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The Situation Room

Hurricane Rita; Fuel Crisis; McCain's Position

Aired September 22, 2005 - 16:58   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we've just been informed that a tropical storm warning, warning for New Orleans.
The mayor, Ray Nagin, speaking right now.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: Still searching and encouraging individuals to evacuate. But it looks as though we have most of the people out of the city on the east bank, with the exception of some business workers that may be out and about. And there may be a few people that are held up throughout the city.

We got some good news this morning from the standpoint of the 82nd is still going to be with us in force as we start the re-entry after Rita has moved out of the way. That will be reinforce us about 3,000 soldiers that will be a part of our security force, along with about 2,000 National Guards that will be with us. You link that up with about 1,400 N.O.P.D. officers that are still in place, with some other law enforcement agencies, and we should be in pretty good shape from a law enforcement standpoint as we move forward.

And then, finally, I will say to our neighbors, to our neighbors in other parts of Louisiana, to Texas, neighbors that may be impacted by this storm, our hearts go out to you, our prayers go out to you. We wish that this storm decides to turn at the last minute and avoid you. But if it doesn't, we are here to provide whatever little support we can to hopefully get you through this incredible process.

Hurricane Rita, I will say once again, is a very dangerous storm. It's still trending in a good direction as it relates to New Orleans. But we are not letting our guards down, because, as you know, these hurricanes can change and do a lot of things.

It's currently a Category 4 storm, as I understand it. It may have the possibility to get stronger. And then it looks as though it may hit some cooler waters as it hits landfall that may cause it to diminish in strength a little bit. But we are still paying attention to it. Every time I look at the weather reports and see the direction of the storm, it looks like it's pointed toward New Orleans, but maybe I'm a little paranoid right now. So we will continue to monitor it.

And we will have a report from the National Guard, as we speak.

GEN. RON MASON (ph), NATIONAL GUARD: I'm General Ron Mason. I'm the Commander of the 35th Infantry Division out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. What I represent is the commander of what we call Task Force Santa Fe that was originally deployed here and southeastern Louisiana to cover the 13 most affected parishes here. And what I'd like to do is just give you an update of where our forces are and what we've been doing over the past few days and what we're doing right now.

We have several task forces that are arrayed here in southern Louisiana and in and around New Orleans. One that's not shown on here, I'll talk a little bit about, that's our tactical reserve. And they are a brigade of about 2,000 soldiers. They are right now deployed in Alexandria north and west of here and in Lafayette.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to monitor this news conference in New Orleans, get back there as necessary.

It's 5:00 p.m., just after, here in Washington. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM where news and information arrive in one place simultaneously.

We have just learned that New Orleans, yes, New Orleans under a tropical storm warning right now. Also happening now, just after 4:00 p.m. Central in Houston, where a massive, difficult and very frustrating exodus is under way ahead of Hurricane Rita. This storm churning west in the Gulf of Mexico, taking aim at the Texas-Louisiana coast.

The National Hurricane Center just released a new forecast. The director, Max Mayfield, standing by. He will join us live.

And in New Orleans, where Rita's rains are already starting to move in, an ominous sign for the city still in the grips of disaster.

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

Hurricane Rita, as of this hour, a powerful Category 4 storm. Right now, Texas the apparent target. We've just learned that New Orleans is under a tropical storm warning.

And we've also just learned a major airlift operation is under way in Beaumont, Texas, where officials are trying to get the sick and elderly out right now. They're among the more than 1.5 million people being urged and ordered to evacuate. But that's easier said than done. Some highways are in total gridlock, even now.

The situation very much the same at Houston's airports. Thousands of people are trying to get on flights to get out of town. And making matters worse, about a hundred security screeners didn't show up for work. And TSA officials are scrambling to replace them.

Clearly, in the wake of Katrina, no one wants to take any chances in Texas. As we have been showing you, some 1.5 million people are under evacuation orders. That's the largest evacuation in that state's history. The governor, Rick Perry, says he's asked President Bush for 10,000 National Guard troops to help with search and rescue after this storm. That's on top of the 5,000 troops already activated.

Next door in Louisiana, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, the governor, Kathleen Blanco, is asking for 15,000 National Guard troops on top of the 25,000 already on Katrina duty. She also says 800 buses have been mobilized to help with more evacuations. And the impact, more than 100 energy-related businesses along the Gulf Coast have already shut down, including some of the nation's largest oil refineries. Some analysts are warning we could see the price of gasoline hit $5 a gallon in Rita's wake.

