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The Situation Room

Algiers Residents Return Home; President Bush Voices Caution on Repopulation Efforts; Tropical Storm Rita Update; Florida Keys Evacuating; Al-Jazeera Airs Al-Zawahiri Videotape; Rove to Help Manage Hurricane Spending Funds; New Orleans Might Face Another Hurricane; President's Approval Rating Drops

Aired September 19, 2005 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Ali, thank you very much.
It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM where news and information from around the world arrive in one place simultaneously. Happening now, coming home to controversy. It's 3:00 p.m. Central in New Orleans where some residents are returning, despite a new warning from President Bush that the city may not be ready. We're expecting to hear from the mayor, Ray Nagin. That's coming up this hour.

The Gulf Coast under storm alert again. We're tracking Tropical Storm Rita. Hurricane warnings in Florida and the possible threat to the region already ravaged by Katrina.

And the president's problems. Just released poll numbers showing Mr. Bush on shakier ground with the public and his disaster response isn't the only reason why.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour in New Orleans, the first residents are returning to one of the city's least damaged neighborhoods. And local and federal officials may or may not be working through their dispute over the homecoming. At issue, is the mayor's plan to reopen the city simply too ambitious and perhaps even too dangerous? President Bush weighed in on that question today. Our Suzanne Malveaux is over at the White House. Our Mary Snow is in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

First to you, Mary. What's the latest?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you mentioned, this was one of the areas that suffered the least amount of damage but it did not escape damage. If you look up, there's a condominium complex right behind us. A few minutes ago we could see people walking in that apartment because it has no wall. Now compare that to a home across the street here. This green house really seems to be untouched by Hurricane Katrina.

But residents are starting to come back into this area. One resident, Maureen Pignona, who owns that green house. And, Maureen, thanks for joining us. If you could just stand right here so we could see you. Tell us, you also have a business here. How does it feel to start reopening and people coming back?

MAUREEN PIGNONA, RESIDENT: It feels great. We're so happy and we're so fortunate Algiers of the damage that we did not have and could have had. We should be opening the restaurant next week or early this week, if we can, get the Health Department in there and make sure everything's OK.

SNOW: Wow. And that's really in stark contrast to other parts of New Orleans. Now the mayor has said that he's going to have people start coming back to the central business district, to the french quarter and uptown district. Many federal officials have questioned whether that's too much too soon. Are you concerned at all about safety?

PIGNONA: No, I'd just be worried about the water and the contamination for people. But I'm sure they'll come up with some kind of solution to fix it. But, if not, they're not going to be able to live there with no water.

SNOW: Are you OK drinking the water? I mean you are here. It is safe to drink the water here. You do have electricity. Are you concerned at all, though, about any kind of disease? Because you're really less than 10 miles away from New Orleans.

PIGNONA: Yes, but we're on a separate water system and sewage. So we're fine over here. The water's clean. One of the girls that works for me, brother-in-law has been walked down in the sewage and water and he said the water's great to drink.

SNOW: OK. Well, that's good to hear. Maureen, thank you very much for joining us. All the best to you.

And, Wolf, we're going to throw it back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Mary Snow in New Orleans for us.

And this note, our "Coming Home" series continues all this week as we report zip code by zip code on the return to New Orleans. We, of course, will continue tracking developments throughout the Gulf region. That's our commitment to you.

Now to the White House where President Bush warned once again today about the hurdles and the obstacles to letting people back into New Orleans too soon. Let's go to our White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. She's watching this story.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, following the president's cabinet room meet with his Homeland Security Counsel, the president again stepped into this tug of war between federal and local officials. The president warning that he believes the New Orleans mayor's plan to reopen parts of New Orleans of that city for residents may be premature.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to work with the mayor. The mayor's working hard. The mayor you know, he's got this dream about having a city up and running. And we share that dream. But we also want to be realistic about some of the hurdles and obstacles that we all confront in repopulating New Orleans.


MALVEAUX: Those obstacles, Wolf, he has cited was Tropical Storm Rita headed toward the Florida Keys that could cause some rain in New Orleans and perhaps break those levees. Now while the federal government's point man for hurricane recovery, Vice Admiral Thad Allen is privately expecting the administration's position to the mayor, publicly the White House has refused to commit to enforcing it.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You can look up all the legal issues and see the authority exists. But, you know, for me to raise that level here from the podium, I don't think is helpful right now. We're all working together.


MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, of course, it's a delicate political dance that's taking place between the federal, as well as local governments. But all of this takes place amid some consistently low poll numbers for the president. The latest CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup Poll showing his approval now at 40 percent, disapproval 58 percent. If you take a look at the poll of the polls, that is a compilation, an average of many polls over the last week, you see it's relatively consistent, an average of 41 percent.

