updated 9/26/2005 8:55:59 AM ET 2005-09-26T12:55:59

Guest: Harold Hurtt, Randall Dillard, Ashley Reder, Karen Lara, Dan Hitchings

ALISON STEWART, HOST:  This is COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of Hurricane Rita.

In the next hour, gridlock, a traffic nightmare on the evacuation route out of coastal Texas.  Anxious evacuees sit in 100-mile traffic jams as Hurricane Rita heads their way.

Twenty-four are dead on I-45.  An evacuation bus filled with senior citizens catches fire and explodes while sitting in traffic, the mayor of Houston calling the highway death traps.

In New Orleans, the worst-case scenario has been realized.  The levee has been breached.  The city is once again flooded.

All this, and the storm has not yet made landfall.  We‘ll tell you when and possibly where Hurricane Rita will strike.

COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of Hurricane Rita starts right now.

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

The high of Hurricane Rita now only hours away from landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, here she comes.  The deadly impact of this category 3 monster already being felt indirectly.

Dozens of elderly evacuees killed in this fiery wreck along Interstate 45 near Dallas, Texas, investigators speculating that the passengers‘ oxygen canisters exploded after the brakes of the bus caught on fire.

The race to stay ahead of the storm proving to be a horror and a hazard for the millions of people who have been racing against time to evacuate.

The president choosing at the last minute not to go to Texas today.

And hard as it is to fathom, more misery in the Big Easy.  This is not file tape from Katrina.  This is what New Orleans is looking like tonight, another round of severe flooding even before the worst of Rita‘s rain washes ashore.

A lot of developments to cover in a lot of places tonight.  Let‘s begin with the very latest on the position and the strength of the storm itself.  For that, we go to NBC WeatherPlus meteorologist Bill Karins.  Bill?

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHERPLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Well, I want to bring you up to date with the latest from the hurricane hunters that are flying through the middle of the storm.  And unfortunately, Rita refuses to weaken any further.  Earlier today, there was some significant weakening.  All afternoon and this evening, we‘re no longer watching that trend.  There‘s no reason why this should be not make landfall as a strong, major category 3, maybe even a little stronger than what Ivan made landfall last year.

That‘s the kind of storm we‘re dealing with, because, I mean, many other effects with this storm too.  They had a wind gust of 139 miles per hour.  And again, that‘s flight level, off the surface, but still, an indication of how strong this storm is.

It‘s actually been moving a little quicker than even I thought it was going to.  It‘s up to 13 miles per hour.  The storm is still forecasted to slow down after it goes inland.  But this has upped our landfall projection here by a couple hours.  So now we‘re thinking sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 Central Time.

We should be watching this northern eyewall beginning to rake areas in this southern—southwest parish here of Louisiana south of Lake Charles, and then that includes the eye, including the western eyewall, should be moving through Beaumont, Port Arthur, and through this region.  That‘s going to be the worst-hit area.

As far as the eyewall, I don‘t think Galveston or Houston is going to go through the eyewall of this storm.  But you will have some rain, definitely some tropical storm-force winds, and gusts of hurricane strength.

You can see the center of the storm here, and you can see where our eye is located, and it continues to push towards the Lake Charles, the Texas- Louisiana border.

So far, how much rain do we going to expect with this storm?  Check this out.  This is going to be the story as we go throughout the weekend.  We‘re going to see the storm surge tonight.  That‘s going to wipe out a lot on the coast.  We‘re going to see the dangerous winds.  And then after that all goes away, we‘re going to left with some areas getting up to a foot of rain.  Locally, some areas could even see more than that as we add it up through the next couple days.

So to recap, winds 125 miles per hour.  A category 4 is 135.  So we‘re close to it.  Gusts to 150, northwest at 13.  So that‘s a good little clip it‘s moving at now.  We do think it‘s going to slow down as we go throughout the night.  Those hurricane-force winds, anywhere in this red is where the damaging hurricane-force winds are.  They‘re now moving onshore.

People, the sun is setting.  It looks like the—now is the time to get all your preparations done as far as your candles and your flashlights.  Because once these hurricane-force winds move onshore here, that‘s when the power‘s going to start going out.  That‘s when the transformers are going to be blowing up.

It‘s an aura, it‘s a kind of a green aura that goes in the atmosphere after you hear the big bang.

And as far as the wind gusts, they‘re starting to pick up.  They‘re almost to that range.  Lake Charles 43, Beaumont 37.  We‘ve seen gusts in Galveston to about 54.  And these are the current gusts, 54 in Lake Charles, 49 in Beaumont, Houston at 37.

