updated 9/21/2005 10:22:36 AM ET 2005-09-21T14:22:36

Guest: Jimmy Weekley, Jack Stevens, Jerry Stephens, Steve Panariello,

Richard Wagenaar, Henry Garrett, Eddie Trevino, Robert Eckels, Joe Jackson

RITA COSBY, HOST:  Breaking news tonight, an eerie prediction that Hurricane Rita could soon become a major hurricane.  It could become a category four or even five as it moves across the Gulf of Mexico.  No matter where it goes, it will be dangerous.  NBC's Donna Gregory is live in storm-battered Key West, Florida.

But first, let's go NBC Weather Plus meteorologist Bill Karins, who has the very latest on the storm—Bill.

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHER PLUS METEOROLOGIST:  I want to bring you up to date.  The hurricane hunters are currently into the storm, and we're looking at the latest observations.  The pressure continues to drop, now down to 967 millibars.  The eyewall they report is closed off for the first time, and they found a maximum wind of 108 miles per hour.

The bottom line, Rita continues to intensify.  The latest from hurricane center had the winds at 105, pressure at 969, but we just saw that that's dropping, moving west at 12, and now safely into the Gulf, safe for this storm, at least.

As far as Key West goes, still some wind and still some rain.  This was a close call for Key West.  The worst of it was just barely to your south.  I think the coastline of north Cuba was hit pretty hard from this storm.  We'll probably see some amazing pictures out of there as we go throughout the day tomorrow.

So what everyone wants to know is, Where is this storm heading?  And how strong is it going to be?  The forecast reasoning hasn't changed that much, somewhere from central Louisiana all the way back down to the entire coastline here of Texas is the bull's-eye point.  And if it's on this portion of this forecast, by Louisiana, that would put New Orleans in a very dangerous position because you're in the front right quadrant of the storm.  You would get a lot of wind and a lot of rain.  That's not what we want to see for any location, but we all know how those levee systems are working there in New Orleans.

Category four storm, at least it could peak for a short period of time.  Not out of the question at category five strength, just like Katrina did.  As of now, we're going to just say category 4, though, and it's going to fluctuate over the next couple of days.

As far as our computers go, this is what's going to be critical, watching this path.  Each one of these lines represents one of our powerful computers that predicts where the landfall is going to be.  You can notice it's pretty much everywhere where that yellow cone is.  The furthest to the south, only one of them, down on the Mexico-Texas border.  Now we're kind of getting more of a consensus here, Corpus Christi up to Houston.  And the last two that are just out recently now take it just about to the Texas/Louisiana border.  And of course, Rita, that would mean the whole right front quadrant of the storm and the storm surge would once again be in Louisiana.  We're just going to continue to watch this, and unfortunately, shake our heads over this next week.

COSBY:  All right, Bill.  Thank you very much.

Well, the Florida Keys were pounded by intense wind and rain.  We go now to NBC's Donna Gregory, who's right in the middle of all the action there.  Donna, does it seem the worst is over there, as Bill was talking about?

DONNA GREGORY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  It certainly does, Rita.  In fact, I think the people here would tell you that Key West took more of a spanking than a beating from Hurricane Rita, although we are still feeling some tropical storm-force wind gusts.  And we're told from the hurricane center that that should last until about 11:00 o'clock tonight.

There are still a lot of people out on the streets.  We understand that about 7,000 customers of the 28,000 or so on this island are still without power.  We're seeing spotty power outages in our area.  In fact, the side of the street where I am has no power.  Across the street, power has just returned within the last five minutes.

We are also told by the Monroe County sheriff that people will begin to be able to come back onto the island starting at 7:00 o'clock tomorrow.  And we have some pictures we want to show you of the one area that may be a little difficult to travel on the way down.  This was battered by storm surge from Hurricane Rita earlier today.  This is mile marker 72/73 in the Isla Mirada (ph) area.  It is in the upper Keys, and it's about 27 miles south of the Florida peninsula itself.  This area was covered with water earlier today.  And now they're saying that the water has receded.  However, there's a lot of mud on the roadways, and that may take a little time to scrape off and make these roads passable.

There are all kinds of trucks and bicycles and people walking by here in Key West tonight, Rita.  It is more of a party atmosphere than a post-hurricane atmosphere.  In fact, I think these people are saying margarita now, more than Hurricane Rita, definitely a college fraternity party atmosphere this time of night, very happy that it wasn't much more serious.

Not a lot of flooding to report, and very little wind damage, a few awnings down and a few tree branches, but nothing major, and thankfully, no injuries—Rita.

COSBY:  That's great news.  And when you talk about margarita, of course, I think of Jimmy Buffett from that part of the woods.  How many people actually stayed?  What percentage actually did the evacuation and what remained, Donna?

GREGORY:  They're telling us, Rita, about half.  About 50 percent of the people left the island in those mandatory evacuations that started a couple of days ago.  And about 50 percent of the people stayed, and for varying reasons.  Some were business owners that just wanted to protect their property.  Others, people with no means to get off of the island.  And there is only one road out of here, and they say it is passable to come back, except for that mile marker 72 area.

COSBY:  We can hear all those horns honking in the background.  Real quickly, is there still a theory—I was reading somewhere, Donna, about tornadoes, some of the spawn-off effect of these hurricanes?

