updated 9/23/2005 1:40:31 PM ET 2005-09-23T17:40:31

Guest: David Dewhurst, Ken Ostra, Randy Roach

ALISON STEWART, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Hurricane Rita.  It‘s making a slow retreat with massive category 5 status, still a powerful 4.  We‘ll have the latest storm track and the bad news that it could stall.

Stalled was the word of the day in Houston.  The great exodus from the coast turns into a big hurry-up-and-wait on the highway.

The storm will drop large amounts of rain on western Louisiana, but flooding there will eventually lead to flooding somewhere else.  The downpour will head downstream and straight towards New Orleans.

Imagine being inside that jetBlue Airbus that made the emergency landing.  You don‘t to have imagine.  Tonight, we‘ll take you inside the passenger cabin as cameras rolled, as the drama unfolded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Brace, brace, brace!

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  All that and more, on COUNTDOWN.

And good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.

Each slight wobble sends hundreds of thousands of people scrambling to get out of the way.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, getting ready for Rita, the hurricane weakening to a category 4 storm, but still packing a serious punch as she gets ever closer to the Texas shore.  Some 1.8 million people now evacuating the coast, many of them stuck in terrible traffic jams, up to 14-hour waits, cars overheating in the humid 100-degree weather, a situation that finally forced the governor of Texas to order both sides of the I-45 and I-10 freeways open to outgoing traffic only.

But with lines stretching 100 miles back, the relief is slow to take effect.  Hopefully, it will clear up by tomorrow.  That‘s when the president is planning to pay a visit to Texas ahead of the hurricane.  The White House won‘t reveal exactly where he‘ll go, but aides say he wants to thank emergency workers before the storm hits.

And with Rita now tracking slightly east, the evacuations are spreading tonight.  People in Louisiana border towns, heeding the new warnings, packing up, moving out of harm‘s way.

More on the evacuations in just a moment.

But we begin tonight with the various latest on the path of Hurricane Rita from the hardest-working man in the weather biz, NBC WeatherPlus meteorologist Bill Karins.

Bill, everybody wants to know about landfall and where.  What‘s the latest prediction?

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHERPLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Yes, we‘re going to get to that in a second.

First, just got the new information out from the Hurricane Center, so I want to give you that first.  And we were watching Rita, and Rita is staying the same, not weakening, as we had hoped.  Winds are still at 145 miles per hour, the pressure still remains about the same.  It‘s amazing that this storm has stayed this strong for the last 24 hours.

We‘re really hoping it weakens.  We‘re getting down there now.  We‘re within 36 hours of landfall, so even if this thing does start to weaken, the odds of it going down lower than a category 4 are slowly shrinking.  And definitely, at least a category 3.  So no matter what, this storm‘s going to be devastating no matter where it heads.

Let me go now and show you the big view of the whole United States and where this system is sitting here, when we take a look at the U.S. and then all the way farther into the Gulf, because that‘s where we‘re going to continue to watch this storm.

I want to show you where the whole cold front to the north here.  We had our big storm in the Gulf.  You can just see how large this is.  It‘s taking almost the entire Gulf at this time.  And the one thing I did notice when I went and looked at this perspective, the storm is, like, increasing in size.  The intensity hasn‘t increased today, but the size of the cloud field definitely has.

It‘s cloudy in New Orleans now, and I think it‘s going to stay that way.

We go in a little closer, the eye of the storm, very impressive.  Doesn‘t show any real impressive signs of weakening, either.  If anything, it‘s maintaining itself and may even fluctuate in intensity.  There‘s an outside shot it could try to regain category 5 status before landfall.

Again, the rain bands have been on and off in southwest Louisiana, but the steady, heavy rains are still about 100 miles south of New Orleans.

Earlier today, we (INAUDIBLE) about 10th of an inch, really nothing too significant in now, but there‘s more showers on the way.  It‘s going to rain on and off and be windy throughout the night.

Tropical storm-force winds just barely now off the coast.  This is the damaging stuff, though, this area of red, the hurricane-force winds.  That‘s what we‘re going to track, because as that moves up towards Lake Charles, Galveston, or Houston, that‘s where all the wind damage is going to be done.

So let‘s get to the good stuff.  Let‘s talk about that path.  Category 4 strength, we think it‘s probably going to make landfall at a category 4 strength.  Now, category 4 can go anywhere between maybe 135, or all the way up to 155.  Right now, we‘re right in the middle of that category 4.  So it could fluctuate on either side.

Notice our cone is getting a little more narrow.  We‘ve completely taken out Corpus Christi, and we‘ve also taken out New Orleans from a direct impact from the system.

So we‘re now focused, Galveston, Houston, all the way back to Lake Charles, Louisiana.

