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CNN SUNDAY MORNING

Hurricane Gustav; Hip-Hop Republicans; State of Emergency in Four States

Aired August 31, 2008 - 09:00   ET

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


T.J. HOLMES, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: All right, we've been saying it's the theme of the day from in New Orleans: get your butts out of there, is what they're telling folks from New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast as this monster storm and deadly storm already, Gustav, heads that way. Hello to you all, I'm T.J. Holmes.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Good morning everybody, I'm Betty Nguyen. Yeah, we're not putting in those terms lightly, because that's what the mayor, in fact, is saying. The order of the day is evacuate. Thousands of people hitting the road, as you see right there, mandatory evacuations, they are going into effect this hour in New Orleans. Now, other parishes, they ordered people out yesterday.

HOLMES: There are also assisted evacuations going on right now. People are getting picked up in buses, being taken out of the danger zones. We've seen some people head upriver, really up the Mississippi arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, also some folks going to Nashville. From there they've been moved to evacuation shelters.

Now some of those evacuation orders are coming with a little heat on them. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin telling people to, again, these are his words, "get your butts out of town." He issued a mandatory evacuation order for the city's West Bank. That starts now, 8:00 Central Time. But for those who decide to stay, he has this warning for you:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: Anyone who decides to stay, I'll say it like I said before Katrina, make sure you have an axe, because you will carving your way or busting your way out of your attics to get on your roof with waters that you will be surrounded with in this event. So, anybody who's thinking about staying, rethink it. Get out of town. This is not the one to play with...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: Now, we are, of course, watching all angles of this story. Our Sean Callebs is stuck in evacuation traffic, in fact. CNN's Susan Roesgen in is New Orleans to tell us what people are saying behind what they can expect, and our Morgan Neill in Cuba where Hurricane Gustav gave us an advanced look at what the Gulf Coast can expect.

HOLMES: We want to turn first to Sean, there, who is in the middle of heavy traffic heading out of New Orleans, today. The state has put this contraflow plan into effect. This is a map of it, here. You see all those arrows pretty much showing the direction that traffic is flooding, just going one way and all of those roads are leading out of southern Louisiana.

Sean, we're going to head back to you. We were talking to you a little earlier. You at least had your head turned forward and you were driving a bit, now you're turned around looked at the camera. Apparently you are parked.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Right. We've been cruising pretty well, I would say, throughout the morning. We've been on the road two hours and probably gone 30-35 miles. We still have about 50- 55 miles to go to reach Baton Rouge. It is moving extremely slowly, here on I-10 west, but the contraflow is working. Across the bayou, there, normally traffic that leads to New Orleans is heading out.

Now, that's pretty (AUDIO GAP). The vehicles that are trying to get on the contraflow, I don't know why it is significantly more open than this side of I-10 west, but it is going...

People are told to get out of the city and get out instantly. We are actually watching people, how they're passing their time because it is painfully, painfully slow. We've seen a lot of kids watching videos, seen some drivers even trying to read newspapers. The one thing I can say, T.J., we have been moving but now it's come to a stop.

OK, now how do we get back to New Orleans once we want to turn around? Well, the city is putting this out these badges you see right here. And this is going to allow us to go into the city after this curfew, after the mandatory evacuation. So, we're going to be able to do what we need to do down there to continue to cover the story.

I go to say, this technical thing we have worked up here, going live with broadband, this was hooked up by photographer Ken Hills (ph).

Give it away, Ken.

And then in the back we have Eric Merapodi (ph), our producer. His job is to make sure we have nice cold drinks, we have chips, we have things to keep us -- our time passed. When it gets really slow, we've got the iPod. Anything we can think of to pass the time because, man, this is like watching paint drive.

HOLMES: I think we heard you say 35 miles you've gone in two hours. You talk about other people trying to read newspapers and do other things while they're driving. That's not recommended usually, but you're going to slow and even yourself, there, you're actually doing some live reporting while you're driving. So, everybody's out there doing a little something.

Let me ask you one quick question about gas. We were talking to a gentleman earlier about gas stations, whether or not they were running out, price, just everything related to the gas station. Were you all able to fill up? Did you find gas all right? Was it a long line? Was it expensive?

CALLEBS: It's a good question. We've had trouble finding gas for the past couple days. A lot of stations were either shut down or regular was gone so you had to buy one of the more expensive grades of gasoline. The main thing out in New Orleans, everything was shut down. It was impossible to find anything.

HOLMES: Well, all right, our Sean Callebs, again, on the road there in traffic. You got a long road to go, another 50 something miles, I think you said, to get to Baton Rouge. We'll be checking with you again. Safe travels there, buddy.

NGUYEN: All right, well you know, there are new mandatory evacuations orders that are going into effect right now in New Orleans. And that means if you plan to stay you are on your own. They're saying that if in fact you do stay, you're not going to have city services, no emergency services.

