updated 9/26/2005 8:50:15 AM ET 2005-09-26T12:50:15

Guest: David Pursell, Joey Durel, Brown Claybar, Oscar Ortiz, Micky Bertrand, Paul Kemp, David Dewhurst, Ed Rappaport

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, Hurricane Rita is overflowing New Orleans and terrorizing Texas.  In one of the largest evacuations in U.S.  history, the Gulf Coast of America is deserted, as Hurricane Rita storms to shore. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

The monster called Hurricane Rita is roaring to shore, as the Gulf Coast braces for another catastrophic storm and New Orleans is flooding again.  With the Texas Louisiana coast lines in her sights, Rita promises to pack a punch that could devastate portions of the Gulf Coast. 

President Bush was scheduled to fly to Texas today to personally watch preparations, but went directly to the U.S. military‘s Northern Command headquarters in Colorado to oversee the federal government‘s response to the storm.  We will get to our reporters along the Texas Gulf Coast, where Rita is headed, in just a moment. 

But we begin in New Orleans, where the worst fears have come true.  Rita‘s heavy rains have overwhelmed already the city‘s battered levee system and major parts of New Orleans are flooded again, as you can see. 

NBC‘s Michelle Hofland is in New Orleans and joins us now with the latest bad news.

Michelle, how bad is it? 

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, these areas that just had dried out after being flooded for three-and-a-half weeks, those areas—it‘s called the Ninth Ward District—those areas are up under as much as four to five to as much as 10 feet of water tonight.

What happened is that there‘s levees that had been breached in the previous hurricane, two of them on the Industrial Canal outside New Orleans.  Those levees first topped because of the strong winds that we‘re getting now.  The water pushed over the top of those levees and then they breached.  They ripped a whole in the levees.  And it‘s flooding the Ninth Ward and into St. Bernard Parish on one side.

And then, on the other side of this Industrial Canal, they‘re having some other breaching going over the top and into these neighborhoods, some of them that were brand new neighborhoods I saw there, with one- and two-story brand new homes, some still under construction. 

I have to tell you that these are the same areas that were breached back in the last flood.  So, these are the same houses that were flooded before.  When I talked to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a short time ago, they told me that you know what?  They were going to try to see if they could stop the flooding, but they‘re just going to stop now because there‘s nothing they can do with this wind and the rain and everything and the water just moving too fast. 

They‘re going to leave those alone for now.  They‘re going over and looking at areas that were breached also in the previous hurricane, like the 17th Street Canal.  They‘re watching those very carefully.  But, right now, we‘re told that those look very good tonight.  And they‘re trying to make sure that we don‘t have any rips in those as well. 

Now, I want to tell you, throughout the day here, Chris, we have been

having gusts that average about 17 miles an hour, sustained winds.  And

then we are getting gusts up to about 50 miles per hour.  And now I want

you to take a look at this.  This is the Mississippi River here.  The wind

it is supposed to flow that way, but because the wind is so strong—I don‘t know if you can see this, but the whitecaps are pushing the Mississippi the wrong way, the top of the Mississippi the wrong way. 

That‘s just how strong the wind is right now here in front of New Orleans.  And we have been having very strong gusts, lots of rain, lots of wind.  And, boy, still Hurricane Rita is hours away—back to you. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Michelle, what is the mayor doing, Mayor Nagin?  Is he fatalistic about this, like the engineers seem to be, that it‘s just going to happen; there‘s not much we can do about it? 

HOFLAND:  You know, I heard him talking earlier today and basically he was saying we are prepared and that these areas have already been flooded. 

But you know what?  Still, in the same breath, he was talking about how they are getting ready to reopen the area once this—once Rita leaves.  So, he still has that optimistic tone, saying, OK, yes, well, we may be battered again, but don‘t worry about it.  We‘re still planning for the reentry program, when you can come in here in a few days once this leaves. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Michelle, people must be...

(CROSSTALK)

HOFLAND:  Sorry.

MATTHEWS:  Michelle, people must be happy they didn‘t come back.  Or they would be right in the middle of the flood again. 

HOFLAND:  Yes. 

And that was a concern about the people if they had been down there when this area was flooded.  But when I spoke with the troops down in the area, the National Guard, the 82nd airborne and some police officers, they said they had been into those areas and were looking, going through the streets, to make sure that no one was around there before the area flooded, so they are pretty confident that no one is there. 

There are still some people, however, in some of these neighborhoods that still refuse to leave.  They say that they‘re all right.  But, you know, the 82nd Airborne told me, you know, we‘re not going to force these people out of their homes.  The man that we saw, though, his house is in an area that has not been flooded this time yet. 

But, still, they‘re worried about those people that won‘t leave.  But there are not too many of those, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, amazing pictures behind you know.  Thank you very much.

We will be back to you, Michelle Hofland, in New Orleans. 

We‘re watching the Ninth Ward being reflooded again.  Even areas that were dried up the last couple days are getting soaked again.  Look at that flood.  Again, those are new pictures, by the way. 

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

We‘re joined by Ed Rappaport of the National Hurricane Center. 

Ed, we‘re looking at the flooding of New Orleans.  Is the worst to come? 

ED RAPPAPORT, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER:  Well, the worst is to come certainly for the areas to the west of New Orleans.

And it looks like That the tide levels that are contributing to this water pouring in there will reach their highest levels around midnight tonight, storm surge on the order of four to six feet.  It will also be high tide.  Then they may have to go through another tidal cycle 12 hours later. 