And we are expecting the rain to really begin to add up.  Baton Rouge has already seen two inches of rain.  So multifaceted storm.  And unfortunately, the worst is now moving ashore.

STEWART:  NBC WeatherPlus Meteorologist Bill Karins, thanks, as always, for doing such a fantastic job of tracking this storm.

You heard what Bill said.  The port city of Beaumont, Texas, right in the path of the projected storm.  Guess who‘s there?

NBC‘s David Shuster joining us now from Beaumont.  And, yes, indeed, the storm‘s on its way.  Hi, David.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, Alison, the storm has essentially arrived, in the sense that the rain is here, and the wind gusts are picking up every now and then.  They‘re strong enough now that you actually can hear some of the branches start to snap and some of the debris coming out, coming down from some of the trees.

But it has been just an amazing day here in Beaumont as they tried to finish the effort of locking everything down.

Earlier tonight, we saw the fire department and the police department at the port of Beaumont, where they were getting some help from the U.S.  Navy, from the U.S.S. “Vincent.”  This is a ship that sailed into the port of Beaumont, the idea being that some of the heavy equipment that might be used as far as clearing away some of the debris once this goes through, it was put on that ship.  And then as the water rised—rises, the ship will rise as well.  So the equipment, they believe, is safely secure on that ship.

Earlier today, at the airport, they finished the evacuation of the elderly and the infirm.  And they were some of the most bizarre pictures you will ever see, luggage trolleys, normally used by baggage handlers to transport things like golf clubs, well, this time today, they were being used to transport people, to take them from the airport, from the terminal on the tarmac to some leading military transport planes.

And then once the people were placed on the transport aircraft, they were simply put on the bottom of that aircraft on the ground, on the stretchers, with some information attached to their shirt, essentially notifying doctors on the other end what the medical conditions were for the people who were going to be traveling.

But the evacuation is now done, and now everybody‘s essentially waiting out the storm.  The police, the fire department, they are in fact at the hospital where we are.  It‘s believed to be one of the more secure buildings in Beaumont.  And everybody‘s essentially in position to try and get (INAUDIBLE) the people who might be facing some trouble tomorrow.

One important point to remember, Alison, and that is, 250,000 people live in Jefferson County, where the winds are expected to be the strongest.  Officials estimate that perhaps maybe 10, 15 percent decided to try and ride out the storm here.  So they are expecting that tomorrow, they may see hundreds of people who are in some trouble who need some help, Alison.

STEWART:  MSNBC‘s David Shuster, you weathered Biloxi during Katrina, now stay safe in Beaumont, OK.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Alison, and appreciate it.

STEWART:  For any urban official, on the list of things to do in the wake of Rita, figure out how to evacuate millions from major metropolitan areas without turning interstate highways into little more than parking lots.

Correspondent Carl Quintanilla spending the better part of the past two days crawling west along interstate I-10, making it to Lafayette, Louisiana, where he will ride out the storm.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Alison, from Lafayette, Louisiana, very close to that I-10 corridor, where, just a few weeks ago, evacuees from Hurricane Katrina came west in search of safety and where evacuees from Hurricane Rita now have gone east searching the same.

All of those traffic jams we‘ve seen over the past couple of days have disappeared.  But tonight, there‘s a new challenge for those who are still in search of higher frowned.

(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 Moisis (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 was 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.

QUINTANILLA (on camera):  Obviously, with the hurricane now upon us, and with hurricane-force winds expected within the hour, basically, officials telling people who have not left to stay home, are calling the danger on the roads an even greater risk, Alison.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  That‘s Carl Quintanilla in Lafayette, Louisiana, getting ready to ride out the storm there.  And we do hope you stay safe.

As we mentioned, the stretch of highway linking Houston to Dallas accounting for Hurricane Rita‘s first casualties, two dozen victims of one of the deadliest bus accidents ever, these people, some of the most vulnerable in the path of a storm.

Correspondent Jim Cummins has the sad details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There were explosions on this bus.

JIM CUMMINS, MSNBC 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 fireball.

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

CUMMINS:  Sheriff‘s spokesman Don Purrit (ph) says the brakes may have caught fire, and then.

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

CUMMINS:  Oxygen used by many of the passengers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Saw the smoke, heard an explosion.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Poor little guy I was helping was, you know, 90 years old, crying, looking for his wife.  He 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.

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

CUMMINS:  And then this tragic twist of fate.

