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Hurricane Katrina Pounds Gulf Coast; Alabama Authorities Hold News Conference

Aired August 29, 2005 - 15:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where we're getting satellite feeds from all along the Gulf Coast right now, battered by a monstrous storm.
Standing by, we have CNN reporters across the area to bring you complete coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Happening now, New Orleans is ravaged by winds up to 120 miles an hour. As water pours over levies, entire neighborhoods are submerged. Part of the roof rips off the Superdome, as rain pours in on thousands huddled inside.

Mississippi may be the hardest hit, with a 20-foot storm serge. Biloxi been savaged by severe winds.

And hell on Earth is how our Gary Tuchman describes Gulfport, now much of it under water. T

here is serious flooding, too, in Mobile, Alabama, where trees and power lines are down.


It's being called a once-in-a-lifetime storm, and Hurricane Katrina is giving much of the Gulf Coast a brutal beating. Here are the latest developments.

The National Weather Service calls it total structural failure. This is what it looks like in New Orleans, buildings smashed and some places reduced to rubble. With much of the city abandoned, there's been looting in at least one New Orleans neighborhood. Police arrived on the scene. Several arrests are reported.

Right now, the storm is moving inland, with sustained winds still over 100 miles an hour. It's expected to remain at hurricane strength for hours to come.

Thousands are taking refuge in New Orleans' giant stadium, the Superdome. That massive structure is literally held together by its roof. But the teflon membrane has shredded and part of the roof itself has blown off.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve is joining us from there live. She has the latest. Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Thank you. And when will that come, please?

BLITZER: Unfortunately, Jeanne is not hearing us. We will reconnect with Jeanne Meserve momentarily. She'll be ready.

We're also standing by, the governor of Alabama expected to speak out momentarily as well. We will go there once the governor is ready.

Let's move on now and get back to Jeanne Meserve in a moment.

We have many reporters covering this story from all over. Drew Griffin is joining us now. He's in Mississippi. Drew, give us a sense of what you are seeing and what you're hearing.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... out of this storm, Wolf.

But right now, we have got pretty much the barrel of what's left of this storm coming right at us. I'm standing in a hotel whose windows are being blown out on the fifth floor. And it's raining shingles, roof shingles, around us. Highway 59, which is the main thoroughfare, we had to just get off of that road about two hours ago, because 50-, 60-foot pine trees were just coming down and crashing on it.

So, the situation is still pretty dire here, with the wind strength seemingly increasing right now. We have no power, no communication. So, a lot of the people here are just stranded, hoping to get any information that they can to decide whether or not, after this storm, they're going to be able to go back down to Slidell, New Orleans, Biloxi, or if they've got to turn around and head north or east or west and just wait it out for weeks until the situation improves.

BLITZER: Where exactly are you now, Drew?

GRIFFIN: I am in Hattiesburg, right along Highway 59. We are staying at a hotel. We took their last three rooms, almost surprised the clerk when we came in, because there was nobody on the road when we walked in.

And she happened to have three rooms left. The hotel itself is holding up, but they've asked people to get off the fifth floor because of the wind. It's pushing through the windows. And there's a lot of shingles in the air, and, of course, the usual trees being toppled all over the place.

BLITZER: So, you were just -- until a little while ago, you were driving outside. Give us a sense of what it was like.

GRIFFIN: There was only two or three other cars on the road, except for us. When we started out in Meridian, it was just a light rain. But within about 40 minutes of driving south on Highway 59, it just broke loose and the trees started to come down. Power lines started to come down. The wind was just incredibly strong.

We decided to turn around and go back to Meridian. But, by the time we turned around, we were trapped, the road literally blocked by these huge pine trees and no way to get around. So, we just turned back around in the middle of the interstate there and came to the first hotel we could find, which is here in Hattiesburg.

BLITZER: And there's a sense of -- I don't know how many people you've spoken to in Hattiesburg, but is there a sense that the worst is over or the worst is about to begin?

GRIFFIN: We have been getting sporadic reports of where this hurricane is right now, and I'm eager to hang on the line and listen to the forecast, Wolf, but it keeps getting stronger and stronger here. We seem to think that we will be in the eye when it passes over.

It seems like the eye is coming straight at Interstate 59. But, for the last hour or so, all we have had is the wind intensifying, and I would assume that we're up in the high 90s or low 100s. Now, the window just rattled in front of me here.

BLITZER: All right, Drew, we will get back to you.

