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Hurricane Rita Update; Houston Traffic Still A Problem; Bill Clinton Speaks About Tsunami Rebuilding and Hurricane Damage; Oil Refineries In Houston Shut Down

Aired September 23, 2005 - 07:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody.
Just about half past the hour on this AMERICAN MORNING. Our complete coverage of Hurricane Rita continues. In just a few minutes as well, we're going to hear from former President Bill Clinton, his thoughts on how the United States should pay for disaster relief. Got my special interview coming up in just a few moments.

First, though, let's go to Miles. He's in Houston this morning where traffic is the big problem.

Hey, Miles. Good morning again.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad.

An unprecedented evacuation that is still underway. But local officials say very soon, next couple of hours, will be the break point at which time they will suggest people stay put. But in the meantime, people are trying to get out of town. And I emphasize trying. It's a difficult road, indeed. We'll tell you a little bit more about that in a moment.

But first, let's get an update on Rita. Where is it? How big is it? Where is it likely to go? Chad Myers, our severe weather expert, with the answers.

Good morning, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Miles, you know, I lost communications with you just a second ago, so I'm just going to go ahead and start and then toss it back to you and we'll go from there. Kind of the way live TV goes sometimes here.

I made a line on my weather wall right here. The line yesterday is where it was actually tracking for quite sometime. It made a little dip right through here and then it has turned on up toward the north and toward the northwest again.

We watched this wobble last night on "Larry King Live" wondering whether it was actually a turn or not. Probably thinking that it wasn't, but it's still following this line on the way to Houston.

Now the official forecast is for a turn to the north and to the northwest. A little slide like this as it gets closer to the shore. The entire area there going to be under the gun for this weather with Houston all the way to Port O'Connor, almost all the way to New Orleans, seeing those hurricane warnings.

There are tropical storm warnings right now for Houston, obviously, with hurricane force winds not all that far away. Literally probably I'd say 30 or 40 miles just to the west of New Orleans you will see hurricane warning conditions and hurricane conditions in the next probably 24 hours or so. Maybe even a little bit less than that as the storm makes its quickest pass to you.

The storm still down in the Gulf of Mexico, getting closer. And as it makes its quick hypotenuse, the closest right angle to New Orleans. That's about midnight tonight. And then we eventually get landfall somewhere around 8:00, maybe 10:00 tomorrow morning.

Right now our sustained winds are still 140. It is a category four. This storm is moving still through some very warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. I'll tell you how this water in the Gulf of Mexico affected the forecast and affected the wind speed of Rita by almost a hundred miles per hour.


M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Chad.

Back on Interstate 45. We are about 35, 40 miles north of Houston. We're sort of at the trailing edge of a traffic jam that is probably about a hundred miles in length. Just stop and think about that for a minute, a hundred mile long traffic jam.

Because it's so bad, because people are running out of gas, what you see along the road here, the shoulder is just filled up like a parking lot. One of those cars contained Linda Koffel, her son Marcus. They began, well, it's been about 36 hours now in Alief, Texas. Got this far. Now have a bone dry gas tank. Not exactly the journey you had hoped for. What are you going to do next?

LINDA KOFFEL, HOUSTON-AREA EVACUEE: Well, we're waiting for the tanker trucks, which we've really been waiting for since 7:30 last night. We're hoping they'll come and give us enough gas that I can get to my father's house, which is in Huntsville.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. These tanker trucks that Linda refers to, supposedly roaming around the area here filling up people who are in just this predicament. Now your husband and you are split up. You don't have cell phones. No communication. You have no idea where he is.

KOFFEL: No, I don't have any idea where he is. His car's in worst shape than mine. I fear that he is probably broken down. Plus, he had his invalid mother with him. So I'm really worried about him. And my sister also had to get off because she had four cats and she got in an accident trying to get off the freeway because her cats were dehydrating and she was trying to save them. So I know she had some really bad luck, too.