Jim Cummins, NBC News, Dallas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And the irony is as thick and deep as the water that is once again pouring into the city of New Orleans tonight.  Before the cleanup from Katrina could begin in earnest, there‘s a second wave of floodwaters.

For more on this unfortunate deja vu, we go to MSNBC‘s Michelle Hofland in New Orleans.  Michelle?

MICHELLE HOFLAND, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Alison.

Boy, all day, Hurricane Rita has been pounding New Orleans with high winds and a lot of heavy rain.  The wind has been so strong at times  that the Mississippi River behind me, the wind is pushing the top layers of the Mississippi in the opposite direction.  The whitecaps are blowing in the opposite way that the river flows.

We‘ve had gusts of upwards of 50 miles an hour, and all this wind and rain is doing what everyone feared.  We are having some more flooding in areas that just dried out from flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

Just up the river from here, on the Mississippi River, there‘s an industrial canal.  And on both sides of the industrial canal, the levees have been breached.  These were two areas that were breached before, during the last hurricane.  The area was dried out just a few days ago.  And now those areas have about five to 10 feet of water in an area called the Ninth Ward.  And it‘s also flowing into Saint Bernard Parish.

These areas, there‘s no one in these areas, according to the National Guard.  But they are concerned about that there could be, but they are concerned tonight about the floodwaters.

Also, the 17th Street levee, that one where some other families are, that one, they say that that levee is holding tonight.

Then there‘s other flooding going on in this city.  The Interstate 10 at 610, that is now underwater tonight.  And there‘s other flooding in other parts the area because of all the wind, all the rain, and these storm sewers and these levees just can‘t take it.

And we‘re expecting a total of about six inches of rain here tonight, and tropical-force winds.

Alison, back to you.

STEWART:  Michelle Hofland in New Orleans tonight, thanks so much. 

And you get inside, stay safe.

And in scenes eerily reminiscent of the horror after Katrina, the Coast Guard had to do its first rescue of victims of Rita today.  A family of four, stranded in their damaged Port Parchon (ph) home in Louisiana, the Coast Guard airlifting all of them to safety earlier today.

It‘s being called the biggest evacuation in United States history, an estimated 2.5 million people fleeing the Gulf Coast, encountering the mother of all traffic jams on the way out.

But while millions fled, some souls stayed behind, battening down the hatches to weather out the storm.  We‘ll talk to some of them ahead.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

STEWART:  With all that was unleashed by Katrina still fresh in everyone‘s mind, and Rita bearing down in all her horrible glory, it‘s the perfect storm of evacuation overload.

Our number four story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, escape from Rita, the largest evacuation in Texas history.

Traffic jams continued to trap motorists all day.  Houston‘s Metropolitan Transit Authority put 30 buses on 10 highways.  Stranded motorists could also wait for one of 5,000 tankers working their way from Austin to Houston.

Houston Mayor Bill White promised that no one would be left stranded when the monster storm hit.  He said, quote, “If the hurricane comes in at a certain angle, being on the highway is a death trap.”

More than 2.5 million people have jammed evacuation routes.  The Texas governor ordered yesterday to open all lanes to outgoing traffic on Interstates I-45 and I-10 was not enough to avoid this.

Joining me now by phone, the Houston police chief, Harold Hurtt.

Mr. Hurtt, good evening to you, sir.

CHIEF HAROLD HURTT, HOUSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT (on phone):  Good evening.  How are you doing?

STEWART:  I‘m doing well.  And thank you for taking the time at such a busy time for you.

Can you get us up to date on the status of the evacuation out of Houston?

HURTT:  We think the evacuation is complete.  I went out myself this morning and checked Interstate 45 and 59, and traffic was extremely light.  We made a sweep of both of the interstates as well as Interstate 10, and we picked up those people that were stranded, and no one should be on the freeways now as a result of trying to evacuate from Houston.

STEWART:  Well, that is good news.  The mayor has told people who haven‘t already evacuated to just stay put.  And tracking the storm is a little more tracking east these days.  So for folks who have stayed put, how does that impact your job in the next few days?

HURTT:  We have not changed any of our planning.  We‘ve told people, If you‘re at home, or in a safe place, stay there.  It‘s too late to try to leave now.  The next 12 hours or so, we‘re strictly going to concentrate on saving lives.  And then afterwards, we‘re going to look at rescue and saving property.

STEWART:  You know, one of the sadder stories to come out of Katrina, as we saw, those families who were separated.  And I understand there was a report of a 10-year-old boy getting separated from his parents at a convenience store.  Do you have any update on that case, sir?

