updated 9/23/2005 1:44:33 PM ET 2005-09-23T17:44:33

Guests: Dana Milbank, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, Max Mayfield, Randy Roach, Oscar Ortiz, Rick Perry

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Preemptive strike.  Bush to beat Rita to Texas.  Under heat for his response to Katrina, President Bush plans to hit Texas tomorrow to show he is ready for Rita. 

Let‘s play Hardball.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

The agony and the exodus.  Hundreds of thousands of people on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast have battened down the hatches and have gotten out of town, as Hurricane Rita closes in.  An estimated 1.8 million people were under orders to evacuate, causing major traffic jams—look at that—gas shortages and hotels filled to capacity. 

The very latest on Rita in a minute. 

Some big political news today.  The Senate Judiciary Committee approved John Roberts‘ nomination as the next Supreme Court chief justice in a 13-5 vote, virtually assuring he will be confirmed by the entire Senate next week.  Three Democrats joined 10 Republicans on the committee for that vote of 13-5.

More on that later.  First, the latest on Hurricane Rita.  We have reporters across the Gulf Coast.

And we begin with MSNBC‘s Rita Cosby, who is in Galveston. 

Rita, are you getting a break here now?  Is it going to head more to Louisiana?  What‘s the latest?

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Well, they are stick expecting it is going to be hit hard right here, Chris. 

We are getting a little bit of a break, because now we may be on the left side of the storm.  If you look at sort of where the cone comes in, usually, it‘s the right side that gets the torrential winds, the heavy rain, just the dousing flooding.  We are expecting we are still going to get severe flooding, but not as bad maybe.

But still, what they are preparing for is something very severe here.  You know, it looks like a nice sunny day today, Chris, in Galveston.  But they are predicting 24 hours from now we will absolutely have tropical-storm-force winds.  There will be massive flooding. 

In fact, an ominous sign, Chris.  Just a few minutes ago, I was talking to the city manager here.  He is saying the seawalls here at their highest point, somewhere between 15 to 17 feet, he is predicting that there might be a storm surge, some waves crashing at 50 feet.  So, we are talking that a 35-foot wave could actually come over and enter into our hotel room into much of the city.

And if that happens, it could be disastrous.  They are preparing, they‘re saying, at the very least, for probably a Category 3, maybe a Category 4, hitting here in the next 24 hours or so—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Rita, you scared me there.  Your hotel room?  You are planning to leave tomorrow morning, right? 

COSBY:  Unfortunately, I‘m not.

But the good news is, Chris, we are in probably the safest building here on this island.  Galveston is tiny barrier island.  It‘s about two to three miles wide, about 30 miles long.  It‘s extremely vulnerable.  But the good news is, the hotel that we‘re staying in, it‘s called the San Luis Hotel.  It‘s actually built on a bunker.  It was used by American troops and also others that were coming in.

Basically, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, literally a garrison was based there in the bunker.  There is a secure area in that building and if things get too ferocious outside—we will be trying to report from outside as long as we can, but if it gets bad we are going to be in that bunker.  And they believe that that bunker 100 percent will be able to sustain even Category 5 winds.  We will see if it does.

MATTHEWS:  Well, good for you.  I hope it does, obviously. 

Let me ask you about the human politics of this catastrophe to be.  Is everybody out of Galveston, 260,000 residents there regularly?  How many are still around? 

COSBY:  They are predicting somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 are left.  We have seen a couple of people that have been surfing today.  You can see some of the whitecaps.  It‘s actually not a bad day to go surfing.

But an ominous message.  It‘s crazy, of course, to stay here at this point.  All the city managers, the mayor said, look, if you stay here beyond the next two or three hours at this point, it is at your own peril.  You are crazy to stay here.  However, we have seen maybe about 3,000 to 4,000 basically staying here on the island.  A loft folks say that they want to ride it out. 

Their homes actually were able to stay up, most of them, they‘re saying, past the 1900 hurricane, which, of course, devastated this island and they believe if it was able it handle that, they are hoping it can handle this one.  Of course, most of the folks who are saying, Chris, are a little more inland. 

We are right now on a causeway right along the seawall, right where of course it is going to just get pounded tomorrow night.  Most of the residents are a little further inland.  But, here, inland means just a few blocks.  It doesn‘t mean a few miles.  And you can bet there are places that are going to be flooded.  They basically predict almost every building on this island will have severe damage.  Hopefully, our hotel will be standing and be in one piece. 

MATTHEWS:  Assure me, if you can, Rita, that those guys surfing,

especially that excellent surfer we are watching on the tape there, is not

they are not going to stick around and try to ride the storm surge, are they? 

COSBY:  No, they are not. 

In fact, we have talked to a number of surfers today.  They say they are taking advantage of today.  In fact, a lot of people are getting out.  The bad news is, there is so much traffic, suddenly to have thousands upon thousands of people leaving just this area, 1.3 million, Chris, all up and down sort of the coastline, because the whole coastline is particularly vulnerable, just massive traffic. 