New Orleans is under a tropical storm warning. Forecasters say Rita could dump three inches of rain there. The Army Corps of Engineers says that may be too much for the battered levee system and could flood parts of the city once again.

Let's immediately head to our Mary Snow. She's in New Orleans. She just got a closer look at those levees.

What's the latest -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we showed you earlier, it is raining here now in New Orleans, bands of rain coming in and out.

But we have a guest with us now, Colonel Duane Gapinski of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Colonel, you told us earlier today, we asked you about your concern level on a scale of 1 to 10. You put it at a five to six. How would you rate it now that New Orleans is now under a tropical storm warning?

COL. DUANE GAPINSKI, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Well, it's still about the same. You know we're still concerned with the storm surge from the lake and we're protecting with it, against it using those sheet pile walls. We're concerned about rain. But again, the pump stations are working, albeit at reduced capacity. And then we have equipment stockpiled to account for any kind of contingency.

SNOW: With the weather worsening, though, and now this tropical storm warning, what kind of a storm surge are you expecting? And what can the city of New Orleans handle?

GAPINSKI: Well we're expecting about a four or five-foot storm surge. And of course you can see the wall behind me can handle up to probably 10 or 12-foot storm surge. There are areas where it's going to be a little bit closer. And we can probably only handle about a six-foot storm surge. So we're watching those areas closely.

SNOW: And how about rainfall? How much rainfall can New Orleans handle?

GAPINSKI: Well, right now the prediction is, you know, a quarter inch today, inch and a half tomorrow, next couple days, spread out over the day. So we can handle that, we think. If we get a deluge, say three inches in six hours, then we'd have some flooding, maybe up to two feet.

SNOW: Quickly, do you keep it at a concern level of five to six still or is it going up?

GAPINSKI: It's five or six still.

SNOW: All right, thank you -- Colonel.

GAPINSKI: You're welcome.

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

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thank you very much. Mary Snow is on the scene for us.

Let's head over to Houston right now. Our affiliate reporter Kym Alvarado-Booth from KPRC is at a gas station where, I take it, Kym, the situation is not pretty?

KYM ALVARADO-BOOTH, KPRC-TV REPORTER: It is not. We've seen a lot of angry words. We've seen pushing. We've seen shoving. We've seen people literally pulling the nozzles out of each other's hand, fighting over this gas.

What you're seeing right here is the gentleman filled up with the plastic container. What they're doing though is, because this place will not take credit, excuse me, cash anymore, they're negotiating with folks who do have credit cards. Well that's what's starting a lot of fights.

The police just showed up a few minutes ago. A lot of these folks are people from lower incomes here in southwest Houston. They're not ones evacuating. They just heard the call to fill their tanks with gas and that's what's causing all this backup.

Come over here, let me show you something. The owner is a little fearful of the situation, the atmosphere here in southwest Houston, so they closed the store inside this Citco, because they're afraid of what might be going on. They don't want to hear it from people because they will not take cash.

Once again, these are what folks are doing, they're filling up, once in the tank, and then the plastic containers and then negotiate the sale of that plastic container gas.

Dan Speck (ph) has been in line. How long have you been in line -- Dan?


ALVARADO-BOOTH: Dale, sorry.

SPECK: Yes, I've been in line probably since about 1:00.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: One o'clock this afternoon?

SPECK: Yes, so it's about three hours.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: What time is it now here in great Texas?

SPECK: It's 4:00, a little after 4:00, so I've been in line about three hours.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: What have you seen here?

SPECK: Mass confusion. Part of the problem is you've got cars coming from both directions, so when they fill up, they can't get back out. And people who need to get -- to pay cash for it are having to go inside, so you wait. And the pumps are slow. It's, you know...


SPECK: ... I'm surprised there haven't been more fights than there have. There have been a little bit of words, but nobody has really got violent.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: You've seen a lot of pushing and shoving and grabbing right from the hands of others. Dale, were you here when someone ran out of gas and they literally, seven men, picked up a car?

SPECK: No, that was just before me.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: Right before you came here?

SPECK: Yes, yes, they lifted it up and got it here.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: Yes. OK. And why are people so desperate to get gas? They're not even the ones evacuating.

SPECK: I think, in my case, I'm trying to fill up, because I want to leave as soon as the hurricane is over. My wife is in La Grange and I'm staying in Houston. And as soon as it passes through and everything is OK here, I want to go up there. And I'm afraid we won't have any gas until three or four days later.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: OK, thanks a lot, Dale. Good luck to you, OK?

