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LOU DOBBS TONIGHT

Hurricane Rita

Aired September 24, 2005 - 17:00   ET

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


LOU DOBBS, HOST: Hi, Wolf. Thank you very much. Thank you, Carol.
Good evening, everybody. Tonight, residents of a huge part of eastern Texas and western Louisiana are assessing the damage after Hurricane Rita slammed into the coast. The massive storm is now charging north along the Texas-Louisiana border. Although it's been downgraded to a tropical storm, Rita is nonetheless dumping huge amounts of rain on inland areas, and incredibly, no reports of any deaths in the storm so far. The number of people injured is not yet clear. But torrential rains and storm surges have brought significant flooding to low-lying coastal areas. High winds also fanning major fires in several cities, including Houston and Galveston.

State and local officials are tonight telling evacuees it is still far too dangerous to return to their homes. Nearly 3 million people fled coastal areas before Hurricane Rita struck. More than 2 million people lost power during the storm as the winds brought down power lines across the entire region.

Engineers tonight are checking damage to the area's oil refineries. Those refineries represent a quarter of the nation's total refining capacity.

We have reporters all across the region, covering the impact of Hurricane Rita, from eastern Texas to western Louisiana and locations inland, with the very latest on the damage, the flooding and these torrential rains.

We begin with Jason Carroll in hard hit Lake Charles, Louisiana, where there is serious flooding in much of the city tonight. That city a major center for the petrochemical industry and the site of several large casinos. Jason, just how bad is the flooding in Lake Charles tonight?

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I guess, Lou, that just depends upon where you end up standing. Right here where we are, obviously dry, but there are other parts of downtown Lake Charles that are submerged. At this point, emergency crews are heading out throughout the area, trying to get an accurate assessment of just how bad it is. In fact, not too long ago, a Louisiana state trooper came up to us and informed us that the main highway leading into Cameron Parish is submerged, and so they are not able to get into that area, which is south of here, to assess how bad the damage is there. We're going to be following that and bring you developments as they warrant.

In terms of downtown Lake Charles, Lake Charles Lake has been rising steadily. It's risen for the past several hours. The riverboats, the casino riverboats that are out there have been taking a beating all morning, all day. But they are still anchored out there, at least at this point.

That rising floodwater also causing flooding in downtown, several feet deep in some areas. And in fact, when speaking of downtown, even flooding aside, as you try to make your way out of downtown, Lou, what you see is downed power lines and trees everywhere. In fact, if you don't have a chainsaw, good luck trying to get out of downtown Lake Charles, simply because it's going to be very difficult to do that without that.

I guess most of the damage that we saw was out at Lake Charles regional airport. That is where the main terminal partially collapsed, the roof of that main terminal partially collapsed. Several buildings surrounding it also sustaining major damage there. The executive administrator there at the airport saying that he feels as though most of that damage was not just caused by Hurricane Katrina (sic), but possibly by tornadic activity. And as you'll recall, there was a tornado warning in effect at the time last night and early this morning.

Right now, police are saying at this point, for all of those who evacuated, and their feeling is that most people did heed warnings and evacuate the area, they're telling those evacuees, don't try to come home. It is too dangerous. The roads are still too cluttered with downed power lines, downed trees. They're asking people at this point to stay away until at least Monday -- Lou.

DOBBS: Jason, thank you. Jason Carroll reporting from Lake Charles, perhaps the hardest-hit city in this -- in the path of Hurricane Rita.

In New Orleans tonight, the Army Corps of Engineers is working there trying to shore up the levees. They were overwhelmed by Hurricane Rita's storm surges. There was no -- there was, rather, new flooding reported in some neighborhoods of New Orleans today. But officials are hoping that the worst of this new flooding is over. Mary Snow is live in New Orleans with the story -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, one encouraging sign is that the rain has held off here in New Orleans.

What we're seeing today is crews on the ground here and by air trying to repair the damage from yesterday. I'll show you right behind my shoulder, if you can see that break in the wall. That is a result of when the water overtopped the Industrial Canal levee and damaged section of that levee. Yesterday, that parking lot was filled with water. Crews are trying to just build a road at this point so that they can place sandbags in there. And they're bringing them in by truck.

Now, another section, of course, that was badly flooded because of the overtopping of the levee is the lower 9th Ward. A few hours ago, military choppers were able to go up in the air when the wind died down a bit. And they have been dropping those huge sandbags, that's in order to try and repair that area where the levee had originally been breached by Hurricane Katrina.

Water has been flooding into that decimated area, decimated by Katrina, reflooding it once again, and there are reports of flooding of up to 8 feet in some places, higher in others.