CNN's Susan Roesgen joins us now from New Orleans with the latest on what people are doing to try to get out of that city and what's left for those who unfortunately might decide to stay. I mean, you think everyone would have learned their lesson from Hurricane Katrina -- Susan.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Actually, I think most people did, Betty. Certainly what Sean is sitting in this morning is something that we didn't expect to see because so many got out early. I mean, the difference between this and Katrina and some of the similarities are so strange. In Hurricane Katrina, I remember there was a Saints football game on the Friday night before the storm hit on Monday. People went to the Saints game because we just weren't thinking that the hurricane was going to come here and then it made a jog in this direction and by that time, yes, Interstate 10 where Sean is, was just packed. People sat maybe six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 hours to get to Baton Rouge.

Probably not that bad this time around. And today there was supposed to be a Saints football game that has been canceled. The team is out of town. Everybody who can get out of town is getting out of town. Nobody wants to be stranded here, nobody wants to be here this time when the hurricane blows in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DIANA STIEFFEL, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: (INAUDIBLE) and the silver up stairs, just some things we can't replace.

ROESGEN (voice over): Every time a hurricane comes close, the Stieffel family moves a lot of things upstairs. And then they get out. But this time 12-year-old Dalton is writing a prayer on his bedroom wall.

DALTON STIEFFEL, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: And it says bless the room, please help this stuff to go away.

ROESGEN: That's the prayer of a lot of people here, thousands who have no way to get out on their own. Instead of leaving them to fend for themselves as the city did during Hurricane Katrina, for Gustav the city brought the poor and the desperate to the bus and train station to register for a free ride out of town.

DIANA STIEFFEL: Water. Who needs water?

ROESGEN: The trouble was a computer glitch slowed the registration to a crawl while hundreds of people waited in line outside.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's horrible. Very horrible. I got a pregnant sister with two kids with a brother out here who don't need to be behind this line...

ROESGEN: Eventually the city stopped the registration and the first train with 1,500 people was on the way to safety in Memphis.

DIANA STIEFFEL: This is heavy.

ROESGEN: During Katrina, nine feet of water flooded this house. The Stieffel family rebuilt it with an optimism that is uniquely New Orleans.

(on camera): If a hurricane this year wiped you out again, will you come back again and do this all over?

DIANA STIEFFEL: We would like to say we would.

(INAUDIBLE) are we coming back?

Actually, yes, I think we will.

ROESGEN (voice over): It may sound unthinkable if you live anywhere else, but New Orleaneans (ph) love this city such passion they won't go without a fight and a prayer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Now, that family was planning yesterday to go to Birmingham, Alabama, that's to the east of the city. The people on the buses and the trains are going north, anywhere they can get to out of the way of the this storm -- Betty.

NGUYEN: Absolutely. Susan Roesgen, joining us live -- T.J.

HOLMES: All right, Betty, we got work about some of these traffic issues. Again, this contraflow plan everybody's supposed to be heading out of the Gulf Coast region. But we have an issue on I-10 east heading into Mississippi. Doug Cain from Louisiana State Police is on the line with us.

And sir, we understand you had to shut down traffic and divert it elsewhere. What happened?

LT DOUG CAIN, LOUISIANA STATE POLICE: Well, good morning. Thanks for having me on, this morning. Contraflow started at 4:00 a.m. this morning, and it's going well, traffic is moving. We had some traffic congestion eastbound on I-10 going into Mississippi. All that eastbound traffic was flowing through Mississippi and hitting the Mobile Tunnel. Obviously, you can only put so much traffic through the Mobile Tunnel. We recognized traffic increasing, so we went ahead and rerouted all the I-10 eastbound traffic north on I-59 to alleviate that congestion through our partner state. We're in constant communication with Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and we're going to work through any issues that we see. And this is indicative of that.

HOLMES: And what, I guess, what time did this all happen? That the -- really it sounds like what I'm hearing is the traffic became so much that you had to make an alternate plan. But, so, what time was traffic getting that heave that you had to make this move?

CAIN: This happened in the last couple of hours. But, this is something we monitor. We have all our assets in the air, our helicopters, our airplanes, it takes 900 police officers to pull off contraflow across the entire Louisiana coast. With the help of the Department of Transportation, we're keeping an eye on it. We have officers patrolling the routes, making sure they're clear, making sure cars aren't broken down, making sure there's not crashes. And we're going to take any of these problems that occur or issues that arise and we'll handle them. We're adaptable, we're ready to act and it's going well.

HOLMES: And we have some pictures we've been showing our viewers this morning, and one of our reporters, Sean Callebs, is actually in traffic on I-10 going the other direction, he's heading over into Baton Rouge. But the area where you were monitoring, how heavy is traffic right about now?

CAIN: I don't have an accurate minute-by-minute, but we elevated that problem on I-10 and it is moving, it's steady. Obviously the volume is heavy, but as long as traffic continues to move, that's what we want. We saw a lot of people leave early. They're heeding the warnings, they're getting out of the danger zone and the threat zone and that's what we like to see. We're still well away from landfall and we're encouraging everybody to get out and head north.

