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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Hurricane Rita Nears Landfall

Aired September 23, 2005 - 23:30   ET

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


CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You're going to have two hours of what you have now and literally it's going to go to some point where maybe the satellite truck can't stay there anymore because it's like a big sail and it starts moving around and it can't point at the satellite, like it needs to.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Chad, we're going to talk with you again very shortly.

We're joined by Max Mayfield at the National Hurricane Center, Max, thanks for being with us. What's the latest that you can tell us about the storm?

MAX MAYFIELD, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Well, I think you heard it summarized pretty well there. The eye itself is still about 50 miles or so off the coast and headed toward that Sabine Lake area.

We really think that, you know, the storm surge is going to be very, very high. A lot of people are kind of downplaying this because it's only a category three but we're going to have 15 and 20 feet of storm surge, you know, not only the coastline here but it's going to push well up inland there.

And I think that the biggest concern here is probably near Cameron, Louisiana. That will push up Calcasieu Lake all the way up towards Lake Charles, very similar to what they had in Hurricane Audrey back in 1957.

Sabine Lake is over here, the Port Arthur area and that land area in between there, which is really, you know, very low-lying and large, I think the water is just going to top that and go pouring into that Sabine Lake area.

COOPER: And the eye of the storm, how big is it? How concentrated is it at this point?

MAYFIELD: Well, I think Chad was just talking about that on the radar there. This is the -- you can see the inner eye wall is right here and then there's a hint of these outer banding features almost a secondary eye wall there, the one thing that even if the inner eye wall collapses a little bit more, this is still such a broad circulation that a storm surge is going to be spread across a very, very large area.

COOPER: Max Mayfield, appreciate it, from the National Hurricane Center, thanks Max. Let's go back to Aaron in New York, a strong storm, Aaron, you know, you see these outer bands and then it's quiet for a while. The winds kind of die down and then all of a sudden it picks up again.

BROWN: It just, Anderson it just seems to me that two things that people need to know here is that the wind and the rain are one thing but it's just, A, the storm surge that will be the most damaging and dangerous in the next few hours.

And, secondly, that three, four and perhaps five days from now we're still going to be feeling the impact of the storm because of these extraordinarily heavy rains in the area of Texarkana, basically the Texas/Arkansas/Louisiana corridor there that's going to go on for a week. It's going to be unpleasant stuff.

COOPER: Yes, it certainly is. I mean to think this storm is sitting here for a week, I mean not a hurricane strength storm, as Chad Myers pointed out, but nevertheless this constant rain.

I was talking to the mayor and the chief of police here in Beaumont a little bit earlier. They were actually saying, look, a bunch of rain isn't too bad for us. They've had a drought here. They said this ground can absorb four to five inches of rain like that and no problem. This ground has been so dry.

There's huge rice fields here because normally the land is very wet. They've been having problems with that, these rice farms, so they are looking forward to getting a certain amount of rain but, you know, not this much and certainly any kind of storm surge is very bad news for the communities around here, also for the oil refineries which are around here -- Aaron.

BROWN: Anderson, we'll get back to you in a second out in Beaumont, Texas.

To the west of Anderson is Sean Callebs on Galveston Island and we've been tracking not only the weather on Galveston Island but also a fire there. Sean, do you have anything more on first the fire and then we'll get to the weather?

CALLEBS: Yes. We should have the pictures back now, hopefully. I know that we got them to our satellite truck and fed them into New York, pretty bad fire by all accounts and this was an area right now, 19th Street, close to the bay without power.

The crew that went over there described driving down very dark streets, very difficult to see where you are, what street you're crossing, a lot of limbs down, a lot of leaves down, power lines overburdened already by these winds and the worst is still yet to come here.

But this is what firefighters are having to deal with, two to three structures, very difficult to tell exactly how many are involved in this fire but it just lit up the entire block and the winds just basically whipped the flames. There are embers blowing off right next to it, a very tall building, somewhere between 20, 25 stories and the embers blowing toward that, firefighters simply overburdened. One said that it is a historical building. He didn't know exactly which one but certainly something that's going to keep these folks busy on for some time.