SPECK: Yes, thank you very much.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: Dale, a Houstonian.

What we're seeing right now is an ambulance pulling up. We suspect this was part of the police that were called just a few minutes ago. Police, excuse me, citizens are in their cars. If you look down the line here, some are overheated. Some are getting sick. So we don't know exactly the nature of this call. But this is one of our very large ambulance units here in greater Houston.

So that's the situation, Wolf. Any questions?

BLITZER: Yes, quick question, Kym, I suspect they're going to run out of gas pretty soon. Have they pumped up the price of a gallon of gasoline where you are or has it been steady?

ALVARADO-BOOTH: No, it's been pretty steady. We have not seen situations like that. There's been stern, stern warnings from our attorney general to report any sort of nonsense like that, although I have seen situations in these convenience stores. For an example, a case of bottled water, $30. So that's ridiculous.

BLITZER: That is ridiculous.

ALVARADO-BOOTH: But we're not seeing any sort of price gouging as far as the gas stations are concerned. Like I said, no telling what's going on at the street level, negotiations with the canisters.

BLITZER: All right, Kym, be careful over there. Kym Alvarado- Booth doing an excellent job for her station, KPRC, our affiliate. Thanks very much, Kym, we'll check back with you in Houston.

Hurricane Rita is already causing a fuel crisis in Houston, as we just saw. That could spread after the storm.

Ali Velshi has got the bottom line. It looks like a real mess over there, Ali, and it's probably going to get a lot worse.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Kind of ironic that all the -- you know most of the -- a quarter of the oil in the country comes from that region and they're out of gas.

But let's just put this -- let's understand how this works. A gas station only has as much gas as a gas station can hold in its reservoir. So what -- when you see lining up and those gas stations. We've called 120 of them, 82 of them we can't get a response from, 31 are shut down, 7 still had gas but are quickly running out of gas. It's because the gas in that reservoir is out, so they've got to get gas tanks to come back, the tankers to fill those reservoirs. That's where we're seeing the problem.

This is not, for everybody else in the country watching, this is not a gas shortage, this is a distribution issue, for the moment. Not to say that Rita isn't going to have an impact on gas supplies across the country.

I just got off the phone with the Explorer pipeline. That's a pipeline I showed you earlier. It goes from the south through to Chicago, through the midwest. It is responsible for some 600,000 barrels a day of gas, jet fuel, diesel, things like that. Well that's stopped. That's 10 percent of the gasoline that goes to the midwest. So people are going to be seeing this kind of thing across the country in certain areas.

But we are -- what we just heard is correct, we are also not reporting any information about price gouging in the Houston area. So, at the moment, if you can get gas, not a bad idea. For the rest of you around the country, don't worry just yet, we're not seeing any problems in terms of supply or price.

BLITZER: All right, Ali, thanks very much. We'll continue to monitor all of that.

Let's get straight to CNN's Jacqui Jeras. She's in the Weather Center, the CNN Hurricane Center, our meteorologist, with the latest specific official information from the National Hurricane Center. JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Wolf, about 405 miles now southeast of Galveston. The winds have dropped a little further this afternoon and it's down to 145 miles per hour, but that's still well in the Category 4 strength. And we don't anticipate it's going to go down to a 3 anytime soon, though that could happen before it makes landfall.

And, by the way, we saw that reporter live in Houston. These people dealing with this unbelievable heat. Houston has now had a record high of at least 97 degrees on the thermometer. And the heat index is about 103. So this heat is very dangerous and it is getting people sick. So you have to use a lot of caution.

And this is why we tell you to have your emergency kit with you way ahead of time. Don't wait until the storm comes. If you live in a hurricane-prone area right now and you're not going to be affected by Rita, you need to make sure you've got three days, at least, of the water and the food. This is why we tell you this so you don't run out. This is a very serious situation with Rita now a very powerful storm.

It's been taking more of a northwesterly turn today, moving at about nine miles per hour. If it stays on this track that we expect it to, landfall will likely happen early on Saturday morning. Our forecast track doesn't look like it's changed very much here as it has just come in, possibly just a smidge, hardly worth mentioning, off to the east or to the right of the storm.

And it is bringing it in very close to the Louisiana-Texas state line. But still, Galveston, it's still possible that you could get a direct hit with the eye or eyewall of this storm. And keep in mind, look at the cone of uncertainty, it still goes a fair amount out from that center of that cone.

