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American Morning

Rita: Category 4

Aired September 23, 2005 - 08:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: More now on where Rita, Hurricane Rita is right now. Our severe weather expert, Chad Myers, is at the CNN Center. He has the latest on Rita.
Good morning -- Chad.


Now it's getting close enough to shore to our radar sites that we can actually pick up the eye, the center of the eye from land. For a while we weren't able to do that because it was just too far out there, only satellites could see it. The center of the eye to landfall here between Galveston and Port Arthur about 27 hours away, somewhere around 11:00 probably tomorrow morning.

But don't focus in on the eye so much as this outer area here. Less than 13 hours away from getting your first hurricane conditions there on the shores of Texas. There will be hurricane conditions on the shores of Louisiana, first, because actually Louisiana is still closer to the path. And we're already seeing some of those heavy outer bands to Grand Isle and some of those wind speeds Grand Isle. Those are sustained wind speeds right there, 53 miles per hour, with some wind gusts over 60.

And here's New Orleans at 23. And that pointer is pointing this way, which means the winds are coming this way. Those winds are grabbing pieces of water, the top layer of the water, blowing that water into Lake Borgne, blowing that water into Lake Pontchartrain. And Lake Pontchartrain is rising this morning, exactly what they don't need. But that's what happens when you get those east winds blowing in one direction for a long time.

There is the storm, still headed to between Houston, Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas. This storm, itself, now, if you're keeping track, those are the numbers up there, northwest at nine miles per hour. That's how I formulated that 27-hour eyewall landfall. Probably the worse conditions that you're going to see, from Galveston, right on over through Port Arthur, would be about this time exactly tomorrow morning as it moves on up into parts of Texas.

Now, the other part of the problem, after it does all this damage here, is that the storm doesn't move for 48 hours. And there could be 25 inches of rain in Texarkana, into Waco, into Tyler, all the way back into Arkansas.

And if you remember what this thing does, you now have these arms that come in. They're called feeder bands. It wouldn't be out of the question for one feeder band to sit over New Orleans for hours and hours and hours, putting down more rain than that city can handle. Not out of the question there, because of that storm stalling, staying in one spot for two-and-a-half days.

S. O'BRIEN: There are so many issues with this storm -- Chad.


S. O'BRIEN: The size, the intensity, I mean, everything. And then, of course, just sitting there, as well. It is going to pack a huge wallop for the folks there.

MYERS: You know, and storm surge, too. If you're looking Port Arthur, Beaumont, all the way down even to Lake Charles, it's going to be inundated with feet of water, tens of feet of water at times.

S. O'BRIEN: It's going to be a mess.

All right, Chad, thanks. Thanks for watching it. We'll get back to you in just a little bit.

Let's get right back to Miles. He is in Houston this morning.

Hey -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Soledad, I'm down on the ground now. I've been up on an overpass all morning. And we've been telling you about this gas station. It had gas when we arrived here about an hour and a half ago. Does not now. The sheriff's deputies have arrived, because there was a huge traffic jam blocking all of this road behind me as people were coming to the realization there was no gas.

Among the people in line was Dan Boots.

Dan, first of all, come on, step into my office here. Did you get any gas?


M. O'BRIEN: All right. How long have you been driving? Where are you trying to go?

BOOTS: I've been trying to go to Dallas. I left 10:00 a.m. yesterday from south of Houston and the Clearlake (ph)-Webster area. And I got here at about 12:30, midnight, last night.

M. O'BRIEN: So you waited all this time and then got no gas. And you have a bone-dry car?

BOOTS: I have a bone-dry car, yes. I've just about an eighth of a tank left. And my friend that I'm traveling with, she has a little bit less than that. And we drove here in the hopes to get gas, because we heard there was going to be some, and didn't end up with any.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, that's a common story, unfortunately. The sheriff's deputies giving you any suggestions or advice at this point? You just have to sit tight?

BOOTS: Basically, I have to sit tight. They've had a few people drive off. They haven't talked to me or my friend yet. I know the one thing that would make the situation better is food and water, but we can't get that either. And you know I mean those guys are the messengers and they're telling us everything they know, but unfortunately that's really not enough for us right now.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Dan Boots, wish you well on your journey here. Just one of thousands of stories this morning of people trying to get out of town (INAUDIBLE) having the gas to make it to where they want to be.

Meanwhile, let's get -- move about a hundred miles south of here to Galveston, Texas, where we are told 9 out of 10 people have evacuated. That is just remarkable. I can't recall any sort of evacuation before any storm where there's been a 90 percent compliance rate.