The Army Corps of Engineers is saying that this latest flooding (INAUDIBLE) two to three weeks, but they say that so far today, the levees have been holding up.

As for the rest of New Orleans, the mayor, Ray Nagin, held a press conference just a short time ago, saying there had been some localized flooding, up to 2 feet in some parts of New Orleans, that some of the electricity that had been restored has gone out once again. But he says that if things go as planned, that he may start that plan to bring people back into New Orleans sometime later this week -- Lou.

DOBBS: Has the mayor, has anyone there, Mary, given you a sense -- you are talking about 9 feet of floodwaters in the lower 9th. Have they given you any sense of when they'll be able to pump that out and we'll see these waters recede?

SNOW: That is a key question, Lou, because the pumping station there is out of commission. The Army Corps of Engineers saying that they're bringing in mobile pumps, but adding to this, in order to keep water intact at two other canals, they had to put up temporary walls. And basically what's happened is they locked off those canals. So that is preventing water from being pumped out.

So they have to make sure that water levels aren't going to be rising any more from Lake Pontchartrain. Once they can remove those temporary locks on those canals, then they can start pumping the water out. But there's no timetable right now. And that is the latest from here.

DOBBS: And Mary, just one last question. The rocks that they used to fill those -- to fill those breaches in the two levees, they are -- we've got full information that they did hold, in fact, they were simply overflowed?

SNOW: That is what the Army Corps of Engineers is saying, that the structures themselves have remained in intact. And, you know, that these breaches that happened because of Katrina, these were all temporary filling in. And these engineers who are here saying, you know, they're very disappointed to see all this work just washed away. But they say they are determined to get back at it and try to repair, and then ultimately, make some permanent repairs on these levees. But so far the levee structures are remaining intact.

DOBBS: Mary, thank you very much. Mary Snow reporting from New Orleans, where obviously still more flooding, but it looks as though the city is beginning to move ahead to correct those breached -- overtopped levees, and the news, we hope, will be good for the city of New Orleans from here on. Mary Snow, thank you very much.

We're going to go to Austin, Texas, now to a FEMA news conference that is under way. Department of Homeland Security Dave Passey is speaking right now. Let's listen in.

DAVID PASSEY, DHS SPOKESMAN: ... they're carrying with them food and water and satellite phones so that we can ensure that there's communication, there's life-sustaining commodities, and that they can carry back with them any other resources that are needed.

Also, early this morning, we were able to deliver some of the first commodities into affected areas, water in Beaumont and ice and water and food into Walker and Polk Counties. We have three primary staging areas for these commodities now -- Houston, Ft. Worth and San Antonio, and working with the state, we're developing a distribution center that will disperse these commodities into local areas, where local officials can then help identify and help us deliver to people these important commodities.

But our first mission today is assessment of damage and the delivery of life-saving search and rescue teams. And then we'll continue to look at what additional teams and resources are necessary.

Also moving towards east Texas now are five disaster medical teams. One will stage in Beaumont, and four teams will be available to other communities in east Texas as needed.

This concludes my briefing. If -- I'd be happy to take a couple questions.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE).

PASSEY: I don't know that.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE).

PASSEY: Again, the search and rescue teams were able to launch just a short while ago. There may have been local efforts under way. But the integrated search and rescue teams that left from Houston, we've not yet heard back on what their results have been.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) any kind of death toll at all?

PASSEY: No.

QUESTION: Any numbers at all?

PASSEY: No, we don't know that. Other than -- unfortunately, other than the fatalities on the evacuating bus, I'm not aware of any other fatalities at this point. And that information -- we'll look into that. But that will likely come from the state, as they confirm with local medical examiners deaths that can be directly attributed to the hurricane.

QUESTION: Are there any assessments yet on when the aerial assessments be able to return, be able to fly out there and get an idea?

PASSEY: As far as -- we'll have better information by the end of the day. I'm not sure if we were able to launch the aerial assessment teams, though we were able to move search and rescue teams by air, so obviously them being in the air will contribute to our understanding of the needs and the damage in the affected area.

QUESTION: Are you fairly confident that the petrochemical refineries (INAUDIBLE) withstood the hurricane?

PASSEY: We have no reports of spills at this point. But we'll be much more confident after we've had ground and aerial assessments completed.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE).

DOBBS: You're watching and listening to David Passey, Department of Homeland Security spokesman, trying to bring everybody up to date on what they know there in Austin, Texas. Search and rescue teams that he was referring to, in Jefferson County, in particular, which was the focal point of Rita's landfall, search and rescue operations have been going on there for some time. And we'll be bringing you up to date in fact, on those search and rescue operations also there in Austin, Texas.

