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AMERICAN MORNING

Hurricane Rita Update; Damage In Lumberton, Texas; Levees Hold Overnight in New Orleans; Oil Refineries Might Suffer Damage From Hurricane Rita; Damage in Beaumont, Texas; Hospitals Still Operational After Hurricane; Damage in Port Arthur

Aired September 24, 2005 - 08:00   ET

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


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: ... imagine your resources are incredibly taxed in the wake of Katrina. Do you have resources to respond to this one?
CAROL YELVERTON, RED CROSS SPOKESWOMAN: Yes, we have the resources, and we have the people. You know, we have a lot of new volunteers who have -- they're just what we call spontaneous volunteers. They saw what happened with Katrina, and they sought us out and said, you know, we want to help, we want to be part of it.

As we have been able to, we have trained people, we've got people who -- you know, three weeks ago, they never would have thought they would have been in the Red Cross, and now they're in the Gulf states or they're standing by in Texas ready to help.

We certainly have the food, we have the supplies. We're going to need the American people to work with us in terms of contributions, because Katrina has been much more expensive than anything we've ever done before. We know that we're going to need additional funds to respond to the folks who have been touched by Rita.

But the fact is that these are people who need our help, and we're all going to respond. We're all going to make it so that these folks can get back on their feet.

M. O'BRIEN: Carol Yelverton with the American Red Cross in Houston. Thanks very much, and good luck. We invite everybody out there to check out their Web site and try to help them out.

Top of the hour now. Hurricane Rita now a category 2 storm, 100- mile-an-hour winds, but has cut a swath of destruction through the border country between Texas and Louisiana, low-lying country, swampy country, country filled with refineries. And at first light, we'll get our first assessment of what sort of damage that has been left behind.

The winds here have abated somewhat, although it's still quite gusty. The rain still coming down, significant localized flooding. And as we get a first glimpse of dawn, we see quite a bit of damage here on the main street in Lumberton, Texas.

One of the big worries in advance of this storm was the city of Galveston, Texas, which, as everyone knows by now, in 1900 was nearly wiped off the map by a huge hurricane. They built a big seawall there after that, and there was some concern the storm surge from Rita would top over that.

Because Rita went a little bit to the east, Galveston has been spared the worst by a long shot.

CNN's David Mattingly is there with more. Good morning, David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Miles.

Your assessment is correct. This city will not be making history with this storm. There will be damage, no doubt, from one end of the island to the other, to some extent.

The high-rise Holiday Inn on the waterfront near our location here, in the middle of the night we could hear the sounds of some damage being done there as the wind peeled the roof back. What few people were staying in that hotel had to be moved out at that time.

Also, here in Galveston, there was a couple of buildings caught on fire. Firemen had to rush out of the area where they had hunkered down for the storm. They had to run over to the convention center, where they had put their fire trucks for safekeeping in the parking deck there, and they went out into all the wind and all the rain to respond to that fire.

There were three buildings well involved. They weren't able to save them, but they were able to prevent other buildings around from going up as well. And with all the wind that is blowing, it was just feeding that fire like a blast furnace, we're told. And it could have been much worse if the firefighters hadn't chosen to brave the storm and get out there and do the good job that they did.

We did go out and start driving around the island a short time ago, just to see what's out there. There are a lot of power lines -- there are some power lines down, and some traffic lights down. There were, however, still some small pockets of the island that had electricity at the time. There were also a lot of tree limbs down. There was some minor flooding in some street areas that we saw, but nothing that made the roads impassable.

So at this point, it looks like this island might be able to get back up and running fairly quickly. We're going to wait, however, for that official assessment as they get out after the sun comes up here a little bit more, and they figure out exactly what needs to be done to get Galveston up and running and let that 90 percent of the population who evacuated from here, when they can let them back into their homes and start cleaning up after the storm, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: David, that is, you know, really -- (audio interrupt) ... in advance of Rita. The fact -- (audio interrupt) ... neighborhoods...

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As you can see, obviously...

M. O'BRIEN: ... that have power...

S. O'BRIEN: Miles is having a little bit of technical difficulty (INAUDIBLE) David actually in much better conditions now in Galveston than Miles, who's still getting hit by some pretty strong winds.

We are continuing to update the progress of Rita. Now it looks as if Rita's going to in fact just sit in Texas, bring flooding to the area. Storm surges as well, that's a huge problem. As it's been pointed out many times, storm surges really often will bring more deaths than the actual hurricane itself.

We've got some news just in to CNN. This news confirmed by Secret Service officials who are now at the George Washington University Hospital. Dick Cheney, the vice president, has arrived via a back entrance for surgery. He is in surgery. And the surgery is expected to last until noon. Apparently he is having surgery to treat an aneurysm behind the vice president's right knee. That word according to his spokeswoman.