David Mattingly is at Galveston, where not only are there memories of Katrina which have spurred people along, but 105 years ago that great hurricane there that leveled that city still is on people's minds there, as well. And so perhaps that is why we see people get out of town -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're right, Miles, that number of 90 percent is absolutely remarkable. All up and down the Gulf Coast this hurricane season, towns would have considered themselves lucky to get 60 percent of their people out with a mandatory evacuation. But again here, 9 out of every 10 people, they believe, have gone on to safety on the mainland.

But as we talk about people who have gotten out of here, for a short time this morning before dawn, attention turned to one man who decided to stay. He liked the way the waves looked this morning and decided to take a dip with his surfboard. Police took a very dim view of that. And once the guy came in to shore, they snapped the handcuffs on him and took him away.

We're going to go to a live picture now of the surf that you see out here. This is one of those very deceptive times before a big storm comes in. There's a little bit of daylight coming out now. The surf is absolutely spectacular. There's a nice cool breeze blowing. It makes you think this is going to be a great time to be outdoors.

But the conditions here are going to deteriorate. We're looking for tropical storm force winds by late this afternoon and then 100- mile-an-hour-plus winds by after midnight today. So again, it's going to get bad very quickly here. And we're all watching where that storm is going to go. If it comes back this way a little bit, it could be very, very bad for Galveston.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's David Mattingly in Galveston, thank you very much.

And so the scene here in Galveston, clearly, Soledad, people heeded the call early, they got out of town. And this is just kind of the trailing edge of what that evacuation and thousands of other evacuations like it have brought.

We have a big problem at the other end as there's a lack of fuel, lack of water, lack of food, as people can't quite get to where they want to be. So that seems to be the unfolding story here. This is an unprecedented evacuation. Never has a city this large evacuated at this scale with a hurricane bearing down on it -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: We're seeing lots of problems, right. Miles, thanks.

Heavy rain has been falling on New Orleans this morning as the hurricane center approaches landfall a little bit farther to the west. So everybody there is keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that the city's battered levees will actually hold.

There's where Carol Costello is for us this morning. She's live in New Orleans.

Carol, good morning again.


You know the rain has come and gone. And that will probably continue throughout the day. Wind is a factor here right now. I'm standing on the levee that separates the Mississippi River from the city of New Orleans. Take a look at the Mississippi River right now. You can see the water is churning. And as Chad said, the water levels are getting higher. He mentioned Lake Pontchartrain. The Mississippi River looks high to me, too.

This is a steel wall keeping the Mississippi River in its banks. And then you come out here and there's a concrete walkway. I mean most people from here know it as a River Walk. And then over this grassy hill, down the hill, you can see that bowl effect is the city of New Orleans, and that's the central business district, the French Quarter. This levee held through Katrina and is expected to hold through this storm as well.

The new thing that I've noticed, Soledad, is many of the relief worker who have come in to rebuild the city of New Orleans are staying in these giant tent cities. Right now buses are evacuating them out of those tent cities because the winds are really strong. They're gusting up to maybe 20 miles per hour. They just want to get them out of there for safety sake.

They're taking them to the convention center. And, of course, they're going to be inside the convention center, but on the backside where the people were not, you know, at the height of the storm of Katrina. So they're taking them there, just as a precautionary measure, and they're just waiting to see what happens.

S. O'BRIEN: Everybody is kind of wait and see what happens.

Carol Costello with an update of what's happening in New Orleans this morning. Thanks, Carol.

President Bush traveling to San Antonio, Texas, later today, ahead of Rita's expected arrival.

Suzanne Malveaux at the White House for us this morning with more on that.

Good morning -- Suzanne.


This is really a critical test for President Bush. The White House very much aware of that. He is going to be making two stops today, the first one, of course, San Antonio, Texas. That is where we're told he's going to be meeting with first responders to see how they have set up to prepare for Hurricane Rita.

He then moves on to Colorado Springs, Colorado. That is the home of the U.S. Northern Command. They are head of homeland defense. That is where he will monitor the arrival of Hurricane Rita, the landfall. He will spend the night there and monitor the situation from there.

All of this, of course, in an effort to try to convince the American people that this time the federal government is ready. It was yesterday, President Bush, at the Pentagon, following a briefing on the war on terror, gave a warning to the American people, saying that they should brace themselves, and that he also tried to reassure them that the federal government is now prepared.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's really important for our citizens there on the Texas coast to follow the instructions of the local authorities. Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst.


MALVEAUX: So some of those preparations that he's talking about is pre-positioning the troops, as well as those supplies from FEMA. He also has his point man on the ground in Texas. But, Soledad, there are skeptics, and critics as well, who believe that perhaps today's events are just a series of photo ops. We'll see.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, we will see.

All right, Suzanne, thanks.