Of course, much more is going to be occurring farther to the west.  We can see a radar picture where you can see the center, the eye of the hurricane now, about 150 miles offshore, moving towards the Northwest.  It‘s going to come ashore in the upper Texas coast, potentially extreme southwestern Louisiana.  Area of greatest risk is going to be from Galveston, Houston, then eastward to about Lake Charles, Louisiana. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you, sir, is it still going to be a Category 3?  And what does that tell us in terms of the strength of the wind and the storm surges themselves? 

RAPPAPORT:  Yes, the expectation is that, while we may see a little more weakening, it will likely come ashore as a Category 3 here, very significant.

Remember, Katrina did most of its damage at Category 3 intensity as well.  If we look at the storm surge that would be expected with this, for a track that goes into the eastern part of the Texas, most of the storm surge is to the right, because that‘s where the onshore winds and that‘s where they‘re the strongest, storm surge up on the order of 10 to 15 feet, locally to 20 feet in the bays and the rivers. 

The problem we have, of course, is that these tracks can shift a little bit left or right.  If it goes to the left by the 50 miles, we would then push that strong surge into the Galveston, Galveston Bay, Houston area. 

MATTHEWS:  When we will know tonight when it‘s don‘t—where it‘s going to hit directly, what is going to be the Biloxi of this event, of this hurricane? 

RAPPAPORT:  We would expect, again, Category 3 winds, at 115 miles per hour, forecast track has held now for about 30 hours.  We think the center will come ashore on the upper Texas coast, it looks like just to the east of Galveston and Houston. 

But, again, because these tracks can—the storms can wobble a little bit, we can‘t be sure which...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

RAPPAPORT:  ... county in Texas or which parish is going to get the worst. 

(CROSSTALK)

RAPPAPORT:  ... Louisiana .

MATTHEWS:  I think people are going to give it some leeway.

Anyway, thank you very much, Ed Rappaport at the National Hurricane Center. 

It looks like it‘s headed toward the northern Gulf Coast of Texas. 

Now let‘s go to Galveston, Texas, and MSNBC‘s Rita Cosby. 

Rita, I have been worrying about you down there.  Are you going to stay there all night again?  Are you going to stick with this plan of yours? 

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  We‘re planning on sticking with the plan, Chris. 

And, as you can behind me, the waves are really crashing here.  We‘re right on the coastline.  We are in the southern part of Galveston Island. 

And, in just the last, like, two hours, the weather has really deteriorated.  The winds are whipping here.  The rain is starting to come down.  And we can tell that we‘re getting sort of the beginning of those feeder bands of Hurricane Rita. 

What the mayor is saying essentially, Chris, is that probably between 8:00 p.m. local time—it‘s just about 4:00 local time here now—but around 8:00 p.m. local time to midnight is probably going to be the worst. 

And they‘re expecting winds anywhere from 70 miles an hour to 110 miles an hour.  And covering enough hurricanes, 70 miles an hour up to 110 could snap a lot of trees, snap a lot of power lines, and do a lot of exterior damage. 

Luckily the good news is, most of the residents have left here, but you can see there‘s still a little bit of traffic behind me.  In fact, some people got so stuck on those traffic jams in Houston that we saw so many of those pictures of, that a lot of them just turned around and came right back.  And the mayor said, look, we‘re not going to block people from coming back, but we are going to put a curfew in effect starting in about two hours from now, running until 7:00 a.m. local time, hoping that residents, at least if they do come back, will at least stay inside—

Chris.

MATTHEWS:  What is the latest estimate on the storm surge that is coming into Galveston, up that beach? 

COSBY:  Yes, up that beach.

And, in fact, this is probably going to be hit very, very hard.  There‘s a little barrier over here on the left.  And a couple of hours ago, we could see that completely high.  It was elevated about six, seven feet.  It‘s almost covered now.  And we‘re told that they‘re expecting anywhere from seven to maybe 20 feet storm surge.  So, that could do a little bit of damage, particularly here, but quite a bit on the western side of the island, where there‘s not too much of a seawall. 

Here, there‘s that 15-foot seawall, which is at least blocking a good portion of it.  But, on the other side, Chris, we drove by about an hour or two ago and we already saw some flooding.  There is going to be some massive flooding, at least on that part of the island as well. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We will be back to you a little later.  Thank you, Rita Cosby, who is hanging in there in Galveston on a very high building, I hope. 

Let‘s move further up the Texas coast to Beaumont, which is expected to get the direct hit tonight.  That‘s where HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster joins us live. 

David, are you point man tonight?  Where are you?  You are in Beaumont? 

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, Chris. 

We‘re at the Christus Hospital, which is one of the areas where some of the fire and police and rescue personnel are essentially taking shelter.  We are on the side of the building.  Beaumont—the county here, Jefferson County, includes both Beaumont and Port Arthur.  In this particular area, the supply ships have already been tied down.  The rail cars have been moved away from areas that may get a storm surge. 

They have tried to move some of the equipment from the first-responders to areas that are high enough, so the storm surge won‘t get them.  And the refineries have been turned off.  And the other important point, Chris, is that the evacuation here has now ended.  Even though 250,000 people live in this county, the fire and police say that, if you‘re still here, that‘s it.  And they estimate as many as 10 percent may be—may have decided to go ahead and stay and ride out the storm. 