HURTT:  No, I don‘t.

STEWART:  All right.  One way or another, we‘re not so far from the aftermath of Rita.  With you—will you have a full force on the ground once Rita passes, let‘s say, in the next 36 hours, to protect from looting and the like?

HURTT:  That‘s true.  We‘ve already reallocated our personnel to areas of the city that we think may be at risk.  We‘re watching the homes of people that have evacuated.  We‘re ready.

STEWART:  Are you counting on any sort of outside help?

HURTT:  When it gets—if we need assistance for rescue and other duties of responsibility, we know the National Guard will be here to respond and help us, as well as the sheriff‘s office, other local law enforcement personnel, and the state.  So we feel very confident that we have a great crew of people ready for response.

And unfortunately, I guess, for some people, but fortunately for us, we already have the presence of FEMA here.  They have brought in their resources, they‘re staged, so we are ready immediately for our rescue and recovery efforts.

STEWART:  And before I let you go, as you watched what unfolded after Katrina, what lessons did you take away personally as a law enforcement officer that you‘re going to apply in the aftermath of Rita?

HURTT:  I think one of the things that we do in law enforcement is constantly review our plans, because things happen, especially in the case like this.  This is part, probably, the largest evacuation in the U.S. that I can think of.  We‘ve talked about this all day.  No one else can think of anything any larger.  And, of course, you constantly look at what you have planned.  You adjust to the challenges that come before you.

STEWART:  Well, sir, good luck to you.  Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, thanks so much.

HURTT:  Thank you.

STEWART:  Traffic had eased enough today for two-way traffic to return on many highways.  But even before Rita‘s landfall, the evacuation has left its own wake of motorists who were stranded without gas, not able to listen to their radios to the latest information.

Joining me now, the director of communications for the Texas Department of Transportation, Randall Dillard.

Mr. Dillard, good evening to you.  Thanks for your time tonight.

RANDALL DILLARD, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF

TRANSPORTATION:  My pleasure.

STEWART:  There are still some motorists who are stranded, varied reports.  Is the evacuation gridlock still a problem at all?

DILLARD:  No, the evacuation is not gridlocked.  And that is not a problem.  We have had experienced some difficulty in east Texas today, further east of the Houston-Galveston area, where we did have some motorists that had run out of fuel.  We‘ve had as many as 20 of the Texas Department of Transportation fuel trucks running up and down those roadways to assist those motorists and give them fuel and get them going and get them out of harm‘s way.

STEWART:  So we‘ve all seen these pictures, and we know people who have been living through this.  How could this traffic snafu have been avoided?

DILLARD:  Well, we certainly implemented the plan that emergency management officials felt would be necessary to safely evacuate the people from the hurricane‘s path.  Obviously, when we started seeing the traffic congestion on Wednesday and Wednesday evening, it became apparent that something much more would need to be done.

And our state operations center determined that converting our highways to one way away from the Houston-Galveston area was what needed to be done.  And since Thursday morning, we were able to convert more than 400 miles of highway to one-way traffic operation away from the Houston- Galveston-Beaumont area and get people to safety.

STEWART:  A whole lot of people are wondering why that didn‘t happen sooner, especially when the mayor told people to get out, the waiting time‘s over.

DILLARD:  Well, we implemented the plan that was approved by the emergency management people.  We obviously adjusted that plan once the state operations center made a decision to do something different.  And we worked with law enforcement to implement the very difficult but absolutely needed task to convert those roadways to one way.

It was a situation where we needed to move more people than probably anybody imagined, 2.4 or 2.5 million people.  There are 17 states that don‘t have that many people that live there.  And we moved those people within 48 hours.

STEWART:  So I understand you had relatives in traffic.  Did you get an earful from them?

DILLARD:  My wife‘s aunt and uncle were in traffic for about 12 hours, going from near Houston up to the Austin area.  And I have not spoken to them yet.  I don‘t know if that‘s by choice, or because they won‘t talk to me.

STEWART:  All right.  This has made so many people who live in big cities wonder whether it is even possible to get out of a large metropolitan area quickly.  Based on your experience, what do you think?

DILLARD:  I think you can.  I think this evacuation was successful.  We have moved 2.5 million people to safety.  It wasn‘t pretty at all times, and certainly we realize that there was a lot of hardship placed on the citizens of this state that were trying to get out of the Houston area.  And we regret that.

But we‘re very happy that the end result is that we had a safe evacuation that has moved the people to safety.