Still to come on AMERICAN MORNING, thousands of Rita evacuees are fleeing to Dallas or San Antonio, Texas, as we saw. We're going to talk to the mayors of those cities, find out how they are going to plan to hold all those people.

And many hospitals in Houston plan to ride out the storm. We're going to talk to the man who oversees 12 hospitals in the area, find out what he's doing to keep his patients safe and secure.

You're watching AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: This was the scene 17 miles south of Dallas a little while ago this morning. A bus carrying about 45 elderly and infirm evacuees from the Houston area exploded. May be linked to some oxygen canisters that were aboard to help some of those elderly folks. Upwards of 20 people may be dead as a result of this. A terribly tragic tale in the midst of the confusion and chaos surrounding the evacuation of the Houston area.

Joining us now to fill us in on what we know about this incident is the Dallas mayor, Laura Miller.

Mayor Miller, good to have you with us. I know you have got your hands full in so many ways this morning. What do we know about what happened to that bus?

MAYOR LAURA MILLER, DALLAS, TEXAS: Well, they believe that it started because of a brake failure. And they think it was mechanical. But because there were so many elderly people on the bus, there were a lot of oxygen canisters and that may have fed the fire. So that's the first thing that we're hearing.

It's obviously a horrific event. The whole city is very upset about this. You know we have handled two waves of evacuees now. We've never had anything this horrible happen. So it's really a tragedy.

M. O'BRIEN: It's just awful to even contemplate. So is it possible there was a brake failure leading to a collision, the collision making sparks and, thus, setting off the oxygen? Is that what the thinking is?

MILLER: Well I haven't been to the scene. I don't think there was a collision. I think there may have been a brake failure and sparks and then a fire started because of the mechanical problem, and then because of the oxygen canisters, it fed from there. But that's just the early reports. There were a series of explosions that witnesses heard. And, unfortunately, about half the people on the bus, we understand, are dead.

M. O'BRIEN: About half, you say, about 45 elderly and infirm folks. What's the condition of those that have survived? I can imagine you have some people that are badly burned.

MILLER: We have some people on the way to Parkland Hospital to the burn unit. We're very happy that they were only 17 miles from Parkland, because it is our major trauma hospital in the area. So the good news is that it didn't happen in a rural area, but there is very little good about this, obviously.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Mayor Miller. Let's -- I want to bring in a fellow mayor of yours, Phil Hardberger of San Antonio. And let's broaden this discussion out a little bit, this notion of cities accepting evacuees. We've been talking about this for weeks now.

I remember talking to you, Mayor Hardberger, about accepting Katrina evacuees, and now another wave. Is your city, San Antonio, prepared to handle it?

MAYOR PHIL HARDBERGER, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS: Yes, we are. We got 13,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. We've now gotten another 13,000 have come in from Rita. Luckily, though, we have been able to stay ahead of it. The regional evacuees, we're down to 3,000, 2,500 to 3,000. And now we've had 13,000 more have come in here over the last 24 hours. But we are still on top of it. And I believe they're all getting breakfast this morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Well good for them, and good for you. Do you have enough shelter space for these people in the short term?

HARDBERGER: Well, we do. Actually, the preparations that we did for Katrina have actually helped us with Rita, because those were ready to go. Only one of them was still being used. And it was just a matter of getting them cleaned up and the cots put back in.

I will say that about all of our cots are now taken, because we've hit the capacity that we had made preparations for. But we do have many more buildings that we can put people in. So I think we can continue to accept all evacuees that choose to come to San Antonio, and we welcome them to come here. They may not have cots, but they will be in a building.

M. O'BRIEN: So there still is room at the inn in San Antonio.

Mayor Miller, how about Dallas, are you prepared to accept what you're -- actually what you're seeing arrive in your city this morning, bus crash notwithstanding, is thousands and thousands of people who need some shelter?

MILLER: Well, it was bittersweet for us when this hurricane hit, because we had finally gotten all of our folks out of our sports arena and our convention center from Katrina. And we were using private money in a hurricane relief fund that we started two weeks ago and were putting people into apartments. And it was working very well. We were stabilizing the Katrina evacuees. We have about 25,000 of them in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And then this happened.

So we literally went from closing Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas to reopening it yesterday, and we are full. So we've got thousands and tens of thousands of people streaming into the Dallas area, and we are sending them to every shelter as it opens in the suburbs. We are sending them to the few hotel rooms that are left, mostly up near the Oklahoma border.

M. O'BRIEN: So when someone arrives there, if they're listening this morning, trying to make a decision, when they come to Dallas, how would they find out where to go, where there is space?

MILLER: Well, there's a Dallas County hotline for people to call to find out where the hotel rooms and the shelters are located. We're also flashing that number up on the highway signs that are overhead. So when people come in, they can get their cell phone on and call a number to find out where to stay.