I want to go to Alabama. Authorities there are speaking out now. The governor is there and others as well. Let's listen in. Mobile, Alabama, we know, is already hard hit.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... deliver down to the counties. We anticipate the electricity would be off, hopefully not for an extended period of time. We will hear from Alabama Power and Rural Electric here in a minute. But the intent is to get those commodities down, so, if people need them, they are there.

We're working very closely with FEMA and our partnership there. And, in addition to that, Governor Riley has offered assistance to both Louisiana and Mississippi. And we are setting aside resources, both ourselves, National Guard, to send to those states, should they need it.

Governor, that's kind of it.

GOV. BOB RILEY (R), ALABAMA: OK, thanks, Bruce (ph).

Jim Stefkovich has been with us in every one of our emergencies here. He's been with us all the way through this one.

Jim, if you will, come up and give us a brief update on the weather.


At 1:00, the hurricane center was located near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It's moving north at 17 miles an hour. It's going to continue that track through the overnight hours and make a curve towards the north-northeast during the overnight time frame and into tomorrow morning. The good news is, is that the hurricane currently is down to a Category 2. That's sustained winds of around 120 -- excuse me, sustained winds of around 100 miles an hour. And that's the good news. The bad news is, is because Katrina was such a large storm, wide storm, that the hurricane-force winds, 70-plus-mile-an-hour winds, extends out 125 miles from the center. And we're expecting hurricane- force winds to extend up to 150 miles inland. So, we have a long way to go.

On the map to my right, you can see that, basically, along the Alabama-Mississippi border, we are expecting hurricane-force winds to occur over the southern third of the state. Of course, we're getting hurricane-force winds, especially the southwest. We will see those winds increase over the central third of the state between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., then, after 6:00 p.m., over the northern third of the state.

The I-65 corridor, going westward, we're expecting sustained winds between 40 and 60 miles an hour. We're expecting a lot of trees and power lines to go down, even on the eastern part of this state, because we are going to have 20- to 40-mile-an-hour winds today into the overnight hours.

Rainfall, we're expecting three to six inches of rain over the western half of the state, with some isolated amounts up to eight inches. Of course, down in the Mobile area, we're expecting upwards of close to 15 inches of rain that will occur.

Eastern part of the state, we are in pretty good shape right now. We are expecting two to five inches of rain that will occur, isolated higher amounts. We are expecting tornadoes. We have had a number of tornado warnings already issued for the southern and the eastern part of the state. We're expecting tornadoes to be likely overnight.

So, everybody needs to keep abreast of the latest warnings that are being issued. And, finally, the waters that have gone into Mobile Bay, we might see a slight rise still for the next, oh, two to three hours. After 4:00, maybe even the 6:00 timeframe, we will start to see those waters start to go down somewhat.


RILEY: Thanks, Jim.

President Bush called yesterday and he said, Governor, I want to pledge my full support. We will be there for anything you need.

I can't tell you how much we have depended on FEMA in the past. But I don't think cooperation has ever been as extensive and as good as it has been in the last few days. And a lot of it is due to our FEMA man on the ground here, Ron Sherman.


As the governor mentioned, President Bush moved quickly to authorize federal aid to help pay for emergency protective measures, debris removal and to authorize the movement of federal resources into the state of Alabama to help meet the needs of citizens and local governments once the storm has passed and those needs have been identified.

Our first priority will be to support any of the search-and- rescue or life-saving missions that may be required. We have specialty teams staged around the state and in neighboring states we can bring in, if need be. We have also been over the weekend moving commodities into the state, so that we can help preposition water and ice and some of the other things that Bruce mentioned.

I will tell you that we will continue to move those supplies in as quickly as possible, until the needs are totally met.

And, in closing, I would say that, having worked with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and the other state agencies that are here in the operations center, that your state is very lucky to have such a group of dedicated people who planned for this. And the response is going to be very, very high-level.

Thank you.

RILEY: Thanks, Ron.

Any time there's a disaster or any time we need help anywhere in the state of Alabama, one group we always call on. That's the Alabama National Guard. This is no exception. They provide so many services to us. But now they are going to be providing services not only to Alabama, but probably to Mississippi and to Louisiana.

General Bowen, come up and talk to us.


Right now, we really have a total of 36 missions. Now, some of those missions are fairly large. We are getting a security force right now and that's really to cover several areas together to go into Mobile and Baldwin County. And that will cover everything from traffic control to securing areas.

But the other thing that we are really doing is, we are putting together an M.P. battalion and an engineer battalion that we are going to, under the EMAC program, send over to Mississippi. Our Mississippi brothers need some help right now. That's one of the things we can do from TAG to TAG and governor to governor. And they have submitted to the EMA. And we're going to send them two battalions over to Mississippi, because they need us.

