updated 9/21/2005 10:23:11 AM ET 2005-09-21T14:23:11

Guest: Bill Maher, John Vandenboss, Brian Rippee, John Tierney

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST:  Here they are, Bill Maher will be here in just a minute with his take on the hurricane devastation and the government's response to it. 

Elderly tyrant Fidel Castro says after 45 years of hating this country, he's happy to pitch in and help us. 

And here's an idea, maybe Wal-Mart ought to have been put in charge of Katrina relief. 

But the top story right now, of course, Hurricane Rita.  It spanked the Florida Keys this afternoon, and it could reach devastating Category 4 status before landfall this weekend.  That's expected somewhere along the Texas-Louisiana coast.  And of course, we'll keep you posted as to exactly where it lands.

Meanwhile, the re-evacuation of New Orleans continued today.  And just in case, a state of emergency has been declared in Galveston, Texas, where voluntary evacuation has been ordered. 

NBC's Weather Plus meteorologist, Bill Karins joins us live for a look at where Hurricane Rita is right now, and where she's headed—Bill. 

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHER PLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Good evening, Tucker. 

If everyone has been joining us here, we thought that—at least I thought that it was going to be a Category 3 storm, with this new update.  It's only a Category 2.  Let me try to explain why and kind of what happens. 

Ninety two knots, and the way we convert that, is into miles per hour.  Category 2, the max goes up to 110.  And that was my mistake earlier.  I thought it was going to be Category 3.  It actually has to be 111 miles per hour to be a Category 3.  That then goes all the way up to 130.  Of course, then actually has to be up to 130.

So we're still looking.  You had a Category 2 storm, but nonetheless, a very powerful mile their hour to be a Category 3.  That goes up to 130, so we are still looking at a Category 2 storm, but nonetheless, a very powerful system out there, still deepening, still rapidly increasing, should be a three as we go throughout the night tonight into tomorrow, so still a Category 2. 

We also have that new track out for everyone.  By 8 a.m., we expect it to be Category 3 strike, and then after that, continuing over the warm waters of the Gulf. 

Not a lot has changed with the forecast path, the actual motion that the storm is expected to take.  The hurricane center has actually been keeping this path pretty much in the same location here, for about the last 24 hours. 

We're still thinking that anywhere from central Louisiana coastline all the way back through the entire coastline of Texas is in that cone of uncertainty, and as we get a little bit closer in time here, this will begin to narrow up a little bit here. 

We're going to be talking a Category 4 strength.  It will probably fluctuate a little bit, thee Category 4 for a while.  It may drop off to a three, back and forth throughout the next couple of days.  You get the general impression, major hurricane, the next four to five days. 

All of the models are still pegging this storm to go somewhere in the Texas coastline, but possibly even including the Louisiana coastline.  Remember, the worst portion of the storm and the worse storm surge anywhere on the right side of that path. 

And there's some very shallow water, from about Houston all the way to the Louisiana border.  The shallower the water, the worse the storm surge can be. 

I know, Tucker, areas like Galveston there, the mayor said earlier, only some areas are above sea level above 10 feet.  With a Category 4 storm, you can a storm surge up to about 18 feet.  So you can real do the math there.  If it heads for that area, we're going to have major problems. 

CARLSON:  Thanks, Bill. 

KARINS:  Thank you.

CARLSON:  With a brand-new hurricane bearing down on the United Starts, the political fallout from the last one, Hurricane Katrina, still continues. 

Bill Maher joins us from Los Angeles to talk about that.  Bill is the host of “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO.  He's also a best selling author whose latest book is “New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer.”  That must be you, then. 

BILL MAHER, AUTHOR, “NEW RULES”:  Ironically. 

CARLSON:  So what do you think—irony aside, do you think the federal government ought to spend $200 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast?

MAHER:  No, I don't.  I don't know how they come up with a figure like that to begin with.  They came up with $62 billion so quickly.  It was like the Patriot Act.  Did anybody read it?  On Friday's show, I compared them to Kobe Bryant.  We did a very bad thing.  Now we are going to buy you something very expensive. 

CARLSON:  It's guilt. 

MAHER:  Somebody came up with the figure, $35 billion, would there have been all sorts of demonstrations?  “Thirty-five billion, that won't cover it.  Are you kidding?  We need 62.” 

I mean, it seems like they're just pulling these numbers out of their behind. 

CARLSON:  Well, they come from—the government is now saying that it's going to essentially rebuild everything that was destroyed.  They're going to wind up rebuilding some people's houses, anyway, and philosophically, I wonder why they're obligated to do that.  I mean, if your house gets hit by lightning and burns down, the federal government is not going to buy you a new house.  So why should acts of God be insured by the rest of us?

MAHER:  Well, it was partly an act of God, let's get real, and it was partly an act of government negligence.  I think they also have a case against the local government.  They are not blameless.  Let's be real. 

