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Hurricane Rita

Aired September 23, 2005 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Fredricka, I wish we could make clear to our audience this may be just the beginning of what they are going to see here tonight, because we have precious little control over our equipment in the field right now. As the eye of Hurricane Rita is 8 to 12 hours away from making landfall, we appreciate all of your being with us for our special coverage tonight. More than a dozen correspondents are spread across the danger zone. And before we check in with them, let's quickly bring you up to speed.
The storm is a little bit weaker than it originally was, but will still be a major hurricane when it hits. Conditions all along the Texas/Louisiana coast are getting worse by the minute. We just got these pictures from the Coast Guard. It's of helicopters already rescuing people from flooding barrier islands off the Louisiana coast. The Coast Guard says all five of its helicopters from Air Station New Orleans are currently on rescue operations.

Forecasters say Rita is taking aim at the oil and chemical centers of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas. Both cities have been evacuated.

And look at these incredible pictures. No, this isn't a shelter. It's the inside of a military cargo plane, a huge plane sent for people who had no way to get out of Beaumont. Now that also includes thousands of hospital patients. They were put on stretchers, loaded onto airport baggage carts, then carried into the cargo planes for flights to safety.

The evacuation of a Houston-area nursing home ended in tragedy this morning. A mechanical fire on a bus apparently caused some patients' oxygen canisters to explode. At least 24 people died there.

In New Orleans, the thing they fear the most has already happened. High water opened at least two gaps along the top levees on the Industrial Canal causing a lot of reflooding.

President Bush will monitor federal and state government's hurricane response effort at the military's northern command in Colorado, but he ended up canceling plans to visit rescue workers in Texas out of concern that he would be in the way.

Worries about a post-hurricane spike in fuel prices caused the state of Georgia to cancel all public school classes next Monday and Tuesday. It will save a half million gallon of diesel fuel.

But there are some folks out there who just won't take any of these storm warnings seriously. A Galveston man learned the hard way. Yep, he got cuffed and arrested for surfing in an oncoming hurricane.

Well tonight Rita's heading for the Texas/Louisiana border. And 20 miles inland from the coast is Beaumont, Texas, a city that's normally home to 110,000 people. Let's quickly turned to meteorologist Rob Marciano, who joins us from there, to give us a sense of how those winds are kicking now. What do you feel right now?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well I tell you, Paula, unlike other hurricanes where they usually come in waves, you know, those feeder bands kind of come in, they hit you hard, and then they move out, give you a little piece of calm. We've seen a steady increase in the wind and the rain for the past three to four hours now. And we're at about tropical storm force winds sustained with higher gusts. And as you can see, the rain at this time is blowing sideways.

In Beaumont, Texas, just up the road from Port Arthur, Texas, just to the west of Orange, Texas, part of the Golden Triangle and Southeast Texas, and right now it looks like this is one of the areas that could very well see the eye of the storm pass through.

We're on the Neches River right now. You see over my shoulder. There's a drawbridge down there, and down river, you see a number of fishing boats and tug boats that are tied down and moored down. Behind them, what you can't see, are a couple of military cargo ships. That is where Beaumont authorities and emergency vehicles and pieces of machinery that are going to be used to clean up the mess tomorrow, that's where they're stored, on a boat, because the storm surge expected here could be 20 feet over my head. And we're 10, 20, 30 miles inland. That's what's different about this storm.

There are a number of rivers on low lying areas, here, over in Orange, Texas, the Sabine river, the Tapashi (ph) River feeds into Lake Charles. Those rivers try to get out, but the water from the Gulf of Mexico is going to push up those rivers in inland communities as far north as I-10 are going to be under water. Lake Charles could see ten feet of water. Beaumont, Texas, right here could see 20 feet of water.

So a serious situation, Paula. We're definitely taking this seriously, even though it's been downgraded. It was a Category 5. And we could see a Category 5 storm surge right here.

ZAHN: Rob, hang on there, because I want to bring Chad into our coverage right now, who is our severe weather expert joining us from Atlanta to help us understand that fact you just shared with us. They're talking about 75 mile an hour winds felt as far as 100 miles inland.

CHAD MYERS, CNN SEVERE WEATHER EXPERT: Absolutely. This storm will have a run at the coast, Paula. And it's not going to lose a lot of intensity until it gets past Nacogdeches. We're going to zoom into a couple of spots here right where Rob is. The irony of what Rob is seeing now is that these winds are actually off shore. They're coming from land and pushing off shore, because of the way this storm is moving. About eight hours from now the center of this storm actually moves on shore, and the winds for Rob will change from north to east to south. You will absolutely get the eyewall there where he's standing.

And all the way from New Orleans right on back up even into Laplace and for that matter into Kenner. Winds now at about 40 miles an hour. That's blowing water into Lake Pontchartrain. Waters are still coming up.

