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

ALLEN: We will provide this to you.

The main reason I had it out here was I promised the mayor he would get it and I wanted to deliver it to him in public.

QUESTION: The federal government appears to be amassing quite a bit of resources here in the event of the storm coming here. Now that you've had time to meet with them and meet with the president, are you starting to get a better understanding as to why that's happening this time and why it didn't happen a month ago?

NAGIN: Well, you know, I think we're learning as we go.

And I think the federal government, the state government and local government, we're a lot smarter this time around. 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.

QUESTION: What specifically do you plan to do differently with the evacuation plan this time compared to Hurricane Katrina?

NAGIN: Well, what specifically we plan to do is we're getting the word out now earlier. That's why I announced it yesterday that I wanted people to start evacuating at least on the east bank and start to think about it on the west bank.

We also have had tremendous support as to the number of buses that are available. You just heard the admiral say that there are 500 buses that are staged and ready to go.

So we have a whole different way of approaching this with the resources necessary to move large amounts of people.

QUESTION: I hear some reports that it's more difficult to get into the city...

(CROSSTALK)

NAGIN: More difficult?

QUESTION: ... not letting media or certain other people into the city?

NAGIN: Not that I've heard.

There may be some glitches at certain checkpoints. But for the most part we've gotten reports that people are getting in and out OK. As long as you have your press pass you should be OK.

QUESTION: There are a lot of reports of people who are kind of holed up in some of the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest. Are you being proactive about -- because they don't have power -- are you being proactive about getting in there? They very well may not have even heard about Rita.

NAGIN: I will let General Honore talk about that, because he's been in the neighborhood with his troops as far as sweeping (OFF- MIKE).

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY: What was the question again please?

QUESTION: How are you making sure that this information about Rita gets into neighborhoods where people have stayed throughout the aftermath of Katrina and now they obviously are holed up, they don't have power, they're not (OFF-MIKE) to evacuate, they may not even know (OFF-MIKE)?

HONORE: We will inform our National Guard patrols to see them, to make contact with them and do the best we can. But, again, it's their choice to stay there. We continue to see if they need assistance and we'll continue to do that. Over.

QUESTION: We were talking (OFF-MIKE) French Quarter. There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not the city is under an evacuation order now. Yesterday (OFF-MIKE) seemed like you were issuing an evacuation order (OFF-MIKE).

NAGIN: Well, basically what I was saying yesterday was that I am reemphasizing the evacuation order that was always in place. We have also allowed business people to come in and from dawn to dusk, or dawn to dusk, to basically go in and assess what they have. We're going to allow that to continue until the end of day today, and then tomorrow we will start to strictly enforce the mandatory evacuation.

QUESTION: One business owner told us that he would never leave the city, you'd have to take him out by gunpoint. What do you say to citizens (OFF-MIKE)?

NAGIN: Well, I saw that we're all adults, and we really don't want to take people out by gunpoint. We hope that they can see the threat, understand the threat and obey the law. It's not in anybody's best interest to start having regular citizens and the police force or the armed forces start to battle.

QUESTION: At what point do you start deploying those buses? What has to happen?

NAGIN: They're already pretty deployed. Once we got wind that there were some people over at the convention center, it was just a matter of a phone call.

The buses were already ready to go. And they were there within minutes.

QUESTION: So people understand, the evacuation order wasn't (OFF-MIKE). Second question: At what point does Rita become clear? You said, "When it clears the city, we'll move ahead with the plans." At what point is it clear that it's clear?

NAGIN: To address the camera? As far as the business owners are concerned, you know, I got some calls last night, or Terry Ebbert got some calls, and they were basically saying that there were individuals that were already on their way to New Orleans. And what do we do about those individuals as far as the business owners?

We made the decision late yesterday to basically allow them to continue to come in and to go in and see what they had in their businesses and start to make the plans.

And then, starting when the sun goes down tonight, we will start to reinforce and enforce the curfew.

QUESTION: At what point (OFF-MIKE) Rita is clear that you will move ahead with your plan to reopen the city? What would determine when Rita is clear of New Orleans?

NAGIN: Well, you know, once the storm gets in the Gulf of Mexico, there's no telling where it's going to go. We would like to see a consistency as it relates to the National Weather Service. And the meteorologists all pretty much come (inaudible) in saying, "This is where we think it's going to go."