They got plenty of federal money to rebuild those levees, and they chose to spend it on the Museum of Shrimp and the Mardi Gras fountain and the Museum of Soot and lots of other stuff.  I know it's hard to believe that there's corruption in Louisiana.  I never heard of it before.  But it's a revelation. 

But there's also huge federal responsibility.  George Bush should have been on this case.  Again, he didn't leave his vacation.  He appointed Fredo Corleone to be the head of FEMA. 

They—if this was a lawsuit privately, I would say that people would have a case of negligence against the federal government, yes, they do. 

CARLSON:  So in other words, anytime something bad happens to people, the federal government... 

MAHER:  No. 

CARLSON:  ... has a moral obligation to come rescue them and rebuild what they lost?

MAHER:  Of course not.  That's not what I am saying at all.  I am saying in this case, let's be clear.  There is a FEMA.  And they are supposed to respond and they didn't. 

Now, if we want to have a new sort of America where there isn't such a safety net, where there doesn't exist a FEMA, and people can't expect that kind of help, that's a different story. 

But you know, as you heard from down there, they expected the cavalry to come, and they never showed up, because, once again, the president was on vacation.  We couldn't interrupt that. 

You know, I thought he had set a new standard after—on the day of 9/11, when he sat there for seven minutes.  But obviously, he improved on his own record, and this time, he sat for four days. 

CARLSON:  Wait, I know people will never be convinced that Bush is not a right wing crazy, but just consider what he said in the last couple of days.  We're going to spend at least $100 million, probably I would say $200 billion to rebuild this. 

MAHER:  Right.

CARLSON:  He's come out for affirmative action.  He said in his speech the other night that he thinks that poverty—or racism causes poverty.  These are all liberal ideas.  He is behaving like Lyndon Johnson.  When at some point are liberals going to say, this guy is not a conservative, after all, he is talking like us?

MAHER:  I don't think he has ever been a conservative.  I don't know why you guys ever were so strong for him to begin with.  He's obviously... 

CARLSON:  You guys, I never was. 

MAHER:  ... not up to—You never liked George Bush?

CARLSON:  Yes, I always liked him, still like him now personally, I think he is a totally charming guy, but I never, ever thought, day one, 1999, that he was conservative.  I never felt that. 

MAHER:  Right.  Well, I mean, Bill Clinton was a charming guy too, and I seem to remember you going after him a lot more than you've gone after George Bush. 

And doesn't Bill Clinton look a little better these days? 

CARLSON:  He looks worse.

MAHER:  Don't you feel a little silly?  Bill Clinton looks worse?

CARLSON:  You have got to be kidding. 

MAHER:  Give me a break. 

CARLSON:  Clinton comes out the other day—Clinton comes out the other day and says, A, you shouldn't have gone into Iraq.  Wait a second, he was for Iraq.  He and his wife both supported the war.  Now they're second guessing it and pretending... 

MAHER:  They didn't support the war.  Excuse me.

CARLSON:  Yes. 

MAHER:  They supported—they supported a resolution that said as a last resort, we are going to give you, Sheriff George Bush, a badge and a gun.  That's not saying we want you to go in there blasting at the first sign of trouble. 

But we're just talking about the hurricane.  You can't really deny that under Clinton, FEMA was in a much better situation, that he didn't appoint somebody's college roommate, and this is after 9/11, to head up the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

I understand that all politicians appoint their cronies to certain positions, but this isn't the ambassadorship to San Marino or Liechtenstein.  It's the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  You don't think that's a smoking gun for George Bush's administration?

CARLSON:  I think it's totally negligent.  I mean, some guy, who was,

you know, the Arabian horse breeder lobbyist, absolutely.  But my question

·         still, I think there's blame to go around. 

MAHER:  But don't you feel...

CARLSON:  Why during the Clinton years weren't those levees shored up?  I don't know.  What else was FEMA doing?  You know what I mean.  There were no major emergencies.  There weren't you know, major emergencies like this. 

MAHER:  It's not FEMA's job to shore up the levees.  It's FEMA's job when the hurricane hits, as you well know.  But, you know, that is local politics, and as I said, they deserve a lot of blame too. 

CARLSON:  Almost aesthetic level, aren't you repulsed by Clinton's never ending self-righteousness? The other day, over the weekend, he says essentially, I would have done a better job responding to Katrina because I am a better person, great guy, look at me, great administration.  Doesn't the constant bragging make you want to throw up?

MAHER:  You know what makes me want to throw up, seeing dead bodies floating in New Orleans, that makes me want to throw up. 

CARLSON:  Yes. 

MAHER:  That kind of stuff—that would not have happened under Bill Clinton.  You can't tell me that you think that FEMA would have not been a completely different agency and that Clinton would have been all over this situation from minute one like white on rice. 

You don't think that's who Bill Clinton is?  He would not have slept from the moment this hurricane started to hit until we could do the best we could with the situation. 