ZAHN: Chad, thank you for that. And, Rob, I guess I'm just curious when is the last time this part of Texas has felt this powerful of a storm?

MARCIANO: Well, this powerful of a storm coming in at this angle making landfall around Sabine Pass, you really have to go back all the way to 1957. Hurricane Audrey was a Category 4 storm. So it has been almost 50 years, Paula. And I suppose some folks would argue that this area is due. I know they don't want to hear that. Most of them are gone. Evacuation like I've never seen, and it's a good thing. Because, like Chad said, when the winds turn suddenly and that storm surge comes in, we're going to be out of here for sure, because the waters are going to be rising.

ZAHN: You are a smart man. Rob Marciano, thanks for the update.

Now if the storm remains on its current track, Rita will come ashore east of Galveston, Texas, but probably close enough for that city to feel hurricane force winds. In Galveston for us tonight, Sean Callebs. Exactly what do they expect where you are tonight?

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, you're exactly right. From what we're hearing, they're expecting hurricane force winds to begin buffeting this island in about three or four hours from now. What you're looking at is pretty much what we've had for the past couple of hours. There's been a steady rain, nothing too intense. And we've had winds pretty moderate at times, but nothing extremely severe at this point.

But certainly this little strip of a barrier island just off the coast of Texas a very agonizing couple of days leading up to this storm. We know there's already low lying flooding in the west end of the island and in the east end of the island. That's because there's a flood wall that's about ten feet long, it's about 17 and 18 feet high. And that protects a big chunk of the island, but not those other areas. And there's a lot of development there, Paula, already under water.

ZAHN: We had heard some pretty impressive statistics, that 95 percent of the folks there have been evacuated. A lot of folks couldn't get out. So where are they riding out the storm tonight?

CALLEBS: Well that 95 percent was from the mayor. And that's probably a pretty decent estimate, but we did talk to one officer today, and he said he's convinced it was closer to 98 or 99 percent. He said he spent a great deal of time driving up and down this island that's home to about 60,000 people, and he said he saw hardly anyone out.

Now as for those people who chose to ride out the storm, a lot of them are going to ride out the storm in their own homes. Whether that be a high rise type condo that looks out over the Gulf of Mexico, or something much, much more moderate. There are a lot of homes for lower income families in this island, somewhat. And we went back in their earlier today, and we talked to a number of people that are convinced that they are going to be safe. But the threat is not only from this rain and this wind that's going to punish this island for the next 12 hours or so, but also the storm surge, not just from the Gulf, but also from the bay side, Paula.

ZAHN: Well we can see quite clearly from your picture it is raining horizontally there. Please stay safe. Sean Callebs, thanks for the update.

Meanwhile, tonight in New Orleans, it's the Katrina nightmare all over again. Hurricane Rita's storm surge has already topped damaged levees, and it happened alarmingly quickly. Long before the storm ever made landfall. Water is pouring into the city, into the 9th Ward where we saw so many people rescued from rooftops in the days after Katrina. Jeff Koinange now joins me from New Orleans tonight. And I understand there are rescues going on even as we speak. Who's in trouble?

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Paula. Even as we speak, despite this last minute attempt to try and make sure that the levees hold -- and the Army Corps of Engineers is saying for the most part, which is good news, the 17th Street Canal that is holding tight right now. So so far, no problems there. But again, like you said, it's early days.

The Industrial Canal, this is the major concern. It seemed like it did breach at some point. In fact, locals there -- we traveled in both St. Bernard's Parish and Orleans Parish. Locals telling us there was a definite breach, because the water was rising at an alarming rate. In fact, the first hour we were there the water was up to my knee, by the second hour it was up to my waist in certain parts. This for an area that had just started to dry out. Very disturbing images, Paula. This cannot be good news in any way with the storm what, eight, 12 hours away, Paula.

ZAHN: We have seen, Jeff, some amazing pictures of people being rescued by helicopters tonight. And we understand that one was just successfully pulled off. Do you know anything about that?

KOINANGE: That's right. There was a family of four in particular. The Coast Guard had actually attempted twice. Once they tried to convince the folks to leave. They didn't want to leave. Then the second time -- because one of them was actually a pregnant mother, 8-month old pregnant mother and her 4-year-old son. They finally were convinced to leave. They got on the helicopter. A dramatic rescue. They were taken away to safety.

But again, Paula, in these waning hours, if you will, some people choosing to stay on and ride out the storm, Paula.

ZAHN: And, finally tonight, Jeff, when you talk about this city already being flooded even before this storm makes landfall, how bad could things be this time tomorrow night?

KOINANGE: I tell you, Paula, it's deja vu all over again. If those waters continue to rise the way they are, the parishes will definitely be underwater. And the amazing thing you see when you drive through those neighborhoods, they're so eerily quiet. No signs of life at all, just a couple of stray dog here and there. For the most part, Paula, it could get a lot worse before it gets any better.