GREGORY:  I think the 7:00 o'clock Eastern Time squall that came through was the one that they were very concerned about.  When we talked with the folks at the hurricane center, they said that is the one that would contain some possible tornadoes and water spouts.  But we haven't seen any evidence of that on Key West, at this point, and people here are very thankful for that.

COSBY:  You bet.  Donna, thank you very much.  We really appreciate it.

Well, as you just heard from Donna, the Keys were really spared the worst of it, but Hurricane Rita could still bring around eight inches of rain to the area.  But the good news, as you just heard from Donna, is residents are beginning to return to the Keys tomorrow morning starting at 7:00 AM that they will be able to go back in.  Again, lots of people did evacuate.  A lot of people did stay.  But the good news is not a lot of damage, not a lot of wind damage.  And they got past that 7:00 PM hurdle just about two hours ago, where they were so worried about a tornado or other high winds spawning off.  Sounds like they got through the worst of it.

Again, also, we do know that some people are without power in the lower Keys.  We're just getting some readings saying that about 7,000 to 28,000 residents and business customers are without power at some point tonight.  And of course, the good news is not a lot of damage and no serious injuries, as you heard from Donna.

And we're joined now by Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley, who has been down there braving the storm.  What's your assessment of how Hurricane Rita was in your area, Mayor?

MAYOR JIMMY WEEKLEY, KEY WEST:  We were very, very fortunate.  You know, we were anticipating a category two or possibly a category three.  But the storm moved a little bit to the south this morning, and that put us in a category one condition.  So we were quite happy with that.

And assessing the area today, earlier today, we saw that there was very little damage.  And there was some flooding normally in the areas that generally flood out on Atlantic Boulevard and over on French Street, on the Gulf side of the island.  So we thought that, looking around, we did not see as much damage as we did in Hurricane Dennis or Hurricane Katrina.  So with that, we're quite fortunate.

COSBY:  You bet.

WEEKLEY:  You know, we're still going through it.  Tomorrow morning, of course, we'll assess the city again to see what kind of damage may have been caused during the evening that we weren't able to see earlier.  So—but overall, we were very lucky.

COSBY:  What about a storm surge and high winds?  Does it feel like the worst is over with?  And is there any sort of coastal damage?  You're right there in the peak of it.

WEEKLEY:  Well, we'll probably have some damage at the beach.  We normally do when we have a storm come through like this.  But the storm surge that we were anticipating earlier yesterday did not happen.  They were telling us we were going to get somewhere around a nine-foot storm surge, and we didn't get anywhere near that.

So one of the things happened originally, when they were talking about the storm surge, it was coming at the time of a high tide.  And when we did finally get the storm surge, we were not in a high tide mode.  So that was very fortunate, you know, in saving some of the flooded areas.

COSBY:  Now, Mayor, what do you attribute that to?  The eye of Hurricane Rita seemed to be, from the latest we were reading, 50 miles south-southwest of Key West.  Do you believe that maybe she just wasn't packing a strong punch or that you got spared because of the direction of the storm?

WEEKLEY:  I think maybe it was the direction of the storm.  I know the western part of the county—of the Key—I'm sorry—the northern part of the county up in the Keys got a little more impact early on than we did.  When we were anticipating some of the bands coming through, we did not get the amount of rain that we thought we would from those bands early on.  As the day progressed and as we got into evening, that's when we started getting the higher winds and a little bit more rain.

We still did not get the amount of rain that was being anticipated by the storm.  We were looking at somewhere between six to ten inches.  I think we fell far short of that.  We probably got maybe around two, two-and-a-quarter inches, I think.

COSBY:  And what's the sense of the residents there, particularly after Hurricane Katrina?  Do you think they heeded the warning?  Do you think they took this one a little more seriously?

WEEKLEY:  I think a lot of people, you know, with Hurricane Katrina still fresh on their minds, saw the devastation that occurred there.  And early on, when we were being told it was going to be a category two or a category three storm, I think that put a lot of fear in a lot of our residents.

We guesstimate that about 50 percent of our residents actually evacuated.  You know, yesterday, hearing from the sheriff's department and the Florida Highway Patrol, the people that were heading up north on US-1, the traffic was about twice as much as normal, so we know that a lot of our citizens did, in fact, evacuate.  Plus, we were providing bus service to residents that didn't have any way to evacuate, and we evacuated approximately 250 individuals through the buses we provided.

COSBY:  All right.  Well, Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley, I'm glad it's good news on your end, sir.  Thanks for being with us tonight.

And still ahead, everybody, again, we are all over the storm.  We're going to have a lot more coverage coming up because even though she came through Key West, she's now churning in the Gulf and may hit Texas or Louisiana.  And who would sit through Hurricane Rita after what happened in the Gulf Coast?  A man who did just that and has some pictures to prove it joins me soon on LIVE AND DIRECT.

And is the government ready for another major storm?  She didn't hit Key West strong, but she could be a category four or five.  What a former FEMA bigwig has to say is shocking about, Is the government ready for twofers?