Normally, it takes about an hour from here to Houston, which is just about 60 miles north of here.  I‘m told—someone who just drove it a little bit ago, it took six to seven hours.  Traffic is backed up.  People are actually losing gas while they‘re waiting there on the freeway.  There‘s even fuel trucks that are gassing up people who are losing gas as they‘re waiting in line.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

COSBY:  And we are told, as far as the surfers go, some folks are enjoying today, but most residents—I think we are just going to see a slim population that will actually stay tomorrow.  And those who are staying, Chris, they are going to be battening down the hatches.  They‘re going to be in their homes a few blocks in.

MATTHEWS:  Speaking battening down the hatches, those people waiting in line there for hours and hours may want to go to the bathroom at some point.  That is going to be a challenge for all concerned, as well as getting gas. 

What an awful way to spend a day. 

Anyway, thank you, Rita Cosby.  Great report from Galveston.

Take care of yourself.

COSBY:  Thanks.

MATTHEWS:  Lock the door tomorrow night. 

COSBY:  Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  As we have been reporting, the traffic leaving the Houston metropolitan area is at a standstill. 

NBC‘s Ron Blome has been stuck in traffic and joins us now by his mobile phone somewhere near Port Arthur. 

Ron, thanks for joining us.  What does it feel like out there? 

RON BLOME, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, it very frustrating for people. 

Actually, we were running mostly against the traffic, so we had fairly clear sailing while we watched people creeping along at two and three miles an hour.  Then we hit one area where we averaged five miles an hour for two hours, so we made 10 miles in that.  At that rate, it would have taken us five more hours to get to Beaumont.

So, we have diverted down to Port Arthur, which is—we are almost on the Louisiana line, which is now where that dotted line of landfill has kind of wavered over from Matagorda Island last night, when we went to bed, so we are more into it.

And let me just tell you, the overwhelming impression here is refinery, refinery, refinery.  This is a huge part of the nation‘s gasoline.  There‘s two dozen refineries from here all the way through Houston.  We know that we lost 10 or 12 percent of our capacity with Katrina.  And you are looking at maybe another 20 percent of the gasoline refining capacity here right here.

So, even if this doesn‘t do the extensive damage to the homes that Katrina did, and there‘s no indication that it might not, you know it is going to shut down the refining thing.  You know, boy, look for a spike at the gas pumps. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, we have a supply and demand problem.  Supply goes down.  Demand stays the way it is.  We are going to get a higher price at the pump. 

BLOME:  Absolutely.

And part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is located over in this direction, too, that the may make it harder to tap.  That‘s what they tap when they lose production out of the Gulf.

MATTHEWS:  You mean that‘s where the salt mines are. 

BLOME:  Yes.  Some of the salt dumps are here, yes, that they use. 

MATTHEWS:  Unbelievable.  It‘s all happening at once.

BLOME:  But it‘s very frustrating. 

They put 1.8 million people out here on these—on the interstates and the highways leading north.  And people are going to be very frustrated.  And when the rains start to come in tomorrow and the winds start and if they are still stuck along the side of the highway, people are saying, what happens if we run out of gas?  Will somebody pick us up? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  And also...

(CROSSTALK)

BLOME:  The government is trying to get some fuel tankers in, but it‘s a tough situation.

MATTHEWS:  And, also, your car gets overheated like that.  You can see what happens.  Anybody who has been in traffic knows the car overheats.  The fan belt gets heated up.  Everything goes wrong.  The engine gets very, very hot when it has to do that for three or four hours. 

Anyway, thank you very much. 

Especially if you have got an old car.

Thank you very much, NBC‘s Ron Blome. 

Now let‘s the latest on which way Rita is heading right now.  This is the latest NBC Weather Plus report from meteorologist Bill Karins, who is standing by at the Weather Center.

Bill I‘m becoming a weather nut here for the first time in my life.  I‘m not the kind of guy that reaches for the galoshes in the morning or even thinks about it.  But now it is part of my job.  So, tell me the nuance.  Can you actually project these constant almost geometric turns now in this direction of the eye of the hurricane? 

BILL KARINS, NBC METEOROLOGIST:  The fluctuations that occur with this, especially an intense storm like this, Chris, are very erratic. 

There‘s wobbles to the right.  There‘s wobbles to the left.  And, in the short term, they do affect that final landfall.  I also want to point out to you, Chris, that we saw all those pictures of the traffic there.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

KARINS:  I just looked it up.  It‘s 98 degrees, with a heat index of 102 currently in Houston.  That is what all of those people are sitting in currently. 

Imagine sitting there if you are trying to conserve fuel and you have got your A.C. turned off, 102 with the heat index.  And you know how hot it gets in a car. 

MATTHEWS:  What is your engine heat going to be, too?  Think about that.

KARINS:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

KARINS:  It would be absolutely miserable to be in one of those cars with the whole family, trying to keep them cool.  And you‘re trying to keep your cool, too.

Let me talk a little bit about the new stuff out from the Hurricane Center, Chris.  Winds are down to 145.  The storm is not weakening as quickly as I had hoped.  And, unfortunately, now, the Hurricane Center is actually bringing it on shore as a Category 4, definitely.

Notice the bands here already heading up into southern portion of Louisiana.  What also changed with latest update is that New Orleans is now under a tropical storm warning, already raining hard.  Slidell, New Orleans and Biloxi, Gulfport, all those areas devastated from Katrina, it‘s already pouring.  And it could rain in some of these areas for about 72 hours. 

