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The Situation Room

Bus Carrying Rita Evacuees Explodes; New Orleans Levee Fails; Millions Flee Ahead of Hurricane Rita

Aired September 23, 2005 - 15:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where news and information arrive at one place simultaneously. Standing by, CNN reporters across the U.S. to bring you complete coverage of Hurricane Rita.
Happening now, it's 2:00 p.m. Central along the Gulf Coast, where there are warnings of a catastrophe in the hours ahead. Millions are seeking safety, as a still powerful storm bears down on Texas and Louisiana.

Even before Rita can strike, tragedy strikes. A bus carrying elderly evacuees explodes near Dallas. Some two dozen people are dead.

And, in New Orleans, an early storm surge sends floodwaters pouring through a levee, once again drowning an already devastated district of the city.


As Rita relentlessly moves towards its target area, here are the latest developments we're following right now. It's just dropped down to a Category 3, but Rita is still a major hurricane. It's expected to come ashore early in the morning, somewhere between Galveston, Texas, and the Louisiana border. Storm warnings are in effect along a much broader area, stretching literally hundreds of miles.

The outer bands of the storm are already enough to reflood the badly damaged Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Water has been surging over and through a levee first breached by Hurricane Katrina. Say a prayer for Texas. That's the plea from the governor, Rick Perry, as officials warn that the city of Port Arthur could be submerged under a 20-foot storm surge.

And President Bush is now on his way to his home state, where he'll review storm preparations. He was briefed on Rita during a visit to FEMA headquarters here in Washington. Later, the president will monitor Rita's approach from Northern Command headquarters in Colorado.

Mass evacuations with millions on the road, one city partly under water again, with others now fearing floods. Rita is ready to pick up where Katrina left off and then perhaps some additional situation for everyone in the area.

Our meteorologist Jacqui Jeras is standing by. She's at the CNN Hurricane Center. CNN's Gary Tuchman is in Port Arthur. He's watching the situation.

But we begin with our Mary Snow. She's in New Orleans, where the flooding has returned.

Mary, what's the latest?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Industrial Canal is right behind me, if you can see it. We're getting a little break in these outer bands of the storm, and we could possibly focus in.

For several hours now, water has been gushing into the Lower Ninth Ward. That is where the levee, the Industrial Canal levee, breached, and water has been flowing pretty rapidly into that area. If you remember, Wolf, when we were in the Lower Ninth Ward just a few days ago showing you the damage, that is that same area where it's being flooded right now.

This happened as rain started picking up. And we are being joined right now by Stephen Browning of the (AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: All right, it looks like we have lost our connection with Mary Snow. We're going to try to repair that, go back to Mary as soon as she's available.

But the weather situation clearly deteriorating in New Orleans, and, in fact, that's going to be a normal situation over the next few hours.

Perhaps Mary is back with us. Mary, are you there?

SNOW: Yes. Yes.


BLITZER: All right. Mary, are you there?

SNOW: OK. I'm here. Wolf, can you hear me OK?

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead. Why don't you pick up where you left off/


We're with Stephen Browning of the Army Corps of Engineers. He's just been updating us.

Tell us, there are two areas you are telling us where water has been overtopping levees, correct?


We have water that has overtopped this temporary levee here in this area. And we have water near the sea land container area that an expedient levee has been overtopped. SNOW: How bad -- we can see the flooding with our own eyes. This sea land container area that you're talking about here in the Ninth Ward, right, the upper Ninth Ward...

BROWNING: That's correct.

SNOW: How bad is the flooding there?

BROWNING: It's similar to this. It looks very, very dramatic in the photographs. But we have here placed a lot of aggregate material, stone, that has been overtopped and the fine materials washed away.

So, we don't have a breach of our levee. We have overtopped the levee and water is moving into an area that was previously flooded and has been evacuated. We don't anticipate damage in the area or in the other area beyond what was already flooded in the earlier Katrina storm.

SNOW: Engineers had been anticipating flooding all along.


SNOW: But the engineers I was speaking to did not anticipate that it would happen this early on. They were looking at forecasts of rain over several days. Are you worried -- how worried are you that this is happening so soon?

BROWNING: Well, we had put in a temporary levee for seven feet. The storm surge rose to 7.8 feet. So, we overtopped these two levees.

I feel confident that the levee system in the rest of New Orleans is going to be safe, that the city in those areas that have not been flooded will be safe. And we don't see any current distress of levees, based on our assessments right now.

SNOW: Thank you so much for the update, Stephen Browning.

BROWNING: My pleasure.

SNOW: Of the Army Corps of Engineers.

BROWNING: My pleasure.

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

BLITZER: Do they know, Mary, if there are any people in that Ninth Ward?