Now, Wolf, again, tomorrow, President Bush returns to the devastated regions for the fifth time, certainly hoping to up those poll numbers.


BLITZER: All right, Suzanne, thank you very much.

And we're going to have much more coming up this hour on our new poll numbers. What they tell us about the president's political problems and they are significant right now.

From Florida to Louisiana, hurricane weary residents are trying to keep a close eye on Tropical Storm Rita, as it grows stronger and it gets closer. Our meteorologist, Jacqui Jeras, is joining us now from the CNN Weather Center. John Zarrella is at Key West, Florida, where Rita poses the most immediate threats. Let's go to Jacqui Jeras first for more on the forecast.


JACQUI JERAS, METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, it's almost at hurricane strength. Winds are at 70 miles per hour. In fact, we may even see this become a hurricane by the time the 5:00 advisory begins to roll in.

The storm is heading west-northwesterly and we should be feeling the effects across the Keys pretty soon. We're seeing some isolated showers and thunderstorms already beginning to pop up and that's kind of the very leading edge of that system. You can see some thunderstorms offshore. Miami is doing OK right now. But as you head town towards the Keys, these storms are moving down towards the south. So Key West, at least the western part of the Key, should be getting hit here pretty shortly.

The wind a little bit breezy. It's 13 miles per hour right now in Key West. Up at Marathon, it's 18 miles per hour. We'll head you a little farther up to the north and we start to see some 20s as you get towards the peninsula and on up towards Miami. Miami Beach reporting 24-mile-per- hour wind gusts.

Forecast track of this expected to continue on a west-northwest track and strengthen as it continues to move over this very warm water. We are expecting this to be a category one, maybe even a category two, as it pushes in towards the Keys. We are going to be seeing those winds pick up overnight for tonight. And I think by midmorning tomorrow we could start to see hurricane force winds arriving in the central and the southern Keys.

What happens after that? Well, it moves back across the open waters into the Gulf of Mexico. The water temperatures here are still very, very warm. The upper atmosphere is very favorable for further strengthening. And we very likely will see a major hurricane that means category three, possibly stronger maybe making landfall.

We're watch the western Gulf right now. Places like Houston could be vulnerable. We can't even rule out New Orleans yet. Right now it looks like the most likelihood, though, is the Western Gulf.


BLITZER: I see that number three in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico where you are and knowing the history of what happened with Katrina, how worried should we be that that might even go higher than a three to a four?

JERAS: Well, I think it is a good possibility that it will strengthen. Maybe even beyond a three. It's still a number of days out, Wolf. We're talking about maybe Friday or Saturday before it could be making landfall. So it's really too early to pinpoint the exact intensity or the exact location. But everybody in the Western Gulf really needs to pay attention and be prepared for a possible landfall and major hurricane by the end of the week into the early part of the weekend.

BLITZER: We'll be speaking a lot, Jacqui, thank you very much. Jacqui Jeras with the forecast for us.

With Rita likely heading toward hurricane status, very, very soon, mandatory evacuation orders are now in effect for the Florida Keys. CNN's John Zarrella is our man on the scene. He's in Key West with the latest.



Well, just as Jacqui was talking about, those rain showers should be hitting us. They have been. A little bit of rain. And now if you look down into behind me here, then you can see that's Duval Street and very, very little activity down on Duval Street. A few people walking up and down the street.

But we're in the heart of Key West. You'd expect to see that busy with tourists. But not today. Lots of people have gone ahead and begun the evacuation. Across the street there, a boarded up ice cream shop with the aluminum panels on that. All up and down Duval Street, these are the scene we are seeing here.

And, of course, the reason being is because of the concern that Rita could very well be a category two hurricane by the time it reaches the Florida Keys. And that is the reason why local and state officials and the state's chief meteorologist were urging evacuations.


BEN NELSON, FLORIDA STATE METEOROLOGIST: That's our big concern is that Rita's going to be traveling over water that's almost 90 degrees in temperature. It was not that water there in the Southwest Bahamas was not stirred up by Ophelia. So it's an energy source there that historically we have seen hurricanes travel over that rapidly intensify.


ZARRELLA: Now a mandatory evacuation has been issued for the entire Florida Keys, for residents, non-residents, tourists, just about anybody. That's 80,000 people 25,000 live in Key West themselves, being urged to evacuate to the mainland. Buses are being assembled at Key West High School in order to get people out. The homeless, in particular, who have no transportation out of the lower Florida Keys and a C-130 was dispatched to Key West Hospital to get the most vulnerable patients out of Key West Hospital and evacuate.