STEWART:  I think you put it well when you said it can be done, but it may not be pretty.  Randall Dillard, director of communications for the Texas Department of Transportation, thanks so much.

DILLARD:  My pleasure.

STEWART:  Also ahead, the worst-case scenario for New Orleans.  Even before Rita made landfall, the levees were overcome, water once again flooding back into the Ninth Ward.  The Army Corps of Engineers will join us to see what, if anything, can be done now.

And at least one of the people who stayed behind in Galveston, Texas, now under arrest, police picking up a surfer who did not heed the warnings.  We‘ll go live to Island City for the latest on Hurricane Rita.

Stand by.

STEWART:  You are looking at a category 3 hurricane.  Rita set to slam into the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana over the next 12 hours with 125-mile-per-hour winds and a possible 20-foot storm surge.

Why on earth would anyone stay to ride out the storm?  We‘ll ask someone who‘s doing just that.

Plus, we‘ll check in with our correspondents all over the affected areas.

Plus, it‘s what the people of New Orleans really feared the most, water pouring back into the city over and through the already weakened levee system.  We‘ll ask an expert from the Army Corps of Engineers, will the remaining levees hold?

COUNTDOWN continues in a moment on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Welcome back to COUNTDOWN‘s coverage of Hurricane Rita.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann.  Let‘s give you some idea of where we are at this hour.  Rita, now a powerful category 3 storm.  A last-minute turn to the north, earlier today, sparing the Texas cities of Galveston and Houston a direct hit. 

Forecasters predicting the center of the storm will make landfall early tomorrow, about six hours from now, near Port Arthur, Texas.  The heaviest rain and most severe storm surges will occur east of where the hurricane‘s eye comes ashore.  Extremely bad news for the Louisiana coast, including New Orleans. 

As we mentioned earlier, levee integrity there has already been breached.  As many as 500,000 people in Louisiana were told to evacuate.  Governor Kathleen Blanco suggesting rather dramatically that those who did not, should, quote, “write their social security number on their arms with indelible ink.” Officials in Texas expecting Hurricane Rita will eventually impact more than five million residents in 19 counties with all the heavy winds and catastrophic flooding.  Our own Rita Cosby is riding out the storm in Galveston, Texas.  Rita, how are things going?

RITA COSBY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, in the last few—I would say probably in the last half-hour or so, Alison, the winds have definitely picked up.  You can see, it is just pouring rain here, just sheets of rain.  You can take a look behind me.  You can see the palm trees are swaying behind me, and the bushes as well.  A lot of debris is flying by. 

Right now, the highest sustained winds in Galveston, as you mentioned, we‘re not getting a direct hit, which is the great news for the folks here who have been hunkered down and preparing for this for a few days.  But the bad news is they are expecting, maybe at some point, to get winds at 90 to 100 miles an hour.  So far we‘ve experienced about 45, 50-mile-an-hour, very severe, sort of brief gusts. 

But they are expecting at some point that that could double.  Even it was if it was that type of wind, speed, lots of flooding.  Because there‘s a seawall, but just basically on about half the island.  The other half of the island, we saw about four or five hours ago.  There was severe flooding.  They do expect that there will be a lot of flood damage and wind damage.  And they‘re also worried about some of the spawn-off tornadoes as a result as well.  Alison?

STEWART:  Rita, officials are saying that most people along the Texas coast listened to those evacuation orders and got out.  Some people didn‘t.  One guy was arrested today for not heeding those orders.  I know you heard about that.  Have you seen or talked to any people who have chosen to stay?  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

We obviously are having some technical difficulties, as will often happen in the storm.  Rita Cosby, host of “LIVE AND DIRECT.”  She‘s in Galveston, that‘s where her show will be coming from, live at the top of the hour.  Texas officials estimate as many as 2.5 million people fled the storm, braving unbelievable traffic and gas shortages to get to shelters outside of Rita‘s reach.  There are those, however, who did not.  Ashley Reder and her family live in Houston, and they‘ve chosen to ride this out.  She‘s joining me by phone.  Ashley, good evening to you. 

ASHLEY REDER, HOUSTON RESIDENT:  Hi. 

STEWART:  What is it like there, where you are, now?

REDER:  Well, now, it‘s gotten dark, and the wind is blowing. 

STEWART:  Now, when and why, most importantly, did you make the decision to stay put?

REDER:  Well, my husband and I made the decision together probably Thursday morning.  We tried to get a flight out on Wednesday morning and could not get one.  So Thursday morning, we decided that we would, probably be best to stay here, mostly because of the traffic that we were seeing on the television.  We felt like it was more dangerous to be on the roads than in our home. 