And again, the right portion of the storm is the worst.  That‘s where (INAUDIBLE) the storm surge will be.  That‘s where the strongest winds are going to be.  And that would, again, put the worst conditions all along that Louisiana coastline.  It‘s a little swampy down here, so we‘re not going to expect to see things like we saw in Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, in Gulfport and also Biloxi.  But nonetheless, there‘s some small towns down here that could possibly be devastated if this does take this path.

After this, we have another headache that‘s going to last through Saturday, through Sunday, into Monday, possibly Tuesday with this system moving up here and stalling out and not going anywhere.  The winds will die off and become weak, but it‘s going to be a rain machine.  Some areas could end up with over a foot of rain by the time this is all said and done.

And Alison, unfortunately, the rains in northern Louisiana that heads into the Mississippi, for the most part, and that all heads through New Orleans.  So we got more headaches on the way all the way through the weekend into the beginning of next week.

STEWART:  And we know you will be on top of it all.  NBC WeatherPlus meteorologist Bill Karins, big thanks to you.

KARINS:  Thank you.

STEWART:  It appeared that most of the estimated 1.8 million people under mandatory evacuation orders followed those orders.  However, they quickly discovered they would not go very far very fast.  Stuck in standstill traffic for hours, many ran out of gas, the Associated Press reporting Texas authorities asked the Pentagon for help getting fuel to those hitting the road and staging gasoline tankers along evacuation routes to help.

Also on the road today was our correspondent David Shuster, joining me now from Port Arthur, Texas.  David, good evening to you.  Port Arthur‘s just one of the places forecasters think Rita may make landfall.  What‘s the biggest concern there right now?

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Alison, the biggest concern here are the refineries, like the one behind me.  There are about a dozen in this particular area that supplies something like 12 to 13 percent of the production for the nation.  And a lot of these simply are going to be open to the exposure of this hurricane.

Essentially, the storm is going to come from that direction.  They‘re expecting massive flooding in this very area where we‘re standing.  And even though these refineries, of course, are used to the rain, the big problem is the wind.  There are a lot of trees, a lot of debris is expected to be blown down here.

And even if the refineries make it fairly well, there‘s every expectation among officials in this area that a lot of these roads will simply not be passable once the hurricane moves through because of all the power lines that will be down, the debris, the trees.

And so there‘s a lot of concern about just even getting back into this area, assuming that refineries like this one are able to survive the storm.

STEWART:  OK, David, you‘re a reporter, which means you‘re our road warrior.  But you were on those highways today.  It looked like a mess.  What did you experience?

SHUSTER:  Well, actually, Alison, it was a mess northwest and northeast of Houston.  It was absolute gridlock.  But the direction that I came up from Corpus Christi all the way up here to Port Arthur. and sort of heading towards Beaumont, as I told one of my friends a few minutes ago, Shuster‘s road rules were in effect, basically meaning there were no road rules.  There were no stoplights that you need to stop at.  There was so little traffic, you could go as fast as you want.

And so the reporters, the police, whatnot, they were going essentially with whatever direction they wanted to go.

But you heard the stories, Alison, over the radio of people calling in to the radio station saying that if you‘re trying to get out of Beaumont and go, say, north or northeast to Louisiana, or you‘re trying to get out of Corpus Christi and go towards San Antonio, or you‘re trying to get out of Houston and go north, absolute gridlock.

And as you mentioned, they finally, late this afternoon, at least on the radio, they said they were opening the freeway both directions going north to try to alleviate that.

But it was—it just sounded like an absolute mess on one part of Houston.  And yet, if you‘re on the other side of Houston, clear sailing.  You could basically do whatever you want.

STEWART:  OK, so for folks who decided that they didn‘t want to deal with the roads, and they stuck around, for whatever reason, what‘s in place?  How is the city preparing?

SHUSTER:  Well, the city has told people that if you were going to ignore these mandatory evacuation orders, you were on your own, that you should expect to not have power for perhaps a week to 10 days, that there will not be rescue efforts made available to you, at least initially.

And so for the most part, Alison, what‘s so unique is, post-Katrina, the—it is so quiet in some parts of Texas along the coast that you really got to believe that most people did take the evacuation orders pretty seriously and are long gone.

And remember, here we are, perhaps 36 hours before the storm is going to make landfall.  It‘s such a different situation here along the Gulf Coast of Texas, as opposed to what it was in Louisiana and Mississippi before Katrina came ashore, when only about 24 hours before did a lot of people take it seriously.

So at least as far as getting people out, that seems to have happened.  The question now is, are there any stragglers?  It‘s not really clear how many people are really left back here.

STEWART:  David Shuster in Port Arthur for us tonight, thanks so much, and stay safe.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  To the northeast of Port Arthur along the Louisiana border, the traffic situation not much better tonight.

Our correspondent Carl Quintanilla found himself in the thick of it on Interstate 10 in Sulfur, Louisiana, just west of Lake Charles.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Good evening from Interstate 10.