Certainly not taking any chances. No one here wants to see any resemblance to what happened in Louisiana happen here when this storm moves through probably late tomorrow afternoon or into the evening and potentially as a category two.


BLITZER: John Zarrella reporting for us. John, we're going to be checking back with you. Thank you very much.

Let's immediately go to the CNN Center. Zain Verjee is standing by. She's got an important story for us.

Zain, what's going on? ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, has appeared in a previously unseen videotape. It aired moments ago on the Arab news channel al-Jazeera. And al-Jazeera basically is reporting that al-Zawahiri plays down U.S. achievements in Afghanistan and he also claims responsibility for the London bombings. The video itself shows Zawahiri as he's sort of speaking to the side, almost as if he was being interviewed by someone.

As you know, this is the number two man of al Qaeda. He is 54 years old. He's a physician by profession. Considered Osama bin Laden's closest adviser. The U.S. State Department has a reward of $25 million that it put out after the September 11th attacks in 2001 for information leading to Ayman al-Zawahiri's capture.

But we are looking at this video, Wolf. Arab affairs editor will be giving us more information shortly. But essentially, as you see in the picture, Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to be being interviewed on this video and downplaying U.S. achievements in Afghanistan and claiming responsibility for the London bombing.

BLITZER: All right, Zain, as soon as you get some more information, we'll get back to you. Ayman al-Zawahiri speaking on video. Right now we just got the videotape. We'll get some more on that. Thanks very much.

Cafferty is watching this. You see this guy in these videotapes, Jack, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two guy of al Qaeda. He sort of looks like he's granting an interview to someone. And the question has to be asked, why can't we find this guy? Where the you know where what I wanted to say.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You almost did it there, Wolf. You almost went over the edge. I, you know, I don't know. It's just it's crazy. It seems to me we should have been able to get this guy and bin Laden rounded up a long time ago. I don't know the answer. It's very discouraging.

WOLF: It's very frustrating. Every time we see one of these tapes, it gets me mad. I don't know if you can tell.

CAFFERTY: Well, I know, and it's good to see the emotion boil up in the Wolf man. That's good. And it gets me mad, too. And you know what? While we're on the subject, we shouldn't be putting this little dirt bag on the air at all. He's got that little thing on his forehead and I just I mean, you know, when they get these guys and we can put their head on a stick and show it to the world, then we should put them on TV.

Residents of New Orleans have a right to be confused these days because it's hard to know exactly who's calling the shots down there in the big easy. First, you got Mayor Ray Nagin who's encouraging residents to start moving back, even though most of the water is undrinkable, the hospitals aren't working and hey, Ray, there may be another hurricane on the way. But the mayor's not discouraged. He's saying, come on down. And then Thad Allen, the head of the federal response (INAUDIBLE), says it's a bad idea for people to go back there. It's unsafe for residents to return to New Orleans. We haven't got that we haven't figured out who's going to actually be in charge of that deal.

Then there's President Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove. You remember him. He was implicated in the release of the CIA agent's name to Bob Novak. Remember the e-mails that tied him into that. Remember how President Bush said if anybody in my administration is connected to the release of that name, he'll be fired.

Well, Karl's not been fired. Karl's now going to have a major role in the $200 billion that's going to be spent on Katrina reconstruction. The administration has done such a tremendous job during the actual hurricane itself that, of course, it only makes sense then for them to manage the spending of the $200 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast. What a lovely idea.

You know what they need? They need a guy like Tom Cain (ph). A dollar a year guy from the outside with integrity. And they need a controller. Somebody to sit there and make people justify the expense of the money.

Anyway, here's the question. How much should Ray Nagin and Karl Rove have to say about what happens in New Orleans?

Mr. Blitzer.

BLITZER: Thanks. All right, Jack, thank you very much.

Still ahead, red flags for the president. In our new poll and we'll going to be releasing these numbers momentarily the public weighs in on his response to Katrina and much more. Our Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider is standing by to bring us the highlights of these new numbers. The low points, some of them, for the president.

And with Florida on hurricane alert right now, at least the southern part of Florida, Governor Jeb Bush is set to go before the cameras. We plan to go to his news conference live. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: This is it. Tropical Storm Rita moving through the Florida Straits. Right now it's still a tropical storm, but we're expecting it to be formally categorized as a hurricane category one very, very soon. We're watching this tropical storm and over the next few days as it goes through the Gulf of Mexico, potentially representing a threat from Texas to Louisiana and Mississippi. We don't know at this point.