We're going to watch it tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon will be a good decision point and, most likely, Thursday morning will be a better decision point.

QUESTION: On the evacuees who are at the convention center, how many are they roughly, and where are they coming from? Where might they be evacuated to?

NAGIN: I don't know. Do you know where they came from?

HONORE: No. But I understand from the governor and the mayor, we are not going back into the Convention Center and the Superdome. It isn't going to happen, all right?

We have got the capability -- as people who don't have transportation need transportation, we're going to move them out. But we're not going back in the convention center or Superdome business.

That's what I heard from the governor and the mayor. We're not going to do it. We have go the capacity. We're going to move them out as they come out.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Will you actually shut down the border to the city tomorrow (OFF-MIKE)

NAGIN: No, we're going to start -- as long as that storm is still a significant threat in the Gulf of Mexico, we're going to start to shut the city down.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) convention center, how is that going? NAGIN: The Superdome has gone through a clean up. It's my understanding that they've done yeoman's work.

I'm not sure what it looks like. I haven't been in there.

But if you drive over there, you'll see guys and gals in little white suits with masks that have been working for many, many days.

As far as the convention center is concerned, there's still debris in the convention center. There have been certain sections that have been cleared out as it relates to future needs.

We were planning to use the convention center as a retail staging area and now the general is using it as a temporary hospital.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

NAGIN: Well, they tell me that there's new communications equipment that's available, and I don't want to describe it because it's military equipment.

But there is a new communications technique that we will be using.

QUESTION: Everybody is equipped for that?

NAGIN: As far as I know.

QUESTION: Is it satellite phones? Can General Honore address that or somebody?

HONORE: In support of the state, we have taken to selective parishes and we have coming online about a $4.5 million package using DOD satellite comms, a system called TSAT.

And that's all you need to know about it right now. It's coming on line. It'll be up and running.

QUESTION: What's it called again?

HONORE: TSAT.

Again, I told you it's military. I don't want to give you a class on it. But we'll offer you a separate briefing on it once we have it up and running in the next few days.

But it will give us redundancy in satellite communication so in case we have a repeat of Katrina that takes down all of the cell phones and the infrastructure and the land lines, this system will be operational.

So we'll walk it out, we'll let you know about it, and we'll include it in one of the governor's briefs, because it's a program that she requested that's being enabled by DOD.

QUESTION: Would someone walk us through the evacuation process at this point? Where are the buses? How will the evacuees find out where the buses are? How do they get on the buses and where do they go?

(CROSSTALK)

NAGIN: What was your question? I'm sorry.

QUESTION: At this point, where are the buses? How do the evacuees get to the buses? How do they find out where they are? How do they get out...

NAGIN: Well, the buses are basically staged. We're trying to get everyone to a central point. The point that people have been going to that's most recognizable is the convention center. And we have taken two busloads of people out thus far.

How are they getting the word? We're out in the community; they're telling people that there's an evacuation order in place as well as the radio and the TV coverage.

QUESTION: So when they get there, they just stand outside, because they can't go in the convention center? What happens?

NAGIN: Well, as soon as they get there, we're picking them up.

QUESTION: But you just said you're not in the convention center business...

NAGIN: I'm saying we're not inside the convention center. The convention center is a place where people are accustomed to going to evacuate and it looks like that's the place where they're going.

QUESTION: To strictly enforce the evacuation tomorrow, what does that mean?

NAGIN: We have to determine exactly where the storm is going. I'm telling you, based upon the storm threat, we will start to strictly enforce the evacuation process tomorrow.

HONORE: Mr. Mayor, let's go back, because I can see right now, we're setting this up that he said, she said, we said.

NAGIN: Right.

HONORE: We're not going to go by order the mayor or 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?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

HONORE: That's not your business.

QUESTION: General...

HONORE: Wait a minute. It didn't work the first time. This ain't the first time. OK? If we don't control Rita -- understand -- so there will be a lot of pieces of it that's going to be worked out.

You got good public servants working through it. Let's get a little trust here because you're starting to act like this is your problem.

You're carrying the message. OK?

What we're going to do is have the buses staged. The initial place is the convention center. We're not going to announce other places at this time until we get a plan set and we'll let people know where those locations are through the government and through a public announcement.