President Bush has been spending part of the day at the emergency operations center. We'll be going to Austin for his comments in just a moment. And of course, we'll have much more on the impact of Hurricane Rita ahead. We'll be going live to the worst affected area all along the Gulf Coast.

And Rita is still charging inland, dumping huge amounts of rain, threatening many areas with severe flooding. Next, we go to the CNN Weather Center for an update, and we'll have a special report for you on the possible environmental damages created by this Hurricane Rita. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Port Arthur, Texas, felt the full force of Rita's impact as the hurricane slammed into the coast. Some streets in the city are tonight under more than 2 feet of floodwater. John King is in Port Arthur tonight. John, just how bad is the damage there, and were the city's coastal defenses just overwhelmed by these strong storm surges?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The storm surges came in, Lou, and there's some pretty significant flooding in the center of the city. As you said, the 2 to 3 feet is what we've seen most of the day. A couple of homes where the water was waist deep. One, two, maybe three very low-lying areas where we saw 6 or 7 feet of water. But the overwhelming majority of the city is wet, but not that flooded.

And all of that water came from the storm surge. There had been a huge concern, especially when they thought the storm was coming in for a direct hit on Port Arthur, that the levees might not hold all the water back, much as we saw in New Orleans. That did not happen. We were out in the levee just, oh, about three hours before the storm hit, and we were out there this morning as soon as we could figure our way through the flooding, and it held up quite well. Obviously, the storm was not as strong as anticipated when it hit -- still packing a pretty ferocious punch. We were in town when it hit, and it had a good punch, but it was not as bad as they thought it would be.

And so for all the devastations -- roofs ripped off, buildings' storefronts ripped open, power lines down, trees slammed into the roofs of houses -- there's quite a bit of devastation, Lou. It's a tough task ahead for the town. But if you had asked them 24 hours ago what they expected and what they're beginning to see as emergency crews get in there tonight, to a man, from the people we have talked to, they say, well, this is bad, but we were expecting worse.

DOBBS: And John, the number of people that have had to be rescued, there have been rescue operations through Jefferson County, what can you tell us about those operations and what you've seen?

KING: In Port Arthur, we have seen very few. We were in the town last night, Lou, as I noted, and we could find nobody when we went through the town for a few hours checking out the streets, trying to get a pre-storm assessment, if you will, so that we could compare it to what would happen after.

This morning, we found a gentleman who toughed it out in his home, about eight blocks from the water. Said at 1:30 a.m., every window in his house blew out all at once. We did see Coast Guard helicopters flying over the low-lying areas earlier, looking to see if anyone needed help, but the flooding was not that significant. Certainly if you own one of those homes that has water up to your knees or up to your waist, that's a very tough task ahead, but nothing of the dramatic scope as we saw in New Orleans with people trapped in their houses or their houses simply washed away by the flooding. It was not that bad.

But because many had expected it could be somewhere in that scope of damage, we are told that more than 90 percent of the town, they believe, even a higher number than that, had already complied with the mandatory evacuations. We found very few people there this morning who spent the whole night there as we did.

DOBBS: Well, that's certainly great news for the community and a credit to what, I guess, we're all learning as a result of what happened with Hurricane Katrina.

John, one other question. That is the presence of authorities there, Jefferson County sheriffs, police. They have a large public safety presence out now?

KING: There's a growing presence, Lou. I have to say, I was quite surprised during the morning hours. We spent the night in the town. We were up throughout the -- when the hurricane hit and the eyewall of the storm coming in. Obviously, that was in the overnight hours, 2:40 a.m. when the eyewall hit. Then we were up and wandering around, trying to find our way, assess the scope of the flooding and how you could get through it down to the levees.

We didn't see any police, any utility officials, any fire or rescue people until well into the early afternoon hours. They had evacuated themselves. And now they have come back, and they have set up a new emergency operations center on the outskirts of town. They had gotten some 30, 40 mile away. They are back on the edge of town. We did see some rescue boats. There were many citizens complaining to us that they were having trouble getting 911 calls through or trouble getting answers from the utility as to when the power might come on. That situation did improve, though, later in the afternoon. We're now behind you, of course, here, and I think that -- better now than it was this morning, but I have to tell you -- it's anecdotal, of course -- I was quite surprised to see that we were able to roam, with some difficulty driving and sometimes the water up past the door of your car, but we were able to get around. And we did not see any police, fire, rescue, utility officials for hours.

DOBBS: John King, reporting from Port Arthur. Thank you, John.

We're joined now on the phone by Alex Quade, who earlier today was with Louisiana Fish and Game officials as they tried to rescue citizens on the intercoastal waterway there. Alex tonight from Lafayette, Louisiana -- Alex.