At least for now, tropical-storm-force winds and hurricane-force winds are south of the coastline.  The official forecast track has not changed much.  It changed a lot at about early this morning.  It went from south of Houston and Galveston to just north of there.  Now, this is when we get a little more technical, because, if you are on the right side of where the landfall is, that is where the storm surge is.  Usually, that‘s where the strongest rain and wind is. 

On the backside, it is still going to be windy; it is still going to be raining, but you don‘t have to deal with that storm surge.  So, where Rita was located there, in Galveston Island, she wouldn‘t get those huge, huge waves and that storm surge if it goes on this projected track.  So, that would possibly save the city of Galveston. 

Any shift to the left, of course, between now and then, would completely devastate the island.  So, that is why all those people are still getting out of there, and that is why you shouldn‘t return. 

And with this projection, about Saturday morning, so we have indications that this storm is starting to slow down.  So, this storm has so many facets to it.  This storm, some of our computers now are actually stalling it out in Eastern Texas for possibly maybe three or four days in between Dallas and Little Rock.  And it could just rain and rain and rain. 

We have been showing you these graphics with these little thin lines on them, showing you the possibility of all our storm tracks.  They all, for the most part, were taking it between Houston and about Lake Charles then and moving it up through and bringing it up through the Ohio Valley.  Well, not anymore. 

Look at all these squirrelly lines on this map.  All of our computers are all over the place.  They do have that general landfall between Houston an Lake Charles, but, after that, they just sit and rain this thing out.  We could be dealing with some areas getting one to two feet of rain.

And, unfortunately, Chris, a lot of those little tributaries there, they lead into the Mississippi River.  And, of course, we all know where the Mississippi River goes.  It heads through right downtown New Orleans. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

KARINS:  Luckily, those levees held up with the last storm. 

Hopefully, they will hold up for this, too.  So many facets.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Who is going to get the right punch right now, Ron (sic)? 

KARINS:  The right—the right punch is going to be, it looks like Beaumont and Port Arthur. 

With the current forecast track, they would be in that eastern eye wall of the storm and they would get it the absolute worst.  It is very swampy land here, this whole coastline of Louisiana.  The population is only somewhere between about 10,000 to 20,000.  So, there‘s not a lot of big cities down there.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

KARINS:  And all those people should hopefully leave that.  That is where the worst devastation would be.  That‘s where those pictures that you saw like in Pass Christian and Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, those houses just devastated.  Those little tiny towns in there would be those ones that would probably be almost wiped off the map. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Hey, Bill, I‘m the fastest talking guy I ever met, and you beat me. 

(LAUGHTER)

KARINS:  That‘s hard to say.

MATTHEWS:  You get more information out there than I have ever been able to do. 

Thank you, Bill.  And I‘m learning all the time.  Thank you very much, Bill Karins.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We are learning about that right punch coming off the eye of a hurricane.  That‘s what you got to watch for.

President Bush will visit Texas tomorrow to get ahead of what is going on down there, get a look at what is coming and also get a look at the preparations for this monster storm coming. 

Rick Perry of course is the governor of Texas.  And he joins us right now. 

Governor.

GOV. RICK PERRY ®, TEXAS:  How are you, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  It looks like everybody is prepared.  You have got a great evacuation going on.  The question is, can all the people who are trying to get out, get out? 

PERRY:  Well, I think we have got the—as you said, the right preparation in place. 

I know it is frustrating out there and it‘s taking them a long time to get from point A to point B.  But the fact of the matter is, it is a lot better for them to be moving slowly than to be in this storm‘s path.  This is bad storm and this is one that is going to do a huge amount of damage. 

So, the TxDOT employees, the FEMA employees, our Homeland Security folks, have done a wonderful job.  It is just always hard to try to figure out what one of these huge monster storms is going to do.  Your weatherman did a great job of showing all the variables there a while ago.  So, we are doing everything we can to make it as easy as we can for our residents to move to safety. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the gas thing. 

People get stuck—out here at North Capital (ph) right here, you have that problem when you get in these logjams or traffic jams.

PERRY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  You wonder if you are going to run out of gas by the time you get off the road.  You have a serious problem there.  Look at these people, an all-day backup here.  Are you charging these people for the gas you are bringing them when you go out there in the trucks? 

PERRY:  No.  They are basically delivering this gasoline and trying to get these people moving. 

MATTHEWS:  For free? 

(CROSSTALK)

PERRY:  That‘s the last thing on our mind, is what the cost is going to be.  And we will worry about that later. 

You know, we got the Air Force.  We got the military.  We got TxDOT, our Texas Department of Transportation.  We have got private sector folks that are making the best of a really bad situation.  But the fact of the matter is, not everybody filled up two days ago, when we told them that would be a very good idea.  And so we are having to deal with some folks running out of gas. 

But our models and our evacuation plans, we knew that was going to happen.  So, again, we are just trying to deal with a pretty tough situation as positively as we can.  I‘m asking the people out there just to be calm, just to be patient.  And we will get out of the storm‘s path.  That is the most important thing.

And, frankly, as a lot of these folks are going to find out, is, they are going to be able to return to safe, dry, intact homes.  So, as this storm continues to move east, as we see it‘s doing, there are a lot of those folks in Houston and Galveston that are going to be able to come back to their homes.  And that is the great news.  And it is a tough situation, though. 