We're looking at some changes in intensity over the next couple of days, but those strong winds are going to be moving in to Louisiana, we think, tonight. And that's why the tropical storm warning has been issued now that includes New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. And check out the green there, they've also just issued a flood watch for the potential over the next 48 hours or so for three to five inches of rainfall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jacqui, thank you very much. Jacqui Jeras with all the latest information for us from the CNN Weather Center.

Still ahead, more live reports, storm updates. Remember CNN is your hurricane headquarters.

In this horrific hurricane season, experts have all sorts of new and high-tech ways to track storms, like Rita. Coming up, we'll give you an inside look at how it's done. Up next, first Katrina, now Rita, how can the federal government possibly pay for all this damage and more coming? I'll ask a very influential, a high-profile senator, Republican, John McCain. He's standing by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The U.S. tab for Hurricane Katrina relief already large, and it's about to get very, very, even larger. How should the government pay for all of this? Here to discuss that and more, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us. Two hundred million already spent in Iraq, let's say, maybe a lot more, 200 billion about to be spent, that's projected for Katrina. And you see this monster storm Rita, there's going to be a lot of expenditure. Where is all this money going to come from?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: That's hard to say, Wolf, but I think it's time we did some belt tightening and some sacrificing. Eliminate pork barrel spending. Perhaps delay the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, except for those who have lowest income. Look at across-the-board cuts for say 5 percent, except for defense or homeland security funding, with a 1 percent slush fund sort of for the president to give money to more needed areas.

We're going to have to make some sacrifices. Americans are sacrificing right now by contributing so generously to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. And here in Washington, we've got to do some too, otherwise we're going to lay this huge, huge deficit on future generations of Americans.

BLITZER: Do you see any willingness on the part of the administration or the Republican leadership in Congress to do any of those steps that you just proposed?

MCCAIN: Well, as the president said, we'll have to have some spending reductions. And I understand that the White House has also said that they would look at some areas. Frankly, I think the first place we could go is this pork barrel-ladened Highway Bill that had $26 billion with just unmitigated pork. The American people want their tax dollars to go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and now Rita or do they want it to go to a bridge to nowhere for $250 million or whatever it is?

BLITZER: Tom DeLay, the Republican leader, the majority leader in the House, he said "after 11 years of Republican majority, we've pared it down pretty good." He suggests that there isn't a whole lot of pork there.

MCCAIN: I respectfully disagree. We have presided over the largest increase in government and government spending since the great society. And there are many of my conservative base, long before this, that are very unhappy about the spending practices.

And, as you know, the deficit was already going to be about $300- and-some billion, the third highest in history. And there were projections, with this Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, that it was going to go higher. Example, the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill was originally estimated, when it was passed, to be $400 billion over 10 years. It's now grown to a $730 billion estimate, and we haven't given out a single pill. BLITZER: And you know the president says he doesn't want to touch that, though?

MCCAIN: Well, I think everything should be on the table. I think that our first obligation now is to care for these victims, but care for them carefully. We need, I think, an administrator along the lines of Jack Welch or Lou Gerston (ph) or Colin Powell, somebody to coordinate all these activities. And we need inspector generals and we need all kinds of restrictions. They are giving out cost-plus contracts as we speak. I'm afraid that a couple, three years from now we will be investigating all the scandals associated with overspending.

BLITZER: You know one man's pork is another man's essential expenditures. There are what some would consider pork in the Transportation Bill for Arizona. I'll give you three examples, $3 million for a pedestrian, a bicycle overpass in Phoenix; $3 million for a pedestrian bridge over a lake in Tempe; a Grand Canyon Greenway Trail $1.5 million. Are you willing to forego what some would call pork in your state in exchange if everyone got rid of it?

MCCAIN: Absolutely, in a New York minute.

BLITZER: All right. There's another poll, though, I want to show you. Our CNN-"USA Today" poll. We asked a few days ago the best way to pay for hurricane relief. Fifty-four percent of those responded said cut spending in Iraq. What do you say about that?

MCCAIN: Well, I say I understand it, because people have as understandably their first priority to take care of Americans in a disaster situation. I don't think it's correct. We've got to win in Iraq. We've got to make a case, as the president did in a very excellent speech today, in my view, that we've got to win in Iraq, as well. And we are making progress, but it's long and it's hard and it's tough, but the consequences of failure are profound and the benefits of success are incredible.

BLITZER: If you want everything to be on the table, I suppose you'd be willing to roll back some of those tax cuts that were approved over the past few years?

MCCAIN: Wolf, I think that would be the easy way out, just say raise taxes. I don't think that. I'm not saying it should never be considered, but certainly now our focus should be on cutting spending, excess and unnecessary spending and waste and make a few sacrifices before we lay another tax burden on the American people.