HOLMES: And finally, here, how long will this plan be in place?

CAIN: It will be in place as long as we need to. We're hoping that we can shut it down by midnight, tonight. But, we'll go as long as we need to. We moved 1.2 million people in 24 hours the last time we did contraflow on the southeast side and now we're doing the southeast plan and the southwest plan and we're going to continue to do that until we get everybody out of harm's way.

HOLMES: Well, that is no doubt a herculean task you are undertaking, there, trying to get all those highways moving in one direction. But, so far so good, as long as people are getting out. Again, Doug Cain with the Louisiana State Police. Sir, we know It's been busy for you, we appreciate you taking a time-out and updating our viewers.

CAIN: Yes, sir. Thanks for having me.

NGUYEN: As these mandatory evacuations are underway, a lot of people wondering well, how much time do I have to get out? When is this storm going to hit? Well, let's turn now to CNN's Reynolds Wolf fro the Weather Center to get us an idea where Gustav is and you think it might hit.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I'm still thinking sometime tomorrow afternoon, I mean, to be safe. I know this is going to sound weird, the eye of the storm, I would say probably crossing the southern Louisiana coast anywhere from, say, 1:00 to 3:00, a two-hour span. That's to give way for a lot of the fluctuation the storm will have in power and in forward speed.

Something else to consider, thought, that's going to be the eye of the storm. The eye crossing parts of southern Louisiana by that time. Long before the eye comes ashore, many places in Louisiana, including New Orleans, will be dealing with the heavy rainfall, the strong winds, the storm surge. In Lake Pontchartrain it's going to be a mess.

To give you the sheer size of the storm, Betty and T.J., if you happen to be, you have friends out there tuning in from, say, you're in a hotel, you're on "I" Drive in Orlando, you could look out the wind and see clouds that are actually part of this storm. Same deal if you happen to be way up to Jackson, Mississippi, you're of course driving along listening to us on satellite radio on I-10 right now, some of the cloud cover you see above you is from this storm, this storm that continues to roll off to the northwest at 16 miles-an-hour.

Winds thought, are at 120 miles-per-hour. We do anticipate this storm is going to interact with the gulf loop. The gulf loop is a current, very warm area of water in the Gulf of Mexico and that could really cause the storm to gain quite a bit of power. And that's what the National Hurricane Center is focusing on, that warm water interacting with the storm causing it to build strength from winds which are currently at 120, expected to go to 145 by 2:00 a.m. on Monday. Then as we make our way through Monday afternoon, and certainly into early Tuesday morning, overnight Monday, early Tuesday morning, this storm is expected to make its way well onshore.

And Notice something else, too. It begins to pull up anchor as we get into Shreveport, back towards Texas and Louisiana in Wednesday and Thursday where the winds will die down considerably, but the rain is going to begin to stack up. Possibility of well over a foot of rainfall as we get into the middle of next week. But I'm still thinking that landfall could be sometime early to midafternoon just to the southwest of New Orleans, but still there can be plenty of changes. It doesn't matter though, if you happen to be in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi coast, you need to evacuate, you need to start making some plans, especially Louisiana. Let's send it back to you.

NGUYEN: On top of that, Reynolds, this can be felt as far north as Shreveport, maybe Dallas maybe parts of Oklahoma?

WOLF: Oh absolutely, but I mean, the threat will not be so much in terms of the wind because the wind is going to die down. The big story is the heavy, heavy rainfall. Remember, though, remember all the damage we saw in Fay, from Fay in parts of Florida. Florida, again, kind a swampy territory, it will handle a lot of rainfall, but still you saw the damage in Florida. That's really not the case in terms of much of the central and southern plains and of course on the Gulf Coast. Gulf Coast of Louisiana you can handle it a little bit better. But not so much into Texas and the Arklatex (ph), they could really have a rough time, there. Serious flooding could be big story as we make our way into next week. And that is in fact when the other tropical storm we're dealing with, that is Hanna. We're going to share some stories on Hanna coming up here really soon, here too, but right now the big story, the top line is going to be Gustav. Back to you.

NGUYEN: Let's hope it's not a 1-2 punch with these two. OK.

WOLF: Exactly.

NGUYEN: Thank you.

HOLMES: Well, lessons learned from Katrina. Disaster plans in high gear as Hurricane Gustav approaches. We'll talk with the former Homeland Security adviser to the president about what's being done this time around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: First, there is a lot of focus on the Louisiana situation this morning. But, you know, Alabama, Texas, even Mississippi are also under states of emergency because of Hurricane Gustav.

HOLMES: And Mississippi's governor is warning people there not to be complacent because the storm could change this thing up and change paths at any moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV HALEY BARBOUR, MISSISSIPPI: It would not be unusual for this hurricane to turn a little bit to the east like the last. So, I don't think Mississippians should take comfort that the tracks continue to show that the hurricane is likely to come in on the central Louisiana coast.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: Listening to Governor Haley Barbour, there. Speaking of politics, on a side note here, the president will likely not attend the Republican National Convention as he wants to keep an eye on what's happening with Gustav. And we do want to take a closer look at disaster preparations ahead of Gustav and some of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. Joining us from Washington, former White House Homeland Security adviser and CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend.