Right now, to handle the number of people that want to leave, we've got the capacity. You will come to the convention center -- there are soldiers there from the 82nd Airborne and from the Louisiana National Guard.

People will be told to get on the bus and we will take care of them. And where they go will be dependent on the capacity in the state. We have our communications up and we will tell them where to go.

And when they get there, they'll be given the opportunity to get registered and so they can let their families knows where they are. But don't start panic here.

OK? We've got a location. It is in the front of the convention center and that's where will use to migrate people from.

QUESTION: General Honore, we were told that Vernon Stadium (inaudible) will be another staging area. Are you using that area yet or not?

HONORE: Not to my knowledge. Again, the current place -- we just told you one time is the convention center.

Once we complete the plan with the mayor, and it's approved by the governor, then we'll start that in the next 12 to 24 hours.

And understand that there's a problem in getting communications out. That's where we need your help. But let's not confuse the questions with the answers.

Buses at the convention center will move our citizens, for whom we have sworn that we will support and defend. And we'll move them on.

Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We're moving forward. And don't confuse the people, please. You're a part of the public message. So help us get the message straight. And if you don't understand it, maybe it's confusing to the people. That's why we like the follow-up questions.

But right now it's the convention center and move on.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) just understand a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and did not happen last time.

HONORE: You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita. This is public information that people are depending on the government to put out. This is the way we got to do it.

So, please, I apologize to you, but let's talk about the future. Rita has happened. Right now we need to get good, clean information out to the people that they can use. And we can have a conversation on the side about the past a few months from now. OK?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: When will you see buses in front of the convention center?

NAGIN: When will you see them?

HONORE: You can follow me.

NAGIN: You want to see some buses. We can get you some buses.

QUESTION: Mayor, will you, yourself, evacuate?

NAGIN: No. No. I'll stay here.

QUESTION: Also, can you break down how many civilians are in the city...

(CROSSTALK)

NAGIN: I mean, you know, I don't know exactly the count. We only know of a group of about 400 or 500 people that are kind of clustered. And then there are scattered reports of individuals in the city in various sections. But other than that, it shouldn't be a significant number of people.

QUESTION: What about emergency personnel?

NAGIN: Well, I don't have a count on that, but it's probably a couple of hundred.

BLITZER: Even as the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana and the military personnel on the scene have been briefing reporters on the preparations in the Gulf Coast, preparations for Hurricane Rita, from The National Hurricane Center in Miami at the top of this hour has announced its official forecast now takes Rita to a Category 4 -- a Category 4 hurricane status by 2:00 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, 2:00 p.m. Eastern as it begins to move across the Gulf of Mexico.

Some perspective, a category 4 hurricane is what Hurricane Katrina was when it finally landed in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, winds between 131 to 155 miles an hour.

That's a Category 4 hurricane. By the end of this week, by Friday, late Friday, Saturday, by this weekend, this Hurricane, Rita, expected to land somewhere along that coast, whether it's Texas or Louisiana. People are beginning to make preparations. We're going to digest this breaking news, what we've just heard from mayor and the governor, General Honore, Vice Admiral Allen. Much more of our coverage in THE SITUATION ROOM, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's breaking news that we have been following now for about half an hour. Hurricane Rita, which is now a Category 2 storm with winds more than 100 miles per hour, expected by tomorrow afternoon, 2:00 p.m. Eastern to reach Category 4 status, winds of at least 130 to 140 miles an hour.

Let's bring in our Jacqui Jeras. She's following all of this from the CNN Hurricane Center. Jacqui -- John Zarrella is standing by. He's in the keys. Dan Lothian is standing by. We'll get to them momentarily. But first, update our viewers with what is going on with Rita?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Rita is continuing to intensify right now. It's packing winds of 100 miles per hour. That puts it in the Category 2 range and just about in the middle of the Category 2 range. We are expecting it to continue to intensify, though the Keys is kind of in the worst of it right now, and that will improve over the next couple of hours.

Right about three minutes from now, we're expecting that the tornado warning in effect for Monroe County that includes the Keys could expire, but these outer feeder bands have been showing signs of rotation. And so we may see that extended beyond 5:30 as these little feeder bands continue to just pound Plantation Key and Key Largo.