BLITZER: A quick question on the president and this investigation. He doesn't want to see a 9/11 kind of independent investigation. Do you think that's what's needed to get to the bottom of what went wrong?

MCCAIN: I think that Senator Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, who have the responsibility, they are the committee on Homeland Security, are off to a good start. I'd like to see the progress they make before we went for an independent commission. I also wish that we'd stop fighting with each other and have a more bipartisan approach to this. I think Americans would like to see us work together on this one.

BLITZER: One final quick question. Word on the street, you're going to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the protestor, next week?

MCCAIN: Well, a group of Arizonans (ph) are coming to Washington. Whether we happen to agree with them or not, we are required to meet, or we should meet with our constituents. She is with this group. Jon Kyl is also meeting with them, as well, since most of them are Arizonans.

I disagree with Miss Sheehan, strongly, on not only her remarks about Iraq, but also Israel, and getting troops out of New Orleans. And I strongly disagree and I will express that. I do honor the service and sacrifice of her son. And so -- and, as you know, the president met with her once. I doubt if I'll meet with her twice.

BLITZER: Senator McCain, thanks very much for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thank you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John McCain, the senator from Arizona.

When we come back, storms as intense as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita requires sophisticated methods to track. Coming up, we're going to tell you about a high-tech tool and strategies that are being used to track such devastating storms.

And, as we've told you, New Orleans now under a tropical storm warning. How the city and the surrounding area are bracing themselves for whatever happens. Our Jeff Koinange will be live in Jefferson Parish.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: From the surface of the sea to high in the sky, hurricane forecasters are tracking Hurricane Rita right now using the most up-to-date technology available.

Our Zain Verjee has more on that part of the story. She's joining us now live from the CNN Center -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've come to rely on the National Hurricane Center for accurate and up-to-date information. And it's more important when you're dealing with a catastrophic storm, like Rita, but getting that data is quite tough.


VERJEE (voice-over): When it comes to hurricanes, knowledge is power. The more we know about a storm, the better we can prepare for the onslaught.

But where does the data come from? We're all familiar with satellite images, like this one, which allow forecasters to track the storm from space. Closer in, specialized planes fly directly into hurricanes, often multiple times in a single day, gathering critical information about wind speed and barometric pressure.

And on the surface of the sea, a series of weather stations relay real time information on conditions. Some of the stations are on buoys throughout the Gulf of Mexico belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Others are located on oil platforms.

And the data they are providing on Hurricane Rita is nothing short of alarming. Within the past few hours, one buoy, some 200 miles off the Louisiana coast, recorded swells topping 32 feet, taller than a thee-story building. Not the size of the waves depicted in the movie "A Perfect Storm," but still a danger to shipping and oil and gas rigs and platforms.

And it could get bigger as Rita moves closer. Of course none of this technology was even around in 1900 when a monster hurricane struck Galveston in what remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history with at least 6,000 dead, possibly twice that number.


VERJEE: With so much advanced warning on hurricanes, it's unlikely we're ever going to see that kind of death toll in the United States again. All of the data, though, on Rita tells us it's an extremely dangerous storm and anyone who is told to evacuate should absolutely do so -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Zain Thank you very much. Appreciate it very much. Let's immediately go to the National Hurricane Center. Max Mayfield is joining us right now. Max, thank you very much for joining us. It looks like you're constantly getting new information. What is the latest we know about Hurricane Rita?

MAX MAYFIELD, DIR., NATL. HURRICANE CENTER: Well, actually, we had an aircraft report in there, but it looks like the pressure has dropped again a little bit, a little bit surprising here. This is still a very, very dangerous Category 4 hurricane. We will likely see some fluctuations. It may go down a little bit, it may go up a little bit, but the wise thing to do is go ahead and plan on the Category 4 hurricane making landfall.

BLITZER: Well, what does that mean specifically? The pressure has dropped just a little bit, what does that mean?

MAYFIELD: Well, we thought that we were going to see a little bit of weakening here this evening and that's just not happening. The pressure has gone down, and typically, the winds come up when that happens. So we'll likely see some fluctuations.

As it gets closer to the coast, the water temperature is not going to be as favorable and the airflow environment is not going to be as favorable, so we could see a little bit of weakening there, but again, the different between Category 4 and a Category 5, it's just not -- it's not worth even talking about.

