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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Hurricane Katrina Batters Gulf Coast

Aired August 28, 2005 - 20:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)
FREDRICKA WHTIFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN Center and barring other breaking news we are all Katrina, all the time at this hour. It is a big storm and literally millions of people will be battered, displaced, uprooted, or at the very least, soaked by this huge hurricane. Hear is the latest information.

Katrina is a Category 5 hurricane. For those who measure the destructive power of the weather, there is no stronger category. When Katrina crashes ashore, and it will, it will be only the fourth Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. mainland since record-keeping began.

The most likely scenario is the worst one for residents of New Orleans, a direct hit on the city which is six feet below sea level. We're keeping a close watch on what Hurricane Katrina is doing and this information just coming in from the National Hurricane Center. A new advisory, our Jacqui Jeras is in the Weather Center with the latest on what Hurricane Katrina is doing and how powerful it continues to be. Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Fredricka, it's starting to pull up to the north, that's the big change that we're seeing here and the advisory at this time and so we're seeing the northwardly pull and it's going to moving in, we think, over the next less than 12 hours now before landfall. The winds have also dropped just a little bit. They are down to 160 miles per hour.

Still a Category 5 storm. This could be a 4 or a 5 when it makes landfall so those are the two big changes, winds down just a little bit, we've got a new update, also, on the position of this. It is about 130 miles away from the mouth of the Mississippi River and Dave Hennin (ph) putting a track on it for us to New Orleans, about 176 miles.

Here are the statistics. The latitude and longitude, if you're tracking this from home, there is the change in the direction the storm is moving north northwest at 11 miles per hour. We should see a little bit more of a turn, even almost due north, we think, later into the forecast period. We do have tornado warnings also that have just been issued. Baldwin County and Mobile County in southwestern Alabama. There you can see the storm of concern. If you can see that cone right there, this is the area that we're worried about for rotation.

There you can see a few of the cities that are going to be included. Baldwin, Escambia, George Greene, Harrison, Jackson, Mobile, Perry, Stone and Washington. That's actually the tornado watch. The warning is just for Baldwin and Mobile. A couple of the cities, Ft. Morgan, this is heading toward the east end of Dauphin Island and Ft. Gaines and also Sand Island about 7:15 p.m. There you can see those when the warning does expire. This is moving northwest at 35 miles per hour so very strong rotation indicated on Doppler radar, so possible tornado.

We do have a watch in effect across eastern Louisiana, lower parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and into the panhandle of Florida. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: All right. Jacqui Jeras, thank you so much. We've got folks all along the Gulf coastal area. Our John Zarrella is at the Superdome in New Orleans, one of the 10 shelters set up in the city. CNN's David Mattingly is also monitoring the situation in the Big Easy, but first let's go to John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Fredricka.

Well, this - the good news here now is that they have gotten just about everybody inside. Earlier this afternoon there was a line of 2,000 people outside, many who have been in line upwards of six hours waiting to get in. There were already 10,000 people inside. So the estimate we had, obviously, about 12,000, they believe they could hold up to about 20,000 people inside the Superdome if necessary.

The problem, of course, is that there are a lot of people that have nowhere to go in the city. This is the shelter of last resort, a refuge of last resort. They don't have the means to get out of the city so they came here, buses were set up at specific locations to pick them up and bring them here.

Authorities told us that there are a couple of reasons why it took so long to get all the people in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (video clip): It's going to be very unpleasant. We're not in here to feed people, we're in here to see that when Tuesday morning comes, that they are alive, and they're going through an intensive search because we've got a major security issue so the reason you have the lines is everyone one of these bags these people are hauling in here and that's why we've asked the public to limit what they're bringing, because if they bring it here, it's going to be searched.

ZARRELLA: Now, there's still people showing up periodically. A few people, stragglers coming in. But the long massed line that just started at 12:00 Central Time here is gone. That is the good news. Everyone is inside. The issues they face, of course, are that they expected the field level will go underwater, it will flood with Katrina's floodwaters that it brings so that people will all be up inside the stands. They expect that the power will go out so it is going to be, at the very least for these people, uncomfortable.

But as some people are saying, you know what? It's a heck of a lot better than the alternative. Fredricka? WHITFIELD: Right. And what a sight that's going to be. People sleeping on the bleachers, in the area of the concession stands, but no one will be in the field area you mentioned because of the potential flooding.

ZARRELLA: Exactly.

WHITFIELD: All right, John Zarrella outside the Superdome, which is now, according to one of the new residents there, instead of it being the home of the New Orleans Saints, it is now the home to most of New Orleans.

All right. Now, in other parts of New Orleans, throughout the French Quarter, specifically, our David Mattingly just moments ago was on Bourbon Street where he found an awful lot of residents and tourists who were there to weather out the storm. But David, what is the situation now?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Katrina (sic), we're still on Bourbon Street and what we were looking at earlier was people coming out to the only place that's still open on Bourbon Street. They are getting their last cold drink and probably their last hot meal before this storm comes in. So many people inside were from - they're tourists, they're from New York, they're from Texas, they're from California, they tell me they are unable to get out in time before their flights were canceled. They say they were on (unintelligible) rent a car because the cars were rented so quickly here for people who were trying to get out so they've made arrangements at local hotels to hunker down.