We also have a tornado warning in effect for Monroe -- that's the land version of Monroe, not the Keys, into southern Florida here on the peninsula, and Collier County for a possible tornado that has been moving toward Everglades City. That is pushing off to the west very rapidly, but you can see more storms to follow back behind that one.

The storm forecast track is the same, but the intensity is what has changed now with the 5:00 o'clock advisory. And Wolf, as you mentioned, the official forecast now has it a Category 4 storm by 2:00 p.m. Wednesday, holding that status into the Gulf and then turning up to the north and heading towards Texas. And there's a high level of confidence from the CNN weather team and the National Hurricane Center both that Texas is the most likely target for this. What does a Category 4 mean exactly to you? It means winds of 131 to 155 miles per hour, storm surge as high as 13 to 18 feet. And this will cause some considerable damage to homes. Small residence may be completely destroyed, very large trees will be blown down, mobile homes completely destroyed and look at the terrain. Lower than 10 feet above mean sea level can be flooded and that could cause some massive evacuations.

So we need to monitor this very closely over the next couple days. There is still a margin of error as to exactly where this is going to be hitting. So everybody along the Texas coast needs to pay close attention. And yet tonight, across the Keys and south Florida, we need to be watching for that continued threat of tornadoes.

There you can see the center of the storm and here's Key West. There's Dry Tortugas. The storm is moving westerly so it is now pulling away from the keys -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And it's expected you said Friday to hit Texas or some place in the Gulf coast?

JERAS: Yes, timing could change a little bit between now and then, but we think it will probably be overnight Friday or into Saturday morning.

BLITZER: We'll be watching every step of the way. Thank you very much Jacqui, for that. Let's go straight to our man on the scene, John Zarrella. He is joining us now live from Key West. I take it the worst is over where you are, John?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, pretty much, Wolf, although we're continuing to get these rain bands moving in, as Jacqui had mentioned, the squalls coming, the heavy rains coming down. But the worst of it, yes, was about an hour or so ago. It's still steady rain and wind. I think that, you know, the big story here is probably the Overseas Highway.

But you can look down Duval Street and you can see that it's still pretty much deserted, a few people riding on bicycles and going up and down in cars here on Duval Street, but again, the Overseas Highway, portions of that from about 11 miles north of us here in Key West, up to about mile marker 110, have -- portions of it have been over washed with seaweed and debris. So they're going to have to clear that, before they reopen that roadway. But, Wolf, again, worst of it apparently about over with for us down in the Keys, and officials breathing a sigh of relief.

BLITZER: Can you can believe that this hurricane is now projected to be a Category 4. John, you've covered these hurricanes for a long time. And that it's heading toward that Texas, maybe even Louisiana, coast. Is this unbelievable, or what?

ZARRELLA: The whole season has been unbelievable. Last year as well. But, no. That water is awfully warm there. Not such a surprise that this thing could make it to a four, and that's just not good news at all -- Wolf. BLITZER: That's very worrying news. Thanks, John, very much.

Let's go over to Key Largo right now. CNN's Dan Lothian standing by there. What's it like where are you, Dan?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, somewhat of the same situation here where we continue to get the winds, a little bit of rain and then it sort of calms down. Now the winds pick up a little bit, but it does appear that the worst of it is over.

We're on the Gulf side. It's amazing that with this storm it's remained this calm. But what we're seeing from the wind, a lot of branches down. And of course these from the palm trees not only along the beach here, but also along the road that comes through Key West from Homestead all the way down to Key West.

The biggest problem, though, that we have seen has been localized flooding not far away from here. In fact, south of here, in Islamorada, we ran into a trailer park that had been flooded right on the ocean's shore. It had been flooded with about three feet of water inside. Residents going back to find out that they have gotten some major damage from Hurricane Rita -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Dan, we'll check back with you. Thank you very much.

It's the difference between what could be happening versus what actually is happening right now in the Florida Keys. The Key West mayor, Jimmy Weekley, says he thinks they've quote, dodged a bullet, at least for now. Mayor Weekley is joining us live. Mayor, thanks very much for joining us. Looks like your signal is coming in and out, but can you hear me okay, Mayor?

MAYOR JIMMY WEEKLEY, KEY WEST, FLORIDA: Yes, I can.

BLITZER: All right. Give our viewers a sense, do you believe you dodged a bullet?