It's interesting to watch how this area changed over the last hour. This is where the emergency operations center was, firefighters, emergency officials, medical, military.

And, basically the storm wasn't as bad as they had thought it was going to be in the previous couple of days, so there are a lot of people just kind of mingling in this area, some actually on the balconies looking at the surf and then within the last hour it has gotten unbelievably quiet.

Clearly, right now everybody busy trying to get a handle on just how bad this fire is. Power keeps going in and out throughout much of this island. We know there's low -- there's flooding in the low-lying areas to the east and to the west. Certainly they braced for all kinds of wind, rain and flooding and right now they're getting something certainly their worst nightmare at this hour -- Aaron.

(BREAKING NEWS)

BROWN: Sean, just stay with us here. We just now got your pictures of this fire in downtown Galveston and at the point that we pick it up you can see the one building is pretty much gone.

CALLEBS: Right.

BROWN: There's not much left to it at all but there's a lot of flame there that has to be dealt with and just keep in mind, I assume you are, that the wind is howling here. It is blowing that fire. It is blowing hot ash. It is dangerous to the firefighters obviously. It presents a danger to every building nearby.

Just in that shot you can see briefly over the shoulder of the one firefighter that the fire is working inside the building, part of the building, it's hard for us to tell that's still standing. And, Sean, I don't know if you have a monitor there or not. If you do, I apologize.

CALLEBS: No, I don't.

BROWN: OK, for doing all the talking here. Fire trucks coming into the scene and, again, all of this is going on in the early portions of a hurricane, so this is not simply unpleasant work for firefighters.

It's dangerous work. You can't -- most of these buildings look to us to be fairly low risers, no need to throw up a ladder but you couldn't do it anyway because you couldn't make it stable enough to safely get anyone up there.

But you can see, Sean, we're looking at this, you can see the hot ask being blown all over the place, the smoke swirling all over the place. We see one, two, three, four, five what look to us to be five vehicles of one sort or another on the scene, maybe a little more than that.

Multiply that by perhaps four or five people in each one. You've got a lot of people on the scene, a lot of people in Galveston who are taking some risk to deal with this.

What we haven't seen them do, to be perfectly honest, is pour any water on it. They may be just there, maybe, underscore, ladies and gentlemen, maybe just there realizing there's not much they can do to save these buildings.

CALLEBS: At this point.

BROWN: And there is nothing honestly, as we look at it, they can do to save these buildings, so they're keeping an eye on everything that's around those buildings but we don't see them pouring any water.

Now we do. No sooner do we say then they do. They're pouring water on at least one of the buildings from one hose, one, two, three, four, five, six firefighters in that shot working.

CALLEBS: Aaron, we hear more sirens in the background and I can also add one thing. We know there were no people in these buildings. We just got to authorities and they tell us that like so many other buildings on this island on this night nobody inside. They have been evacuated if anybody lived there, so if there is a hint of good news in all this, there are apparently going to be no casualties from this.

BROWN: It's more than a hint. It's a good time to point out because earlier we talked about a report that, in fact, there might be people in there. You're in a breaking news situation. This is the rawest, livest form of television that you can -- television news you can possibly do and very often these early reports are a little off. Sometimes they're a lot off.

And so, when we pass information along to you believe me none of us here are writing this down in stone. We're passing along information as we get it. We're checking it out as we pass it along.

But this is a very live raw form of television, tape coming in essentially unedited, correspondents working under very, in truth very difficult conditions. It's not always easy to gather information and backing up the correspondents, our producers and camera people who are -- have been doing yeoman's work for three and a half weeks now really in the region and they continue to do it tonight.

Sean, we see them pouring water and my best guess is they're just trying to make sure or we're just trying to make sure that none of the adjacent buildings went up in flames.

CALLEBS: Right. Well, we know, we just had a producer come out from talking to officials inside here and we know that they are rushing more fire engines to that scene, so certainly it's a big fire and one that is causing more and more concern as the hour continues to move on so certainly still involved at that point.