MATTHEWS:  What is holding up the traffic? 

PERRY:  Well, first and foremost, you have got over a million-and-a-half people that are moving a relatively short distance of time. 

We have got two major thoroughfares.  There‘s 210 miles of traffic in the Houston area that is one way only.  You have got I-45 and I-10 that are counterflowing on both sides. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PERRY:  Highway 290, because you can‘t block off the egress and the ingress into some of those roads, like 290, you can‘t make those counterflow.  You—you—for the safety of the people, you can‘t do that.

So, I mean, it is just—you know, it‘s just plain old physics, Chris.  The fact of the matter is, you can only cram so much volume through those types of highways.  This morning, we started a mass mandatory evacuation of a lot of the Houston area when this storm changed its course again. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PERRY:  So, again, you are trying to outguess Mother Nature.  And, sometimes, that‘s hard to do.  But the fact of the matter is, this evacuation is going relatively well at this particular point in time. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to be able to get those people off that Highway 10 by the time the storm hits? 

PERRY:  I think so. 

And you can bet we are going to have a lot of resources out there, and as we already do, and getting these people out.  We have already had, you know, an extraordinary evacuation from the Beaumont to Houston area and Galveston already. 

So, you know, you move 260,000 people out of Galveston—or 255,000.  There‘s 5,000 souls that may be a little hard-headed or are staying until the last minute. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PERRY:  But the fact is, we have had a relatively thoughtful movement of these people out of harm‘s way.  And that‘s the most important thing.  Every mile away you get from that—the coast, the safer these people will be. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it is great having you on, Governor.  You seem to be doing a great job.

PERRY:  You‘re welcome. 

MATTHEWS:  And I root for you and the people of Texas, of course...

PERRY:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  ... to deal with this situation.  It looks like you‘re doing it.

Let me just tell you something, though.  You are not a great politician.  You have sent me a Roger Clemens autographed baseball. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m holding it up right here.  You know it‘s a really nice tribute.  And I‘m going to keep it with my Robin Roberts baseball I keep up on my shelf.

MATTHEWS:  The Astros are two games ahead in the wild card. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But let me tell you something.  They are ahead of the Phillies.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And although I like this Roger Clemens baseball, you have not converted me, OK?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m rooting for the Phillies.  I am rooting.  If we can get those two games—if we can get those two games from Philly to get up there and catch you guys—you are on a streak, though.

PERRY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, you have got a hell of a thing going.

PERRY:  We are ready and get back to baseball and get this hurricane behind us.  So, you know, keep us in your prayers.

MATTHEWS:  So, you are going to trade me the wild card for a better day tomorrow.  I will be glad to accept that. 

PERRY:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  You are a great gay. 

PERRY:  Yes, sir.  So long.

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for coming on, Governor Rick Perry of Texas.

As the Hurricane Rita—Hurricane Rita—tracks toward the Texas-Louisiana border, moving east, any move to the north and east could spell trouble for New Orleans again, more rain.  Those levees are threatened again. 

Coming up, the latest, as crews in New Orleans try to shore up those weakened levees—look at them—in advance of the storm.

Plus, we are going to talk to two Gulf Coast mayors about how they‘re preparing for this huge and dangerous storm.  This is bigger than Katrina.

You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of Hurricane Rita on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  As Hurricane Rita swings north, will New Orleans get socked for the second time in a month? 

HARDBALL returns after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Even though Hurricane Rita is tracking towards Texas right now, any significant rainfall from Hurricane Rita could overwhelm the already weakened levee system in New Orleans.  We know all about that by now.

NBC‘s Michelle Hofland is in New Orleans right now with the latest. 

Michelle, how is the rain? 

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it has been getting really strong today. 

When we woke up this morning, I saw the first rain I had seen since Hurricane Katrina hit more than three weeks ago.  Through the day, we started getting more and more rain closer and closer together.  Now we have a black cloud that is right overhead. 

Take a look at the choppy Mississippi River.  It just getting pretty bad.  And, Chris, you have to remember that Hurricane Rita is not even supposed to make landfall now for another 36 hours.  New Orleans mayor just said in a press conference that he says that 50 to 60 percent chance that the New Orleans...

MATTHEWS:  We are—we have lost Michelle. 

We are going to take a little break.  That was Michelle Hofland reporting to us, where it is already soaking wet down there in New Orleans. 

We‘ll be right back.  We are going to talk to two mayors on coastal cities about Hurricane Rita‘s path and what they are doing to prepare for it.  This is serious business.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  As Hurricane Rita bears down on the Texas-Louisiana coastline, residents are heeding warnings now and evacuating. 

I‘m joined on the phone by the mayors of two cities preparing for a direct hit from Rita.  Oscar Ortiz is mayor of Port Arthur.  He was on last night.  That‘s in Texas.  And Randy Roach is mayor of Lake Charles, Louisiana.  That‘s in Louisiana, of course.

Let me go to Mayor Ortiz.

Mayor, how does it look compared it last night? 

OSCAR ORTIZ, MAYOR OF PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Getting tight.  You are getting more into the crosshairs here. 

ORTIZ:  Yes. 