BLITZER: You've now issued a tropical storm warning for the whole Louisiana coast basically, including New Orleans, as opposed to a watch. For people in that area, which was battered, as you know, by Hurricane Katrina, what does that mean?

MAYFIELD: Well, it means that they can -- that -- what we have done here, the hurricane warning goes from Morgan City, Louisiana, over to Port O'Connor, Texas. And then the rest of the Louisiana coast is under that tropical storm warning.

And we did that because they likely will get some tropical storm force winds. They'll likely be in these outer rain bands and squalls passing through. And they may not be sustained tropical storm force for any extended period of time, but they're going to have some winds.

The biggest concern there, Wolf, is really that the tide levels are a couple of feet above normal in the areas that were impacted by Katrina, southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, even over here at Dolphin (ph) Island they had a report, two feet above normal tide levels. And that will likely come up three to even five feet above normal before it's all over.

BLITZER: The pictures that we're getting -- the live pictures we're getting from New Orleans right now, the skies are ready. The clouds, they look very, very ominous. How worried should these people be?

MAYFIELD: Well, they need to deal with the reality here that they're going to have some tropical storm force winds, non-hurricane force winds but they're going to have some sustained winds in these squalls. And then they're likely going to get three to five inches of rain. And I know that is the absolute last thing they want to hear over in New Orleans.

BLITZER: One final question about the Galveston-Houston area. What are they bracing for?

MAYFIELD: They need to be bracing for a strong category four Hurricane. And no one can guarantee whether the center of the hurricane will come on the shore just to the south of Galveston Island or a little bit to the north of there. It really makes a difference.

If it comes in south of there, it's going to push all that storm surge, up to 20 feet, with wave action on top of that up into the bay. If it goes in north of Galveston Island, the Sabean (ph) Pass area, Beaumont, Port Arthur, they will get the biggest impact but there will be impacts even over here into -- definitely into Louisiana, Cameron, Louisiana, the Lake Charles area, even on into Vermilion Bay.

BLITZER: Max Mayfield, thanks for all your important work. Appreciate it very much. Max Mayfield is the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. For a threatening storm looking for a vulnerable bull's eye, unfortunately Houston is almost a perfect target. Coming up, we will tell you how Houston's geography works against it in the face of the storm.

And while many are fleeing the city, what about those who need help like the elderly, the sick, and the newborns? We will tell you what Houston's hospitals are doing right now. And Jack Cafferty will be here with your e-mails to our question. What should be done to reemploy the hurricane victims? You can still send him your e-mail. Go to


BLITZER: With New Orleans under a tropical storm warning, the city is certainly hoping for the best but worrying deeply about the worst. Our Jeff Koinange is in New Orleans. He is joining us now live. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello there, Wolf. And those warnings cannot be good news at all in any way you slice it for the folks here in New Orleans. That tropical storm warning, you can see the last few -- couple of hours, there has been a light drizzle which is not good news for the next 24, 36 hours.

And people are literally watching and waiting. In fact, we had a chance to go into a -- speak about a situation room. We went into a situation room in Jefferson Parish, one of the suburbs of New Orleans. And Dr. Walter Maestry (ph), he's the director of emergency management took us through the emergency room just to show us exactly what happens, how they are tracking Hurricane Rita. Let's take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the wall. See, the maps here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Katrina took us by surprise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So as the latest bulletins come in, they'll flash up on the smart board. They told us in the beginning, west, west, west. Well now that west is curving east, east, east. And every degree it turns to the east is more of a problem for us. This now is the area that's most at risk with Rita.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Voluntary evacuation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our levee system has weakened but we're hoping it will hold up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it moves any more to the east and the tidal surge starts to move up into the teens, we got problems.


KOINANGE: That is right, Wolf. And his words, ominous words, we have problems. Look what Hurricane Katrina did behind me. It literally took a chunk out of this house here. People here are really fearful that Hurricane Rita could cause quite a bit of damage and especially those folks who had just returned to New Orleans, they're having to pack up and go out back again. They are not very happy at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jeff Koinange, thank you very much. Jeff Koinange in New Orleans reporting. President Bush has warned Texans to be prepared for the worst. Up next, a Houston hospital is doing just that. Our medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, will tell us how the medical community in Texas is planning to respond to this disaster. We'll go to Sanjay right after this.


BLITZER: If Hurricane Rita does hit Houston hard, as many people are now fearing it could be, because of its unique, and perhaps unfortunate geography. Our Brian Todd has been looking into this part of the story. He's joining us live -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Geography and topography, Wolf, all working against the city of Houston, a place where previous disasters have produced some eerily familiar scenes.