ALEX QUADE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Lou. We have backtracked to Lafayette. We were in Cow Island, which is just above the Pecan (ph) Island. This was a staging area for Louisiana Fish and Wildlife officers. They basically put their call out on the radio, asking for local hunters and fishermen to bring their boats, their air boats, and to basically to try to get down to the Pecan (ph) Island area and all the way over towards the Cameron Parish area.

This whole intercoastal marshy area that has residents that they say are sitting on their roofs, waiting for evacuations. They don't say that there are there -- are very many residents that they are aware of, but that there are residents that still need to be evacuated. And what has happened is that we have these squalls -- we were on the west side of this storm -- and we had these squalls and high winds all day long. And the storm surge came up to the point where we all had to backtrack back. We went back another about another 10 miles, and staged there as well...

DOBBS: Alex, Alex, I hate to interrupt you. But we are going to be going to Austin, Texas, here shortly, and just want to prepare you for that when the president is ready to make those comments. We will be going to the emergency operations center in Austin, Texas -- in Texas.

Now I'm told that we are going to be going to Austin, Texas right now. Alex Quade from Lafayette, Louisiana. Thank you very much. Here's the president.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd like to thank you all for the hard work you're doing. I appreciate Senators Hutchison and Cornyn, Congressman DeLay, Governor Perry.

First of all, the people of the state are counting on you. And I know you're working hard, and I appreciate the response. It's -- nobody asked for these things, but when they come, we have a duty.

I'm really here to let the folks in Texas know that the federal government knows we have a responsibility to support you in the mission of saving lives first and foremost, and then helping rebuild their lives.

There's some issues that we've been briefed on that I think it's important for our fellow citizens to understand in Texas, that for those who feel like you need to get back to the city like Houston, it's important to delay your trip so that essential personnel are able to get to the affected areas. We're moving assets, military assets, for example, trying to help people who need help, and if the highways are clogged, it's going to make it hard to get those assets into the affected areas.

Houston outpost, for example, is in need of nurses. Nurses who are now trying to get back in are having problems getting on the highways. And so I would ask for those of you in the state to -- who are in safe places now, not to hurry back to a city like Houston. Let these highways flow the necessary goods and services to the people in east Texas who have been affected.

I know for a lot of folks in the state, it's miserable times. I hope you can take some comfort in knowing there's a lot of people like the people in this room who are working overtime to save you and to help you. And I think you'll be amazed by the extraordinary compassion of the people of Texas, as they rise up to help their fellow citizens in need.

At any rate, it's good to see you all. Thank you for your hard work. God bless those who have been affected and God bless those who are helping those that have been affected, and may God bless the country. Thank you.

DOBBS: President Bush talking from the emergency operations center in Austin, Texas, just a short while ago.

We're going to be going to Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Center to bring us up to date on the strong winds that remain in front of this now Tropical Storm Rita. We'll be going there in just a moment.

Still ahead here, fears tonight that Hurricane Rita may have triggered environmental damage and a great deal of it on the Gulf Coast, from damaged chemical plants -- we'll have that special report.

And the U.S. Army has announced a new mobilization of active-duty troops along the Gulf Coast. We'll have the latest for you on the military's growing response to this hurricane and now Tropical Storm Rita. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Updating you now on the very latest on Tropical Storm Rita. Rita downgraded this afternoon to a tropical storm after slamming into east Texas and the Louisiana Gulf Coast this morning. Forecasters say this storm will dump torrential rains over a wide area as it moves northward. The full force of this powerful Category 3 storm was felt in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Port Arthur, Texas. Lake Charles, a coastal town, hit by a 15-foot storm surge, substantial damage is being reported there. Power is out for more than 1 million customers. And no deaths have been reported so far as a result of this storm.

Houston and Galveston, Texas were spared the worst of the storm's wrath, but the governor of Texas is pleading with residents to stay away from their homes for now. Texas officials worry about a repeat of the chaotic mass exodus out of Houston earlier in the week. But some Texas residents are already heading back to their homes tonight. An estimated almost 2 million people left the Houston area under orders to evacuate their city and the surrounding suburbs.

Jacqui Jeras is in our CNN Weather Center. She has an update for us now on where Rita is headed and what we can expect, and the new threat of inland flooding from this storm -- Jacqui.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, Lou, just because we're a tropical storm, doesn't mean we don't have a lot going on, because we certainly do throughout the rest of the day today. A 50-mile-per-hour maximum sustained winds still at this hour. And that in itself can cause problems, cause a little bit of damage and also potentially a few power outages.