But, earlier today, it was just a bizarre picture at the Beaumont Airport, when the last group of people to be evacuated was a group of elderly and infirm, some bed-ridden who were actually taken out on baggage-handling trolleys from the terminal to the C-130 military transport plane.  They were lined up like golf clubs would normally would be on these trolleys.  And then they were put aboard these military aircraft.

The reason that the military aircraft were brought in is because this entire area was only under an optional evacuation just a couple of days ago.  And then, two days ago, they made it mandatory when it was clear that the storm was headed north.  They realized that a lot equipment, the ambulances, the buses that would normally take the infirm and bed-ridden out of here had already been sent to south Texas.

So, they called the military in to come in and help.  And they have evacuated a couple hundred people through these military aircraft.  But, again, the biggest concern here, Chris, twofold, the 25,000 to 30,000 people who may have remained in this county who are going to try to ride it out, where they expect a bullseye to come ashore. 

And the second issue, Chris, is, you have got some 200 plants that are either chemical plants or oil refineries or plants related to that that are along the coast in this particular area; 30 percent of the nation‘s jet fuel comes from this particular county, so you have got environmental—you have got economic concerns, but then you also have huge environmental concerns, because remember what happened in Louisiana. 

When the refineries were split open, it caused huge swathes of land to be uninhabitable—uninhabitable for people there.  And, as a result, there are very great concerns here that some people may in fact not be able to return if there are huge problems with some of these refineries, as far as the storm surge coming and taking them out. 

But, at the moment, Chris, that is the story here from Jefferson County.  I‘m going to pitch it back to you and let you know that I have lost IFB, so I can‘t take any of your questions. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  David Shuster, he is in what is going to be apparently the landfall of this hurricane.  The main thrust of it is going to be hitting what looks to be right now still a calm place, but it is going to change tonight. 

Coming up we are going to check in with the lieutenant governor of Texas and plus the latest on President Bush, who canceled his Texas trip today.  And, later, we will talk to Gulf Coast mayors about what they are expecting as Rita moves closer to shore tonight.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, Category 3 Hurricane Rita will hit the coast of Texas and Louisiana some time tonight.  Are people there prepared?  We will ask the lieutenant governor of Texas when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Texas is preparing for the worst from Hurricane Rita. 

Joining me right now from Austin, Texas, is Texas‘s lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst. 

Governor, thank you very much for joining us tonight. 

LT. GOV. DAVID DEWHURST ®, TEXAS:  Chris, it‘s a pleasure. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me a sense, from your very important—you‘re the chief operating officer of that state, basically.  Give me a sense of how it is working together.  Your—those highway pictures are astounding. 

DEWHURST:  Well, Chris, they are. 

And, of course, if you were in the middle of a traffic jam, if I was in the middle of the traffic jam, I would be upset, just like those folks are.  But, if I can, there are three parts of this.  There‘s the first, get people out of harm‘s way.  And that‘s what we‘re doing right now.  And then starting tomorrow afternoon, there‘s the rescue, and there will be two phases of that, one the Gulf Coast and one up in northeast Texas, where we are going to have a lot of rain. 

And, third, it‘s the whole reconstruction.  We are going to have to reconstruct a lot of homes and a lot of businesses, so we have got a lot of work in front of us.  But, Chris, all I can say is, it has been mammoth.  We have moved more people in a short period of time than ever in the history of the United States.  Almost 2.5 to 2.7 million people have been moved from the coastal area from Corpus Christi, all the way over to Beaumont, in a period of three or four days. 

And they all came mainly Wednesday night and yesterday morning, because friends of mine driving up to Dallas Wednesday morning, there wasn‘t very much traffic on the road.  And there sure was Wednesday afternoon, evening, and Thursday morning. 

So, that was a real challenge for us.  When we realized there was going to be a surge, we had to turn around.  We had to do—we had to effect the counterflow, so we could get all lanes flowing north, all lanes to flow towards the west.  And then we had to start getting gasoline out to the stranded motorists. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Did you manage to make it—how many lanes are there in that interstate there going north? 

DEWHURST:  Oh, there are—right now, we have got, in some places, six, in some places, eight. 

MATTHEWS:  What stops you from using the full eight all the time, all the way up? 

DEWHURST:  Well, sometimes, it‘s three lanes on each side and then sometimes it‘s widened and it narrows. 

But, in this situation, we didn‘t open up all lanes until late yesterday morning.  And that took several hours for the state police to be able to effect.  And then, once we did that, we have been able to move people north and move people west and move people on 59 to the northeast. 

MATTHEWS:  Where are people going?  Do they have—is this a thing where—is it every family is for itself?  We watched this.  It also seems like the classic American situation, self-reliance. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you have a cousin somewhere or a brother-in-law?  Is that what it is about?

DEWHURST:  No, not necessarily.

We have opened 366 shelters, which have a capacity for 500,000 people. 

MATTHEWS:  Really?

DEWHURST:  Now, part of that shelter, Chris, is being used by our Katrina evacuees—part, not all.  We had 50,000 evacuees in hotels in Houston alone.

So, as we move these people north, we‘re using every hotel room, every friend.  We are using shelters.  We are opening up more shelters, because our concern are people.  We‘re going to have right now—the estimate is some 6,000, 6,500 homes to be destroyed, $8 billion, $9 billion worth of damage on this trajectory. 