And we also -- you know, during Ivan, we relied on them to come help us. So, it's our time to pay back. And we're going to send them two battalions over there. So, we're on standby and ready to go, sir.

RILEY: Thanks, Mark.

We do have a lot of Alabamans that are without power right now. I'm going to ask Darryl Gates and Keith Karst to come up and talk to us about the number of people that we have out all over the state, give you some kind of timeframe on what they anticipate getting them back online. Keith.


Good afternoon. Alabama Power's storm center has been watching Hurricane Katrina very closely over the past several days, as most of you have. As of 1:30 today, we had 190,524 customers that had lost service in our service territory. The vast majority of these customers are located in the Mobile area and Southwest Alabama.

We have 186,000 of our customers in that area that are currently without power. We do expect the number of outages, particularly in the Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham areas, to increase as Hurricane Katrina moves through the state. Once the storm has cleared, and it is safe, our employees will begin that process of the assessment and evaluation.

We will prioritize our outages, giving priority to hospitals, water and sewage treatment plants and other essential services in a community. We will also prioritize areas in which we can affect the greatest number of customers in the least amount of time. I do want to point out that safety is a major, major concern of ours, particularly given the size and strength of Hurricane Katrina.

We do expect there to be a large number of wires and trees, broken poles, in our service territory. We ask that all downed lines be treated as extremely dangerous and ask our customers to report those to Alabama Power at 1-800-888-2726.

And, also, I want to plead with our customers to be very careful with portable generators. While a convenience, they can be very dangerous and deadly if not connected properly. Please do not connect a portable generator to your household electrical wiring. The proper way to do that would be to plug your appliances directly into the generator. You've got our commitment at Alabama Power that we will work as fast as safety allows, to restore services to our customers.

Thank you, Governor.



The Rural Electrics also caution against trying to restore power by cutting limbs off of lines. I know a lot of rural folks want to get out and right away try to help. Most of them carry chainsaws around in their trucks for this very reason. We urge them not to do it. Just like Keith said, we're concerned about the safety of everybody right now.

We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 to 55,000 folks without power, primarily in the Baldwin and Washington and Clarke County areas. We are reporting structural damage in Washington County, lines down, some poles down, perhaps. We are reporting flooding in the Baldwin areas. That's extremely dangerous. Again, I mean, we ask people to contact their local cooperatives if they have any kind of concerns at all, if their power is out.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor this news conference in Alabama, the governor there and other authorities speaking about all the damage Hurricane Katrina already has caused and more on the way.

But, in the meantime, let's head over to New Orleans. Our Jeanne Meserve is there for us with an update on what's going on.

What do you see and hear, Jeanne?

MESERVE: Wolf, the weather is considerably lighter than it has been, still some rain, still a lot of wind. You still wouldn't want to be walking on the street if you were a sensible person.

But there are some people down there. I just saw a guy walking his dog down there on the street. The water has receded. I think we can pan over and show you a little bit of the damage to the skyscrapers in the vicinity where we are. You can see that there are windows out. But I'm told this is nothing compared to what's on the other side of these buildings, the side that took the brunt of the wind.

I'm told that, up and down the buildings, windows are out, that it looks as though a bomb went off. At street level, I'm told that a lot of windshields are out in the cars. And, of course, there are a lot of store fronts that have been destroyed, that, if one wanted to, one could walk right in to some of those buildings.

But, by and large, where we are, things have returned -- I'd never say to normal, because it's a mess here. But things are much less severe than they were.

We're not far from the Superdome. We went over there to see the situation earlier today and saw that roof just ripped right off. That white membrane that covers the roof is just totally gone. We could not discern from where we were any movement of the thousands of people who were sheltering there, but, when you see the place that was the refuge of last resort become so damaged, it really is quite startling and quite sobering.


BLITZER: Did you get a sense, how the people inside, 9,000 or 10,000 who had huddled inside that Superdome, how they are doing, Jeanne?

MESERVE: Wolf, absolutely no idea at all, I'm sorry to say. We were not granted access to the Superdome.

And, frankly, at the height of this storm, we would have been fools to venture over there. So, we have not been able to get any first-hand accounts of what was going on in the Superdome, I'm sorry to say. We do know that some of the hotels in this vicinity brought all their people down. They evacuated downward and held them in lower floors of the hotels, because they were afraid of exactly this kind of wind damage that we have seen.