You're angry at his self-righteousness at a time when there are hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies that are on the tab of George Bush?  Why don't you focus your anger on the guy who really deserves it? 

CARLSON:  Night after night after night my anger has been focused on the local, state, and federal authorities who allowed this tragedy to happen.  Merely pointing out that Bill Clinton's opportunity to say something to America, devolves as usual into another, “Look at me, aren't I'm a great guy,” lecture.  And it just makes me want to throw up.  My only point.

MAHER:  I'll hold the bag for you. 

CARLSON:  All right.  Bill Maher, from Los Angeles.  Thanks for joining us. 

MAHER:  OK, Tucker. 

CARLSON:  See you. 

Coming up, Hurricane Rita has blown through the Florida Keys and now has its sights set on the Gulf Coast of Texas.  Is Texas ready, and what lessons did the people there learn from Katrina?  We'll ask a man responsible for emergency response in Rita's projected path when we come back. 

And Fidel Castro says, quote, “It hurts to think about the deaths in the wake of Katrina.”  Deaths he says might have been prevented, but the White House turned him down.  And THE SITUATION rolls on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON:  Up next, the governor of Texas said Hurricane Rita threatens the coast with what he calls imminent disaster.  We'll tell you how coastal communities are preparing for the onslaught. 

Plus, atheists now have a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.  We'll meet her.  Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(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 take 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)

CARLSON:  That's Texas governor, Rick Perry, warning residents of his state to be prepared for the worst.  The latest forecasts say Hurricane Rita could intensify to a Category 4 storm before making landfall somewhere along the Louisiana-Texas coastline.  Most likely target is between Corpus Christi, and Galveston. 

Joining me on the phone now live from the strike zone is John Vandenboss.  He's the associate director for Brazoria County Emergency Management.  Thanks a lot for coming on, Mr. Vandenboss. 

JOHN VANDENBOSS, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, BRAZORIA COUNTY EMERGENCY

MANAGEMENT:  My pleasure. 

CARLSON:  Now, there's a mandatory evacuation apparently in your county.  How mandatory is it?  Are you making people leave?

VANDENBOSS:  That's the plan, and it goes in effect about 6 tomorrow evening. 

CARLSON:  When you say that's the plan, how far will you go to get people out?  Are you going to bring the police house to house? How are you going to do it?

VANDENBOSS:  No.  My guess is we are not going to—see, this is say new program for the state of Texas.  Prior to the last legislative session, we did not have mandatory evacuation.  Florida did.  Some of the other states did.  But Texas did not.  So it was a bit of a surprise, but the legislature passed it in the last election—in the last legislative session, and it was passed by a sufficient margin that it had instant—went into effect instantly instead of being held off until later. 

CARLSON:  OK, I'm pushing you on the details, though, Mr. Vandenboss, because they made all the difference, as you know, in Hurricane Katrina.  There were mandatory evacuation orders in place in a number of spots that turned out to be devastated by the storm, and there were a lot of people left when the storm hit. 

So I guess the question is how far will you go to make sure people leave?

VANDENBOSS:  Are we going to go send the law enforcement folks in and drag them out?  No, probably not.  Are we going to do our darnedest to convince them they ought to get out? You bet you. 

One of the things that's happened as a result of Katrina is that today our phones have been ringing off the hook, and we have had four and five people in at a time just answering phones to explain to people what these new regulations mean, and so on.  So we are seeing a much stronger response from the citizenry than prior times. 

Twofold, I think one is the fact that, yes, there is mandatory evacuation.  And the other is they just had a horrible example of what happens when things aren't done right. 

CARLSON:  Now, are you helping people who have no means of getting out to get out?

VANDENBOSS:  Yes.  We're at this point—the school systems have shut down, and starting—let me get my sheet here just to make sure I'm not lying to you.  That starting tomorrow, we're going to be using a lot of school buses to move people that have no other means of transportation from where they are to some state-run shelters that have been opened up. 

The shelter portion of this thing is also a new effort on the part of the state, in that they prearranged some locations, and the infrastructure, if you will, to support them in terms of food and so on. 

We have shelters that are reserved for Brazoria County citizenry.  We've got the school buses to provide transportation for those that need it.  The other folks obviously we hope they will—either they've made other arrangements, and certainly that does not preclude going off to visit Aunt Molly or so.  But otherwise, you know, climb in your own vehicle and go to the shelter. 

CARLSON:  For people taking your transportation and going to shelters, will you allow them to bring their dogs and cats?  And I ask you because it's pretty clear a lot of people didn't leave New Orleans, for instance, because they weren't allowed to bring their dogs and cats. 

VANDENBOSS:  Yes, in fact, one of the bigger shelter—installations isn't really a good word, but shelter sites is the Brian College (ph), which happens also to be the home of Texas A&M University.  And A&M has a veterinary school, and so they're really being prepared to receive pets, and so on.  So the answer is, yes. 

