updated 9/21/2005 10:22:55 AM ET 2005-09-21T14:22:55

Guest: Brent Warr, Duane Gapinski, Ivor Van Heerden, John Scott, Stephen

Leatherman

LISA DANIELS, GUEST HOST:  All right, and Joe is off tonight.  Good evening, everybody. 

And we are watching Hurricane Rita very, very closely, now a Category 2 storm and expected to gain more strength in the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico.  We have got live coverage from Florida all the way across the Gulf.  And we are going to show you where this dangerous storm is going. 

Then, New Orleans evacuating again, the governor of Louisiana already asking for help tonight.  Just inches of water could bust the weak levee system.  Tonight, the big question is, can New Orleans survive Hurricane Rita?  

And we will be talking throughout this hour about New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast, as they prepare for what could be the second dangerous hurricane to hit the region in less than a month.

But, first, to the Florida Keys we go, which Rita blew past on its way from a tropical storm to a Category 2 hurricane. 

Let's go live to Key West, where NBC's Donna Gregory rode out the storm. 

And, Donna, what is the damage assessment? 

DONNA GREGORY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Not very much damage at all, Lisa. 

And people here are very thankful for that. 

In fact, just an hour ago, we spoke with the mayor, who said there was much more flooding during Hurricane Katrina, which came through here just a few weeks ago, as everyone will recall, before it gained strength and hit Mississippi and Louisiana.  But people here are really feeling like this was a storm that could have been much worse for Key West than it was. 

They say that they're overprepared in this case.  And that's a good thing.  The mayor, the state officials and the federal officials who were here said they ordered evacuations here on Sunday, just knowing that a Category 2 storm could cause serious damage in this area. 

Now they are telling us that, at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow, people will be allowed back onto Key West, those 13,000 or so people who left.  They say all of US-1 is passable, except for around mile marker 72, which saw some major flooding.  That's a part of the highway that those who know this area will tell you is just a thin strip of land, and it's basically at sea level, saw a lot of flooding, a lot of storm surge today, and now it's covered with a lot of mud.

They're going to have to bring in some graders, scrape the mud off the roads.  In terms of other damage, we saw some very minor low-level flooding in some of the streets, specifically some of the streets around the airport.  We also saw some tree branches down, some limbs, and some minor damage to some storefronts, basically some awnings, and some pieces of tin that are stapled on basically to the awnings here.  Some of that is ripping off, but no major damage to report. 

Some of the power is still out, about 7,000 people still without power

·         Lisa. 

DANIELS:  Donna Gregory, thanks so much. 

And, tonight, Rita is gaining strength.  The big question is, of course, where is this monster heading? 

And for that, let's go straight to NBC's Weather Plus and Bill Karins. 

And, Bill, every time we check in with you, it seems like Rita is growing bigger and stronger.  It just doesn't seem like a good picture at all. 

BILL KARINS, NBC METEOROLOGIST:  No. 

Well, the good news is, it can't continue forever.  This storm will peak at some point, just like Katrina,  Katrina peaked at a Category then slowly weakened down to a Category 4 before landfall.  Hopefully, this storm will peak in a hurry out in the middle of the Gulf and then weaken from there.  We are just going to have to wait and see. 

It's almost a Category 3 storm.  The latest information in from the hurricane center says the pressure continues to drop, and the storm continues to get even bigger.  We were talking about Key West.  This was a close call for Key West.  If this storm had gone about 10 miles further to the north, Key West would have been in some of those winds, possibly up to about 100 miles per hour. 

Luckily, for them, went the storm went by, it was pretty much in a weaker state at the time.  The storm has significantly strengthened since then, thunderstorms wrapping all the way around that center.  This looks like a classic hurricane at this point.  When it was by Key West, it did not. 

Just to give you a different example, you don't need to be a major in meteorology or even a meteorologist to find the center of this storm.  We will now easily be able to track the center, the eye of the storm clearly being defined here.  And, of course, the question, Lisa, is, where is the storm heading?  The forecast track has not changed that much.  We are still looking at the Louisiana, western portions of the state, all the way through the Texas coast. 

Category 4, definitely.  It looks like it will get to that status.  The question is, will it be a strong Category 4, possibly Category 5, or will it be a lower-end four, maybe a 3, big difference when you talk about those major categories at landfall. 

DANIELS:  So, let's talk bluntly for a second, Bill.

KARINS:  All right. 

DANIELS:  Is this dangerous?  Are we looking at a monster or not? 

KARINS:  If it wasn't for Katrina, I think this storm, everyone would be saying, is this the next Camille?  That's the level this storm will be at.  But because we are going to compare so many storms now to Katrina, it's almost unimaginable to mention a storm being worse than Katrina.  This one will probably be another one in the $1 billion range for costliest storms.

This could be up there somewhere with an Andrew or maybe even a Camille, when we talk about comparisons.  And the odds of it happening only three weeks after probably the storm of the century is almost unimaginable.  But that's what we are going to be dealing with, unless something changes. 

And we don't see that happening right now. 

DANIELS:  You know, I have heard you many times say that, to the right of that path, that's where the storm surge is.  I am looking at New Orleans. 

KARINS:  Right. 

DANIELS:  That bullseye there.  Are you worried? 