ZAHN: We wish that weren't the case. Jeff Koinange, thank you so much.

Joining me now on the phone, Brigadier General Robert Crear of the Army Corps of Engineers. Welcome for joining us -- or thank you for joining us tonight. How worried are you about these two places where water is already flowing over back into the Ninth Ward?

BRIG. GEN. ROBERT CREAR, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: Right now, the levees that we have repaired temporarily, in fact, are overtopping. The good news is that they're -- about eight feet was the rise of the surge. Right now it's gone down about a foot, and so we expect it to continue to go down.

The other good news is that, you know, that area was dry. We had pumped that area completely. And so the water now is reaching those pumps, and so they'll continue to pump that area out.

ZAHN: So you don't foresee any major damage caused by Rita then as a result of flooding?

CREAR: Right now the only areas that have been flooded are areas that were previously flooded. So there's no risk to loss of life or property that has not been flooded before.

ZAHN: But we understand the mayor's very concerned about what flooding could do to some of the bridges and their structural integrity. Are you worried about that?

CREAR: We certainly are. Right now our engineers are looking at the entire levee system for structural integrity. Because of the conditions right now, we won't be able to affect repairs, but probably by tomorrow we have equipment staged, we have the large sandbags, we should be able to get helicopters in, we have dump trucks with large rocks and so we should start, again, to repair the levees and start unwatering the city again.

ZAHN: Well, we hope you are spared any further storm surge. Thank you, Brigadier General Robert Crear. We know how busy you are tonight. Good luck.

Now for the latest on where Rita is heading right now and exactly where it is going, let's quickly go back to Chad Myers, our severe weather expert, who has his finger on the pulse of this very wide storm.

MYERS: It is very wide, and part of it now already on shore, seeing almost hurricane gusts into Cameron, Louisiana. This storm was in Key West, and then it traveled through the Gulf of Mexico, became a Category 5. Now it has lost a little intensity.

The water is a little bit cooler up here than it is in the central Gulf of Mexico, but still a very, very dangerous storm for a lot of people. And from Port Arthur all the way over to Lake Charles, 10 to 14 foot storm surge which means that's the wall or the bubble of water that is going to head on up into all of those bays and bayous all the way from almost now east of Galveston through Holly Beach and right up over to so many places like Cameron and Groves and Hackberry, places we haven't talked about a lot, but those little towns will be inundated with water 10 to 15 feet deep and waves on top of that.

There you go. There's Cameron right there, 56 miles, 57 miles per hour, Beaumont at 31, Port Arthur now up to 46 miles per hour. And one more thing, Paula. What I'm very concerned with is this long- term wind out of the southeast. It is piling water into Lake Borgne and into Lake Pontchartrain and into all of the canals that surround New Orleans. And we may have just heard the beginning of the levee breaches tonight.

ZAHN: Sorry to hear that. But those wind speed graphics are very helpful. Thanks, Chad.

MYERS: You're welcome.

ZAHN: It really gives us a much better idea of just how strong and deep the storm will be. Meanwhile a bus ride to safety turns into a frantic race against time. Coming up, the heroism and desperation in the final minutes before a bus carrying evacuees, all of them elderly, exploded.


ZAHN: And that image you were looking of is an image of Hurricane Rita and how she looks at the hour, anywhere from eight to 12 hours before making landfall, already creating a lot of problems, even claiming some lives before making landfall.

Officials near Dallas tonight are trying to find out exactly what caused a tragic fire on a bus carrying elderly evacuees from Houston. Twenty-four people died after the bus caught fire during the chaotic exodus from Houston. Here's Dan Lothian.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They were the first casualties of Hurricane Rita, old, frail and trapped in a burning bus.

TINA JONES, GOOD SAMARITAN NURSE: Lots of cuts, burns, bruises, and smoke inhalation.

LOTHIAN: Thirty-eight evacuees from this Houston area nursing home were on their way to Dallas when the bus caught fire and then exploded. Twenty-four died, 14 others were injured.

DON PERITZ, DALLAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: We believe the explosions were related to a series of oxygen canisters that were on board. They were elderly and infirmed persons on board who were on oxygen.

LOTHIAN: It happened on I-45 south of Dallas, a busy evacuation route. Irma Camponella and her husband were stuck in traffic behind the smoking bus and rushed to help other responders before it blew up.

IRMA CAMPONELLA, GOOD SAMARITAN: Helpless people that couldn't walk, they had to literally be carried off the bus.

LOTHIAN: She was risking her own life, but doing nothing was not an option.

CAMPONELLA: I couldn't imagine my parents in there. You know?

LOTHIAN: Jeffrey Wilson's father was on the bus, but he survived.

JEFFREY WILSON, SURVIVOR'S SON: He was also the one in the bus who was screaming to people to be quiet, calm down, because he said that people in the bus were screaming and yelling and the bus was filling with smoke.