BLITZER: What about the flooding on the streets of New Orleans, especially in the historic French Quarter? What are you hearing? What are you seeing where you are?

MESERVE: Oh, Wolf, I'm sorry to say that we're very much in the dark where we are. We have very limited communications capabilities, so I really can only tell you what I can see with my own eyes.

I can look down from where we're situated, and I tracked it through the storm. And you could see (AUDIO GAP) waters coming up. You could see the storm drains coughing up more water. The water rose, I would say, maybe to two feet or so, but it has receded. If you were down there now, you could easily drive on the roads. But that's just in this particular place.

This is all that I am able to see. I might also mention, Wolf, that there are now cars moving around the city. For hours, we saw nothing move. Nothing could have safely. But we see do police cars moving along, obviously checking out situations. And we even see some vehicles that appear to be civilian vehicles moving along the highways and along the roads here in New Orleans.


BLITZER: All right, Jeanne Meserve reporting for us from New Orleans. Jeanne, please be careful over there.

We have much more coverage coming up. We will go over to FEMA headquarters. It's a lifeline for residents hit by this powerful storm. And we will check in with our reporters up and down the southern coast. We will bring you live events as they happen.

Stay with CNN, your hurricane headquarters.


BLITZER: In Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina is pushing thousands of people out of their homes and into the state's shelters.

Larry Fisher is the director of the Department of Emergency Management in one of those hard-hit counties. He's joining us on the phone now from Jackson, Mississippi. Thanks very much.

What's it like? Give us a little flavor of how bad it's been there.

LARRY FISHER, DIRECTOR, HINDS COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well, we have been getting sustained winds now here in the Jackson area of about 40 to 45 miles an hour. We have had some gusts up to 70 miles per hour here in the county and the city of Jackson already this morning.

And, of course, as this eye continues to move north, we're looking at another four to five hours before the eye actually crosses I-20, somewhere just east of Jackson. So, we're getting torrential rain, have been for several hours now. Our river locally here has come up about seven or eight feet due to local run-off. Trees down throughout the city and Hinds County, too numerous to even begin to mention. We're having to hold emergency crews now until after this passes later on, before we start to open anything other than a major artery, if we have to try to open that.

BLITZER: So, you are still bracing for the worst; is that right, Mr. Fisher?

FISHER: Yes, sir. We're looking for sustained winds probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 miles an hour, as this storm continues to move closer to the Jackson area. And, of course, we should be just on the western wall of that eye, as it still remains pretty well intact moving over Hattiesburg at about 17 miles an hour or so forward motion.

That will put it about four-and-a-half or five hours before it crosses I-20, probably some 25 or 30 miles east of Jackson.

BLITZER: Good luck, Mr. Fisher. Good luck to all your friends and everyone in the community there in Jackson and beyond. Larry Fisher, joining us.

Let's get the latest on this Hurricane Katrina. It's still pounding the Gulf Coast. Katrina will keep on wreaking havoc as it moves inland, as we just heard from Mr. Fisher.

Let's go to our CNN weather team for the latest forecast, what's happening, our meteorologist Dave Hennen standing by in our hurricane headquarters.

But first let's turn to our meteorologist Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Weather Center. Jacqui, there's new information you are getting?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Right. We just got the new advisory in, and Katrina has been downgraded now to a Category 1 hurricane, has winds of 95 miles per hour. It's about 10 miles now away from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, just to the west-southwest of there. So, the eye wall is right on top of them. We have got a plethora of tornado warnings, Jefferson, Covington and Jones counties in Mississippi. And that's due to the eye wall, because it's like a big tornado, about 100 miles wide, moving through the area.

And then, in Alabama, Lee, Conecuh, Monroe, Wilcox and Escambia Counties all under tornado warnings. That's where Doppler radar indicated tornadoes, some rotation. And there you can see a watch is in effect across much of the area as well.

We are going to take you in down towards the center of circulation. Here's the eye wall, just on the north side of Hattiesburg. This is where you can expect the worst of conditions right now, sustained winds, pushing up to 95 miles per hour, with gusts beyond 100 miles per hour. So, some major damage is going to be possible, particularly on the northern side of Hattiesburg.

There, you saw a radar image just updating. It's still moving up to the north right now at 17 miles per hour. We are expecting it to start to take this turn on up to the north and east a little bit later on this afternoon or into tonight. We do want to show you that it's going to be making a lot of impact as it heads inland across the Tennessee Valley. This is still going to be a hurricane probably, we think, 8:00, 9:00 tonight, down to a tropical storm overnight and into early tomorrow morning.

