updated 9/23/2005 1:46:41 PM ET 2005-09-23T17:46:41

Guests: Judy Curtis, Steve Haustein, Andrew Bernstein, Greg Abbott, Michael Miceli, Max Mayfield, Tom Strong

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Coming up, Hurricane Rita now expected to hit the Louisiana coast, veering north and east threatening to be one of the most destructive hurricanes in history—that in an already devastated state. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS (voice-over):  The rain has already started in New Orleans.  This as Houston residents are in traffic jams nearly 100 miles long, running out of gas and time.  Why is it taking so long to open up the other side of the highway? 

Plus, are oil companies and others taking advantage of the hurricane with higher prices, price gouging.  But some say even if they are, it‘s just the American way. 

And tense moments inside a JetBlue airplane on its way to New York forced to make an emergency landing.  We‘ve got the exclusive pictures. 

The program about justice starts now. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  Hi everyone.  Breaking news to report, Hurricane Rita looks like she is heading for Louisiana.  The question, can New Orleans handle it?  While the storm has weakened a bit, it remains a fiercely dangerous category four storm with winds of about 145 miles an hour, stronger than Katrina when it hit the shore.  We‘ll have live updates on Rita throughout this hour. 

But first, we go right to NBC Weather Plus meteorologist, Bill Karins, for the latest on Rita‘s path—Bill. 

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHER PLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Well thanks so much, Dan.  We‘re continuing to analyze the new information in from the Hurricane Center about where the storm is heading and how bad the storm is going to be.  You can currently see here we‘re watching a huge storm.  We‘re covering at least half the Gulf of Mexico with this storm.  It did slightly weakened earlier today, but don‘t be fooled by that because it just was a slight weakening. 

It‘s still a powerful category four storm.  And right now it‘s the equal intensity to what Katrina was when Katrina made landfall.  The eye of the storm is still very distinct out there and the pressure, which is how we measure the storm—the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm, the higher the pressure, the weaker.  This is still an impressive storm.  The winds actually you would think would be higher with the actual way this storm looks.  So we could see fluctuations before landfall. 

The bottom line is that we think that it‘s actually going to be probably at least a category four at landfall.  We don‘t expect a lot of weakening between now and before it makes landfall probably Saturday morning.  Latest out of the Hurricane Center, they‘re saying it looks excellent on their radar.  They have a big radar on the front of their aircraft as they‘re flying through the storm so they get a good look at it.  Maximum winds were about 140 and that pressure about 913. 

It‘s been fluctuating between 911 and at about 914 during the day today, so it‘s maintaining its strength.  It‘s not weakening any more and that‘s not what we wanted to hear.  Earlier we had some bands of rain going through areas of New Orleans, first rainfall they‘ve had in a while there.  It‘s just going to be a quick dousing tonight.  Could see more significant rain as we go throughout the overnight hours into early tomorrow morning. 

I want to show you that New Orleans‘ radar.  We‘re also under a tropical storm warning.  All of Lake Pontchartrain including New Orleans and just about all of the southern coastline here, the southeastern coastline, all of those areas devastated by Katrina.  We watched one band or rain going through, now it‘s going to dry out for a little bit.  Expect more later on tonight.  As far as the winds currently, now all the tropical storm force winds are just off the coast and this is where the devastating winds are, in this red area. 

It‘s kind of amazing.  I just went and looked at one of our instruments. 

It‘s out here floating in the Gulf.  It tells us how high the waves are. 

Right near the center, there was just a wave reported at 38 feet. 

ABRAMS:  Wow.

KARINS:  Imagine a 38-foot wave.  And if this maintains this intensity, that‘s the kind of stuff that we‘re going to be talking about slamming in somewhere between Houston and Lake Charles around the coast.  Along with that storm surge, you‘re going to have these huge battering waves.  It‘s very important that we need the storm to weaken before landfall.  We don‘t want it being at this strength or we‘re going to have another Katrina on our hands.  You have to remember, every storm is different and unique, mostly because the coastline is unique. 

It‘s very swampy here along the coastline of southwestern sections of Louisiana.  That could break up a little bit of that storm surge and also break up some of those waves.  As far as intensity, we‘re still expecting a four.  Here‘s the problem.  It looks like now this storm is going to stall out after landfall.  So we‘ve got the problem of the waves, the storm surge.  We‘ve got the problem of the winds being a category four. 

And then on top of that, now we‘re going to add the issue of this storm possibly sitting in eastern Texas or portions of Louisiana through about Monday or Tuesday of next week.  It will weaken wind-wise but there will still be a ton of rain with this system.  Some areas could get a foot to two feet of rain.  And on top of that, all these rivers could have flooding, inland areas, which you can‘t possibly evacuate.  You don‘t know where the flooding is going to be.  We could have more problems.  I mean this storm is just extremely complicated and it‘s a factor going to be lasting well into this weekend. 