KARINS:  I am concerned with New Orleans, any slight track to the north. 

I want to have James, our weather producer, go and put on our model forecast.  This is what we are going to be watching closely here.  Every single one of these lines indicates a different potential path that all of our high-tech computer models are taking it.  And some of the latest computers that have come out recently are now taking it, instead of over Houston, a little bit to the right of Houston, almost on the Texas-Louisiana border.  That's these two right here.

If that was the path, everywhere to the right of there, that's the whole Louisiana coastline.  That would mean heavy rain, gusty winds for New Orleans, possibly a storm surge, too.  So, we will have to wait and see how this all plays out, but I don't like how the latest trends are going.  We will have to wait to see what the Hurricane Center says here shortly with their new update, which I will hopefully bring you at the end of this show.  So, stay tuned. 

DANIELS:  All right, but, Bill, I am looking.  You have five paths there, five lines. 

KARINS:  Yes.  Yes. 

DANIELS:  Given any one of those lines, what is the rainfall that New Orleans is looking at? 

KARINS:  Well, if it was this bottom green line here, the furthest to the south, that would just be a brush for New Orleans.  We are talking maybe a half-an-inch to an inch of rain.

If it was the path that takes it towards Corpus Christi or maybe possibly up towards Houston, that way, we are talking maybe two, three inches of rain.  If it was this path, these two blue ones or the magenta one here, then we are talking a lot of rain.  I can't even imagine what it would be like if that happened.  That would be the equivalent of maybe a tropical storm heading right over the city. 

DANIELS:  All right.  Let's quickly just go live to that weather system that we had a picture that we can put back up.  How big is this? 

KARINS:  How big is the storm?

DANIELS:  What is the magnitude?  It looks huge. 

KARINS:  This is what—what is amazing. 

Usually, you get storms that are powerful and small, like Charley was last year or Andrew years ago.  It's just so rare that we now have two storms in a row that are monsters, that are going to cover up practically half or three-quarters of the Gulf of Mexico. 

I mean, it's very unusual to get large storms and powerful storms, but that's likely what we are going to be dealing with here in the next 24 to 48 hours.  I mean, we have clouds now from this system all the way heading into Georgia.  And you can't see the bottom of this map.  But they go all the way down into Jamaica, practically, so just another huge storm, powerful, yes, but just large and immense.  It's going to affect a huge area of the coastline, even if it goes inland in Texas.  Louisiana will have impacts from this storm and possibly even northern Mexico. 

DANIELS:  I think you make a great point.  Just because Katrina was huge shouldn't take away from this storm.

KARINS:  Right. 

DANIELS:  Looking behind you, it looks big. 

KARINS:  Yes. 

DANIELS:  I mean, this could be dangerous. 

KARINS:  Yes. 

I mean, there's no question.  Because of Katrina, we don't want to have a panic after this storm.  You know, we don't want people evacuating that shouldn't evacuate.  I think the rationale now is, prepare for the worst and we are just going to hope for the best. 

DANIELS:  All right, Bill. 

KARINS:  OK.

DANIELS:  We will check back with you.  Thanks so much. 

And now let's turn to the question of whether the government is prepared for this storm, especially after all those problems with Hurricane Katrina. 

NBC's Chip Reid has that story.

(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)

DANIELS:  You know, we are just three weeks out of Katrina.  Here we go again.  It just seems like deja vu all over again. 

Rita is not only causing problems here.  Today, Rita crossed Cuba, whipping Havana with gusting winds and leaving the city knee-deep in water, before moving toward the U.S. 

Let's bring in Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University.

Here's my problem.  You don't want to exaggerate the urgency of this storm.  Then again, you hear reports from Key West, people partying, having a carnival-like atmosphere.  Again, shove aside for a second all the scientific terms.  Are you worried? 

DR. STEPHEN LEATHERMAN, DIRECTOR, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY

INTERNATIONAL HURRICANE RESEARCH CENTER:  Well, certainly, I worry with a storm this large and this powerful.

Key West is sort of like a miniature New Orleans.  It's not—it's—in many ways, the way people are partying, as you mention.  But, of course, they have a lot of experience, and again, this storm did not really hit Key West, as we saw.

DANIELS:  But the problem with that experience is, people say, I have lived through a Category 1, Cat 2, Cat 3.  But we forget that Cat 1, Cat 2, Cat 3 are very, very dangerous.  What is the size of this monster we call Rita that we are looking at? 

LEATHERMAN:  Well, we are very much afraid, as you know, that, by the time it gets to landfall in Texas or Louisiana, most likely Texas, it will be a Category 4 hurricane.  I think that's what most people are feeling, that it will be that size. 

And being as large as it is, it's going to affect a vast area.  I guess the big problem area is going to be New Orleans.  That's first on the list, of course, already been hit very hard.  Number 2 would be the Houston-Galveston area, which was last hit by Hurricane Alicia in 1983, a major hurricane, Category 3, did a lot of damage.  And, of course, another area would be Corpus Christi or, farther down, South Padre Island, which people are living on barriers islands there, as they are in Galveston. 

So, those are kind of hot spots when Rita comes ashore. 

DANIELS:  All right.  Let's say Galveston is the bullseye.  Let's just assume that for a moment.  What is the damage factor that we are looking at? 