Thanks for being with us this morning.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Good morning, Betty.

NGUYEN: All right, so as you watch these preparations and you look back at lessons learned from Katrina, are you seeing things played out they way they should, especially with three years in between? TOWNSEND: Absolutely. Look, you've seen the disaster declarations by the president which allows additional aid to go to the affected areas. You've seen Secretary Chertoff down in Louisiana, he's going to meet with the governor and state and local officials. You just way Governor Haley Barbour and he's been working with federal officials. Senator McCain is going down to Mississippi today to get a briefing. You see the benefits of the advanced preparation and planning and it's working. You saw the contraflow and the ability to adjust those plans depending on traffic. All of these things are a signs that the planning and preparation has gone better in advance of the crisis and therefore in the execution phase, it's going better now.

NGUYEN: You know, I remember sitting right here on this desk the weekend before Hurricane Katrina occurred and talking to people who still hadn't left yet, talking to officials saying we really need them to get out, but a lot of folks didn't heed that warning. As we watch it this time around, do you think people are going to get out in time? Are you seeing the preparations in place so they can logistically make that trek north?

TOWNSEND: You know, Betty, it's funny you're asking me this morning. I was worried yesterday. When we saw Gustav go from a tropical storm to a Category 4 by midafternoon yesterday, and we didn't hear the mandatory evacuations until late yesterday evening, I was concerned about that delay.

NGUYEN: So, you don't think there's enough time? Are you fearful there won't be enough time to get everybody out?

TOWNSEND: I now think, based on what we're seeing, that they should be able to do that. They started earlier in the week warning people around Thursday and Friday to get their personal things together. They began the medical evacuation. They began dealing with nursing homes, hospitals, those who couldn't do for themselves in advance. And that took some of the burden off needing the mandatory evacuations sooner.

I think they're in a good position to get those people out and put the resources against it and the coordination with other states in the area like Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi. It's very important. And it seems like the states are even working better together this time.

NGUYEN: Yeah, and we hear from Reynolds Wolf that this is supposed to hit maybe around between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. tomorrow. So, that's not really a whole lot of time. So, as you watch this storm come in, what are some of your biggest concerns, especially looking back to what was concerned about Katrina?

TOWNSEND: Well, one of the things we've seen so far in terms of a plan that didn't go as they expected, they had planned to use bar codes to track people as they were leaving. That's important for three reasons, one, to be able to get people their government benefits at the shelters or locations where they are, temporarily. Two, to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, those who will seek to take advantage of the storm after the crisis, and three, family reunification. That system didn't go as planned. It was delaying the evacuation, so they abandoned it. I'm sure that local officials now have in place a contingency, because that tracking as people are leaving is very, very important.

NGUYEN: Yeah, and they were registering people yesterday. Very, very quick quickly, let me ask you this, the levee system, are you confident in it this time around.

TOWNSEND: No, I'm not confident and I think you heard from both FEMA director Dave Paulson, I think you've heard from Mayor Nagin, we're not confident, particularly on the western side where repairs have not been completed. No one should take confidence that this is -- given the size of the storm, I think we need to remind our viewers, Katrina made landfall as a Category 3, they're predicting this will be a Category 4. Flooding and winds will be tremendous. The damage from the flooding will be tremendous. They're talking about surges that even if the levees held will overtop the levees.

NGUYEN: So, it's not just breeching the levees, it's overtopping the levees, that's one of the biggest concerns this time around, which means it is so mandatory for people to get out of harm's way. Fran Townsend, we do appreciate your insight, today. Thank you.

TOWNSEND: Thanks, Betty.

HOLMES: Well, we are continuing to track this monster storm, a picture of destruction right now headed straight toward the U.S. Gulf Coast.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: All right, here's something people are also asking this morning, will there be enough gas along the Gulf Coast for people evacuating New Orleans?

HOLMES: Yeah, we've been hearing a little bit about that. That's always a concern. You remember after Katrina some service stations ran out of gas because of all the high traffic. The governor of Mississippi says no worries this time around.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBOUR: We're informed by the people that have oil and gasoline distribution, gasoline terminals, that there is plenty of gas. Just you have the possibility that a particular station might run out or might have a long line. Where that happens, those stations will be able to get refilled and be back open in a matter of -- depending on the time of day hours or maybe the next morning. But, there is not a gasoline shortage. There is plenty of motor fuel in Mississippi.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: OK, I know you don't want to hear this, but here it is. Gas prices could jump back up because of Hurricane Gustav, that because oil companies are shutting down production in the Gulf Coast and evacuating employees. Analysts say a prolonged disruption could cause prices to rise. The Gulf Coast accounts for about a quarter of all oil production, right here in the U.S.

