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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Texas Prepares For Hurricane Rita; Interview With Texas Governor Rick Perry; Interview With Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Aired September 22, 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, as you can see, the outer fringes of Hurricane Rita are already touching Louisiana. Hurricane warnings are in effect from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana. We have crews stationed all along the Gulf Coast to show us the preparations and some of the problems that are showing up already.

First, though, I want to bring you up to speed. Rita, now a Category 4 storm, with 145 mile-an-hour sustained winds, forecasters predict it will make landfall early Saturday between Galveston, Texas, and the Louisiana state line. Governor Kathleen Blanco says everyone along the Louisiana coast needs to get out of the way and fast.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA: We are on the east side of the storm, just as Mississippi was. We can expect serious consequences from this hurricane.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: New Orleans has been placed under a tropical storm warning. That's up from a watch, meaning its shored-up, but still fragile levees may have to hold back flooding from two to four inches of rain and a three- to five-foot storm surge. The mayor says he is ready.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: The Army Corps of Engineers has done some work to assure us that they can handle that type of storm surge with the current situation at our -- at our -- at our levees.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Meanwhile, in Texas, people trying to obey mandatory evacuation orders are getting stuck on Houston's highways. Frustrated motorists say, in some cases, it's taking nine hours to crawl 20 miles.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The way I feel, I'd rather buck Rita right in the face. Rita, ride it out. That's just how I feel right now, because traffic is not moving. We would go a car length at a time, one car length, one car length. It's frustrating.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Can't blame her. And we are going to be talking to the governor of Texas about that in a minute or two.

Meanwhile, Houston officials are trying to ease up some of these bottlenecks by opening up southbound lanes on Interstate 45 to northbound traffic. They are also sending tanker trucks to keep service stations from running out of gasoline.

Houston's airports are a nightmare, too. Officials say most of the federal TSA inspectors didn't even bother to report to work today. Lines of people waiting to pass through security checkpoints stretched outside the terminal.

And where is Rita right now and how strong is she?

Let's check in with Chad Myers at Weather Center -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: A little bit late, in fact. Probably -- we usually get them about 20 minutes to the hour, but it just came out.

The new numbers now, I'm sure some of you, many of you, are keeping track, 26.0 and 89.9 west. It is still 145 miles per hour. The storm has not gained any strength. It has not lost any strength in the past three hours. And there are hurricane hunters in it, one plane with all those guys in it, trying to tell you exactly what is going on right now, still a category 4.

It would have to be 156 to get back up to a Category 5. It was a Category 5 yesterday. As this storm was moving over some very cool water yesterday, just west of Key West, it was only 109 miles per hour. But when it ran through a very warm eddy of warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, it ran all the way to 175.

Well, in the past couple of hours, it kind of lost the eddy a little bit and it has dropped down to 144. That's the center of the storm. It's going to run past a new little eddy tonight, maybe increase in strength a little bit. But, notice, before it gets to landfall -- there is Houston right there. And there is the border between Texas and Louisiana. Before it gets to there, it's running through some colder water. That will probably reduce the wind speed a little bit. That will help, at least a touch -- Paula.

ZAHN: Hard to believe we're talking about a four-mile stretch of land from Texas to Louisiana in peril tonight. Chad, thank you so much.

Tonight, almost everyone has left Galveston, Texas, a city of about 60,000 people built on a barrier island, well, that is, almost everyone. About 5 percent of Galveston's population, 3,000 people, are staying put, including the mayor of that city and holdouts, gambling that they'll live through Rita.

Sean Callebs joins us now from Galveston with more on that.

Hi, Sean. Any signs of wind picking up there?

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Paula, indeed.

If you just look to my right, you can see the waves, very punishing at this hour. They're now slamming into the base of this 18-foot seawall. And, if the forecasters are right, some time in the next, day-and-a-half, the ocean is going to leap over this seawall and then basically swamp a huge percentage of this island.

As you mentioned, there is a mandatory evacuation, though. And a lion's share of people have already left this island, but, as we found out today, not everyone has.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CALLEBS (voice-over): Whitecaps off Galveston kicked up early, about the time Phillip Kilngy popped his head out of his oceanfront condo.