LEATHERMAN:  Well, Hurricane Alicia came in as a Category 3. 

We saw a fairly large storm surge, 10 to 12 feet, generated.  I had who were friend living there, and they said, oh, I live in a great house, and had to evacuate.  Sure, the house stood up.  The windows blew out, but guess what?  The storm surge forced all the snakes out of the marshes and the lights go out, and you have got rattlesnakes in the room with you.  A friend of mine had that experience. 

Believe me, you don't want to stay behind.  Then, of course, in Houston, we saw a lot of windows blown out during Alicia, high-rise buildings.  Hopefully, that problem has been corrected.  But, at a Category 4, things get even more severe, much more severe than a Category 3.  So storm surge, a lot of rain, possibly, a lot of wind damage in the Houston area and throughout that whole vicinity. 

DANIELS:  And, you know, people have to remember that it's not going to be constant.  It's not going to be a Category 4 throughout the whole thing.  It's going to be a 3.  It's going to be a 4.  It's going to be 2.  This thing is going to change.  People have to be aware of that. 

Doctor, just hang on a second. 

We are going to go to Coast Guard Lieutenant John Scott.  He's a helicopter pilot who saved 163 people in the aftermath of Katrina.  And he joins us on the phone, too, from Houston. 

And, Lieutenant, you know, you guys have been through so much in the last three weeks.  There's got to be a fatigue factor, and yet you are all so devoted.  How worried are you about this next one? 

LT. JOHN SCOTT, U.S. COAST GUARD:  Well, this one is a little bit more closer to home.  As you can see, I am from Houston.

And, you know, we went over there to help out with the people in New Orleans.  And it's somewhat detached, since it really wasn't our hometown, but you could also see the effects on those who actually did live there.  And my hat is off to them.  It's tough to stand up and do your job when you got all those things on your mind. 

And now that's what I have to look forward to, as well as the rest of the people here.  And, you know, it's hard to say at this point what the storm is going to do, but, yes, it's very stressful, because I have never been through this type of situation myself. 

DANIELS:  Do you feel ready at all? 

SCOTT:  Yes, it's something that we do here.  We have a bill or a set of instructions for just about any type of event that may come up, and we just grab the book.  We start going through the steps.

And, basically, one of the primary issues is to make sure that our families are taken care of and we have an evacuation plan in effect.  And most families are already working on that, and we will be out of here hopefully in time.  As far as the air station goes, we have got water that we brought in from New Orleans that they had excess from the storm, and food, MREs. 

We are getting the shutters out.  We have got an evacuation plan for the helicopters.  They will be sent over to, more than likely, Lake Charles and wait the storm out and hopefully be able to come back right afterwards. 

DANIELS:  Well, I have seen the U.S. Coast Guard in action.  You guys are terrific.  I know you are up to the challenge. 

Dr. Stephen Leatherman, Lieutenant John Scott, thanks so much, both of you, for being with us, and all the best of luck. 

DANIELS:  As Rita barrels toward the Gulf in New Orleans, a race to make sure those levees don't break again.  Some say they may not be able to withstand a major punch from Rita.  Is the city in danger again?

And then New Orleans, still a dangerous, toxic mess.  Can the government be ready after all those mistakes that have already been made? 

We are going to tackle that hot one when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns. 

Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  Dirty, toxic water still the reality in New Orleans, as the city races to avoid diseases from spreading, but could Hurricane Rita be a second disaster? 

We will be on that story when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  Texas prepares for Rita's wrath, evacuating off-shore rigs earlier this evening. 

And, in New Orleans today, they are anxiously watching Rita's path.  They are crossing their fingers, hoping she spares that city a second punch. 

NBC's Kevin Tibbles has the latest from the city struggling to come back to life—Kevin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Lisa, tonight, New Orleans officials are taking this new storm very seriously and vow to be ready this time, should it turn in its direction. 

(voice-over):  Katrina-ravaged Louisiana says it is prepared to get people out. 

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA:  Our first mission is to save lives, to save as many lives as possible. 

TIBBLES:  Today, after weeks of rancor between local and federal officials, there was a public attempt at reconciliation, with the New Orleans mayor now in full agreement that residents should stay away. 

RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS:  And I know some of you were prepared to come back to New Orleans.  You know, just hold on for a little longer. 

TIBBLES:  But there's confusion and anger at the checkpoints into the city. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And they are denying us access into our homes, which, in my opinion, is un-American, unacceptable, unconscionable, and inhumane. 

TIBBLES:  As baffled residents are turned away. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I got four guys inside with no vehicle. 

TIBBLES:  The concern, the city's levees are still severely damaged. 

COL. RICHARD WAGENAAR, NEW ORLEANS CORPS OF ENGINEERS:  If she turns north, then we are going to be very concerned about the surge for St.  Bernard. 

TIBBLES:  Touring the damaged region today, the president praised Mayor Nagin's new stance. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  He made a wise decision to say to people, be cautious about returning here. 

TIBBLES:  As did Albert Gilson (ph), who rode out Katrina here and now awaits Katrina. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If it was a bad decision, well, live with it, but the fact is that he is trying to get this city up and going. 

TIBBLES:  Still, many are critical of the seemingly endless back and forth. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Who's right?  I don't know. 

