updated 9/26/2005 8:53:14 AM ET 2005-09-26T12:53:14

Guests: Phillip Morris, Pete Schneider, Greg Breerwood

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Coming up, New Orleans hit again, water flowing into the city. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS (voice-over):  Hurricane Rita is closing in on the shore, but already wreaking havoc.  A weakened New Orleans levee has been breached.  Part of the city flooded gain. 

And Rita now packing winds of 125 miles an hour expected to make landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border overnight.  Al Roker is here with the latest.

And what do you do with people like this? Who ignore mandatory evacuation orders and decide, it‘s a good day for a surf or a swim? 

The program about justice starts now. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  Hi everyone.  Breaking news, rain and heavy wind can be felt for miles and miles along the coast of Louisiana and Texas.  Hurricane Rita with 125-mile an hour winds will hit with full force in the next 12 hours.  But she has already delivered a sucker punch to New Orleans. 

The industrial canal levee has been overcome again.  Block after block in New Orleans‘ Ninth Ward now underwater as a 100-foot wide waterfall pours water back into the city.  Before we check in with Al Roker on the progress of the storm, we go to MSNBC‘s Michelle Hofland, who is in New Orleans.  We have been getting her shot in and out.  As you can see, she is beginning to blow around there. 

Michelle, give us the latest. 

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  I‘ll tell you, the wind is just blowing very hard.  We‘re having gusts up to 50 miles an hour.  That was a couple hours ago.  I‘m not sure what they are now.

The rain is pounding down on us now.  I don‘t know if you can see behind me, that‘s the Mississippi River and you see those white caps, the river is supposed to be going the other way.  The wind is so strong right now, that it‘s pushing the top of the Mississippi the wrong way.  Now, because of this wind from Hurricane Rita and because of all this rain and all this water, it pushed a hole over the top of the industrial canal levee, which is in two different places, one on either side of the industrial canal over here. 

Flooding areas, Dan, that were flooded before back three and a half weeks ago when Hurricane Katrina hit.  These areas, the water just ripped a hole over the top at first and into the levees, flooding these areas.  Some areas are as much as 10 feet under water right now. 

Now you have to know that some of these areas, even though there‘s no one in these areas, many people, were really trying to go in there and try to salvage some of their papers, some of their records, some different things and now, Dan, those places are completely under water.  But when I spoke with the Army Corps of Engineers what they told me a little while ago is that they‘re just giving up on those particular levees on that part of the area on the Ninth Ward right now because there‘s nothing they can do in this wind and rain and try to shore up those levees, so they‘re concentrating on the other levees that breached in the last hurricane like the 17th Street Canal levee, they‘re keeping an eye on that and so far, Dan that levee is holding well right now. 

Back to you. 

ABRAMS:  And Michelle, that is also an important part of the story and that is that yes, there is one levee that has been overcome, but many of the other weakened levees are withstanding so far, the power of the storm. 

HOFLAND:  Yes and you know what, it‘s a little bit confusing because there are all these different levees and canals around here.  There are actually two breaches at the industrial canal, one on either side of the canal.  So it‘s flooding two completely different parts of the same area and then there‘s the other canals and the other levees. 

Those are holding up right now.  But we do understand that Interstate 10 here in New Orleans, that one is flooded from all this rainwater and that is closed tonight.

ABRAMS:  Michelle, I‘m going to ask each and every correspondent this question because I‘m interested.  Are you going to stay there? 

HOFLAND:  Yes, we are going to stay here.  We‘re planning on staying here, you know, but it is—it‘s a little bit nerve-wracking like so many other people who are here right now because you know, this city is already so battered.  And there are windows out, there are buildings that are blown around and when this wind comes up, it really makes you nervous about how much more that these buildings can handle and we‘re in those RVs that we‘re staying in and they were just tossing around last night.  But we‘re going to try to find some safe shelter to stay in tonight so we can continue bringing these reports to you. 

ABRAMS:  Well Michelle, I don‘t envy you.  I remember when I had to cover a hurricane as it was coming.  I had no idea when I should go inside and say enough is enough.  All right, Michelle, good luck.  We‘ll check back in with you.  Stay safe. 

All right.  So where is it going?  How hard is it going to hit?  “Today” show meteorologist Al Roker joins us now with the latest.  Al, good to see you.  All right, so what are we expecting? 

AL ROKER, “TODAY” SHOW METEOROLOGIST:  Well here‘s what we‘re looking at Dan.  Right now, Rita is 155 miles east-southeast of Galveston, Texas.  It‘s got winds of 125 miles per hour.  That‘s a category three storm.  It has been at times a category five. 