Cheney is going to remain at George Washington University Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., for up to 48 hours after the surgery. And his spokesperson says that they expect that he will resume his schedule as normal. The aneurysm was apparently discovered during a routine checkup, and it is a weak spot in an artery that actually conversed if it is untreated.

We've got John King for us, who has been reporting on the storm. He is in -- is he (INAUDIBLE) -- Port Arthur, Texas. He also, of course, can weigh in for us on the vice president's impending surgery, I guess surgery that's now under way.

John, I'm not sure if you can hear me. Good morning to you. First, where exactly are you? And, secondly, big surprise hearing that the vice president's already in surgery?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on phone): Let me do the second part first. No surprise at all that the vice president would want to get this started as early as the possible in the day there. This was scheduled, the White House announced it last week. They say it's just an outpatient -- should just be probably an outpatient event, having that aneurysm removed from behind his knee. And they insist that they don't think it's any big deal and he'll be just fine and out of the hospital soon. And he's -- when he's gone in for past checkups, he's someone who likes to get in and get out.

S. O'BRIEN: Apparently he's got a second aneurysm as well behind the other knee. I don't know how typical or usual that is. And, of course, when you hear aneurysm, those are things that kill people, but I would imagine that since he's put off scheduling surgery on the second aneurysm behind his other knee, it can't be considered that serious.

KING: They have repeatedly said, Soledad, that it is not serious. Although I have to tell you, I've been traveling in Texas for the past week, so anything that's said in the past 72 hours or so is -- would be news to me. But they have said all along that this is elective, and it is something that he would have to deal with at some point. They have always given the sense that it's not urgent by any means at all.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, (INAUDIBLE) lack of a sense of urgency, then, for the White House on that issue, at least.

Let's talk about Port Arthur, Texas, which is where you are, although I don't know exactly, John, where specifically you are, and what kind of shelter you're getting from the storm.

KING: We spent the night here, Soledad, sheltered from the storm between two small concrete buildings. And it is remarkable the difference between a few hours ago, when we were last safe enough to venture out around the town, and now.

I am now -- I'm estimating a little more than a quarter mile inland from the levee in Port Arthur. We have now tried three different routes, and we cannot get down to the levee. The flooding is quite significant. I'm looking at our camera and Dave Russ ahead of me in our vehicle, and he is trudging at the moment through knee- deep water, and it gets significantly more deeper as you go closer to the levee and out toward the lake.

We are on the edge of the property of a large refinery. From what we can see now, you can't see any significant damage, and those trademark torches are still burning above the refinery. But we have seen trucks tipped over on their sides, significant wind and other damage to buildings here, several trees down. No power lines downed as yet, although many of the poles bent quite a bit.

But we were able to get to the levee just eight hours ago, and we actually drove on top of the levee, and it looked fine. We cannot get anywhere close to it at the moment. We're going to try to explore some new routes.

So we can't say if this is just the storm surge. This is a very low-lying area. Most of this town is about three feet above sea level. And we can't say whether this is just the surge of this remarkable storm, and, if so, it is a huge storm surge, or whether there have been any issues with the levee, which, again, is about a quarter mile, maybe a little bit more, from where I am now.

It was easy to get to. We drove through there. It was quite windy, but we drove right through there about six hours ago, and at the moment, the flooding situation, there was two feet of water, maybe, on the roads in some places at that time. It is much more significant now, much more inland, residential areas with significant flooding in their yards, and it is still raining quite heavily here.

So obviously this is a problem that is significant for Port Arthur already, and it is going to get worse.

S. O'BRIEN: We've been showing pictures of Beaumont, Texas, and now we're showing some pictures of Galveston, Texas. And I want to ask you another question in just a moment, John, if you'll hang on for a second.

We've got from Lafayette, Louisiana, General Honore. He, of course, is overseeing what is happening in New Orleans. And he joins us by phone. We'll get right back to John in just a few moments.

General Honore, I thank you for joining us this morning. We certainly appreciate it.

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE (on phone): Good morning.

S. O'BRIEN: What's the situation right now in New Orleans? We heard from John, they're concerned about the levees there. How about in New Orleans?

HONORE: Well, New Orleans, I just received an update from the commanders. And there is a flooding, as you know, as you reported yesterday. We are looking at that the deepest point of four to five feet in a part of the Ninth Ward. It's been hard to get an exact assessment. The reconnaissance teams from Task Force New Orleans, made up of the 35th Division and 82nd Airborne, will be sending me small boats out here to get the exact mapping.