PHILLIP KILNGY, RESIDENT OF GALVESTON: It's going to be a battle. It's going to be a very bad storm. It's going to do a lot of damage.

CALLEBS: But it's not driving Kilngy off this barrier island to find shelter inland. And he says he's not crazy.

KILNGY: I wouldn't say that it's nuts. I would say it depends on the person -- or not the person, on where their location is, and how comfortable and how well they know the building that they're staying in.

CALLEBS: The 43-year-old pool contractor has lived in the Galveston area his entire life. His condo is on the fourth floor, away, he says, from a dangerous storm surge.

KILNGY: I'm going to crisscross the duct tape on these windows. But, first, these storm shutters, when you pull them shut, they go up like that.

CALLEBS: He calls the building a fortress. He's also studied Rita very closely.

KILNGY: This is really crisp weather here, so I think it's going to make even more of a turn towards Louisiana.

CALLEBS: On the other hand, residents like Kilngy are Officer Angela Rojas' biggest problem. She has been patrolling Seawall Avenue, watching the waves grow.

ANGELA ROJAS, GALVESTON POLICE DEPARTMENT: I think it's coming. It's coming for us and it's going to be a big one. And that wall's not big enough for us.

CALLEBS: That protective seawall went up after the 1900 Galveston hurricane that killed at least 6,000 people. Rojas says about 95 percent of the people have evacuated from Galveston. A few thousand are still here, in large part because they know the local history and the damage a powerful hurricane can do. Forecasters predict parts of the city could be under 25 feet of water after Rita blows through.

(on camera): When you drive through here, do you think, this is my last look at it?

ROJAS: I do. I really do. It's just so -- there's water back there in the bay. You have got the water here. It's all going to be gone.

CALLEBS: There will be flooding. There will be high winds, but one of the few holdouts also insists, he will still be here.

KILNGY: It would literally take an explosion to take this building down. So, structurally, the building is fine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CALLEBS: It's a gamble. And let's hope, indeed, he's right.

Now, as for this barrier island, whether it is the lingering images from Katrina to the east of us or just the local knowledge and people know what a powerful hurricane can do, people are leaving this island. And those who are staying are trying to get to high ground and make sure they are in secure buildings -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, we just hope those holdouts are OK, including the mayor of Galveston, who has chosen to stay in a much more fortified building than Sean just shared that story with us, a building, we are told, has eight-foot walls. And she will be monitoring the storm from there.

Sean Callebs, thanks so much.

Now, today's biggest surprise is how the evacuation in Texas turned into a slow-motion nightmare.

For an update on Houston, which happens to be the site of a major and miserable bottleneck, let's turn to John Zarrella -- John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Paula, it is absolutely miserable, as you describe it.

We're at the emergency operation center here in Houston, probably one of the only business building open here. Everything is shut down. Restaurants are shut down. Gas stations are shut down, impossible to get fuel here. And if that's not bad enough, the airport was an absolute nightmare today. It was bedlam at Houston's Intercontinental Airport, the lines at the check-in counters 30 people deep, families with children, packed with luggage. And once they got through there, they had to go and stand at the security checkpoints, again, backed up for just hour-long waits to try and get through security, simply because, in some cases, in some cases, they were overwhelmed, the security officers. And TSA, the Transportation Safety Administration, employees, some didn't come into work today, fearing for their own safety, wanting to get their families out.

We talked to some people who were going anywhere they could get a ticket. One family took a flight to Anchorage, Alaska, and then Seattle, Washington, just to get out. And that was not -- they were not the only ones. Many other people were doing the exact same thing.

And if the airport wasn't bad enough the highways were even worse, Interstate 45, out of Houston, just gridlock, bumper to bumper to bumper. People weren't moving, standing on the side of the roads. People were getting out of their cars, raising their umbrellas and talking to one another. It just wasn't moving. We talked to some people who had

We talked to some people who had gone six miles in 10 hours. Some -- one woman left at 3:30 this morning from south of Houston and had barely made it to near the airport in Houston. They're getting frustrated. They're upset. There is a degree of tension in the air. And people all, Paula,, have knots in their stomachs, just wanting to get out, but not able to move but barely a few feet at a time -- Paula.

ZAHN: And quickly, in closing here, John, a lot of complaints from folks that those contraflow lanes that were going southbound that were supposed to be opened up to northbound really didn't open on time. Is that true?