TIBBLES:  For Peter Spawn (ph) and his wife, Stacy (ph), the latest change of instructions was the last straw.  Today, they are packing up and leaving, for good this time. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes, I think, definitely, one of the reasons we are getting out of town, and just I think—just not having to deal with, you know, wondering who to listen to. 

TIBBLES (on camera):  Are you going to come back? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No.  We are out of here. 

TIBBLES:  And where are New Orleans residents being asked to go, should there be an evacuation?  Back to the now infamous downtown Convention Center, from which two busloads have already left today—Lisa. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DANIELS:  All right, Kevin Tibbles, thanks so much. 

Let's go live now to NBC's Michelle Hofland in New Orleans, where they are keeping a very close eye on the track of Rita. 

Michelle, I was just there with you a week ago.  You know as well as I do, there is garbage everywhere.  There is water on many of the streets, even in the downtown area.  When you speak to officials, are they saying to you, yes, we can handle this? 

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  You know, what they are saying is that they are overwhelmed.  They are exhausted. 

I just spoke with some police officers, and what they told me is that they have just about had it.  They haven't been getting their overtime.  Some other officers say that they are just not equipped for this, because they lost all their weapons, all their bulletproof vests and things.  They lost all that in the last flood.  You know what?  There's a lot of exhaustion, a lot of frustration around here. 

It's more than a feeling of, oh, here we go again.  It's more like, oh, my God.  This cannot possibly happen to us again.  I spoke with some business people.

(CROSSTALK)

HOFLAND:  Go ahead.  I'm sorry. 

DANIELS:  Oh, I was going to ask, you know what else is interesting, we just saw in that last story from Kevin Tibbles that these New Orleans residents, they are confused.  When I was down there, a lot of the residents in the French Quarter were saying, we like this guy.  We like the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin.  He is a guy that talks tough.  We understand that.  We like what he is saying. 

But now he is doing all these 180s.  And I am wondering what the sense is now.  Do they still hold him up to be a hero, or do they think he is just a very confused person? 

HOFLAND:  Well, the people here certainly are confused. 

I mean, this business owner right here at this restaurant that we have been at for the past couple of days, you know, they were told, come down.  Get ready.  Get ready to open.  So, they pulled off their shutters off.  They got ready to start setting up.  And now they are back today boarding their building up. 

A lot of business owners are racing to pull their records out.  They are wondering what in the world is going on.  They are trying to do some emergency repairs, because, if the rain comes from Hurricane Rita, they certainly don't want to get all their buildings wet again. 

DANIELS:  Right. 

HOFLAND:  And that's the same thing with the homeowners.  They're like, OK, so, should we leave?  Should we stay?  And they are not getting the messages. 

Imagine driving six, eight, 10 hours, waiting three weeks to get to your home.  Then you get here, and you find out that you are not allowed in. 

DANIELS:  It's just unimaginable. 

HOFLAND:  It just is overwhelming and exhausting, yes.

DANIELS:  Michelle, just hang on a second. 

(CROSSTALK)

DANIELS:  I want to bring in Ivor Van Heerden.  He's the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. 

And, you know, there's so much disagreement, even as to how much rain the levees can take.  What do you think of these numbers?  Mayor Nagin is saying that anything over nine inches of rain and three-foot storm surge could cause flooding in the city.  You think those numbers are accurate? 

IVOR VAN HEERDEN, LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY HURRICANE CENTER:  Well, the pumping capacity in the city is obviously not as good as it was before Katrina.  So, they are going to have difficulty getting rid of any rain water that falls in the city. 

If we had nine inches of rainfall in New Orleans, there would definitely be some flooding in some areas. 

DANIELS:  OK. 

VAN HEERDEN:  In terms of the surge...

DANIELS:  Yes, in terms of the surge—go ahead. 

VAN HEERDEN:  In terms of the surge, the eastern part of New Orleans, New Orleans east and St. Bernard Parish, potentially would flood with a three-foot surge, because the levees are so degraded.  There are very, very long sections of levee that have been totally knocked down, so three foot of surge could flood Orleans east again. 

DANIELS:  Now, I keep on thinking back to when I was in those streets, and there's so much water still in the streets.  I cannot imagine any more water being contained in the city. 

I guess the bottom line is, Ivor, are you worried that New Orleans is in danger?  What is the bottom line? 

VAN HEERDEN:  The worst-case scenario would be if this—Hurricane Rita continued to move to the right and got closer and closer to New Orleans.  Some of the levee systems wouldn't tolerate even the storm surge associated with a tropical storm. 

If we had a Cat 1 or Cat 2 equivalent storm just west of New Orleans, we could again see some very, very significant flooding from those weakened canals, the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal. 

DANIELS:  Michelle, you know how—how hard information passes between us and people in the French Quarter.  They don't have TVs, and they often come by the journalists and they ask them, what's the latest?  Do you think they have any idea of the potential storm that might hit them? 

HOFLAND:  The people down here, is that what you are asking? 

VAN HEERDEN:  Yes, the people especially in the French Quarter. 

HOFLAND:  Do people down here have any idea how strong?