The storm southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana, by about 25 miles. It's still pulling up to the north. And the forward speed so far has been very steady throughout the day today. However, we are expecting it to start to drift on off to the north and to the east, and eventually begin to slow down. And that is going to be big trouble as it heads through the Arcatex (ph) region and could bring in some very heavy rain -- in fact, as much as 12 to maybe 24 inches.

Now, there has been a little bit of a catch here. There are two different things going on in the upper atmosphere right now. There's a storm system in the upper Midwest, and then there's also an upper- level high expecting to kind of redevelop across parts of Texas here, across the southern plains states. And those two systems are going to be fighting each other to steer Rita. Which one is going to rule over? We're not 100 percent sure just yet. But one scenario would kind of linger it through this area and then drive it on up towards the north and east, towards the Ohio Valley. The other scenario would be the high would take over, and start to drive this system farther down to the south.

As you take a look at the forecast from the National Hurricane Center here, you can see that they're leaning towards that direction that could possibly push it farther down to the south. We'll have to wait and see what happens, but I want you to be aware of those two scenarios, because if this one holds true, unfortunately, it could be moving back over some of the same areas already hit so hard.

We'll keep you up to date with that one.

The threat of tornadoes will continue across much of Louisiana, also in Mississippi and Arkansas. And there you can see all the flood watches posted for all that heavy rain -- Lou.

DOBBS: An extraordinary amount of rain covering a broad area.

Thank you very much, Jacqui. We'll be going back to Jacqui later to -- as we continue to update what is now Tropical Storm Rita.

The chemical industry, just like our oil industry, is awaiting word tonight on hurricane damage to its Gulf Coast facilities. A large percentage of this country's chemical plants are in the path of Hurricane Rita. If those plants were indeed damaged, the Gulf Coast environment could be threatened. Christine Romans is here with the story -- Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, major concerns tonight about possible environmental damage from the second big hurricane in just a month. Flooded homes, washed-out cars, burst sewage lines, cracked underground gas tanks all create health hazards for the cleanup after Rita. Now, top on the list, great concern about the security of the vast networks of chemical plants and chemical storage facilities right in Rita's path.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB SLAUGHTER, NATIONAL PETROCHEM. REFINERS ASSOCIATION: We have about 160 petrochemical plants in this area, including several of the largest petrochemical complexes in the United States. So you probably have more than 50 percent of petrochemical production in this area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: In just these four counties in Texas, 87 plants turning out 131 different dangerous chemicals. Too soon yet to know how well these fared, but the late word from the Department of Homeland Security, no reports yet of any spills. The assessment is just beginning.

In the meantime, if Katrina's damage is any guide, there's a great concern about the toxicity of the water, and of the soil once it dries out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM NATAN, NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL TRUST: The possibility you can inhale the dust. And generally, inhalation of toxic chemicals is a much more direct route of exposure than absorbing it through your skin or even ingesting it. So there is a potential hazard there that I don't think has been looked at really at all that people need to be aware of.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: In the meantime, a debate is brewing in environmental circles. The Environmental Protection Agency this week said it wants to lighten the burden for reporting toxic releases from chemical inventories. Well, environmental groups say these disasters prove that chemical facilities must painstakingly report all their chemicals, so first responders and communities know exactly what's in the toxic stew after something like Rita.

DOBBS: So in other words, an industry that is responsible for all of these toxic chemicals is self-reporting, effectively self- regulating, and now the EPA has decided to extend that self-reporting period?

ROMANS: Instead of every year, it will be every two years. And the environmental groups say it's really bad timing. They don't like it.

DOBBS: And until we know precisely what the result is of Hurricane Rita and really Hurricane Katrina before it, we may want to change some of those reporting standards and who is responsible for those reports. Christine Romans, thank you very much.

The Texas National Guard has launched a massive operation to help victims of Hurricane Rita. Joining me now is Major General Charles Rodriguez. He's adjutant general of the Texas National Guard.

General, thanks for being here. I know you've got -- you've had a busy time helping with the evacuation, now helping as Texans begin to recover from this storm. You had over 3,000 troops mobilized. What are you doing this evening?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ, TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD: Yes, sir. We have actually moved forward, and we've got our first rescue task force, which has entered the Beaumont area, where we're beginning to identify folks who may need assistance that are still in the area. Assist with the surveying and just saving life and limb initially.

We have another team that is ready to roll. We're just making sure that the assessments that are done by the Division of Emergency Management here come in, so that we go to the right place and commit our resources properly.

DOBBS: And when you talk about your resources, are you talking about air resources as well as on the ground?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, absolutely. We have the rescue ground-based teams, and we also have helicopters which were -- you're probably familiar with them, the Chinook helicopter, which is the big one with the two blades. We have the Blackhawk, which can haul people, and especially in a rescue lift environment, and, of course, supplies at any given point.