Let's go to CNN's Sean Callebs though. He's joining us now live in New Orleans. One of the concerns, Sean, as I understand it, is that the temporary fix around those levees, those flood walls with those huge sandbags that we've seen, may not work, even if there's some significant rainfall, let alone a tropical storm or hurricane that hits New Orleans again. What are you hearing on the scene?

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Your exactly right, Wolf.

We just came back from the canal system that protects the area called New London Street. And, you know, New Orleans has always been protected by a series of flood walls and levees. Now where we were, it's not just sandbags. What happened as the hurricane blew in, it creates, in essence, a whirlpool. And that canal is only about 10 feet deep in that area. Well, it actually ate out another 20 feet. So there's a 30-fool hole in that area. It caused the flood wall there to simply cave away, give in, and that just unleashed horrific flooding throughout the city.

Now what they're trying to do at this point is fill in that gigantic 20-foot hole. And it was important that they do it. But now that this tropical storm or potential hurricane is churning around out there, a tremendous concern that it could really hammer this city as well.

We talked to a general with the Corp of Engineers who's job it is to respond back to General Honore, who's overseeing the entire effort here. And he was out today and he told us that he believes if New Orleans receives a glancing blow from Rita, they should be OK. That depends if everything goes great over the next three or four days.

However, if some of those projections are accurate and New Orleans is slammed by this hurricane, he says it could be devastating. It will undo all the work that authorities have done here over the past 20 days. All the pumping, all the cleanup, all the getting the electricity back on. So it would be a huge setback to this area. The flood walls just can't take it at this point.

And it's not just the area where it's breached that is a concern, Wolf. It's also been weakened in many places and they don't know exactly where. They're doing everything they can, checking from the air, checking from the ground, and trying to shore up these weak spots as best as possible. But even a best case scenario, they are expecting winds and they are expecting rain and they are expecting damage from the storm coming in.


BLITZER: All right, Sean, thank you very much.

And this note to our viewers. Any moment now the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, is expected to make a statement, hold a news conference. We'll bring that to you live. That's coming up shortly.

Also in the next hour, we'll be speak with the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the potential problems that await New Orleans right now as a result of Rita. In the meantime, let's get to some new poll numbers we're watching. President Bush's approval rating back to its low point of 40 percent in our brand new poll. And that only tells us part of the story of the president's political troubles. Let's bring in our Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.

Bill, how do these new numbers compare with past other past two-term presidents?


At this point in their second terms, Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Eisenhower were all about 60 percent job approval. As you just reported, Bush is at 40. That puts him in the company of Lyndon Johnson, after a summer of urban violence and escalation in Vietnam, and just above Richard Nixon in the middle of Watergate. Gulp.

BLITZER: How do Americans in this new poll want to pay for Katrina?

SCHNEIDER: Well, that's interesting. You know, President Bush has made two open-ended commitments. We'll stay as long as it takes and pay whatever it costs. And that's Iraq and Katrina. Most Americans say, pay for Katrina by cutting spending on Iraq. The hurricane really has hit Iraq. And 81 percent want an independent panel to investigate problems in response to Katrina. Only 18 percent believe it should be left for Congress.

BLITZER: One other questions about these poll numbers. Katrina, is that the biggest problem the president faces?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it is a problem 57 percent disapprove of the way he's handled Hurricane Katrina and that has actually gone down. That is more criticism in the past week, which means his prime-time speech from New Orleans did not do the president any good.

But his other numbers are even lower. Worst ratings on the economy 63 percent disapprove. Lowest economic rating ever. On Iraq, 67 percent negative. Criticism of Bush on Iraq has jumped 10 points just in the past week. And 59 percent of Americans now say the United States made a mistake going into Iraq. That's the highest level of anti-Iraq sentiment we've ever seen.

BLITZER: Is there any good news at all for the president in these new poll numbers, the CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup Poll?

SCHNEIDER: Well, here's something. John Roberts gained ground in his confirmation hearings to become chief justice. The public now favors John Roberts' confirmation by over two to one. There's something.

BLITZER: I guess that's something. Thanks very much, Bill Schneider, reporting for us. Thank you.

More fall out from Hurricane Katrina on our political radar. A new ad accusing President Bush of failing to make America safer after 9/11, and it points to the federal response to Katrina as evidence. The spot by the liberal interest group begins airing tomorrow on CNN and on cable stations here in Washington and in New York. The Republican National Committee dismissing the ad as "Moveon's latest shameless political attack."