We don't know if they have it completely under control at this point but, as you said earlier, the good news, of course, no casualties in this. It's just -- it just got to be brutal for these firefighters because there's no power out in that area.

We know there are power lines down. We know limbs are coming down. There are a lot of old (INAUDIBLE) back in those areas and those gigantic limbs can get overburdened even by a wind at this speed, so certainly they have to basically have eyes in the back of their head as they try to bring those fires under control and make sure they don't spread.

It's also got to be difficult for people who fled this island and can now watch this wondering what's going on? Is my area at risk? Because they had a curfew here, we know they had police out. They've done everything they could think of to make sure the kind of catastrophe we saw unfold in the Louisiana area didn't happen here on this barrier island.

You talked earlier about how vulnerable these islands are. Winds come in from everywhere. It's not just the storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico but they're terribly frightened and concerned about the bay flooding over in that area, so this night is not off to a good start for the officials here.

BROWN: Sean, thank you. Just guys stay on that for a second.

Anderson, we've over the last three and a half weeks or so talked a lot about the extraordinary efforts of first responders of all sorts, EMS, fire people, police officers, everybody involved in disaster relief.

Here you have and I'm sure you can't, I assume you can't see this, you have a pretty good-sized fire going in the middle of a hurricane, not that far off but downtown. Lots of things to worry about and you have crews of firefighters there doing their best to make sure it doesn't get any worse than it is -- Anderson.

COOPER: These men and women feel part of something and they are part of something and it's part of something big and I mean I saw them yesterday at Galveston getting ready, you know, checking into this hotel where they'll be staying, you know, four or five to a room.

They're not, you know, they're not living it up in some luxurious hotel. You know they feel part of something bigger and they know what they are doing is needed and they're glad that they have the skills to be able to help.

And I think I've heard you say in the past before, Aaron, but this is one of those times where you realize, you thank God that there are people who have these skills, who know how to fight fires and who are doctors and know how to save people's lives, even if the supplies are out and they don't have much medicine.

This is the time where people, where individuals stand up and band together and do what they can to help and this is just one example of what's happening right now in Galveston, those people risking their own lives, their own comfort and their own safety to go out there and try to put out these fires. We're going to continue to follow that story.

Rick Sanchez, who has been traveling around this entire area in Hurricane One, is now in Lake Charles. I want to try to make contact with him. Rick, what's the situation where you are? How does it look?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'll tell you what, Anderson, they've been talking about getting as much as 25 inches of rain here over the next several days if this thing starts to hang over here and we're getting a whole - we're getting a whole lot of it right now.

We're also getting some real strong winds at Lake Charles. You know I was listening with keen interest to your conversation with Max Mayfield a little while ago when he talked particularly about the storm surge here in Lake Charles.

We were monitoring it earlier. We were over at Lake Charles, the natural lake that they call Charles, about half a mile from where we are right now. We had to get away from that area because it was just getting a little too dangerous.

You're already starting to see the waters coming up there. Max Mayfield told you when he was talking to you just a little while ago that there could be as much as a 20-foot storm surge.

This is one of the areas that's most vulnerable. We can certainly understand why. He mentioned and we know that this place has had a history of flooding in the past with different hurricanes, like Lilly (ph). He mentioned the hurricane of '57.

The people here know that and that's why most of the people living in this low-lying area for the most part evacuated, although we did find people who are staying in that residential area right off the southern part of the lake. And, as I mentioned, you are already starting to see it come up.

What we're seeing here in downtown Lake Charles, I don't know if you can notice, we're using the headlights of our Hurricane One unit to try and create some illumination, some light for our shot because that's it. The lights are completely out now.

We've seen them go one after another, almost as if there was a plan and when they do is (INAUDIBLE) suddenly the whole sky turns blue and it's a transformer going down and then another transformer going down.