But most important are people‘s lives.  And so, that‘s our focus. 

That‘s why we have been trying to move everybody out of the affected area. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Governor, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst of Texas.  Sir, thanks for joining us. 

Now let‘s go to Lafayette, Louisiana, where thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were moved and are already there. 

NBC‘s Ron Blome joins us right now.  Ron, how are everything getting along here, the old refugees and the new ones, the old evacuees, I should say, and the new ones? 

RON BLOME, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, at one time, they did have 60,000 Katrina refugees here.  A lot of them moved one  This was like a processing way station for them. 

But we met a few people downtown here in Lafayette today who were refugees and staying with friends or acquaintances.  And they said it was nerve-wracking seeing the levees being topped in New Orleans again, knowing that they might have water here.  In fact, the current conditions here in the Lafayette area, just south of here, about 30 miles south along Vermilion Bay, they‘re now reporting that the water is rising rapidly along the intercostal waterway.

In fact, the state police are reporting that many of the state highways along the coast are now officially closed because the water has topped them and swamped them. 

Governor Blanco had a news conference a couple of hours ago and said this evacuation of half-a-million residents was successful.  She said it has worked out.  One thing interesting to note here is, they are doing a command center up in the town of Alexandria, the city of Alexandria, to handle Rita, while the Baton Rouge command center continues to focus on Katrina. 

So, that‘s a little bit of a dichotomy going on here, but they say it is going to work better.  They have got 5,000 National Guardsmen in standby who are what they call Operation Task Force Rita.  They‘re ready to move in to the coast with engineering equipment to clean debris and with boats for search-and-rescue. 

But, certainly, the state here now dealing with two disasters, one continuing to unfold in New Orleans and the other one about to arrive on their doorstep on the Gulf of Mexico—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  One-two punch.  Thank you very much, Ron Blome.

Up next, President Bush changed plans late today and decided against going to Texas, as Hurricane Rita moves closer to shore. 

NBC‘s chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, is going to join us in just a minute. 

Plus, the latest on where Rita is heading right now and when she will make landfall.  We keep trying to figure that out tonight.

And we will talk to mayors from cities bracing themselves for her direct hit. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  With Hurricane Rita just hours away from making landfall, President Bush changed plans today to head to Texas and is instead going to Northern Command, the military‘s Northern Command post in Colorado, to observe the military‘s response, as the hurricane moves. 

NBC News White House correspondent, chief White House correspondent David Gregory joins us now.

David, what about the change in plans?  How do you see it? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, look, this president, to put it bluntly, is in look of—in search of a photo-op here to symbolize the response to Rita that is more effective, more competent than the federal government‘s response to Katrina.

That is well-known at this point.  He has been trying to replicate the early days after 9/11 in terms of his level of engagement, in terms of the relief and recovery to Katrina and the preparation for Rita.

And the differences are striking, in terms of federal preparedness and how well they are geared up to move in after the storm at whatever strength it ultimately makes landfall.  But as to the president‘s trip, earlier today, it was clear that he was going to San Antonio, Texas, to meet with search-and-rescue crews who were staging out of San Antonio to deploy once the storm hit. 

Then the storm track moved.  We were with the president.  I was there when he was at the National Operations Center over at FEMA earlier today.  And we were in the room as he got a briefing showing that storm track beginning to go a little further to the east, to the border between Louisiana and Texas. 

Afterward, he came in and thanked some workers at FEMA who were manning the phones.  And I asked him the question about what he really hoped to accomplish by going down to the hurricane zone.  We can listen to some of that. 

MATTHEWS:  Great.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Sir, what good can you do going down when the hurricane is coming?  Might you get in the way, Mr. President?

BUSH: One thing I won‘t do is get in the way.

GREGORY:  What good can you actually do?  Isn‘t there a risk of you and your entourage getting in the way?

BUSH:  There will be no risk of me getting in the way, I promise you. 

We‘re going to make sure that we‘re not in the way of the operations.

What I am going to do is observe the relationship between the state and local governments, particularly out in Colorado Springs, that‘s what I want to see.

See, NORTHCOM is the main entity that interfaces—that uses federal assets, federal troops, to interface with local and state government.  I want to watch that relationship.  It‘s an important relationship.  And I need to understand how it works better.

GREGORY:  Critics might say this is overcompensation for the response to Katrina?

BUSH:  We will make sure that my entourage does not get in the way of people doing their job, which will be search and rescue immediately.

And rest assured I understand that we must not and will not interfere with the important work that will be going forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  You know, Chris, I spoke to an aide earlier in the day who said, look, if we‘re guilty of doing too much on this storm, we can live with it, believe me, after everything we have gone through on Katrina. 

Ultimately, it was changed because, when the storm track changed, the search-and-rescue crews were moving over to Houston.  And the president didn‘t want to delay that travel at all.  So, they said, we‘re not going to do it.  We are going to go right into Northern Command in Colorado Springs, where he wants to watch the military response to Katrina. 

White House aides say not only to be on the scene and make sure the federal response is appropriate, but also to assess what role the military should play going forward in other disasters.  Remember, the president talked about that, Chris, after Katrina, that, clearly, in retrospect, the military should play an up-front role. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, that was a remarkable moment. 