Well, they have been now listening to the radio.  There is the radio station that everyone has been listening to, and they are listening to that very, very closely, because, as you know, they don't have electricity.  They can't watch TV.  So, what they are trying to do, listening in their cars, listening on their battery-operated radios, to see exactly where is Rita coming. 

They—some of them have said they really didn't worry about hurricanes before, but, boy, they are worried about them now, and they are listening and watching and worrying. 

DANIELS:  And I am sure their fingers are crossed. 

(CROSSTALK)

VAN HEERDEN:  Can you just send me an e-mail?  I think you have my e-mail address. 

DANIELS:  All right.  Well, I don't know who you are talking to, but I appreciate all the knowledge.

And, Michelle, thanks so much. 

Ivor Van Heerden, thanks. 

And, as we have been saying, FEMA has had a lot of problems handling one crisis.  The question is, is it ready for another natural disaster this week?  We are going to tackle that part of the story next. 

And Rita slaps Florida.  Is it a preview of another monster storm?  We are going to head back to the Keys live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  Katrina's devastating storm surge virtually put New Orleans under water, but could Hurricane Rita pose another threat of massive flooding?  We are going to be on that next.

But, first, here's the latest news from MSNBC Headquarters. 

(NEWS BREAK)

DANIELS:  And we are tracking Hurricane Rita, as the 17th named storm of the season moves along the Gulf Coast.  And some predictions have that storm wreaking havoc on the already beaten Gulf Coast. 

Rita has already pounded South Florida, and, tonight, it is gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico. 

And welcome back, everybody, to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  I am Lisa Daniels, in tonight for Joe. 

Let's go back to Florida and a firsthand look at Rita.  Patricia Andreu from NBC station WTVJ is live tonight in Key Largo. 

It looks pretty peaceful right now. 

PATRICIA ANDREU, WTVJ REPORTER:  It does, Lisa, finally, after a whole day of gusting winds and rain that was driving very hard here. 

We got about three to six inches in the upper Keys.  I am right now in Key Largo.  We were driving around all over the upper Keys today.  And, of course, as you know, there's really one way in and one way out to the Keys.  So, therefore, as Rita was starting to make her way over to us, the mandatory evacuation warning went out, and, according to Florida Highway Patrol officials, they estimate about 50 percent of Keys residents actually heeded the warning and took to the road, headed north to the mainland to escape Rita. 

If that estimate proves to be true and holds true, then that will be more of evacuation that we have seen in a long time.  Of course, Keys residents are used to tropical storms and hurricanes.  They tend to be a hearty bunch and like to ride it out.  But because, officials believe, of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, a lot of people really took Rita a lot more seriously and didn't want to stick around.  There isn't much shelter here in the Keys, which is why they always order these mandatory evacuations. 

In fact, storm surge and flooding is a huge issue, as well any kind of wind storm damage, because you have the ocean on one side.  You have the Gulf on the other.  So, therefore, it really—you have nowhere to go, and you get trapped a lot of the time. 

DANIELS:  Patricia.

(CROSSTALK)

ANDREU:  Yes.  Go ahead. 

DANIELS:  Let me just ask you this, because you mentioned people are taking this seriously.  And I don't want to dwell on it, but we did hear reports that, in some areas, there was a carnival-like atmosphere, that people were, you know, bringing scuba-diving equipment in the streets.  Did you see any of that? 

ANDREU:  That, I believe, happened more down towards Key West, where a lot of people were out, getting into the water, and hanging out in the bars that did remain open along Duval Street. 

Up here in the upper Keys, we saw a couple of businesses that did remain open, and they were quite full with a lot of the residents who decided to ride out Rita here at home.  But, by the same token, we did see a lot of places boarded up, and a lot of people heading out in the days leading up to Rita coming here today.

So, again, it's always a mixed bag that you are going to get, a lot of people thinking that they survived so many hurricanes before, so they could ride out this one, too. 

ANDREU:  Thank you so much, Patricia Andreu from WTVJ.  Appreciate it, Patricia.  Thanks. 

Well, flooding remains a major concern in New Orleans.  Let's go live now to Heath Allen from NBC affiliate WDSU in New Orleans. 

And you know, Heath, New Orleans is the type of city that you get a vibe.  When it was in its heyday, you get this wonderful vibe.  When I was there last week, it just had a fatigue vibe.  Do you feel like New Orleans can handle anything more? 

HEATH ALLEN, WDSU REPORTER:  You know, I think New Orleans can handle just about anything.  I am not sure that New Orleans can handle yet another storm. 

You know, even if this particular storm that is coming this way, if it has a tendency to go anywhere near us and we get that wind that kind of comes through here that it comes out of the east, it's going to pick up the water in the Gulf of Mexico, and we are going to get a little surge.  If it's even a rain event, none of the levees that we have in this particular area that have gone through so much problem, so much difficulty with Hurricane Katrina, they are not going to be able to handle anything. 

I think the estimate we had most recently was even a three-inch rainfall could compromise some of the temporary levees that they have put into place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  So, there's a little nerve going on down here. 

DANIELS:  Oh, yes.  I'm sure. 

We are looking at the video that you shot from Katrina.  And every time you see it, it is just breathtaking, the power of a hurricane. 

(CROSSTALK) 

DANIELS:  Do you feel like there are enough people on the ground right now in New Orleans to handle, again, I keep on saying anything more, because the city has handled so very much? 