Still, make no mistake about it.  This is a dangerous storm.  It‘s got wind gusts of 155 miles per hour.  It‘s moving to the northwest at 12, so its forward speed has picked up.  And that‘s not unusual with these storms, at least the ones we‘ve seen over the last (UNINTELLIGIBLE) past season.  They start to pick up steam as they get a little bit closer. 

So what are we looking at?  Well we‘re looking at quite a bit of rain, as you can see, and as we always have with the approach of a hurricane, we have a tornado watch stretching from a good portion of central Louisiana all the way into Mississippi.  You can see lots of rain coming in.  Parts of New Orleans have already picked up about one to two inches of rain and this rain is going to continue. 

Some areas of southeastern Texas, they‘re going to see anywhere before this is all over, about 20 inches of rain, southwestern Louisiana as well and rainfall amounts in New Orleans, probably going to top over seven inches and of course, everybody worried about the levee system.  Will it be able to hold?  It‘s probably just barely holding on now and of course, the big problem, this system as it comes on shore is going to start to slow down and when that happens, it‘s going to be a prodigious rainmaker. 

We‘re talking 25 inches of rain.  By 2:00 a.m. it is just offshore about Beaumont, Texas, Port Arthur.  We are looking at basically this thing coming on shore sometime around 4:00 to 6:00 in the morning, and then slowly losing strength, dropping down to a tropical storm and eventually a tropical depression. 

But look at this, 2:00 Saturday, it‘s made its way up.  By 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning, it‘s still in northern Texas and still creating tons and tons of rain.  So the big problem is going to be the rain.  The storm surge, which is going to be to be about 15 feet above normal, high tides are already running about six to seven feet above normal and of course, the storm surge, the winds and the rain. 

Those are the three big problems and every now and then, a tornado coming across.  Storm surge basically going to be from—I should say Beaumont, Texas on into parts of southwestern Louisiana.  That storm surge is going to be very difficult, heavy rain.

Take a look.  You can see this is what over the next 48 hours, Galveston, some areas picking up 20 inches of rain, 15 to 20 inches of rain, also into southwestern Louisiana.  But look at this, New Orleans.  As you look on the scale there, that‘s anywhere from three to seven inches of rain—Dan. 

ABRAMS:  All right, Al, in the wake of Katrina I think there‘s been a particular sensitivity to hurricanes.  We‘re seeing more people heed the warning to evacuate, et cetera.  As someone who has covered so many of these, how at this point does this hurricane compare to others in this area? 

ROKER:  Well, this is very, very, very similar to Katrina.  It‘s also similar to a storm they had back in the 80‘s, Alison, where it slowed down and just dumped tons and tons of rain, so this is not that unusual.  What is unusual, this at one point was a category five storm.  We had a category for a while.  Katrina was a category five. 

Unprecedented to have two category five storms in one season.  I mean the last time we had this many storms was 1995, this many hurricanes, the month of July, more named storms than any other time in our history.  So it‘s really been a very busy season and we‘re just entering into the heart of the hurricane season.  This is unusual, unprecedented, really, to have this much activity this early in the season. 

ABRAMS:  And Al, we talk a lot about the winds and we keep hearing about the wind speed, et cetera, but you point out about the rain.  When you‘re comparing the dangers to the community, both to life and to property, are you more concerned about the wind speed or are you more concerned about the amount of rain? 

ROKER:  Well you know the winds are again a big problem because that‘s a lot of debris, a lot of things being thrown out—being thrown around.  Plus the winds also push the water up into the bays and up along the shore, so that‘s a big problem.  But what really is the biggest problem is the flooding and the flooding that comes from the rain that these systems produce.  And so you know it‘s—that‘s where you find most of your deaths, it‘s due to the flooding, unfortunately, that comes with the heavy rain.  The wind‘s a big problem as far as structural damage and infrastructure damage, power lines going down, roofs being ripped off, but your—most of your injuries and your deaths come from the flooding.

ABRAMS:  And this one though it seems is different in the sense that there are so many people evacuating.  Do you think that it‘s fair to say that more people have evacuated this storm than almost any other storm you‘ve seen?

ROKER:  I think so.  I mean look you‘re talking about Galveston, Houston.  I mean almost two and a half million people trying to be evacuated, so but again, and it was unfortunate that we had to learn this lesson from Katrina, but I think Katrina showed the power of these storms.  And people who said oh (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Katrina, we lived through Camille.  Nothing is ever going to be worse than Camille and they found out there was something worse than Camille.  And I don‘t think anybody wanted to take a risk, especially when Rita was out there as a category five storm. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.

ROKER:  People said you know what, I‘m getting out and you know what, that was the smart thing to do.  And for people who are talking about coming back to Galveston, bad move.  Because even though Galveston will be -- this will be to the east of Galveston so they won‘t take the brunt of this storm, make no mistake, a category three storm coming in, you take a look at the breadth of this storm and you can see the rain bands now working their way into Galveston.  This isn‘t going to be a walk in the park for the folks...