SNOW: I spoke to the commander of the 82nd Airborne unit, who was here earlier today. He had people over there. And he said that it is believed that there are no residents.

If you remember that damage, no one is living over there. There had been search teams going door to door in an effort to recover bodies. They were evacuated as early as yesterday.

BLITZER: Mary, we will be checking back with you.

Mary Snow is on the scene in New Orleans.

Is another city about to drown? The top emergency management official in Texas says the state faces catastrophic damage. He expects a battering by hurricane-force winds for some 16 straight hours and says a storm surge topping 20 feet could put the entire coastal city of Port Arthur under water.

CNN national correspondent Gary Tuchman is joining us now live from Port Arthur via videophone.

This is a relatively nice-size city, about 50,000 or 60,000 people. Is that right, Gary?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, 56,500 people, to be exact. And I would venture to say that about 56,490 of those 56,500 people are gone. I have never seen an evacuation like this ever in covering a hurricane. This is a ghost town because the predictions here are of dire and doom.

Now, I do want to say, we don't know yet if it's hyperbola. We don't know if it's going to be as bad as they say. But police and fire and emergency officials here in Port Arthur, Texas, have told everyone you must get out, because not only the area we're standing, the seawall -- this is a 14-foot seawall we are standing, next to the Sabine Lake. They are saying that this seawall will be gone. And we don't doubt that for a second.

But they're also saying this entire city is likely to be under 20 feet of water, as you just said. And so everyone is gone, including all the police and fire personnel. They've evacuated inland to the town of Lumberton. So, there is no emergency people here anymore. There are almost no residents that we have seen. There are some members of the news media covering the story.

But we can tell you here that they are expecting catastrophic results from this hurricane. Yesterday, we saw amazing traffic jams on the highways in Louisiana. Louisiana is only a couple of miles away from here. And heading east towards New Orleans, we saw bumper- to-bumper traffic for about 65 miles between Lake Charles and Lafayette, people trying to get away from this area.

So, the good news is, people have evacuated. The bad news is they may -- and we emphasize may -- have nowhere to come back to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Gary, stand by.

You'll want to listen to this.

The mayor of Port Arthur, Oscar Ortiz, is joining us on the phone right now.

Mr. Mayor, thanks very much for joining us. Where are you?

Mayor? Mayor Oscar Ortiz, it's Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Can you hear me?

All right. Hold on. We're going to try to get the mayor on the phone.

Gary, if you can still hear me, you are saying virtually everyone is out of Port Arthur. But I see you in Port Arthur. Our viewers are obviously going to ask the question, what's going on with you and your crew.

TUCHMAN: And a great question. We have a good answer. We have five members of our team here. And we all stick our heads together and deliberate what to do. And our job is to cover the best story we can in the safest environment possible. So, it's very likely we will leave. We have a very safe fourth floor perch in a hotel, which would be over any 20-foot flood surge.

But there's a good chance we are going to leave, because there may be a better story where the mayor is, who we hope you get. We believe he's in Lumberton with all the other emergency officials right now, 15 miles to the northwest of here. So, we may end up there with them.

BLITZER: All right, Gary, hopefully, the mayor is on the phone.

Mayor, can you hear me?


BLITZER: All right, good.

So, where you exactly right now? Because our Gary Tuchman is right along the water. And he says your town, your beautiful city of Port Arthur, Texas, is empty.



ORTIZ: Yes. I was just -- I was just on the seawall a few minutes ago with "Good Morning America," doing -- doing a live shot down there. And it's -- the winds are starting to pick up quite heavily here in Port Arthur.

BLITZER: So, has everybody basically gotten out of town?

ORTIZ: Yes. I would say we have evacuated about 95 percent of the town.

I'm just about ready to call a mandatory curfew at 4:00. And the only people that will be allowed in Port Arthur will be those who have credentials for news media or whatever.

BLITZER: What about the elderly, those who were very poor, who don't have cars, those who presumably can't get out on their own? Have you made sure that you have found all these people, you've located them and gotten them out? ORTIZ: I think we did get them out. I can't tell you we did it 100 percent.

But we had something like three C-130s down here that the governor sent down that evacuated a lot of people. We had 16 Greyhound buses the governor sent down and we used.

We made about 75 trips with our own local buses north of Port Arthur, around the Nacogdoches area, where we were hoping to put the in-shelter people up there. So, I think we have done a good job. I don't know of anybody else in Port Arthur. I haven't received any calls about anybody that's in a handicap way that needs help. So, I'm hoping we did get them all.

BLITZER: All right, Mayor, good luck to you. Good luck to everyone in Port Arthur. We are praying for you. And we will be in touch, the mayor of Port Arthur. That could be a direct hit, potentially, of Hurricane Rita, Rita still strong enough to put that city under water, at least potentially.