There, you can see a tropical storm signature over western Tennessee tomorrow morning, heading on up into the Ohio River Valley. And we're expecting to see some significant flooding in this area, on the range of four to eight inches. We are expecting more like five to 10 inches in the path where it is right now.


BLITZER: Jacqui, and as bad as it's been for New Orleans, because of that slight turn, just before the early hours of this morning, it could have been -- it could have been, so much worse.

JERAS: Yes, it really could. You hate to say that they got off easily, because they certainly didn't. Chalmette, also around Slidell, we're hearing of some major devastation in those areas.

But western parts of town certainly fared a lot better than they could have. And the storm surge certainly could have been a lot worse for New Orleans.

BLITZER: All right, Jacqui, we will check back with you.

Let's get some more information on the surge and other related developments, Dave Hennen standing by in our hurricane headquarters. What are you looking at, Dave?

DAVE HENNEN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, we're kind of looking forward, because this is definitely not over yet.

If you remember, when Hurricane Hugo moved into South Carolina, we saw hurricane-force winds all the way into Charlotte. That was some 150 miles inland where we saw damage. And we expect the same situation.

Let's take a look at some of the things we're expecting over the next 12 hours or so. We are looking for the storm to continue to weaken, as Jacqui mentioned, down to 95 miles per hour right now. The hurricane will continue to move inland. And hurricane-force winds about 150 miles inland, that will take the hurricane-force winds well into Mississippi and we are still looking for this to be a tropical storm, even into the morning hours tomorrow.

I want to show you computer animation that we put together. This takes you through time. The yellow you see are tropical-storm-force winds, the orange, the hurricane-force winds. And we will put this in motion and take it northward now and show you the wide area of tropical-storm-force winds going that are going to be spreading inland, lots of damage into Mississippi, lots of damage as well into parts of Alabama, maybe even Georgia and Tennessee.

It's very wet over the Southeast, the ground saturated. That's going to continue to cause some problems. Because the ground is wet, the trees tend to fall much easier. And, as the winds continue to move in, we will continue to see that, unfortunately, spreading well inland.


BLITZER: All right, Dave, we will check back in with you as well.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's watching all of this from his vantage point in New York. The Southern -- our Southern friends, Jack, taking a pounding right now.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. But, as you mentioned, the city of New Orleans actually caught a break with that little slight adjustment of the eye of that storm moving a little bit east of downtown.

Last night, they were saying that none of the wooden buildings in the downtown area of New Orleans were expected to withstand the full force of Katrina, had that thing delivered its potential blow on the downtown area.

Earlier today, the hurricane pushed the price of a barrel of oil above $70 for the first time ever, Wolf, Gulf of Mexico usually pumping 1.5 million barrels a day of crude oil, which is about one- fourth of the country's domestic output. Katrina caused eight refineries, maybe more, with the capacity of a million barrels a day to shut down.

And, of course, the oil rigs in the Gulf had to all be evacuated. That happened last week. President Bush is now considering releasing oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And we're expecting a decision from him on that later today.

The president said before, he'd only release oil from the petroleum reserve during a serious supply disruption. And we don't know how serious yet the White House considers the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

But the question this hour is, should the president release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help modify what's expected to be a continuing push to the upside for oil prices and, down the road, of course, for gasoline prices as well? is the address. Drop us a note. Tell us what you think.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. I suspect he will do that. But we will wait and see what he does. He did it last year in response to an earlier hurricane.

Jack, we'll check back with you later this hour.

We're going to continue our extensive live coverage. Hurricane Katrina. The damage it's already caused. The damage it's causing right now.

When we come back, we'll go live to Mobile, Alabama. Damage there extensive. Our Kathleen Koch on the scene for us. Much more when we come back.


BLITZER: Even as it moves inland, Hurricane Katrina is continuing to pound the Gulf Coast area. Here's a quick look at the latest developments.

In hard-hit Mississippi, officials haven't had much chance to assess the damage, but the governor, Haley Barbour, says his greatest fear is that there are -- quote -- "a lot of dead people in the coastal areas."

New Orleans has suffered crushing damage even though it avoided a direct hit. Some buildings are demolished, some neighborhoods under water.

Katrina, still very much a hurricane, is now carving a path through Mississippi. Winds at tropical storm strength are still extending out hundreds of miles from the center. Katrina has pounded the waters of Mobile Bay into the city's center and a mandatory curfew is in effect right now.