ABRAMS:  Right.

ROKER:  ... who live in Galveston. 

ABRAMS:  All right...

ROKER:  Trust me.

ABRAMS:  Al Roker, thank you so much for taking the time. 

ROKER:  You bet.

ABRAMS:  To Beaumont, Texas, which could get a direct hit from Rita. 

MSNBC‘s David Shuster is there. 

David, are you staying there? 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, Dan, we‘re actually in a part of Beaumont that I think is going to be fairly OK.  It‘s near a hospital, we‘re sort of blocked by...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Hey David...

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  That‘s what happens sometimes when you‘re far away from the camera, Dan, is people walk right through.  That was great.  In any case, yes, Dan, we‘re going to be fine.  We‘re at a hospital, sort of blocked by a parking garage.  I think we‘re going to be OK.

There are great concerns though, Dan, as you get closer to the port of Beaumont and we have one of sort of the strange scenes that we saw earlier today, the fire, the rescue, the police, they‘re not sure about their fire houses and their equipment so they actually loaded them onto a boat that they have tied down into the port of Beaumont and they seem to believe that the boat is tied down and secure enough that their equipment, as long as it‘s on that ship, should be fine, so we saw that just a couple of hours ago. 

The first responders here in Beaumont, the police and fire, the people who stayed behind after the evacuations stopped and they have taken a position now in what‘s sort of a makeshift command shelter, which is actually on the—on a high story of a downtown office building.  They think they‘ll be fine, although they‘re a little worried about some of their windows possibly shattering if in fact the wind gusts kick up.

But you know everyone‘s in a sort of wait and see mode right now, Dan.  I mean the most intriguing pictures we saw today, and you‘re not seeing very much intriguing right now, is this rain a little bit, but the most intriguing stuff was from the evacuation, the final stages of the evacuation today.  They took the elderly and the infirm and they had some equipment problems because four days ago, it was not a mandatory evacuation here in Beaumont and a lot of the equipment went to south Texas and so they had to ask the federal government for help.  They were able to get some of the elderly out.  They—when they got to the airport, they had to take them on some of these luggage trolleys to actually get to them the transport plane, and that was kind of an odd sight...

ABRAMS:  David...

SHUSTER:  Go ahead.

ABRAMS:  ... what are you going to do?  I mean assuming that you are in the direct path of Rita, what exactly are you going to do when the hurricane is there if you‘re sitting it out? 

SHUSTER:  Well, what we‘re going to do is once the winds get too strong for the satellite dish for these pictures to transmit, then they‘ll bring the dish down and we will go up to the upper story above the hospital here, which is going to be well above where there‘s any flood surge.  Obviously, people will be away from the windows.  But again, we‘re sort of in a part of Beaumont where we‘re not that concerned about the area where we are. 

There may be some debris that‘ll be flying through, and everyone, of course is worried about power lines, the telephone poles, the trees going down, but we‘re sort of in a very secure building so we‘re going to be fine.  But the great concerns, Dan, you hit the nail right on the head, are—I mean there are some like 10 to 15 percent of the county here, officials estimate stayed behind.  And so in a county of 250,000 people, where the bull‘s eye is coming, I mean you‘re talking about 25 to 30,000...

ABRAMS:  Yes.

SHUSTER:  ... people who may still be here trying to ride it out and who knows what they‘re going to do.

ABRAMS:  David Shuster, good luck.  Thanks. 

SHUSTER:  Thanks Dan.

ABRAMS:  Coming up, Galveston could end up almost completely under water. 

We are there.  A live report is up next. 

And what happens when you take a swim just hours before a hurricane hits?  For the past couple of nights, we‘ve showed you what it looks like inside Rita, tonight our Mark Potter went with the hurricane hunters and he‘s got the video to prove it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Hurricane Rita a fierce category three storm with 125-mile per hour winds is now about 155 miles from Galveston, Texas. 

And joining me from Galveston, Rita Cosby, host of “Live & Direct”. 

Rita, how are things holding up out there?

RITA COSBY, HOST, “LIVE & DIRECT”:  Well as you can see, the wind is whipping quite a bit here, Dan, and the rain has been coming down, particularly in the last two hours or so and let‘s take a look if we could, at the waves just crashing behind me.  A few hours ago, the waves were quite small but in the last few hours, they have really, really picked up.  They‘ve been crashing into this barrier that you can see behind me and they‘re expecting maybe about seven to 15-foot storm surge and that could do significant damage. 

Despite the sea wall here, they believe the waves are going to crash over.  They‘re also going to hit on the western side of the island, which basically has almost no sea wall and they do expect quite a bit of damage here even if it just comes in at a category one, category two storm, Dan. 