ZARRELLA: That's absolutely true. We drove and with no traffic on the side of the road we were on, on the southbound side on 45, no traffic at all, a few cars, literally just whisked along at 70 miles an hour. And everything was backed up on the other side. It was terrible.

ZAHN: John Zarrella, just hope those folks get further north to safety. Thank you.

One-and-a-half-million people are in the situation that John was just talking about. They are under orders to flee from Rita.

And, a little bit earlier on, I spoke with Texas Governor Rick Perry who says this is, in fact, the biggest evacuation in his state's history.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Governor Perry, thanks so much for joining us.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: Yes, ma'am.

ZAHN: The main way north out of Houston is being described as a parking lot. We talked with one man who says he has only traveled 48 miles in 13 hours. If that pace doesn't pick up, what are the chances you're going to have people trapped on freeways once Rita hits?

PERRY: Well, we have got the counterflow going now, the good news is, after about 11:00, 12:00 today. You've got both lanes of I- 45 flowing north. You have got both lanes -- or not both lanes -- both sides, so, eight, 10, 12 lanes in some places flowing north; 290, which is another main artery out of there, still is only one half of it, but there are some of those that you just can't counterflow.

So, we have had a substantial opening. And knowing your physics, when you double that size and volume, you quadruple the number of the amount of vehicles that can go through there. So, we should be able to move those people out of harm's way. And that's the most important thing. Every mile we get away from that coast, we put those people in a safer position.

And I know it's frustrating for them, but be patient and be calm and we will get those folks moved out of harm's way.

ZAHN: So, what do you say to the folks tonight who say, uh-uh, we're going back home?

PERRY: Well...

ZAHN: We're not going to sit here and chance it?

PERRY: The good news is that this storm appears to be moving on to the east. But, again, I wouldn't recommend anybody going back into Galveston or those areas, where that storm surge could still be very deadly.

ZAHN: What is the potential damage that you are most worried about tonight?

PERRY: Well, certainly getting those people out.

And I keep going back to that, and it's the emergency evacuation process that's going in. We have got a lot of resources at our beck and call. But moving that many people is your great concern, always.

ZAHN: But, beyond the human toll, are you most worried about the flooding, wind damage?

PERRY: Well, it depends on where the storm comes in. Again, I'm sorry I'm not being real specific with you. But the fact of the matter is, if this storm comes up the ship channel, we have got forces facing us that it doesn't make a difference how much you plan and how much you do. It's going to be catastrophic.

ZAHN: Well, we wish you tremendous luck.

PERRY: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: You have got a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.

PERRY: Yes, ma'am. Keep us in your prayers.

ZAHN: We certainly will. Thanks again for your time.

PERRY: Yes, ma'am.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Meanwhile, the eye of the hurricane may be aiming right at the Texas-Louisiana border. Some people need a lot of help getting out of the way. Will the elderly and the frail make it in time?

Stay with us for an update.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And the picture says it all. By this time tomorrow night, Hurricane Rita may be pummeling as much as a 400-mile stretch of coast running from Texas to Louisiana.

But we're going to move away from the approaching storm for just a moment to the results of a major CNN investigation, a story you're not going to see anywhere else. It is about one of the most shocking aspects of the tragedy in New Orleans.

You remember these outrageous scenes, the breakdown of law and order, looters out of control, as a city descended into chaos after Hurricane Katrina. Where are the police? Well, what you are about to see may even be more outrageous. Not only did a number of New Orleans cops abandon their posts. A gang of officers may have been systematically looting the city themselves. And it may still be happening in some areas.

Drew Griffin investigated. And we think you'll be astounded at what he found.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It could be the single worst moment in the history of the New Orleans Police Department. And it centers on what happened at this Canal Street hotel. The night New Orleans flooded, Osman Khan says 70 officers moved into his Amerihost Inn and Suites; 62 of them then went out to fight the looters and thugs. But eight officers, he says, began a four-day-long looting spree of their own.

OSMAN KHAN, HOTEL MANAGER: Oh, yes. They would probably leave around 9:00, 10:00 at night and come back around 4:30 in the morning.

GRIFFIN (on camera): And what did you see them come back with?