Let's find out where it's heading right now, the latest forecast.

Our Jacqui Jeras is joining us from the CNN Hurricane Center.

I take it Port Arthur is really, really in harm's way.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, very likely that they will get a direct blow from the eye wall of the storm. Either way, they're going to get hurricane-force winds, we think, at a minimum.

But, right now, they are in one of the worst areas, most vulnerable to take a direct blow from this storm. There has been some weakening with Rita throughout the afternoon hours. We have had some dry air that has been pushing into the system, increased wind shear that's been helping to kind of knock down the western side of the storm.

And notice this satellite image, Wolf. There you can see the eye very well. But, at the end of the image, you can see that it's a little bit more difficult to pick it out. The pressure, however -- we just got a report in from aircraft reconnaissance, and that that has gone up just a little bit. So, even though the storm has weakened and additional weakening is expected, we still cannot rule out that this storm will be a major hurricane at landfall.

So, we still want you to treat this as at least a 3 when it makes landfall. And that puts it in major hurricane status; 190 miles southeast of Galveston, the location for the 2:00 Eastern Time, 1:00 Central Time advisory. And there you can see Port Arthur. The skinny line will be just to the west of there. And if the storm continues on this exact track, you know that the storm surge, Wolf, is just to the east of the eye, where the worst of it will be.

And that storm surge could be anywhere between 10 and 20 feet at landfall, depending how much additional weakening or strengthening that Rita decides to do. And, if this storm does tend to veer off a little bit off to the left -- or to the right, rather, or to the east of the storm, that would put Port Arthur still in some very intense winds, but the storm surge would be lesser. So, that would be the best-case scenario, anyway, for Port Arthur.

We are concerned about what's going to happen after landfall. This storm is huge, about 400 miles across, Wolf. And it's going to start to slow down once it makes its way into northern parts of Texas. Look at the difference. This is 8:00 on Sunday morning. And there you can see Monday morning. It has not moved very much at all for the forecast track. And so rainfall in here could be anywhere between one to two feet over the next, say, two to three days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jacqui, we're going to check back with you -- Jacqui Jeras with the latest from the CNN Hurricane Center.

Time now for Jack Cafferty and "The Jack Cafferty File."

And, Jack, what's going on today?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Favorite expression of Yogi Berra's, deja vu all over again, Wolf, the damaged levees in New Orleans being breached, water once again pouring into that city.

It's hard to imagine how residents of the Ninth Ward, which was the hardest hit by Katrina, feel about seeing their homes once again inundated by floodwater. The lucky ones made it out alive, forced to their rooftops to escape Katrina's rising waters, before eventually evacuating the city. Now it's being flooded again.

Here's the question. In light of the renewed flooding, would you move back to the city of New Orleans? CaffertyFile -- one word -- Read some answers in a half-hour or so.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. We will get back to you very soon. Thank you very much.

With its changing categories and unpredictable path, right now, the only thing certain about Hurricane Rita is the panic it's causing, a lot of panic. Coming up, we will have a live report. We will go to the scene, see what's going on there.

And with Rita closing down some of the country's major oil pipelines, could your gas station, your gas station, no matter where you are in the country today, run out of gas? Our Ali Velshi picking up that part of the story.

Much more from here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.


BLITZER: There's truly a shocking and horrible story we have been covering today over these past several hours.

Before Rita came within reach of the Texas coast, it has already taken a terrible, terrible toll. Early this morning, on a gridlocked highway near Dallas, a bus carrying elderly evacuees from a Houston area nursing home caught fire and then exploded. The local sheriff's department says as many as 24 people on board that bus were killed; 14 or 15 passengers are said to have made it off the bus.

It's believed the explosions came from oxygen tanks used by some of the ailing older passengers.

We are going to get a live report. Our Bob Franken is covering this story. We will go to him shortly for more heartbreaking details.

Like Port Arthur, Beaumont is a low-lying oil and chemical center east of Houston.

Our meteorologist Rob Marciano is there. And he's standing by.

The water rising, I take it, already in Beaumont, which is a nice-size city of more than 100,000 people.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, it's part of that golden triangle. It's Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange. They are spread apart like a triangle right on the border of southeast Texas, and, as you mentioned, a big oil community, especially for shipping.

Behind me, you see the Neches River, which right now is flowing out, as it typically would be, especially with the help of a northeast wind, which we expect to change. And that will change beginning later on tonight and tomorrow. You can see a bridge obviously and some shipping vessels off in the distance, moored very, very tightly to the docks.