And if New Orleans gets any more rain, what's going to happen to those very damaged levees?  Could the city flood all over again?  The answer is yes, and it may not take a lot.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS:  We're learning as we go.  And I think the federal government, the state government and local government, we're a lot smarter this time around.  We've been through it before.  We've learned a lot of hard lessons, and now we fully understand what it takes to mobilize under the threat of a significant hurricane.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSBY:  Learning as they go?  Well, officials claim to have learned their lesson after Hurricane Katrina, but they still seem to be sending out a lot of mixed messages.  NBC's Michelle Hofland joins us now from New Orleans.  Michelle, at times, it seems these guys are not even communicating with each other.

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  That's right, Rita.  At the same press conference today, you had the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana, same people, same press conference and two different messages.  First of all, the mayor of New Orleans.  He says he wants people to come back to New Orleans, just not the pets, the children and elderly.  And he said that in that order.  But he wants the people to come back, just not right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NAGIN:  I know some of you were prepared to come back to New Orleans.  You know, just hold on for a little longer.  As soon as we get comfortable that Rita is clear of landfall in Louisiana, where we won't have any major impact, we will get back to our reentry program.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOFLAND:  OK, then the Louisiana governor stepped up to the mike.  She is very worried about Hurricane Rita, and she wants everyone right now to begin evacuating.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA:  We are very concerned.  I am always concerned about hurricanes any time they threaten my state.  And we will take extraordinary precautions.  Our first mission is to save lives, to save as many lives as possible, and we would urge people to evacuate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOFLAND:  Tonight, the Army Corps of Engineers is working around the clock with some city workers to try to do emergency repairs, more emergency repairs on this levee.  One engineer warns that just three inches of rain could swamp the city's levees.

And then you still have other problems.  You have to remember that the Hurricane Katrina ripped the roofs off of so many buildings around here, any rain at all will swamp the inside of the homes all over the place.  And you remember also, Rita—you've seen it—there's debris all over the place.  Any wind at all will start throwing that debris all over, and there's a very concern about that.

Then you have to remember also that the people here, the emergency workers, the police officers, the sheriff's department and all the volunteers, they have been working around the clock for more than three weeks.  They're very exhausted.  They're overwhelmed.  And frankly, they're really worried about another hurricane hitting this area.  Back to you.

COSBY:  All right, Michelle.  It's really troubling to hear.  Thank you very much.

And with the threat of another major hurricane, it appears the lessons from Katrina now have the government scrambling to get help in the right places and get it fast.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD:  We have nearly 500 buses that are staged and ready to be used in an evacuation, if that is necessary.  but we have water and MREs ready to support a population of about 500,000, should that be necessary.  Around the clock, we will do reassessments and if there's an evacuation ordered sometime in the future or a high alert status is obtained, we will be ready to react.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSBY:  Well, on the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, on top of trying to pick up the pieces, some places are already evacuating again.  And we're joined now by Sheriff Jack Stevens of St. Bernard parish, one of the areas that was really decimated by Hurricane Katrina.  First of all, Sheriff Stevens, how are you doing, my friend?  You and I talked—we were talking face to face in New Orleans on Friday.  How are you and your guys holding up?

SHERIFF JACK STEVENS, ST. BERNARD PARISH:  Actually, we're doing pretty well.  But this falls into the category of just when you think things can't get more screwed up, they do.  We're in the process now of an evacuation of our parish again, most of which consists of construction personnel and emergency personnel.  This storm is still a bit unpredictable.

But It's a setback.  Obviously, we're tired, but we're doing the best we can under the circumstances.  And if we've learned anything, is that I guess it's better to be—to move in an abundance of caution than not.

COSBY:  Yes, absolutely.  And how bad off are your officers, Sheriff Stevens?  You know, I was reading—and I know when I was there, they were exhausted.  They were wiped.  I'm hearing now that even paychecks are in question and they're on, what, food stamps?  They're applying for food stamps?

STEVENS:  Yes, that's right.  You know, we've asked all of these officers to make sacrifices certainly we never anticipated, and that's working 18 to 20 hours a day in the most extreme conditions you can imagine.  Now their families are scattered all over the southeastern part of the United States.  And now we're in a position where today's the 20th, I made the last payroll that I can make without any assistance.  We're absolutely in a negative revenue situation.  We rely on sales tax and (INAUDIBLE)  It's totally interrupted.  We don't have addresses to mail our property tax bills to, and we certainly don't have any business activity to collect any sales tax on.

So without some relief from the state or the federal government, this law enforcement district is in jeopardy of going down.  I don't know what happens, and I guess the last guy out turns the lights off.  We've been yelling about this for two weeks, really haven't gotten any sufficient or adequate response.  I think it goes right back to the fact that the federal and state government is so ill prepared to deal with a catastrophe like this that it makes you shudder to think that—how vulnerable we might be in the event of a terrorist attack.

There are things to be learned from this.  Unfortunately, it's a tragic lesson that takes this learning experience to the next level.  but we need to do a lot better job than we're doing.  This emergency response that we've had has been absolutely—it's almost as big a disaster as the disaster.  And it's not that people are not trying, but we're just not prepared for these type of things.

COSBY:  You bet.  And Sheriff, you know, I was there on the ground

with you.  I saw how bad it is.  I am just disgusted at how long it's taken

for you guys to get help, and you guys are in one of the most obvious worst

hit areas.  You know, today, Sheriff—I got to get your reaction.  Today

·         if we can show this picture—Mayor Nagin of New Orleans, this happy, happy moment, him shaking Thad Allen's hand, exchanging T-shirts in the midst of all of this.  Do you feel like politics and, like, happiness and trying to be buddy-buddy is overshadowing doing the real deal?