DOBBS: What are you hearing from your troops out on those search and rescue operations? I don't know how recently you've had an update, the number of people who do require rescue and help and assistance?

RODRIGUEZ: We have just rolled in and have not found that many yet. But as I indicated, we just rolled in. We're equipped. Each of these task forces have about 500 people, and they are primed and ready to go. Many of them are veterans of the Katrina rescue.

DOBBS: And at this point, have you had any problem communicating with other agencies? The president, as you well know, at the emergency operations center earlier in Austin, Texas, the coordination amongst local fire and police departments, sheriff's offices, the county level, and the rest of the state government, how's that going along with, of course, FEMA and the other federal organizations? RODRIGUEZ: It's doing extremely well. The emergency response from local to district, county, and then up to the state is working very well. We also have federal partners, and we're working closely with them, both the FEMA and some active duty for very selected response. It's good cross-talking, and we're sharing what we call liaison officers to cross-talk and make sure we're doing things correctly.

DOBBS: General Rodriguez, we thank you very much for being with us, and we wish you all the very best as you move up -- move out to help the citizens of Texas recover from this storm. Thank you, sir.

Coming up next, the governor of Texas pleading with his residents to stay away from their homes tonight. But Texans do not appear, at least all of them, to be heeding that call. Texans sometimes have a problem with directives like that. We'll have a live report for you from Houston, next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, has been spared Hurricane Rita's worst, but Governor Rick Perry of Texas is still telling Houston residents not to go home quite yet. Bob Franken is in Houston with a report -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, to some degree, some people are ignoring him a little bit, and are starting to come in, and there are some traffic jams. The officials have now put in a phased return program. They are spreading it out over three days for the Houston and Galveston areas, using certain interstates on one day, certain ones on another, obviously trying to avoid the gridlocks that were just a disaster as they had in the evacuation plan.

However, with all the complaining about the evacuation plans and the acknowledgment by officials that they need to refine them, the some officials say complain though you might, it should be pointed out that there were almost no casualties in the wake of Hurricane Rita. And they say that a good part of that can be attributed to the fact that people were out of the way, in spite of the fact that they went through quite a bit of suffering to get out of the way.

But in any case, they're trying to refine that, so there is not so much suffering in the Houston area. They're going to keep schools closed for a couple of days and ask businesses to delay reopening in an effort to ease the crunch a little bit, as Houston returns to normal after not having anything near the problems that they thought they'd have with Hurricane Rita. There are about a half million people who are without power here, but don't forget, this is a metropolitan area, Lou, of over 4 million people -- Lou.

DOBBS: And just about 2 million people evacuated from the city. And as you point out, Bob, I mean, the fact is that there were frustrating long lines, the terrible accident in which those elderly people from the nursing home died, but the fact that they were able to move 2 million people out, it seems reasonable to say, as you suggest, that that's what spared a lot of people, the effectiveness of that evacuation.

FRANKEN: Well, certainly the officials say so. At the same time, they acknowledge that evacuation is a very difficult process at best, and they need to get to the point where they are at best.

DOBBS: Now, when you talk about the phased return into Houston, Governor Perry asking for that, even though Houston has been spared the worst, does it look like those Texans are going to pay a lot of attention?

FRANKEN: Well, they seem to be. I mean, Houston, as you probably know, is a town that is usually not very easy to get around in. And in that regard, it's been kind of nice here to have our own personal highways as we drive back and forth.

But that's going to be changing very quickly as they do return to normal. My guess is that there's going to be some semblance of order, although as you point out, Texans can be, shall we say, an ornery lot sometimes, and may decide that they'll come in when they feel like coming in.

DOBBS: Right. Bob Franken, thank you very much, as he sits in Houston with his own personal traffic system.

The Pentagon today announced it's sending some 500 active-duty troops to the areas devastated by the hurricane. Troops from the 82nd Airborne are arriving in the area to help with search and rescue operations. Our Jamie McIntyre is live at Fr. Sam Houston in San Antonio with the report -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, this is not only a forward staging base, both for troops and for FEMA supplies, but also the headquarters of joint task force Rita, which is the headquarters coordinating the military support to the civilian response to the hurricane. It's led by Lieutenant General Bob Clark (ph), who is -- has been all day very busy coordinating the effort.

He knows he's got a lot of challenges, especially being under the microscope after Katrina and the criticism, just or otherwise, about the slowness of the military response. He doesn't criticize that response, but he admits readily that there are a lot of lessons to learn, and that he brought a lot of the people who were involved in that operation here.