STEWART:  Now, so many people took a look at what happened after Hurricane Katrina and thought, “I‘m getting out of here.”  Did you think about Katrina at all when you were going through this thought process?

REDER:  We did.  But we also thought, they‘re two different storms, two different locations.  We‘re not in a flood zone where our home is.  So, that was not a huge concern.  We are concerned about the trees with the wind.  But that‘s our biggest concern.  We really do feel pretty safe where we are right now. 

STEWART:  We saw that picture of your family and your daughter.  She‘s unbelievably cute. 

REDER:  Thank you!

STEWART:  Have you talked to her at all about what‘s going on and what‘s going to happen in the next 24 hours?

REDER:  A little bit.  We feel like we need to tell her enough so that she‘s not afraid.  She looked at the TV when Katrina was going on.  And she was concerned about when she heard at school, because she‘s in kindergarten, that a hurricane was coming.  She associated that with Katrina, because she had nothing else to know about, but what we had seen on television. 

She just was concerned, was water going to get up to our roof?  And then she had seen some of the younger children that were crying and heard the newscasters saying they were looking for the mother of, or the father of, this certain child.  And that concerned her.  So my husband and I assured her that she was going to be with us the whole time.  And that we were going to be as safe as we possibly could.  I think she‘s ok with it. 

STEWART:  I bet somebody will be sleeping in your bed tonight. 

REDER:  You better believe it!

STEWART:  Ashley Reder, in Houston, Texas, thanks so much and good luck to you. 

REDER:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  And now we want to head back to Galveston where our own Rita Cosby is riding out the storm.  We have you back, Rita.  You were about to tell me about some folks who decided to stay put just like Ashley Reder did in Houston. 

COSBY:  That‘s right, and we were talking about the surfer, because that surfer was actually really scaring authorities here.  Believe it or not, a few hours ago, somebody was surfing on the high waves.  And all of a sudden, authorities just out and found the surfboard, were very, very nervous.  And then, more than a minute later, all of a sudden, the guy came up.  They arrested him and threw him in jail and later released him. 

But he is one of the few residents that‘s really out here tonight.  Alison, there‘s probably about 2,000 or 3,000 people.  Sadly, some people who were just stuck in just horrible, horrible traffic in Houston.  Remember, we saw the massive lines last night.  A lot of them out there waiting 10 or 15 minutes gave up and decided to come back.  And the mayor of this fine city said she would allow them back in, being the fact that we weren‘t getting the direct hit. 

We‘re seeing, for the most part, the residents that are here are not on the streets.  They‘re battening down the hatches.  They‘ve been preparing for this for days.  It seems like they really took the warning from Hurricane Katrina and prepared very well for this one. 

STEWART:  And, Rita, do authorities have in place any post-storm clean-up and recovery plans?

COSBY:  Yes, they definitely do.  In fact, sort of an eerie issue.  The San Luis hotel, which is just down the block, that‘s where we‘re staying.  It is the highest point in the island, basically, and it is where everybody believes, if there‘s going to be any damage, that building will be the one standing.  It is that strong.  It is built on a bunker. 

That‘s where the mayor is staying, as well, and all the emergency officials.  The mayor pro-tem will be 20 miles north.  God forbid something bad happen here, they want to be in separate locations so the government can keep running.  But the mayor now seems a lot more relieved.  On the other hand, she also has 1,500 national guard troops, Alison, that are on standby, ready to come in, should there be damage here. 

They‘ve been talking to FEMA officials, talking to state officials.  They seem very, very well prepared.  They also have the hospital vacated, but they do have officials there, and also doctors and nurses, on standby.  Ready, should something turn for the worst. 

STEWART:  All right, Rita Cosby, we‘re going to let you go and get ready for your show.  Please do stay safe there in Galveston. 

COSBY:  Thank you.

STEWART:  Karen Lara and her family were part of the mandatory evacuation order.  They spent more than 30 hours on the road before reaching their final destination, Longview, Texas.  Karen is joining us on the phone.  We spoke to you earlier.  You were still on the road.  Did you get to Longview?

KAREN LARA, EVACUEE:  We will be arriving in about 30 minutes. 

STEWART:  All right.  Ultimately, how long was your road trip?

LARA:  Thirty hours long. 

STEWART:  That is so ugly. 

LARA:  Yes, it is. 

STEWART:  Everybody is seeing these pictures of people stuck in these cars.  What was the most frustrating part for you?