You‘re looking at Interstate 10 going eastbound into Louisiana just west of Lake Charles, Louisiana.  All of these cars, everything from semi trucks to sedans to fuel tankers, making their way along this five-mile-an-hour crawl that extends for 40 miles at least.

This has been going on, obviously, off and on all day, all the way back over that horizon back to Houston as these people all have one thing in common, that‘s essentially escaping Rita‘s path.  They occasionally, when traffic is altogether stopped, they get out of their cars, they talk to one another, chat about the latest rumors, what‘s the best evacuation route, where can I get gasoline?

And all of them, to some extent, say they don‘t really care what‘s at the far end of this highway, only that it‘s out of the area where Rita is expected to make a lot of destruction.  That, of course, is the irony now, that the storm has shifted east.  A lot of these travelers, without really knowing it, are now heading into the storm‘s projected path.

A lot of them are black, many white, many of them Hispanic, coming from the Gulf Coast areas where a lot of people from Mexico and Nicaragua now live.  A lot of them don‘t speak English.  The few we‘ve talked to, even in Spanish, say their biggest fear is running out of gasoline without any place to hide on this highway when Rita makes landfall tomorrow night.

Back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  That was Carl Quintanilla on I-10 in Louisiana reporting.

We‘re going back to Texas now and how the state government is preparing for this monster storm.

I‘m joined now by the lieutenant governor of the Lone Star State, David Dewhurst.

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.  We know it‘s a busy night for y‘all.

LT. GOV. DAVID DEWHURST, TEXAS:  It is, but thank you so much, Alison.

STEWART:  Do you have any estimates about how many people have evacuated from the soon-to-be-affected area?

DEWHURST:  Well, we think that we‘ve been able to achieve a substantial evacuation from Beaumont all the way down to Corpus Christi.  You‘ve used the number just a few moments ago of 1.8 million people.  And that‘s probably a good number.  We were looking at, just yesterday, moving about 1.2, 1.3 million people north.

And if I can, Alison, let me just say that, folks, if you‘re hearing me this evening, and you‘re still in one of the coastal counties between Beaumont and Corpus Christi, you need to head north.  This is a bad storm.  Even if it has been downgraded a little bit from a 5 to 4, it‘s gone from the third-worst storm in the history of the United States to the fifth-worst.  It‘s bad.  So you need to move out of harm‘s way, please.

STEWART:  Well, let‘s talk about --  That was a very good warning, by the way, for folks who are watching.

But let‘s talk about this traffic situation.  The contraflow began later this morning, trying to help out this situation.  But a lot of people are wondering why it wasn‘t ordered earlier, given the population of this area.

DEWHURST:  Well, I can‘t really comment on that, other than to say we had anticipated people would start moving about 24 hours earlier.  But we had a surge.  We had a surge that started last night and this morning.  And that‘s the reason for the traffic delay.

But starting this morning, and it took a few hours to be able to do it, our state police, our transportation agency decided to open up all lanes.  So Interstate 45 going north, Interstate 10, Highway 59 are all open for both lanes.

STEWART:  So there wasn‘t really an anticipation of this surge.  But it‘s creating another problem.  You heard our reporter say a lot of people are concerned they‘re going to simply run out of gas when the storm hit.  Are there any plans in place should there be people still on those roads when that storm hits?

DEWHURST:  Alison, I think it‘s a very, very real concern.  We started this morning to be able to find a solution for people.  Because people were a little slow in leaving, and we had a surge last night and this morning, and the traffic was slowed down, and quite a few people were running low or ran out of gasoline, we‘ve started with our transportation agency here in Texas, which is called TexStock (ph), and we have approximately 100 vehicles on the road as we speak, carrying gasoline to stranded motorists.

Plus, we‘ve reached out.  I‘ve talked to oil companies, the governor has talked to oil companies to get more tankers and more drivers to actually go out and fuel stranded motorists along the highways.

STEWART:  That sounds like you have a good plan at the local level right now to alleviate this problem.

Let‘s talk the federal level.  Everybody‘s wondering how FEMA is interacting with the local governments, giving what we saw happen in New Orleans.

DEWHURST:  Alison, I think they‘re good—they‘re doing a good job.  FEMA, you know, at the emergency operations center yesterday, I saw with our excellent state director Jack Colley (ph) working with FEMA, FEMA bringing in ice trucks, water trucks, generators, working hand in hand with the state government and the local government.

STEWART:  And tomorrow, I understand, the president is visiting your state.

DEWHURST:  Well, I‘m not sure exactly what his schedule is.

But let me just go back just for a second.  One of the areas that we need a little bit of federal help in, we‘ve got about 4,000 people in Beaumont that need to be moved out of harm‘s way.  And the only way to move them out, because they‘re ambulatory, they are all wheelchair-bound, is with military aircraft.  So we‘re hoping to have a lot of help from the military on moving 4,000 people out of Beaumont, and about 800 people out of Houston.