We had the other Brazoria County shelter set up, which was in Brown.  Early on, they said no, there was no provision for pets.  We were told in our meeting this afternoon that problem has been addressed, and people can take their pets there, as well. 

Now, can they share the shelter with their pets?  No, probably not.  But provisions will be made that you know, they know that Fluffy and so on is in a safe location not having to scrounge for themselves back in the storm.  And my guess is there may well be a provision for them to wander over and visit if that's what they want to do.

CARLSON:  Good for you.  I think that's going to make a big difference. 

Now, are you making provisions to prevent looting?  And the loss of order and chaos that we saw in New Orleans?  What are you going to do about that?

VANDENBOSS:  We've got 175 troopers, DPS troopers, that are coming into the area for traffic management, so that this pretty much relieves the local law enforcement and the local contingent and the sheriff's department to go deal with that sort of thing. 

The comment that the county judge made at a meeting earlier this afternoon was, you don't want to do that.  You'll be dealt with. 

And so he didn't get explicit, and so on, but my guess is that there's an old Texas expression, that you'd be so deep under the jail house, they'd have to pump sunlight to you. 

CARLSON:  You know, somehow, Mr. Vandenboss, I believe you, and I bet would-be looters do, too.  Thanks a lot for joining us. 

VANDENBOSS:  You bet. 

CARLSON:  John Vandenboss, associate director for Brazoria County Emergency Management. 

Preparing, hunkering down, as many are in the Texas coast tonight, Hurricane Rita expected landfall on the Louisiana-Texas border.  It could be huge.  And of course, we at MSNBC will be following every moment of it, bringing it to you live. 

We're bringing more to you live, in fact, on this program when we return from the break.  We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON:  Welcome back.  As Texas, mostly Texas, but other parts of the region brace for Hurricane Rita, which could be bigger even than we expected, even than we anticipated, as they brace for that storm, which should be hitting sometime later this week, the question is inevitably how to maintain order?  Especially after the chaos we saw unfold tragically with tragic results and much loss of life in the city of New Orleans. 

Well, our next guest knows something about how to maintain order.  Lieutenant Brian Rippee from the Texas Department of Safety joins us now by phone from Corpus Christi. 

Lieutenant Rippee, thanks a lot for coming on. 

LT. BRIAN RIPPEE, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY:  Thank you for having me. 

CARLSON:  So what are you all doing to make certain that chaos doesn't break out?

RIPPEE:  Well, we're starting to get really busy right now.  What we've basically done is, as a department, the state operations center has gone into effect, which basically is there is an asset to provide assistance to local governments, through a variety of resources and personnel.

One thing that the Department of Public Safety has done is we've gone ahead and are preparing to strategically stage several hundred state troopers in strategic locations across the state of Texas, in preparation for this hurricane making landfall. 

Once it does make landfall, we know which areas have been affected, then those troopers will be deployed, along with other assets and resources to affected areas to basically try to provide some management, relieve local law enforcement of having to bear the brunt of the responsibility, and basically just go down there and help out and make sure people are protected, taken care of, and provide whatever assistance, not only law enforcement but humanitarian as far as getting food, water, and just whatever we can do to help out. 

CARLSON:  So those—I mean, the problem over the last three weeks has been that law enforcement personnel weren't—while there are many of them in the state of Louisiana, for instance, and also in Mississippi, they weren't in the hardest hit areas.  They stayed on the periphery.  Are you going to make certain your men are actually where the devastation has occurred, if there is devastation?

RIPPEE:  Right, and that's the whole reason—that's the whole region that we're going to be strategically placing these several hundred troopers in different locations, because we're not sure where this is going to make landfall, and we don't want to put all our assets and resources in one place, where it takes several hours to get to the location where this has happened. 

We have command and control.  We have supervisors that are staged with these troopers, and so once we get the word or know exactly where the hurricane is going to make landfall, after it makes landfall, we will be moving in hundreds of troopers to basically help restore order and help had out. 

CARLSON:  What does that mean, help restore order?  Does that mean help keep the roads open, or does it mean stopping looters?  What specifically do you plan to do?

RIPPEE:  Well, it just depends on kind of what happens to the city and local governments there.  It depends on whether they basically—martial law is declared. 

You know, there's a number of functions that we can do, as far as traffic management, trying to help people get out and just providing security.  That's a common thing that we do, along with other local law enforcement agencies, is to come into these areas, providing roving patrols, put people on the ground and basically try to strategically place these with cooperation with local government to make sure that we have people where they're needed. 

CARLSON:  What lessons did you learn personally watching the coverage of what happened in the state of Louisiana?

RIPPEE:  Well, you know, we practice, we prepare, we hold these mock training exercises, and table-top exercises to prepare for everything, and, you know, you just—you can't—there's always that uncertainty that happens. 

You know, I think the biggest thing that I got out of it is how important it is to get these resources to the people that need them as quickly as possible.  Obviously, sometimes logistics and things like that make it more difficult, but I think it's just really important, not only to get the people there that need to be there, but to make sure those people know what they need to do.