CNN's Kathleen Koch is joining us from the scene. She has the latest. Kathleen, what's going on?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is far from over here yet. Katrina is still lashing Mobile and we're feeling these bands. It will calm down as it is right now and in two minutes, the winds will pick up.

Right now, in the last half hour, I've seen a large tree branch come down behind me. We've seen signs blown down. Right now I'm watching part of a metal roof begin to peel back off of a parking lot just next to us.

So we're being very watchful and very careful. This is part of why they put this curfew in effect only about an hour ago. They simply don't want citizens out on the street.

As you mentioned there was a mandatory evacuation order that really affected a huge segment of the population -- 56,000 people in the area. Then there was another 128,000 that were told to leave, if they could. They were encouraged to get out, if at all possible. That includes, actually, this area where we are. But while we've seen a lot of downed trees and water in the streets, things like that, we haven't seen the massive flooding that we might have gotten here.

There was a lot of concern that we would have up to a 20-foot storm surge. That hasn't happened. But, I'll tell you, the basic services are fading fast. We've lost power at our hotel. Some 186,000 people in the Mobile County area are completely without power. Very difficult to make phone calls to reach out to anyone.

There's a big question right now as to what has happened to all those people who live east of -- I should say west of Gulfport, Mississippi and east of New Orleans. There's a large population there living in Stidell, Louisiana, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Waverling, Mississippi, past Christian Long Beach (ph).

I have friends there. I've been trying to call them and I can't reach them. I used to live in Bay St. Louis, Wolf, and so we're very worried about our friends there. I have friends now who have evacuated up to the Hattiesburg area that's getting pounded right now by this storm. They're up there in Laurel. They evacuated from New Orleans. Can't reach them.

So there's a lot of concern by people as the storm moves inland. They want to find out what's happened to their homes, what's happened to their friends, what's happened to their family. A lot of people very worried because, again, it's not over yet.


BLITZER: And the area where you are, is it -- because I don't want you to be outside if it's too dangerous. What is it like in Mobile in the specific area where you are, Kathleen?

KOCH: Wolf, we purposely selected this hotel because it is one of the higher spots in the downtown area. They say they've only had water in this hotel during Hurricane Frederick back in 1979, so we felt very safe here.

And again, we're in a pretty good position. But when you walk out on to the streets, again, you can see why they have this mandatory evacuation and the curfew because the street, up and down, this is one of the main streets of Mobile, called Government Street. It's littered with gigantic branches. It almost looks like bushes have sprouted in the middle of the street.

And any cars right now -- we're seeing police cars, National Guard vehicles. They have to weave their way down this main street like this to get around the trees. Again, as I said, we're seeing huge branches still snap off. Again, about a half an hour ago, one came down and barely missed an SUV that was out here on the road where it really shouldn't have been.


BLITZER: All right, Kathleen. We'll check back with you. Be careful over there. Kathleen Koch in Mobile, Alabama.

We're getting some new video that's coming in right now from the Superdome in New Orleans. I want to bring in the former mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial. He's joining us from New York. Mr. Mayor, you've been involved in New Orleans events for so many years. Give us a little sense, when you see what's happening specifically in the Superdome, what we should take away from this. It's clearly dark inside. Power must be at a premium there.

MARC MORIAL, FORMER NEW ORLEANS MAYOR: I'm surprised -- I have to tell you, Wolf, that the Superdome and the roof of the Superdome was compromised in any way. The Superdome was designed always as a shelter of last resort as a strong -- quote -- "the strongest building in the city." So I'm surprised that that has occurred. I'm certain that the people who are sheltered there have gone to safer areas of the dome.

And for the people in the community there, I have many, many family and many, many friends, most of whom have evacuated. The real difficult tough work begins as the storm begins to abate because the rebuilding, the cleanup and the recovery is going to take a lot of effort.

And I pledge, as the president of the National Urban League, that we're going to do whatever we can to assist in the cleanup and the rebuilding effort to help people get their lives back to normal.

BLITZER: When you built the Superdome about three decades ago, some 30 years ago, Mr. Mayor, did you have it in mind that this would be a super shelter as well, or did that just come into the process after it went up?

MORIAL: No, I believe that those that envisioned the dome in the late 1960s and the early 1970s always believed that it could, in fact, be utilized as a shelter of last resort. Not a primary shelter, but as a safe harbor, a safe refuge in the event of -- quote -- "the big storm" because the dome was envisioned -- actually proposed in the same year as Hurricane Betsy, the last big storm to devastate the city.