The Democrats who ran against Bush/Cheney in 2004 are taking aim today at the administration's hurricane response. Is separate speeches, former Presidential Nominee John Kerry is accusing Republicans of turning the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast into "a vast laboratory for right wing ideological experiments." And former Vice Presidential Nominee John Edwards arguing, "the administration views every American as an island" and so he contends it left Katrina victims to fend for themselves.

More sharp words for the White House from President Bush's ally in hurricane relief. That would be Bill Clinton. On ABC's "This Week" yesterday, the former president laid some blame on the current administration for the plight of the poor in New Orleans. He said, "you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle class people."

Coming up, we're awaiting a news conference. The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, standing by. We'll bring it to you live. We'll go to New Orleans for that.

Also, no hanging chad, but a country deadlocked after a crucial election. That story much more coming up.

Plus, you've been seeing the faces of the missing on the left side of your screen. When we come back, we'll also go live to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children where workers are trying to reunite families broken apart by Katrina.


BLITZER: Here's a quick look at some of the hot shots coming in from the Associated Press. Pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

First to Basra in Iraq. Look at this British soldier making his way out of a burning tank.

In Goyania (ph) in Brazil, a mob of hundreds ravaged through the town destroying the mayor's office, his house, city hall, a police station and a courthouse. The riot was allegedly sparked after police refused to investigate the disappearance of a five-year-old girl.

To Key West, Florida, where this homeless man says the mandatory evacuation order is the least of his problems. He says the safest place for him right now is where he's sitting.

To Illinois where the show did go on. Some of the hot shots coming in.

These are some of the hot shots coming in from the Associated Press. The best photographers in the world, gathering news for all of us. Thank you very much to the AP.

Zain Verjee joining us once again from the CNN Center in Atlanta with a look at some other stories making news.


VERJEE: Wolf, we've got some more information about a videotape that's aired on al-Jazeera, the Arab news channel. Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has downplayed U.S. achievements in Afghanistan and claimed responsibility also for the July bombings in London. He said that there is no reform except through Jihad.

Now these pictures we've not previously seen before. It is, however, al-Zawahiri's second video tape this month. There was a tape released back on the 1st of September where he said that the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his policies were responsible for the attacks in London.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, considered the number two in al Qaeda, also today criticized the U.S. president, George W. Bush, saying people of the crusader alliance, behold the disasters, the policies were responsible for the attacks in London.

Ayman al Zawahiri, considered the number two in Al Qaeda, also today criticized the U.S. president, George W. Bush, saying people of the crusader alliance behold the disasters the policies of Bush and Blair will bring upon you.

And also in this videotape, Wolf you see al Zawahiri being interviewed by someone, an unknown questioner. He's wearing a black Muslim turban, a white shirt. He's not wearing his typical black vest, as we have seen in past videos. He's also told the interviewer, apparently, in this interview, that the Taliban moved from Kabul only to the outskirts of the city and didn't flee.

The timing could be interesting because of the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, where Afghan officials, Wolf, as you know, have been claiming victory, saying it was peaceful. The U.S. president saying, look, Afghanistan is on the road to democracy.

In other news, Wolf, to Korea. There's been cautious praise from U.S. President Bush that -- to word that North Korea is agreeing to give up its entire controversial nuclear program, including weapons. Mr. Bush calls it a positive step, but he warns there has to be what he calls a verifiable process -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you very much. We'll get back to you soon.

Hurricane Katrina tore countless families apart. These people are trying to reunite them. Up next, we'll go live to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for an update.

Plus, will Rita slam into the Florida Keys? We expect a live update from the state's governor Jeb Bush as the storm closes in once again on Florida.



BLITZER: Let's go right to Tallahassee. The governor, Jeb Bush, speaking about Tropical Storm Rita. Let's listen in.

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: ... and Florida highway patrol troopers are also staggered at various locations along U.S.-1 to assist motorists. A lot of people probably think that it's difficult to evacuate. On a normal day, driving U.S. 1 to the mainland can be a challenge. But I can assure you that we train for this and we prepare for this and there's assistance for people. And they should leave if they've been asked to do so. This is an important thing to do.

There is an adequate supply of fuel for everyone along the evacuation route. South Florida ports won't be shutting down this afternoon, which is good news for us as it relates to the ongoing efforts to secure sizeable inventories of gasoline to deal with the preparation for this storm, as well as the aftermath of the storm.

One special needs shelter is open at Florida International University in Miami, in West Miami, for the special needs population of Monroe County. Additional special needs shelters have been identified and will open this evening in Miami-Dade County and in Broward County.