STEWART:  So on the federal level, you need help with Beaumont.

DEWHURST:  Yes, we do.

STEWART:  All right.  Let‘s talk about the president‘s visit to your state.  How are you going to fare with resources with a presidential visit?  And financially, are you covered?

DEWHURST:  Well, under federal law, the federal government has to pick up 75 percent of the reconstruction on the infrastructure.  So this is going to be a negotiation between the state and the federal government on our trying to get as much as we can rebuilt.

You see, we‘re going to have to ask for that, because we just took in 370,000 380,000 people from New Orleans.  And there are costs involved in that, obviously.  And we‘ve opened up a little over 350 shelters for people from New Orleans, and now for the 1.8 million people moving north.  That‘s got a capacity of 500,000 people.

So we‘re going to need as much help and as much of a partner with the federal government as we can get.

STEWART:  And do you have the manpower to cover the president‘s visit?

DEWHURST:  Yes, we do.

STEWART:  All right.

DEWHURST:  Yes, we do.

STEWART:  Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, thank you so much.

DEWHURST:  Thank you.

STEWART:  And good luck to you.

DEWHURST:  Thank you very much.

STEWART:  So do you want to see how serious the damage could be along the Texas coast?  Well, then, stick around for animations which show what could happen when the storm surge at the expected point of landfall.  We‘ll see what local officials are doing along the Texas-Louisiana border to prepare.

And inside the eye of the storm.  We‘ll introduce you to someone who‘s flown into the heart of Rita to track her power.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It was extraordinary enough when we first showed you the data last night.  If the storm surge from Rita is anything like the surge from Hurricane Carla back in 1961, Galveston Island would be left underwater.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, now shift that information about 70 miles up the coast towards Port Arthur, and the devastation is nearly total.

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny is here with the new simulation based on Rita‘s current path.  Monica?

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, there, Alison.

Once again, we turn to researchers at the University of Texas, who, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, used 1961‘s Hurricane Carla to create a simulation that shows us the damage Hurricane Rita may cause if it strikes near Port Arthur, Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BYRON TAPLEY, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS:  Your Port Arthur in particular is very close to sea level.  It doesn‘t take very much of a storm surge, four to five feet, effectively gets most of the municipal area in Port Arthur underwater.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  These aerial images reveal show what could happen if Hurricane Rita strikes Port Arthur, Texas, a potential 18-foot storm surge sending water inland all the way to Beaumont.  And still at risk, Galveston and Houston.

The images, a simulation based on Hurricane Carla, the 1961 category 4 storm that devastated the Gulf Coast.

TAPLEY:  This will be close to the storm level that Rita will have.

NOVOTNY:  If Rita follows this path, researchers predict more than $8 billion in damage.

Jefferson County, home to many of the region‘s oil refineries, would be the hardest hit.  In 2001, tropical storm Allison hit the area, prompting five days of rainfall, serious flooding, and 22 deaths.  But Rita could dwarf that, and may be the worst this industrial region has seen in more than 40 years.

TAPLEY:  The fact that it will be on the strong side of the storm‘s effect, that northeastern quadrant is the place you do not want to be when a hurricane comes back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  And those same researchers also tell us that 26 million tons of debris could be generated in this area, Alison.

STEWART:  And Monica, I don‘t want to pile on here, but there‘s an issue about tornadoes, correct?

NOVOTNY:  That‘s right.  You know, they used Hurricane Carla from 1961 as the model, as we mentioned, and that hurricane spawned some 20 tornadoes.  And a lot of those tornadoes did a tremendous amount of damage in that area back in ‘61.  And that‘s something that they couldn‘t even account for in these models.  So all of that damage, those billions of dollars, and all that—the storm surge that you saw, that still doesn‘t even account for the potential for tornadoes.

So of course they‘re hoping for the best there, but you just never know.

STEWART:  It‘s amazing technology, but very scary.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny, thanks a lot.

NOVOTNY:  Thanks.

STEWART:  So Galveston tonight, watching and hoping that Hurricane Rita continues to weaken and continues to turn away from their city.  But as Rita turns, the bullseye shifts back towards Lake Charles, Louisiana, near the Texas state line.

The city escaped most of the heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina, but it‘s been home to thousands of evacuees and relief workers from that storm, all of whom are now scrambling to escape the full force of yet another huge hurricane.

Joining us now is the mayor of Lake Charles, it‘s Randy Roach.

Thank you so much for giving us some of your time.

MAYOR RANDY ROACH, LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA (on phone):  Sure.  Good evening.

STEWART:  Now, correct me, the—your entire parish is under mandatory evacuation tonight?

ROACH:  Yes, ma‘am.  We issued the mandatory evacuation this morning.

STEWART:  And how many people are leaving?  Are people heeding the evacuation orders?