TODD (voice-over): Streets inundated. Houses immersed, some up to their barely visible rooftops. A major storm hovers. A major city is paralyzed. It may look like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it's, in fact, Houston, Texas, after a tropical storm.

Allison arrived and stayed a while in June of 2001, dumping more than 30 inches of rain on some parts of Houston, killing more than 20 people. City officials and scientists tell us this is a town especially vulnerable to flooding whenever rain moves in. From smaller bands to a hurricane the size of Rita.

PHIL TURNIPSEED, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY: If 30 feet of storm surge hit the Houston-Galveston Bay area it could be a catastrophic event.

TODD: Phil Turnipseed is a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He says this city, built on a low-lying coastal plane and right at sea levels in some areas is, in this context, a victim of its commercial prosperity.

TURNIPSEED: Around the turn of the century when Houston was growing there was a lot of expansion of both population and industry, and the industry used groundwater to grow. That's what they used for water use and for industrial use. And so the aquifers in the area have been overpumped.

TODD: The result, according to Turnipseed and city officials, something called subsidence. When water was pumped out of the ground, the land in Houston gradually sank, up to ten feet in some areas. On top of that, a city official tells CNN, Houston streets are designed to be what he calls retention ponds, places to hold water when drainage ditches and channels overflow so that homes and other buildings won't get flooded. But when the streets overflow after a major storm, everything around them is in danger.

The city has taken steps in recent years to mitigate potential flooding, digging more reservoirs, widening channels, establishing a plan to use surface water, rather than groundwater for residential and industrial use, to stop the ground from sinking.


TODD: Because of that, a top city official tells us he believes Houston is better prepared now for Hurricane Rita than it was for Tropical Storm Allison. The concern, he says is that Rita, like Allison, will move slowly over the city. And in that event, more flooding is inevitable, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting.

Houston is experiencing a mass exodus. Many traffic cameras are catching scenes of traffic jams with many of the images posted online. Our Abbi Tatton is checking out that situation. She's joining us now live -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Yeah Wolf, this Web site is Houston Trans Star, and there are many, many traffic cams along these evacuation routes where you can get some idea of the gridlock in some places and deserted roads in some other places that have already been evacuated.

This is one of the main routes out there, Interstate 45 heading north. If you look at this picture recently taken, you can see the Houston skyline in the background there. Lots of cars backed up on this one.

On this picture, this is I -- Interstate-45 again out in Louetta. A virtual parking lot out there right now. And it's not just now, this has been going on for many, many hours. These pictures were taken overnight, 12 hours ago, 4:15 a.m. You see the people were evacuating all through the night there.

There are other areas where people have already got out. Galveston, the city further south there, the island city where 90 percent of people have already evacuated, according to reports. Traffic cameras all along there, near the causeway show that it's virtually deserted. Those residents have already left.

But a very different story as you can see around Houston. People are taking photos of the gridlock, uploading them on to sites like this one,, showing the miserable situation there in the roads as people are trying to evacuate, Wolf.

BLITZER: Miserable is a good word to describe it. Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

Up next, are Houston's hospitals ready for what's coming their way, this storm? Our Sanjay Gupta, he's on the scene in Houston, he's checking the situation for us. He'll join us live. That's coming up next.


BLITZER: In Houston, many of those able to leave are anxiously flying and driving away ahead of Hurricane Rita. But what about those too weak or too sick to evacuate on their own? With more on this part of the story, including what is happening in Houston's hospitals, our senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is joining us on the phone. What are you picking up, Sanjay?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, very interesting. Much different, first of all, than New Orleans where I was most recently, Wolf. Talking about the preparedness, really taking no chances here, Wolf. There's several little things, obvious things like boarding up of the windows, that sort of thing.

But also, they've installed these submarine-like doors, Wolf, to keep any water -- they learned this lesson from Allison, Tropical Storm Allison -- to keep any water from actually getting into the hospital. If some water does get into the hospital they have ways of shutting down quarters completely to try to keep each quarter separate so water doesn't flow, disrupting powerful power systems, things like that.

They have also moved all their generators. They have all their generators on several floors above sea level so they don't short- circuit out like what happened at Charity Hospital, for example, in New Orleans.

What is interesting, Wolf, about Houston, it sort of falls in a gray area. They are not really going to take any patients, evacuate any patients to the Texas Medical Center when the hurricane starts because it, too might get hit. But they also feel comfortable enough at this point not to evacuate most of their patients from the big hospitals of the Texas Medical Center, either.