One of the things they know, they need a lot of helicopters on the front end of the search and rescue operation. They've got more than 200 ready to go. Winds have been a factor, but some of the helicopters have been able to get up today.

The other thing they need to do is get a good assessment of where that aid needs to go. We saw truckloads of water, MREs, tents, tarps, generators that are standing by here at Ft. Sam Houston. Some of them moving ahead last night to forward deployment area. Again, to try to get that relief to people who need it.

And of course, the third critical area that they're really trying to improve upon is communications. It appears that the satellite phones and other backup communications seem to be working. A little bit of irony, Lou, just a short time ago here, the large part of this base lost power when a transformer blew up. But it's not related to the hurricane, just one of those things. But of course, the operations center here, which is the nerve center of the military response, was on emergency backup power. They didn't miss a beat.

But they're not out of the woods yet by any means. They still don't have a real good handle on precisely what kind of a challenge they have ahead of them. And the general's going to be getting some boots on the ground here in the coming days to make a firsthand assessment, to see how things are going. He's pretty convinced they're going to do a great job. But he's not overconfident at all -- Lou.

DOBBS: And Jamie, it has to be reassuring to everyone to see those trucks lined up with supplies, with material, ready to assist, with even the 82nd Airborne involved in search and rescue operations. This is a far different response that we're seeing with Rita than we saw with Katrina. Is it lessons learned broadly through both the military and the other agencies, with state, local and federal with whom the Pentagon operates?

MCINTYRE: Yeah, I think that that's the point that General Clark (ph) would make, that it's not just the military that's learned some lessons, but a lot of the local governments. And to the extent that they learned lessons about communications, about forward staging of supplies, about -- and again, a big factor was people taking the evacuation orders seriously -- to the extent that all that worked, plus the geography of Texas and the part of Louisiana affected, that reduces the demand for the federal government and the military to come in behind.

So it's a much different scenario here. The response is benefiting tremendously from what they learned in Katrina, and -- but no doubt, there will still be things they'll need to improve after this.

DOBBS: And President Bush, the commander in chief, all over the state of Texas and Louisiana over the last several days this time around. A broad number ...

MCINTYRE: He'll be here tonight, by the way, Lou. He'll be here tonight to meet with General Clark (ph), we're told, and to get a firsthand briefing from him as well.

DOBBS: Lessons learned broadly, I think it's fair to say. Jamie McIntyre, thank you very much.

Still ahead, a damaged levee. Well, that damaged levee system holds up, but it can't hold out the floodwaters in New Orleans. I'll be talking with the man in charge of draining those floodwaters from the city when we continue. And we'll have the latest for you from the Gulf Coast next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) DOBBS: Joining me now is Colonel Duane Gapinski. He is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of the operation to drain those floodwaters from the city of New Orleans. Good to have you with us.

With these floodwaters now rising in some places, we're told, to 8 feet within the 9th Ward, Colonel, how long is it going to take you to get started, and then hopefully reach a point where you can dry out that city?

COL. DUANE GAPINSKI, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Well, actually, Lou, we have started already. This afternoon, we started dropping sandbags on the part of that expedient repair on the east side of the Industrial Canal. And sometime tomorrow, we'll have that water stopped that's flowing into the 9th Ward.

DOBBS: And Colonel, these breached levees from Katrina and the storm surges of that hurricane, they held up, as you would have hoped in this, even though they were -- even though floodwaters did overflow them?

GAPINSKI: Yes, they did. In fact, those expedient repairs held up. It's just that the level of the water in the canal got higher than the repairs, so it overtopped. So that structure is still there; it's just the water has flown over the top.

DOBBS: Now, how soon will you be able to begin actually pumping waters out of there?

GAPINSKI: Well, we should complete that sandbagging operation, which will stop the water from flowing into the 9th Ward, and then we'll bring some temporary pumps in and start pumping it out. And we're aided by the adjacent county -- or excuse me, adjacent parish, that's pumping water out, and that will suck some of the water out of the lower 9th Ward and help us do that a little quicker.

DOBBS: I know it's awfully early. You've got a lot on your plate and a great deal to take care of, and the Corps of Engineers always gets it done. And I even hate to ask you this, but human nature being what it is, do you have any sense of how long it's going to take you to dry out that city? Not only the 9th Ward, but all of New Orleans and get it ready to go?

GAPINSKI: Well, Lou, of course, you know, a couple of days ago, we were pretty much -- we were very close to being dry. So this is a little bit of a setback. But, you know, it depends. We still are assessing how much water got in, but, you know, I don't know, I'm afraid to say. But you know, this might set us back three to five days. You know, it's hard to say at this point. But certainly we're looking at that, and we'll have estimates over the next day or two.