ABRAMS:  All right, Bill Karins, thanks a lot.

KARINS:  Thanks.

ABRAMS:  All right, MSNBC‘s Michelle Hofland is in New Orleans where, as Bill just said, a tropical storm warning is now in effect.  It has already begun to rain.  Michelle, this is now getting closer to New Orleans than initially expected.  Has that changed anything in terms of response, reaction there in New Orleans? 

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  It‘s making a lot of the officials here very nervous, and a lot of the people on the streets very nervous tonight as well.  Starting this morning we saw the first rain here, probably since Hurricane Katrina hit here more than three and a half weeks ago.  We saw the outer bands of Hurricane Rita start swirling overhead in this area.  If you look right now you see the sky is completely black or gray with the clouds overhead. 

The clouds and the rain and the winds they‘re coming in bands and they‘re getting closer together and stronger.  The white caps on the Mississippi aren‘t bad right now but boy, when the winds pick up which happens every few minutes or so, you can see white caps on the water and you can see the waves picking up and the winds picking up.  Up until a few hours ago there was a cruise ship over there, a Carnival cruise ship.  That was housing the city workers here in the New Orleans area.  That pulled out and is heading out to sea right now.  Hurricane... 

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Let me ask you a question about the levees.  And that is now

let‘s assume for a moment that this storm stays on track.  Tropical storm hits New Orleans.  What are the experts there saying about the levees?  Are they gong to hold? 

HOFLAND:  They‘re not very optimistic at all, Dan.  They‘re very nervous about these levees.  You have to remember some of them are just patched up with some sandbags and they‘re very weak right now.  And they‘re saying just a small storm surge could just blast holes in those levees once again.  So they‘re very—even the experts are saying they‘re very nervous about those weakened levees able to hold up.  There are some people that are out there right now trying to work on those levees, try to shore them up and make them stronger, but you know there‘s only so much they can do with sandbags when they have big storm surges heading this way. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Michelle, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it.  All right.  Take a look at these pictures.  What‘s wrong with the scene here?  Over a million people evacuating the Houston area, the entire day, many moving no more than a mile an hour mile after mile after mile, a traffic jam that goes back 100 miles, many running out of gas. 

The question, why didn‘t they open up the other side of the road for people to leave the city?  Judy Curtis is from the Texas Department of Transportation and joins us now.  Ms. Curtis, thanks for taking the time. 

I heard the mayor on television saying that he had asked the Department of Transportation—it would now be 16 or 17 hours ago—he had said at the time 15 hours earlier to open up the other side and he said it took 13 hours to do that. 

JUDY CURTIS, TEXAS DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION (via phone):  Yes, I heard what the mayor said and we understand the frustrations of dealing with an evacuation that is unprecedented in the history of any state including Texas.  We are doing so much to get people out.  As you probably know, we have opened up most lanes on two of the major freeways down there so that they all go one way.  That should ease the problem.  It‘s going to take a while and we understand that.  We cannot, however, open up lanes in both—in the same direction if cars are still coming down in the other direction as you see right now on your screen... 

ABRAMS:  But why does it take so long to do that?  I mean I can see why it takes a certain amount of time to set that up, but this seems like it is the sort of thing that the minute the news came days ago that this hurricane could hit Houston that plans would have been in place to do that. 

CURTIS:  Dan, the plans were in place.  We cannot, however, shut down one way to get into a major metropolitan area for three or four days.  We try to wait until the very last minute so that emergency supplies, et cetera, can continue to get into say a place like Houston or Galveston. 

ABRAMS:  Why couldn‘t you just have one lane open going the other way? 

I mean they do that in New York all the time with the tunnels, et cetera.  You have one lane that‘s going towards Houston and all the rest of the lanes are going the other way. 

CURTIS:  I don‘t know what piece of land we‘re looking at on the screen.  I do know that I-45 and I-10 are one way all the way.  One goes from Houston to Sabine (ph), which is near San Antonio.  The other goes from Houston to Fairfield, which is a little halfway to Dallas.  But these things do take time.  It takes law enforcement to go to each and every exit ramp or onramp to make sure no one is coming.  We have to block those off.  Law enforcement must stay there until they have heard from a guy with...

ABRAMS:  Right.

CURTIS:  ... a walkie-talkie 10 miles ahead.  It‘s clear...

(CROSSTALK)

CURTIS:  ... so it takes hours.  We understand frustration.  We—safety is our key issue and our key concern and we do believe that that is going—we will get everybody out of there safely.  They‘re frustrated.  They‘re thirsty.  They‘re tired. 

ABRAMS:  They‘re running out of gas and...

CURTIS:  They‘re running out of gas...

ABRAMS:  ... they‘re pulling over on the side of the road. 

CURTIS:  We understand that.  We are trying to deal with that.  We have sent some trucks down.  It is hard to get in there, as you can see.  We‘re doing everything we can.