And you know, if we just sent troopers down there and told them to drive around in their cars and deter—deter crime, you know, we'd only be partially successful.  We've got to get out there and tell these law enforcement officers, “This is what your job is.  This is what you need to do.  This is what action you need to take.” 

And have some contingency theories and plans in place to basically deal with the unexpected events that can occur out of this. 

CARLSON:  What about all the materiel you're going to need?  What about fuel, for instance?  There have been terrible fuel shortages in the Gulf Coast after Katrina.  Do you all have stockpiles of gasoline that you're going to need for vehicles?

RIPPEE:  Well, what we have done here locally with the state police here locally, we've topped off all our tanks where we get fuel.  We do not get fuel in most places out of a convenience store or a gas station.  We actually have private places that we go to, a lot of them on site with the officers.

So we made sure that the fuel was topped off through our state operations center and also through local governments.  They're making provisions to come in to make sure that we can keep patrol cars and other vehicles and things that need fuel, that we have the capability of getting gas to them. 

So that is one thing that has been considered—considered in our operation plan and those provisions have been made to keep these police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, emergency service vehicles, that sort of thing gassed up, and doing what they need to be doing. 

CARLSON:  Where are you all going to be?  Where are your officers going to be when the storm actually lands, assuming it does, in fact, hit Texas?

RIPPEE:  Well, what we're going to do starting in the morning, we're going to basically open up our state level emergency operation center there in Corpus Christi. 

Out of that state operation center, we'll have approximately 60 personnel from various states, government levels.  And basically the troopers are beginning to go onto a 24-hour rotational schedule. 

Our main concern at this point is getting people out.  We're going to start doing our local press conferences to try to—really urge people, it's time to leave.  We don't know where this thing is going to make landfall, and the sooner we get out, the less traffic problems we have. 

So our main concern coming into this is getting the people out of here voluntarily, and keeping traffic moving.  We've already implemented our traffic management plan, which basically deals with how we're going to get people out of here. 

We have the major interstate.  We also have a lot of alternate routes. 

And we're going to have troopers staged where we consider traffic problem areas to get these people out of here, and then once this actually hits then basically the troopers will go in and try to help to restore order and provide aid to people that need it. 

CARLSON:  All right.  Lieutenant Brian Rippee of the Texas Department of Public Safety, joining us by phone from Corpus Christi.  Good luck.  And thanks for coming on.

RIPPEE:  You're welcome.  I appreciate it.

CARLSON:  More on the gathering storm turning out to be enormous, Rita, in the Gulf right now.  We'll have more on it when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON:  Looking at a graphic of Hurricane Rita as you can see moving, winds 110 miles per hour, gusts up to 132, moving quite quickly actually, 13 miles per hour.  As you can see it's just past Key West, Florida at the moment.  It was in Key West earlier today.

That's where NBC's Bob Kealing is right now with a live report on what it was like—Bob.

BOB KEALING, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Tucker, for about six or eight hours this afternoon here in Key West we would get really pounded by these squalls that would come through.  They were hard enough to really knock you off your feet almost but fortunately they didn't get to the level to do the kind of wind damage that we've seen during other hurricanes.

The other main issue they had down here, of course, was storm surge and that also didn't materialize, which was a good thing.  Now, we did see some fairly significant street flooding here in Key West.

Further up the island chain the surge came through at midday at high tide and it was enough to actually wash over parts of the Overseas Highway and there were some questions about what that would do to the efforts to bring all of the evacuees back who had left.

The Monroe County Sheriff's Department told us that maybe as high as 50 percent of the 60,000 residents down here in the Keys actually did follow that order.  They got off the island. 

And the good news for all of those people who took this storm seriously is that tonight the sheriff has let it be known that he's confident enough that the roads are going to be passable enough, especially U.S. 1, to be able to bring at least some of those evacuees home tomorrow.

And that's good news because I also covered Hurricane George down here in 1998 and that was a big issue with all of those people who had left.  There was still a lot of debris in the road and people were getting impatient and angry frankly that they had left in the first place.

But this time it seems to have gone a lot smoother.  People took it seriously. They left the island.  You know we have seen some of the freer spirits down here walking around, you know, experiencing the weather and fortunately for them Rita did skirt to the south of us going through the Florida Straits and now heaven knows what's going to happen later in the week along the gulf coast—Tucker.

CARLSON:  Bob, if you want to get in or out of the Keys, particularly Key West, there aren't a lot of options, I think just one.  Did the authorities apply any pressure to the people you described as free spirits to leave, to get out of town or did they just issue the order and let people be?

KEALING:  Well, I mean they did.  They said this was a mandatory evacuation.  We're telling you to get out but, of course, I mean they're not going to go into people's homes and just pull them out of there and say “You're going.”