We will have to see what happens tomorrow when the waters do begin to rise. And they will begin to rise, because this storm is forecasted to make landfall to the west of here, which means we will get that big, big storm surge, the same sort of storm surge they saw in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Latest word out of the Lake Charles National Weather Service was relayed to me by a local meteorologist over there. And they think that the storm surge now here in the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange area, up these rivers, will easily get to 20 feet.

So, that is -- that is a very intimidating statement, to say the least. And, of course, we are not going to be here when that happens. Over across the border in Lake Charles, across the Sabine River, across Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, where there's a lot of low land, easily flooded, they think the water there will inundate Lake Charles, maybe as much as 10 to 16 feet, and get all the way up to the I-10 Corridor.

So, you really have to get away from the coastline to be safe from this storm with -- even though it has weakened in intensity, we have to remember back to Hurricane Isabel two years ago. It was a Category 5, made landfall and pushed water up the Potomac and up the Delaware and flooded the Baltimore area, after making landfall as a Category 2.

But it flooded like a Cat 5. Katrina was a Cat 5, decreased to a 4, but certainly had a storm surge equal to above the Category 5 storm of Hurricane Carla. So, we have to anticipate, Wolf, seeing a storm surge here of a Category 5, even though this storm seems to be weakening, may come on land only as a 3, possibly less. But that water is going to rise into these areas, very low-lying.

And I also hate to say this also, Wolf, that this area really hasn't seen a whole lot of action hurricane wise in the past several years and some would say they are due. We certainly hope that the damage will be minimal when this thing comes on shore later on tonight and tomorrow.

That's the latest from Beaumont, Texas -- Wolf, back over to you.

BLITZER: Rob, you do have an evacuation route for yourself and your crew, right?

MARCIANO: Well, the plan is fluid. And after getting that latest information from the Lake Charles National Weather Service, we are going to probably push probably a little bit farther north, yes.

But you know what's different about this storm, compared to all other storms. Because everybody has left, everything is closed down. We had a hard time getting rations for ourselves, because there's nothing open. Everybody has left town. Hotels are hard to come by as well. So, it is very possible that, in order to find a place that is safe from the surge and safe from the wind, we may very well all be hunkered down in some brick building, a firehouse somewhere north of I-10.

BLITZER: All right.

MARCIANO: So, I don't have a definite answer for you. All I can tell you is that we are going to be safe, rather than on the air. So, if you don't see us here tomorrow, it's because we're seeking cover -- back to you.

BLITZER: Better be safe than sorry.

Hey, Rob, thank you very much. Thank your crew for us, your producers and your camera crew as well.

We're just getting this information from our sources over at the White House. The president of the United States, George W. Bush, has decided to cancel his stopover in San Antonio, Texas -- he was on the way from Andrews Air Force Base aboard Air Force One -- because, apparently, it was determined his very presence in his home state of Texas could upset some of the planning, could take away some of the resources that were needed.

And, as a result, he's now heading to Colorado, directly to Colorado Springs, the home of the Northern Command, where he's going to monitor the response to Hurricane Rita. We will get some more information on specifics for you. But he's apparently going to skip over Texas and move on to Colorado right away. We will get some specific details, update you on that.

Hurricane Rita is already having a tremendous impact on the energy industry.

Our Ali Velshi is tracking that part of the story. He has the bottom line. He's joining us from New York -- Ali.


Right now, we are looking at oil. It's closed at $64.19, down $2.31, because the worst of it seems to be over for the traders, who have anticipated a big hit to the refineries. But, Wolf, the fact is -- you see the pictures there -- this storm is coming in and it still could do damage. The damage to the refineries may not be as bad as some predicted.

However, here's what we have from the Department of the Interior: 99 percent of all oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is now shut down. A lot of that is refinery production. That's the gas -- the oil that goes into the refineries, comes out as gasoline. That's five million barrels a day of oil that's not being produced into gasoline.

I want to show you how that's affecting everybody across the country. We have a map that we can show you of four major pipelines. There are many of these pipelines, but four major pipelines that take oil from the Texas area to other parts on the country.

On the left, the one that goes to Cushing, Oklahoma, that's shutting down. The Explorer goes all the way to Chicago. That takes 10 percent of the Midwest's refined products, diesel, jet fuel and gasoline, to Chicago to be distributed, and two lines going to New York. The Explorer pipeline has been shut down for safety reasons to protect it.

The other pipelines, we have talked to the companies. They are saying they don't have enough product to push through it. This, of course, is going to start to affect people trying to get gas. Now, we have seen in Houston that people have been having trouble getting gas, Houston and areas north in Texas.

We heard from the acting FEMA director just a few minutes ago, David Paulison. Here's what he had to say about action that FEMA is taking, the government is taking, to protect fuel supply in Texas.