We were just out at these last hours when they knew it was still safe to do what little they can here on this infamous party spot, the part that is so famous during Mardi Gras, very empty right now. But the mayor's office does tell me there is a curfew in effect, it started at 6:00 and will go to 6:00 a.m. in the morning. They also tell me they are very happy with the way evacuations went and if you look at Bourbon Street and look at every place we've been in the French Quarter over these past couple of hours, people are paying attention to this, the fierceness of this storm that is approaching, because it is absolutely dead here and long time residents tell me they have never seen this city so quiet.

Back to you.

WHITFIELD: And David, you were talking earlier while there are still a lot of tourists who have no means to get out. Obviously they don't have - in a lot of cases, rental cars, can't take a flight out, et cetera.

The variety of accommodations there in Downtown New Orleans is quite varied from the four and five story older bed and breakfast hotels to the more skyscraper type hotels. Are any of those hotels making special or taking special precautions because they are getting the okay from the city to accommodate some of those tourists?

MATTINGLY: A lot of these high rise hotels are staying open, they are accommodating the stranded tourists, they're also trying to accommodate the family members of their staff as well, as well as any local residents who might have made reservations, so there's quite a bit of business being done. They're telling everyone who checks in to be prepared for when the lights go out, when we're not able to feed you, when we're not able to take care of you and everyone just make the best of what will probably be a very bad situation.

Here in the French Quarter I was walking around looking at some of the smaller, older hotels. Some of them did seem to have their lights on but when I looked inside, there wasn't anybody in there. Some of the larger ones in the French Quarter are open and they are taking care of their guests. They all have contingency plans, however, when the water starts to come up, to move people to higher levels.

WHITFIELD: All right. David Mattingly in Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Thanks so much.

Well, the entire Mississippi and Alabama coasts are also under hurricane warning tonight. People who live there are a bit more accustomed to hurricane hits but that doesn't mean they are taking this storm in stride.

Our meteorologist, Rob Marciano, is in Biloxi, Mississippi, a couple hundred miles east of New Orleans and the skies are looking dark there and it looks like the wind is picking up just a tad. Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Hi, Fredricka. Yeah, we've been getting squalls every 20 minutes or so for the past couple of hours. We're actually not that far from New Orleans. You know, the drive is probably about 85 miles, it took us a lot longer than an hour and a half to get here today due to the evacuation. It took us six hours to get here today and as the crow flies I would imagine it is even as low as 50 miles to New Orleans.

So, I mean, that's important, given that if New Orleans still looks like it's ground zero, this storm has hurricane force winds that go out over 100 miles from the center. The strongest of which will be right, or east of the center, namely Gulfport, MS, Biloxi, MS, Pascagoula, so right here we could see damaging, damaging winds, and when you have a hurricane of this size and strength, at least in the inner core, it's like an F3 tornado tearing up a town and we saw similar results with Hurricane Charlie that ripped through the western side of Florida last year.

I mentioned there's some squalls coming through. Haven't seen very gusty winds but the winds have been very steady out of the east, indicating that the center of the storm is that way, where the ocean is. The Gulf of Mexico, offshore of Biloxi and the Biloxi beaches. There is a number of barrier islands, a number of barrier islands that break the waves coming in, so we don't have much wave action here, but the storm surge will be significant right at the center and we could easily see 10, 15, maybe as much as 20 foot storm surge when this storm comes onshore later tomorrow so we are going to move from this position for sure in the next couple of hours. Everybody has been forced to evacuate and since 1969 when Hurricane Camille came through as a Category 5. Very close to this very same spot.

People were not forced to evacuate, they were taking it very lightly. They were partying. And a lot of those people lost their lives because of it. They changed the laws to require mandatory evacuation, meaning they can force you out or they can actually - you can sign a release which they say they will use later to help identify your body.

WHITFIELD: Be there at your own risk. Rob, I want to bring in Max Mayfield who is with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

MARCIANO: Okay.

WHITFIELD: Who might be able to put some more perspective on this and Max, you heard Rob explaining that a lot of those cities to the right of the eye, even though it's New Orleans that is being touted as the expected ground zero location.

Those cities to the right are also in danger quite significantly. Why?

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: And I hope Rob understands that tomorrow sometime there is going to be about 20 feet of water or more right where he is standing. And I'm really glad we're talking about the Mississippi Coast because they like to have the high storm surge and the forecast track, this whole area here, would have over 20 feet of storm surge. This is very reminiscent of Hurricane Camille in that area. People really including the media folk really need to get away from the coastline.

WHITFIELD: Hmm. That almost seems like quite the challenge there, right, Rob, because a lot of the crews such as yourself that have made their way on the coastline for you would be particularly dangerous to start making your way overnight as well.