ROACH:  We have had very, very good (INAUDIBLE), I think, with the evacuation.  This area went through Hurricane Audrey in 1957.  And even though that‘s almost 50 years ago, many of us still remember that storm, and many of the families that lost loved ones in that tragic situation are still here, and they don‘t need to be asked twice to leave.  They understand what hurricanes are all about.

We live as a coastal community, so we have really very good cooperation with respect to evacuation.

STEWART:  What about those folks who want to leave but are without means, cars?  How are they being helped?

ROACH:  Well, what we did, you know, we‘ve watched this storm for a couple of days now.  And you mentioned earlier that we had the Hurricane Katrina evacuees here.  Actually, yesterday, we discontinued school for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Wednesday we got our school buses, and we reevacuated, I guess you would say, the Hurricane Katrina evacuees to Alexandria, Louisiana, so that we would have resources available for our people, should the need arise.

And, of course, this morning we were awakened with a call from the National Weather Service indicating that Rita had changed course significantly and put us in harm‘s way.  So we immediately convened a meeting, a special meeting, at our emergency preparedness office.  And we developed our protocol and our program for evacuation.

And I have to say that it has worked very well.  We‘ve had—FEMA has sent buses over here.  And we‘ve been staging buses more or less all day long.

I caught a little bit of your conversation with the lieutenant governor from Texas, and I will say that we‘ve had similar problems in being able to transport some patients who are—who have, you know, certain special needs as far as medical care and that type of thing.  And that has been a challenge for all of us.

We don‘t have as many people, apparently, in that situation as Beaumont apparently does right now.  But we‘re in the midst right now of a meeting on trying to get medical evacuation for some patients, about 200 patients, including some hospice patients, that we‘re trying to place in shelters outside the city.

STEWART:  Well, let‘s hope that someone hears your plight this evening.

Let me talk to you a little bit about geography, for folks who aren‘t really familiar with Lake Charles.  It‘s not below sea level like New Orleans.  But I got out my atlas, and you‘ve got several bodies of water right around you.  Is flooding a big issue for you?

ROACH:  It‘s going to be a big issue for us, especially with the storm surge.  They‘re projecting that if the storm does cross the Texas-Louisiana line, and apparently in the trajectory that it is moving right now, that we‘ll have a storm surge of around 20 feet.  And that will push water all the way into, or at least almost to the limits of the city, if not all the way into the city, up to I-10.

We‘re only about 30 miles, as a straight shot, to the Gulf of Mexico.  We‘re connected to the Gulf of Mexico with a large open area of water.  We call it Big Lake.  It‘s literally a very big lake.  And it‘s also connected to Lake Charles with a deep-water port—I mean, a deep-water channel for our port.  Port Lake Charles is the second-largest deep-water port in Louisiana.  In fact, we were the only deep-water port in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Now the New Orleans port is starting to open back up, and now here we are in this situation.  So obviously, our port is going to be impacted by that.

We also have the fourth-largest refinery at Citgo.  We have a Conaco refinery here.  Both of those refineries are also going to be impacted by this.

STEWART:  Well, we, of course, all wish you well in Lake Charles, Louisiana.  Mayor Randy Roach, thanks so much for your time tonight.

ROACH:  OK.  Thank you for your call.

STEWART:  The impact on western Louisiana will have a direct correlation on what happens in New Orleans.  All the heavy rains may eventually make it downstream and right past the damaged levees of the Big Easy.  We‘ll get the latest from there.

And evacuating the most vulnerable, the race to get critical-care premature babies out of Rita‘s path.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Rain began falling on New Orleans today, courtesy of the first outer bands of Hurricane Rita.  And you don‘t need to be a meteorologist to know that‘s not so good. 

Parts of the city that were dry yesterday are said to be under a foot of water tonight.  And the Army Corps of Engineers is warning that water pressure is already starting to build against the levees.  For the people of southern Louisiana, that means it is either time to stock up or get out. 

Our coverage of Hurricane Rita continues with the latest from New Orleans and correspondent Kevin Tibbles. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  It has been raining off and on here all day, as the skies darken and those blue tarps wave on damaged roofs.  New Orleans may not be expecting a direct hit, but any new damage here could be staggering. 

(voice-over):  Just like Houston, lines tonight in New Orleans, some desperate to get out, others who refuse to leave desperate to stock up on supplies.  Already, in parts of the Ninth Ward, rising water has seeped into areas dry yesterday.  And with Rita shifting east, the governor delivered a sober message. 

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA:  Some people insist on staying and believe that they can weather this kind of storm, that perhaps they should write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink. 

TIBBLES:  The military says New Orleans can expect, at minimum, over a half-foot of rain and winds in excess of 50 miles per hour and a storm surge of several feet. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The levees have been stressed, so the message to the people remain, if you were in an area that flooded during Katrina, you need to evacuate. 

TIBBLES:  But to where?  Residents face Rita on one side and closed, Katrina-flooded roads on the other. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And I don‘t know where we would go.  We can‘t go west.  We can‘t go east.  You have to go north. 