DAVID PAULISON, ACTING FEMA DIRECTOR: We have already moved some fuel into the state of Texas; 7,500 gallons of diesel fuel, we moved in last night and also several tankers full of fuel. And the Department of Defense is also standing by ready to move fuel in if we need it.


VELSHI: And we have talked to ExxonMobil. They are saying that they are working with officials to operate out of their north Houston terminal, so that first-responders have access to fuel as they need it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Ali. We will be getting back to you shortly.

Hurricane Rita, just updating once again, downgraded, but it should not be underestimated. Coming up, we will go live to the National Hurricane Center for the latest forecast.

And, for many evacuees, it's difficult enough getting out themselves, but one woman hoped to evacuate literally hundreds of cats and dogs. She'll tell us what happened. I will speak with her.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: A major hurricane, a hurricane Category 3, Hurricane Rita.

The governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, is briefing reporters.

Let's listen in.


GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA: Ninety percent or more of our citizens who were subject to mandatory evacuations have been evacuated.

Rita remains a very dangerous storm. Her winds are strong. The storm surge will be high. We have already seen what the edges of this storm are doing to New Orleans. Rita is driving waters over or through one of the levees damaged by Katrina. While we are prepared for Rita, we still have plenty of personnel and equipment in New Orleans to care for any people who need help or rescue.

I have been briefed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers within the hour. They are working on the needed repairs. Regarding building -- or rebuilding -- New Orleans, we have to think of one thing primarily before we can even imagine a rebuilt New Orleans. We have to think about building a safe New Orleans.

Our plans to rebuild New Orleans include building stronger and higher levees to protect all of the city's neighborhoods. We have asked the federal government to make this a top priority.

As Rita closes in on us, I am thankful that so many people have evacuated. But I know there are still people who choose not to do so. If you have not evacuated, it is probably too late for you to do so because the weather is becoming very unstable.

And you need to find safe -- a safe place to be. It is not safe to find yourself stranded on the highway. Get to the highest ground or the highest building in your area that you know of. Call your local authorities if you need rescue.

We are ready on the edge of the storm, ready to respond with boats, helicopters and heavy equipment. What we are calling Task Force Rita is now staged on the edge of the storm. We have deployed more than 4,000 members of the National Guard, and their equipment. They are from Louisiana and from other states. They are in Oakdale ...

BLITZER: All right. We're going to break away briefly from Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana to go right to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Ed Rappaport joining us now. Ed, thanks very much. Give us the latest, specific information on what you have on Rita.

ED RAPPAPORT, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Rita is now a Category 3 hurricane. The weakening trend we saw start almost a couple of days ago now where it went from 5 down to 4 has continued.

We think that trend will persist but there aren't many hours left until landfall, landfall likely tomorrow around daybreak local time, so 15 hours or so. We do expect it to come ashore as a significant hurricane, even if the weakening trend persists.

BLITZER: What do you expect for Port Arthur, for Beaumont, for Galveston, for Houston, some of those major areas in Texas?

RAPPAPORT: That will depend on the details of the track, and we don't know those quite yet. We don't know which county and which parish in Louisiana will get the worst of the weather, in part because as the storm comes up toward the northwest and turns more to the north, there can be some deviation in track.

And even if there isn't much of an error in the track, there are always wobbles along the track, which makes it difficult to say which area is going to have the worst. But at the moment if the forecast holds, the worst of the weather will be in the Port Arthur, Beaumont to Lake Charles area with Galveston and Houston on the west side which will make it a little bit less weather there.

And that's important, nut if we have one of these wobbles off to the left by about 50 miles, then actually, the worst of the weather would go into Galveston and Houston.

BLITZER: Well, New Orleans clearly to the east of that line that you just drew, already some of the water beginning to come into that already ravaged city. What do you expect the situation for New Orleans to be in the coming hours?

RAPPAPORT: Yes, New Orleans is well off to the east. We switch to another view here. This is a radar view which shows where the rain is occurring. Here's the coast of Louisiana, and here's New Orleans, nearly 300 miles away from the center of the hurricane. But because the storm is so big, we can see the outer rain bands coming across the area.

That's what's dropping the rain which could be three to five inches in total. And that's being propelled by showers that are moving from east to west with a strong east wind, tropical storm force and at least been some gusts. It's also pushing the water up, so we think the water will rise to on the order of three, four, maybe five feet, particularly late tonight where it will be timed with high tide. It'll be a little bit before local midnight.

BLITZER: Ed Rappaport, we'll be checking back with you. Thank you very much. Ed Rappaport with the National Hurricane Center. Let's immediately go back to Baton Rouge. The governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco.