MARCIANO: Well, we have no intention of staying here. Trust me. Once the 9:00 hour Eastern Time wraps up we are packing up and we are moving across the causeway and we're going to hunker down along I-10 in a secure structure. So storm surge should not be a threat here and Max should also rest easy that up and down I-90 here - or Highway 90, the authorities have been on their loudspeakers forcing people out saying this place is going to be flooded. This is not going to be safe. You will drown. So authorities are doing a great job, as well, and Max, we're going to take your advice for sure. We'll be out of here before midnight, don't worry about that.

WHITFIELD: Smart move. Well, Max, explain why this is a rather deceiving time right now, too, because you look at the backdrop of Rob, while you can see just from his jacket there is a little bit of wind and a little bit of rain, it certainly does look awfully picturesque and beautiful back there and a lot of folks see that and feel like, well this storm doesn't seem like it's going to do very much but this rolls in rather quickly, doesn't it?

MAYFIELD: It does.

WHITFIELD: Particularly, it's going to be in the darkness of night.

MAYFIELD: And Fredricka, that difference between the hurricane and like a large winter storm. The winter storm the winds usually come up gradually. In a hurricane, those winds come up very, very rapidly. It may be not blowing that much, and they'll have tropical storm force winds later tonight. They're already getting them in the southeast Louisiana coast, in fact, and eventually they'll spread into the Mississippi coast but then those winds come up very, very quickly, up to 160 miles per hour or whatever we have at landfall and that's when that storm surge will be pushed in and I really do think we'll have over 20 feet of storm surge.

WHITFIELD: All right. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center as well as Rob Marciano there in Biloxi, MS and glad to hear it, Rob, that you all are going to be seeking higher ground and getting out of there within the next couple of hours. Thanks so much to both of you.

Now we want to take you to I-10, a major thoroughfare and you can see the gridlock right there as people make their way out of the New Orleans area, they're not only in some respects heading on I-10 toward Biloxi, as you just saw where Rob is, and Gulfport, MS, but they're also heading northwest to Baton Rouge and this is the scene that you're seeing. They have what they have put into place, what's called contraflow and that means that both lanes are being directed into one direction. In this case you see they are headed north northwest out of the New Orleans area and into Baton Rouge.

More of our continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: By now most of us know that much of New Orleans lies below sea level, about six feet below sea level to be exact. The city is protected by a network of levees, seawalls and floodgates. Emergency officials have long feared a direct hit from a major hurricane could trigger a doomsday scenario, catastrophic flooding and an unprecedented natural disaster.

Here is CNN's John Zarrella.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZARRELLA (voice-over): New Orleans is all about attitude, from its music to its streetcars and riverboats, it oozes charm. It's a city that moves a bit slower, saving its energy to party a little harder. It is also a city that flirts with disaster nearly every hurricane season.

WALTER MAESTRI, JEFFERSON PARISH EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: It's going to happen. We can't continue to beat the odds. We've beaten the odds for a long, long time now.

ZARRELLA: Walter Maestri is the Jefferson Parish emergency manager. Of the 1.3 million people living in metropolitan New Orleans, he is responsible for nearly half a million. Which during the hurricane season leaves him with many sleepless nights. Maestri says he is keenly aware that there is little he can do to keep people from falling victim to a natural disaster or to save his city. The possibilities play out in his mind over and over again.

MAESTRI: And very, very rapidly, within a ten-hour period, you know, the metropolitan New Orleans area is totally devastated, gone.

ZARRELLLA: Several expert studies and computer models show New Orleans even more vulnerable than anyone previously thought. Maestri says levees and flood walls designed to protect the city from moderately intense hurricanes might be overtopped and fail in just such storms.

MAESTRI: The way it is described, we describe it here as Lake Pontchartrain has now become Lake New Orleans.

ZARRELLA: In 1998, Hurricane George brushed New Orleans, going inland to the east in Mississippi. A fairly powerful storm, it was not on the order of Betsy, which in 1965 killed 61 people in New Orleans, flooded the city and led to the construction of the floodwalls. But had it struck, the death toll from George might have been horrific.

MAESTRI: Stop for a second. The greatest disaster that any of us have looked at in the United States was 9/11/2001, about 3,000 people died. 44,000 if George makes the direct hit on New Orleans.

ZARRELLI: Maestri estimates most of the dead would be people who, for whatever reason did not or could not evacuate, left trapped in the city as the water rises. The problem is population has mushroomed, evacuation routes are limited.

And New Orleans is like a bowl. The city sits below sea level, on three sides, there's water. The Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi river. Jackson Square, the cathedral and just about everything else in New Orleans would be under water, 12 to 15 feet of it. In the storm's aftermath water would sit in the city for an estimated six months. Pumps need to get the water out would be themselves under water. And it would take up to 120 days to rebuild them.

In this worst case scenario, Maestri's vision is chilling.