And I want to show you something else that we've been watching. There's a drain over here and, you know, this is one of the best ways to monitor the situation with the flooding and we're starting to see the water coming out of the drain instead of going in and that's always a bad sign in an area that's prone to flooding. So, we're going to be following it here in Lake Charles. They say it's a very potential area for flooding. We'll be here monitoring it from Hurricane One -- Anderson, back over to you.

COOPER: All right, Rick, we'll check in with you shortly.

Just in Beaumont here at least in this area where I am they do still have electricity. These lights behind me are still on. They are starting to shake a little bit in this wind, obviously something we're going to keep our eye on. But from what we can tell there are street lights all around here that do have lights still on, so that is certainly good news here in Beaumont.

And we're also very close to the Neches River. There are a lot of whitecaps on the river at this point but it doesn't look like it has started to flood significantly but we're going to monitor that as well.

Randi Kaye is over in Baytown, Texas not too far from here. We'll check in with her. Randi, how does it look?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, it has gotten significantly worse since we last spoke to you. The rain is now coming down much heavier. I'm in the parking lot of our hotel.

We have been without power now for a few hours and, as we stand here, you can see in the distance, at least we can see from our perspective in the distance, we see a lot of -- the sky is lighting up and from our perspective it certainly looks like transformers are blowing all around here in Baytown. So, the city certainly has lost power, including us right here.

But I wanted to call your attention to these flag poles back here behind me. There were just a few minutes ago three flags up on those flag poles. One was the hotel's flag, then, of course, is the United States flag and then the last one is the Texas flag.

Well, you can see the one all the way up there on the left hand side is now gone. Just a few minutes ago that flag disappeared. So, here in Baytown where we are, we are a little more inland. We're just a few miles from water but it's still not a good situation.

The palm trees over here are certain kicking pretty good. We're experiencing sustained winds of about 45 miles an hour we're told and also right here is a pool, so we're a little alarmed by some of the sounds we have coming from that area.

But, again, here in Baytown, winds are kicking up. Certainly the rain is kicking up. We're not real far from all those power plants that we've been talking about in the last couple of days about 200 refineries and oil plants are sitting along the Houston ship channel and that's where Baytown sits as well.

So, sort of an alarming situation there, great concern about what might happen if any of those plants do suffer some severe damage. So, again, we're just standing by as the situation certainly is worsening here in Baytown -- Anderson.

COOPER: And where have you positioned yourself?

KAYE: We are actually, Anderson, you know, you know this very well you have to position yourself sort of along a pretty sturdy building. Our building I'm not sure if it's a good or bad idea but they're the only ones open, they're the only hotel open.

So, we're pretty close to the side of the building but, you know, as you step around away from that, away from that structure you can feel the wind from all sides. So, we're pretty close to it. Certainly if anything really rough happens we can get inside but that is the situation here.

COOPER: All right, Randi, thanks. We'll continue to monitor your situation. Aaron, let's take it back to you in New York, as things here slowly develop. I really haven't felt the brunt of this storm yet, probably won't for quite some time.

BROWN: Well, just watching everybody here it's clearly deteriorating. Baytown, just to help orient you lies about 25 miles to the east of Houston, it's a fair amount more inland than Beaumont is about 65,000, 70,000 people.

So, again there's this string of middle-sized and not unimportant cities for a variety of reasons that are all getting lashed including Galveston, which is finding its problems compounded by the fact that in the downtown area there is a complicated fire to fight.

Sean Callebs has been doing the reporting on it. We've got some pictures of it. Sean, were you able to figure out how many units or people responded to it?

CALLEBS: No, we have no idea. We know that there were a significant number and then emergency officials here decided that they needed more. And, in the last few minutes, we've also had a chance to go talk with the mayor because there are still conflicting reports. Was somebody in there? Wasn't somebody in there?

At this point, we have no reason to believe anybody was but when we spoke with the mayor it was the first she had heard about it. She had not even been briefed, so clearly emergency officials are basically scrambling inside there to get control of this situation.