ABRAMS:  Rita, is there still concern in Galveston that much of the city could be under water if it is a category two, let‘s say, storm hitting Galveston? 

COSBY:  They believe that a good portion of it will.  Where I‘m standing—I‘m standing on the south side of the island, which has now experienced just a lot of rain and the winds have been kind of on and off at certain points.  They‘re gusting pretty strong right now.  It seems to have calmed down just for a few minutes. 

But on the western side where there‘s not a lot of barrier, there‘s a lot of oil refineries, a lot of actually very nice homes (UNINTELLIGIBLE) part of the island, and there they expect there probably will at the very least be significant flooding, some significant damage to those homes.  On this side, a lot of the places are a little higher up, particularly the place that we‘re staying at, the San Luis hotel, which is becoming sort of the emergency operation center.

It‘s basically just reporters and just EMS workers and in that particular place, they expect that will stand.  It‘s on actually a bunker from World War II and it was able to withstand that.  They believe that‘s going to be able to withstand a hurricane, even up to a category four should it come to that, which of course no one does believe it‘s going to hit here at that pace. 

ABRAMS:  So you‘ve got EMS workers there to treat the reporters once the hurricane hits the hotel...

(CROSSTALK)

COSBY:  Basically and also treating each other.  You know they have...

ABRAMS:  Yes.

COSBY:  ... a hospital that is vacant at this point, but it is on standby.  They‘ve already had a little bit of looting, too, unfortunately in some of the nicer homes here.  So everyone‘s bracing for the worst, but at this point optimistic. 

ABRAMS:  And there are still some other people who have refused to leave, correct?

COSBY:  Yes, there are some people and Dan, you know what happened, a lot of people actually left here, got stuck on the highway in Houston, were stuck there for 10, 15 hours and turned around and said forget it.  You know it looks like the storm is not going to hit here at such a severe pace.  I‘m going to take a chance rather than get stuck in traffic in the last minute.  So actually, some people did come back and the mayor in fact said if that‘s the case, they will let people back in.  They‘re not going to block residents from coming back in even though they have a curfew in place.  But most of the residents that are here, there‘s probably only about three or 4,000 that are actually here out of 60,000 people in the entire town. 

ABRAMS:  Rita Cosby, good luck Rita.  Thanks.

COSBY:  Thank you, Dan. 

ABRAMS:  Despite the mandatory evacuations in Galveston, some have been testing Mother Nature by jumping into the ocean and also testing the patience of some in law enforcement like the Galveston police.  Police slapped cuffs on this man about 15 minutes after he jumped from the pier into the raging waters.  Police found him, pulled him to safety, took him into custody. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is there a law against surf surfing?  You can‘t surf?  There ain‘t no city ordinance against surfing.  A man can surf any time he wants to. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  Captain Phillip Morris of the Galveston Police Department is standing by in Galveston.  He joins us by phone.  Captain, thanks for taking the time.  All right, so look, we don‘t really—this guy seems like he‘d had a few to drink, et cetera.  Have you had a lot of people where you‘ve been going door to door and saying, you‘ve got to get out, you‘ve got to get out, and some people saying, I‘m not leaving? 

CPT. PHILLIP MORRIS, GALVESTON POLICE DEPT. (via phone):  We have had some of that.  Fortunately for us though, we‘ve probably had about 90 percent of our citizens had left prior to our going around and trying to get some of the other people to leave and we‘ve tried to identify those people in case the storm was going to impact us more than we think it is at this time.

ABRAMS:  How does that evacuation compare to the evacuation before other storms? 

MORRIS:  From the storms that are in my memory, we‘ve had a higher  compliance of people evacuating a storm and we believe that directly related to the storm in New Orleans, Katrina.  So we‘re very fortunate that other people left because the more people that leave, the easier it makes it for law enforcement that has to remain. 

ABRAMS:  Galveston, of course, an island has a unique sea wall that protects the island.  Is the thinking there that that wall is going to help most of the city withstand Rita‘s wrath? 

MORRIS:  There‘s no doubt that the sea wall is going to significantly help the east end of Galveston Island.  Of course the west end of Galveston Island doesn‘t have the benefit of a sea wall and there‘s some localized flooding in that area already, but Galveston as a whole will greatly benefit from the sea wall.  It‘s 17-foot tall and that‘s going to keep back a substantial part of the storm surge at this point. 

ABRAMS:  You having any other law enforcement issues there? 

MORRIS:  We‘ve had some isolated reports of some burglaries on the west end and other than that, it‘s been very quiet. 

ABRAMS:  And when you say burglaries, you mean people who left after everyone left their homes?

MORRIS:  Apparently, some of the houses after people evacuated there was a few homes that were burglarized on the west end of Galveston Island. 

ABRAMS:  Do you—did you get the people responsible? 