We are getting a little more scarier.  This thing is looking right down our throat right now.  And, of course, I went around today, as I said, and looked at some of the departure stations that we have got.  And it is kind of heart-wrenching when you see some of these older people.  Like, I met one older gentleman who could not survive without his oxygen tank and just waiting to get onto that bus.

At that same position, we had already sent 57 buses out of Port Arthur.  The state has been very kind to us, of course.  They sent us down something like 18 Greyhound buses this morning.  They also sent out two C-130s that came into our airport about three hours ago to take some of the ones that couldn‘t travel by bus.  So, it has been an all-out effort by us, of course, by the state.  And we are thankful to the state for the work they have done down here. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about what you have learned from Katrina. 

Mayor Nagin of New Orleans was sort of the canary in the mines.  You guys have been able to watch how he has behaved.  And you know what I‘m talking about.  Have you learned anything?  Not to knock him, but have you learned anything about evacuation from the New Orleans experience? 

ORTIZ:  Well, one of things I have learned is to just to get all the buses we can together.  And that is one of the things the school district has been very good to us about.  And that was one of the reasons why I asked the other day that all the schools be closed come Thursday and Friday, because I needed those school buses to move our people out.

And, so far, that‘s exactly what we have done.  They closed them off yesterday, today, excused again tomorrow.  And we have been taking their school buses and their drivers to move all these people out of here.  Otherwise, we could not have done it.  We would have been stuck. 

MATTHEWS:  Where do the buses go? 

ORTIZ:  Well, they are going north, stick north to Nacogdoches, Texas, and some of the other surrounding communities up there that we have an agreement with to house these people. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, good. 

I was just wondering how you get people to get on a bus who don‘t want to get on. 

(LAUGHTER)

ORTIZ:  It‘s not easy, I‘m going to tell you.

But I keep telling them that they all have got to do is look at the pictures of Katrina over there at New Orleans, and it kind of changes their mind right off the bat.  This is a very dangerous storm.  It‘s very large in size.  It‘s a Category 5.  We feel that, by the time it hits the ground, it is going to be a Category 4. 

We also realize that the one that hit New Orleans was only a 3 when it hit the ground.  We are looking at this one being a 4, so I just keep emphasizing to the people that this is going to be a lot of destruction around here.  And move.  Get the heck out of there. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  It reminds me of Catholic school, where they give you a little different color tags to put on you to tell you which bus to get on.  Maybe you need some tough sisters down there to get people on those buses.

(LAUGHTER)

ORTIZ:  I agree with you there.

MATTHEWS:  You get on that bus!

Anyway, let‘s go to Randy Roach.  He‘s the mayor of Lake Charles, Louisiana. 

Mayor Roach, thanks for joining us by phone. 

RANDY ROACH, MAYOR OF LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  You are also in that direction that this eye of this hurricane is headed right now. 

ROACH:  Chris, we—we just got a report from the Weather Service and it looks like—I hate to tell you this, Mayor Ortiz—but it looks like it is headed right over you.

And that means it‘s going within probably about 25, 30 miles of us, just to the southwest of us.  So, that is the current trajectory on the storm.  So, we are in a briefing.  We just got out of a briefing with the governor and the lieutenant governor. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What about the right punch?  I hear that the right punch of these things hurts the hardest. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROACH:  Well, the right side, you are right.  That‘s the side we worry about. 

We are looking at a storm surge coming through our area starting at the coast at around 20 feet.  So, it is going to push water pretty far inland.  So, we are getting prepared. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How many people do you have exposed on the coast right now, sir? 

ROACH:  Right now, exposed on the coast?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I mean are still in their homes close enough to drown right now. 

ROACH:  Not very many people, I can tell you.  We are about 85 percent evacuated as we speak right now. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Nagin told me that before it hit New Orleans.  He was 90 percent, but that left 50,000 people stranded. 

ROACH:  Well, we have got—we have got about 185,000 people, almost 200,000 people, in our area. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ROACH:  Cameron Parish to the south of us is a very small parish, about 10,000 people. 

They are almost completely evacuated.  One of the things that you have over here in our area, we went through Hurricane Audrey in 1957.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

ROACH:  It was a devastating hurricane.  We had over—over 500 lives were lost in Cameron Parish, a storm surge that came up and really did a lot of damage to the area. 

So, you don‘t have to mention hurricanes and evacuation here very much. 

MATTHEWS:  I see.

ROACH:  You get people‘s attention pretty quick. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I want to mention FEMA, that big word.  And I want you both to give me your report on how your relationship is working.  Are you getting help from them?  Have you told them what you want from them?  Are they doing the job better than they seemed to have done in New Orleans? 

We will be back with Mayor Roach and Mayor Ortiz to get an update, a report card on how well the new FEMA is operating.

Plus, we will check in with Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center for the latest on where Rita is headed.  We will be doing that all night.

And, Monday, HARDBALL will be live from Rockefeller Plaza in New York.  It‘s being transformed into Humanity Plaza.  And you can help Habitat For Humanity build houses for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  We will be joined by NBC‘s Katie Couric.  That is Monday here on HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We continue to follow Hurricane Rita, now a very powerful Category 4 hurricane. 

And we have with us two mayors from cities directly in Rita‘s path right now, Mayor Oscar Ortiz of Port Arthur, Texas, and Mayor Randy Roach of Lake Charles, Louisiana. 