STEVENS:  You know, the truth is, Rita, so many politicians tip-toeing around this thing for fear of pissing somebody off, and we're not getting help that it's unbelievable.  I'm her to tell you that I'm in a unique position in my political career.  I've got no aspirations.  My only aspiration is to try to get to my community back up and on its feet.  I'm not running for anything else.

And you know, I don't have time to go to meetings on aircraft carriers and make decisions.  Let me give you a classic example of something that happened that's just so screwed up.  We had the U.S. Marshals Service come in and offer to support us in our law enforcement effort in St. Bernard.  This afternoon, we called and asked them if they would.  We were told that we had to file an order up through command, and I guess that's the admiral, to get written approval to have the United States Marshals, who are already staged in the New Orleans area, come down and help us enforce the law in St. Bernard parish.  That's the type of bureaucracy and paperwork (INAUDIBLE) frustration kills you.

Let me tell you where we are with this evacuation, basically—almost where we started.  The military pulled out at 6:00 o'clock this morning.  The governor's office ordered a mandatory evacuation yesterday.  They didn't publicize it enough, so this morning, while we thought the military were manning our posts on Parish Road, one of our major thoroughfares coming in, they had people coming back to visit their houses for the first time, a district that encompasses 4,000 homes.

We had to scramble our officers this morning to handle people that were backed up for eight miles because there was no publicity on this mandatory evacuation.  And basically, we were working without the military police that we thought were going to be available until 6:00 o'clock this afternoon.

So it's one screw-up after another.  And you know, we're here on the ground.  We really don't see television or read newspapers, so I don't know who to blame for all this except to say that we're at the bottom of the food chain, and it's obvious that there are failures, there are systematic failures that are involved in this that have to be corrected.

We're dying on the vine down here.  You know, I have not gotten one dollar from FEMA, and we're in the 23rd day of this event?

COSBY:  You have not gotten $1 from FEMA yet?

STEVENS:  Not a red cent.

COSBY:  That's astounding.  Well, we will not forget you, Sheriff Jack Stevens, one of the great guys who's working hard (INAUDIBLE) I've seen you working firsthand.  And everybody at home, every single deputy in your district—you told me this, Sheriff—reported for duty and has continued to this day.  That is so impressive.

Sheriff Stevens, we're going to stay on top of it with you and stay in touch with you.  Thank you very much.

Well, with Hurricane Rita looming large in the Gulf, is FEMA ready to handle another potential disaster?  As you heard from Sheriff Jack Stevens, it's not even handling this one, the first one.  Here's NBC's Chip Reid.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHIP REID, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In Florida, federal officials say the response to Hurricane Rita is already in high gear.  Massive quantities of ice, food and water are moving into position.  Medical and search and rescue teams are ready to roll.  It's all part of an effort by FEMA to avoid the slow, muddled response to Hurricane Katrina that had such disastrous consequences.

The new head of FEMA says this time will be different.

R. DAVID PAULISON, FEMA DIRECTOR:  We are not assuming anything.  We are going to be hooked at the hip with the emergency managers to make sure that we're all prepared.

REID:  But with Rita now gaining strength and people as far away as Texas preparing for a major hurricane, some disaster response experts are wondering if FEMA is ready.

GEORGE SHAW, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY:  It's going to be a very, very tough situation, and there just aren't going to be resources there to devote to yet another disaster.

REID:  Shaw says that's largely because the federal government focused so heavily on terrorism after 9/11 that responding to natural disasters became a low priority.  Critics say that was compounded by putting political appointees with little experience in key leadership positions.

MORRIE GOODMAN, DISASTER RESPONSE EXPERT:  The lack of leadership at FEMA was a huge, huge problem that, hopefully, now has been overcome.

REID:  Goodman says FEMA's new head has spent his entire career in disaster response, and he received good grades last week for his and FEMA's quick response to Hurricane Ophelia on the Carolina coast.

(on camera):  Experts say one reason to be hopeful about FEMA is that the career workers, the ones out in the field doing the hard, dirty work, are about as good at their jobs as they could possibly be.

(voice-over):  And with sufficient resources and good leadership, many are cautiously optimistic that FEMA can be turned around, maybe even in time for Rita.  Chip Reid, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSBY:  So what should we expect from the feds?  Are they up to the task?  LIVE AND DIRECT from Austin, Texas, tonight is Jerry Stephens.  He's a former FEMA regional director who would have been in charge of the areas that could now be affected by Hurricane Rita.

Mr. Stephens, let me ask you about the comment from Sheriff Stevens of St. Bernard's parish.  To this day—this is the hardest hit area, that and the 9th ward.  I saw those both firsthand.  Not one dollar from FEMA?

JERRY STEPHENS, FORMER FEMA REGIONAL DIRECTOR:  Not only is there not one dollar from FEMA, but there are countless reports of people throughout Mississippi and Louisiana who've never seen even a Red Cross person or a FEMA official to this day.

COSBY:  I'll tell you, When I was there, I saw one FEMA chopper.  I think it was the day before I left.  You would think after all the attention, after all the criticism, aren't you even just shocked that they haven't even tried to make a show of it?