HOLMES: As we told you a short time ago, President Bush unlikely to attend the Republican National Convention that kicks off in Saint Paul, Minnesota tomorrow, at least scheduled to. For some people that will be there are Hip-Hop Republicans. Huh? Not exactly an oxymoron, here. Some people say it actually goes together.

Democrats are use to portraying, as you know, as the party for diversity, but African-Americans are joining the GOP in some increasing numbers. We're going to talk to Lenny McAllister about this. A conservative blogger, self-described Hip-Hop Republican and a black man.

All right, Lenny McAllister, we appreciate you being here with us. Now, I know you get the question all the time. You're black and you're a Republican and people just don't think those things mix sometimes, unfortunately, but still, a black Republican and a Hip-Hop Republican now the same things. Explain the difference.

LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE BLOGGER: A black Republican and Hip- Hop Republican are definitely different. As a matter of fact -- good morning, T.J. In regards to the Hip-Hop Republican, you're talking about somebody that is not necessarily black. We're looking at an urban, young Republican between the ages of 20 and 45 that's looking to address the urban issues that we're facing in American today, in the 21st century, by applying free market principles. And that's something that's outside the general realm of Republicanism as we see it, today.

HOLMES: Now, how do you convince people, still you are Republican, because I know you get it from friends, who really think -- I mean, historically and certainly saw in the last election, John Kerry got, I can't remember the number, 80-plus percent of the black votes. A lot of people aren't really supporting the Republican Party. How do you say to your friends and people who say you're Republican? What? Why?

MCALLISTER: People will say that, but the bottom line is you look at two things. The first thing is from a historical standpoint, African- Americans were aligned with the Republican Party as far as back as the Civil War. Now, I understand that over the last 20 to 30 years, African-Americans and the Republican Party haven't jived too well together. But if you look at what we need to take care of within the urban environment, we have to take care of your children, we have to take care of crime. We have issues with education. And there are principles out there such as school vouchers, there are principles out there that take a more private enterprise approach to addressing these issues and we genuinely feel that if we continue to grow government, we're have less of an opportunity to be efficient at addressing these life-changing events...

HOLMES: Lenny, Lenny, tell me something else, and it's been talked about. Some black conservatives have a conflict they've been dealing with. They have a black man on the cusp of becoming the first black president of the United States of America, there's a conflict in that, I don't agree with his politics, but how in the world can I vote against this man, just as a black man, just to be proud to see this happen. How are you resolving that conflict of going against history and a part of your history, your heritage and you being where you are right now, all those who have fought and struggled to get you and to allow you to be where you are and me to be where I am even. How do you resolve that conflict of voting against this black man on the cusp of history?

MCALLISTER: It's been 45 years since Dr. King spoke about I have a dream. One of the things he talked about was contact of character not the color of one's skin. The true embodiment of that speech is being able to do things, for example, I released an article last Friday right after Senator Obama's speech named "Magnificence," and clearly saying that is a historical figure that I will always respect as an African-American historical leader that my children and grandchildren will study in school and will be proud of. But, from there we can look at policies and find disagreements that will disallow us to support him as our presidential candidate while supporting him as a African-American historical figure. And it's when we're able to do that comfortable in an accepted of fashion in America when we'll be able to grow and move forward as a country and move past the wounds that we've had from race relations throughout the country.

HOLMES: Well, very well said there, Lenny. Tell me as well, do you think the Republican Party has been reaching out enough, in your opinion, to black voters?

MCALLISTER: Enough? No. But that's OK. What we're doing with Hip- Hop Republican is taking the same approach that we're talking about in the urban environment. We're taking a privatized approach that's smaller and more efficient, being on the ground and addressing the issues from a very tangible point of view to make the change and not worry about the bureaucracies of the Republican Party making that change. We understand as young urban voters, the folks that are 20 to 45 that have gone through different types of life challenges. We can still expouse (SIC) conservatism and bring that back to the Republican Party so we can move forward in the 21st century working with Democrats and bringing about a better America.

HOLMES: Well, Lenny McAllister, yes he his a black Republican, but he is actually a Hip-Hop Republican who happens to be black. Lenny, man, it is really good to have you on this morning. I don't know when the RNC, I don't know if It's going to go off as scheduled, but I know you'll be there when it does happen. But, we appreciate you taking the time-out. Hope to catch up with you again soon.

MCALLISTER: We will. And our prayers to everybody in the Gulf Coast. That's the first priority, first and foremost for all Americans.

HOLMES: Absolutely, Lenny. You take care.

And we have another political note, for you this morning. The Republican National Convention, as we said, supposed to get started tomorrow in Saint Paul, Minnesota. No word about it necessarily being rescheduled even though we did get the word that President Bush is unlikely to be there on Monday as previously scheduled. CNN, of course, with our best political team on TV will bring you live coverage beginning at 4:00 Eastern when it is, again, scheduled to start.