MORRIS:  I don‘t know of any arrests that was in connection with those at this time. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  All right, Captain, you‘ve got a big job ahead of you.  Good luck.  Thank you. 

MORRIS:  Thank you.  Have a nice day. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Coming up, we are tracking Hurricane Rita as she inches closer to the Texas-Louisiana border, still packing a very powerful punch, 125 miles an hour.  The latest forecast is coming up next. 

And New Orleans already feeling Rita‘s wrath, water pouring back into the city.  We‘ll talk to the Army Corps of Engineers in a race against time to try to repair the damage. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, with Rita inching closer to land, New Orleans flooded again, first the headlines.

(NEWS BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Our continuing special coverage of Hurricane Rita, now less than 12 hours off the shore, a fierce category three storm with 125-mile per hour winds.  Let‘s go right to NBC Weather Plus meteorologist Bill Karins with the latest.

Bill, what do you know?

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHER PLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Well thanks Dan.  We‘re estimating landfall sometime probably around 4:00 local time, Port Arthur or Lake Charles.  We‘re getting within about 10, 11 hours now of landfall.  The storm showed weakening earlier today and unfortunately, that trend has stopped and it‘s maintaining that strong category three status. 

We don‘t think there‘s much of a chance it‘s going to increase to a category four again, but it definitely looks like it‘s going to maintain its very impressive small eye here and that‘s still heading for the border there of Texas and Louisiana with the worst of the storm being in Louisiana, still getting some nasty weather though on the Texas coast. 

I want to show you our radar.  We‘ve been tracking this black line.  This is the past path of the storm.  Notice the eye wall here, the northern eye wall, very impressive.  We‘re very lucky because the bottom half of this eye is not well developed.  If that was the case, it would probably still be a category four.  Nonetheless, this is a powerful category 3.  Almost the whole state of Louisiana is covered with rain and those hurricane-force winds are about to move on shore and probably just starting to now.

Anything within this dark red is the hurricane force wind, that‘s where the power will be lost almost immediately once these 100-mile per hour gusts move on shore.  Right around Port Arthur to Galveston to Houston, it looks like the worst of your weather is still probably another three to four hours away.  S far as the latest on the storm, 146 miles southeast of Beaumont, Texas moving northwest at about 12, so that northern eye wall will be moving on shore between about 10 and 12 hours from right now. 

That pressure at 930, we wanted that number to move up a lot higher than that, but it hasn‘t, so it‘s maintaining its strength, 125 miles per hour with gusts possible to 155.  Right now, the wind is sustained.  Really not too bad, but when we give it the gusts in there, we‘ve already seen gusts to tropical storm force, Lake Charles, Beaumont, Houston.  That‘s one thing about this storm.  It‘s huge.

We have tropical storm force winds all the way from New Orleans all the way to Houston at the current time and the New Orleans radar, we continue to watch these thunderstorms training right over the top of New Orleans.  Every time one of these goes by, it dumps a quick tenth to two tenths of an inch of rain and this is going to add up as we go throughout probably the next 48 to 72 hours.  That‘s how long we expect it to rain in portions of Louisiana.

Dan, when all is said and done with this storm, instead of being the storm surge being the worst case or the flooding like we saw with Katrina, the flooding issue from the rain in central and northern Louisiana may be the legacy of this storm.  We‘ll have to wait and see.

ABRAMS:  All right, Bill, thanks a lot. 

Lieutenant Colonel Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard joins me now from Baton Rouge.  Thanks for coming back on the program.  We appreciate it.  All right, so what are you able to do now?  I mean is this basically a waiting game for your people? 

LT. COL. PETE SCHNEIDER, LOUISIANA NATIONAL GUARD:  Well we‘ve done a lot of planning.  We‘ve done a lot of pre-positioning of forces.  The next 30 minutes, over 4,000 National Guardsmen, from several states to include Louisiana engineers will be in position and we will hunker them down to spend the night outside of the impact zone and then upon first time that they‘re able to move in, we‘re going to send them in, as well as aviation assets, begin the assessment and begin the recovery operations. 

ABRAMS:  Now that the—we are hearing that of course one of the canals has been overcome in New Orleans, there is water flooding back into that city.  Does that now change the role of the Louisiana National Guard in the hours after the hurricane hits? 

SCHNEIDER:  Well, we‘re certainly fighting a fight on two fronts.  We still have the fight from Katrina and Rita.  It doesn‘t change our posture.  Fortunately, the search and rescue effort in New Orleans will not be great.  We‘re confident that everyone had gotten out and is still out.  So we‘ll just have to deal with the water.  We‘ll make sure our forces are on high ground.  That they are protected along with their equipment and we concentrate on the Rita search and rescue and recovery efforts there.  So we‘re fight this battle on two fronts. 