KHAN: Oh, everything from Adidas shoes to Rolex watches.

GRIFFIN: Just lots of it?

KHAN: Oh, lots of it. GRIFFIN (voice-over): Camped out on the 10th floor of the hotel, the hotel engineer, Perry Emery, says the eight officers were drinking almost all of the time. He says, when he came up to the 10th floor to bring towels and to check on water pressure, he saw firsthand what they had looted.

PERRY EMERY, HOTEL ENGINEER: I guess jewelry or generators, fans. And, one time, they went out and they came back with a bunch of weapons.

GRIFFIN: The generator, says Khan, was this one, stolen, he says, as he watched, from a hospital next door.

(on camera): And they stole this from a hospital?

KHAN: They stole it from Tulane Hospital, correct.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): As the majority of the NOPD were out fighting crime, Khan says these eight were running an extension cord up their 10th-floor rooms and to a refrigerator to keep their beer cold.

And, soon, the guests and Khan began to feel threatened, he says. The officers at one time thought someone had taken their food. They kicked down doors and waved guns until a loaf of bread and muffins were returned. Khan says the brazen officers stopped at nothing to continue their stealing.

KHAN: They stole a school bus from the Superdome.

GRIFFIN: To fill up all the stuff they had been looting?

KHAN: Oh, yes. That was the only -- a school bus was the only thing they could maneuver around the city in the middle of the night.

GRIFFIN: Because the water was so high.

KHAN: The water was so high. Oh, yes. You should see their school bus when they left. I don't know. Those little seats for the kids, those were all full of boxes and everything in there.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): They left, according to Khan, on Friday, leaving behind a few items they didn't want, some women's shoes, these two suitcases of odds and ends, including cheap sunglasses. But all the rest was hauled out to a bus and police cars and driven away.

KHAN: The good stuff, I know they put in their cars, yes, in their cop cars. They put so much stuff that barely -- the truck was almost hitting the ground.

GRIFFIN: After two days of trying to track down an official response from the New Orleans Police, we found Police Chief Eddie Compass and asked about the looting allegations. He told us now is not the time to discuss it.

EDDIE COMPASS, SUPERINTENDENT, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: Let me handle my business as the chief of police.

GRIFFIN: An hour later, the chief spokesman, Captain Marlon Defillo, agreed to answer questions and explain what he says was a misinterpretation of what happened at this hotel.

CAPT. MARLON DEFILLO, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: There may have been some contentious relationships between the police officers and the owner of the hotel. The officers are saying that they were on the 10th floor, that this gentleman was on the second floor, that -- the officers are alleging that this person was taking food and taking other essential items for his own personal gain with people that he was staying with. So, there's two sides to every story.

So, certainly, we would encourage that person, if he feels that the officers were acting in an unprofessional manner or acting inappropriately or violating the law, we would strongly encourage that person to file a complaint.

GRIFFIN (on camera): But the hotel incident is far from the only incident report to CNN of police looting. Several people in this city have told us, not only were police looting, but they continue to loot. These people say that the empty city has made it easy for corrupt officers to take whatever they want.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. They came in the daytime.

GRIFFIN: Erlaine McCloren (ph) says she saw two police cars pull up to an apartment building just down her street. She and her father watched as two officers walked inside, then came out with arms full.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. And we got like four 12 packs of sodas, putting them in the trunk of the car. And then they would go back and they come out with a microwave. And then they had little components, had a C.D. player. They put that in.

GRIFFIN (on camera): You don't know if a cop lives there or not, do you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know who everybody live around here. Don't no cop lives there.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): These are the apartments McCloren says she saw the police officers enter. There are 12 of them.

(on camera): All of these doors are open and show signs that they have been kicked.

(voice-over): Seven of the 12 doors have marks indicating they were kicked, pushed or battered off their frame, not likely the work of rescue workers, since this part of town wasn't flooded.

This man, Steve Thomas (ph), says he watched police kick in the door to this Lower Garden District home.

(on camera): Kicked open right, right through here.

(voice-over): Thomas says he has no doubts what he saw, police looting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They got some black car come through here with a police escort breaking in houses, taking stuff out the houses.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Erlaine McCloren says she even reported the looting she saw. And, moments later, the officers disappeared. Captain Marlon Defillo says police are not looting. He says what people are actually seeing is the New Orleans Police Department working.