ABRAMS:  Was—without allocating blame and I mean it sounded like the mayor was blaming your, you know your department, but without allocating blame, was this poor planning on somebody‘s part?

CURTIS:  I don‘t think so.  Again, I think this is an unprecedented event.  In fact, what‘s also unprecedented is to open up the lanes in both ways.  We don‘t have time for blame games now.  We‘re trying to get people out of there safely and that is what we are going to do.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  All right, Judy Curtis, good luck.  You‘ve got a tough job ahead of you.  Thanks for taking the time.

CURTIS:  Thanks Dan.  Bye-bye.

ABRAMS:  Galveston could be Texas‘ New Orleans when Hurricane Rita hits, completely flooded.  The Army Corps of Engineers and the University of Texas Center for Space Research created this animation to show what could happen in a worst-case scenario.  Galveston hit by a category five hurricane.  It doesn‘t look good, doesn‘t look like that that‘s going to happen either, but a 20-foot storm surge could completely engulf Galveston. 

Even a category four could do very serious damage.  The island is home to about 60,000, under mandatory evacuation now.  But they‘re hoping lessons from the past and recent predictions that the storm is heading east will save the city.  A storm in 1900 sent a 15-foot-high wave crashing into Galveston killing about 6,000 people, essentially destroying the city.  In response they built an almost 11-mile, 17-foot sea wall along Galveston shoreline. 

Joining me now is Colonel Steve Haustein, commanding officer of the Army Corps of Engineers in the Galveston district.  Colonel, thanks for taking the time.  So how does it look? 

COL. STEVE HAUSTEIN, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS (via phone):  Well, the storm is obviously several hours away from making landfall.  Typically hurricanes will—are very unpredictable both in terms of where they will land and the strength of land—the strength of the hurricane at landfall. 

(CROSSTALK)

HAUSTEIN:  So obviously there‘s a lot of folks watching it closely but it‘s really too early to tell. 

ABRAMS:  The levees in New Orleans, we heard again and again they were prepared to withstand, to survive a category three hurricane and of course, leaving many people to say well does that basically mean they were completely unprepared for a category four or five.  How would you describe the status in Galveston? 

HAUSTEIN:  Well, the—there is substantial differences between Galveston and New Orleans.  The topography in New Orleans is such that a good part of the city is actually below sea level.  Plus the Mississippi River and several canals go through and around town.  The sea walls—levees and sea walls in New Orleans physically have water behind them on a normal basis. 

Galveston is significantly different.  It is a barrier island along the Texas coast much like Padre Island and it does not have water typically up at the sea wall.  The sea wall was built by the Corps along with Galveston County following the 1900 storm, and the primary focus or primary purpose of the sea wall is not flood protection but energy dissipation... 

ABRAMS:  What does that mean? 

HAUSTEIN:  The hurricane will—or hurricane-generated waves will crash into the beach and up the beach and will hit that sea wall and at 15 feet above being low tide that will take 15 feet away -- 15 feet of water energy away and prevent the waves from crashing into the populated area and the buildings directly across the street impacting by the sea wall. 

(CROSSTALK)

HAUSTEIN:  So it‘s—it really is an energy barrier, not a flood protection system. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  We‘re looking at pictures of people who are doing what surfers do before a hurricane hits.  And when everyone else leaves town, they get in the water.  That is until it gets real close and then they of course get out of the water. 

HAUSTEIN:  It‘s a beautiful day on the Texas coast. 

ABRAMS:  Unbelievable.  All right, the calm before the storm. 

Colonel, thanks a lot. 

HAUSTEIN:  You‘re welcome.  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Coming up, are oil companies and others taking advantage of hurricane victims with higher prices, price gouging?  Some say even if they are, it‘s just the American way. 

Plus, a dramatic emergency landing of a JetBlue flight last night. 

Broken nose gear meant the plane might not have made it down safely.  Passengers watch the whole thing on their in-flight TVs.  We‘ve got the exclusive pictures from inside.

Your e-mails abramsreport@msnbc.com.  Please include your name and where you‘re writing from.  I respond at the end of the show.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  This is Hurricane Rita, just over 24 hours from hitting the Texas-Louisiana coast.  The latest information that the storm has moved slightly to the north and east, meaning that it is more likely to strike in Louisiana, meaning that New Orleans is likely to get hit with at the least some tropical storm winds.  We are continuing to follow the path of Rita and we are going to have updates throughout this hour on exactly what is happening. 

Now, on a related issue, supply and demand, right, determines prices for almost everything.  What about in the wake of a devastating hurricane?  If you are trying to board up your house ahead of a hurricane and the price of plywood suddenly shoots up or if you are stuck in a traffic jam leaving Houston and the gas that cost $3 a gallon yesterday suddenly costs five or let‘s say $10, if someone did that.