ABRAMS:  Let me ask you, in the area which is now again under water, were there any people that you all were finding who were saying I‘m not going to leave, I‘m not going to leave and of course, not expecting those people that the levees were going to break again? 

SCHNEIDER:  No, I don‘t think we—I haven‘t heard of any of that and our commanders haven‘t told us that.  We‘re confident that everyone who was able to get out did get out and that those only remaining were soldiers and those essential personnel, particularly in St. Bernard Parish law enforcement who decided to ride out the storm in their parish.

ABRAMS:  All right, well that‘s good news.  All right, Lieutenant Colonel Pete Schneider, once again, thank you.  Good luck. 

SCHNEIDER:  My pleasure.  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  So Hurricane Rita, wreaking havoc on New Orleans.  The floodgates have been opened again there.  Breaches in a patched levee, sending water into one of the New Orleans‘ lowest lying neighborhoods. 

Joining me now on the phone, deputy engineer Greg Breerwood with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, New Orleans district.  Thank you sir for taking the time.  All right, so how bad is it? 

GREG BREERWOOD, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS (via phone):  Well you know it‘s a situation we had not hoped for, obviously.  You know we have an over topping of some of our repairs to the breaches that you know had occurred from Katrina.  In fact, that area that, you know, that we had repaired, it has been evacuated from most of the water just recently and now, we do have some over topping and it‘s going back into those neighborhoods. 

ABRAMS:  When you say going back into those neighborhoods, is it worse than it was before? 

BREERWOOD:  Well, not as of yet.  You know the actual Katrina event did place more water in that neighborhood and eventually leveled off because we had a bigger surge.  Right now with Rita coming in, we do have some of the surge but it‘s not quite as big as Katrina.  Hopefully, it‘ll level off and the over topping will stop. 

ABRAMS:  We‘re looking at what looks like a waterfall coming in to the city.  Is there anything the Corps of Engineers can do now to stop that? 

BREERWOOD:  Well, presently, you know here again, it‘s similar to the first event where access to the area is very problematic.  In fact, we both (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to it prior to this latest event.  With the water overtopping right now, it‘s difficult to get trucks and any type of equipment out to the site.  So although we are posturing ourselves for repairs and getting equipment and people ready to do the repairs once we get into position to do that, right now, it‘s very difficult to get to the site. 

ABRAMS:  Have you found that most of the other levees are holding up? 

BREERWOOD:  So far, the—there‘s two other areas that had problems and that was the 17th Street Canal and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Avenue Canal.  Both are stabilized right now.  We were just out there at the 17th Street Canal and we put a closure across the front of that canal with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sheet pile and that is holding off. 

The lake levels are actually higher than the canal level, so we‘re, you know we appear to be in good shape in that canal and also in the London Avenue Canal (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  We have a closure across the front.  We‘re holding off the lake and waiting to see when the—if the lake goes down. 

ABRAMS:  Because the primary issue for those, is it not, is the amount of rain, right?

BREERWOOD:  Well, it‘s a combination.  You know, if it was open to the lake then the lake could flow in as it did to Katrina.  And the fixes we made on the breach repairs were not at the elevation that they were prior to the storm, so we want to make sure that it doesn‘t get into the canal.  And as you say, the pumping, obviously we cannot pump into those canals presently because we have it closed—the canal closed off.  So if we have a significant rain event and the city has to pump out the water with the pumps that feed it to those canals, we‘re going to have to wait until the water goes down into the lake before we can pump into those canals. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Greg Breerwood, good luck. 

BREERWOOD:  Thank you very much. 

ABRAMS:  A lot of people counting on you guys. 

Coming up, the latest pictures inside Hurricane Rita.  NBC‘s Mark Potter went on a nine-hour flight with the hurricane hunters inside the hurricane and some unbelievable pictures.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  This is Hurricane Rita, a category three storm now, 125 mile-per hour winds.  It‘s about 150 miles off the coast.  When we say that it is off the coast that does not mean that the coast isn‘t beginning to feel hurricane-strength winds because they are.  You can see there, the edge of the dark red is hurricane strength winds and you‘re beginning to see those on the coast of Louisiana and soon to be Texas at all—as well. 

All right, so we all get a little nervous when our airline flights hit a little turbulence.  Now imagine flying the planes that head right into the eye of a hurricane.  NBC‘s Mark Potter went along for a ride in Rita. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SOUNDS)

MARK POTTER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  From MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the crew heads straight for the heart of Hurricane Rita in the Gulf of Mexico. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

POTTER:  The mission is to view the storm from inside out, gathering as much data as possible for hurricane forecasters on the ground.  An hour and a half later, the plane finally punches through Rita‘s fierce eye wall and finds itself in the calm eye of the storm.  The sun is shining and the towering cloud formations are breathtaking, like the steps of a huge football stadium.  All signs that this is a very powerful hurricane. 