DEFILLO: We get a lot of complaints about property being found in homes that had been abandoned, property that has been stolen. And, of course, police officers have to respond to those complaints. When they arrive at these different situations, they have to take this property and place it somewhere.

So, for the average person to see a police officer walking out of a home with property, they may believe something else is occurring, but actually the officer is doing his job -- his or her job.

GRIFFIN: McCloren says, if that was the case, why did one of the officers come back and offer her what she says was a bribe?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then he say, yes, I'm going to try to bring you all some water back. I said, we don't need no water. You need some discipline.

GRIFFIN: Osman Khan says there was no misunderstanding of what he saw at his hotel. Bad cops, he says, were looting and terrorizing his guests.

Perry Emery, the hotel engineer, says he doesn't buy the misunderstanding explanation either. He knows exactly what he saw with his own eyes.

(on camera): There's no doubt these were New Orleans police officers?

EMERY: Oh, yes. They was New Orleans police officers.

GRIFFIN: Looting?

EMERY: Looting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Drew Griffin reporting.

The New Orleans police say hotel owner Osman Khan was asked if he wanted to file a complaint, but he said no. Well, Mr. Khan tells us, in fact, that he did file a complaint, but to the Louisiana State Police, not the New Orleans Police. We will keep following the story and let you know what develops.

Next, we go back to Hurricane Rita, pushing towards the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast tonight, as more than a million people try desperately to get out of the way.

And we'll be taking you live to Texas City and other places along the coast that are right in the bullseye.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Right now, people from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana, are under a hurricane warning, as Rita churns in from the Gulf of Mexico.

Ed Lavandera joins me now from Beaumont, Texas, right on the Louisiana border, and dead center of the danger zone.

I know some evacuations just got under way for the elderly, but, given all of the challenges these folks face, are they going to get them out on time?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's what officials here in Beaumont are scrambling to do.

They have -- they had a group of about 500 elderly, special-need patients at the Regional Airport here in Beaumont waiting since 11:00 a.m. City officials here say that they had expected to have some ambulances arrive from other parts of the state of Texas to help out. But state emergency officials apparently redirected those ambulances to other places that perhaps they thought were more critical at the time. This is a vast area that they're trying to evacuate.

And since Houston is included, it's a huge metropolitan area. The officials are not terribly angry about it, but they have been scrambling through the day to get a military aircraft into the area. And just a few hours ago, those -- two aircraft landed and begun -- and began taking these elderly patients away.

We're told they're being flown to Dallas. And city officials here also tell us they suspect there are several hundred more people like this that they need to continue to evacuate. They have EMS and fire officials making their way through the city. Calls have been coming into the city from people saying that they need help to get out. And this process will continue.

And given the state of the roads in southeast Texas, perhaps flying out of here is kind of a welcome surprise (AUDIO GAP) It will be a much quicker process, considering what's being found on the interstates in this area. And we spoke with the mayor here in Baton Rouge just -- I mean, I'm sorry, in Beaumont -- just a little while ago. And he says, on the back of his mind are the images he has seen from Mississippi for quite some time -- Paula.

ZAHN: Ed Lavandera, thank you. Ed is up against a lot of technical challenges, even gear already taking hits from a storm that will be, by this time, we think, ashore along the coastline, that 400- mile stretch of land between Texas and Louisiana.

Now, every time Rita points a little more to the east, we all get a little more concerned about New Orleans. Could there be another flood there? Can the levees hold? That's our next stop.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back.

According to the governor of Texas, the state is now in the process of conducting its largest evacuation in the history of the state, more than a million people trying to get away from that Galveston, Texas, area north off the coastline, away from where Hurricane Rita is supposed to strike.

The problem is, people are barely moving as they head north. We have heard nightmare stories from motorists only moving, in some cases, nine miles in 12 hours.

Let's go right now to Rick Sanchez, who has been monitoring this logjam all day long, to describe some of the frustrations of these motorists who are taking this mandatory evacuation seriously.

Some of them are about ready to give up, aren't they, Rick?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. As a matter of fact, a lot of them have, Paula.