NGUYEN: Well, let's get back to our big story and that of course, Hurricane Gustav, a powerful Category 3 storm is taking aim at the Gulf Coast.

HOLMES: Yeah, we are covering this storm on several fronts this morning. Our Morgan Neill in Havana, Cuba where Gustav has already made landfall and Josh Levs standing by with the latest i-Reports and our meteorologist Reynolds Wolf tracking the storm in the CNN Hurricane Center.

NGUYEN: You know, Gustav weakened a little bit after hitting the western edge of Cuba, but it was still a powerful and devastating Category 4 storm when it hit. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated ahead of landfall. And CNN's Morgan Neill is joining us now live from Havana this morning.

Morgan, we're looking to where you are to get a glimpse of what the folks on the Gulf Coast can expect. So, give us an idea how strong of a storm Gustav is.

MORGAN NEILL, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Incredibly strong, Betty. Cuba is now starting to get an idea of the extent of damage done by this storm. But it is a massive amount of damage. We saw ourselves making our way back from the western part of the island toward Havana, yesterday. Let me just give you an idea of the kinds of things we saw. Trees ripped out from their roots, thrown across the roads, we say metal street lamps torn out, as well. Telephone, power cables down, roofs ripped off of homes. One little village we saw seemed entirely flattened. So, the extent of this damage is enormous. We won't have a great idea just how bad it was for a couple of days, now.

Now, Cuba did prepare very seriously for this storm. The government says it evacuated 250,000 people ahead of Gustav's arrival. We saw some evidence of that. We went to a little town on the southern coast near where Gustav made landfall here and it was a ghost town. We saw nothing but police and civil defense officials there. Everyone has been evacuated the day before.

Now, there have been reports of injuries from this storm, as you would expect. One official in the Isle of Youth, that is to south of the western part of Cuba, said many people were injured, but we don't have specifics on that yet -- Betty.

NGUYEN: All right. Morgan joining us live with just a glimpse of what the folks on the Gulf Coast can expect and it's definitely a powerful storm.

And speaking of that, let's say you down to the Gulf Coast region. Here's a look at some of our affiliate coverage of this storm as it's heading in. Let's take a quick listen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, can we put slides, while we're waiting for this news conference, let's put those pick-up slides up there again for Orleans Parish because time is running out. Men, women, and children get to these sites. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And We can't stress it enough and as Roselyn just said, it's easy to get on, Rob said, the process is just very fast. There's really no waiting. You get there, you get on the bus and you get out of town.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All righty. And now I believe we're going to go to the Saint Bernard parish news conference and Craig Tafarro (ph) is there at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you know, over the course of the night...

NGUYEN: All right, so we've been listening to local coverage there in with New Orleans with our affiliate WWL, and we'll be dipping in and out throughout the day as they prepare for the storm that is headed straight to the New Orleans area. Although we will caution you there is a large cone of uncertainty, so it could veer either to the left or to the right, but no doubt the Gulf Coast is under the gun, today.

Well, moving on to this, showing their support, because John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin, they are headed for Mississippi. They're going to find out what emergency officials are saying about Gustav hitting the Gulf Coast.

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NGUYEN: A number of things are happening right now in preparation for Hurricane Gustav. You're looking at a live picture of our affiliate WWL in New Orleans which is listening to the officials there in Saint Bernard Parish as they are preparing for mandatory evacuations.

HOLMES: Also something we're keeping an eye on, expected, really in the next five minutes or so. Andrews Air Force Base expecting to hear from Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary who is going to be heading down to the Gulf Coast, heading down to Louisiana. But, before he leaves, he's going to give a briefing for reporters. When that happens, we will bring that to you live.

NGUYEN: Everything happening very fast today, because really the window of opportunity to get out is closing. Reynolds Wolf has been watching Hurricane Gustav, especially as it's expected to make landfall sometime tomorrow afternoon.

WOLF: Absolutely, I mean, you're talking about closing. I mean, soon enough, it's going to slam shut. People need to get out of there, no doubt about it. Now the storm, center of Gustav is roughly some 460 miles from, say the mouth of the Mississippi River or to be more exact, closer to New Orleans, about 460 miles.

Now, for those of you at home you're trying to think, now, what exactly would that mean? Well, think of it this way, it's about the distance from New York to Cleveland. If you were to drive it would be that far away, just to give you an idea.

Now, if you were to include the outflow, the center of the storm from top to bottom, you could pick this thing up and it could actually cover the state of Texas. That's how big the storm is. Already people in Florida, at this time, are dealing with some heavy scattered showers, some places like Miami, back along parts of Alligator Alley, even into Naples, this morning. They've already been dealing with it. But the place the storm is headed is up to the northwest. Doing so, wide rim -- oop, pardon me, (INAUDIBLE) 16 miles-per-hour, winds at 120 miles-per-hour, gusting to 145.