M. O'BRIEN: Give us a sense of the range of emotions that you have contended with over these 36 hours? It must be the full range, anger, frustration, a little bit of fear?

KOFFEL: A lot of fear and a lot of frustration because of the fact that they would not let us off. You know, they said that we couldn't go off the exits for 50 miles, which is OK when your 50 miles is only going to take you an hour. But it took me 12 hours to go ten miles. We couldn't go to the restroom. We couldn't you know, I had trouble with my contact lenses. I couldn't deal with them. It was just a nightmare not being able to get off. And then worried that we'd run out of gas and be stuck.

M. O'BRIEN: Marcus, how are you doing? Eleven years old. I have an 11-year-old boy at home. I'd bet he'd be a little nervous.

MARCUS DIFLAVIO, HOUSTON-AREA EVACUEE: Yes, I'm a little bit nervous but we're going to get through. We've met a lot of generous people. They're giving us food, gas, water. And we offered them money, but they don't accept it.

M. O'BRIEN: And there you have it. The good and the bad and the frustration of it all. Good luck on your journey.

KOFFEL: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: I'm sure it will work out fine. We're high and dry and safe here.

Let's bring in the police chief of Houston now and ask a couple of questions about this evacuation. Chief Herold Hurtt is on the line with us now.

Chief Hurtt, first of all, let's talk about how the evacuation has gone thus far? I mean we're talking about something that is unprecedented. It's hard to plan for something like this. Do you feel, so far, that things have gone as well as could be expected?

CHIEF HAROLD HURTT, HOUSTON POLICE: I really do feel that way because originally we were looking at maybe a million and a half people leaving the Houston area. And it could be upwards from anywhere from a million and a half because this area here, the Houston metropolitan area, is about four million people. We don't know how many left. Definitely a lot of people leaving the Houston area.

M. O'BRIEN: Now, I don't know if you could hear Linda, but she was wondering where these tankers are. As a matter of fact, the radio is filled with reports of these tankers that are going around providing fuel for people. How many tankers are out there? Can people realistically expect to see them?

HURTT: They will be there. She has to realize that we're covering several routes out of the Houston area. We had to put this together at the last moment. A lot of the service stations were closed or out of gas, so we're kind of making this up as we go. Like you said, we've never had an evacuation this large. I don't think anyone in the country has. So I think based upon that, we're doing a very good job.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. So how many tankers are out there, though?




M. O'BRIEN: Tell us about your police force. In the wake of Katrina there was a lot of talk about New Orleans and officers going awol there. Are you concerned about that on your force?

HURTT: All of our people are accounted for. We have a little over 4,700 officers. We've made accommodations to take care of their families while they're at work. They're out on the street. They've been very visible and they're protecting property that the evacuees have left behind.

M. O'BRIEN: Chief Harold Hurtt, Houston Police Department. I know you're a busy man. Thanks for your time.

HURTT: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles, thanks.

Well, as Rita takes aim at the Texas-Louisiana border, hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents are still reeling from Katrina. I sat down with former President Bill Clinton to discuss Katrina's aftermath and his efforts as a UN special envoy for the tsunami. In the nine months that have passed since the devastating tsunami hit Southeast Asia, I asked the former president about how he felt the rebuilding was going.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we've come a long way. We've got some formidable challenges. The biggest emergency is getting the people who are physically miserable out of their . . .

S. O'BRIEN: Tents.


S. O'BRIEN: And people would say, with all the money you raised and with all the world's attention on it, how can people still be in tents?

CLINTON: Well, if you look at the we have people in very bad temporary housing in America here after the last hurricane. I mean I'm not talking about Katrina. I mean the last one we had that hit Florida.

S. O'BRIEN: How concerned are you that things that are happening here in the U.S., Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding efforts now there, Hurricane Rita, whatever it ends up being, will draw focus away from your efforts in trying to keep the attention on the tsunami really in the forefront?