ALLEN:  Well, if we get another storm, there's the good news and the bad news for another storm right now. 

The bad news is, another storm would be tragedy on top of tragedy.  The good news is, hey, nobody is here anymore.  Everybody has pretty much bailed.  You have communities that have been let back in, communities in, like, Kenner, Louisiana, that they do have some people in.  But there's not a lot of people in the city of New Orleans to evacuate.

And they have got everybody here to do it.  So, if another storm comes this way and threatens us, hey, we can get up and get out in a pretty big hurry.  The tragedy, of course, would be if we got another big storm. 

(CROSSTALK)

DANIELS:  Here's the thing, though.  There are people still in the French Quarter, obviously not a lot, but there are some people.  I'm just wondering, with evacuations, is it going to be hard to locate those people if another emergency happens? 

ALLEN:  You know what?  The people in the French Quarter, we had people that stayed for Katrina, for Pete's sake.  We had bars that stayed open in the French Quarter.  They never closed. 

You are going to have some die-hards in the city of New Orleans, that they are just never going to leave.  I don't care what the storm is. 

DANIELS:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  So, yes, it would be difficult to make people leave in the wake of this storm, because I don't think anybody believes they are ever going to get a storm like the one they just had.  So, why go?  I mean, anything that comes now is going to be a lesser event. 

DANIELS:  Right.  And these people love New Orleans.  You can't blame them, but you have to be safe. 

Let's bring in Colonel Duane Gapinski from the Army Corps of Engineers, who is in charge of pumping the water out of New Orleans. 

You know, we speak so much about the levees.  What about the pumps?  There's so much debris already in those waters.  You can't see it from the video, but we know what's under there.  Do you think the pumps can handle anything more? 

COL. DUANE GAPINSKI, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS:  Well, we are at about a third of the capacity that the system normally has in the city proper.

But, you know, downtown is pretty much dry.  Other than out by Six Flags out in the far east part of the city, which is under water, we have pretty much moved all that water out of there.  So, we are ready for the storm. 

You know, if we get a lot of rain, we will have some flooding, but we will be able to move it out in a couple of days, so I am pretty confident that we will weather this storm. 

DANIELS:  Colonel, what is going through your mind right now?  Are you just thinking, I can't believe we are facing this again? 

GAPINSKI:  Well, you know, I guess there's a little bit of that, but, you know, you got to put that to the side and figure out what you can do, you know, in response to any eventuality that the storm might bring. 

DANIELS:  Are you saying to any of the officials, hey, if you don't want to have another Katrina disaster, here's what you have to do?  Are you saying you need to do X, and are they listening? 

GAPINSKI:  Well, we—you know, we tell them more like, OK, if it rains, this is where it's going to flood.  If there's storm surge, here's where you are most vulnerable.  And then elected officials make their decisions. 

DANIELS:  Heath, is there any optimism where you are that New Orleans really can handle a lot more than people think? 

ALLEN:  I don't think there's a great deal of optimism whatsoever about—if you are in the city of New Orleans.  I mean, if you have seen any of the levee breeches, you know that, right now, it's sand or shell that's been put in to fill I know the Industrial Canal breach, the huge sandbags that have been dropped in on the 17th Street Canal.

But those are temporary fixes, you know, for temporary problems.  What breached was put there to be permanent. 

DANIELS:  Yes. 

ALLEN:  I mean, so why would you think anything that is temporary would be able to hold anything back? 

The problem is, we have already got a lot of debris on the ground, and the ground is already wet.  And even a small, much smaller storm right now would be devastating, should it come to the city of New Orleans. 

(CROSSTALK)

ALLEN:  Optimism, I think everybody wants it to go someplace else. 

DANIELS:  Yes.  They're keeping their fingers crossed.  It's almost like those levees are being held together by glue at this point, even though it's not officials' fault. 

But, thanks so much, Heath Allen and Colonel Duane Gapinski. 

Hopefully, we won't see such horrible video from Heath again. 

Hopefully, this one will be a lot better. 

I am joined now by Tucker Carlson, host of “THE SITUATION WITH TUCKER

CARLSON.” 

And, Tucker, you have a big guest tonight.  Tell us about that. 

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, “THE SITUATION”:  Well, Lisa, welcome back.  You did an awesome job.  I'm glad to see you here.

DANIELS:  Thank you. 

CARLSON:  Yes, well, if there's anybody in America sill not offended by the aftermath of Katrina, we have got Bill Maher on tonight.  And if you are unoffended, he will offend you.  And if he doesn't, check your pulse.

And we are also going to have a “New York Times” writer on who makes a really smart suggestion:  Have Wal-Mart take over FEMA.  FEMA screwed it up.  Wal-Mart had the best response to the hurricane.  Why don't they run it?  Good point.  We will talk to him. 

It's going to be a great show. 

DANIELS:  All right.  Good point. 

Thanks, Tucker.

CARLSON:  Thanks, Lisa.

DANIELS:  And be sure to tune into “THE SITUATION.”  That's tonight at 11:00.

Breaking news coming up on the other side of the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  And breaking news into MSNBC.  Rita is now a Category 3 hurricane.  It was just upgraded.  We are now talking about, folks, a major hurricane with 110-mile-per-hour winds. 