WEEKLEY: Yes, most definitely. Just riding around now, it appears that we had more damage between -- with Hurricane Dennis and Hurricane Katrina than we have had with this hurricane here. And we are very fortunate that we did not have the Category of storm that they were talking about yesterday.

BLITZER: The last time we heard that phrase, it was in New Orleans on that Monday when they thought they dodged a bullet, but then the levees collapsed and the flood walls came down. The flooding across A-1-A before looked pretty significant. You've seen worse, though, is that what you're saying?

WEEKLEY: Yes, we have. You know, we had a lot more flooding during Katrina and also Hurricane Dennis this year, than we have had so far with this storm here. So there are areas of city that are flooded, but nothing to the amount that we thought we were going to have.

BLITZER: What was the biggest problem, iff any, that you had as a result then?

WEEKLEY: You know, it was the flooding. The biggest problem that we had was trying to convince people to stay off the streets. You know, there are some power lines down that we're concerned with of people going around the city looking at different sites to see what they see. And we were concerned that any water that was on the ground, if there was a power line in it, someone walking around, that could cause a problem. Or just people just in their cars, so that was the biggest problem that we had here was convincing people they needed to stay in their homes during this event.

BLITZER: Mayor Weekley, thanks very much for joining us. Mayor James Weekley is the mayor of Key West, says they dodged a bullet there. Let's hope they do the same thing elsewhere in the United States.

We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll go live to the National Hurricane Center. That's coming up. We'll get the latest forecast for what is now projected to be a Category 4 hurricane, it's a Category 2 status right now.

Also ahead, here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Hurricane Katrina. We're following developments in the disaster area. Our Mary Snow is there. She'll up date us on what's going on there from one of most hard-hit areas in New Orleans. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Florida Keys are feeling it is sting of Hurricane Rita, but will the storm's full fury be felt days from now, hundreds of miles away? Let's get the latest assessment. Ed Rappaport, the deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, is joining us. You're now projecting this is going to be a Category 4 storm, Ed?

ED RAPPAPORT, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: That's right. Right now, Rita is a Category 2 hurricane, bypassing just to the south of Key West. The worst of the weather is just offshore, a matter of miles offshore. But we have had unofficial reports of sustained winds of sustained winds of 75 miles-per-hour gusts to 102 miles-per-hour.

In the days ahead, though, we think that Rita will continue to move westward as it has been, and then turn to the northwest ultimately with a landfall in the Western to Central Gulf of Mexico. More likely in Texas this time than Louisiana. That the conditions over the Central Gulf are much like they were for Katrina, so we do expect strengthening. Major hurricane status probably tomorrow, potentially Category 4.

BLITZER: How much of a margin of error is there. In other words, ho worried should the people in New Orleans, for example, be right now?

RAPPAPORT: The forecast we have is for landfall farther to the west. We do have some error involved there with a three and four day forecast, so this is the normal or the average amount of error, but New Orleans is even east of that. So what we're talking about now is chances for hurricane force winds in New Orleans and the points east from there are less than 5 percent.

BLITZER: But as far as hurricane winds are one thing, but they have given the nature of their levees right now and the flood wall -- they've tried to rebuild them with these sand bags to a certain degree, they're worried about significant rain, and what that could do in terms of breaking those flood walls and levees once again. Are they going to get some significant rain?

RAPPAPORT: There is some rainfall to be expected from Rita. Even as far east as Southeastern Louisiana. If this forecast track holds up, we're expecting in the long range on the order of one to three inches of rain. Of course, the details will are going to be hard to know right now, but we'll find out more, of course, in the next couple days, see if the track moves over or if the storm expands at all.

BLITZER: Right now, you project it hitting sometime on Friday or overnight Friday/Saturday. But it could slow down or speed up as it moves across the Gulf of Mexico.

RAPPAPORT: Yes. Everyone has to understand that forecasts three and four days out have quite a bit of limitations. There's some uncertainty here. So not only can the track move to the right or to the left, but it can also speed up or slow down a little bit, as you're saying. And our greatest challenge is actually in the intensity forecasting. Forecasting Category 4, but we have significant errors, occasionally, at those long time frames.

BLITZER: We all remember that Katrina hit as a Category 4, but at one point, while it was going through the Gulf of Mexico, it went up to a Category 5 status. What are the prospects of Rita eventually becoming a Category 5?