I know you‘re part of it, David.  And you‘re covering the president as a matter of everyday business.  But, I will tell you, watching that was rather remarkable.  You were right up next to the president of the United States as he was conducting his office, and you were almost like, in that old television show with Walter Cronkite, saying, well, let me interfere with what you‘re doing while I ask you what you‘re up to. 

It was an astounding interview.  Does he get upset when you ask him direct questions about his immediate behavior like that? 

GREGORY:  I don‘t think so. 

I mean, my experience with this president over the past five years is that he understands he is going to face questions like that.  He happens to be very sensitive to the idea of getting in the way of anything. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GREGORY:  I mean, it is interesting that he wants to appear engaged. 

But I remember, back in 2000, during the campaign, he didn‘t even want to jog in cities where he was visiting, because it would require the motorcade.  So, I think he gets that part of it.  He doesn‘t want to mess anything up. 

But, look, he has got no other choice but to be in command of this and make sure the federal response is right.  He can‘t go through what they went through on Katrina.  So, what else is there for him to do but be way out front on this?

MATTHEWS:  Is the big issue for him troops?  It sounded like it from your exchange. 

GREGORY:  Well, it—it—I think it‘s—it‘s a huge issue in terms of the military‘s ability to come in right after the storm and help out with rescues, help out with basic supply drops. 

And I think, as the president realized after Katrina, the role of the National Guard and other military assets really is crucial, because no other organization in the world can mobilize that quickly and that effectively.  So, the key to an administration‘s competent response really is based in large measure on the military‘s role on disasters of this scale.

So, I think that‘s why the president wants to go to Northern Command and see it up front.     

MATTHEWS:  Yes, and that is one thing we‘re learning. 

Thank you very much, David Gregory.  We‘re learning a lot about the role of the military in civil defense now.

Up next, the latest on where Rita may make landfall.  Plus, we will talk to mayors along the Gulf Coast.  Right in the line of fire, they are.

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Hurricane Rita is barrelling toward the Texas-Louisiana coast right now, just hours away from making landfall. 

We will get an update on when and where Rita will hit in just a moment. 

But, first, it‘s happening again in New Orleans.  Water is spilling over a patched levee—levee—and flooding parts of the city.  I can‘t believe it‘s happening again. 

Dr. Paul Kemp is the director the Natural Systems Modeling Laboratory and principal investigator for flood modeling at LSU, Louisiana State University.

Let me ask Mr. Kemp what is happening here.

We‘re looking at a picture, sir, of another big break and the water spewing into the city again. 

PAUL KEMP, LSU HURRICANE CENTER:  Yes, we have—this is a huge

storm, and it‘s basically just piling water into this—the corner formed

by Louisiana and Texas.

And it‘s been—it‘s been—the easterly flow has—has raised water levels to about six feet or so.  And that‘s been enough to push water through the very temporary kind of interim fixes that were in place for the breaches that occurred during Katrina. 

MATTHEWS:  Are there more levees that face being overflowed, based on the rising level of the—of this—of the water? 

KEMP:  I think that what we‘re going to see is maybe some expansion of the breaches that exist.  But we probably—the ones on the lakefront probably will not give way, as the ones on the Industrial Canal have. 

MATTHEWS:  So, is this something that would have happened had it been an independent fact than—from Katrina?  In other words, if we hadn‘t had Katrina, would this be happening? 

KEMP:  Oh, no, it would not be. 

MATTHEWS:  Why not? 

KEMP:  Well, because Katrina basically took out the mainline levee protection of—of eastern New Orleans.  And three weeks was not enough time to get that righted to a condition that it could resist flooding again. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it likely, based upon what you know of the conditions weather-wise, that we are going to see a much higher level of the sea?  It‘s going to get much worse than that, in that sense?

(CROSSTALK)

KEMP:  We‘re predicting—we‘re predicting that—that it will not get a whole lot higher than it is.  But it will stay high for a long time. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you sense more of this weather coming down the road this year? 

KEMP:  Well, I...

MATTHEWS:  I mean, we have had two big hurricanes, almost record-busters.  Are we in a pattern here? 

(CROSSTALK)

KEMP:  We are adding insult to injury here.  I‘m not sure that—this is a combination that I‘m sure has an infinitesimally small possibility, but, of course, it has 100 percent probability today, right? 

MATTHEWS:  Where do you stand on the question of—I mean, others have raised it.  I have raised it here on the program.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Can we put in an Amsterdam-type of flood control system, state-of-the-art, not mounds of dirt, but state-of-the-art, best materials available, spend the money, create something in New Orleans that is a—sort of a natural wonder that people come to see, or a manmade wonder?  Can we do this?  Can we fix this problem? 

KEMP:  Well, I—of course we can. 

I mean, a small nation like the Netherlands was able to do it.  They -

they gave it a much higher priority.  The Thames (ph) project in England was similar.  They made that decision about 50 years ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

KEMP:  And Venice is still in the process of putting in—and Italy is still in the process of putting in that kind of protection. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I hope we do it. 

KEMP:  Many of the developed countries around the world are doing that.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

I‘m amazed we have a Chunnel that goes right under the North Sea.  And that works.  And Amsterdam works.  And London—why we can‘t fix this...

(CROSSTALK)

KEMP:  I don‘t think this is rocket science.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t get it.  Anyway, I guess I get it now.  But I wish we would spend the right money in the right places at the right time.  We wouldn‘t be going through this. 

Anyway, I‘m for state-of-the-art. 