Let's go straight to NBC Weather Plus meteorologist Bill Karins.

And, Bill, it seems early that we are already talking about a Category 3 again. 

KARINS:  This is so explosive. 

I mean, earlier this morning, and we were talking about 9:00 East Coast this morning, is when it finally became a hurricane.  And now we have gone all the way up to a Category 3 in about 12 hours.  That's about as explosive a development as you are going to see, very similar to what Katrina did. 

Here's the latest from the Hurricane Center, winds, 110, gusts, 132.  Pressure continues to drop.  And we still don't see any reason why this won't continue to intensify over the next couple of days. 

Also, have that new forecast track for you.  This has not changed a lot.  We should see a Category 3 storm still tomorrow.  Remember, Category 3 goes from 110 to 130.  After 130, up to 155, is a Category 4.  And, of course, no one wants to deal with anything above 155.  That's a Category 5. 

This is the new forecast path out from the Hurricane Center, has not changed much.  The timing of the storm system may be a little bit slower.  We were thinking maybe landfall Friday night.  You notice this white line here.  That's 8:00 p.m. on Friday, so we may be taking it back more or less towards the early morning hours on Saturday, maybe around sunup, somewhere, again, the Louisiana coastline and the Texas coastline, anywhere in this region.

And it also looks like some of this yellow cone has shifted ever so slightly, including more of Louisiana now and more of the coastline here.  So, if anything, it's been pretty much the same center line.  If anything, it may have been shifted just a little bit, tweaked to the north.  So, that's what we are watching, Category 3 storm, Lisa, and the storm path still on track.  It looks like Friday night, Saturday morning. 

DANIELS:  Bill, you are great at doing this, but put it in layman's terms.  When we say a Cat 3...

KARINS:  Yes. 

DANIELS:  We talk about that term so much.  What is the damage factor now? 

KARINS:  Well, if you want to think about it in recent terms, Ivan was a Category 3 when it hit last year in Pensacola.  Any of the SCARBOROUGH viewers out there that watched that storm know exactly what it did to that region.

That's what we could be possibly watching.  That now is a 3.  We are forecasting this possibly to make landfall as a Category 4, so worse than Ivan, hopefully not as bad as Katrina.  And we will just have to keep tracking it for you.

DANIELS:  So, again, in the next couple of hours, is it going to go back and forth, 3, 4?  Is this a fluid situation now? 

KARINS:  Not in the short term.  It was going through a rapid intensification.  Sooner or later here, probably in the next 12 hours, it is going to peak out.  In other words, it may get up to a Category 4. 

And it's going to do what we call an eye wall replacement cycle.  All that really means is the center of the storm gets ripped apart and then it reforms.  And, when that happens, it will strengthen; it will weaken; it will strengthen; it will weaken.  That may happen two or three times before it makes landfall. 

The thing we need to is, we need to time it during one of those weakening phases at landfall, instead of one of those strengthening phases.  So, it's going to get a little technical over the next couple days.  That's why—it won't just keep growing.  That's impossible.  It's like a machine out there.

DANIELS:  Yes. 

KARINS:  And the machine breaks at a certain point.  Then it has to reform itself. 

DANIELS:  It's just too big at this point.  Bill, thanks so much. 

(CROSSTALK)

KARINS:  So, again, Rita now officially a Category 3. 

The Gulf Coast, of course, barely back on its feet after Katrina.  Now they are dealing with this, that Rita officially a Category 3 storm. 

Let's go live to Gulfport, Mississippi, and Mayor Brent Warr. 

You just heard the breaking news, Mayor.  And Gulfport, hasn't been a lot of talk about Rita.  Are you worried that Rita might affect your area as well? 

BRENT WARR, MAYOR OF GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI:  Well, I am very concerned about it.  I have to be honest with you, Lisa. 

Just listening to your lead-in, hearing that it is upgraded to a Category 3 is clearly very concerning, I have to tell you. 

DANIELS:  So, do you feel like the lessons of Katrina were followed in any way, that, this time around, you can say with more confidence that officials on the ground are prepared; they are ready, taking those precautions? 

WARR:  Well, certainly, you know, if it comes this way, we are going to be far well more prepared—more well prepared than we were for Katrina. 

(CROSSTALK)

DANIELS:  Like, just give me an example.  What is one thing that you did differently this time around?  Just give me one, so I understand. 

WARR:  Well, for Rita in particular? 

DANIELS:  Yes. 

WARR:  Well, we are still—we are still trying to dig out of this hole that we are in with Katrina.

So, the best-case scenario that I can tell you is, we are just watching Rita very closely right now.  And, of course, we don't want it to go anywhere, wish that it didn't exist, but clearly we are hoping and praying that it doesn't come here.  We will prepare and be as well prepared as we can.

But we are not in the process right now of preparing for Rita.  We will probably start looking at it very, very closely midday tomorrow. 

DANIELS:  Mayor, you were with the president today.  What was the message that you told him? 

WARR:  Well, you know, I told him that we were—are now into the phase of housing.  We are needing housing.  And that's a very clearly—clear need. 

All the communities along this area have tons of displaced people, and we are needing as quickly as possible to get the people out of the shelters.  We have a lot of people who are not used to being in these types of atmospheres.  They are not used to being together.  A lot of people are unemployed.  So, they are frustrated.  They are not able to get to work.