RAPPAPORT: That's possible, but hurricanes don't maintain that status very long, and the condition as we approach the coast may not be quite so conducive for such an intense hurricane, much as they deteriorated somewhat for Katrina as well.

BLITZER: Ed Rappaport, thanks very much for joining us. Thanks for the good work.

As Hurricane Rita moves over the Florida Keys, some bloggers on the other side of the Gulf in Galveston, Texas, specifically, are preparing for the worst. Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is checking the situation online. She's joining us now live -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, bloggers and news sites in the Galveston area are documenting the preparations for this storm, which is being watched very carefully. Galveston right now under a voluntary evacuation. That will change to a mandatory evacuation order tomorrow. Local sites like the "Galveston County Daily News" showing pictures here of people stocking up on goods in the local Wal-Mart. Are you ready is the sign there.

"The Houston Chronicle" has a Web site, houstonchronicle.com, that has a Rita blog, constantly updated with information for people south of Houston in the Galveston area, showing people preparing for this storm, boarding up their homes right now. The Norwood (ph) brothers here boarding up their home before leaving under this mandatory evacuation tomorrow.

Local bloggers as well telling us what's going on. Libertysblog.com reporting that there were lines at the gas stations last night. They have a hotel room booked for themselves. They're saying that these hotels are booked up for 100 miles around.

Another blogger who very much hopes to stay, this is Jim Siegler (ph), who lives on his sailboat in a marina in Galveston. He very much wanted to stay and ride out this storm. He's said he's ridden out one hurricane and two strong tropical storms already. But now that there is this mandatory evacuation order, he is probably preparing to leave as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Abbi, very much. Let's immediately go to CNN's Ali Velshi. He's watching Rita as well. What are you looking at, Ali?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Same perspective actually. Yes, Galveston, Corpus Christi, those are areas of interest for us, because as things stand, even if those that hurricane sort of gets a little bit south and west of Galveston and misses it, the fact is, as Jacqui was saying earlier, there is a grand swath of wind and rain that goes along with that.

And the rig and platforms operators in the Gulf don't take chances with that sort of thing. We're seeing a lot of evacuations right now, and you'll recall that when Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane, it does damage to the oil infrastructure before it gets to shore. Now, Galveston, after it rebuilt itself, after it got hit 100 years ago or 105 or five years ago, it came back as a major outpost for the oil industry.

Now Galveston, as it shuts down and prepares for this, means that oil is not being produced, so we are now going to see, with the intensification with this hurricane, it won't matter much as to what it does once its on shore to oil production. You can see there, those are all the oil refineries on shore.

The closest one, that BP one around the center of your screen, that's the closest one to Galveston. It's offshore, what it does to those pipelines and those rigs and platforms that are in the shore, so that's what we have to keep track of. Even if it loses intensity by the time it hits shore, it may still have done a lot of damage in the Gulf of Mexico itself, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much Ali. Ali Velshi reporting for us. Just ahead, is Texas ready? I will speak with the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He's here. He'll join us live in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We've been following the breaking news this hour. Hurricane Rita about to become tomorrow, at least according to the National Hurricane Center, a Category 4 hurricane.

We're watching that, but we're also watching the incredible aftermath of the earlier storm, that would be Hurricane Katrina. All along the Gulf coast they're trying to put their lives back together. Let's immediately head out to New Orleans. Our Mary Snow is in the ninth ward. She's joining us now with more -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're actually moved from our location and we are now in downtown New Orleans. And as you just heard the mayor say that federal officials are repositioning and there are either going to be fighting Katrina or fleeing Rita. They are watching this storm very closely.

Yesterday the mayor told people not to return to New Orleans and he suspended a plan to bring people back gradually. He has told people to go to the Convention Center for a staging area. He is making it very clear that he does not want people to go inside the Convention Center, of course a symbol of such misery last -- a couple weeks ago when Katrina hit here and thousands were stranded.

What he's saying is that there are buses that will take people out of New Orleans. He said two busloads did leave New Orleans today. The military plans to use the Convention Center once it is cleared up. It is still being cleaned up. They plan to use it as a hospital.

Elsewhere in parts of New Orleans, you saw members of National Guard going through the streets in pretty desolate areas just in case anybody has not left telling them to leave the region. Now, you just mentioned the ninth ward where we were earlier. This is really the called the worst of the worst in New Orleans. This was so hard hit. Just destruction everywhere you go.