ROB ROGERS, NOAA HURRICANE RESEARCH CTR.:  When a storm is very strong like this and very dangerous, it‘s very—it‘s completely clear above you so you can see you know a blue sky above and when they‘re very strong, you can also see the ocean down below. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

POTTER:  During its nine-hour mission, the NOAA hurricane hunter plane enters the eye, five times.  Along the way, sophisticated GPS sensors are dropped from the aircraft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And drop.

POTTER:  Falling through the storm, they read wind speed, pressure, temperature, and other conditions and radio the data back to scientists on board.  The information is clear.  This is a bad storm. 

MARTY MAYEAUS, FLIGHT DIRECTOR:  If I were on the ground and this storm were coming, knowing what I know from the air and what I‘ve seen from past experience, it would be—I would have left already. 

POTTER (on camera):  On this particular flight, the data sent from the plane to the National Hurricane Center was used to prepare the 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. advisories on the strength and forecast track of Hurricane Rita. 

(voice-over):  Flying through the storm 10,000 feet above the ocean, the crew knows that lives are at stake on the coastline below. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Even without personal family connections, I always think about the people on the ground. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

POTTER:  From the eye of the storm, a plea from the experts to take Hurricane Rita very seriously. 

Mark Potter, NBC News, Tampa. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, the National Hurricane Center is set to release another update.  In a few moments, we‘ll check with them on the latest.  Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  In the next 12 hours, this category three hurricane will strike Louisiana and Texas.  But even now, there are hurricane-force winds beginning to hit the coast.  Hurricane Rita is coming. 

In the preparation for Hurricane Rita, there was a bus accident, really one of the deadliest in American history.  It happened as a result of a massive evacuation.  Two-dozen victims were residents in a nursing home. 

Here‘s NBC‘s Jim Cummins. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There were explosions on this bus.

JIM CUMMINS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  They thought they were heading to safety. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s just a shell of the bus. 

CUMMINS:  Dozens of elderly people, many of them special needs patients, fleeing the wrath of Rita when their bus explodes in a fire ball. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When deputies arrived, they found the bus to be fully involved.

CUMMINS:  Sheriff spokesman Don Purett (ph) says the brakes may have caught fire and then...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A series of explosions occurred on the bus.  We believe those to be oxygen canisters. 

CUMMINS:  Oxygen used by many of the passengers. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We saw the smoke and heard an explosion. 

CUMMINS:  Nurse Tina Jones (ph) was on her way to work when she helped rescue a dozen others. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Poor little guy was helping was, you know, 90 years old crying, looking for his wife, and found out she didn‘t make it off.  It was hard. 

CUMMINS:  The victims are from a nursing home in the Houston suburb of Bellaire.

CINDY SIEGEL, MAYOR OF BELLAIRE, TEXAS:  We had concerns that if we were flooded again or hit by the really strong wind of Hurricane Rita that during that event, we wouldn‘t be able to respond to those people. 

CUMMINS:  And then this tragic twist of faith. 

Jim Cummins, NBC News, Dallas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  For many people in the Gulf region, evacuation has not been so easy.  Some lost their homes to Katrina and now are left with no place to go. 

NBC‘s Carl Quintanilla joins us now from Lafayette, Louisiana. 

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening Dan.  As you know, Lafayette is near I-10, that east-west corridor where a lot of people went west when Katrina happened, went east when Rita happened.  And as a result, all those traffic jams may be over, but there are still new challenges tonight for those in search of higher ground. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUINTANILLA (voice-over):  In central Louisiana, the highways tonight have become a crossroads for two sets of evacuees.  Those fleeing Rita scrambling for groceries and shelter and others like Mary Moises (ph) who‘s been checked into this hotel ever since Katrina destroyed her New Orleans home. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This has become home.  It‘s going to be almost a month.   

QUINTANILLA:  And that‘s the problem.  Evacuees like her have taken rooms that ordinarily would have been available.  Mary Mouton (ph) says she‘d leave her home nearby if she thought there were shelter up north.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What are we to do?  God‘s going to get you wherever he wants. 

QUINTANILLA:  Even on a front porch where 15 members of the George family are staying with a relative.  Three of their homes in New Orleans, already gone. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You can‘t go to New Orleans and you can‘t go forward.  Where are you going to go? 

QUINTANILLA:  Their mother who lost everything stays strong. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We will make it.  You can believe it.  We got to get a house with six bedrooms.  We‘ll all be together. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

QUINTANILLA:  Obviously, the storm is already here.  Landfall coming in just a few hours.  So Dan, officials saying if you haven‘t left home already, stay home, calling the danger on the highways at this point, obviously an even greater risk—Dan. 