CLINTON: Not particularly because there should be a lot of focus in the U.S. and around the world on Katrina. We got a million people uprooted. And there's amazing parallels actually between this and what happened in Indonesia. You've got Indonesia, half the people are living in homes with people. Same thing here.

We've never had a to the best of my knowledge, a government crisis where you had a million people dislocated and then huge numbers of them wound up living with other people who just take them in. Should those people get some assistance? If so, what kind? How can you avoid abuse? You know, that kind of stuff? All these kind of questions. But I don't think so. We for one thing, we've got except for the Maldives, we have the financial commitments we need. So all we need is to collect.

S. O'BRIEN: What are the plans for the one-year anniversary?

CLINTON: Well we're first of all, we're going to be issuing reports and there will be presumably memorial services and other commemorations in all of the countries during which time I'm going to encourage them to make a good accounting to the people. And now, you know, we have now a database up on the Internet.


CLINTON: The DAD, the DAD, which was adapted actually from what was done by the international community in Afghanistan, and which I have recommended to the states affected by Katrina.

S. O'BRIEN: Why do you think that would be a good thing for Katrina and whatever happens with Hurricane Rita?

CLINTON: Because you've got for the first time, we've got unprecedented amounts of not the first time, but to a greater extent than ever before, in both the tsunami and Katrina, and we don't know what damage Rita will do yet. You have a mix of government money and private donations. In every case like that, there is a need for accountability.

S. O'BRIEN: You have this relationship with the former President Bush. Is it a strange I think it's a strange relationship just because, of course, for a long time you were not friendly at all and now you seem to be very good friends and yet you're critical of the current President Bush.

CLINTON: Well, I'll say a couple of things about that. First of all, I had a great relationship with former President Bush when he was vice president and even when he was president. I often represented the Democratic governors in negotiations with the White House. And I always liked him. I felt uncomfortable when I ran against him in '92 because on a personal level, I always liked him, but we had big differences.

Then, I didn't have a very good relationship with the current President Bush but he didn't like me because I defeated his father. That didn't bother me at all. I told him, I said, it didn't bother me. I might feel the same way if somebody defeated my father, you know. I didn't but I was determined I was going to get to understand him and get along with him and support him when I could in good conscientious.

S. O'BRIEN: The current president?

CLINTON: Yes. Absolutely. As I think every American should. So the deal I have with him basically is and the deal I have with former President Bush is, I haven't asked them to abandon their politics and their differences with me and they don't ask me to do that. All we do is we I don't like personal attacks. And I try to if someone asks me where I stand on, you know, the future of FEMA or the tax cuts or whatever, I answer in good conscience what I believe. But I don't ever to attack the president personally in fact, I go out of my way to say, look, he believes this. He has a deep conviction that he's right and I just disagree.

S. O'BRIEN: But is it ever a problem? I mean you raised tax cuts and that's sort of a good issue because when people talk about, OK, how do we pay for Hurricane Katrina when you're talking about an atmosphere where it's clearly going to be very expensive. We have troops in Iraq. We have troops in Afghanistan. We have promised tax cuts. We've got Social Security reform. We have prescription drug plans. I mean, the list goes on and on and on.

CLINTON: Well, the way we're paying for Afghanistan and Iraq and Katrina and the tax cuts today is we borrow the money every day. We've never paid for a war with borrowed money like this before, ever. And so it bothers me. I don't you know, I don't support that. I think the way we did it was better, getting rid of the deficit, paying the debt down, keeping interest rates low, keeping investments high I think is better.

But that's a philosophical difference that I have with the and I have since the early '80s. I'm not mad at President Bush about this exactly. I mean, he believes this. I don't ever attack him personally. But I think I don't ever ask him to abandon his political convictions either. I think I'm trying to civilize the political discourse without sanitizing it beyond all belief. That is, without pretending that we have no differences. I think American political debate has really been hurt by all this personal attack, but it would be hurt even worse if we pretended we had no differences when we do.