MAESTRI: While we're rebuilding the pumps we're getting everybody who is still in here and who is alive, out and we're gathering the casualties, gathering the fatalities and getting them out of here.

ZARRELLA: Every building in the city having been submerged to one degree or another would have to be structurally analyzed. For months, no drinking water, no sewer system, no electricity. There are ideas and some plans to save New Orleans from this doomsday vision. The levees and flood walls surrounding the city can be raised higher. That would cost billions of dollars and take years to complete. Another thought, wall off a portion of New Orleans. The area behind the barrier would include the government center and the French Quarter. For now, the only hope is to escape the city.

Given the new study, the evacuation order may come even for moderate hurricanes. It will take 72 hours to get 65 to 70 percent of the people out, if everything goes smoothly.

MAESTRI: This is the one agency in government that not only is allowed to pray, it's demanded. We've got calluses on our knees in this business.

ZARRELLA: Divine intervention good fortune, the whims of nature, whatever it is, it is all that separates this city on the Mississippi from Walter Maestri's nightmare. John Zarrella, CNN, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: And Dr. Walter Maestri is the emergency manager for Jefferson Parish. You just saw him throughout John Zarrella's story. The parish is made up of bedroom communities along New Orleans western suburbs. Nearly a half million people live there. He joins me now by phone.

Dr. Maestri, thanks for being with us. You've got a dusk to dawn curfew underway right now throughout New Orleans, a mandatory evacuation underway throughout the entire area. Is it your feeling that no one could possibly not be taking this very seriously, this Hurricane Katrina?

MAESTRI (on phone): No. There's no question this storm is being taken very, very seriously and of course, no question that it is an extremely serious event. This is the nightmare that we described with John Zarrella and this is a nightmare coming to fruition, if you wish.

WHITFIELD: And you - it sounds like you really feel that this is imminent. I mean, it is hard to envision or believe that this city with such historical landmarks and with a history of so many near misses of a direct hit that potentially this Crescent City's luck may have run out. Is that your feeling?

MAESTRI: Yeah. I think what's happened now is given the track that we're seeing, given what we're beginning to experience, there's no question right now that New Orleans is going to take - the metropolitan New Orleans area is going to take a real hit.

I mean, it's going to be significant this time. This is not a glancing blow and in that sense, as you said, we've been extremely lucky now for some 40 years and perhaps it's now time for us to pay the piper.

WHITFIELD: So given this worst case scenario with a 28 foot storm surge expected. By your estimation, how long before that kind of water would be able to recede and you and others with the emergency management agency be able to start assessing the damage there?

MAESTRI: Well, truthfully, it is really going to be determined by the exact angle at which the storm hits the coast, where the surge goes, and what areas it impacts but let me just say, in a storm like this, we have in fact done a series of exercises with FEMA and the last one we did was last year. It was called Hurricane Pam. That exercise model mimics exactly what we see happening now.

In the exercise based on computer modeling and so forth, they felt that to put New Orleans back on its feet we were looking at six to 10 months.

WHITFIELD: And quickly, Dr. Maestri, before I let you go, by the way, we're looking at video that was shot earlier of thousands of people who are lining up outside the Superdome because this is where many people will be taking shelter, some 100,000 people within the New Orleans area don't have any means of transportation and it's believed that some 12,000 people will be taking refuge there in the Superdome as you now try to assess how the city and how the southeastern Louisiana has handled this and looking ahead, do you believe evacuations might have or should have been - should have taken place much earlier than they did?

MAESTRI: No, I don't think so. I think the reality is as you just indicated, that we have somewhere between 100 to 200,000 people who simply do not have adequate means of transportation. Those folks are going to always have trouble evacuating. The amazing thing, the absolutely amazing thing is that of 1,250,000 people in the metropolitan area, it appears tonight that approximately a million have left.

WHITFIELD: Got you.

MAESTRI: And that is the largest evacuation that has ever been envisioned anywhere. We used a contraflow system now for more than 24 hours. We've got people going in four different directions out of the city, contraflowing into other states and so forth and I think what's happened is the citizens, especially with this storm, came to realize this was no longer a joke, it was no longer something to be brushed off, this was the real deal.

WHITFIELD: It is indeed serious business.

Dr. Walter Maestri of the Jefferson Parish Emergency Management Agency. Thank you so much.

MAESTRI: Thank you. Good night now.

WHITFIELD: Good night. And be safe.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to spring into action to help victims of the hurricane. Some advanced teams have already been deployed. For more on that, let's go to CNN's Gary Nurenberg at the FEMA headquarters in Washington and Gary, they've been deployed in Mississippi, in Alabama and in Louisiana. Anywhere else?

NURENBERG: That is the main focus of where the storm is going to hit. It's also the main focus of where FEMA personnel and materiel are tonight. As you know, FEMA is best known for responding to disasters, but its mission includes planning for those disasters, too, and FEMA has been planning for a storm like Katrina for years.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY NURENBERG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): FEMA's national response coordination center has been working 24 hours a day since the middle of the week. At the afternoon video conference of agencies primarily responsible for the government's planning, President Bush said, "Keep at it."