But the fact that they did have such a significant number of people evacuating let's you know that perhaps this is another, you know, lesson learned from Katrina where, you know, there's just such an unknown this hurricane season for some reason, you know.

They start over in the Bahamas.  They seem relatively tame and then they just seem to accelerate so quickly and it's such an eerie similarity to think that we were talking this way about Katrina roughly three weeks ago and now we're talking about Rita in the same vein and I think that unknown, that potential for strengthening so quickly is why people down here in Florida are respecting these storms so much.

And you got to remember, as Governor Jeb Bush said earlier in the day, this is the seventh hurricane to menace the state of Florida in just the last 13 months.  It's hard to believe.

CARLSON:  The Keys strike me as particularly vulnerable because if there were ever to be profound devastation down there and there has been, of course, in years past, there's really nowhere to go.  I mean if that—if Route 1, U.S. 1 were to be severed that's kind of it.  I mean people would be cut off wouldn't they at least from a land access down there?

KEALING:  Yes, that's right.

CARLSON:  What do the authorities say about that?  Are they worried about something like that happening in the future?

KEALING:  You know it's the chance people take living down here and certainly they're concerned about it but there's really not much more they can do.  That is the only thread of highway that goes up this 100-mile plus chain of islands all the way up to the mainland and, yes, the authorities are worried about that but at least for this particular storm they feel satisfied that they got out about as many people as possible.

You know another interesting message they got out in all this to those people, you know, saying, OK, let's go up the highway is that the shelters that we have for you on the mainland will be secure.  You won't face the kind of issues that some people unfortunately faced in New Orleans.  So, you know, another one of the lessons learned, another one of the interesting things that were emphasized during this particular storm.

CARLSON:  Yes, you sort of wonder, I mean, the shelters in the city of New Orleans, the Superdome and the convention center, were so horrible, really the worst place I've been in in this country by far, the convention center, and so dangerous and I think so many people know that. 

It strikes me it's going to be a very hard sell in hurricanes to come

to get people to move to some sort of mass shelter.  They're just going to

·         that's going to evoke images of dead bodies outside the convention center in New Orleans.

Did you talk to people who stayed who said they just didn't want to go into a place like that?

KEALING:  You know, in this particular case, especially down here in Key West, the people who did evacuate in general are people of means.  They could go to a hotel on the mainland.  Perhaps they had relatives up in the state of Florida.

In fact, I remember talking to a couple that was from down here in Key West and they had their—they had their car all loaded up with their pets so they were going to go up to one of their—someone's mother house in Coco Beach.

So, there isn't the kind of poverty here in the keys that you have in New Orleans, so people do have more choices.  And, as for the folks who are down here, you know, the Conchs they like to call themselves, they're just free spirits in general.

You know their attitude is, you know, we've seen these storms come and go.  You know we've seen the threat come and go.  They talk about how the hurricane could hit here but it always seems to steer another way and indeed they got lucky again because people need to remember here that they didn't get hit with the hardest winds from Rita, not at all.  They stayed to the south.  In fact, even Cuba got lashed with some pretty severe winds, so Key West, once again, got lucky.

CARLSON:  Bob Kealing on the scene live, thanks a lot for joining us.

KEALING:  You're very welcome.

TUCKER:  It does seem unfair, all the prettiest, most interesting places in America at risk for hurricanes, what a shame.

We'll have more on the inexorable progress of Hurricane Rita as it moves toward the state of Texas, more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON:  Here's a new suggestion for Katrina relief czar Lee Scott.  If that name doesn't ring a bell, that's all right.  He's the CEO of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and some are saying he's doing more help for Katrina survivors than FEMA is.  In fact, the suggestion to put Scott in charge of the rebuilding effort comes from none other than The New York Times op-ed page.

John Tierney wrote today's column from FEMA to WIMA (ph).  He appears in the op-ed page every Tuesday and Saturday and read by smart, discerning people the world over.  John Tierney, thanks a lot for coming on.

JOHN TIERNEY, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Thank you, Tucker.

CARLSON:  Your paper costs a lot to have home delivered but today's column really was worth a year's subscription.  It was so smart and interesting, especially in light of the huge, colossal screw ups by FEMA after Katrina.

You have this amazing quote in here from an evacuee named Rashon Smith (ph) who says, “You get more justice at Wal-Mart,” amazing.  What did she mean by that?

TIERNEY:  Well, I kept hearing this from people down on the gulf coast that FEMA wasn't there, the Red Cross, you couldn't get through to them on the phone lines but Wal-Mart had been there right after the storm and got there before FEMA in a lot of places. 

In fact when it got there, FEMA was stopping some of their trucks and even commandeering some of Wal-Mart's supplies.  It was so well positioned to send in truckloads of water and ice and chain saws and generators and it was ready for the storm.  It got there.  The stores were open right afterwards and it really, you know, did the job.