At the same time, they're worried about significant flooding on the end of this island that is not protected by a sea wall, so there's a lot going on here and it's still early in the evening and officials are trying to get a handle on it.

We've been told that the fire is somewhat coming under control but obviously because these winds are whipping, we saw the pictures where the embers just blow up and the smoke circles around.

The winds from Rita are fanning the flames of this, so a very difficult situation, certainly compounded by the fact in that area there's no electricity. Power lines are down and trees or limbs are becoming overburdened by these gusting winds, as well as the significant rainfall that's been there for some time -- Aaron.

BROWN: If we can just, no offense intended, take the shot full here and viewers don't need to see either of us and get a sense of what they're having to deal with in Beaumont. This is not far off the downtown.

As best we can put the pieces together and this may change as we go along, you've got several buildings involved. The first shot we saw of it, one appeared to be done, gone, and fire appeared to own pretty much one other building in the sense that while the outer wall seems still to be standing the fire was burning pretty ferociously. In that shot you could see inside the building.

All of this, of course going on with 60 to 70-mile gusts, I'm not sure the sort of constant wind is quite that much but these gusts are coming making it all the more complicated.

You'll see in some of these shots, some of this we've seen a couple moments ago, some of it will be new but here you get a great sense not only of the danger to these firefighters, even with their protective gear, are facing because there's all this hot ash that's being flown around.

Fighting fires is hardly easy work under the best of circumstances but you've got a tremendous amount of ash in the air and you can see it swirling on the left side of your screen -- Sean Callebs if over on the left side now, yes.

CALLEBS: Aaron, I have some more information. There's a hotel just down there and the roof just peeled off of it. We just heard a tremendous crash and saw part of it blow off.

So, even though the winds aren't terribly strong at this hour, the fact that they've just been persistent and right here on the coast certainly it's making its presence known. We know that that hotel is closed.

BROWN: How big a hotel?

CALLEBS: It's pretty big. It's a Holiday Inn, several stories, I'd say close to eight stories. It looks like eight stories and then an area that comes out that may be a reception area, a registration area and apparently that is where the roof has peeled back somewhat. But we heard it crack maybe 15 minutes ago and then just heard a significant crack.

We heard Randi Kaye talk about (AUDIO GAP). We've seen that in the distance as well. You know it's still hard to believe that we're on the weak side of the storm.

BROWN: Yes.

CALLEBS: And it's still sometime for those bands coming in. You know, people may think, well it's going to miss this area. This is still a dangerous storm and any time you're out in a hurricane on a barrier island you're always taking a certain degree of risk.

BROWN: Just one more thing on the hotel. Is it like the overhang where the cars would come underneath it or is it actually the roof of the hotel, can you tell?

CALLEBS: Oh, it would be apparently the overhang area where cars would theoretically pull underneath but it seems to extend back somewhat onto the roof itself. But, as you mentioned, this is reporting in real time and I haven't had a chance to go down there and check it out. I can't get close enough.

BROWN: And I hope and I believe that viewers understand exactly that that this is live television in its purest and rawest form and we on the one hand are trying to get as much information out to you as we can. On the other hand, we're trying to be as careful as we can and it's a kind of a delicate juggling act sometimes to do both at the same time.

Sean, you've got your hands full don't you? I mean trying to keep track of a fire on one side of town off to screen right as we look at you and a building coming apart perhaps on the left side of you or screen left of us and you're in an area, as you pointed out, that's not nearly the worst of it. It's not -- we can tell in just looking at what Anderson and Rob are going through...

CALLEBS: Right.

BROWN: ...in Beaumont it's a fair amount nastier.

CALLEBS: And it's interesting too because, as you can imagine, being on a barrier island when this storm was wobbling, we were talking about the cone that you and Chad have talked about and we had discussions with managers today. Do we want to be on this barrier island? Do we not want to be on this barrier island?

And, basically a decision was made, look, we don't want to put anybody at risk if you want to get off. The big concern obviously if 120 to 150 mile-an-hour winds hit this island there's basically no protection and there's no way off. And the bigger concern, the unknown, the storm surge.