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I want to assure folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property and we pray for no loss of life, of course.

NURENBERG: Planners were told not to expect the storm to weaken and to plan for a full-force Category 5 hurricane to hit land.

MIKE BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: FEMA is not going to hesitate at all in this storm. We are not going to sit back and make this a bureaucratic process. We are going to move fast, we are going to move quick, and we are going to do whatever it takes to help disaster victims.

NURENBERG: Some evacuees arrived in a Washington airport leaving New Orleans barely ahead of the storm.

STEVE ARABIE, NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: I'm concerned about not having anything to go back to. This is a big storm. It's - people are talking about this is the storm that we've talked about hitting us for years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NURENBERG (on camera): And FEMA has been planning for years, the question tonight, Fredricka, is whether those years of preparation will be enough.

WHITFIELD: And we'll soon find out. Thank you so much Gary Nurenmberg outside FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC.

We'll have more coverage of Hurricane Katrina when we come right back but first you're looking at a live picture of this mass exodus taking place outside the New Orleans area. Folks are either heading north or they're heading east on I-10.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: The headlines now, Hurricane Katrina less than 130 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi and spinning at about 165 miles per hour. Forecasters expect Katrina to remain a Category 5 storm and hit New Orleans midday tomorrow.

And President Bush keeping abreast of the storm's northward march and efforts to keep people and property safe. He has spoken to the governors of all states in Katrina's immediate path and with the federal agencies charged with organizing the cleanup work.

Residents of New Orleans and the surrounding communities jammed highways today as they continued to do tonight. They are heeding the mandatory evacuation warnings. Emergency officials are warning of a potentially catastrophic blow from Hurricane Katrina, one that would overwhelm the city's levee system and lead to devastating flooding.

What could be one of the most devastating storms in years has got its sights set on the central Gulf Coast. We're watching Hurricane Katrina. Our Kathleen Koch is in Mobile, Alabama, where mandatory evacuations have gone into effect for some parts of that area and we also have meteorologist Jacqui Jeras in the weather center.

First let's go to Jacqui.

JERAS: Okay, Jacqui. Well, we've seen a little bit more of a turn up to the north. It's moving north northwest. We're not expecting much more of a change in the forecast track, possibly slightly on farther up to the north, still has its sites set in the same areas, so nothing has changed there. We're just starting to see it turn a little bit, the one that we've been expecting.

A hundred and sixty miles per hour. That's our maximum sustained winds. It's a Category 5. Could go down to a 4. We're talking a 4 or a 5 at landfall. And even though those winds have dropped down a little bit from earlier today, it doesn't change a whole heck of a lot. We're still talking about a catastrophic hurricane that is heading near New Orleans.

There you can see the eye or the center of circulation just offshore right now. The feeder bands have been bringing in gusty winds between 20 and 40 miles per hour. Tornado watch in effect across the area, now we've got another tornado warning which has been extended at that one is for Mobile and Baldwin Counties, a possible radar-indicated tornado near Dauphin Island. It's moving up to the north and to the west at this time.

I want to show you quickly just the headlines. The nitty gritty of what you need to know.

Katrina, hurricane force winds probably 155 plus, could be a Category 4, though, a little bit less than that. Landfall 50 mile either side of New Orleans, tomorrow morning, it will likely make landfall before dawn, moving to the New Orleans area likely midmorning. Storm surge, 18-25 feet plus, rain of five to 15 inches, moves inland, hurricane force winds at least 100 miles away from the coastline, flooding then in the Tennessee and Ohio River Valleys so a lot of people being affected, not just those folks on the coast.

Back to you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jacqui, thank you so much. Well, Alabama Governor Bob Reilly declared the official state of emergency today and he issues mandatory evacuation orders for residents of south Mobile County and low-lying areas of Baldwin County.

We find our Kathleen Koch in Mobile, where residents hopefully have heeded the warnings, right, Kathleen?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hopefully so, you know, but still, Fredricka, this city that's normally a city of nearly 200,000 people, those who are left here are literally holding their breaths. If you look at the headline in the morning paper, it really says it all. "Katrina closes in."

So everyone's very concerned and they have been getting ready here for days. The State of Alabama pre-positioning in these two coastal counties of Mobile and Baldwin, National Guard troops also lots and lots of supplies. I'll run down the list, 290,000 bags of ice, 250,000 gallons of water, 652,000 meals ready to eat. 110,000 tarps to cover damaged roofs. So obviously they are preparing for the worst here. They've got 14 rescue teams on station on standby, 26 shelters open across the state. Here in Mobile County alone they've got nine shelters. Already over 1,000 people filling those shelters.

Now a big story today were the roads in and out of here, packed with people who were fleeing New Orleans, heading east. We ran into several people in a restaurant, a couple of families who had just left the New Orleans area, headed to, of all places, Disney World, and they said this was an evacuation that they normally would not make.