Well, we expect that the storm is going to interact with the gulf loop current, an area of warm water right in the central gulf and that is going to cause the storm to intensify. Think of a campfire and think about getting like a say a big bucket of jet fuel pouring on top of it. Boom, you have a big explosion. Well, that's going to be the situation with this storm. It is expected to strengthen once it interacts with the warm water in a minimal sheer environment, expected to boost to a Category 4 storm as we get into 2:00 a.m. Monday.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you something. There is a chance the storm could be stronger. It could grow to be a Category 5. However, Category 5 storms, it's difficult for them to restrain that kind of power, so I expect that even if it were to get to Category 5 status it would not last that long. Category 4 is what the forecast holds for. And meanwhile, it will continue to march to the northwest. As it stands now, it should pass just southwest of this New Orleans at this time.

Might say, well where the eye could cross to maybe 60 miles or so the southwest of New Orleans and then on shore Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It begins to slow down considerably where it's going to become a big rainmaker. The winds will die down. Check out the maximum sustained winds expected.

And the forecast for Wednesday even into Thursday, right around 30 miles-per-hour. It's no big deal, many thunderstorms have winds stronger than that. But still you're going to have a lot of moisture, heavy rainfall, saturated soil, flooding is going to be a tremendous story I guarantee you Wednesday and Thursday for parts of Louisiana and Texas.

Now, in terms of that eye crossing, I'd say mid to early afternoon, that's in between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 Local Time in the area of southern Louisiana, New Orleans, even if the storm does not make a direct hit in the New Orleans area, the storm, as I mentioned, remember, nearly as big as Texas, New Orleans is going to be affected. It's time to leave now. Let's send it back to you guys.

NGUYEN: Absolutely in fact they're talking about it down in Saint Bernard Parish. Reynolds, I want to take you there and give you a live look, as officials continue to express their concern and urge people to get out. Let's take a listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To ensure their safety we have been in touch with the Lake Horn Levee District and pump operators actually will stay at the pump houses and ride the storm out unless the winds get over 120 miles-an-hour as they come ashore. So, we feel like we have our assets lined up in terms of people, our most valuable asset, and we are going through our checklists throughout the course of the this morning and today to make sure our physical assets are accounted for and staged properly for an appropriate response to this storm, whatever that may be.

QUESTION: People who want to make that last effort and get out, are there any places to fuel up to get out in this area?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My survey this morning, and I don't know if any council members -- although you might see internal stores closed, if they have credit cards, you can access the pumps, as well. Chevron on Parish Road, thank you Mr. Genard (ph) -- is also continuing to operate. A good point, if you're leaving, please fuel up before you leave the parish because there's no guarantee where...

NGUYEN: And we've been listening to the officials there in Saint Bernard Parish. And he brought up a really good point, something we've been talking about this morning, especially in light of what we have learned since Hurricane Katrina, a lot of people on those escape routes out of the Gulf Coast area wondering if traffic is so busy, which we saw with Sean Callebs who's on the road, which is really kind of bump-to-bumper in some areas, am I going to have enough gas to get where I'm going.

And we have heard from several people out in the field who say that gas stations are closed. But he just made a good point there, saying that even if you don't see anyone there, if you have a credit card, those pumps are often still on.

HOLMES: People need to know. We heard kind of some differing opinion. Our Sean Callebs said he couldn't find gas. And we talked to another gentleman from our CNN radio saying that places still had gas, wasn't having a problem. Two different stories there, kind of, but still there are some issues. But, that makes a very good point. We heard that gas stations were closed, nobody was there, but you could still go get gas.

NGUYEN: So, if you need it, try, it might be on. Gustav, well, it may have stolen the spotlight for the moment, but we haven't forgotten other important names, that of course being McCain and Obama.

HOLMES: Yes, both campaigns in high gear. Both candidates have a lot to say. We'll let you know what they're saying.

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NGUYEN: Let's get you some presidential politics right now and specifically the man who's sitting in the seat, President Bush, he, as we've been told, will likely not attend the Republican National Convention, as, of course, he's keeping his eye closely on what you're looking at right there, that being Hurricane Gustav. Another man who is watching very closely, that being Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff. You see right there, a man at the podium, that of course is not him, but the plane in the background will be taking Chertoff down to Louisiana. But, before he does so, he will be holding a news conference and we will bring you the latest from that.

And of course on the right hand side of the screen, another look at Gustav. So where is it now and how fast is it coming ashore? Let's get to CNN's Reynolds Wolf. WOLF: OK, guys, let's catch you up to speed on what's happening with the storm. The storm actually weakened over the last hour, now it appears to be gaining some strength, just by looking at the satellite imagery. We're seeing deeper convection now in the northern half of the storm where say, about an hour ago, we're getting some mid-level sheer. At the same time we're having dry air convection coming in the top half of the storm. So, it's beginning to lose a little bit of its shape. But now, things are beginning to fill in, it looks like it's getting stronger.