Mayor Roach, how goes your relationship personally with FEMA, the newly headed FEMA? 

ROACH:  Well, Chris, as far as I‘m concerned, they are doing a pretty good job. 

We have got bus drivers here.  We are loading buses.  We are getting people out.  We have already moved out about 1,500 people.  So, I really can‘t complain.  I think they have done a good job.  The drivers are very cooperative.  They‘re working with the people.  They‘re helping us load people on.  I mean, they have got a paratransit bus and they really are working very well with us.  I‘m very—I appreciate it very much.

MATTHEWS:  Gentlemen, stay with us.

We want to get to the very latest on Hurricane Rita right now and where it‘s headed.

We are joined by the director of the National Hurricane Center, Max Mayfield. 

Can you give us a sense of where the landfall is likely to be, Max? 

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER:  Well, Chris, it looks like it is headed toward the extreme upper Texas coast here.

And I don‘t really want anybody to think that we can absolutely pinpoint that landfall.  We currently have it coming in between Galveston Bay and Sabine Pass.  But if it makes landfall just to the south of Galveston Bay and then all that storm surge will be pushed in up into Galveston Bay. 

If it comes in a little further to the northeast here, you know, Beaumont, Port Arthur, and even roll over into Cameron, and the Lake Charles area will have the biggest impact. 

MATTHEWS:  How strong is it?  Is it getting weaker or stronger right now, Max? 

MAYFIELD:  I think we are going to see some fluctuations. 

The winds had come down a little bit this afternoon.  And just a few minutes ago, we had an aircraft report.  The pressure has actually dropped again a little bit.  So, we are going to see some fluctuations.  I think, before it gets to the coastline, the sea surface temperatures and the upper-level environment may not be quite as favorable, and we may see a little bit of weakening.  But that is almost of no consequence. 

People need to be preparing for a strong Category 4 hurricane. 

MATTHEWS:  So, with cold calculation, without any anticipatory hype, this is going to be stronger than Katrina? 

MAYFIELD:  It will be similar to Katrina.  And the greatest potential, as in Katrina, is still going to be for—the large loss of life is still going to be from the storm surge. 

MATTHEWS:  And what height do you expect the surges to reach at landfall? 

MAYFIELD:  It depends exactly where it makes landfall, but easily 15 to 20 feet, if it stays this strong, with the battering wave action on top of that. 

And then, after that immediate storm surge threat on the coastline, we have to worry about the winds and the rains and tornadoes spreading inland.  And what we are concerned with there, in the four to five days, it may really slow down.  And that‘s going to increase the chance for the inland, the freshwater flooding.  And, historically, we have had a loss of life in that, too.  So, people need to be very, very careful even for several days after landfall. 

MATTHEWS:  We have been referring to Rita as the big sister of Katrina, but that is just obviously rhetoric.  Is there a serial connection between one hurricane hitting and then, three weeks later, another big one hitting in the same season? 

MAYFIELD:  No. 

We have had major hurricanes before.  Well, last year, we had three major hurricanes to hit Florida.  So, that is not unprecedented.  But it is certainly pretty unusual to have two this strong this close together. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they all independent variables, in other words?  I mean, is one related to the other at all? 

MAYFIELD:  Absolutely not. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I‘m learning every night here.

Thank you very much, Max Mayfield, sir.  Thanks for joining us. 

MAYFIELD:  Yes, sir.

MATTHEWS:  He is with the National Hurricane Center. 

We are back now with Mayor Oscar Ortiz of Port Arthur, Texas, and Mayor Randy Roach of Lake Charles. 

Mayor Ortiz, you, sir, your turn.  How is your relationship and your planning going with FEMA? 

ORTIZ:  Well, I think I should rather talk more about our working arrangement with the state of Texas. 

In the last three days that I have been in the middle of this thing, with very little sleep, I have seen only one FEMA representative here.  Our contact has been mostly with Governor Perry‘s office, which has been just tremendously supportive of our efforts down here.

I mean, Governor Perry is—we have had him on the phone on conference calls.  He promises this.  He promises that.  He has been delivering on his promises.  As I said, we got—this morning, we got in 18 Greyhound buses.  We got the two C-130s in to get those people in.  So, Governor Perry has been very, very cooperative with the city of Port Arthur.

And we appreciate that, because we know that, as this thing progresses closer...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

ORTIZ:  ... to that storm hitting us, that we are going to even need more help.  And, of course, again, it is always a problem of getting people out, convincing people that this is a hurricane that is going to be so devastating that they are going to be talking to their grandchildren about it.  So, we just hope they continue to take our word and continue to move on. 

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Roach, I hear just a couple of minutes ago—I got it through my ear as we went on the air—that Governor Blanco of your state, Louisiana, is telling people who want to stick back, who want to stay on the coast, to write in indelible ink their Social Security numbers on their arms. 

Is that a practical solution to finding bodies or is it a scare tactic that might be useful to getting people to move? 

ROACH:  Chris, I haven‘t heard that.  That is a new one to me.  I had not heard that.

But I would wonder whether or not she actually said it.  But, if she did, I‘m sure she was very concerned about the potential for loss of life and wanted to get people‘s attention as to the seriousness of the storm. 