RICK CROZIER, DAD (video clip): We live right in the city, yeah. We usually stay. We have all these kids and we just don't like leaving but it's a Category 5 and the wind speed and the fact that we're 20 feet below sea level, it's just too much risk to take.

KOCH: Now here in Mobile, the Mobile Emergency Management Agency has been encouraging people as you said earlier in Zone One, in the most flood-prone areas, to leave. They have a mandatory evacuation. That affects some 56,000 people.

Here where we are, as you can see we're in the downtown area, we're just a couple of blocks from Mobile Bay. This is a less susceptible area but still does often have flooding during storms and what we have is we're in Zone Two and they're encouraging people to leave but it's not mandatory.

Now we are being told that in this area normally during a big hurricane, say, Hurricane George was a very severe one that hit this area back in 1998. They had two to three feet of water here in the downtown area and that storm brought a nine foot storm tide.

They're talking about Katrina bringing a 10 to 15 foot storm tide so obviously, Fredricka, they are very worried of what that could do to the Downtown Mobile area.

WHITFIELD: Sure. And Kathleen, Hurricane George was a Category 2 and now we're talking about at least a Category 4 or potentially 5 with Hurricane Katrina so in a case like this does the city try to put out any kind of temporary barriers to try to protect some of the low- lying areas for this potential storm surge?

You're nodding your head no. KOCH: Fredricka, there's just not much that they can do. There is one of the tunnels under Mobile Bay, they do close that off but this is a very flat area if you've ever visited the coastal area really from New Orleans over to Pensacola, it is a very flat, level area. There is no kind of barrier you can put up and sadly, the spokesman for the Mobile Emergency Management Agency tells me generally fewer than half of the people evacuate. Right now they have a pretty severe case of hurricane fatigue. So a lot of people staying put.

WHITFIELD: Wow. Kathleen, what about areas such as hospitals. In some cities they end up moving a lot of the patients to other facilities as best they can but they can't do so for the more fragile patients. Are you hearing anything about what they're preparing to do there in Mobile?

KOCH: At this point we've got no word of any special actions that they're taking involving the hospitals. They do have some shelters that are specifically set up and designed for people with medical needs, special medical conditions, so they do have special places to treat them.

As far as things, though, that are closing that I haven't mentioned, the airport is already closed here in Mobile. Shutting down - actually has one flight that is going to be taking off in a matter of minutes and then it will be shut down. Pensacola's airport will be shutting down at midnight. Schools won't be operating in this area tomorrow, obviously.

But no word on the hospitals yet at least. Apparently they're fairly safe and they'll be open and functioning.

WHITFIELD: All right. Kathleen Koch, thanks so much, in Mobile, Alabama. Now, back over to Louisiana, the governor there is speaking and talking about the latest assessments. That's Kathleen Blanco.

KATHLEEN BLANCO, LOUISIANA GOVERNOR: ... from past history and experience that we should expect power outages. It may take a number of days to get power back up.

I would suggest that people not try to get back into the city quickly. Keep monitoring the media. I believe that the media has done a magnificent job getting people highly aware of imminent danger.

The next mission will be to guide them in their decision making. It will be a lot less frustrating for you to stay wherever you are then to go home without electricity, without water, supplies. A lot of times water supplies get impeded and then you've got a dangerous situation there.

We are going to have a big coordinated effort with the utility companies trying to get people up as quickly as possible. Trucks are stationed from many other states ready to come in here. We've got a lot of cooperative effort. The National Guard will also be helping to keep as much chaos as possible from occurring but I want people to be smart about this. It's not a good idea to go back into an area where you don't have power. That's a very difficult situation to live with. Your food supplies, everything suffers from that so just be smart about it, be patient and it may take quite a while even to clear the roadways and the streets.

You know that we have beautiful trees, they are big, a lot of power line are brought down because of tree limbs falling on them.

So you may not even be able to travel in your street so be patient, be patient please.

QUESTION: I just want to follow up. You talk about going back to New Orleans but if this storm hits the way they are talking about, a storm of historical proportions like Katrina is expected to be, I wouldn't imagine that anybody could get to New Orelans for weeks, maybe even months.

BLANCO: Well, we hope it's not weeks or months but we know it would be days so that's why I'm asking people to get smart. There'll be numbers that they can call to check on their own personal situation. We will be doing evaluations immediately as the hurricane moves itself out and upward, we are going to have National Guard planes and helicopters looking, doing search and rescue, we hope we can rescue people and that it's not the alternative.

We know we have stubborn people out there so we want them to survive, we want them to be right about it but we're hoping for the best.

QUESTON: Governor, it's very different for people who live in New Orleans or who have family in New Orleans, a lot of them that I've talked to there are terrified and they believe that their homes and their property might be obliterated. What can you stay from the state's standpoint as far as what there will be there after Katrina?