KEMP:  OK.  Me, too.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you very much—I‘m sure you are.  Thank you very much for joining us. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Dr. Paul Kemp.

Let‘s get right now to the latest on what Rita may be doing.  That‘s the cause of the big water level.

NBC Weather Plus meteorologist Bill Karins will—is with us now. 

Bill, we were just hearing from Mr. Kemp that the water level is rising.  Is that how it works?  That is what is going on in New Orleans right now.  The overall water level of the Gulf is going up? 

BILL KARINS, NBC METEOROLOGIST:  Yes.  It‘s called the storm surge, Chris. 

Even though New Orleans is way away from the center and the eye of the storm, they did get a storm surge.  They had an easterly wind for a long time.  How it works is that all that water from Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne all is supposed to go into the Gulf.  But with that strong easterly wind and the storm pushing that water towards it, all that water couldn‘t go anywhere.  So, it had no other place to go, except to pile up there and keep rising and getting higher and higher.  And sooner or later, it got to the height where they tried to fix those levees, and then it just started going downhill into New Orleans again.

The good news is that, from what we‘re hearing, the storm surge has already peaked in that area.  And that‘s why he was saying they don‘t expect the water levels to rise much higher than they already have.  That‘s if the levees hold up and remain strong through the rest of this storm.

Let‘s look at the radar.  You can notice how much rain we have on this map.  We have numerous thunderstorms right over the top of New Orleans.  We have had numerous tornado warnings in that region.  We are continuing to track the eye of a Category 3 storm.  It has weakened a little bit today, not enough that we are not going to see catastrophic damage from the storm surge right around the immediate coast, possibly even as far inland as Port Arthur, who—they can expect somewhere between 10- to 15-foot storm surge. 

We have kind of taken Galveston and Houston out of the direct path of landfall.  Notice this cone.  We say anywhere within the cone, you could get struck with a direct hit.  Notice that Galveston and Houston are now out of this cone.  The center line would take it through Port Arthur and Beaumont.  And that right-front punch that we talk about would go right through Lake Charles. 

Those are the areas that you can expect the worst damage too be in...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

KARINS:  ... come this time tomorrow.

Hurricane-force winds are off the coast.  We expect them to move on shore by about midnight tonight.  And landfall should be some time right around about 4:00 in the morning; 125 is the current intensity, Category 3.  We don‘t expect it to go up to a Category 4.  We probably think it it‘s going to stay right where about it is for the next about 12 hours until landfall. 

So, Chris, for everyone out there, it‘s just about too late for any evacuations or anything else.  Now it‘s—just got to wait and see how much damage Rita is going to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Bill.

Let‘s go right now to Beaumont and Port Arthur, the metro area of Texas, where they‘re bracing right now for that direct hit. 

With us now by phone is Mayor Oscar Ortiz from Port Arthur.  He‘s been on before, and Micky Bertrand of the Emergency Management Office in Beaumont. 

Let me go to Micky, first of all. 

Are you guys ready for this direct hit?

MICKY BERTRAND, BEAUMONT, TEXAS, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT:  I think we‘re about as ready as we can be.  We‘re just standing by. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you think you are expecting?  Are you expecting a 10-20 foot storm surge there? 

BERTRAND:  Not up in the Beaumont area.  A little south of us, in Port Arthur, I believe they probably are.  But we‘re about 24-foot elevation here.  So, we are not expecting it to get here.

MATTHEWS:  Are you expecting flooding? 

BERTRAND:  A little bit with the rain, but not with the storm surge. 

We are expecting about 15 inches or rain as this storm moves through. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s go down a bit, down to Port Arthur.

Mayor Ortiz, what are you expecting in terms of depth of water coming into your city? 

OSCAR ORTIZ, MAYOR OF PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS:  Well, I‘m afraid we are going to get a lot of water, because our seawall—and I was corrected by our fire chief—it‘s only about 14 feet, our seawall.  So, our seawall will more than likely get breached with an awful lot of water.  So, we could see downtown most probably could end up conceivably with two or three feet of water. 

MATTHEWS:  And what about the depth of the storm surge that hits the beach?  What do you expect it to be? 

ORTIZ:  Well, they‘re telling us 20, 20 feet.  And, of course, that puts our little community of Sabine Pass completely under water, and that‘s houses and everything. 

So, we‘re just hunkered down, down here in Lumberton, Texas.  That‘s where we got our control center right now.  And we‘re going to have to just wait this thing out.  And we‘re at its mercy now.  But we have done everything we can possibly do. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you need from the feds right now, from FEMA?  Have you been asking for anything or what?  Where do you stand on them?

ORTIZ:  Well, I haven‘t talked today with Governor Perry from the capital.  He assured me that Port Arthur will get whatever it asks for. 

So, of course, the proof is in the pudding.  So, we are going to see what they‘re going to really do for us come Monday and Tuesday. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you asked for anything yet? 

ORTIZ:  No. 

What we did, we asked for buses.  They sent us 16 buses.  We asked for planes.  They sent us three C-130s to get some of our people out of there.  We have already made about—we had made about 75 trips with our own personal buses.  So, we evacuated at least 95-plus percent of the people of Port Arthur. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to—let me go back to Micky. 

Micky, the reflooding of New Orleans has got to be one of the most desultory bits of information we have gotten here, because there is a city that, for two weeks, we watched flooded.  And, as it began to be drained out, especially down in that Ninth Ward, where a lot of poor people live, there it is getting flooded again.  The levees are being overtopped again.  We have got great pictures of that.