Twenty-seven states, District of Columbia have laws or regulations against price gouging in a declared disaster.  Two weeks ago a “Wall Street Journal” editorial headline read “In Praise of Gouging”—quote—“in almost all cases, such laws are wrongheaded because they short circuit the price system that matches price with demand.”

With Hurricane Rita now bearing down on Texas, the state‘s Attorney General‘s Office has at least 100 complaints about price gouging, a crime that can be punished with a civil fine of up to $20,000 for each violation. 

Dr. Andrew Bernstein is the author of “The Capitalist Manifesto” and a senior writer with Ayn Rand Institute.  Doctors, thanks for coming on the program.  Appreciate it. 

ANDREW BERNSTEIN, AUTHOR, “THE CAPITALIST MANIFESTO”:  Good to be here, Dan.  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  All right, so you know that most people out there in the public are going to say it‘s a good thing that in particular instances that the government steps in and says we‘re not going to let them take advantage of the situation. 

BERNSTEIN:  Well, I don‘t agree.  I think there‘s two points that need to be made, Dan.  One is the moral point and that is if somebody owns property that I don‘t own, they have a price—they have a right to ask any price for what they want just as I have the right to refuse that price.  Also, the practical point is that on a free market when the price rises, what that does is enables the producer to make more profit giving them more motivation...

ABRAMS:  Right...

BERNSTEIN:  ... to increase the supply. 

ABRAMS:  But the motivation argument is really not really relevant here because you are talking about very small periods of time and you are basically saying oh, if they know that they‘re going to be—you know if there‘s going to be a disaster and they can suddenly make more money in that particular period, they‘re going to produce more.  I mean come on, as a practical matter, that‘s not going to happen. 

BERNSTEIN:  Well again, I want to make two points.  The moral point is in a free country such as the United States, which is not a dictatorship, somebody who owns property has the right to determine what price he...

ABRAMS:  But...

BERNSTEIN:  ... wishes to charge.  The government doesn‘t—can‘t be granted the power to tell me what I can charge with my own property. 

ABRAMS:  Don‘t—but don‘t we have—in this country we generally have a free market system but we also have certain protections.  The government gets involved in certain industries to try to make sure that things are in essence done more equitably and as a result, the market, the argument goes, ends up working better, more efficiently. 

BERNSTEIN:  Well I think that argument is false.  I think the economists have exploded that myth many times.  Remember you said it before; basic economics, prices rise when demand exceeds supply.  What is causing the supply to be diminished here and environmental restrictions imposed by the government preventing us from building refineries, preventing us from drilling on ANWAR on the OCS, from building nuclear power plants. 

ABRAMS:  All right...

BERNSTEIN:  That‘s what‘s keeping our supply down...

ABRAMS:  All right...

BERNSTEIN:  ... price higher.

ABRAMS:  We‘re joined now by Greg Abbott, he‘s the Texas attorney general.  He‘s put retailers on notice that price gouging during a disaster is illegal and he is going to go after them.  All right, Attorney General, thanks very much for taking the time.  Basically what Dr. Bernstein is saying is he‘s saying that you know look, somebody owns a piece of property and they own something, be it gasoline, be it food items, be it whatever and they should be able to sell it for as much money as they can get for it. 

GREG ABBOTT, TEXAS ATTORNEY GENERAL:  I‘m the very first person to step up and believe that our free and open markets here in this country are very effective at setting prices.  And that‘s the way it works all the time except in times of crisis.  In times of crisis when people are literally struggling to try to protect and save their lives, it is not a free and open market. 

It‘s a market that is ruled in this case by complete uncertainty and people grabbing the first thing they can.  And I might add, it is an artificially created market.  In our efforts to go after price gougers, we found one instance down by the Gulf Coast where a gas station had 20 pumps that were available to provide gasoline for customers, but to create artificial demand and to decrease the supply, the gas station shut down half of those pumps until we stumbled upon it. 

We found it and we caused them to open back up their pumps and back again the price went to the normal gas price.  But we‘re dealing with a situation where people are having to flee by the millions from the Gulf Coast in order to save their lives.  As a result normal market forces don‘t apply. 

(CROSSTALK)

ABBOTT:  It is only in these exceptional circumstances when law must step in and ensure that people will be protected...

ABRAMS:  Got it...

ABBOTT:  ... and not bilked in emergency situations. 

ABRAMS:  Dr. Bernstein, your response.

BERNSTEIN:  I don‘t agree.  I think that, again, don‘t hit the American people with more of the poison that has caused the disease.  It‘s governmental restrictions on the market, particularly environmental laws...

ABRAMS:  But focus...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Wait.  Wait.  Wait. 

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  You are talking macro. 

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Let‘s talk...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  ... right now, but that‘s a nice macro argument.  Let‘s talk specifically about what the attorney general is saying, is he‘s saying I‘m only talking about disasters.  I‘m talking about a very finite short period of time, period. 