ABRAMS:  And Carl, there‘s still a lot of evacuees from Katrina in Lafayette, Louisiana.  Because I know when I was down there, a lot of them had gone either to Baton Rouge or Lafayette. 

QUINTANILLA:  Exactly.  We talked to one of the public information officers, one of the sheriff‘s office, who says the number of New Orleans evacuees from Katrina, numbers in the 40 to 60,00 range in central Louisiana.  Now some of them have gotten out of town, but there‘s obviously a huge percentage of people like you saw in our spot tonight who are still here and making life difficult for all those folks in Texas who have no place to go. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Carl, good luck.  Thanks. 

QUINTANILLA:  All right, Dan.

ABRAMS:  Joining me now with the latest on the storm is Ed Rappaport with the National Hurricane Center.  Thanks for joining us.  All right, so what‘s the latest, Ed?

ED RAPPAPORT, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER:  The latest is that the center of Rita is now less than about 130 miles from the coast and given that‘s moving at 12 miles per hour, we‘re talking about landfall in about 10 hours.  It still appears to be the upper Texas coast near the border with Louisiana.

ABRAMS:  And has it—we were hearing earlier that it had weakened.  I mean at one point it was a category five.  It had gone down to a category four.  Now it‘s a very strong category three.  Any sense that it is continuing to weaken? 

RAPPAPORT:  Unfortunately, no, at least not in any significant pace.  The reports we get from the hurricane hunter reconnaissance aircraft for the past six to eight hours don‘t show much change in the way of central pressure.  That‘s an indicator of intensity.  So it looks like we‘re at category three now.  We expect landfall at category three intensity. 

ABRAMS:  And Ed, just so we‘re clear, a category three at this level is no reason to celebrate or feel somehow that we‘ve sort of escaped the worst? 

RAPPAPORT:  That‘s right, for a couple reasons.  Let‘s remember that Katrina did most of its damage at category three.  Also the differences, we‘re talking about instead of having a 25 to 30-foot storm surge, we‘re talking about a 15-foot storm surge with waves on top.  That‘s still significant enough to be at risk to life and of course do a great deal of damage. 

ABRAMS:  All right, Ed Rappaport, thanks very much.  Appreciate it. 

RAPPAPORT:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Coming up, last night, we debated price gouging during this type of disaster.  We‘ll have a report on Rita and your e-mails coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Hurricane Rita, a powerful category three hurricane, now about 130 miles offshore.  You heard that—we have just learned that it is about 10 hours from the eye hitting the shore.  But as you can see, hurricane strength winds already hitting the shore around Port Arthur, around Lake Charles, and possibly as far south as Galveston where they‘re still expecting to see category one or a category two hurricane-force winds.  And of course, Galveston is an island that many were concerned about. 

All right, it‘s time for “Your Rebuttal”.  Last night we debated price gouging during times of crisis like before or after a hurricane.  Most states have laws against it.  One of my guests, Dr. Andrew Bernstein, argued that those laws violate the basic rules of free market and are immoral. 

Omer Horic from San Antonio, “If he truly believes what he‘s saying, would that mean hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical companies and anyone involved in providing emergency health care service should profit from the situation and maybe raise his prices to a level where people would die?”

David Kiros, “Was I hallucinating or did Bernstein try to argue that people should drown in Hurricane Rita‘s storm surge simply to preserve a competitive atmosphere and the petroleum industry?  Gas stations should be permitted to price gouge and deprive the most vulnerable and low income citizens fleeing for their lives simply to preserve a competitive market?”

Ray Rock in Okaloosa, Florida, “Homes for sale throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida have been repriced and are now 20 to 30 percent higher than before the storm.  Are these owners guilty of price gouging?”

Randy R. offers the other side from Baltimore, Maryland.  “The rebuttal to this argument is that the gas stations among other sellers also face uncertainty.  The consumer deserves protection from their uncertainty, but the seller does not?”

And last night we showed incredible pictures of the traffic on the highways heading north from the Texas and Louisiana coast.  Cars backed up for miles on end, yet the other side of the highway was empty.  I asked the Department of Transportation about the mayor‘s comment that he‘d asked the other side to be open to northern traffic many hours earlier.

Jeanette Swor from Florida, “Hooray for you for comparing it to rush hour in New York City.  I have no tolerance for ineptitude, inadequacy and incompetence amongst our paid officials.”

Ray Nix from Texas, “The blame game the media is playing is getting very old.  I am a Houston resident and this city and state are doing great jobs preparing for this storm after doing an amazing job outreaching to Katrina victims.”

Well Ray, then talk to your mayor.  He‘s the one who was making the comment and I think he was right to ask.  It‘s hard to accept the Department of Transportation saying this is unprecedented, suggesting that they just weren‘t ready.

All right, that does it for us today.  Our continuing special coverage on MSNBC of Hurricane Rita continues now 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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