All three acute care hospitals in the Keys have evacuated and will be closed. All 30 patients were moved to either Baptist Health System in Miami or Highlands Regional Medical Center in Sebring. This was done with C-130s. The nursing home in Key West evacuated all 98 patients to Sunrise Health and Rehab Center in Sunrise, Florida. The nursing home in Tabaneer (ph) is currently evacuating all 95 patients by ground transport. 31 vulnerable adults residing in assisted living facilities are being evacuated via ground transportation.

The intent here is to make sure all special needs people and frail Floridians are taken care of first and foremost. And I believe our team has done a pretty good job work with local emergency responders to do just that.

On Sunday, the National Guard received my latest executive order in anticipation of Rita. Many of these guardsmen have participated in response and recovery operations over the past year. And Floridians can rest assured that these battle-tested citizen soldiers will be there to provide assistance for them. Many of our guardsmen and women are also serving and helping our neighbors to the west in the impacted areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. But rest assured that we have approximately, generally 8,000 troops available to support our emergency operations. We will be there after the storm, as we have been from -- with every storm that has hit.

I've just sent a letter to President Bush, asking for an emergency declaration to support all of these activities. And to conclude, let me just say that all of these storms, regardless of the category force of its winds, are dangerous storms. I worry -- we've been hit by so many storms that people now are kind of quantifying between the varying -- you know, whether it's Category 1, oh, don't worry about that one. You know, it's not a Category 4.

These storms can gain power very, very quickly, and people are forewarned. This is serious, serious business and they need to make sure they have their disaster, personal and family disaster plans in place, that they have enough food and water to take care of themselves and their families for the 72 hours after the storm hits.

With permission of those that may not speak Spanish, if you don't mind, I'd like to say a few words in Spanish.


BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor Governor Jeb Bush, updating everyone on the situation, Tropical Storm Rita, potentially a significant threat to his state. We'll monitor that news conference, get some more information.

We're also standing by. A new forecast coming out from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. We'll bring that to you once we get it.

We're also standing by for the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. He's expected to hold his own news conference very soon. We'll bring that to you live, as well.

Also, you've seen our new poll numbers that have just come out. So what can the president do to rebound? We'll get expert opinion. Bill Press, Torie Clarke. They're standing by in our "Strategy Session."



BLITZER: A major development coming from Mayor Ray Nagin in New Orleans. He's suspending the return, because of Tropical Storm Rita, potentially a hurricane. Let's go to Mayor Nagin in New Orleans.

RAY NAGIN, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: ...also start to prepare yourself to evacuate on Wednesday or even earlier.

The reason why we have this change is because of a couple of factors. Our pumping stations are still not at full capacity. If we have anything above nine inches of rain and a three-foot surge in any storm, we will once again have significant flooding on the East Bank of Orleans.

I am urging and encouraging everyone who knows of someone who may be in a home somewhere in Orleans Parish on the East Bank and has been calling you, giving you advice on what's going on in our city, to call them and encourage them to leave the city. This is a different type of event.

Our levee systems are still in a very weak condition. Our pumping stations are not at full capacity, and any type of storm that heads this way and hits us will put the East Bank of Orleans Parish in very significant harm's way.

So I'm encouraging everyone to leave.

On the lighter side, this past weekend and today, our re-entry program has gone very smoothly. We've had some glitches on yesterday or over the weekend on Saturday, and we were able to work them out. Everything went smoothly on Sunday. And everything went smoothly today.

So the re-entry program that we had in place basically has been working very well.

You're a little late, yes?


All right. I don't have any international events here, so everything's good. So where was I?

(UNKNOWN): Re-entry.

NAGIN: Re-entry. Re-entry has been going very smoothly, so we are encouraged by what we can accomplish.

Let me just clear some things up as it relates to the recent events with Admiral Allen, because I know you're going to ask me these questions, so I might as well deal with them on the front end.

From my perspective, we have been working very well with the federal authorities and we have been making a significant amount of progress.

We have been working very diligently in getting lots of things accomplished as it relates to rescue missions and drainage and all the things associated with getting this city moving in a better direction.

We have always tried to balance safety issues with the threats that are around us. I felt it was very important for our citizens to start to come back to this city and to feel like they had a city to come back to.

When we announced the ZIP codes that we wanted people to come back to, we knew that it was significant. But we also strategically picked those ZIP codes because that was the areas where there was little to no flooding in most, if not all, of the ZIP codes.

I understand the federal government was a little excited about the plan. They didn't feel as though conditions were quite right. But my thought has always been that, if we have this many resources in the city working cooperatively, then we can correct just about any situation that was out there.