S. O'BRIEN: The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund has raised more than $6 million through online pledges, with another $90 million coming from corporate and individual donor contributions.

There are other stories making headlines this morning. Kelly Wallace has a look at those.

Good morning.


Interesting interview.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

WALLACE: It's always interesting.

S. O'BRIEN: I don't take to much exception with what President Bush says.

WALLACE: Right. Exactly. Except on these points.

OK. And good morning, everyone.

Here are some of the stories "Now in the News."

President Bush is heading into the danger zone today. He'll be getting a firsthand look at the preparations of Hurricane Rita. The president is set to visit San Antonio, Texas, later today before Rita's expected landfall. He'll wait out the storm at the headquarters of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado to get a better grasp of federal preparations. When Katrina struck, President Bush was on his working vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch.

The U.S. military has launched an investigation into the shooting death of an Iraqi detainee. Officials say the prisoner had tried to attack a Marine guard during questioning in Fallujah.

Meantime, in Central Baghdad, Iraqi police say at least one person was killed, 17 others hurt in a suicide bombing near a bus station. Authorities are now investigating that attack. Judge John Roberts is another step closer to becoming the next chief justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Roberts Thursday in 13 to five vote. The nomination now will be sent to the full Senate. Confirmation is expected next week. The focus now turns to who President Bush will nominate to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Coretta Scott King is back home, we're happy to say. The 78- year-old widow of Martin Luther King Jr. went home Thursday from an Atlanta hospital. She was there for more than a month after suffering a stroke and mild heart attack. Doctors and family members say she will have to undergo more therapy but is expected to make a full recovery.

And not everyone is heeding the calls to evacuate from coastal Texas. Police in Galveston arrested a man just a short time ago. He was out in the surf. The man was handcuffed and taken into a waiting squad car. He does not appear to be hurt And, Soledad, police there said they're frustrated. They said they should be focusing on evacuating people from Galveston, not getting people out of the water.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, it, obviously, pulls all their resources away when they're fishing some guy who wants to go swimming out of the water, when they could be actually helping other people who really, seriously, need help.

WALLACE: That what they were expressing frustration about that this morning.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I bet.

All right, Kelly, thanks.


S. O'BRIEN: Well, Hurricane Rita is marching right toward the heart of the U.S. oil industry. A real possibility of shortages, higher prices, too. We're going to find out what's being done to protect one of the country's biggest refineries just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Live pictures. Galveston, Texas. About a hundred miles from where I stand right now. I'm about 40 miles north of Houston. And the scene there looks like a pretty good surf. And I should remind you, this is the Gulf of Mexico. Typically you don't see a surf like that. So for that part of the world and that body of water, this is something to see.

Of course, Rita ultimately expected to deliver 15 to 20-foot storm surges at the heart of the storm. Galveston no longer in the bull's eye but somewhere in-between Galveston and the border with Louisiana appears to be the place where Rita is headed. It's a huge storm, though, however. So there are going to be places affected along really a 300 to 400 mile swath of the Gulf Coast.

One of the issues that has been of great concern as Rita sort of bore down on Galveston and ultimately Houston, has been an issue we talked a lot about in the wake of Katrina, and that is the issue of refineries. Fully one-quarter of all the refineries that deliver all the products that we use to put in our cars and our furnaces comes from Houston. And to have that ability to refine oil crippled would, in fact, be crippling blow to the U.S. economy. CNN's Randi Kaye joins us now with a little bit more on that side of the picture.

Those refineries, Randy, already shutting down, aren't they?


We visited the Shell Oil Plant and Refinery in Deer Park, Texas, yesterday, just a little ways from where we are in Baytown, and they were already shutting down. But I just want to point out one more thing here this morning. We may end up being on the weaker side of the storm where we are, but we've already seen a few cars the few cars that we have seen are actually heading back toward Houston. Back your way, Miles. So we found that was very interesting here.