BLANCO: ... police, deputies, firefighters and other government workers. Now the rules only cover overtime. But many of our parishes and municipalities have next to no revenue and cannot pay the base salaries of vital workers. My request would allow these folks to be paid. It's the only way that we can re-establish government or re- establish ourselves in the affected parishes.

On the housing front, I have asked Admiral Allen and FEMA to implement a clear plan for our citizens to move out of shelters, to move into the houses of in-laws or friends, but also in cases where that is not possible to help them move into hotels and homes here in Louisiana.

I support the president's goal of moving everyone out of shelters within 30 days. And certainly, because we had so many people still in shelters, our evacuation for Rita was much more difficult than a normal evacuation usually presents.

I have asked Rita -- I've asked FEMA -- excuse me. I've asked FEMA to secure hotels and motels for our evacuees to -- into places where we can provide them with complete services from healthcare and education to child care and transportation. We have done this with cruise ships. We can do it with hotels, and I've asked them to do it immediately.

The announcement from HUD and Homeland Security today about rental assistance and housing vouchers may certainly address the needs of our friends in Alabama and Mississippi, but it does little for Louisiana citizens who want to come home. And we'd like our citizens to be able to come to Louisiana for this interim period.

Katrina decimated our housing stock and what was left in the area has been bought or rented. Therefore, with no housing available, vouchers do very little for our evacuees. Vouchers don't give people a way back home to Louisiana.

So I have again asked Admiral Allen and FEMA to speed up the purchase of hotels and motels where we can provide complete services for our evacuees, and they can begin to feel whole. It's very difficult to live in shelters under the conditions that they've found themselves.

I've also asked FEMA to dramatically speed the delivery of trailers for our transitional communities. The path that I have outlined, moving our people from shelters or the homes of in-laws or friends and into hotels and transitional trailer communities here in Louisiana, gives our people hope, gives them a clear path that they can see, a path that will get -- help them ...

BLITZER: All right. Unfortunately, we've lost that connection with the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco. We're going to try to get back to it and work on that. But the governor of Louisiana clearly has a major, major problem on her hands once again. That entire Louisiana coast in danger right now from Hurricane Rita.

We're going to go back live to Texas, to Galveston specifically. It was destroyed by another hurricane a century ago this month. We'll show you why it's now a virtual ghost town. Much more of our special coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.


BLITZER: It's pretty frightening right now. Hurricane Rita threatening the Texas coast, the Louisiana coast. Vice Admiral Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard, the point man for the federal government, in Louisiana, briefing reporters.

VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, DIR. OF FEMA'S KATRINA RELIEF: ... or capability to 15. I am coordinating with the Department of Defense in regards to that. And we will provide -- be providing response back to the governor shortly.

That's all the update I have. We'd be glad to take any questions you have or refer them back to our personnel that are up here on the stage with us.


QUESTION: This is for Brigadier General Grisoli. I'm curious, could you give us an update on New Orleans? Not only the Industrial Canal, tell us where other seepage is happening or leaks are happening, how deep the water is also in the Industrial Canal and how fast it's going in.

BRIG. GEN. WILLIAM GRISOLI, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: OK, sure. Before I get started, though, I'd like to say, obviously, it's disappointing to the Corps, but not totally unexpected. What's happening right now -- because we knew we had weakened levees. What's happening in the Industrial Canal is that we were able to repair in three weeks up to about a seven-foot level. So we knew that we had protection to seven foot for the Ninth Ward area.

The expected surge was three to five feet as of this morning. But as you know right now, we're experiencing seven-plus, and so we're experiencing overtopping into the Ninth Ward. And that's what you're seeing there. And then also on the West Bank, you're also seeing some overtopping there and some seepage along the West Bank of the Industrial Canal.

BLITZER: A major disappointment in New Orleans. The water beginning to come back in over the past several hours. We're going to go back to that briefing. But let's go from Baton Rouge over to Texas. Between Galveston and the Louisiana borders, it's Kemah. It's a small town. While waves are already crashing there, some residents are still refusing to leave.

Our chief national correspondent John King is on the scene for us. He's joining us now live via video phone. John, give us a little flavor. What's happening where you are?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, imagine the Santa Monica Pier. We are in the East Texas version of that. This is Kemah, as you said. Behind me, on this shore, though you can't quite see it but we have some video fed in, there's an amusement park right on the pier. Out in the ocean in front of me, Galveston Bay is in front of me. We're about equal distant. Galveston is about 30 miles out that way, Houston about 27 miles over my shoulder to the left.