The only thing that I really needed to know was what was the EPA's assessment of the health risks associated with the city of New Orleans. I had been asking for a report for at least a week and a half. We got a draft report. I had my director of health, Dr. Kevin Stephens, to look at it and review it. And at that time, we determined that there weren't any significant airborne risks to our citizens.

From that point, the decision-making centered around whether we could bring people back safely and whether we could care for them while they were here.

There's a couple of key challenges that we had overcome. We had to assess our water quality. We know that there's good water quality on the West Bank. We know that there are challenges on the East Bank. And we had alerted our citizens to those challenges.

We knew that there were some sewer challenges, but we had gotten some comfort from our Sewage and Water Board team that we would have sufficient sewer capabilities -- even though it wasn't fully treated -- to deal with individuals coming back in those particular ZIP codes.

The next thing I was concerned about was: As people come back, where would they get the supplies that they would need to buy food, to buy cleaning apparatus to clean out their refrigerators or their homes?

We had worked something out where we had a couple of retailers that were ready to come in pretty quickly to deal with that.

And then one of the final pieces we wanted to assess was where was the water, and how was it being drained? And we have made significant progress in that area.

And then the hospitals -- which was the last big challenge. We had talked to Turo Hospital as well as Children's Hospital, and we had Dr. Stephens working on several health clinics that -- we have two open today in Algiers, and we're looking at another one opening up pretty soon.

And the report that we got back today was Turo Hospital will be ready for emergency services on this coming Wednesday with beds being open in about a week or so.

We also had word that this little ship called the USS Comfort was on its way, and that it was headed toward New Orleans.

So with all of those factors and with the EPA reports that we had, we decided to go forward with a re-entry program that targeted what I'm saying is going to be the basis for what New Orleans will start -- and that's the five or six ZIP codes that we identified.

There was 182,000 people that had previously lived in those areas. But we were not, at any point in time, trying to get our citizens to come in and be at risk. We were not encouraging any of our citizens to bring back children because there are no schools in this area.

We were just wanting them to come and take a peek, take a look at what they've lost and what they have left.

And then New Orleanians are intelligent enough to decide whether they want to stay or not. And that was the decision point that we made.

But now we have conditions that have changed. We have another hurricane that's approaching us, and it could hit us as soon as Thursday or as late as Saturday.

I have gotten two different reports. The first report says it's going to hit Texas or Galveston. The second report I got says the storm is going to turn very north and could come across Louisiana in Terrebonne Parish, which would put New Orleans on the eastern side of the storm, where we would take the brunt of it. And it's projected to be a Category 3 storm once it hits land.

So my decision-making is always about people, and I'm going to continue to do that. I am concerned about this hurricane getting in the Gulf. I am very concerned about us clearing out the East Bank of New Orleans totally to deal with this next threat.

If we are off, I'd rather err on the side of conservatism so that we make sure that we have everybody out.

So we will start the evacuation process. Hopefully as we speak, most people will hear this and will start to evacuate. And then we'll continue to monitor the storm. And then, hopefully by Wednesday, we'll get everybody moving in earnest if this storm starts to point toward us.

So that's pretty much my formal comments, and you somebody's going to have to be up here that is a bad mother and kind of go from left to right and keep everybody straight.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to break away momentarily from this news conference, continue to monitor what the mayor is saying.

But the headline, and it's a big headline. He is suspending his earlier call for people to start coming back to their homes, their businesses in New Orleans, because of what is now Tropical Storm Rita, but soon could be Hurricane Rita, and potentially could endanger New Orleans later in the coming week, later this week once again. We'll continue to monitor this and go back there. Much more of our coverage right after this.


BLITZER: Time now for our "Strategy Session." Our guests, the author and radio talk show host, good friend, Bill Press. The former Pentagon Spokeswoman, CNN Political Analyst Torie Clark, also a good friend.

We just heard the mayor of New Orleans make major news here, saying, you know what, this Tropical Storm Rita potentially, once again, endangers New Orleans. Don't come back right now. Let's see what happens. Bill, just want to get your quick reaction. BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: First of all, I'm always glad to see a politician that's willing to change his mind, admit he was wrong. He had invited people back, now he says things have changed, so I want to rescind that and say you stay away. the one thing I didn't hear is he said he wants people to leave the east side. You know, he said that the last time. I think he should also say, we're sending the buses this time to help you out. We're not going to count on you to get out, if you don't have money for gas.

BLITZER: This is a horrible, horrible -- I mean, New Orleans making those baby steps to coming back and now the weather once again potentially endangering this.