STEPHENS:  Well, more importantly, Rita, I'm very concerned about where we are today and can we respond to a category four hurricane hitting the Texas coast?  And the plain fact of the matter is, as your two previous reporters indicated, the emergency workers are maxed out.  FEMA is maxed out.  And all the glowing reports about all these good things that are happening, which are, in fact, good things—we're getting some new leadership, experienced leadership at the national level—the fact remains that at the field level, people are maxed out.  They're exhausted.

COSBY:  So what do we do?

STEPHENS:  Well, we do what we always do, and that's to not depend on the government totally.  We need to prepare for ourselves, for our own families and for those around us.

Now, fortunately, unlike the situation in Louisiana, we have in both Florida and Texas competent officials at the state and local level who know what to do.  They've developed the plans.  They've exercised the plans.  And they're prepared.  Today and in the last previous few hours, the governor of Texas, for instance, has been pulling back the National Guard and other emergency workers out of the Gulf Coast in order to be prepared for Texas.

I was involved in Hurricane Alicia when it hit the Texas coast.  In fact, it hit Houston in '83.  We've come a long way.  But I would say both Floridians and Texans, they know what to do.  We don't have a whining, flip-flopping mayor at the local level...

COSBY:  Yes, I got to ask you, what do you make of Sheriff—you know, Mayor Ray Nagin?  You know, here he is, you know, on one hand, saying, Come in, don't come in.  It doesn't sound like he has any control of his city.  You know, the FEMA folks, when I was even on the ground, one or two that I spoke with on the phone said, Look, you should accept some of the blame, Mayor, instead of pointing the blame everywhere else.  Real briefly.

STEPHENS:  There's plenty of blame to go around.  It's like the amateur hour, as Joe Scarborough said last night.  It's like we're standing up, trying to act out a pantomime that we've never experienced.  The mayor clearly knew what he needed to do.  They had the plan.  He didn't exercise it, and he just wanted to point the fingers at everybody else.

We don't have flip-flopping, whining mayors in Texas and Florida.  We have people who are going to act responsibly on behalf of their citizens to save lives.

COSBY:  And that's the right thing.  Thank you very much, Jerry Stephens.  Always good to have you on.  We appreciate it.

And still ahead: After watching what happened with Hurricane Katrina, would you ride out a hurricane?  It sounds crazy.  And I'll ask a man why he did just that in Key West.  And he has the photos to prove it.

And the levees are holding the water out of New Orleans right now, but what if the city gets more rain?  What's the real danger?  There is a big concern tonight.

And the Jackson family is getting involved in the recovery of the Gulf Coast.  Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson's dad, is going to join me now LIVE AND DIRECT.  He's coming up.  There he is, helping evacuees.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSBY:  And the big story that we're following for you tonight, Hurricane Rita.  The Category 2 storm is moving into the Gulf of Mexico with winds clocked at 105 miles per hour.  Right now, the storm is headed towards Texas and could make landfall at the end of the week.  It could reach a Category 4 or 5.  And we will monitor the storm, and bring you the very latest. 

Steve Panariello is on the phone tonight.  He's from Key West, Florida.  He rode out the storm on a house boat.  Steve, I got to ask you, why? 

STEVE PANARIELLO, KEY WEST, FL RESIDENT:  Well this is my home.  I own it.  It didn't look like it would be that bad, when we were looking at the weather this morning and last night it looked like a tropical storm, Category 1.  We've gone through that before a couple times here.  Maybe four times in the last 12 months.  So kind of prepared for it.  I look at it as a test.  For the bigger storms I look at the weaknesses on the boat, where I need lines, and if it gets above a two or three, I'll leave.  But then now, at least, I know where I need to shore up the lines on my place. 

COSBY:  Did you have a whole different feel there?  Not just you, but also your other friends and so forth in Key West, after Hurricane Katrina?  Because I think the folks in New Orleans had the same attitude and, boy, did they get hit hard. 

PANARIELLO:  I'll tell you, I was at the local hardware store, when the word of this came out yesterday morning.  And there was a bit more panic than I'd seen before for such a low-level storm, being a tropical storm when it was announced.  Yes, people were aware how bad it can get now, and there were a lot of—I think, people really felt danger. 

COSBY:  Did you get the sense that officials were taking it more seriously than—as you point out, there's been so many storms.  They always seem to hit that area.  But did you get the sense that this was a little different? 

PANARIELLO:  Well honestly I don't have a sense of what our officials had done, because since I heard about it, I sprung into action and started to protect my place.  And that took about 24 hours.  And for the last 20 or so hours, we've been riding this out.  So it feels like about a week has gone by.  It's only been two days, but kind of have a headache, haven't eaten much, right, lately.  But we did, right here, we did OK.  We rode it out.  But this is the most I wind I'd want to see. 

COSBY:  Well I'm glad that you're safe and sound even though a lot of folks—everybody should get out just in case.  But we appreciate that you're safe and sound tonight, Steve. 

And as little as three inches of water could spell another disaster in New Orleans. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS:  The biggest concern I have right now is storm surge as it relates to the levee system.  The levee systems are very wet.  They're somewhat weakened.  And any type of storm surge would cause flooding, both in our parish and in other parish. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSBY:  That was, of course, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans.  And—so what's being done before Hurricane Rita hits, and it could again hit in the New Orleans area.  Joining us on the phone is Colonel Richard Wagenaar with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.  Colonel, let me ask you, how little rain could have a big impact on your area?  I was reading, what is it, like three inches could just cause flooding alone? 