LARA:  The most frustrating part was being confined in the car, traveling at two miles per hour, and taking six hours to get four miles. 

STEWART:  And how many folks are in your car?

LARA:  We had four cars altogether.  We had 12 people.  And we had our pets with us. 

STEWART:  Did you have any issues with gas?  I know a lot of people ran out. 

LARA:  Yes, we did. 

STEWART:  What happened?

LARA:  The smallest vehicle that we had, we ran out of gas.  And we had to abandon the car, because there were no gas stations that had gas.  And we had to leave it on the side of the road. 

STEWART:  Sometimes in times like this, people really pool together and have good attitudes.  Sometimes it‘s every or woman for himself.  What did you find out there?

LARA:  I found that we just, we pulled together as a family, and we had to do whatever it took to keep us together.  We were caravanning with each other.  And there was no way we were going to separate from each other. 

STEWART:  Now, have you given any thought at all to when you might go back home?

LARA:  Of course it depends on what Hurricane Rita does to our area.  We will be tuned in, of course, to the news.  It just depends.  And then we will also wait for permission to return to our town, depending if there is destruction.

STEWART:  And did you ever consider not following the mandatory evacuation order and just staying put?

LARA:  No.  That was not a consideration at all, because Baytown and La Porte are both low-lying areas of Houston, and there was no doubt in any of our minds that—not to evacuate. 

STEWART:  All right, Karen Lara, in just about 30 minutes, you‘ll finally be at your destination.  Good luck to you and your family.  And thanks for sharing your story with us. 

LARA:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  As the very outer bands of Hurricane Katrina came ashore, the worst fear in New Orleans came true.  The fragile levees broke and water once again came rushing in.  We‘ll talk with the guys in charge of fixing that, next.      

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Almost as soon as Rita brushed past Key West, into the Gulf of Mexico, the question surfaced:  Just how much could a weakened New Orleans take from a hurricane, or how little?  Our number two story on the Countdown tonight, battered levees breached again.  Water streamed into already devastated neighborhoods of the ninth ward, and two separate streams gushed beneath the London Avenue canal. 

But officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said other levees in the city seem secure.  I‘m joined now by Dan Hitchings with the Army Corps of Engineers.  He is the director of the Mississippi Valley division for Hurricane Katrina recovery.  Thanks for being with us, Mr. Hitchings. 

DAN HITCHINGS, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS:  Thank you for having me. 

STEWART:  Are there still those two levee breaches at this hour?

HITCHINGS:  Yes.  Those levees that breached earlier this morning, the water is continuing to run through that area.  The good news is that the tide and hurricane storm surge has dropped a little over a foot, from the last time I checked it, about an hour ago. 

STEWART:  Are you confident that the other levees will remain secure?

HITCHINGS:  As long as we don‘t have increased storm surge.  And at this point, it is dropping.  The worst of the winds and the storm has passed New Orleans now.  We will continue to get some rain, but that won‘t increase the levels in the lake or in the canal. 

STEWART:  So just so we‘re clear, it wasn‘t actually rain that caused the breaches.  It was the surge, right?

HITCHINGS:  Absolutely.  That‘s correct. 

STEWART:  All right.  In terms of the—what you‘re doing to make sure that the levee does stay stable, what are you doing?

HITCHINGS:  Well, we continue to patrol for as many areas as we can get to.  As you know, the access is very difficult in most of these areas.  But, all the critical areas we‘re keeping an eye on, to watch it very closely.  As soon as the light breaks and the wind is down in the morning, we‘ll be putting material back into those areas where it was breached and strengthening those and continuing in our plan to get all of the breached levees up to an interim level of plus-10 feet. 

STEWART:  And, sir, are you surprised it happened? That they were compromised once again?

HITCHINGS:  Well, we were surprised that the surge came up to eight feet.  It was beyond what was predicted.  We knew if it would get that high, this would happen.  So the only surprise was the height of the surge. 

STEWART:  Let‘s look at the big picture.  How much did this set you back in the recovery of New Orleans?

HITCHINGS:  In reality, not very much.  It will take a couple days to pump that water out that came into this area.  The recovery efforts in those areas, in term of houses and such, has not really started.  So we‘ll just lose a few days on working on the levee breaches. 

STEWART:  This is a hypothetical question for you.  If Katrina had never happened, do you think New Orleans could have withstood Rita?

HITCHINGS:  Oh, yeah.  There would not have been any problem. 

STEWART:  Why do you say that?

HITCHINGS:  Well, because the levee that‘s existed, and flood walls, were all much higher than the storm surge that occurred now. 