And that was really the lesson of this disaster, you know.  During the flood the big heroes in New Orleans was a private ambulance company called Acadian (ph) that evacuated thousands of people from the hospitals when the city's communication and ambulance system just broke down.

CARLSON:  Well, how does that work?  How does a retailer based in Bentonville, Arkansas do a more efficient job than the federal government based in Washington, D.C., which has almost unlimited resources, why?

TIERNEY:  Well, except that I mean Wal-Mart, this is what Wal-Mart does every day.  I mean its whole reason for being is getting things to people cheaply and quickly and figuring out the logistics for it and it does this all the time.

It's got its own emergency operation center where I think six days before the hurricane, as soon as that storm appeared, they started moving generators and supplies and trucks into position and they're ready.  I mean this is what they do all the time and they, you know, they're efficient.  They watch costs and their job is to get things to people quickly.

CARLSON:  But I mean their job is to sell laundry detergent and TVs and soccer balls and, you know, flip flops, why would...

TIERNEY:  Well, but they know that during a hurricane people want, you know, they want batteries and duct tape and they want mops and they also give away, I mean they gave away I think 1,500 truckloads of water and ice and lots of supplies.

I mean the day after the hurricane, when local rescue workers didn't have the boots and the chain saws, Wal-Mart just opened up its doors to them and said, “Come in and take whatever you need.”  I think some of the stories the sheriffs had to restrain their deputies from taking things that really weren't that essential.

CARLSON:  Well, I noticed in New Orleans the deputies were not restrained at all and just went and took, you know, 19 pairs of Nikes.  But do they have a technological edge on the feds?  I mean what do they have that FEMA doesn't?  It's kind of baffling I mean that they would do a better job than people whose job it is to do what they did.

TIERNEY:  Well, but they do it every day.  I mean they track every single product.  They've got this stuff under pallets and under products so they know where everything goes and every day they move stuff and they keep track of it and this is their reason for being is getting the stuff to stores quickly, so they know how to do it, whereas FEMA just gears up for these disasters.

I mean Wal-Mart goes into these communities.  It knows the routes.  It's got the stores there.  The people know to go to the stores too, so there's a whole network already in place that they just gear up for a disaster.

CARLSON:  Well, you know, I know that part of your piece your argument was done for rhetorical effect but at its core is I think a pretty smart idea.  Why not privatize FEMA or at least some of its duties?  I mean why isn't that a good idea?

TIERNEY:  Well, I think it's a great idea to do.  Politically it's difficult because FEMA has been for 20 years, now especially under the Clinton years and Bush does it too, it's been a great vote buying machine where they go in and throw money at every minor disaster.  When it rains or snows somewhere they show up and give money away and it's great for politicians.

And the problem is, is that it hasn't been preparing for serious disasters.  You know during the '90s, Clinton had a great chance and Congress ordered FEMA then to prepare a major evacuation plan for New Orleans but FEMA was so busy.  Clinton declared a disaster a week and it was so busy going to all these minor disasters it didn't do the thing it was supposed to do.

CARLSON:  Well, you have a line in here that actually made my ears red it made me so grouchy reading it.  If they cared so much, they being the Clinton administration and FEMA, why didn't New Orleans ever work out a feasible way to evacuate poor people?  That's a great question.  Do you know the answer to that?  Did anybody at FEMA...

TIERNEY:  Well, Congress gave them $500,000 and ordered them to do it.  FEMA gave the money to Louisiana which then spent the money to study building a new bridge and FEMA never followed up to do it.

I mean I was really struck.  Remember all the talk about the exercise last year that FEMA did on Hurricane Pam and they discovered all these problems in the evacuation of New Orleans.  Well, why did it take until 2004 to figure this out?

Clinton had eight years in the '90s when he didn't have to worry much about FEMA preparing for a nuclear war.  Terrorism wasn't a big threat.  They should have been doing that plan in the '90s and they didn't.

CARLSON:  So, they gave, Congress gave or FEMA was ordered by Congress to give half a million dollars to New Orleans to study this question of how to get the poor people out.  They didn't.  They blew it on a bridge study.  Why didn't FEMA follow up?  Has FEMA had to answer for this?  This seems like a (INAUDIBLE).

TIERNEY:  Well, this is the way bureaucracies work.  I mean one of the

·         an aide to Witt said, “Well, you know, we thought our job was just to give them the money and let them do the study.”

You know and that is not how Wal-Mart works.  When Wal-Mart spends $500,000, it expects to get something back and you know that it's going to figure out if it does.  That's why I think they'd be good at running something.  You know they have accountability and they're used to getting something for their money.

CARLSON:  What do you think, I mean is FEMA on the right—I mean has the obviousness of FEMA's shortcomings spurred anybody to overhaul FEMA?  Is FEMA five years from now going to be as efficient as Wal-Mart or will it always be this way?

TIERNEY:  I think it's inherent in government bureaucracies.  I mean they might get some more efficient managers.  They'll probably get better managers.  It will have a higher priority.  They might spend more time worrying about big disasters.