This is Galveston Bay, and the waters are now getting choppy. Not quite any bad conditions yet, but we're beginning to get splashed up here on the boardwalk. Behind me, there are some expensive beach homes up in the stretch. We drove through that community a bit earlier. Already some minor flooding, very minor flooding. Most of the homes are up on stilts, but already, some water building up.

Most people here think the storm is going to pass significantly to the east and that flooding will be their own major problem. But the town is almost all deserted, most complying with the mandatory evacuation order. We met one man, though, Kevin Hemphill (ph), he's here to protect his home. He said he was worried about looting if he left. He says he has a weapon and plenty of ammunition. To quote Kevin Hemphill, "this will not be like New Orleans."

Most of the stores are closed. There's nowhere to get gas anywhere nearby. We did find one small convenience store open. And there we met a number of people who had returned home. They hit the road yesterday, getting on the evacuation routes. One woman we spoke to, Jennifer Cohen (ph), said after 12 hours (INAUDIBLE) not far at all, she had gone maybe 15 miles, she decided to turn back because she had only a quarter tank of gas left. Her husband and two children in the car. They decided to make it back here at least to be home when the storm hit.

Again, Wolf, the conditions now beginning to get a bit more violent. Still cloudy. No rain just yet. But in the last hour or two, the white caps getting more significant, the waves beginning to crash over onto the boardwalk. Certainly, there will be some flooding here -- how significant remains to be seen.

Most homes boarded up. But we are in a very low-lying area. I'm (INAUDIBLE) 15 feet above sea level, where I am now. The homes over there, some of them quite expensive, are a bit lower. So we're waiting to see just what the storm brings up Galveston Bay -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do they anticipate, John -- because the waters seem pretty choppy right now and it's only going to get worse in the coming hours, that that boardwalk where you are is going to be underwater?

KING: This will be underwater in a matter of hours, according to the locals. What they tell us is the basic guide is look at the conditions in Galveston when it comes to the tides and the rains and add five hours. It takes about four or five hours, they say, for the conditions in Galveston to reach here. They have had a hurricane in the past. Hurricane Alicia came right up the center of this bay, the locals say. They don't think that will happen this time, based on the forecast. It's supposed to come ashore significantly to the East.

But certainly, with the conditions like this already and water building up, the waves building up, the choppiness building up significantly just in the past hour or so -- you see splashes over here. The water is beginning to come in, hit the boardwalk, get into the parking lot. Certainly, there will be minor flooding. The worry here is that there will be quite significant flooding. Some winds picking up as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John King in Kemah, Texas. John, please be careful over there. Thank you very much.

I want to immediately go to CNN's Zain Verjee. She's at the CNN Center in Atlanta. You're watching a developing story, Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is just coming into us in Atlanta, Wolf. The governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, has ordered the closing of all public schools across the state of Georgia. The schools are going to be closed for two days on Monday and on Tuesday. The reason is, essentially, to save fuel. An estimated 250,000 gallons of fuel is going to be saved, just apparently by the school buses themselves.

Clearly, Wolf, this being done in response to the shortage of fuel that's anticipated by Hurricane Rita. So once again, the governor of Georgia Sonny Perdue is saying that on Monday and on Tuesday next week, all public schools across the state of Georgia will be closed.

BLITZER: All right. Very disturbing development. Zain, thank you very much. We're going to get back to you very soon. Lots more of our special coverage on Hurricane Rita.

The pets that are being left behind. We'll talk to a woman caring for 300 cats inside a Texas shelter, where she intends to ride out the storm.

Plus, New Orleans flooding again. Would you move back to that city? It's our question this hour. Jack Cafferty's been going through your email. He'll join us.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: There are a lot of people who simply say they won't evacuate. They won't leave, because they're concerned about their pets that might have to be left behind. And amid the scary scrimmage out of Houston, my next guest says, many of those evacuees are leaving their pets behind. She's not happy about that. Wydell Dixon is caring for 300 cats. She won't leave without them, so she and the cats are going to try to ride out the storm. Wydell is joining us now from the Whiskerville Animal Sanctuary in Texas City. Wydell, thanks very much. Tell our viewers what's going on where you are?

WYDELL DIXON, WHISKERVILLE ANIMAL SHELTER: Actually right now, as far as the weather's concerned, we're starting to get some decent very, very high winds. We have had a lot of concern from people, mostly out of state, about what we're doing here. We're not doing this to be heroes. We're doing it because we have no place to take 300 cats.

BLITZER: So how do you make sure you can protect those cats in this kind of environment?

DIXON: Well, what we did, we're actually in a very sturdy, very historical building that is made totally out of concrete. We have boarded up with 3/4 plywood. And we're -- actually, we'll take about four feet of water before it even starts entering the building, if -- we are definitely going to get some water.

BLITZER: What about power? What happens if you lose power?