DOBBS: Well, you and all of your folks in the Corps had already performed miracles before Rita hit. You were well ahead of schedule on drying the city out. Mother Nature is not to be denied, and we look forward to you continuing to put on an impressive show as you try to now bring New Orleans back. Colonel, we thank you very much for being with us and wish you all the very best.

GAPINSKI: Thanks, Lou.

DOBBS: Still ahead here, FEMA is working to ensure a much more efficient response to the second major hurricane in less than a month. We'll have a live report for you from Washington. And we'll have all of the very latest details on the aftermath of Hurricane Rita and the direction of Tropical Storm Rita when we continue. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: President Bush, who was roundly criticized for his initial response to the Hurricane Katrina crisis is taking now a hands-on approach to the Hurricane Rita disaster. President Bush spent much of the night monitoring the storm's approach at U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado. And today, the president was in Austin, Texas, meeting with emergency management officials there. President Bush saying the situation remains dangerous because of the serious risk of flooding.

Kathleen Koch is now in Washington. She has the latest for us on the federal response to this hurricane disaster -- Kathleen.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, an optimistic assessment here in Washington this afternoon from FEMA. Director David Paulison saying the damage in Texas and Louisiana from Hurricane Rita is not as severe as they had expected. There have been, obviously, some rescues of citizens, he pointed out, who did choose to ride out the storm. But Paulison says there have been no reported deaths.

He says that FEMA resources like search and rescue teams are now moving very quickly into the areas impacted by Rita.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID PAULISON, ACTING FEMA DIRECTOR: We are also sending in high-water vehicles into those areas that are flooded. And those high-water vehicles are carrying food, water, doing basic first aid, basic medical supplies, and they are also doing some damage assessment for us, so we can get a good handle on exactly where the damage is and how significant it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOCH: FEMA says key to preventing loss of life this time were the evacuations, difficult according to the director, with rough edges, but he says they did work. Also working, prepositioning FEMA personnel in cities with local officials, so that they can quickly get word out on what the cities need. And cities then can better understand just precisely what FEMA's capabilities are.

Lou, I will tell you, there was some frustration expressed directly to me this week by mayors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast whose prepositioned FEMA representatives fled before Katrina. That obviously made such communication difficult, if not impossible.

DOBBS: They fled before Hurricane Katrina?

KOCH: Five hours north, where they would be safe, yes.

DOBBS: And obviously, the performance considerably improved for Hurricane Rita. Again, everyone is learning something here, perhaps lessons that should have already been well understood, but nonetheless learned. Kathleen Koch, thank you very much.

Communities all across this country are pitching in, trying to help those affected by both of these powerful storms. Casey Wian has the story for us from Los Angeles -- Casey.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Lou. Emergency personnel and volunteer aid workers have been pouring into Texas and Louisiana from all over the country to help out with recovery efforts now under way for Hurricane Rita.

Here's a convoy of ambulances that left Southern California earlier this week. There's been a critical shortage of ambulances in the Gulf region and they were badly needed to evacuate the elderly and the sick. FEMA contacted ambulance services nationwide asking for help, and dozens of companies responded.

Other states sending resources include Arizona, where 75 airmen, three helicopters and two refueling planes were deployed from the Davis-Monthan Air base in Tucson. Georgia has sent paramedics, and from Arkansas, 140 utility workers are now in Texas, preparing to help restore power. North Carolina assembled a team of forest resources personnel, while Maryland sent an urban search and rescue team, including firefighters and doctors. From Connecticut, the giant liquor company Diagio sent bottled water and two industrial-sized generators. Power-related help also coming from companies in Ohio and New Jersey. They've sent scores of power line crews. It's a critical need, because it may take weeks before power is restored.

There's also help coming from internationally. Canada, Regional Airlines sent a 737 and two flight crews to help with evacuations. And from Mexico, which has offered medical crews and temporary shelters. And hotels in one Mexican resort town cut their prices 30 percent for evacuees fleeing Rita -- Lou.

DOBBS: Not a bad price. Thank you very much. Casey Wian, it's good to see the country pitching in. It's a story that we don't cover often enough. All of the good hearts around this country that take in evacuees and who provide as much as they can to those who need it in the wake of a disaster. Thank you very much, Casey Wian from Los Angeles.

Coming up in the next hour here, we'll have the very latest for you on the aftermath and the impact of Hurricane Rita. Live reports from the hardest-hit areas in Texas and Louisiana, all along the Gulf Coast. In New Orleans, heavy rains and storm surges have broken over the levees there again. Some parts of the city are under as much as 8 feet of water. The Army Corps of Engineers has already moved in to start moving that water out of New Orleans. We'll have a live report for you. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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