You know, this is a—this is a very serious situation.  It‘s something that—that we all are trying to make sure that everyone understands the urgency of the evacuation.  And we are trying to move people out.  You know, we have already moved 1,500 out of Lake Charles.  And we have had tremendous support from area agencies. 

Our local emergency preparedness organization and our network of mayors and our—what we call police jurors, which you would call county commissioners, has just been tremendous. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

ROACH:  Tremendous support from the state.  And General Landonow (ph) was here.

So, it is primarily a local effort.  But when you are talking about FEMA, I have got to give credit to those guys that were here and those FEMA buses from Virginia.  They didn‘t ask to come.  They were directed over here.  And they are doing a great job of working with people and getting them on buses and getting them out. 

MATTHEWS:  Were they Virginia officials or federal officials? 

ROACH:  They were—they‘re just from Virginia, but they work for

FEMA. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

ROACH:  They were FEMA buses.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

ROACH:  They had the little—little FEMA label on the bus, I mean, on the little notice that was taped up to the window there.  But these guys are really, really great.  And I really appreciate their cooperation. 

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Roach, what are you doing about looting?  Do you have that problem yet?  Because a lot of people are afraid to leave the coastal areas and leave anything valuable behind, like appliances, electronic equipment.

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  Because somebody can come running into their house, bash down the door and take what they want. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROACH:  Well, we have got our law enforcement with our sheriff and our city police.  We have got our officers still here on duty.  We will stay patrolling.  We haven‘t had any problems yet.  You can walk down the street in Lake Charles right now.  It looks like a ghost town. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go—let me go—quickly go to Mayor Ortiz, your question, because it was such an issue with New Orleans. 

I mean, looting—we heard a case the other night on this program about that senior citizens home, where these residents were being taken out of there and, as the storm hit, so did the looters, right on the same moment.  They showed up with the water.  Incredible horror. 

(CROSSTALK)

ORTIZ:  We are not going to put up with that down here. 

I have already made the people aware that—and, pretty soon, tonight, we are going to move most of our police department out.  We will have a skeleton crew working, but we have a standing policy that, when the winds get up to over 50 miles an hour, then I ask the police department and fire department to completely clear out. 

But then we will block off the entrance to Port Arthur...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

ORTIZ:  ... and allow nobody in unless they have a special pass signed by me.  So, I think we have got a pretty good control of that. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, gentlemen, let me do—let me do a minor public service here and encourage your residents to get out of town, because just think about what it is like for the people in New Orleans now and how smart the people were who got out and how endangered, if not dead, the people are who didn‘t get out.  So, think about it if you‘re watching this program.  Obey your mayor. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Mayor Oscar Ortiz of Port Arthur, Texas, and Mayor Randy Roach of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

New Orleans is racing to shore up its already battered levees.  This is an ongoing story.  Will the levees hold again?  They didn‘t hold the first time.  Will they get through this one?  It is a Category 4, just as tough as the other one.

And when we return, we will talk to a New Orleans city councilwoman who says there hasn‘t been enough money to maintain the levees.  We are going to talk about that, because I‘m thinking there may have been some foul play here with building with inferior materials, cheaper construction, graft.  Government officials are playing Russian roulette, some people say, with people‘s lives.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead, as Hurricane Rita bears down on the Gulf Coast, will the battered levees in New Orleans hold?

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Rita, Hurricane Rita, may be taking aim at eastern Texas and southwest Louisiana currently, but torrential rains and storm swells could overwhelm New Orleans‘ fractured levee system and flood the city again. 

Cynthia Hedge-Morrell is a member of the New Orleans City Council and said that, when it came to protecting New Orleans, the federal government was playing Russian roulette with people‘s lives.

Councilwoman, thank you.

You know, “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” on the same day, yesterday, had major front-page stories, saying that the levee system and the flood wall system in your city, protecting your city from water, may well have been built with inferior building materials or construction and design.  Do you think that‘s the case? 

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL, NEW ORLEANS COUNCILWOMAN:  Oh, I know that‘s the case. 

I have been out in my district inspecting the flood walls that were constructed, especially one on the London Avenue Canal that was completed in 2004 and is held together by a piece of rubber. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean rubber connects those long concrete slabs? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  Yes.  Yes.  It‘s a thick piece of rubber that is kind of slid in between them.  And the purpose, they told me, was to make sure that the water didn‘t seep through.  The purpose wasn‘t to keep them standing tall and keep the water out. 

MATTHEWS:  Do they look to you, just as common sense, to be strong enough to hold back a 20-foot surge of seawater? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  No.  No.  No, they‘re not.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why—why didn‘t—why didn‘t other public officials, and yourself included, notice this before? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  Well, I was elected in April of this year. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, you‘re covered.

HEDGE-MORRELL:  And...

MATTHEWS:  But let me ask you this.

HEDGE-MORRELL:  So—OK.

MATTHEWS:  Weren‘t there issues with the people of the communities asking for greater protection over the years? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  We have been asking.

And the original designs that we looked at in that area are not the designs that were finally installed.  You have to realize that, in the last six years, the Corps of Engineers has every year taken a 20 percent, approximately a 20 percent cut on this particular project.  So, what you have is probably the original drawings and the original engineering plan more than exceeded expectations for our city.  But what we finally got was something totally different. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  You got a seawall, instead of a levee. 