MAYOR LAURA MILLER, DALLAS, TEXAS: It is obviously a horrific event. The whole city is very upset about this. You know, we've handled two waves of evacuees now. We've never had anything this horrible happen. So it's really a tragedy.


LOTHIAN: Six nursing home workers were also on the bus and helped in the rescue effort along with the driver. It's believed the fire was sparked by overheated brakes in stop and go traffic -- Paula.

ZAHN: Just a recipe for disaster out there. Dan Lothian, thank you so much.

Tonight hospitals aren't exactly the safest places to be during a hurricane either. Remember what happened in New Orleans? So why are some hospitals in Louisiana and Texas open tonight even though they're right in Rita's path? We're going to go there next and ask a lot of questions.


ZAHN: Beaumont, Texas a town of some 110,000 people is considered a ghost town tonight. Considered to be right in the direct path of Hurricane Rita. Meanwhile, in that town, only one hospital is still open. It is Christus Elizabeth -- St. Elizabeth, 115 patients are still there, along with 300 staffers. Joining me now on the phone, the hospital's president and CEO Joel Fagerstrom. Thank you for joining us.

How do you think you are going to fare if the winds are as strong as they are saying they'll be tomorrow?

JOEL FAGERSTROM, CEO, CHRISTUS HOSPITAL -- ST. ELIZABETH'S: Well, I think we'll do OK. It is starting to get windy, and it's raining quite a bit, but I think we're well prepared to care for our patients. And make sure everybody's safe and well cared for.

ZAHN: What are you the most worried about right now?

FAGERSTROM: Well, we've got all of our patients and all of our associates in a very safe place in the middle part of our hospital. It's a big campus. But the biggest concern we have is making sure everybody is away from exterior windows for glass that might break or blow out.

ZAHN: Do you have all the medical support staff you think you need to get through the next couple of days?

FAGERSTROM: Yes. I'm very proud of our staff. The great, great majority of them came to work. We have plenty of staff and plenty of physicians to care for our patients. And we've been sleeping them every eight hours or so. And I think we're well prepared to care for the patients that we have. And we continue to get patients into the emergency department as we speak.

ZAHN: What kind of injuries are you treating them for?

FAGERSTROM: Sort of the normal things that patients might be coming in. We haven't really started to see any patients' injures from the hurricane at this point. But I'm sure we will as the wind picks up and the rain continues.

ZAHN: And final question for you tonight, sir. If you lose your electricity for any period of time, are you going to be in OK shape?

FAGERSTROM: Yes, we have generators. They're about a story and a half off the ground. And we've got five days of diesel fuel. So we have -- we can certainly last for five days with power.

ZAHN: Sounds like you did some pretty good planning there, sir.

FAGERSTROM: Yes. We've been working at this since Tuesday. And, you know, we dealt with hurricanes for many years. So we're pretty well prepared for it.

ZAHN: Good luck.

FAGERSTROM: Thank you very much.

ZAHN: Thanks for your time tonight.

We're now going to get the very latest now on Rita's location, exactly where she's heading from severe weather expert Chad Myers, who is a very busy man indeed. And probably has the best maps I've seen in helping us all understand exactly what she is churning up out there.

MYERS: Thanks, Paula.

You know, right now we always talk about that right front quadrant of the hurricane. If you are on the right side of the hurricane, that's the bad side. If you're on the left side, it is a little easier to take, because your winds are offshore, your waves are not throwing water at you, the winds are actually blowing water away. But Port Arthur and Beaumont, right where that interview was, right there, those two towns right on the right front quadrant of where this storm is going to be, literally, in about six to 10 hours.

A 10 to 14 foot storm surge all the way through Port Arthur right into Beaumont, all the way into Lake Charles as well. Places like Holly Beach completely covered in water. In some spots 14 feet of water.

Here are some of the latest wind speeds. These come in minute by minute. Cameron now up to about 57 miles an hour. I just clocked in Galveston at 46 miles per hour. And winds are also picking up here into parts of Houston, and Houma and Empire, all the way up -- even over to about New Orleans picking up wind speeds to about 35 or 40 miles per hour. And also picking up severe storms here all the way through from Baton Rouge down into New Orleans.

For awhile, we had almost five tornado warnings going on all at the same time. Now, they're not indicated on the ground. They're indicated by spin on the radar, but we'll keep you advised if there is any tornado damage.

ZAHN: OK. Thanks so much, Chad. We just not only heard from Chad but heard from the director of one of the hospitals in Beaumont, Texas that will remain open through this storm.

When we come back, we're going to be checking in with our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta who happens to be in a hospital in Lake Charles, Louisiana. And he's going to describe to us how the folks there are going to get their patients through the night. We'll be right back.