And this is an area that was hit not only by the storm, but also by the levee breaks, about three blocks away from a levee. And what's happening now is there's been a task force in there doing recovery operation. Of course, that is taking on an extra sense of urgency as people are trying to step up their mission there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thank you very much. Hurricane Rita could miss New Orleans but still bring some heavy downpours to the area. And what if there's a new storm surge? Could the damaged levees in New Orleans hold? Joining us now, Lieutenant General Carl Strock.

He's the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. General, thanks very much for joining us.

LT. GEN. CARL STROCK, COMMANDER, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Before we get to New Orleans, let's talk about Texas.

Friday, Saturday, a category four hurricane. If it's moving toward Texas, are the people in Galveston, for example, are they ready for this? STROCK: Well, certainly Galveston has evacuation plans like all coastal cities and they will make that decision on whether to exercise those or not.

In terms of the FEMA response, as always, pre-landfall we are setting up and reconstituting our effort to respond here.

We're in the middle of hurricane season, so we knew two weeks ago that this could happen and we have been busily preparing teams to provide commodities, standing up debris removal teams and that sort of thing to be prepared for landfall.

BLITZER: Has the Army Corps of Engineers had specific projects along that Texas coast? Remember, Galveston 100 years ago-plus was destroyed by an earlier hurricane.

Have they rebuilt that area efficiently to withstand a category four?

STROCK: Well, category four is a very difficult one to protect against.

The main structures we have down there are navigation structures to move commercial traffic in and out of the Galveston area. We don't have a lot of extensive flood control and shore protection projects in that area.

BLITZER: We're looking at this picture, this projection of where this hurricane could hit the Texas coast.

Let's talk about New Orleans. They're, understandably, very, very worried there. What's your assessment?

STROCK: Well, certainly if the track continues as we're now predicting, I think New Orleans will be fairly safe from any kind of a catastrophic event.

The biggest challenge I think we'll see is rainfall in the city. The city has a pump system which is meant to remove precipitation. That pumping system is about 40 percent effective right now. And so it would clearly be overwhelmed by a sizable rainfall event.

We think something on the line of three inches over six hours would probably put two to four feet of water in the lower-lying sections of the city.

BLITZER: And that would recreate the flooding?

STROCK: It could.

But, of course, it would not be at the same level we saw as a result of Katrina.

The levees also are a concern. They would not stand any kind of significant storm surge. We have repaired the major breaks in the levees in the Orleans Parish area. But we are concerned about the weakened state of the levees, and clearly, they would not be able to take any kind of direct hit.

So it is a wise move not to bring people back into the city.

BLITZER: And presumably it would be a wise move not to bring a lot of people back into the city while the hurricane season continues -- and it goes on until the end of next month.

STROCK: That's correct. We're about in the middle of it.

Our plan is to bring an interim level of protection up as quickly as we can and then prior to next hurricane season, to have the full pre-Katrina system back in place.

BLITZER: It goes actually to November 30th, so that's a couple of months, almost a month and a half -- actually two months to go before this whole thing is over with.

How long is it going to be before New Orleans is going to be totally safe again, if it ever was totally safe; in other words, that could withstand a category four or category five hurricane?

STROCK: Well, certainly, it's feasible to provide that level of protection.

We have a study that's been going on for a few years now, which is at the point where you can begin to get some real detail and analysis in.

We're really talking years, though.

BLITZER: Ten years?

STROCK: Perhaps earlier than that. But it depends on what solution we come up with, whether we use beefed-up levees or we use a series of barriers.

The technical solution will drive how long it would take.

But we're talking years before we can really guarantee level five protection.

BLITZER: And the Army Corps of Engineers has this study.

How much would it cost projected over, let's say, 10 years to get a system in place for New Orleans that could withstand a category five hurricane?

Does your study deal with a category five or a category four?

STROCK: It's both four and five.

And we think that it's an incremental level to go to category five. The preliminary figures -- and, of course, again, it determines on what the final solution is -- but we're looking at about $2.5 billion to $3 billion to provide the cat-five protection along the Lake Pontchartrain shore.

Now, there are many other areas of the city that have other levee systems to protect it from surges coming out of the south and west.