COL. RICHARD WAGENAAR, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS:  Right.  We think three to six inches will cause flooding anywhere from one to three feet in certain areas of the city. 

COSBY:  And what kind of an impact would that have on the city?  I've been there, I mean, I would imagine that could just be disastrous, again, to have that much water. 

WAGENAAR:  Well it will.  Right now, also because of the pump situation, we do not have 100 percent of the pumps operating at this time.  So that'll be another issue to get the water out of the city again. 

COSBY:  Now, what's the issue with the pumps?  How long until they will be working? 

WAGENAAR:  I can't give you an estimate.  We know that there's one pump station that won't be operational for quite sometime.  Right now, we're somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of having them all operational.  So it really depends on which pump stations, but we have the capacity to handle that water to get it out of the city much faster, and we have enough equipment mobilized to deal with the situation, but because of the way the canals are going to be closed tomorrow at noon, we believe, it'll be a little while before we start pumping water through those canals. 

COSBY:  Let's talk about the levees, because I was seeing that the levees, to really be up to capacity to handle, say, a Category 3 or maybe a Category 4, which Hurricane Rita could be by the time it hits possibly that area, but the levees won't be available to sustain that, until what, June? 

WAGENAAR:  Correct, of next year.  St. Bernard Parish is our big concern.  The one hurricane levee everyone knows is completely gone on the eastern side of St. Bernard.  And so they have one protection levee that's has been compromised in some areas, and it's only six or seven feet high.  That's the one area that—

COSBY:  So what does that mean for St. Bernard?  What does that mean? 

WAGENAAR:  That means that we're continuing to try and re-enforce that levee, but a significant storm surge greater than six or seven feet would over top that levee and reflood St. Bernard. 

COSBY:  What about the other levees, too?  How critical and how sustained are they? 

WAGENAAR:  Right now, we've—the levees, the flood walls that failed, we're going to close those canals off starting at noon tomorrow to protect against any storm surge out of Lake Pontchartrain.  That will have minor impact on pumping out the city, but we'd rather risk not having any surge.  Right—I think the other levees will be fine, if the surge stays anywhere between two and six feet.  Anything greater than that and we'll have significant flooding again. 

COSBY:  What is the worst case scenario, sir?  Say it turns out to be a Category 4, or, god forbid, a Category 5, either one of those.  Does that spell disaster for New Orleans?  Particularly St. Bernard's? 

WAGENAAR:  It would be, you know, another situation, re-watering.  The advantage at this point, though, is because we have the mobilization, we have about 3,000 Corp of Engineer folks down in this area, as well as equipment.  We're a little bit more prepared ahead of time to deal with it, but you would still have significant amounts of water in the city. 

COSBY:  And St. Bernard's does not need that, believe me.  Thank you very much, Colonel.  We appreciate it.  Please keep us posted. 

And, everybody, still ahead, are evacuees in Texas sitting right in the path of the next monster storm? 

And the head of the Jackson clan is working to help the victims in the devastated Gulf region.  Joe Jackson's going to join me live and direct.  He's been in the thick of it today in Texas.  Find out what he's doing to help evacuees. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSBY:  Texas is already hosting thousands of hurricane victims.  Are they prepared for another monster storm?  Stand by for the answers coming your way on LIVE & DIRECT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARI ODZER:  We are at mile marker 95 in Key Largo.  We're getting hit by a major squall now.  You can see here, I'm standing underneath a house.  The homes along here have been built up on platforms like this, just for this reason, to protect against storm surge. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSBY:  And that's Key Largo earlier today.  And it looks like that's what is heading to Texas or New Orleans. 

Hurricane Rita is growing stronger by the hour.  By the time it hits land, it could devastate towns all along the coast of Texas, and maybe Louisiana.  So what are local officials doing to prepare? 

We're joined on the phone by Corpus Christi Mayor Henry Garrett, and also Brownsville Mayor Eddie Trevino. 

Mayor Garrett, let me start with you.  Is your city ready for maybe a Category 3, Category 4 hurricane? 

MAYOR HENRY GARRETT, CORPUS CHRISTI, TX:  Absolutely.  We're getting ready.  We've been in conference all day today.  We're making all the arrangements to go into full operation first thing in the morning.  We're going to join with the city of Port Aransas, at 8:00, and then want to issue a mandatory evacuation for all the high-profile vehicles, like boats, RVs, travel trailers.  And that's not only out of Port Aransas, but the whole north Padre Island and (INAUDIBLE) area.  We (INAUDIBLE) there's a window of opportunity to determine our evacuation decision.  But our emergency operation centers are in operation, and we're doing all the things that we think we need to do as our plan dictates.  But we're moving forward, and this is a very serious storm.  We know that.  We're taking it very seriously.  And we're going to try our best to stay ahead of the game. 

COSBY:  That's good.  And Mayor Trevino, are you ready should it be 3 or 4 or even worse? 