ZAHN: This is where Hurricane Rita has positioned at this hour. A category 3 storm. The most amazing thing about the strength of this storm is we are told that as far as 100 miles inland, people will feel 74 mile per hour winds.

And of course, no one wants a rerun of the misery experienced in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the hospital. So let's find out now what's being done in Lake Charles, Louisiana, about 40 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, a place that will get some of those big winds. senior Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me now by video phone. Are they expecting pretty rough night there?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. They are expecting a very rough night here, not only from the winds, which don't seem to be bad just yet, but just seem to be picking up every few minutes even, maybe 30 or 40 miles an hour now. But they're very concerned about flooding as well, just like they were after Katrina in New Orleans, flooding could be a concern here as well.

You know, getting patients out of the hospital was the name of the game up until several hours ago. They did everything they could, including landing U.S. Army helicopters. Paula, they had to land these helicopters actually next to the hospital in a graveyard and actually move the patients out there, taking them out by helicopter as quickly as they could. Not all the patients got out. And there was this thing, Paula, where they had to decide at some point, was it riskier to actually try and move some of these patients or better to just keep them here? There are less than half a dozen patients remaining in the hospital, critically ill patients. But they're going to stay here and hope that they don't lose power, hope that they don't lose water, and hope that there's no significant flooding, Paula.

ZAHN: But what if any of those three happen? What are they going to be up against?

GUPTA: Well, you know, it's interesting. I think they learned so much from Katrina, but here's a couple of things, simple things maybe. But as far as the generators go, you remember at Charity Hospital, one of the hospitals in New Orleans, the generator is actually located in the basement. When the flooding occurred, you can guess what happened. The generator shorted out, and they would not work anymore, and that's why the ventilated patients on those breathing machines could not be ventilated anymore.

Here the generators are above sea level. They also have, literally, hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel to keep those generators up and running. If they lose water -- they've got stockpiles of food and water here in the hospital, but it's going to have to -- things are going to get better in a hurry, because they don't have that much of it, Paula.

ZAHN: Well we hope they do just fine. Sounds like at least they planned for every possibility there. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks.

We're going to travel away from that part of the state to Galveston, Texas, which is a place that was supposed to take a direct hit before Hurricane Rita moved to the east. And joining me now on the phone is Phillip Klingy, he is riding out the storm in his condo in Galveston. And we are now being told by the mayor that 98 percent of Galveston's population evacuated. You didn't. Why?

PHILLIP KLINGY, GALVESTON RESIDENT: Well I didn't evacuate, because the building I'm currently in, it can sustain up to a Category 5 hurricane. And it was projected to come in here, but it's going east. And we are getting surf that is 8 to 10 feet and a lot of rain, but I think that we're going to be OK here.

ZAHN: What's the worst thing that could happen where you are now?

KLINGY: Well the water could come over the sea wall, but we're on the fourth level, so we're still 50 feet above sea level. The wind has increased. We're getting about 70 mile an hour winds. But we've lost our electricity. We just lost our electricity, but other than that, I think we're going to fare pretty good.

ZAHN: Have you made any preparations, if you do have to get out?

KLINGY: Oh, absolutely. We've got a vehicle in one of the parking garages in downtown Galveston, which is really only about ten minutes from us. And it's six stories up. And if we have to evacuate, that's going to be our mission. But I think that we're going to ride it out here due to the fact that the storm, even at its worst point, would not devastate the building we're in.

ZAHN: You're one brave man, Phillip. I know you talked to police officers this morning. What do they think of your plan to live through this?

KLINGY: Well, a lot of the local police officers think the same thing. They realize it's not going to be as bad. Back in the '80s I rode out Hurricane Alicia down in Shore Acres, Texas, which my mother has some property down there. And we made it through Hurricane Alicia which was quite more devastating than.

ZAHN: I happened to be in Galveston during Alicia working in local television news. I remember that well.

KLINGY: Right. So we're really just looking at a lot of torrential rains, a lot of wind. And like I said, currently, we have lost our electricity, but I think that the island's going to be fine.

ZAHN: All right. Phillip Klingy. We're just looking at pictures of you in your home yesterday. Good luck.

KLINGY: All right. Thank you very much.

ZAHN: My pleasure. Now we're going to catch up with another one of our correspondents on the scene. Rick Sanchez, who joins us now from Lake Charles in Louisiana. I hope you can hear me, Rick. I know that this weather is wreaking havoc on a lot of our equipment. What's going on there?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well as amazing s it may sound, Paula, I can hear you perfectly fine. Let me tell you what's going on here. And first of all, this is probably one of the most precarious things that we've seen, since we've been covering this hurricane and maybe several others. There is a man on an 18-foot sailboat out there in the middle of Lake Charles. I've been talking to some of the neighbors here, some of them who have decided to stay around, because they think that their area's high enough and they'll be able to do OK. And they say they've been trying to talk him out of there earlier. And he decided he's just going to ride out the storm, literally, in an 18-foot sailboat.