Instead of declaring every flash flood or snow storm a disaster, they might actually concentrate on the things that they're supposed to do, which are really these huge disasters that a city can't be prepared for. 

So, it may change for a while but there's always been this temptation with FEMA to score political points by whenever there's some bad weather somewhere that it's declared a disaster and they go in and they hand out checks.

I mean the reason that people talk about, you know, FEMA being so great during the Clinton years was it just went around the country throwing money in every congressional district, so everyone loved them but they weren't doing their job of really preparing for a big disaster.

CARLSON:  When you say that Clinton declared a disaster a week I mean I was in the news business in the '90s.  I don't remember that many disasters.  Is that literally true was it a disaster a week?

TIERNEY:  That is true.  I mean but they weren't disasters.  They were just, you know, when there was a flash flood.  I mean upstate New York they gave them money.  It was declared a disaster when they had snowstorms, as if upstate New Yorkers don't know how to clean up after snowstorms and it just became so routine.

The Clintons had a record for declaring disasters.  It became routine to declare anything a disaster because it makes the federal government gets to come in and be a savior and the president looks like he's a nice guy but it distracted FEMA from what it's supposed to do, which is plan for, you know, earthquakes in California and a flood in New Orleans.

CARLSON:  All right, John Tierney, a bright spot in a great paper, thanks a lot for joining us.

TIERNEY:  Thank you, Tucker.

CARLSON:  That was a terrific column today.

When we come back more on the progress of Hurricane Rita building strength set to hit Texas later in the week.  We'll tell you when and where to the extent we know.  We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON:  Like Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, Hurricane Rita lashed Florida before gaining steam in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The storm stands on the upper edge of category two status at this hour and the folks in Key West, Florida are counting themselves lucky tonight.

NBC's Mark Potter rode out the beginning of this hurricane today.  He files this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK POTTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Key West clearly dodged the bullet tonight as the worst of the storm passed to the south but even if the island had suffered a direct hit, officials say they would have been ready.

(voice-over):  Although the eye of Hurricane Rita never made landfall, the northern edge of the storm still brought angry waves to the Florida Keys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is the worst we have seen it.

POTTER:  At the height of the storm, one man ignored the dangers as he struggled to climb from one boat onto another.  Parts of U.S. 1, the only road out of the Keys were flooded and at least one area washed out.

Key West Fire Chief Billy Wardlow (ph) found problems near the airport on a stretch of road known as Dead Man's Curve.

BILL MAULDIN, POLICE CHIEF, KEY WEST, FLORIDA:  It's kind of nasty right here.  We got sponges and seaweed covering the street.  It doesn't look very well here.

POTTER:  At the Key West operations center, officials from various agencies monitored the storm as it passed the island saying they were much more prepared than Louisiana and Mississippi were during Katrina.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It's absolutely essential to have units pre-positioned, have resourced pre-positioned.

POTTER:  Another contrast to Katrina, in Homestead, Florida just north of the Keys FEMA trucks, loaded with water, ice and other disaster supplies parked at a staging area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We've got members from the 856 Quartermaster Battalion.

POTTER:  And Florida National Guard troops made plans to head to the Keys as soon as the weather cleared if needed.

GOV. JEB BUSH ®, FLORIDA:  Twenty-four hundred Guardsmen are mobilized.  An additional 2,000 are on alert.

POTTER:  Even before the storm hit Florida officials were planning for the aftermath.

Reestablish communication, life safety, security, get commodities in there if needed.  Get the infrastructure rebuilt and get the Keys open for business.

POTTER:  Much of this help might not be needed but officials say Floridians three weeks after Katrina were more than ready.

(on camera):  As soon as the storm passes, assessment teams will go out to see what kind of help is actually needed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON:  Mark Potter in Key West, Florida.

Well that storm of course, is moving toward Texas.  We'll have details on that when we come back.  Rest assured MSNBC will be there when it lands.  We'll be fight back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON:  Looking at the latest satellite image of Hurricane Rita from NBC Weather Plus, the storm is packing sustained winds of 110 miles per hour.  That's the top end of category two status right on the cusp of category three.  Forecasters project a west/northwesterly track and landfall sometimes Saturday, probably early Saturday, probably very, very late at night.

Both the Texas Gulf Coast and the southwest coast of Louisiana are preparing for a storm that could very well, I mean pray this isn't true, but could very well be a devastating category four hurricane.

The city of Galveston has already issued a voluntary evacuation order.  As you can see from some of the interviews we've done tonight, officials have learned a couple of key lessons.  Maintain order.  Encourage people to leave.  Don't force them.  And let them take their pets.  People want to bring their dogs and cats and so let them.

Can't say America is not ready for this storm.  It is and we're ready for it here on MSNBC.  We'll bring you all the details as we learn them the second we do.

That's THE SITUATION for tonight.  Thanks for watching.

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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