M. O'BRIEN: Mayor Hardberger, same thing for San Antonio?

HARDBERGER: Yes, but with the exception that we also have some of the powerful radio stations that are continuously giving instructions. And then we have some major reception centers. We also have the signs, so the people, if they do not have places to stay, are then being funneled into that. And it's working very heartily. It's crowded and there's lots of people. We are running out of volunteers, simply because there are so many people that there is a need for additional volunteers. But it's been orderly.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Well if there's any -- good. If there's anybody listening who is safe and sound and willing to volunteer, why don't you, in San Antonio or Dallas, your mayors are calling you, I think.

Mayor Laura Miller and Mayor Phil Hardberger of Dallas and San Antonio, respectively, thanks for your time this morning.

HARDBERGER: Thank you.

MILLER: Thanks for having us.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad.

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

M. O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

S. O'BRIEN: Well you know the last time two Category 4 storms hit the U.S. in one season was back in 1915. So is this year a sign of things to come? We're going to check in with a hurricane expert coming up next on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: First Katrina, now Rita, two monster hurricanes in less than a month. Are storms becoming more frequent and more severe or does it just seem that way?

Nick Shay is a Professor of Meteorology at the University of Miami. He's in Miami this morning.

Nice to see you. And thank you for talking with us, professor. These are the kind of storms that they call once-in-a-lifetime storms, but of course we're seeing them now just three-plus, four weeks apart. Is this just bad luck, or meteorologically speaking, is something happening? NICK SHAY, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI: Well, it seems as though these storms, once they enter into the Gulf of Mexico, they get pretty darn intense. They feel this warm water that is associated with The Loop Current that gets into the Gulf of Mexico. And that higher-octane fuel gives them the fuel that they need to really become very severe hurricanes.

S. O'BRIEN: Correlation, obviously, with a hurricane and its intensity and how warm the water is. Is the water getting warmer? Is it getting warmer because of global warming, as some people theorize?

SHAY: That's very difficult for us to determine at this stage. However, for storms coming through the Caribbean or through the Florida Straits that feel this warmer water, they certainly -- the storms are responding to it by getting significantly more intense.

S. O'BRIEN: You've got some graphics, and they're a little bit confusing, so I'll show them just one at a time and then I want you to explain to me what we're looking at.

The first one is the temperature of the surface here. And the red is, obviously, much hotter. And this is Hurricane Katrina, I should note, and how it made its path through Florida and then smack into New Orleans. Surface temperature again the correlation, no big surprise there.

When you look at the second graph, though, this is the one that you say is much more important. And this is these deep pools of warm water. Not near New Orleans, we see the red spot, actually, a little bit further back out into the Gulf of Mexico. Why do you find this picture much more important than the surface temperature?

SHAY: Well, Soledad, here the reds actually represent areas where these deep, warm pools are located. These deep, warm pools basically originate from the water in the Caribbean Sea. They make their way through the Yucatan Straits, the straits there between Cuba and the Yucatan.

And what happens is that it forms what is known as The Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico. The Loop Current has a yearly cycle. And The Loop Current also has deep, warm pools. And when storms encounter these deep, warm pools, the surface temperatures do not significantly cool. In other words, there's more heat available for the storm.

S. O'BRIEN: So it's these deep, warm pools that you seem to be saying are much more relevant to how bad and how strong a hurricane is going to be as it approaches land?

SHAY: When atmospheric conditions are favorable, like they have been in the Gulf of Mexico, and you have very favorable ocean conditions, typical for the Gulf of Mexico in the summer months, this is where you get very strong storms. And one of the things that we saw in both Katrina and Rita is that when it encounters these deep, warm pools, they explode. They go to Category 5 status or higher with winds up around 175 miles per hour. S. O'BRIEN: Sow then it's a natural cycle?

SHAY: It's a natural oceanic cycle in the Gulf of Mexico because The Loop Current has a yearly cycle. It just so happens that this year's cycle is in phase with these tropical storms and disturbances moving into the Gulf of Mexico.

S. O'BRIEN: And that has been a devastating correlation there.

Professor Nick Shay is joining us this morning from Miami. Thank you for your time.

SHAY: Thank you -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Coming up in just a moment, we're going to have an update on when and where Hurricane Rita might hit. We're going to check in with our severe weather expert, Chad Myers, just ahead.

And then President Bill Clinton, the former president, weighing in on disaster relief. My special interview with him is just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

You're taking a look at the satellite loop that is Hurricane Rita as the hurricane makes its way toward the coast of Texas and Louisiana. Still a strong Category 4 storm with wind speeds about 140 miles an hour. We continue to bring you updates on Rita's path and Rita's expected landfall as well.