MAYOR EDDIE TREVINO, BROWNSVILLE, TX:  Well, we had some experience last month, or in July, unfortunately, with Hurricane Emily.  So we've not just had a dry run-through, we had a real run-through with regards to activating our emergency operations.  So we're prepared.  Right now, we're at a voluntary evacuation.  We've not made it mandatory.  We're keeping an eye on the storm.  But we're ready to do that on a moment's notice, depending on the direction that the storm takes. 

COSBY:  We're looking at some pictures of Galveston, where they are boarding up, and actually, incidentally, where I'm heading to tomorrow.

Mayor Trevino, do you think it's going to get to the point where you're going to have to call a mandatory evacuation, or are you just sort of playing it by ear because you've got a day or two notice at this point? 

TREVINO:  Well, literally, we have got a four- or five-day notice. 

And right now, yesterday the prognosticators had it hitting Galveston.  Earlier today, it was Port Lavaca, closer obviously to Mayor Garrett's Corpus Christi area.  But we cannot take anything for granted, as I'm sure he's just mentioned. 

So we're ready, and we're making the necessary preparations in conjunction with the county and the other cities here along the coast. 

COSBY:  And of course, it takes a lot of state and federal support. 

Let me show a comment from Texas Governor Perry right here. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY, TEXAS:  We've seen the tragic effects of a deadly hurricane in recent weeks.  But there's no reason to panic if you're prepared and taken an orderly approach to this developing storm.  Now, we hope and pray that Rita dissipates in the Gulf waters, but it's better to be safe than sorry. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSBY:  Mayor Garrett, do you have enough confidence that the state and the feds are going to be able to help you?  I don't know if you heard our earlier interview.  We got a sheriff in St. Bernard Parish, the hardest hit area, basically, of Hurricane Katrina, that and the 9th Ward, two worst areas—still hasn't seen one dollar from FEMA.  Are you worried should it hit in your area that you're going to be left high and dry?

GARRETT:  Well, we're working real close with the governor's office, and I feel very confident that any expenses that we incur, that FEMA is going to come to the table. 

But you know, really, I can't worry about that right now.  My main concern right now is to make sure that we do what is right and implement our plan, and get our people out of harm's way.  We're preparing our evacuation rests, which will be open at 10:00 in the morning.  So we're moving forward.  And we'll worry about (INAUDIBLE) later, but right now, we've got to make sure that we take care of business. 

COSBY:  You bet.  And both of you, we'll be checking with you I'm sure later on in the week.  We wish you the best of luck and your residents too. 

And it's now just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and some of those who fled their homes could be forced to evacuate once again.  Just so troubling news. 

Live and direct from Houston tonight is Judge Robert Eckels.  He coordinates relief efforts at the Astrodome.  Judge Eckels, boy, you and I, it feels like we were talking years ago; it was just a few weeks ago when...

JUDGE ROBERT ECKELS, ASTRODOME RELIEF EFFORTS COORDINATOR:  Time does fly when you're having fun, doesn't it?

COSBY:  Yeah, oh, boy.  And what is the mood of the folks there?  I cannot imagine they're now worrying about yet another hurricane.

ECKELS:  Well, it's much more serious than it was a couple of days ago.  We have started taking people out of the big shelters.  The Astrodome complex is completely closed.  We had about 900 people this morning.  They either found other housing or have been airlifted out to Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Some of them went to Dallas and other places.  We're looking at an evacuation, just as the folks are further south, but it's complicated by the number of evacuees we have here in the city at this time. 

COSBY:  You talked about the Astrodome being cleared out.  I know we've been—when you and I were doing the shows from down there in Houston, a lot of families, a lot of other shelters.  What's happening to these other folks?  Because they're not just in the Astrodome. 

ECKELS:  Well, there's probably 100,000 people still in the Houston area that came out of the storm.  And in fact, I was a little surprised at your comments about FEMA, because the FEMA funds come through the state.  We'll get our first check from FEMA this week.  So in Texas, it's been working pretty well.  Governor Perry and his shop have been flowing (ph) those funds.  We're using those moneys for our operations.  We'll be evacuating folks in those low-lying coastal areas.  We too have called for voluntary evacuations.  We'll get those folks on out to other shelters outside the city.  We will evacuate through Houston from Galveston, low-lying areas along Harris County and in Houston, into shelters up in College Station, Bryan, Dallas-Ft. Worth, maybe Lufkin, Austin.  Many folks will move on, but it's complicated, because I do have, again, several thousand people in those low-lying areas that are Katrina evacuees that we are going to have to arrange additional transit dependent—and special needs kinds of transportation for it that normally we don't have to do in these hurricanes. 

COSBY:  What's the mood of the people too, Judge?  I mean, you know, you had the opportunity to talk to a lot of these folks, about having to move again, not knowing where they're headed to.  How are they holding up?

ECKELS:  Well, they're a little frustrated.  Most of them, though, take it in stride.  They understand that Houston's been good to them.  They appreciate what we've done.  Some of them, you know, say, you know, who do we know in Fort Smith, Arkansas?  But who do we know in Houston?  They're coming out of New Orleans too.  So it depends on where they're going.  And some of them will go to Fort Smith, again, other places within the state.

If we pull the trigger on the mandatory evacuation in those low-lying areas, we hope that they understand that this is a safety issue.  And while it's a frustration to them, at the same time, it's more hazardous to stay in the face of the storm.  And most of these folks, having been through Katrina, they don't want to go through it again.  They understand. 