But here in Baytown, Miles, they're very concerned about flooding. They've already boarded up some of the restaurants here, many of the buildings here in town. They've cleared out. In fact, they're not even setting up any shelters here in Baytown because they simply want people to leave.

Which brings us back to the refineries. They have completely shut those down. Baytown sits on the Houston Ship Channel which has about 200 refineries and oil plants and they are closed for business until Rita passes.


KAYE, (voice over): Instead of riding out the storm with his family, Dave McKinney is at the Shell Oil Plant and Refinery in Deer Park, Texas. McKinney taught his wife how to turn off the gas at home because he's need here where thousands of valves need to be turned off.

DAVE MCKINNEY, SHELL OIL: I called my wife this morning. She broke down in tears.

KAYE: This is Shell's largest refinery in the United States and it's less than a mile from the Houston Ship Channel. It's one of 200 chemical plants and refineries that could suffer severe flooding and be hit by dangerously high winds. All are closing up shop.

MCKINNEY: We drill for the response to anything that could happen, including hurricanes, and but preparing for a category four or five, nobody that works here has ever been through that.

KAYE: Refineries and chemical plants are complicated. There are gaskets that need attention. Flames that need to be put out. Pumps and compressors must be turned off and raw chemicals drained from the system.

What can happen here? What are your concerns if this plant is hit or any of the plants along the channel are hit?

MCKINNEY: Well, because we deal with so many flammable materials here, the concern is that there could be damage, say, from wind damage that could crack piping or a vessel that when it started up in the product starts going through again could cause a chemical release.

KAYE: Major supply lines can be shut off underground out of the hurricane's reach. But oil and chemicals remaining in pipes and storage tanks above ground are still at risk. After Shell shut its doors, just 20 employees out of 1,700 were left here. Security, technicians, and environmental experts. But it's not just the cleanup that's a concern, it is the cost to the consumer.

MCKINNEY: Gasoline and diesel fuel and heating oil, now that the winter is approaching, there will be an impact.

KAYE: A real possibility of supply shortages and higher prices. Refineries have been seriously damaged in past hurricanes. It took months to repair after Hurricane Ivan and damage from Katrina has not even been fully assessed.

Three hundred forty thousand barrels of oil a day are refined at the Shell plant alone. And once the sky is clear, it could take more than a week to get these plants up and running again.


KAYE: And, Miles, this morning there is real concern about a possible chemical leak because many of these plants have lethal chemicals there. We're talking chlorine, ammonia, fosgene (ph). So all of these could end up in a deadly toxic vapor cloud and travel for miles and wipe out anything and everything in their path.


M. O'BRIEN: Let's hope they batten the hatches there. Randi Kaye, thank you very much.

A little bit of breaking news to tell you about. About 200 miles down the road from where I stand, as if these people who are contending with a difficult evacuation needed any more trouble, there is a bus fire. This is getting close to Dallas. About 17 miles south of Dallas.

There you see some live pictures now of the scene there. In the midst of this evacuation jam here, this unprecedented evacuation, a bus fire causing additional traffic woes. We don't know about any injuries.

Let's take a look at some pictures from earlier as that bus was burning. Obviously, fully involved in flame. We will try to get you further details on what happened there. But the net effect for people at this end of the pipeline out, if you will, is that there's yet more bottlenecks that lie ahead. Particularly if they're headed as far north as Dallas which, in many cases, people are trying to do. Of course, that is gasoline and provisions permitting.

Once again, 17 miles south of Dallas on Interstate 45, that bus fire continuous. These pictured just fed in a little while ago from our affiliate KDFW. We thank them for that.

Back to you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Wow, those pictures, Miles, are just incredible. You can see that bus is just fully, fully involved there. Reports are telling us that there's no word yet on the injuries in that fire. Obviously, the bus completely engulfed and emergency crews, we could see there, were on the scene as well.

Still to come this morning, we check in once again with Andy Serwer. Gas not the only thing running in low supply. Banks running out of cash. Andy's "Minding Your Business" just ahead.



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