Let me ask you this.  Are you worried about another whack? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  I‘m terrified of another whack. 

MATTHEWS:  Where do you see it breaking again this time, same place? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  Same place, sure. 

MATTHEWS:  London? 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  They‘re put—London Avenue had two breaches.

And that had a negative impact on three different neighborhoods that were historic neighborhoods that had been there for over 50 years.  And they were all property owners.

(CROSSTALK)

HEDGE-MORRELL:  I‘m sorry. 

MATTHEWS:  Are people getting out of the way, in case the storm, just the drenching, if not the eye of the hurricane, the drenching that comes from the peripheral hit by the storm?  Are they ready to get out of there?

HEDGE-MORRELL:  Well, actually, we have never had an opportunity to move back. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s good. 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  The waters have—yes, it is good in one way and bad in another, because, I mean, we have been out of our homes for almost three weeks, going on four.  And that‘s very difficult. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I hope the people down there—I hope people like you keep making noise while it counts, because this country is going to only listen for a few months, as you know.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A couple of months of attention is the end of it. 

HEDGE-MORRELL:  I think something is blowing over. 

I agree with you.  I intend to demand that we have a hearing, that we look into it.  I want to thank “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” for investigating and bringing out issues that even I didn‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell of the New Orleans City Council.

Coming up, a big political story here in Washington today.  It would be the major story, if it were not for Rita.  John Roberts has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a strong vote of 13-5, with three Democrats jumping aboard the bandwagon.  We will tell you more about that in a moment.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re continuing to follow Hurricane Rita as it barrels toward the Gulf Coast. 

But here in Washington, D.C., today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 in favor of John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court. 

Joining me now is NBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell, and Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post.” 

Norah, three Democrats joined the 10 Republicans.  Is that a preview of coming attractions, a big split among the Democrats? 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  It does indicate that the Democrats are divided on this and that Judge Roberts could get—he‘ll get at least 64 votes at this point.  And it could go even higher, once other Democrats decide. 

But, clearly, there‘s no unity by the Democratic Party in opposing Judge Roberts to be chief justice.  And, of course, this has angered a lot of the liberal groups who deeply oppose Roberts. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the pressure groups are mad, right? 

O‘DONNELL:  Very mad.  And it will be interesting to see, then, how this shakes out when it comes to people like Senator Hillary Clinton, who, of course, is one of the front-runners for ‘08.  She has yet to say how she‘ll vote.  Her office will not say at this point. 

But she may have been some cover today when it was somewhat surprising that Senator Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin, who is also considering running, decided to vote yes on Roberts. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to Dana for the big three questions. 

There‘s three major candidates running for president next time on the Democratic side, probably.  Their names are Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry perhaps again, and Joe Biden.  Is it your sense, based on your reporting, that any of them will dare vote for John Roberts? 

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Well, right, but we would have said the same thing about Feingold.  So, they can take a chance. 

Now, look, this—we are going to have another nominee up here probably in six weeks.  And this gives them, the people who vote yes for Roberts, the credibility to vote no on that one.  So, they can—they can calculate that this would be just a short-term hit with their base. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there any strategy that you have detected up there about the Democrats saying, we will let you vote your conscience—I hear that‘s the word up there in the caucus—which means, we are not going to try to hold a strong Democratic vote here, which means they don‘t want to look like they‘re just being partisan.  Is that strategic, to force the president to keep sending up these sort of less-than-far-right candidates? 

MILBANK:  Well, there‘s a sense among Democrats, perhaps accurately, that the president is going to send up a real—a strongly conservative nominee this next time, just because he has got nothing to lose. 

And, certainly, the Democrats, well, in the view of Leahy and some others, do want to feel like they‘ll have some more credibility. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Jack Germond, the great old liberal columnist, used to refer to the far-righters as full-mooners. 

What is the risk for the president to send a full-mooner up, Norah?  In other words, if he risks a filibuster, risks some bad publicity, is that still feeding his conservative base?  Does that still help him, even if he loses? 

O‘DONNELL:  It may not help him to send up someone conservative. 

But we will see where the environment is six weeks from now.  But, clearly, this president has indicated that he is going to move forward, even though the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, told the president, please, wait a year.  Let‘s see Roberts.  Let‘s not exacerbate the tensions that exist.  Let‘s wait some time. 

Specter says O‘Connor said she‘d sit on the bench for a while longer, give the president some time.  The White House has pretty much said no to that.  And they are going to move forward, probably as early as next week, with the president‘s choice to replace Justice O‘Connor. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that “try it before you buy it” logic likely to have any legs up there, Dana? 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  No, probably not. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think so either.

MILBANK:  It hasn‘t worked...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Dana, do you think they are going to hold off for a year and wait and see how this new guy does? 

MILBANK:  Oh, they have—they have already made clear that that was just a nonstarter from the moment Specter floated it.  Specter even today was saying, the White House indicating, as soon as they get a vote, perhaps next week, on this nominee...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes, he was funny.  He said, nobody exactly jumped up and said, what a great idea. 

Anyway, thank you once again, Norah O‘Donnell. 

Thank you, Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post.”

I‘ll be back tomorrow night with full coverage of Hurricane Rita at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern here on HARDBALL.

And, right now, the very latest on the hurricane on “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan—Dan.

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

END   

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