COSBY:  Yes, they understand how critical it is.  Judge, thank you very much.  We appreciate you being with us again.  It's nice to talk to you again. 

And still ahead, there's help coming from all over, even from the Jackson family.  Joe Jackson joins me with what his family is doing to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  He's coming up next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSBY:  Well like father, like son, both Superstar Michael Jackson and his father, Joe, are doing their part now to now help victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Joe Jackson joins us live from Corpus Christi, where he has been visiting evacuees.  Joe, first of all, tell us what you are doing to help these folks. 

JOE JACKSON, MICHAEL JACKSON'S FATHER:  Well I'm out here, Rita, how are you? 

COSBY:  I am doing great, and I am happy to see that you're doing so well in giving back to these folks.  We're looking at some pictures now.  These folks look thrilled to see you.  What was the reaction from the evacuees when they saw Joe Jackson? 

JACKSON:  Well, you know, they was welcoming me to be there to help them out, but the food I was passing out, what I'm telling you, is real needed down here.  And really, they are very, very proud to have me down here. 

COSBY:  What kind of food—what did you serve them?  I heard you served them, what, a three-course meal tonight?

JACKSON:  Yes.  We were serving beans and meat, also vegetables, and some salad involved too as well. 

COSBY:  What incredible stories, Joe, are they sharing with you?  You know, I been—I just came back from three weeks of covering the hurricane, and just every story just sort of touches your heart.  Are there a couple that just made you cry? 

JACKSON:  Oh, yes.  I mean, tears actually comes out of your eyes, when you see what's going on down here.  We need a lot of help, you know, they'll need a lot of help with this other hurricane coming up. 

COSBY:  Yes.  How worried are they about this next one, called Hurricane Rita?  You know, they are evacuating.  You just heard we had the mayor on not too long ago.  They have already started some voluntary evacuations, right where you are, Joe. 

JACKSON:  Yes.  That's right.  And, you know, they're nailing up everything around here.  I will be out of here real quick in the morning, yes.  I am going to be ahead of it. 

COSBY:  What is the mood of the people you were dealing with tonight?  The thought of these poor people having to move again, because those are the folks from Louisiana who endured the first hurricane. 

JACKSON:  Well you can tell they are very sad what had happened to them, because—you could see the look on their faces.  You know, when you hear about another hurricane that's coming through, you know, it never quits it looks like.

COSBY:  I can't even imagine.  You know, your brother—your son, also, Michael—

JACKSON:  I am very proud he is over there doing his thing over there on his side, and I am doing it on this side, and so we doing it. 

COSBY:  That's what I wanted to ask you, because he's doing a charity single, getting lots of folks organized.  How excited are you?  I mean your whole family has such a big heart. 

JACKSON:  Well, I am glad he is doing it.  I am very excited about that, because, you know, it's needed.  It's very needed for everybody to pitch in as much as they can to help out with the situation. 

COSBY:  And how is Michael doing? 

JACKSON:  Michael is fine.  You know, he is getting it back, and I know he started looking more healthy than he was before.  He's going to be OK. 

COSBY:  You know, Joe, I got to ask your perspective.  I know you and your family,you know, well, and I know this was the, you know, toughest time for you guys the last year or so.  And I would tell you, when I came back from New Orleans, anytime I felt sorry for myself, at least know I had a home to come back to, and I thought about these poor people.  Does it put, I guess, troubles, and the toughest thing you and your family went through, into perspective, when you see these people who have lost so much? 

JACKSON:  Oh my God.  They have lost so much.  And it looks like to me, you know, it happens every year.  You know, these tornadoes, I mean, hurricanes come through here, and they have to run, get out of the city, and then come back.  You know, get out of the city next time, come back.  I would get tired of that. 

COSBY:  It's a very tough process.  Well, Joe, we congratulate you for doing your part, and I am sure those evacuees were just so happy to see you.  It's great what you are doing.  We appreciate you being with us, my friend. 

And still ahead, everybody, the LIVE & DIRECT team spent two weeks bringing you the latest from New Orleans.  We were there on the road a week before that.  Now Hurricane Rita, appropriately called, is headed to Texas, and so are we.  The latest LIVE & DIRECT.  That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSBY:  Well, as you heard, Hurricane Rita is leaving Florida heading into the Gulf of Mexico, and also gaining strength.  Some forecasters say that the storm could become a Category 4 or 5, before it makes landfall, probably on the Texas Gulf Coast.  And to make sure that you get the story LIVE rMDSU_rMDNM_&rMDSU_rMDNM_rMDNM_ rMDNM_DIRECT, we are going to get on a plane tomorrow morning and be bringing you the story from Texas.  No rest for the weary for this journalist.  Remember, we just got back from three weeks from New Orleans in the other area.  Well we plan to show you what is being done to get ready for Hurricane Rita, and to bring it to you as it is happening. 

And that does it for us tonight.  Good night, everybody.  I'm Rita Cosby.  Lisa Daniels is now in for Joe Scarborough.  She continues our coverage.  Lisa, I cannot believe another hurricane.  My hurricane partner Lisa Daniels.

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

END   

Content and programming copyright 2005 NBC.  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc.  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon NBC and Voxant, Inc.'s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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