BERNSTEIN:  Again, what you do by diminishing the price below market levels as you are going—what that means is the --  you‘re going to increase the demand, more people are going to want the product...

ABRAMS:  But everyone wants it...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  ... in a disaster.  Everyone wants it, we know that.

BERNSTEIN:  First law of economics is the lower the price, the more you increase the demand.  When you increase the demand without increasing...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  But apart from the economics lesson. 

BERNSTEIN:  ... all you do is cause shortages...

ABRAMS:  So you‘re saying—you are talking broadly and you‘re saying that there‘s no merit to the attorney general‘s argument, which is that in a finite period in a disaster the wake of a hurricane for a short period of time, it‘s not a good thing for the government to occasionally step in. 

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, that‘s right.  What you do is cause shortages.  What that means is people who want the product and have the means to by the product cannot buy it because you‘ve raised the demand...

ABRAMS:  All right, Attorney General...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  ... what do you make of that? 

ABBOTT:  The argument doesn‘t make sense.  Obviously it‘s a theory.  It‘s a theory that works in a macro context.  It does not work in times of emergency.  In times of emergency we as a country have an obligation to help take care of those who are most vulnerable.  We are dealing with real-live people, not with theories.  We are dealing with people who are trying to flee a very deadly hurricane. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.

ABBOTT:  And they have to get out of the hurricane‘s way.  In order to do so, they should not be bilked by price gougers. 

ABRAMS:  All right, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Andrew Bernstein, thanks very much to both of you.  Appreciate it.

ABBOTT:  Thank you.

BERNSTEIN:  Good to be here Dan.  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Coming up, an emergency landing on a JetBlue flight to New York on camera, even inside the plane.  We‘ve got the exclusives from inside. 

Plus, John Roberts on his way to becoming the next chief justice of the United States, the vote today in front of the Judiciary Committee surprising some. 

We‘re going to keep you updated on Rita‘s path.  The latest developments from the National Hurricane Center are just minutes away.  Plus, we‘re going to talk to a hurricane hunter who flew inside this hurricane.  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, tense moments inside a JetBlue airplane on its way to New York, forced to make an emergency landing.  We‘ve got the exclusive pictures, first the headlines. 

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Hurricane Rita, now about 400 miles off the coast, expected to strike in about 24 hours.  That‘s when the first of the major winds will be felt along the coast, although it will not officially strike until probably very early in the morning on Saturday.  Now, 150 mile an hour winds.  This is a category four hurricane, but a very severe category four, teetering on the verge of the most severe type, a category five. 

That entire area has been evacuated or they are in the process of evacuating.  And we are going to have more on that later in the program, including someone who flew inside Hurricane Rita. 

But first, it defines the term dramatic television.  Last night a JetBlue airplane headed from Burbank to New York had broken nose gear just after takeoff.  Wasn‘t clear whether the pilot would be able to land.  Inside the plane, passengers watched, their lives hanging in the balance, on their in-flight satellite TVs. 

We‘ll talk to an NBC executive who was on that plane in a moment, but first, NBC‘s George Lewis has the story. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Shortly after Flight 292 took off, the pilot informed the passengers he had a mechanical problem.  A malfunctioning nose wheel on the airbus A-320 was turned sideways and couldn‘t be straightened out or retracted. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The first unusual thing was I woke up and the guy next to me said they‘re having a problem with the landing gear. 

LEWIS:  On board, Dave Reintez (ph) took out his camcorder and taped a farewell message to his girlfriend just in case. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I love you.  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if anything happens, you know take care of everything.  Everything is yours and, you know, show this to my mom, family and tell them I love them. 

LEWIS:  And as the pilot circled Southern California for those three hours burning off excess fuel, the whole nation watched on television and so did the passengers because JetBlue‘s planes have a satellite TV system that picked up the news coverage. 

ALEXANDRA JACOBS, PASSENGER:  Once we saw that we had made the national news on the little television screens provided by JetBlue, things got a little more tense in the cabin. 

LEWIS:  Some passengers held hands while others cried.  Most of the people according to those on the plane remained calm.  As the plane approached the runway at Los Angeles International, on board the passengers were order to brace. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Brace.  Brace.  Brace. 

LEWIS:  As the broken nose wheel touched the runway, a huge cloud of smokes and a shower of sparks shot up from all the friction. 

(SOUNDS)

LEWIS:  But the plane did not catch fire and the pilot was able to keep it straight down the middle of the runway as it skidded to a safe stop. 

(CHEERING/APPLAUSE)

LEWIS:  And then for Flight 292 the long ordeal was over. 

(CHEERING)

LEWIS:  Passenger Alexandria Jacobs, six and a half months pregnant, was overjoyed to be back with her husband. 

JACOBS:  My first thought was about my husband and I was concerned that he would just—I mean what a horrible thing for him if (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if you lost your baby and me. 