Winds currently, at least since the last update at 1:20, would not be surprised if it got a little bit stronger as it's been interactinging with the gulf loop current, warm, warm current. Also moving into a minimal sheer environment. The storm is expected to bit stronger. In fact, the latest forecast the National Hurricane Center has this going to a Category 4 storm as we get into early Monday morning with winds at 145 miles-per-hour.

Then moving southwest of New Orleans, I'd say, at least by this path from the National Hurricane Center, roughly 60 miles southwest New Orleans, still, when you have a storm of this magnitude, this size, there's no question New Orleans will have heavy storm surge, the heavy winds and of course the heavy rainfall.The storm expected then to move onshore, central Louisiana and then into northern Louisiana and extreme eastern Texas into Wednesday and Thursday, a huge rain-maker.

And speaking g of rain, let me show you something else. We'll switch over to radar. Parts of Florida this morning, you happen to be in, say Cape Coral and you were to look out your windows and towards the Gulf of Mexico could you see some lightning. You're definitely going to get some rainfall all from the outer bands of the storm. Even had some tornado warnings in effect for the Fort Lauderdale area and southward to Miami due to the storm, and we're seeing some rainfall beginning offshore just to the southeast of New Orleans at this time. Again, all part of this tremendous system.

All right, we're going to have updates throughout the rest of the morning, throughout the midday hours, the evening, all through tomorrow as the storm treks closer to the Louisiana coastline. Let's send it back to you.

NGUYEN: OK, thank you, Reynolds.

HOLMES: Well, a lot of you out there, out in the middle of the storm, evacuating, keep the camera handy if you can along the Gulf Coast.

NGUYEN: Already though, we're getting new i-Reports from the area including efforts to make sure pets don't get left behind.

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HOLMES: Well, as always during major news events, certainly major weather events like hurricanes, your videos, you photos help us explain and tell the story.

NGUYEN: It's also so very important for us, and Josh Levs has just received some new i-Reports. I imagine these are folks who are heading out of the Gulf Coast region?

JOSH LEVS, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: They are. This is part of the big human experience in that region right now. We're going to get a sense of what it's like for people. This is the kind of thing we're going to see. In fact, we don't have that much time. Let's get going to it right now.

It comes to you from ireport.com, we're going to got to this first picture which comes to us from Meredith Carlson, and what she has here is a first-person view of what it's like to try to be in the departure routes right now, as you know, out of this area. So, everybody is pretty much doing -- well, everyone should be taking part in contraflow. She lives in Baton Rouge. Now, this is what she's doing. She is helping people save their pets. She's part of a volunteer mission that is working with people to make sure they can get their pets into a safe form of transport and meet up with their pets, carefully marked in individual containers, basically, in another city where it's supposed to be safer.

One more picture I want to show you from her. Look at this building right here, guys. That building where they have been orchestrating this effort to save the pets, she fears, Meredith Carlson, is telling us in Baton Rouge, she fears that that building could be underwater, the whole thing and that kind of gives you a sense of the scope of what we're talking about.

Just a matter of seconds left so would I like to zoom in on this board quickly. You can send us your photos, you videos, your stories here at ireport.com. Don't go through any danger at any time, we screen them to make sure no one has.

And before I go, I want to send out a word to people who are in New Orleans, if you're looking for an escape route right now, this map is available -- departure route I should call it -- this map is available right now from the city of New Orleans Web site. If you or a loved one has access to it, these are the free busses that will take you out of town along that contraflow route. Just talk to anyone who can access the city of New Orleans Web site. Public transportation will get you there. The buses are free, they will take you out. We're keeping a close eye on it all day long, buys.

NGUYEN: That's important to go to that Web site so you get a better sense of where the routes are. Thank you, appreciate it.

You know, we're also keeping an eye on Gustav from the CNN Weather Center.

HOLMES: Yeah, Reynolds Wolf has been keeping an eye on it, he'll have the latest on when we can expect this hurricane to make landfall on the Gulf Coast.

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NGUYEN: Emergencies have been declared for four states in the path of Hurricane Gustav. President Bush has issued emergency declarations in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. We're also keeping you updated on the storm and we're getting help from affiliate stations along the Gulf Coast. Local officials stress that people need to watch their driving.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF GREG CHAMPAGNE, ST CHARLES PARISH: Get your cell phone out of your ear when you're in the car, pull off to the side of the road if you need to make a call and think about driving when you're driving. We understand people are pre-occupied right now. I've seen several chose calls myself since yesterday afternoon. Traffic is going to be picking up. It's going to be heavy. Think about driving before you pull out on to a highway. Think about what you're doing. That's what this is all about, personal safety.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: No doubt. Saint Charles parish is one of several Louisiana parishes under mandatory evacuation orders.

HOLMES: Now, stay tuned here with us as we have a special edition of LATE EDITION with Wolf Blitzer. He's there at the national convention for the Republicans in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Of course, a lot of reports coming out what'll happen with the convention since the hurricane is on the way. So, you'll want to stay tuned for that. And of course, Reynolds Wolf still in the weather center keeping an eye on this storm. Thanks for being with us, Wolf, coming up.