STEWART:  All right.  Dan Hitchings, the director of the Mississippi Valley Division four for Hurricane Katrina recovery.  And with the Army Corps of Engineers.  That‘s quite a title.  Thank you for your time tonight.

HITCHINGS:  Thank you very much. 

STEWART:  While New Orleans is already suffering the effects of Rita, millions of people along the Texas, Louisiana coastline are hurrying to get out of the hurricane‘s path.  Thousands of others hunkering down.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.         

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Images of Hurricane Rita, our number one story on the COUNTDOWN tonight.  To get a true sense of how big this beast of a storm is, you have to fly right into it.  That‘s just what Chief Science Correspondent Robert Bazell did.  Then he called in this report in flight somewhere in the middle of Hurricane Rita. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERT BAZELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  I‘m on the hurricane hunter that‘s nicknamed Gonzo.  This is actually a jet aircraft that we‘re flying now at 42,000 feet.  We‘re over the Gulf of Mexico west-southwest of the eye of the hurricane. 

Just a little while ago, we flew along from up near New Orleans and along the eye wall of the storm.  I can tell you from looking out the window, this is a monster storm.  The clouds go all the way up to the stratosphere.  Even at 43,000 feet, the clouds tower above us.  So this is a very big—this plane constantly takes measurements of all sorts, and it sends out projectiles that go down to the ocean floor and send back information that‘s packaged on this plane.  It‘s then sent back to the hurricane center. 

That‘s a big part of what is used to make the forecast.  There‘s been some dry air coming off New Mexico and Texas that may have contributed to a little bit of weakening, but not much.  This is a very big storm and an astounding thing to behold from out the window. 

STEWART:  And that was Chief Science Correspondent Robert Bazell in the middle of Hurricane Rita, with only a few hours to go before Rita hits the gulf shores.  It‘s an act of time.  People are scrambling to get out of the area, while others are putting up plywood and taking their chances.  We‘ll let the sights and sounds from today‘s preparations speak for themselves. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Everybody needs to fill up their car and get out of here and get their families out of here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We saw what happened in Louisiana and figured we ought to be prepared this time. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We got caught 20 miles down the road took us nine to ten hours!  We got up and said, “let‘s go home!”  So, we just came on home. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Son of a [beep], there it is.  Wow. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s flooding into (unintelligible) through the breach that was experienced in the industrial canal. 

ED REAMS, WDSU CORRESPONDENT:  We‘re here at Mustang Drive and Esteban Street, here in St. Bernard parish.  You can see behind me, the water continues to rise from the industrial canal from the St. Bernard parish side.  You can see what it‘s doing.  The water is rushing into these culverts right here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sir, what can you do going down to the hurricane Zone?  Might you get in the way, Mr. President?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  One thing I won‘t do is get in the way.  

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  But what can you actually do?  Isn‘t there a risk of you and your entourage getting in the way?

BUSH:  No, there‘ll 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. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I want to tell the people of Texas and Louisiana that the federal government is here and that we‘ll stay here until we‘re finished with these storms. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The fire department pulled me out, literally like a newborn baby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Put the wheelchair down below.  All right?  We‘ll get you in safely. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We transported at least 30, what, 40?  Thirty or 40, just us alone.  One unit, 30 or 40 people easily.  Um, it‘s going to be a long night. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  If you add up the four hurricanes last year, in terms of the amount of money it cost the Red Cross, it was $130 million.  This is over $2 billion.  Thirty-five thousand Red Crossers worked all four of those storms.  We‘re at 150,000 and climbing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Ninety percent of Galveston island, supposedly, has evacuated, but this they cannot stop. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is there a law against surfing?  You can‘t surf?  There isn‘t a city ordinance against surfing.  A man can surf anytime he wants to. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s too late for me to leave, so I have to do what I have to do, you know?  I‘m going to just tough it out and hope for the best. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No money to get out of here.  No way to get out of here.  I don‘t have a phone.  So I‘ll just be watching the news and praying. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  The sights and sounds in preparation for Hurricane Rita.  To recap where this powerful category three storm is right now, very slightly to the north, sparing the Texas cities of Galveston and Houston a direct hit.  Right now it looks like the storm will make landfall early tomorrow, about six hours from now.  That‘s expected to happen near Port Arthur, Texas.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olberman. 

MSNBC‘s coverage of Hurricane Rita continues now with “RITA COSBY LIVE AND DIRECT,” from Galveston, Texas.  Good evening, Rita.

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

END   

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