It is going to get worse right through until midnight tonight.  Do you think that is going to become a statement of urban failure, that we just can‘t get our acts together? 

BERTRAND:  Well, that‘s kind of hard to answer there, Chris, because New Orleans has been in existence for many, many, many years. 

And, you know, over all of these years, I can‘t think of any time that anything like that has ever happened in New Orleans.  I mean, we never know where these storms are going to hit.  And then, for a second one to come within weeks of Katrina is just...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BERTRAND:  Who could have ever thought that something like that could happen?

MATTHEWS:  Well, it reminds you of that old blues song.  If it weren‘t for bad luck, I wouldn‘t have any luck at all. 

(LAUGHTER)

BERTRAND:  That‘s right.  That‘s right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Hey, Mayor, very—good luck to you, Mayor.  I have gotten to know you the last couple days.  Good luck with all of this.  What a challenge you have, sir. 

ORTIZ:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Good luck with saving people‘s lives.

And, Micky Bertrand, thank you very much, sir, for joining us. 

When we return, the northeast face of Hurricane Rita could pack the most destructive punch.  You know, the right side coming up from the eye is always the strong punch.  We will talk to two more mayors preparing for the worst and find out whether they‘re ready for what is coming their way.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead, Hurricane Rita is on a straight course to the nation‘s biggest concentration of oil refineries.  What will that do to gas supplies and prices?

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘re looking at it now, the live picture.  There it is, pretty impressive.  We‘re back to HARDBALL. 

Hurricane Rita is headed for the Texas-Israeli border right now.

I‘m joined now on the phone by two mayors who are already there, obviously.  It‘s their locality that that storm is about to hit, Mayor Brown Claybar of Orange, Texas, right on the border, and Mayor Joey Durel from Lafayette—or Lafayette, Louisiana. 

Let me go to Mayor Claybar.  What is your evacuation?  Are you totally evacuated now, sir? 

BROWN CLAYBAR, MAYOR OF ORANGE, TEXAS:  As far as we know.  We have executed our evacuation plan.  And I can‘t say that everyone is out.  But everyone that we can get out and that had wanted to get out has been afforded the opportunity to get out. 

MATTHEWS:  What is your mental picture of what is to come in the next 20 -- 20 hours or so?  What do you...

CLAYBAR:  Well, it‘s very frightening. 

We have seen the weather reports and we have talked to the National Weather Bureau.  And we are mainly concerned about the storm surge.  Orange is a community that is surrounded by a number of waterways, the Sabine River and Adam‘s Bayou.  All of those bank—waterways are out of their banks now. 

(CROSSTALK)

CLAYBAR:  And with the storm surge, we don‘t feel that there will be a place for there to be drainage.  The water that we‘re anticipating is just frightening for our community.  This is the worst-case scenario.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s just going to sit there on top of you, you mean? 

CLAYBAR:  Right.  This is the worst-case scenario. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, God.

Where are you, sir, Mr. Mayor? 

CLAYBAR:  I am at a staging area, about 20 miles out of Orange, with about 250 civil defense workers, fireman, police officers, firemen, and EMS people.  And we‘re going to weather the storm and then we will marshal all of our forces here where we can enter into the city. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you left any troops behind, any of your people behind? 

CLAYBAR:  Absolutely not. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, all the officials in the city have evacuated themselves, in advance of the water?

CLAYBAR:  It‘s entirely too dangerous for anyone to be in the city of Orange now. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, hang on there, Mr. Mayor.  Thank you. 

Let me go to Mayor Joey Durel of Lafayette, Louisiana.

Sir, thank you for joining us.

Is it Lafayette or Lafayette?

JOEY DUREL, MAYOR OF LAFAYETTE, LOUISIANA:  It‘s Lafayette to us and Lafayette to you, I‘m sure. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, it‘s Lafayette, if it‘s—don‘t do that to me.  Don‘t accuse me of that.  No, it‘s Lafayette right here. 

DUREL:  I want to say—I really want to say, first of all, good luck to Mayor Claybar.  They are going to catch...

CLAYBAR:  Thank you very much.  We are—our thoughts were with you all a couple of weeks ago.

(CROSSTALK)

DUREL:  Lafayette is much more fortunate than you are tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  What is your topography?  How far are you up from the water?  

DUREL:  Oh, we‘re up—I guess we are—we are probably 30 miles or so from Vermilion Bay.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

DUREL:  And we‘re expected to get tropical-storm-force winds, probably peaking somewhat some time tonight about 9:00 and continuing to have tropical-storm winds through about 10:00 tomorrow morning.  But we‘re not expecting much more than about 64-mile-an-hour winds, which is going to still do some damage.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

DUREL:  But nothing like what Mayor Claybar and them are going to experience, I would hope. 

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Durel, don‘t you have a lot of evacuees yourself now from—weren‘t we talking to Doug Brinkley for a while, who was up in Lafayette? 

DUREL:  Was I talking to him? 

MATTHEWS:  No, I think we were. 

DUREL:  Oh, maybe so. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DUREL:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you have a lot of evacuees from New Orleans? 

DUREL:  Yes.  We figure that we have—we figure Lafayette and Baton Rouge are probably the two most impacted cities outside of the devastated area, as it relates to population and as a percentage of our population. 