So with this multiple use, it helped to get voters and taxpayers who to had to support the dome on board that it had uses beyond just a sports facility or an entertainment complex.

So it was always, I believe, part of that vision. But the first time it was used as such was back in 1998. I happened to be mayor during Hurricane George and 25,000 people were sheltered there.

I think that the leaders of the city and the state did a great job encouraging, and in fact pushing for, a mandatory evacuation. I think now many can see why it was so important that people who could leave the community, leave the community; because of what you see on your video there.

BLITZER: We're showing new video coming in from the streets of New Orleans, Mr. Mayor. And if you look at that screen, you'll probably recognize some of these areas, knowing you as I do and knowing your love for this beautiful city. Watch this video.

But I -- in the meantime, I want to bring in retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral James Loy. He's a former Coast Guard commandant. He's watching all of this as well. He was the deputy secretary of Homeland Security. He oversaw FEMA in that responsibility.

Admiral Loy, as you see this -- the enormous damage -- the structural damage, but so much more important, the damage to people's lives and God forbid, the deaths that almost certainly will develop, what role do you see the federal government playing specifically with a beautiful city like New Orleans?

ADM. JAMES LOY, U.S. COAST GUARD (RET.): Well, I think the methodical approach being taken already is on target and we've had very good reports from the Baton Rouge command center that they are extraordinarily pleased with the reparation that was gone -- that has gone on over the last couple of days anticipating the storm.

And I think Mayor Morial is right on target. In '65 when Betsy hit, there was a great consciousness about this everlasting challenge that the city is below sea level and what are we going to do when the big one hits.

And so, through the course of the construction of the dome -- I can recall when I was the district commander down there in the late '80s and early '90s, when I was driving a ship out of Galveston and responding to those storms he was describing, we always had the Superdome in our mind as a shelter of last resort. So, that thought pattern was very sound then and remains so today.

BLITZER: This is Canal Street -- this new video that we're getting in, Mr. Mayor, as you see what's happening in your beautiful city.

There have been suggestions, Admiral Loy, that New Orleans potentially, because it's so below sea level and the potential of a hurricane moving in, that New Orleans could be, theoretically, the most dangerous city to live in the United States. You've heard those assessments over the years, Admiral Loy. Give us your perspective.

LOY: Well, I think it's a sound thought pattern. The notion that without adequate preparation and without adequate attention to the plans for the response that would certainly be part of the aftermath of such a storm hitting, always had this magnificent city to so many people -- home to so many people and a cultural gathering spot for so many different diverse folks that call it home.

We have always had the challenge attending to what is the response going to be if it hits and I've heard a lot of people say today that we sort of lucked out so to speak and that little tweak to the right enabled New Orleans to miss it again.

But the reality for FEMA and for the federal support to the local authorities and for the state support to the local authorities is to deal with what is there. It's a very practical challenge that's attending to them. And that's about restoring power. It's about housing, for, I have no idea, but I would guess as many as a million people might be looking for some kind of housing capability in the aftermath of this storm.

And then you get on to providing medical services, transportation services, meals, potable water, telecommunications, all those basic organizational elements that compose FEMA and have, to this point in time at least, prepared extraordinarily well for this storm.

Just a year ago, they had a -- an exercise dealing with the 'big one' and here they are one year later, actually playing through the scenarios that they developed at that point.

BLITZER: Marc Morial, you've been looking at this video, new video we're been showing our viewers from the streets of New Orleans. I'm sure you recognize some of these areas. What goes through your mind as we wrap up this discussion?

MORIAL: Well, I don't see a lot of heavy flooding on those streets. I have heard some independent reports that some parts of the city have had six to 10 feet of water and some of the outlying areas have had a considerable amount of water. But what I see is typical, a lot of debris and parts of buildings on the ground and trees on the ground.

There's a tremendous cleanup effort that stands before everyone and I think what we've seen here is a great level of cooperation between the feds, the state and also local officials throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. And I can't stress enough, as the admiral has mentioned, that so much work now is before the community. The assessment process, the process of cleaning up and the process of rebuilding could literally take months in some cases or even longer in other cases. So, the hard work is indeed ahead of everyone.

BLITZER: Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans and James Loy, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral, the commandant, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security. Thanks to both of you very much for joining us.

We're going to take a quick break, but much more coverage, extensive coverage. Hurricane Katrina, it's by no means over. It's moving inland; still at hurricane strength. We'll also check in with our Alli Velshi. He's on the scene. Guess what? It's having an impact on the cost of a barrel of oil: Prices are about to go up again. Stay with us.