I went out on this pier that you see behind me a little while ago. It stretches for quite a bit. I tried to get his attention. I couldn't quite make him out. I could tell that there was somebody in there. Trying to see, if nothing else, find out why he was doing what he was doing, and possibly even try and talk him out of doing this given what we know about how this area is going to be effected by the storm. I mean, that's Lake Charles behind me. Lake Charles is where all the water -- because we're on the strong side of the storm, is going to be coming through.

And boy, did you see that? It looks like something just went out over there. Something just lit up behind the lake. It was either a transformer that blew and suddenly things got a little darker out here. I think that that was the first sign that we may be losing electricity in the Lake Charles area.

But the vulnerability here, Paula, simply put, is that this lake has had a history of flooding this area in the past. We've been watching. And I think you can see behind me that the water is literally jumping over this precipice here. And it is already going up just in the last hour or so, since we've been here, by quite a margin. So that's the fear here. That's the concern that there might be some very strong flooding that's going to effect this area, and that's why we understand at least 70 percent of the people here have already evacuated. So I should tell you we talked to some of the folks here and they're telling us they're going to hunker down and try to stay. This is just the beginning of it. Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: All right. Rick Sanchez, I know you got a plan to stay safe. Good luck.

Let's now move to another part of the coast, or actually a little bit inland from the coast, Beaumont, Texas, which is expected to get whacked pretty hard, too. That's where we find Anderson Cooper who's been there all day long. The winds have picked up even since the top of the hour.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: They have, Paula. It's got very, very dark here it. It should not be this dark so early. And the winds have really started to pick up. We've actually had to move back from the water which is where we were before right on the Naches River. So we're sort of secured in a place where there is protection around, where there's some buildings around us. But things are getting worse here very rapidly, Paula.

ZAHN: What's the big concern about infrastructure there, about what might go wrong?

COOPER: I talked to the mayor. I talked to the chief of police. Both seemed pretty confident. I think this town Beaumont has about 110 -115,000 people. They believe as many as 95 percent of the people have evacuated. There are not any shelters here in Beaumont. The people who needed to, have left. They provided some vehicles for people with special needs, people who didn't have access to cars. But, you now, there's a lot of oil refineries here. That, of course, is a big concern. There's a lot of agriculture here, rice farms here. The flooding could be a big problem for them.

But the mayor pointed out to me, they've had a drought here for so long now that actually a good amount of rain -- you know, they can absorb four or five inches of rain, no problem, because the ground is so desperate, so dry. So they're actually -- they're not looking forward to this in any way, but there certainly thankful to get some rain in, at least for the first couple of hours.

And all the police are on duty. They expect things to go pretty well here. They didn't want to be cocky, but they're definitely confident that they have this town battened down, and they're just waiting for this storm, Category 3 as it stands now.

ZAHN: And you're beginning to get drowned out by the wind whipping around you. Thank you, Anderson. I'm going to let you stand by and bring Chad Myers back into the picture, our severe weather expert. And it is interesting to note that we just saw Rick Sanchez, who's not all that far away from where Anderson Cooper is right now. It seems like they're getting hit with pretty similar bands of the storm.

MYERS: You know, and it isn't even really started yet. I mean, Paula, this is just ridiculous. Beaumont now, winds at 31 gusting to 55. Those winds are going to gust to 140. I mean, these guys really need to get out of the way of this. Lake Charles, 43 miles-per-hour right now. Still six hours from making landfall. And these winds are only going to pick up from here. In fact, they're going to go up significantly. We can let this run. And it is actually realtime, up to 41, 43, 45 miles per hour, Lake Charles. And that water is going to be filling up in Lake Charles as the winds shift direction. What we're going to find is we're going to find Rick Sanchez as winds out of the northeast, then the east, then the southeast and that's when that surge is going to push up through this bayou, push up through all these levees and all the way up sphere into Lake Charles. There's going to be water even all the way up to I-10 around Orange in Texas. So this water is going to go a long way. Our reporters are going to have to be very careful tonight. Thank you.

ZAHN: All right. Thank you so much. I've just gotten word that we're going to take a short break here. Chad Myers, when we come back, we're going to talk with the man in charge of the emergency procedures in Beaumont, Texas, a place that we just saw Anderson Cooper reporting from where they expect -- and not only with high winds, but expected to have to endure some pretty severe flooding. We're going to take a short break. We'll return in just a moment.


ZAHN: And welcome back to our special coverage of Hurricane Rita tonight. As you can see, we have got the whole Texas/Louisiana coastline covered.

The National Hurricane Center saying Hurricane Rita is still expected to come ashore as a dangerous category 3 storm. And for those of you who have been with us since the top of the hour, you can see that already our correspondents are getting hit in some cases with 50 to 60 mile per hour gusts. This is in advance, eight hours in some cases, to 11 hours in advance of this hurricane ever making landfall.