We're told by our ABC affiliate here that there are now thousands of cars that have run out of gas off of Interstate 45. Let me set the scene for you from where we are, so you get a better sense of how this picture is drawn.

Directly behind me is Interstate 45, but we're just on the very cusp of the city, about five miles north of the loop, the 610 loop. That Islamist one that goes around the city of Houston. We're now seeing what may be a glimmer of hope, at least here, because traffic is starting to move a little bit now. Keep in mind, the road you're seeing directly behind me, that's the feeder road.

I-45 is the one directly behind it. And it's been a 100-mile gridlock for the people who have been trying to get out of this town. We have been seeing ambulances and rescue authorities trying to get to different motorists, but it's a very difficult story for them.

We're seeing people who physically are conking out. We're seeing people whose cars just can't go anymore. And we are seeing so many people who have run out of gas.

Let me show you something, because we are in a hurricane one vehicle, which we were planning to use to bring you the story of the hurricane, not the prelude to it. But this is really the story right now. State and federal officials are telling folks that, if they run out of gas, just pull over to the side, put your hoods up, and eventually we will try and get a tanker to you, one of those large trucks with gasoline in it.

Well, this is exactly what they've done. They've been waiting for hours and hours. And so far, they haven't been able to get any. This is a family over here that I can show you real quick, if we can see them, before we get back to you, Paula. These are the Bolts (ph). And they have been here for three hours. They have a small child. They have an elderly woman who has diabetes. And they just hope that, somehow, somebody will be able to get to them. But their story is told 1,000-fold all throughout I-45 and now 59 as well -- Paula, back over to you.

ZAHN: Well, Rick, if it's any consolation to that family, Governor Perry of Texas just told me moments ago that he wants to assure people caught in that same situation that family is in tonight that help will be on the way and that he will get them out of harm's way.

He says that is his number one priority tonight. So, you can share that with them. And, hopefully, an hour from now, they won't be there. They'll be on their way to safety.

SANCHEZ: Well, they certainly are hoping for that. Thanks for the information, Paula. I will pass it along to them.

ZAHN: All right, Rick Sanchez, thank you for your reporting tonight.

Hurricane Rita is now considered a Category 4 storm. That's down from the Category 5 that it was earlier today. But it is a very dangerous storm with 145 mile-per-hour winds, making its way to the Gulf Coast. It could come ashore anywhere from Port O'Connor, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana. And more than one million people are under orders to get out of Rita's way.

Joining me now from the National Hurricane Center, director Max Mayfield.

Share with us more projections about the storm.

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Well, Paula, I think one really important thing here is that not only is it a very, very powerful hurricane, but, like Katrina was, it is also a very large hurricane.

And exactly like Katrina, the greatest potential for a large loss of life is going to be from the storm surge flooding near and to the east of where the center crosses the coast. This will have a very, very big impact over a large area. And people really do need to heed those evacuation orders.

ZAHN: How wide of an area are you talking about here? We heard that the hurricane could in all affect some 400 miles of coastline. But the storm surge that you're talking about specifically could affect which folks?

MAYFIELD: Well, the 15- to 20-feet of storm surge, with the large battering waves on top of that, that is going to be in a limited area, probably 50 miles or so across. Then it will taper off. And we really can't tell you. I don't want anybody to think that an anybody can say exactly where this hurricane is going to make landfall. That is important. If it goes in just to the south of Galveston Island, that storm surge will be pushed up well into all through to Galveston Bay. If it goes in just a little bit east of Galveston, it will go up in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, east of there, Cameron and Lake Charles, Louisiana.

ZAHN: And, finally tonight, what are the chances this storm might even strengthen overnight?

MAYFIELD: I actually think it has a chance to strengthen tonight. It's moving over a very warm eddy in the Gulf of Mexico. And that means not only warm water, but deep warm water. And the upper-level environment is very favorable for a development.

So, I think it could regain some strength. But it may also weaken a little bit before it gets near land. The wisest thing to do is go ahead and plan on the potential for a landfalling Category 4 hurricane.

ZAHN: Well, we know you're a man who has gotten very little sleep. Good luck to you, sir. Thank you for the very important information tonight.

MAYFIELD: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Our pleasure.