BLITZER: We want to take you back a few hours now and show you the fury of Hurricane Katrina as it made landfall. Here's a sampling of reports from our CNN and affiliate teams as the hurricane slammed into the gulf coast.


BRIAN ANDREWS, WFOR CORRESPONDENT: All right. Here we go. This is what it's like in downtown New Orleans right now. The winds are really kicking.

If you look, it is white-capping in the parking lot out here. That is storm water run-off that appears to be coming off of I-10. KIMBERLY CURTH, WKRG CORRESPONDENT: We're in downtown Mobile. You can't stand up. You don't want to come down here. Guys, we are in store for one nasty storm. Stay inside.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This may be the worst point here in Gulfport, Mississippi, of this entire hurricane experience. We have been told by authorities there are now over 10 feet of water on the road next to the beach. We're told there are at least four or five boats now on the main street here in Gulfport, population 71,000. It feels like we've got to dodge artillery.

I want to give you a look at what's happened to our vehicle. Our cameraman Steve Sorkin (ph) is going to show five minutes ago, a piece of wood crashed into our vehicle, crashed into the window and has put a hole in our window.

KOCH: We've been talking to the Mobile Emergency Management Agency. They say the calls have been pouring in as the waters have been rising throughout the city. People are saying, help, we want to be evacuated. Come and get us, and they're saying, sorry, it's just too late.


BLITZER: A flavor of what our CNN and affiliate reporters have been doing over the past several hours. Jack Cafferty has been busy reading your e-mail on his question this hour. Jack, what do our viewers think about that question?

CAFFERTY: Well, the question is whether or not President Bush ought to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in light of the fact that Katrina has caused the shutdown of at least eight refineries and the evacuation of most of the oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. We're expecting an announcement from the White House on that subject later today.

Larry writes: "No, it won't make much of a difference. The market's going to be on edge until those production platforms are fixed and back online, pumping at what they were before the storm."

Bill in Surf City, North Carolina: "I think we need to wait until the storm is over and the damage is assessed before we jump off the deep end.

Robert in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia: "I don't understand what problem releasing oil solves if the issue is refining capacity. More oil stacked up waiting to be refined solves no problem for anyone."

Marilyn in Trinidad, Colorado: "Of course President Bush should open the reserves. They are there for a rainy day emergency. If Katrina doesn't fit that criteria, I can't imagine what would."

And Tom in West Virginia writes: "Drilling reserves will only make the president look like he's doing something. It has the same effect as a teardrop in the ocean."

We'll have another question for you related to the hurricane coming up in the next hour.


BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks very much for that. We're also going to check in with Ali Velshi when we come back. We'll take a quick break. Ali is on the scene. He's checking the impact on oil and how that's going to affect all of us.

Much more coverage of Hurricane Katrina here in THE SITUATION ROOM when we come back.


BLITZER: Our Abbi Tatton is monitoring Hurricane Katrina online. She's checking the situation for us right now. Abbi, what are you finding?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we wanted to show you a couple of places where people are live blogging what's going on, their personal experience. First of all, we're going to go to Gulfport, Mississippi.

This is the eye of the storm, Mike Keller, Josh Norman, two reporters for the "Sun Herald," they've been holed up in the newsroom all night and been posting this blog. There's Mike there asleep under his desk. Nervousness during the night as the storm was pounding. Trees are falling. Casinos are under water.

This economy is crippled, said one person in the newsroom there. Today, things look a little bit better. They said they made it through. They've got no power, no landlines, and no cell, though. They're reporting that across the street, there's devastation at a local TV station. The tower is lying in their parking lot and their roof is lying in ours. That there from Gulfport, Mississippi.


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Abbi. We'll check back with you throughout this program. We're going to check in with Ali Velshi when we come back. How is all of this impacting on oil? Guess what? Not good. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Still a Category 1 storm. Hurricane Katrina, still capable of doing plenty of damage as it moves inland along the Gulf Coast. We're watching the damage. We're going to get to Ali Velshi in just a moment.

But let's check out the closing numbers on Wall Street right now. Check this out. The Dow Jones Industrials, as we approach 4:00 and the closing bell, up 70 points. The NASDAQ, up 17 points. The S&P up 7, almost 8 points. We'll continue to watch NASDAQ at the impact.

But in addition to the lives that have been on the line, Katrina has also endangered off-shore oil rigs at a time when gas prices already are sky-high.

Let's check in with CNN's Ali Velshi. He's on the story for us from Winnie, Texas.


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