Well, there is another thing that we need to confront tonight, and those are the alarming numbers. The death toll from Hurricane Katrina now stands at 1,075 tonight. No wonder few Texans are willing to mess Rita. All day and all night long, Houston evacuees jammed the roads to Lufkin. That is a 2 1/2 hour drive that took an entire day. And as Ed Lavandera found out, not everyone desperate for shelter even made it that far.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hurricane Rita is in the rearview mirrors of all these drivers and closing in fast. The northbound lanes of highway 69 in Lufkin, Texas are turning into a graveyard of getaway vehicles, cars that have run out of gas are piling up on the road side.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, we don't have gas. We're calling some relatives that live in Atlanta, Texas, up by Texarcana, and praying that they can get through to come over here and meet us over here with some kind of gas or something.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He went to get more gas.

LAVANDERA: Denise Hall and her family left Houston Thursday, 11 people traveling in a three-car caravan. Now they only have a few gallons of gas left and they're waiting for help.

JANICE HALL, HOUSTON RESIDENT: It's a bad situation. When you look at it, you know, you say, OK, we got the people out in time. But where did the people go? They went to the sides of the street.

LAVANDERA: Janice Hall says if the help doesn't come soon, they'll wait inside their car. The look on her son's face captures the strain of the moment.

Lufkin city officials say storm shelters here are at capacity holding about 10,000 people. But they estimate thousands still have nowhere to go. The concern is those people will be stuck outside when the storm hits.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've done all we can and made plans to get the roads clear before it's done and get to our city and we'll deal with that. Again, we'll try to make people as comfortable as possible.

LAVANDERA: Gas stations in Lufkin are still open, but many pumps have run dry. And the lines run a mile long. A fuel tanker rolled into this station surrounded by a dozen officers as anxious motorists waited to get back on the road. Officers are urging people not to stop here, but to continue driving westward away from the ominous clouds looming to the south.


LAVANDERA: This is a town that is full. Normally Lufkin has a population of about 35,000 people. City officials estimate they that have about 100,000 people here tonight. And then just a few hours ago, they opened up what they call an emergency shelter of last resort trying to get as many of those people on the roadways into those shelters in the next few hours.

But the only way they have of getting that word out to those people is over the radio. So, the concern here tonight, of course, getting those people off the road, either into this temporary shelter here in Lufkin, or if they can get gas into their cars, to get them to continue moving northward or westward -- Paula. ZAHN: We hope those efforts are successful. Ed Lavendera, thanks so much.

Before we go any further, I want to share some statistics with you now to give you a sense of how big Rita is. It is about to whack this coast along Texas and Louisiana between Beaumont and Houston. They have airlifted more than 5700 people and they are now canvassing the Beaumont area with 25 buses in search of people still seeking evacuation at this hour. And they're delivering fuel to empty gas stations along these evacuation routes. And our next guest is going to help us out with more information.

Right now, Rita is barreling right for the Texas oil refining cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont. And the storm's expected 10 to 15 foot surge of water and potentially 25 inches of rain could easily overwhelm both cities.

On the phone with me now from Beaumont, Texas is Judge Carl Griffith. He happens to be overseeing the emergency effort in Jefferson County, Texas which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

I understand right now that these 25 buses that I just talked about are really searching for people in earnest. Do you have any luck with people that are stranded at this hour?

JUDGE CARL GRIFFITH, JEFFERSON COUNTY DIR. OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Hello, Paula. Those buses, actually -- probably some of them came from here in Beaumont, but they were actually substantially north of this area. 70 to 100 miles north of here.

ZAHN: So they won't provide any real relief to your population then at all?

GRIFFITH: I'm sorry. I'm having trouble hearing you.

ZAHN: OK. Let me try again. What help do you need the most help with tonight, do you think?

GRIFFITH: Right now, what I think the most help that's need is that the people that are stranded up in East Texas, we've got to get those shelters open so that people can get in there.

From Houston -- when they evacuated, many of the shelters that are designated for the Beaumont, Port Arthur area, were filled because that storm went into Houston. And so now those shelters that were designated for us in our plan are filled with other folks. So we've got to immediately respond. And I know Texas has worked on that response and currently implementing that.

ZAHN: So judge, how many people are you talking about that are in need of shelter tonight?

GRIFFITH: I don't have those numbers. The state of Texas has those numbers.

ZAHN: But do you think it's large group of people that you've got to worry about there?

GRIFFITH: I think -- well, I think there's a huge group of Houstonians. I think there is a substantial number of people from here in Southeast Texas, but nothing compared to the population that's come out of Houston that's there on the roads.