Lafayette is a town of about 117,000 in a parish of 210,000.  And we probably have 50,000 to 60,000 people here that were not here four weeks ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you saturated or can you take more evacuees?  How does it stand? 

DUREL:  We are going to do whatever we‘re asked to do. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a nice statement...

(CROSSTALK)

DUREL:  We have evacuated our Cajundome of all the evacuees, because we are below Interstate 10.  We probably are OK, because Lafayette‘s topography is pretty high, as far as being above sea level. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DUREL:  If there was a good storm surge, most of that would not affect

have much of an effect on the mid and northern part of the parish.  The southern part of the parish might get a little bit of water.  But the general (AUDIO GAP) the Red Cross does is, they say nothing below Interstate 10 can be a Red Cross shelter.  So, they just kind of draw a line.  And instead of picking and choosing which ones are exceptions to that rule, they just say nothing below Interstate 10. 

MATTHEWS:  Best of luck to both of you fellows, especially Mayor Claybar down in Orange. 

It looks like you‘re facing real hell down there. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Mr. Mayors, both of you.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Durel and Mayor Claybar.

When we return, so much of the country‘s petrochemical production is centered, as everybody knows, down in the Texas-Louisiana coast.  Can those refineries weather Hurricane Rita?  And will they be back online in a couple weeks, or how long will it take?  What kind of damage are they going to they take?  And are they going to raise the price of gas around the country, because that‘s like a fifth of our production down there?

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  No matter where Hurricane Rita makes landfall, it‘s certain to hit the petroleum industry head on.  This monster storm is aimed at Texas‘ refinery row, which produces about 13 percent of U.S. gasoline.

Refineries have been shut down for days in anticipation of Hurricane Rita.  And the hundreds of offshore oil and gas rigs along the Gulf Coast have also been taken offline.  The question, how long will damage keep them off and how will Rita effect gas prices for all Americans?

David Pursell is executive vice president with Pickering Energy Partners.  He‘s in Houston this evening and he has been watching Rita very closely, like everyone else.

Mr. Pursell, oil and water don‘t mix, right? 

DAVID PURSELL, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, PICKERING ENERGY PARTNERS: 

That‘s right, Chris, especially a Category 4 hurricane and oil don‘t mix. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you expect to be the damage report in a couple days here? 

PURSELL:  Well, it depends on magnitude and path, but I would expect to see a significant amount of oil and gas production impacted offshore.  And I think the real uncertainty is how much of the refining capacity is going to be offline for more than a few days following the storm. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the seaworthiness of those offshore rigs.  Can they take a big hit like this, like a 20-foot surge, and once they shake off the water, they‘re still there? 

PURSELL:  Well, I think we saw with Katrina just a few weeks ago that a number of them can, but there‘s a significant portion of the production that can‘t. 

We lost a number of production platforms and we lost some drilling rigs. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, you wouldn‘t want to be out on one of those during a storm?

PURSELL:  No.  I‘m glad I‘m on shore. 

MATTHEWS:  So, there‘s nobody left behind as a skeleton crew?

PURSELL:  Absolutely.  I would think there‘s nobody offshore at this point. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How deep are the pilings?  You have got them banged into the grand on pilings I guess, right?  You have jammed them in.  They basically pound them in, right, the foundations for those offshore platforms? 

PURSELL:  Yes.  They get them in there pretty good.  And they‘re solid, although some of the facilities are in deep enough water, they‘re actually floating.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, really?  Well, wouldn‘t they be able to float to the surface any weather condition?

PURSELL:  Well, you know, they could.  But you get big wind and waves and these things are tethered in there.  And you worry about the mooring systems breaking loose.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PURSELL:  And they‘re designed for high wind and high waves, but when you start talking about Category 4, Category 5, you‘re getting at the edge of the envelope.

MATTHEWS:  So, they can‘t float to the top like a cork? 

PURSELL:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

Let me ask you about the refineries.  I have heard a lot of conversation.  You‘re the expert.  A refinery gets hit by a storm surge, how long does it take it to dry out? 

PURSELL:  It‘s—as you looked at—in New Orleans, if it‘s inundated with water, if it‘s flooded, it takes months, not weeks, to get them back online, to fix all the electrical and control system and gets the saltwater out of them and get them back online. 

So, the question is, can these refineries withstand this storm better than the New Orleans area refineries?

MATTHEWS:  Explain the economics now.  If we have a shutdown of the area we are looking at, how long does it—how big a price a bump is that? 

PURSELL:  If you take a significant portion of these refineries offline, retail motor gasoline prices are going to move higher. 

MATTHEWS:  Are we going to hit $4 a gallon for high tested.. 

(CROSSTALK)

PURSELL:  No, Chris, I don‘t think so, because I think, when we hit $3 retail gasoline, the consumer will push back.  We‘re seeing some weakness... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I got you.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, it is an elastic price situation.  People do pull back on consumption. 

PURSELL:  At some point.  It has taken a while.  Prices have moved higher without..

(CROSSTALK)   

MATTHEWS:  A lot more people head for the subway, I guess, when prices go up. 

Anyway, David, it‘s great having you.  We‘re just short on time tonight.  Please come back, sir.

PURSELL:  Absolutely.  Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Join us again in an hour, around 7:00 Eastern, for more HARDBALL and live coverage of Hurricane Rita. 

Right now, it is time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan. 

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

END   

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