DIXON: Well that is one of the pleas that we have made that has not come through for us. We've asked for a couple of generators, and it just hasn't happened. They have -- you know, a lot of people have tried. It just hasn't happened.

BLITZER: Whose cats are these, these 300 cats? These are just cats that people leave with you?

DIXON: Well, actually, a lot of them are rescues, but I'll tell you that we have really, really, really caught a bunch of trouble in the last few days. People actually cussing at us, because we cannot take their pets. But most of these guys are rescues, yes.

BLITZER: Well you've got an assignment there. Wydell, good luck to you. Good luck to everyone helping you, and good luck to those cats as well. Wydell Dixon is the founder of the Whiskerville Animal Sanctuary in Texas City. We'll watch that story as well. We keep hearing from a lot of people that they won't leave if their cats aren't going with them or their dogs or their other pets.

Let's check back with CNN's Jack Cafferty. He's been going through your e-mail -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: I got a houseful of those critters, dogs and cats, and I can understand completely not being willing to leave and leave them behind. They are as important to me as most of the people in my life.

The question we're asking this hour, Wolf, is in light of the renewed flooding. Would you move back to the city of New Orleans? A lot of you have written in a whole bunch of different ideas on this.

Carol in Los Angeles says, of course I'll move back to New Orleans. The levees will be fixed. We'll be stronger than before making New Orleans safe to live in once again. If Katrina hadn't hit, no one in New Orleans would have thought twice about Rita, except for a little rain. We Cajuns are too stubborn to stay away from the motherland for too long.

Bill in Dickson, Tennessee, writes, I wouldn't move back to New Orleans in its present location. If the rubble were bulldozed and burned and aloud to become lake New Orleans, I'd would move to a new New Orleans built farther inland above sea level.

Chris in Michigan writes, not only would I not move back, I don't want our resources used to rebuild that area. Better to put our tax dollars to work building those folks housing in a higher, safer location.

Luis in New York, no way. Come on, How would anyone in their right mind ever want to come back to that unpredictable area of the United States. Idaho sounds pretty good right now.

And Scott writes, I lived in New Orleans for 30 years. Hurricane Katrina took my home, my job and my dogs. I will never set foot in that city again. There are far too many bad memories there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I feel bad for Scott and all those people there. Thanks very much, Jack. We'll get back to you very soon.

We're also live in Rita's target area and we're tracking this storm. Still ahead, the latest from New Orleans, where water unfortunately is again rising sooner than expected.

And we'll take you to Houston, where the evacuation took a deadly turn, and where those who haven't fled are hunkering down. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Hurricane Rita, it's moving closer and closer and closer toward Texas and Louisiana. We're beginning to get the feel of it right away. We're going to go back to our live reporters on the scene. But it's almost time for the markets to close. The closing bell. Let's check the latest situation. Our Ali Velshi is standing by in New York -- Ali.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have a lot of things going on today, Wolf, obviously. Oil is closing down much lower. $64.19 is the price for a barrel of crude, because people are betting that things are not as bad as they thought it was going to be.

Now the refineries are closed. Fifteen refineries in Texas are closed. These are the biggest refineries in the country, including ExxonMobil's Baytown, 500,000 gallons a day-plus. We may have a map to show you of that. But there are 15 Texas refineries, plus four in New Orleans, which were closed as a result of Katrina. They were damaged by Katrina. Nineteen adding up to 5 million barrels of oil that are going through the system -- not going through the system and becoming gas.

Now let's also talk about production. Ninety-nine percent of oil production is shut down in the Gulf of Mexico. And I'll take -- I'll show you where some of those rigs are and platforms. I don't know why it's not 100 percent. It's something that the government says, 99 percent. Somewhere there's 1 percent of oil coming in from the Gulf. But they are shut down. Those are the platforms and rigs in the western part of the Gulf of Mexico in Rita's track. Now the other thing that we're going to be feeling is the fact that those products, the oil that goes into those refineries and gets refined, those refined products, jet fuel, diesel and gasoline go out on major pipelines. And those are the pipelines, the major ones that are being effected by this. There's one goes all the way up from the Gulf to Chicago. That's called the Explorer Pipeline. It's been shut down to protect it from damage, so that when Rita passes gasoline, diesel and things like that can go to the Midwest. Ten percent of the distillants and refined products that go to the Midwest go through that pipeline. Other pipelines are being shut down, because there's just not enough to put into them.

All of this is having very little impact on the market right now. The Dow is basically flat as it prepares to close. Right now unchanged, the Dow is at 10,421 points as it closes. The NASDAQ is up about one-third of a percent to 2,118. And the S&P is also flat around 1,216 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ali, thank you very much. We'll get back to you.