TIBBLES:  The problem is, north is the direction everybody else is already headed, leaving many who returned here stuck in a city with few services, gas, food, medicines at a premium, and few people left to do work. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We are, in essence, a hurt puppy right now.  We don‘t have all of our resources available to us. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I just came home after four weeks. 

TIBBLES (on camera):  What is it going to take for you to go? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, the wife.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I want to leave—for my kids. 

TIBBLES (voice-over):  Tonight, as the clouds swirl above, down below, New Orleans scrambles to hunker down. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We certainly didn‘t think that, after we took, you know, a strong, strong blow to the chin, we then have to take perhaps one to the belly. 

TIBBLES (on camera):  And along with warnings from every single government official to get out of town, those who do remain tonight are being told that only three hospitals remain open here and they are operating at severely reduced service. 

Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Thanks so much, Kevin.

Coming up, back to the Texas-size headaches on the roads out of the Houston area.  We will go live to Rita Cosby with the latest from the Texas coast. 

And, later, the crisis in the skies above Los Angeles.  Last night, we showed you the dramatic JetBlue emergency landing.  Tonight, we will take you inside the plane to show you how passengers were reacting. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  And welcome back to COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann. 

The downgrading of Hurricane Rita from Category 5 to Category 4 is kind of like the playground bully telling you he is going to punch you in the stomach, rather than whack you over the head with a bat.  Either way, you run. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, that very wise decision being made by thousands along the coast of Texas and western Louisiana, one area already nearly completely deserted, the vulnerable island city of Galveston.  Most residents already evacuated, but some diehard holdouts and even some surfers remain behind. 

You‘ll remember some of the most horrifying images to come out of the region after the last hurricane, hospital patients being evacuated days later, for some, way too late, but more evidence tonight that the lessons learned in the wake of Katrina are being employed in anticipation of Rita.  Hospitals in Texas are mobilizing to evacuate their most critical and tiniest patients. 

Now our correspondent in Corpus Christi, Texas, is Ron Allen. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  They are the youngest and perhaps most vulnerable people in Hurricane Rita‘s path, many of them tiny preemies or infants in neonatal units, some already fighting for life.  Driscoll Hospital of Corpus Christi began airlifting them to safety, with the help of a children‘s hospital from neighboring Arkansas.  That facility sent aircraft to help. 

DR. RON CHEADLE, DRISCOLL CHILDREN‘S HOSPITAL:  There are premature infants that have been very recently born, some many weeks premature.  And they‘re extremely fragile. 

ALLEN:  They are not all infants.  Michael Garza is 16, a quadriplegic.  He is evacuating with his mom, Julie.  Michael needs a ventilator to help him breathe.  And that device must be recharged every two hours. 

MICHAEL GARZA, PATIENT:  I hope everybody is OK and everything. 

JULIE TRAEVINO, MOTHER:  Yes, nervous.  I don‘t know what to expect when I get owe there, different hospital, different people, you know, Michael.  You know, but I have to be strong for him.  So I think I can handle it. 

ALLEN:  They‘re fortunate to be able to stay together.  There isn‘t enough room for every parent to take the flights.  Some will have to make their own way to meet their children.  This flight is heading to Dallas.  It is a very complicated and delicate process.  It takes a lot of staff, a lot of care and affection to transport these children safely. 

And it is not just hospitals in Texas.  Clinics from as far away as Florida are helping and willing to care for kids if the hospitals in Texas are overwhelmed.  The huge task of deciding who to evacuate first falls to the doctors, who are determined that every child who needs to be evacuated will get to safety and survive Hurricane Rita. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  That was Ron Allen reporting from Corpus Christi. 

And reporting from Galveston, Texas, is Rita Cosby with more on the evacuation. 

Rita, any hint there, apart from deserted streets, that a Category 4 hurricane is on the way? 

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Yes. 

And, Alison, I can tell you, definitely some clear signs.  In the last hour or so, the storm surge has really beefed up.  I‘m right by the coastline here, right by that 15-foot seawall right on basically the mid-side of the island.  And about—maybe about an hour or so ago, maybe the waves were a foot or two high, almost no sign that a storm was coming in.  It was a beautiful sunny day.

And, incredibly, just in the last hour or so, it has gotten tremendously dark outside here.  The waves have probably quadrupled in size.  And you can tell that a major storm is heading in this direction.  You can also just see that the humidity is beefed up.  You can see it‘s going to be torrential rains, maybe even as early as late tonight or tomorrow morning. 

But you can tell that something ominous and something very powerful is headed this direction.  And, Alison, this area is really going to take a beating.  I mean, Galveston Island, where I‘m standing right now, is about two to three miles wide only.  It is literally just a tiny little barrier isle, basically flat land.  We do have that seawall on some part of the isle, around 10 miles around the island. 