BLANCO: President Bush has called in and expressed his concern to the citizens of Louisiana. He has given us all the aid that FEMA can possibly deliver. Housing can be - temporary housing can be set up, some grants, some low interest loans can be given to people as they help reestablish themselves.

We know that there will be some property losses and I just ask people to be, again, they're going to have to exercise a lot of patience and there will be a lot of frustration and a lot of unhappy people. I am so sorry this is happening to our people, to our state, but this is not something that any one of us can control and it's going to take all of us working together to get to the point of restoration that we'll all be able to live in harmony once again.

QUESTION: Have you talked to Jeb Bush at all about how he handled all those catastrophes there?

BLANCO: I have talked to Governor Bush. He called to express his support and he just says it's very frustrating that you can not alleviate all of the problems. It's just something where cooperative spirit is totally essential. It's absolutely necessary. Florida has been wracked with hurricanes over and over. Just this last year we all saw that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kathleen Blanco, thank you for joining us and I guess her basic message tonight to people looking in across the state. Be safe, be smart, and if you haven't already evacuate. Back to you, George.

WHITFIELD: All right you're looking at live coverage there from Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco that she's pleased with the evacuations as they've been underway thus far but she warns that people still need to be careful, particularly once the storm passes, a lot of the roads will be impassable and dangerous.

Now in Biloxi, MS, just a few miles east of New Orleans, we find our Rob Marciano, where they are already starting to feel some of the effects of those outer bands. The rain is picking up and so is the wind. Rob?

MARCIANO: Indeed. Hi, Fredricka. Yes, we've got a serious squall moving through, Thunder and lightning. You don't see a whole lot of lightning with tropical systems because they are so warm and there is so much horizontal wind flow but we just had a serious storm move through and obviously it's still raining pretty hard. Tornado warning actually out to our south and east.

But what we're seeing right now in Biloxi is squally weather coming through. Could very well be - I don't know what the radar looks like but it could very well be that it's not going to stop raining until tonight.

We've got a pretty good easterly breeze now indicating that the storm is to my left because the wind is at my back and is heading in this general direction, just to our south and west towards New Orleans. That puts us in the right hand side of the system and we talked to a number of folks on the street, a number of emergency managers, police officers, mayors, who say in some cases I almost want the center of this thing to come at us, because they know and they've seen just how bad this right side can be and we are only maybe 50 miles from New Orleans. It's 85 miles to drive here but certainly as the crow flies it's only about 50 miles so with winds in excess of hurricane force outward about 100 or so miles from the center of this storm, even if it goes directly into New Orleans, we're going to get damaging winds here.

The other issue, storm surge. Biloxi has a huge tourism business in the form of casinos and due to state law those casinos have to be floating. So they are floating on the beach in the Gulf of Mexico and it's very possible that as the storm surge comes on tomorrow, some of those casino barges could actually break loose from their moorings and float away.

Right now, though, there are a number of barrier islands out there that help the wave action from getting too severe. As those winds turn onshore tomorrow, we will likely see more battering waves and a higher storm surge. We will be moving from this location, Fredricka, in about an hour and a half. We do not want to fall prey to a similar situation as in Camille, back in 1969, one of only three Category 5 storms ever to hit the U.S. and that took 200 lives of folks who live just down the road about 15 miles because they did not leave and they have changed the law since then, Fredricka, mandatory evacuations here mean mandatory evacuations. It looks like most people are taking that advice.

WHITFIELD: It's a smart move. You all decided to leave. We talked to a police sergeant earlier who said he really does hope that a few people who are kind of stragglers on the beach checking out the scene are among those who leave to because it really is too potentially dangerous to stay, too low lying.

MARCIANO: The water is literally at my ankles here and we are maybe 10 inches above the waterline, so all you need is a storm surge of three or four feet and this area is flooded, four or five feet and certainly Highway 90 is flooded and that will bring sand with it so we're looking at damaging sand pileup and removal that's going to be an issue and with winds of 150 plus in an area that could be as far away as 50 miles, that's going to knock down trees, that's going to take out windows in well-structured buildings.

So we're going to see widespread damage beyond just New Orleans, that's for sure.

WHITFIELD: Right. No one has any business but to stick around there. Thank you so much, Rob Marciano in Biloxi, MS. We'll be checking with you before you pull out of there in the next hour and a half or so and we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Well, welcome back. Nightfall now and many Gulf Coastal towns are already starting to feel the outer bands of Hurricane Katrina. Say, for instance, you're in New Orleans making your way out and that mandatory evacuation order in effect on I-10, for instance, heading toward Baton Rouge. Once you get into Baton Rouge, still, some of those winds and rains are starting to pick up there. Even folks inland in Baton Rouge are starting to feel some of the effects.

Republican Senator David Vitter is in Baton Rouge. He's on the telephone with us now and senator, a lot of folks heading inland thinking that perhaps they can get away from the brunt of the storm even if they make it into Baton Rouge. Explain why that is not going to be the case.