And we are needing to get them in a secure, safe environment that feels a little bit like home for them.  And that's what we are working on very aggressively now. 

DANIELS:  Absolutely.  And are folks holding up OK at this point?  Or are you—are they worried that, here comes Rita, again; they don't have their homes; they are in these shelters, and here comes something else? 

WARR:  Well, so far, we have not had a lot of conversation about it.  We don't have any kind of panic or anything.  We have a very strong community down here, and we are used to dealing with this.

And, of course, we are—everybody has kind of had their bell rung. 

DANIELS:  Yes. 

WARR:  We have had a pretty hard lick down here.  And we certainly are scared to death if another one comes here.  But, if it does, clearly, we will evacuate.  And I don't think it will be hard to get as many people as possible to evacuate. 

You know, what is concerning in this type of situation is, there are a lot of people who simply cannot evacuate.  They can't afford to.  They don't have the means, the vehicle to do so.  And that's where we end up really having the human side of this that is so painful. 

DANIELS:  Mayor, how do you strike that balance?  You are right.  You don't want to panic the people and say, here comes the next huge thing.  At the same time, it's been upgraded to a Category 3.  It may very well be the next big thing.  How do you find the right words to convey the urgency to your constituents? 

WARR:  Well, what we try to do is assure them that we are watching it very, very closely. 

When we begin that countdown and tell them—we give them a timeline and we tell them that we are going to hold off on the evacuation notice until we really think that it's necessary.  By that, you don't get that cry-wolf syndrome, where people say, well, I evacuated last time when you told me to, and it was uncomfortable, and I sat on the highway in my vehicle in a snail's pace for a day-and-a-half, and I am not going to do that this time. 

So, we have tried—we have tried to only recommend evacuation when we felt like, folks, it's really time to get out of here. 

DANIELS:  Well...

WARR:  And that seems to be working well. 

DANIELS:  I know the people of Gulfport are very strong people, and I know you are doing your best to recover.  We wish you all the very best, Mayor.  Thank you. 

WARR:  Well, thank you so much.  And we sure do appreciate you. 

DANIELS:  All right. 

Well, we'll be right back with much more on the breaking news on Rita, now a Category 3 hurricane.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  The winds right now of Rita now 110 miles per hour.  Anything over that will be a Category 3.  Again, even in the last hour, this thing has gained strength.  We are watching it very closely.  We are going to continue bringing you updates. 

Of course, Rita did not directly hit Florida, but her whipping winds, pounding surf, and driving rain were enough to cause a lot of problems.  Here's how Rita looked through the eyes of a few brave reporters and photojournalists. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We decided to get out of the car to show you a little bit of the flooding that we have seen.  This is a dead-end road here.  That's a good thing for now, because it looks like it's virtually impassable.  For as far as we can see, it looks like water has just covered up this entire road here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now, this is what it looks like just north of Marathon at mile marker 58.  You can see the water right now is just several feet from coming up on US-1.  And take a look at the water that is already in the backyard of this home, is spilling over the retaining wall there and coming out through the back of the property through one opening right there, the water already up in the front of this property as well.  We will check to make sure it's safe for us to walk across US-1. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We are here in Islamorada at around mile marker 85.  You can see we are feeling that gust of wind, the rain.  The feeder band must be coming through here now, because it's really intensifying. 

Let's take a look right over here.  This is the oceanside of the water.  Look at that water, how it's coming up, lapping up.  This area, you can tell, has been flooded so far during Rita, because you can see all the seaweed that has just been washed up and all this—the wooden planks and everything just washed up right here in the parking lot area. 

If you take a look right over there—oh—see, you can see how it's intensifying right now, just coming off from the east to the west direction.  We have seen that sign up there, the seafood buffet sign.  You can see how it's rocking back and forth.  I am not sure if that sign is going to survive Rita's winds, although there are lines trying to try to tether it down to the ground.

But that's been shaking quite a bit.  Again, you can see the wind intensifying.  Just over here, let's take a look again.  And see how the water is just straying and coming on?  Of course, the storm surge very much an issue for the whole Keys. 

OK.  We just moved a couple of miles south here (INAUDIBLE) Islamorada, along the Overseas Highway.  We wanted to make another stop here at this fishing place.  Visibility is really at an all-time low right now.  You can barely see out there right on the water, as the rain is coming down hard here, this area not too badly flooded.

But if we can pan over here, take a look.  Whew.  You can see here how the water is just coming across.  It's really coming down hard now, probably one of the stronger gusts of wind and the rain bands that we have seen so far here, as we are making our way towards the middle Keys. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DANIELS:  And this is only round one. 

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  For the latest on Hurricane Rita as she heads across the Gulf, stay with MSNBC and NBC Weather Plus. 

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DANIELS:  And that's all the time we have tonight. 

“THE SITUATION WITH TUCKER CARLSON” starts right now. 

And, Tucker, I can guess what the situation is, I bet. 

CARLSON:  Many situations tonight, Lisa. 

DANIELS:  All right. 

CARLSON:  Thanks.

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

END   

Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  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 MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.'s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Watch Scarborough Country each weeknight at 10 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,