TORIE CLARKE, FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: I had the exact same reaction, which is great, telling them to get out. How are they going to get out? And are you on top of it this time. And two, those poor people. What they've been through, and to think about another hurricane bearing down. Your heart just breaks for those people.

BLITZER: And on top of all of that, they have all those emergency workers, military personnel who have come into this city and potentially facing, let's hope it stays away from New Orleans. Let's hope it just dies someplace in the Gulf of Mexico. But this is a potential nightmare.

PRESS: They don't deserve, don't need another one.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about the president, how he's handling Katrina. Our new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. How is Bush handling Hurricane Katrina. Those numbers just out this hour. Forty-one percent approve, 57 percent disapprove. What does he need to do to turn those numbers around? He's been trying to do as much as he can.

PRESS: I think he's more likely to ask Torie her advice than ask my advice.

BLITZER: But you're a good strategist.

CLARKE: Let's switch it around here.

PRESS: Well my advice would be this. First, I think he's got to recognize he's got a problem. And the more serious number that I saw is 56 percent of Americans say he doesn't care about the victims of the hurricane. Which I think is unfair. And you know, the --

BLITZER: I'll put those numbers up. Does Bush care about hurricane victims? Forty-two percent say yes, 56 percent said no. That's a pretty shocking number.

PRESS: Yes. And I think that's unfair. But, you know, Bush always had going for him, you may disagree with his policies, but you like the guy. He's a nice guy who cares about people, who's trying to do the right thing. This number, people will think that he may be even cold-hearted to the hurricane victims, so getting out of it, I don't think it's too late. But I think he's got to do something bold. No more photo ops, I would say, Mr. President. No more canned speeches. I think you ought to say, everything is on the table. Get FEMA out of Homeland Security. Make it a disaster relief agency. Get an independent commission. And I'd even say my tax cuts are even on the table if that's what's necessary to rebuild.

BLITZER: What do you think?

CLARKE: I think he's right, but he's got to focus on the job, not be obsessed with the poll numbers, focus on the job of helping these people. I think things like the independent commission, what you do with FEMA over the long-haul, that's further down the road. There are still people in serious trouble that need help. The more the American people see him focused on that, the better off he'll do.

BLITZER: Yes. Go ahead.

PRESS: Well I just wanted -- this tendency is to stay the course, right? To keep doing what they've been doing, keep out the same message. And I think we clearly see that doesn't work. There's a credibility problem with the administration on Iraq, on the economy, on the hurricane now that they have to deal with.

BLITZER: Torie, this other question we asked in this new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, the best way to pay for the government programs to respond to the hurricane. Fifty-four percent, more than half, a majority of the American public said cut spending in Iraq to pay for Katrina.

CLARKE: Look, I think to pay for this, which is a disaster nobody could have predicted, but it's a responsibility for federal, state and local, everything ought to be on the table. Everything across the board ought to be on the table, and they ought to be just as creative in how we pay for it as they are in trying to address the very real problems people are facing.

BLITZER: We'll leave it there.

PRESS: Including the tax cuts.

CLARKE: I think everything should be on the table.

BLITZER: All right. We'll continue this conversation. Bill, Torie, thank you very much.

Let's immediately go to CNN's Jack Cafferty. He's joining us now with some responses, your e-mail -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. The question this hour, how much should New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and President Bush's Chief Political Adviser Karl Rove have to say about what happens in New Orleans. That's a pretty good question. We got a lot of interesting mail.

Tom in Houston writes, Rove, you've got to be kidding. He only knows about tearing down the opposition, and not a thing about building anything. Wilson writes, the voters chose Ray Nagin, but Karl Rove should be washing dishes in a prison kitchen for outing a CIA agent.

Beau in Salem, Virginia. I don't fault Nagin as much as some, but Karl Rove. Give me a break. Bush appointing his chief political adviser to oversee this debacle tells you all you need to know about where out president's priorities lie. Covering his but, and making sure his rich pal get even richer.

Dianne in Ohio writes, Nagin's an absolute nut case, although I can sympathize with his intent to get the city up and running, the admiral is right, it's not safe. Neither Nagin nor Rove should have anything to do with spending that much money. As a controller and director of financial operations for a Fortune 500 company, I would certainly volunteer to help them control and administer the spending, or how about Giuliani?

And finally, Flo in St. Paul, Minnesota. I can't wait to get them both involved in rebuilding New Orleans. That should be a show and a half that will keep THE SITUATION ROOM busy for months on end, and then you guys won't have to ask stupid questions.

I think out questions are pretty intelligent lady. I don't know. We work pretty hard on this stuff.

BLITZER: I agree with you, Jack. Thank you very much.