SEN. DAVID VITTER, (R) LOUISIANA (on phone): Well, it is a much safer place to be in Baton Rouge than, say, the Greater New Orleans area so it is a big difference, but certainly we'll feel the effects of the hurricane here as well. Tomorrow it just won't be the devastating effects it may be in Greater New Orleans.

WHITFIELD: Are you encouraging a number of the people who are making their way toward Baton Rouge to continue on their route of I-10 to make it further inland. Would you have the space to accommodate a number of the people, thousands of people who are leaving the New Orleans area?

VITTER: Yeah. Hotels around here are probably full up but a lot of folks are working over time to find hotel rooms for folks as they continue out of New Orleans.

I believe the huge majority of folks who are going to evacuate have done that already. It is really winding down now. The contraflow operations, in other words, turning interstate lanes around to leave out of New Orleans has ended so all the lanes are as they normally are and certainly there are folks on the road getting out still but that is beginning to wind down.

WHITFIELD: How encouraged have you been, how important has it been that the president declared Louisiana among those states declared emergency areas even before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall.

VITTER: It's very important and it's very historic. I believe that's only happened once before, for Hurricane Andrew, for him to act even before landfall and unfortunately it's completely appropriate and justified because unfortunately this by all accounts is going to be a historic storm.

WHITFIELD: So what kind of assistance and aid does this offer your state?

VITTER: Well, the federal component is going to be very important. I just got off the phone with the FEMA director who is here on the ground in Louisiana. Many FEMA teams are here on the ground ready to deploy and so there's going to be an enormous amount of federal assistance to back up the state and local effort as soon as the hurricane blows through late tomorrow and that's very, very important. I'm very happy and impressed so far with the federal response.

WHITFIELD: And what's your greatest concern and perhaps do you anticipate the greatest needs to be what?

VITTER: Well, we just don't know exactly how the Greater New Orleans area is going to come through. This is a devastatingly powerful storm. There will probably be widespread flooding. The winds are going to be enormous. So all we're doing now, all we can do, is deploy resources, including those key federal FEMA resources so that we can respond absolutely as quickly as possible.

WHITFIELD: And senator, once the storm passes by, a great concern, as we heard from the governor a moment ago, that people want to hurry up and get back to their areas to assess any damage but given the size and the scope of this storm upon landfall, a lot of these roads are going to be impassable and just too dangerous.

VITTER: Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: What are you encouraging people to do?

VITTER: Nobody needs to be in a hurry. There are going to be massive electricity outages. There will be large areas flooded so everybody has to be very cautious in terms of dealing with that and coming back.

WHITFIELD: Are you concerned, however, that it's going to be difficult to relay that information because a lot of people are not going to be able to watch television, listen to the radio. Power will be out. How do you get the message out?

VITTER: Well, they will be listening to the radio, battery operated, to the greatest extent possible. Folks that are out of the Greater New Orleans area simply won't be able to come back for a while and they'll be where they are.

WHITFIELD: And where will you be, senator, while this storm is encroaching on your area?

VITTER: I live in Metairie right outside New Orleans but my family is evacuated. I am here in Baton Rouge and I am going to be all day tomorrow and probably for several days at the State Police Emergency Preparedness Command Center. That's where all of the state- based activity is going on.

WHITFIELD: All right. Republican Senator David Vitter out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thank you so much for being with us and continuing to be safe there as Hurricane Katrina makes it way ashore.

VITTER: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: President Bush has a message for hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents and it's take Hurricane Katrina seriously. As you heard the senator reiterate. The president held a video conference with federal and state emergency officials today to discuss the approaching storm and relief efforts. He is pledging the government will do everything possible to help those affected by Katrina.

BUSH (video clip): This morning I spoke with FEMA undersecretary Mike Brown and emergency management teams not only at the federal level but at the state level about the Hurricane Katrina. I've also spoke to a Governor Blanco of Louisiana, Governor Barbour of Mississippi, Governor Bush of Florida and Governor Riley of Alabama and I want to thank all the folks at the federal level and at the state level and at the local level who have taken this storm seriously. I appreciate the efforts of the governors to prepare their citizenry for this upcoming storm.

Yesterday I signed a disaster declaration for the State of Louisiana and this morning I signed a disaster declaration for the State of Mississippi. These declarations will allow federal agencies to coordinate all disaster relief efforts with state and local officials. We will do everything in our power to help the people and the communities affected by this storm.

Hurricane Katrina is now designated a Category 5 hurricane. We cannot stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf Coast communities. I urge all citizens to put their own safety and the safety of their families first by moving to safe ground. Please listen carefully to instructions provided by state and local officials.

WHITFIELD: Stay with CNN for complete coverage of Hurricane Katrina. A special live hurricane edition of LARRY KING is next and then AARON BROWN begins at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. We're also live throughout the morning from midnight on with special editions of DAYBREAK and AMERICAN MORNING with Miles O'Brien in New Orleans beginning at 4 a.m. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. LARRY KING is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

END

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