A couple of days ago forecasters were talking about 28-foot storm surge and basically the highest point on this island is only 22 feet, so there was a lot of concern about that.

So, it seems somewhat ironic that here in the early hours of this storm punishing the island we're talking about fires and we're talking about a roof that had been ripped off and the wind really hasn't picked up yet.

BROWN: You know, as Max Mayfield points out to us and Chad Myers, our severe weather expert points out to us, this forecasting of hurricanes even in this day and age is a relatively imprecise business that you talk about a cone, a fairly wide area that can be hit the hardest.

But which side of the hurricane you're on, which side of the eye passes you makes an enormous difference in the kind of damage, in the kinds of winds you experience, the amount of rain you get the kind of damage that may occur because of it.

And it's only when the hurricane really closes in, as it's done over the last day really that it became clear that it was going to jog a little bit away from Galveston, which it's done, a little more toward Beaumont and really even more so toward Lake Charles, Louisiana, all of which is to the east. And so, whereas 24 hours ago you did seem to be very much in a predictable center of this thing, the folks in Galveston got a bit of a break.

CALLEBS: They did. They did and the folks got out of here. The mayor told everybody two days ago get out. Police were going through with bullhorns. They were going knocking on doors to people they know were disabled or the people who didn't have transportation off this island.

They also got busses. They took people off and we heard people in the Louisiana area say they were very disappointed they had to leave pets behind. Well, this mayor here said, you know what, if you want to bring your pet and you're going to evacuate, if that will help you get off the island then go.

They did everything they could to try and get people off this island and let's hope that pays off in the morning when we're just talking about rainfall and hopefully some low-lying flooding that we don't have any casualties here.

BROWN: You have to in truth be impressed with the mayor and city officials in Galveston and how they managed what is for them a fairly complicated evacuation because it's an island and you hope that people don't feel like they were crying wolf and won't listen the next time. Sean, thank you very much, Sean Callebs who is in Galveston.

And, again, there's a fire burning in downtown Galveston. There is some evidence that a roof or at least an overhang and a hotel in Galveston has blown off or is in the process of blowing off and that's not the worst of it in terms of the weather.

Rob Marciano, who is both reporter and meteorologist for us, is in the Beaumont, Texas area and, Rob, you know, does the scientist in you say this is what I thought it would be like or is it saying something else?

MARCIANO: You know what, there's been so many hurricanes in the past three weeks they're all starting to blend together, I got to be honest with you. They all -- they all feel the same in a few respects.

You know what you get pounded by -- you get pounded by wind and at some point when the eye gets closer to you stuff starts to fall -- starts to fly around and you got to take some cover. So, generally speaking they're not very pleasant things to be in and the good news here in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area nobody wants to stick around to witness it. They've all -- they've all headed for the hills in Houston and Galveston and Lakes Charles as well.

Just in the last ten minutes, Aaron, the winds really have started to pick up. I just moved back a little bit from this U-Haul that's been protecting us. It is really starting to whip down this road.

So, I see the significant increase in the winds here just in the last 20 minutes. We had a little lull there where it really wasn't doing much of anything as far as increasing and then the last, actually really the ten minutes it just picked up a little bit.

So, obviously the storm is getting closer. It doesn't seem like it's veered off from what I've heard Chad tell you, so we're still in the path of this thing, likely going to get it sometime later.

BROWN: Rob, as you look around, is there a lot of debris flying around or not a lot of debris flying around?

MARCIANO: Not -- if there's anything that surprised me, Aaron, it's probably that. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of debris flying around and the winds have been strong enough to warrant that.

At the very least -- at the very least some of these trees that haven't seen a decent storm in a long time, you know, (INAUDIBLE) with some of this wind but I saw a little bit of branches, some leaves but nothing else of major consequence, yet. Anderson, what are you seeing over on your end? Or, Aaron, I'm sorry. I was told to toss to Anderson.

BROWN: That's okay. At my end it's a heck of a lot more comfortable than it is at your end and that...

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