Authorities have just revised the casualty toll from Hurricane Katrina. The overall death toll now stands at 1,010 -- well, actually, that number on the screen doesn't make any sense to me at all, so I will try to get the total amount of -- you. But it's over 1,000 now. And that includes 219 deaths in Mississippi, 832 deaths in Louisiana.

And, as you heard earlier, New Orleans is now under a tropical storm warning. Hurricane Rita's rain has already begun to come down in the city. And the huge question now is, how much can the weakened levees and flood walls take?

Here's Jason Carroll.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New Orleans neighborhoods like this, once submerged, have been for the most part dry on the surface, caked in thick mud. But the earth beneath is saturated, unable to absorb either rainfall or water from a storm surge. And Hurricane Rita could be a dangerous threat.

BLANCO: If you live in the area already hit by Katrina, please, stay alert and, please, stay prepared. Be ready to move.

CARROLL: Knowing the sense of urgency, the Army Corps of Engineers closed locks on levees like this one in Jefferson parish. They have inspected the entire 350-mile system.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, hold it. Hold it. Hold it.

CARROLL: Colonel Duane Gapinski is overseeing it all.

(on camera): What is your gut telling you in terms of how the city might fare?

COL. DUANE GAPINSKI, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Well, you know, again, it depends on the track that the storm takes.

CARROLL (voice-over): Gapinski now predicts New Orleans can handle several inches of water. Rita could bring three to five inches of rain.

GAPINSKI: Four, five, six inches, nine inches of water, the city will not be under water like it was after Katrina. That was caused -- that water was caused by breaches in levees and flood walls that -- and surface water rushed in. It was from the storm surge. So, it would take something like that in order to flood the city.

CARROLL: Two areas of concern, both in the Lakeview section of the city, where the Corps closed off the 17th Street and London Avenue canals to protect flood walls breached by Katrina.

GAPINSKI: We're doing that by constructing a sheet pile wall across the mouth of this canal.

CARROLL: The real concern is Rita's possible storm surge. The Army Corps says levees around Lake Pontchartrain can take a 10- to 12- foot surge, but, around St. Bernard Parish, much less, only four to six.

The surge expected here from Rita, at least four feet. But, even as the Corps works to repair the levees, some hurricane experts say the levees may have been faulty to begin with.

PAUL KEMP, LSU HURRICANE CENTER: They may have been designed properly, but were not constructed properly.

CARROLL: Scientists at Louisiana State's Hurricane Center used computer models and field work to determine the levees did not breach because Katrina's storm surge overtopped them, as the Corps believes. Instead, scientists say the breaches resulted from water seeping into the seams that were supposed to hold the flood walls together.

KEMP: We assume that, if a flood wall is built to a certain elevation, that it should protect against flooding, at least to that elevation. In this case, the water level never reached the top elevation of these walls before the walls gave way.

GAPINSKI: Anything is possible at this point. Until we finish the analysis, we won't know for certain.

CARROLL: So, New Orleans faces Hurricane Rita with defenses already badly weakened by Katrina and a lot of uncertainty about how strong they were in the first place.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: That was Jason Carroll reporting.

A quick clarification for you now. A lot of numbers get thrown to us and sometimes the graphics can be confusing. But I did want to let you know now that the overall death toll from Hurricane Katrina now stands at 1,066.

Of course, all of us tonight are worried about Hurricane Rita, and not only the human toll it might have, but what it could do to gas prices. But no one's more worried about that than the folks at our next stop. Can the Texas coast refineries withstand the storm? What's being done to keep them safe?

Stay with us. We will have the details for you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Close to 20 percent of America's oil refineries are shut down tonight, either because of the threat of Hurricane Rita or damage from Katrina. And you can expect gas prices to jump because of that.

One oil analyst is predicting $4 per-gallon gasoline within two weeks, another analyst saying it could go as high as $5 a gallon. In the Houston area, tonight, every major refinery is shutting down as Rita approaches.

And joining me now from Washington, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Good of you to join us at such a busy time.

How vulnerable are your state's refineries tonight?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: Well, of course they're vulnerable.

We have about 25 percent of the entire capacity for refineries in America right there in that area, mostly Houston. So, if it bypasses Houston or doesn't damage, then those will probably be able to get up and running. But it is a dangerous situation. And we're, of course, hoping that that doesn't happen. And it will affect the country if it does.