LEWIS:  But it all ended happily with no one injured.  And one of the passengers, this cat, slept through the whole thing. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  NBC‘s George Lewis, thank you. 

Among the 140 passengers on the plane were a few NBC finance executives.  One of them is Michael Miceli.  He‘s the V.P. of NBC Universal TV Group Financial, Planning and Analysis and he joins us now.  Michael, good to see you alive and well. 

MICHAEL MICELI, PASSENGER ON FLIGHT 292:  Good to see you.  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  So how long after takeoff did you realize that there was a problem? 

MICELI:  I think it was 20 minutes to a half an hour the pilot came on and told us that there was a problem.  And at that point we didn‘t know how severe it was.  He told us that this plane was able to send a wire to a satellite—a signal to a satellite to the engineers in New York and they could do some diagnostics.  At that point they thought it was a sensor. 

And then they told us that we were going to do a fly-by at Long Beach and that‘s where we knew OK, maybe it‘s a little bit more serious.  At that point after that fly-by, about another 20 minutes or so they told us that there was an issue and the landing gear was turned 90 degrees as you have seen in the videos. 

ABRAMS:  And was the pilot straight with the passengers about what was happening or did it take them watching it on TV to know he how dangerous it actually was?  And I‘m not saying the pilot should have told people. 

MICELI:  I think he was straightforward.  I mean he told us there was an issue and before we saw it on TV, I believe he told us that it was turned 90 degrees.  I really can‘t remember now specifically the timing of all that.  But he was very forthright.  And I also want to say very professional and with a demeanor that I think helped the cabin remain calm, provided a lot of confidence in his ability. 

The crewmembers as well were extremely calm, almost to the point of upbeat I think to help you know people relax a little bit, went row by row to help people if they needed anything.  I think that they really created the atmosphere to help to be successful...

ABRAMS:  And from what we could see he landed that plane almost perfectly. 

MICELI:  Unbelievable.  Probably the softest landing I‘ve ever had ever, the way he landed it, it was really incredible. 

ABRAMS:  Were you one of the ones watching it on TV? 

MICELI:  I did.  I watched it on TV until we couldn‘t watch it anymore. 

ABRAMS:  Did they cut it off at some point? 

MICELI:  Yes, probably—it was probably more than an hour before we landed. 

ABRAMS:  Oh really?

MICELI:  Yes, we saw it probably for an hour roughly. 

ABRAMS:  That‘s even worse that you see it for an hour and then suddenly it‘s cut off (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

MICELI:  Possibly. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.

MICELI:  I mean there was—it was good, bad.  There were times where I liked seeing it because I like the technical aspects of what was going on and what they could do. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.

MICELI:  But when you heard some of the experts and the reality it was

it took you back a little bit. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  All right.  Well Michael Miceli, it‘s good to see that everything worked out and it sounds like the pilots really do deserve a lot of credit... 

MICELI:  Absolutely.  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Thanks a lot.

Coming up, Judge John Roberts now just one step away from taking the top spot on the U.S. Supreme Court.  The first vote was today. 

And Hurricane Rita getting closer to the Texas and Louisiana coast, it has shifted paths, heading more towards Louisiana.  What does that mean for New Orleans?  Plus, we‘re going to talk to a hurricane hunter who flew through Rita.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  In just over 24 hours Hurricane Rita expected to strike the Texas and Louisiana coast.  We‘re going to talk to a hurricane hunter who flew inside of a hurricane.  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Hurricane Rita now a category four storm packing winds of over 145 miles an hour, expected to hit landfall early Saturday morning along the Texas-Louisiana border.  We‘ll continue to cover the path of Hurricane Rita throughout this hour. 

Judge John Roberts one step closer to the chief justice‘s bench tonight.  The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 today to approve his nomination.  Today‘s committee vote clears the way for next week‘s vote on the Senate floor. 

Joining us now from Capitol Hill is NBC‘s Chip Reid.  All right, so Chip, you pass the Judiciary Committee with that kind of vote and it‘s fair to say it‘s almost certain he‘s going to be the next chief justice. 

CHIP REID, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  It is—unless there is some kind of political earthquake, it is certain.  It‘s—now it‘s just a matter of vote counting.  It‘s—is it going to be 68 votes or 70 votes or 72 votes or 75?  It‘s not entirely clear.  But it is clear that somewhere in the vicinity of a dozen or 15 or 18 Democrats are going to join the 55 Republicans and give him a pretty good margin, 70 votes or something like that. 

ABRAMS:  And, Chip, surprises—any surprises as to what the Judiciary Committee did in terms of the Democrats? 

REID:  Yes, the only surprise was there had been predictions early on that there were going to be as many as all eight of the Democrats on the committee voting against him and in fact, three voted for him.  And I‘m going to play --  we‘re going to play a couple of sound bites here to explain how this happened. 