But a lot of the island is tremendously exposed.  And the city manager here, who I spoke with not too long ago, was saying that the waves here, even if it‘s, say, a Category 3, Category 4 storm, could still come in at about 30, 40 feet.  Again, the seawall is just about 15 to 17 feet at its highest point.  So, that means we could see a major wall of water coming into many of the homes, many of the businesses here in Galveston—Alison.

STEWART:  Rita, so you‘re there.  The city manager is there.  Anybody else you‘ve seen staying for the duration? 

COSBY:  Not too many more people. 

There‘s probably about—probably about maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people, is what they told us a few hours ago.  But even in the last few hours, we have seen a lot of people evacuating, just stuck in traffic, as you know.  The drive normally from Galveston to Houston takes about an hour.  But, in the last few days, and I‘m told that some people, it is taking as much as 12 hours to go, because it is literally wall-to-wall traffic getting out of here. 

We do see a couple residents who are saying, look, you know, I withstood hurricanes.  I withstood a lot of other things. 

They‘re going to ride (AUDIO GAP) out.  We did some surfers a few hours ago.  But, in the last few hours, it seems even the surfers are scared of the big waves that have been crashing in.  And I think the big sense is now (AUDIO GAP) last few hours, there is really a tremendous fear here that Galveston could be hit very, very hard. 

STEWART:  So, Rita, I know you plan to stay put.  Any clue about your plans, where you‘re going to be holing up during the hurricane? 

COSBY:  Yes.  Believe it or not (AUDIO GAP) be in the building here.  There‘s a hotel called the San Luis Resort Hotel. 

And we picked that because they said it is basically—if anything happens to the island, that‘s probably the one building that will remain standing.  It‘s I don‘t know how many stories.  It‘s at least 10 or 20 stories.  But what is interesting, Alison, is, it is based on a bunker.  It was literally a bunker for a garrison back in the late 1800s, 1900s, where the Army was based. 

And, literally, they have a bunker in the basement, should things get that bad.  They also believe that it is just very well supported, so much so that it is basically going to become the base for not just journalists, but all the EMS officials.  The city manager, the mayor herself is going to be staying there.  That is going to be the central feeding point, where we will be based. 

But the owner of the hotel, I was talking to him a few hours ago.  And he said, if it is a category 5 -- of course, it is a Category 4 right now.  But he said, if it is a category 5, he doesn‘t know if that building will stand.  He says, if it is a 4 or 3, we will probably see lots of the windows blown out, lots of damage.  But he does believe the building will remain standing.  And that‘s going to be our point of reference.

And, Alison, again, in just the last hour or so, with the winds kicking up here, the waves definitely coming up, it looks like a bad one is going to be coming in here in the next 24, 36 hours. 

STEWART:  All right.  Well, you make sure you take care of yourself and your crew in the next 24 to 36 hours. 

Rita Cosby in Galveston, Texas, thanks. 

COSBY:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  Also tonight, the men monitoring the monster, flying straight in to danger in the air, so that we can avoid the danger on the ground, one of them will join us tonight. 

But, first, a different view of danger in the sky, pictures from inside JetBlue Flight 292, as passengers realized they would have to make an emergency landing. 

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  As we reported it live, they watched it in the air.  Now passengers on board JetBlue 292 share their own images from inside the cabin, as they realized that the landing gear was broken.

Stay by—stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Our coverage of Hurricane Rita continues in a moment. 

But at number two on the COUNTDOWN tonight, a couple of the other big news stories of the day, beginning with the dramatic emergency landing of JetBlue Flight 292. 

The nation watched last night as the crippled Airbus A-320 circled above Los Angeles, burning fuel, before pilots made a heroic and picture-perfect landing at LAX.  Tonight, NBC has obtained exclusive home video shot on board the plane as the events unfolded. 

Here is correspondent George Lewis. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  3:17, Flight 292 takes off from Burbank, California.  But the nosewheel is stuck at a 90-degree angle.  The pilot goes on the intercom and tells the 140 passengers. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We have run all the relevant checklists and are confident that we know exactly what the issue is. 

LEWIS:  4:20, the pilot flies low past the tower at Long Beach Airport, so controllers can inspect the malfunctioning wheel. 

STEWART:  The plane has been circling for the better part of an hour. 

LEWIS:  4:37, MSNBC breaks into hurricane coverage to show live pictures of Flight 292. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It seemed to be getting worse.  And then we saw ourselves on the news. 

LEWIS:  The passengers themselves are watching the coverage on the jetliner‘s satellite TV system. 

One of them, Dave Renas (ph), tapes a farewell message to his girlfriend on his camcorder. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Just thought I would leave you a message just in case.  I love you.

LEWIS:  6:17, after burning off fuel, the pilot prepares for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Brace, brace, brace. 