ZAHN: Well, we keep on getting these little updates. And it looks like they're trying to move some help to your part of the state. Judge Carl Griffith, thank you for your updated information here.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to show you once again what is expected to happen 8 to 12 hours from now all along the Texas/Louisiana border. The National Hurricane Center still describing this category 3 storm as a significant and very dangerous hurricane. We'll be back after a short break.


ZAHN: Galveston, Texas, south of Houston along the Texas coast was expected to bear the brunt of the storm. But earlier today Hurricane Rita made a turn to the east. But it is still expected to get hit with very high winds, a lot of flooding. Unfortunately, this is a town that knows an awful lot about the powers of hurricanes. At the turn of the century losing some 8,000 people.

Let's turn to Sean Callebs who is still outside putting up with these first bands of the storm. How bad is it at this hour?

CALLEBS: Well, it's getting a little bit worse. You can see the wins have picked up a little bit. We're shielded somewhat. The Gulf is probably about 100 yards from where we are. We're probably in one of the highest areas on this strip of barrier island. It's a somewhat luxury hotel that's built up a pretty big mound to avoid any kind of storm surge.

But the rain has picked up somewhat significantly, too, in the last couple of hours. But we know that the worst is still hours away from us.

Now, we are on the western side of the eye of Rita, which is going to be good news for people on the island, many who basically lived in fear for the past 48 hours as they saw this storm wind up in the Gulf of Mexico.

We know there's some low lying flooding. We've seen power flicker on and off throughout the area where we are, Paula. There is also a curfew on this island. That's important to know. For all of these thousands of families that left their homes -- and the police are doing everything they can to protect them -- but we know that they've answered at least two calls of suspected looting at this hour. But both times authorities didn't find anything. And they couldn't determine if anybody had tried to break in those homes.

It is getting significantly more windy. Perhaps you can see when the rain does blow, it is blowing at almost horizontally, Paula. ZAHN: Yeah, it's very strange to watch on television. It sort of defies gravity. Sean, we probably should mention once again that the mayor is saying that she believes more than 90 percent of the population evacuated. It appears as though that is for a very good reason. Stay safe, Sean.

Hurricane Rita, closing in on the coast, where is it right now? And has it taken a last minute turn? What does it mean for all those folks along this huge swath of land that's going to be hit by Hurricane Rita? Stay with us.


ZAHN: LARRY KING LIVE gets under way at the top of the hour. But first let's get one more update on Rita from sever weather expert Chad Myers.

Chad, we talked so much about what is going to happen along the coast, we think, once the storm makes landfall. But let's talk about the potential 27 inches of rain falling even inland from those areas.

MYERS: Paula, the problem is now the storm has motion, it has some momentum, it is moving quite quickly, in fact, 12 miles per hour. That's a pretty good clip for a hurricane. 73 miles from the coast right now. And winds are moving.

But the problem is, after this storm gets by the coast, it is going to lose all influences from the jet stream. It's going to actually run into high pressure that's just not going to let it move. All the waves, all the wind, everything you see here, that's the next 12 hours.

But believe it or not, 100 hours from now, that storm is still right around Texarkana, right up there. It just completely stops, completely stalls. And the storm is still going to be spinning here, picking up moisture even over parts of the Gulf of Mexico for the next six or eight hours as all of this moisture begins the disintegrate as the storm disintegrates, it's going to sit right over Arkansas, Louisiana, the ArkLaTex and possibly even have feeder bands through Louisiana not out of the question one sitting over New Orleans for hours and hours and hours for the next couple days. Because the MIPPS (ph) absolutely stops this storm in less than 24 hours. Back to you.

ZAHN: Boy, that's not what those folks want to hear. Chad, as we said at the top of the hour, they've already had problems with water already flowing over two of the repaired levees, which could -- well, it is already causing some minor flooding. It could potentially cause more severe flooding when all is said and done.

We are about anywhere from 8 to 11 hours from Rita making landfall. The storm is expected to hit just west of Lake Charles, which is almost at the midpoint, you see, on our map.

Inland from the coast, Jason Carroll is there and he joins us to tell us what you're experiencing so far. JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, let me just update you quickly. I just got off the phone with Sergeant Kraus at the command center at Lake Charles Police. They temporarily lost power there. At this point, they're running on generator power. They're getting reports from people who stayed behind of downed trees, snapped power lines from al over.

They are predicting that most of the residents here, some 184,000 residents have evacuated, heeded that evacuation warning, which has been in effect for 48 hours here in Lake Charles. Although, we did talk to some who chose to stay behind. We spoke to one woman who said she had a flat tire, simply could not get out.

What police at this point, Paula, are recommending for those people left behind, to stay indoors. It is too dangerous to go outside. Their attics may have to be their shelter -- Paula.

ZAHN: We know how that got so many people in trouble in New Orleans. We hope that's not the case. Jason Carroll, thanks for the update.

Thank you all for joining us tonight. "LARRY KING LIVE" continues with more coverage right now.


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