You'd have to take an overall, comprehensive view of the entire area.

To provide level-five protection for the entire coast would be considerably more than that. But for New Orleans proper, for a surge at Lake Pontchartrain, which this project protects against, we're talking $2.5 billion to $3 billion.

BLITZER: But in the short term, there's not going to be any protection? The sort of stop-gap measures you've put in place, the sandbagging and things like that, that's not going to hold up for very long?

STROCK: No. And certainly not in any sizable event, no.

BLITZER: General, good luck to you.

Good luck to all the men and women of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Appreciate it very much.

STROCK: Thank you, Wolf. Appreciate it.

BLITZER: Let's go out to Glenna Milberg once again from our affiliate WPLG. She's in Marathon, Florida. She's joining us with more there. How's Rita impacting there, Glenna?

MILBERG: Hi, Wolf. Well since we spoke, I think it's been a little over an hour, it had been an awful, awful hour in Marathon. Perhaps the worst of it came through, and just terrible for the boating community with boats in the marina where we are.

This is Marathon, which is about dead center in the Florida Keys. And I want to direct your attention to what is now just a big mast just to the right of that red buoy. Not an hour ago, that mast, you could see the entire sailboat that just sunk, because of the winds pushing water all through the marina.

And the bigger story I will tell you here, is what you don't see. If you do a -- Damon McGee (ph) is behind the camera. He's giving you a pan of the marina and the harbor here. What you don't see are probably more than a dozen smaller boats, dinghies that are just not there. They are under the water now. And this is what we've experienced just in the last couple of hours when some horrendous, relentless gusts of wind just pushed through the central part of the Keys, and probably coming right as we speak. Also down by the mangroves over there, the mangrove forest, there was a houseboat that went under, that crashed against the mangroves. Some of the people here said the person who lived aboard evacuated to Ft. Lauderdale yesterday, so we don't expect anyone was hurt. But this -- just this right here, although it's a protected harbor, this is the kind of damage that Rita's winds have caused this afternoon. And really Rita was not as bad here as expected. The storm surge wasn't as high, and certainly the eye stayed further from the Keys than expected. But, all said and done, there will be some damage here, and a lot of people who were here crying over their boats.

Everything else in Marathon looks good. Rita looks like she is now well past. I'm Glenna Milberg reporting live in Marathon. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks, Glenna, very much. Glenna from out affiliate WPLG.

Just ahead, is she the right woman for the job? President Bush tabs a close adviser to investigate what went wrong with the government's response for Hurricane Katrina. What do you think about that? Jack Cafferty standing by with your e-mail right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is joining us now from New York. He's been reading your e-mail. What a SITUATION ROOM today, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Busy place, huh, Wolf? President Bush has named his Homeland Security adviser, Francis Townsend, to investigate what went wrong with the governments response to Hurricane Katrina. I guess they think everybody is going to say, gee, that's a great idea. The question we're asking, is the presidents Homeland Security adviser the right choice to investigate Hurricane Katrina. You can't even say this stuff with a straight face.

Theresa in Petal, Mississippi. Bush appointing his Homeland Security adviser to investigate her own departments bungled response to Katrina would be shocking, if it wasn't so tragically typical of this administration. It's like O.J. Simpson searching for the real killer, when all he had to do was look in the mirror. Just how dumb do they think we are?

Steve in Carlsbad, California writes, no one from the Department of Homeland Security can effectively investigate the Department of Homeland Security. The findings would always be viewed suspiciously, would not have credibility. We need an independent commission such as was formed to investigate the 9/11 failures. That is the only was the public will accept any report that's eventually issued.

Ron in Manistique, Michigan. Of course it's a great idea, just like having the tobacco industry do the studies on the health effects of smoking.

Terry in Nebraska writes, what's not fair about investigating oneself. Congress votes on whether to give themselves pay raises. If the public continues to buy hook, line and bobber whatever this president tells them, then they deserve what they get.

And finally Dave in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Yeah, she's fine, and when there's an impropriety on my tax return, just tell the IRS I'll look into it and get back to you.

BLITZER: Dave in Sioux Falls has got a good sense of humor.

CAFFERTY: Yes, he does.

BLITZER: Jack, I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks very much.

We're in THE SITUATION ROOM every weekday afternoon from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now. Lou's standing by in New York. Hi, Lou.

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