LEWIS:  On board, passengers assume the crash position; 6:19, the nosewheel scrapes along the runway, creating a huge shower of sparks.  Passengers smell the burning rubber and hang on for dear life.  Finally, the Airbus stops safely. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

LEWIS:  6:28, passengers get off. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Good job.  Thank you. 

LEWIS:  Glad to be alive, not anxious for any reruns of this, the ultimate in reality TV. 

George Lewis, NBC News, Los Angeles. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Back on the East Coast, in Washington, D.C., the president‘s choice to succeed the late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court moved one step closer to the bench.  Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voting 13-5 to send the nomination of Judge John Roberts to a full Senate vote, virtually assuring his confirmation to the court next week. 

Yes votes by Democratic committee members Leahy, Feingold and Kohl made a difference.  Dems say they won‘t filibuster Roberts‘ nomination in the full Senate.  But, tonight, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton released a statement announcing she intends to vote against Roberts, who she says left his position on many critical issues—quote—“unclear.”

Mention that a monster storm is coming and most people head in the other direction, but not the hurricane hunters, flying into a storm, all in the name of your safety and science.  We will hear about Hurricane Rita from someone who spent the day with her. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Meteorologists now predicting that Hurricane Rita will make landfall to the east of Houston and Galveston some time Saturday morning, most likely as a Category 4 storm. 

How they know this is due in part to the data sent from the airplanes willing to fly right into the storm.  Imagine being on board a plane flying into this, one of the most powerful storms ever on record, and then looking down into something like this. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, the hurricane hunters.  Long before there was Doppler radar or satellite photos, hurricane hunters were checking out the big storms for themselves.  And even with all of today‘s technology, they still do. 

Air Force Major Ken Ostra was checking out Hurricane Rita just yesterday.  And he‘s kind enough to join us now by telephone. 

So, Major, you spent pretty much all day yesterday with Hurricane Rita.  And that‘s the day that she got big.  Tell us what you saw. 

MAJOR KEN OSTRA, AIR FORCE RESERVE:  Well, you know, we took off early in the morning. 

And it was just a Cat 2 storm, maybe moving up to a Cat 3.  And by the time we left it, seven hours later and started heading home, it had moved all the way up to a Category 5, with very impressive winds and just huge walls of clouds surrounding the eye. 

STEWART:  Now, the National Hurricane Center says this is the third most intense storm ever.  Could you tell that by looking at it?  Did it look different from other storms you‘ve flown into? 

OSTRA:  You know, even before we got into the center of it on our first pass, the co-pilot looked down and pointed out, and there was just the largest wave he‘d ever in his life down there. 

And, as we moved in closer on to the storm, we could tell that the winds were dramatically stronger than what we were used to seeing.  And, by our third pass through the storm, the drop (INAUDIBLE) operator, who is the guy in the back who releases the weather instrument, was getting lower readings than we really thought we should get. 

And the weather officer made him double-check that.  By the time we left, we had weather readings that were far lower than anything we ever thought we would see.  And we were somewhat in a state of disbelief until we got those numbers verified. 

STEWART:  So, as you‘re describing this—and it sounds fairly intense, and that giant wave, the biggest one that gentleman said he‘d ever seen—I‘m wondering about the plane.  How come the plane doesn‘t bust up?  How come it‘s safe? 

OSTRA:  Well, you know, the airplane is flying along in a pretty standard environment for it.  If you think about it, the wind is moving around at 170 knots, which is about 200 miles an hour, but the airplane is designed to fly in that sort of wind, as we fly along at 300 miles an hour when we‘re going from point A to point B. 

Where we had our significant issues is the turbulence just surrounding the eye.  There were several times during the course of the flight where we were fighting control of the airplane through the turbulence.  And we just had a general control of the direction and the altitude of the airplane until we could get into smoother air. 

But it‘s an incredibly sturdy airplane we fly, the C-130-J model.  And we really don‘t have any structural issues that we are concerned with. 

STEWART:  As you‘re riding into these storms, I guess because the storms have names, I‘m wondering if they have, you know, “personalities”—in quotes? 

OSTRA:  Well, you know, actually, they do. 

Every storm is different.  You know, the nature of all the elements that go into making up a storm are different.  And, thus, each of them do have a personality.  And those personalities change with each pass and with each day that goes by. 

So, every time we went into the storm yesterday, it was a little bit different than the time before.  And that storm was a little different than, say, Katrina or Ophelia was. 

STEWART:  And, quickly, in the next 10 seconds, do you ever get scared? 

(LAUGHTER)

OSTRA:  Well, not really.  You don‘t think about it too much.  Otherwise, we wouldn‘t be able to do our job. 

STEWART:  Well, we‘re very thankful that you do do your jobs.

Major Ken Ostra, so much we thank you for coming on. 

OSTRA:  It was my pleasure.  Thank you very much. 

STEWART:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.  Have a great night. 

Up next, “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT,” right here on MSNBC.

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

END   

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