Now basically what happened here is that Roberts made the case at the end of the hearing you‘ll recall and he kind of made it all the way through, but at the end he said I‘m not an ideologue.  He didn‘t come out and say I‘m not a Scalia.  I‘m not a Thomas.

But Democrats think that‘s basically the message he was sending.  Now the Democrats who believed him when he said that voted for him.  The Democrats who did not believe him voted against him.  Now we‘re going to listen here to Joe Biden, a Democrat of Delaware, and Russ Feingold, a Democrat of Wisconsin and they came down on opposite sides even though they‘re both from about the same place on the political spectrum and they‘re both believed to be running for president this next time around and they came out with opposite conclusions.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Because Judge Roberts did not answer my questions or I would argue any of your questions fully, it does not—he does not appear to share the same expansive view of fundamental rights of previous nominees I have supported.  I‘m unwilling to take the constitutional risk at this moment in the court‘s history. 

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN:  I have talked to a number of people who know John Roberts or to people who know people who know John Roberts.  All of those, all of those I have heard from directly or indirectly have seen him develop since 1985 into one of the foremost Supreme Court advocates in the nation, whose skills and judgments are respected by lawyers all across the ideological spectrum.  They don‘t see him as a champion of one cause, as a narrow ideologue who wants to impose his views on the country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REID:  So on the Judiciary Committee, Dan, those eight Democrats are generally to the left of where Democrats in the Senate are.  There are no red stators on that committee, Democrats.  But when you get to the floor of the Senate, a lot of red stators out there, so it is expected that he will get quite a few more votes and again, probably get about 70 votes on the floor next week.

ABRAMS:  Chip, could it have had an impact that Senator Feingold was in the same law school class as John Roberts? 

REID:  It may—it‘s certainly conceivable.  Dan, you and I went to the same law school...

ABRAMS:  That‘s true.  We weren‘t in the same class, though...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  We weren‘t in the same class. 

REID:  They didn‘t know each other back then.  But they certainly may have had some kind of bond because they went to Harvard at the same time and in the same class, hard to tell.  But Feingold obviously did a lot of talking to people who knew John Roberts outside the Senate.  And that seems to be largely what convinced him that this guy is a lawyer‘s lawyer.  He is not an ideologue in the mold of Scalia or Thomas. 

ABRAMS:  But Chip, if you were voting on me, you wouldn‘t vote for me because we went to the same law school, right...

(CROSSTALK)

REID:  No, but for lots of other reasons...

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  ... you have a lot of other really good reasons. 

REID:  Absolutely.

ABRAMS:  Chip Reid, thanks. 

REID:  You bet.

ABRAMS:  Yes, I‘m going to be nominated. 

Coming up, Hurricane Rita is still spinning towards the Louisiana-Texas coast, is now about a day from making landfall.  We‘ll check in with the National Hurricane Center.  They have classified Rita as an extremely dangerous storm.  They have got the very latest information right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  It is now a category four storm, less than 400 miles off the coast of Louisiana and Texas.  Joining me now for the latest on the storm, Max Mayfield at the National Hurricane Center.  Thanks for joining us.  So what else do we know?

MAX MAYFIELD, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER:  It‘s still a very, very dangerous hurricane and it‘s actually moving over warm (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and the Gulf of Mexico meaning that it really has additional high octane fuel, if you will.  The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) environment is favorable, so I really wouldn‘t even be surprised to see a little bit of strengthening again tonight.  We‘ll likely see some fluctuations between now and landfall. 

ABRAMS:  How would you compare this to Katrina? 

MAYFIELD:  Right now it‘s every bit as strong as Katrina was at landfall.  If it makes landfall even close to this intensity, there will be similar damage, you know 15 to 20 feet of storm surge, nearing to the east where the center is crossing the coast.  And it‘s also a large hurricane that will indeed impact a large area.  And the storm surge will impact not only the Texas and Louisiana coast but there will be some impact even over into Mississippi and Alabama. 

ABRAMS:  What about New Orleans? 

MAYFIELD:  Well, we extended the tropical storm warning over to include all the southeastern coast of Louisiana including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, primarily because we think they‘ll get tropical storm force winds and these squalls and these rain bands that are passing through.  I doubt if they‘ll have sustained tropical storm force winds for any extended period of time, so that‘s not the main concern there.  I think that one of the biggest problems they‘ll have is the rainfall.  Even well out there to the east they‘ll likely have three to five inches of rain and that‘s the last thing those folks need to hear. 

ABRAMS:  And this hurricane may stall as well, right, which could increase the rainfall? 

MAYFIELD:  Well once it makes landfall, it‘s going to keep moving up until—you know it‘s going to make landfall probably very early on Saturday morning and then as it moves up here on Sunday, after Sunday or so there—likely in eastern Texas it likely will slow down considerably and that really increases the rainfall threat inland. 