ZAHN: We heard a very smart analyst saying that if this storm packs the punch it seems to have tonight, you could be talking about billions and billions of dollars of damage to these refineries. If that happens, what could that ultimately mean to gas prices?

HUTCHISON: Well, it will make the supply really, really scarce.

As you know, President Bush opened the Strategic Oil Reserve after Katrina, and we had imported gasoline and crude oil that really did stabilize the prices pretty quick after Katrina. But the refineries in Houston and that area are much larger, much bigger part of the refinery capacity for our country. And it would be a gasoline price hike that would last for a while.

ZAHN: You have so many things you have to worry about tonight. Your state is in the process of trying to evacuate some 9,000 people from Beaumont, Texas, north, many of them folks that need a lot of medical care.

And we understand, because of some ambulances being dispatched to other parts of the state and the strain on the resources, they're having difficulty getting those folks out of harm's way. Are you optimistic they'll get out in time?

HUTCHISON: Well, I know that there have been traffic jams. That has been reported. That is a frustration. There's no doubt about it. But we do have 24 hours more before this is supposed to hit.

And, so, I just hope very much that the -- the traffic does get better, that the frustrations subside, and that the people who were in that Beaumont-Port Arthur area, which wasn't the first target, but seems to be more where it is going now, will have 24 hours more to -- to get to the places that they will be safe.

ZAHN: Finally tonight, Senator, the president of the United States will be visiting your state tomorrow morning. And that has led to a lot of carping by his critics, suggesting that this is nothing more than a photo-op. Tell this truth here tonight. Is there anything he can really change or enhance just hours before this storm will make landfall tomorrow?

HUTCHISON: Well, Paula, I think it does help for him to see it first-hand, for him to see what is in place for the emergency response.

He knows that we are going to all work together to do better than we did with Katrina, having all the communication systems. And I think hearing that first-hand -- the vice president has been there. The first lady was there on Monday and I was with her. And I think that that does make a difference, when you see it. And I think that the caring that he has shown by going to visit all of these communities is something that people appreciate and respect.

ZAHN: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, thank you again for your time. And good luck to all the good folks in your state.

HUTCHISON: Thank you so much, Paula.

ZAHN: My pleasure.

So, the question tonight is, just how big is Hurricane Rita? The outer edges are already over land, but the center of the storm is still more than 300 miles out to sea. Where is it hitting?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: This is what it looks like in Houston, Texas, tonight, in the middle of what the governor of the state of Texas just told us is the largest single evacuation ever in the state's history, more than a million people on the move. Some of the gridlock that we saw earlier today seems to have gone away, although I wouldn't say these folks are moving all that fast.

We heard nightmare stories earlier today of people simply moving 20 miles in nine hours. This appears to be moving a little faster than that. And I hope, for these motorists' sake, the pace will pick up. The governor assures us no one will be stranded on the highway and that he will assure his citizens that they'll get out of harm's way.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is standing by at the top of the hour. But before we go to Larry, let's quickly check in with Chad Myers at the Weather Center.

We just got off a live shot with Max Mayfield from the National Hurricane Center. And he said this thing could strengthen overnight -- Chad.

MYERS: It sure could.

We showed you that little eddy there, little warm water eddy little bit ago. And I will have it in "LARRY KING LIVE" again. But that warm water eddy sitting right about here may be just enough to bring the temperatures on up enough to bring the wind speeds up just a little bit in the overnight hours.

Paula, we're still looking for a landfall to the east of Galveston, west of Lafayette, west of Port Arthur. Here is the storm itself. And everybody is focusing on this Category 5-Category 4 thing. Here's the story with the storm. Just because the inner wind speed is only Category 4 does not mean the rest of the storm slowed down.

Only very, very few people will ever see that inner wind speed anyway, because only the very smallest part, only a fraction of the storm, literally five miles, has that big wind speed. The rest of the storm is just as large as it was. So, don't let your guard down.

ZAHN: We don't plan to. And we plan to listen to you all night long.

Chad Myers, thank so much for the update.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We leave you tonight with a million folks on the move out of the way of Hurricane Rita.

We will be back tomorrow night, as well as Saturday night, with the very latest. Thanks for joining us tonight. Larry King is next.

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