So they're sort of in that precarious, gray position. Right now most of the patients and most of the essential personnel in the Houston hospitals, which is the largest medical system complex in the world, Wolf -- an important point. They take care of tens of thousands of patients. The patients, for the most part, are staying at this time, Wolf.

BLITZER: And is that safe for them to stay based on what you can see, and what you're hearing, Sanjay?

GUPTA: It certainly seems that way and they seem very confident. I talked to the guy who is the head of disaster preparedness for the Texas Medical System. He looked me straight in the eye we're 100 percent confident that we're going to be fine here at the Texas Medical System.

Again, from Katrina most recently, but also from Allison four years ago, they've learned some valuable lessons here, covering everything from flooding, electricity out, plumbing out, to violence. They got all of these angles, at least in their mind's eye, at this point covered. This is going to be a true test for them.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is our senior medical correspondent. He's in Houston getting ready for this storm, like so many of our CNN team. Tom Foreman is here with us in THE SITUATION ROOM. You're looking at a lot of situations right now. What specifically do you have going?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: One directly related to what Sanjay said. Let's take a look quick at Galveston, because I want to talk about where the hospitals are there. Flying into Galveston island here, if you look at this, this is the front part where the storm would be coming in from this side.

If we move down the island just a little bit -- I'll sail forward just a little bit here, the hospitals that are in question that we're talking about tend to be on this side of the island toward the bay side, so they'll get some protection from what is happening on the front side here. But the level of water we've been talking about, if it comes through in the big way we've talked about, it's going to do no good. They're still going to have serious flooding around the base of them and that is going to be a big issue.

BLITZER: We've been looking at that water. The surf as it approaches -- as it approaches the Galveston area, we got a picture. I want to show our viewers what we saw yesterday and what we're seeing today. This was yesterday. Take a look at this, Tom. You can see the surf. It is not very significant right now.

Twenty-four hours later, though, it's getting a little bit more significant and this is only just the beginning. These are pictures as it's happening right now. These are live pictures coming in from Galveston. You can see the surf beginning to have an effect.

FOREMAN: Yes, it was unbelievable the differences, that we're going to have if this water keeps coming in that way. One of the things I also want to talk about is how many it shifts over toward the Louisiana-Texas border. If we go over there to the big lake that I want us to look at real quickly. We're going to fly over here.

BLITZER: This is right on the border?

FOREMAN: Right on the border. This is a lake that's famous for saltwater fishing called Saving (ph) Lake. It's right there in that little nexus. And if you look at what is going to happen there, if the storm surge coming in, I can't show it there right like that. It goes off very quickly, and I'll show you it's going to look like a lot of -- well, I'm not able to show you but it that's going to run way over its edges if the flooding comes in there, big issue.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thank you very much.

Up next, helping hurricane evacuees get back on their feet. What is the best way to help people forced out of their homes to try to get their jobs back, their lives back? Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty has been going through your e-mail. He is joining us now live from New York. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the government reports that 214,000 Americans are out of work due to Katrina, the three-week ago hurricane, and they say that number could rise to 500,000 and that is before Rita even gets here in two days. If it slams into the Gulf coast as it's expected to, there could be tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who will lose their job along the Gulf coast of Texas.

So the question from last hour is this. What should we do to re- employ the hurricane victims?

Liz in Cherry Hill, New Jersey writes, "evacuees should be the first people hired in rebuilding their own city. Construction contracts should be done on a bid against basis and training should be provided. Even a 70-year-old woman like myself can handle a paint brush or roller, a hammer and a hand sander."

Trish writes, "if every company that hired illegal immigrants would fire them, as they should, and give those jobs to the victims of Katrina and possibly Rita, we would be a lot better off."

Loren in New Mexico writes, "the WPA is an idea who'd time has come again. FDR and alphabet soup helped us in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Maybe resurrecting these programs will see us through the aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

And Tim writes this. "How are the federal, state and local levels of government going to re-employ people who lost their jobs due to the hurricanes, when there are a ton of people who didn't have jobs before the hurricane? It's tough to find jobs now, let alone after a mass influx of unemployed people."

And that's all we have in the file, Mr. Blitzer.

BLITZER: Jack, I'll see you tomorrow and thank you very much. And stay with CNN for continuing coverage of Hurricane Rita. We're in THE SITUATION ROOM every weekday afternoon, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. I'll see you tomorrow. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. LOU DOBBS TONIGHT starting right now. Lou's standing by in New York -- Lou.