And there could be—if it does what we are afraid it could do here, we could have you know some rainfall amounts, even 25 inches.  And that‘s also the potential for loss of life.  People—we keep making the same mistakes over and over, people driving their cars through these flooded roadways.  And the National Weather Service has a great program.  It says turn around.  Don‘t drown.  If you can‘t see that road in front of you, just don‘t drive there. 

ABRAMS:  During Katrina or right before Katrina, you actually called local officials, didn‘t you, and you said hey, this is real serious business.  Are you doing the same thing now? 

MAYFIELD:  I called a few.  No I don‘t think there‘s any need on this one.  I think everybody is really paying attention to this.  And in fact, if there‘s anything good to come out of Katrina and it‘s sure pretty hard to find anything good out of that, I think, it‘s just the fact that people have been reminded of the power of a major hurricane.  And these evacuations started in Texas even before we put up the hurricane warnings.  So my hat‘s off to the folks on this one for you know taking this very seriously and getting people to move away from the coastline. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Max Mayfield, thanks a lot.

MAYFIELD:  Thank you sir.

ABRAMS:  Joining me now, someone who actually flew into Hurricane Rita to take pictures and measurements.  Once again Commander Tom Strong with NOAA joins us.  All right, Commander, we‘ve got some new photographs, some new video of your organization planning and plotting going into a hurricane like Rita.  Give us a sense of how you plot and plan to go into this sort of massive hurricane.

TOM STRONG, NOAA:  Well, I‘ll tell you, when they‘re that large, they‘re not hard to find.  But we‘re going to start our day about three hours before takeoff looking at satellite imagery, plotting a course to get there, allowing for the direction that it‘s moving.  We‘ll set up about 105 or 110 miles out with our nose radar and just aim for the center.  Depending on the winds, we‘ll shift to the left or right to make sure we hit it dead on.  The last thing we want to do is make a glancing blow off the eye and never get that few minutes in the eye itself. 

ABRAMS:  If you get hit—as you point out, if you get hit by the edge of the eye, the plane can survive, correct? 

STRONG:  Yes, actually every time we go through we‘re going to penetrate that eye wall.  There‘s no way to get around that.  We pick our way through the worst, but eventually you‘ve got to go straight through it. 

ABRAMS:  And we talked a little about this yesterday, but how severe is the turbulence when you‘re going through 150 mile an hour winds? 

STRONG:  From what I have heard the crews coming back today say it was pretty bad.  When I say bad, it‘s you know hands are maybe coming off the controls.  It‘s a little bit hard to read the gauges, so you start targeting air speeds and altitudes, a range of them instead of a specific number.  So you are getting bounced around quite a bit, but we‘ve got everything strapped down.  People are strapped in and holding on tight. 

ABRAMS:  And so the point you are making is the people who were out there today are saying even comparatively, compared to other severe storms this one is a real doozey? 

STRONG:  It is in and what is unique about this one is the actual size of the hurricane.  Today they had hurricane force winds 180 miles across so about 90 miles each side of the center and that‘s pretty large for us.  That means that most of the day is spent buffeting through that eye wall. 

ABRAMS:  How do you go about becoming a hurricane hunter?  I mean do you say as a kid, you know, I‘d love to fly through those things? 

STRONG:  You know everybody has come in a different direction on that.  I think it‘s a dedication to duty just like the military trying to do something that you think matters. 

ABRAMS:  It‘s risky—it really seems...

STRONG:  Yes.

ABRAMS:  ... like the kind of job where you‘ve got to enjoy a little level of risk. 

STRONG:  You do and—but you learn to mitigate a lot of that and it‘s a great skill to learn. 

ABRAMS:  Commander, keep up the great work. 

STRONG:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Thank you.  We‘ll be right back.

STRONG:  All right.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We‘re back.  It‘s time for “Your Rebuttal”.  Seems a lot of you have a lot to say about my spirited response to some of yesterday‘s e-mails. 

Dennis writes, “Dan, take a chill pill.  You‘re really turning it on.  Seriously, the little gestures towards the camera.  Get back to being that professional legal expert that I remember from the O.J. trial.”

Dennis, that‘s a long time ago.  When I get riled up, I let it show. 

Brittany Laclear seems to like it.  “It‘s so entertaining when you get like that.”  Thanks. 

And Gordon Welch from Ocala, Florida is watching a lot of weather these days.  “My wife and I are big fans.  We‘re wondering if you‘re related to Stephanie Abrams of the Weather Channel.”

Of course, Stephanie and I met in meteorology school.  It‘s my wife. 

I‘m just kidding.  I don‘t know.  I‘m not related to her that I know of.  I‘m watching a lot of weather too though, and we‘re going to be watching weather throughout the evening here on MSNBC as we follow Hurricane Rita. 

Your e-mails abramsreport—one word -- @msnbc.com.  We go through them at the end of the show. 

Thanks for watching.  Up next, more on Rita with Chris Matthews.  See you tomorrow.

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

END   

The Abrams Report each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET

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