But at the deepest point -- and it's not all of the Ninth Ward -- we have up to a four to five feet in the deepest points. And we should have that assessment done in the next few hours. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: You're expecting, when the light comes up, you'll get a better chance of the assessment. How many folks -- I mean, is anybody in the Ninth Ward? Obviously the flooding there was devastating before. And now you've got four or five feet in some parts of it. Are there people still in their homes in the Ninth Ward?

HONORE: There are some people. There's very few. Some of them we remain in contact with, and the troops will be following up with them this morning. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: How is the London Avenue canal levee holding up? I know that was a real concern for you.

HONORE: It -- as you know, that area had been severely affected by the first round of storm. It's in a cautious condition right now, according to my commanders. And the -- we should get the pumps running this morning and start the unwatering process.

But I'll defer to the Corps of Engineers for specifics on that, as our troops have not been able to get a full assessment until first light this morning.

The other challenge we've had is, our helicopters have not been able to go up. We should have conditions for -- to meet helicopter movement this morning, by midmorning. You know, we're fighting 40- knot winds as well as for our itty-bitty boats we send in to do the reconnaissance. So as soon as we can get eyes on that, we'll have a better assessment. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about the 17th Street Canal, another big area of concern. Have you had any information about how that's holding up?

HONORE: No change from last night on that report. Again, with caution, the challenge is to be able to get helicopters in to do reinforcements. And until we can start doing that, that situation will not improve. Hopefully, we'll be able to do some of that work this morning. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: You talked about the 40-knot winds, and you talked about the four to five feet of water and the small boats you've got going out. How is all of that going to compromise the work that you've already been doing with Hurricane Katrina? I mean, the -- I guess it's not really -- well, I guess it is, at some points, rescue, but mostly searching for bodies and if you have to get to people.

HONORE: Well, we're doing the same thing we've been doing. Our troops are well trained in coordination with the first responders in the search and rescue teams that are on the scene in New Orleans. That work will commence this morning. We think we can get much of that done within the next 24 hours, as we've been through those areas several times before.

We're also -- I'm forward deploying Lafayette now, focusing on the effects of Rita on the Calcashoe (ph) Parish. We took the majority of the right front of the storm, the hardest part of that storm, and we are getting significant damage report from Lake Charles. I'm co-located with Mr. Dick Gremiar (ph), who is the homeland security chief for Calcashoe Parish, and I will be going into Lake Charles with him as soon as the weather permits, later today. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: What kind of damage reports are you getting? What specifically are you hearing out of Lake Charles?

HONORE: We've got significant damage to the airport and some of the hangars there, the telephone system, as far as cell towers. The good news is that the hard lines are still operational. They have not experienced a surge yet. The prediction is, once the eye moves further to the north, that there is an expected surge that will come from the lake there at Lake Charles, and that could cause further damage. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: How many troops are you going to be taking out of New Orleans and repositioning in Lake Charles, certainly, as you anticipate the storm surge coming out of the lake at Lake Charles?

HONORE: Federal troops, about 400 initially, with more to follow if needed. The National Guard has several brigades positioned. The lead brigade is the 41st Brigade, lead by Brigadier General Pret (ph), Oregon National Guard. We are co-located in Lafayette at the National Guard Armory vicinity at the Lafayette Airport.

And he and I will move forward with the Calcashoe Parish team to go link up with their emergency responses who remained in the city as soon as we can get safe passage from the wind. The police are still not out on the roads. We have a reported overpass on I-10, vicinity of Lake Charles, that is down. But again, the police have not been able to collaborate that report yet.

As soon as that happens, and wind conditions allow us to drive, we will get in there. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Well, if I may ask you, sir, Lieutenant General Russel Honore, if you can call us back and check in with us again and give us an update of the status of the situation in Lake Charles, the situation with the levees, as soon as you are able to eyeball it at first light, we would sure appreciate it.

HONORE: OK. Well, if you have your operators double-check with Commander Lockwood...

S. O'BRIEN: You got it.

HONORE: ... we'll be on the move, if we'll try to provide information to the public as we can. Over.

S. O'BRIEN: You got it. We will track you down. Thank you.

Let's get right back to Miles O'Brien. As we've been mentioning, he's in Lumberton, where the winds seem to have died down a lot from what he was experiencing this morning, really in the heart of the storm.

Miles, good morning again.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning, Soledad.

It is still blowing here, there's no question. The storm isn't over, but it's first light, and the authorities here are getting their first assessment on the damage.

Joining me is the police chief here, Norman Reynolds.

Norman, you've gotten some reports firsthand and from telephone accounts throughout the night. What's your best sense of how much damage there is here?

CHIEF NORMAN REYNOLDS, LUMBERTON, TEXAS, POLICE DEPARTMENT: Well, we know that there's a lot of signs down, a lot of trees down, a lot of power lines down, radio antennas down. But until I can get out into the city and see what the damage is, I can't really tell you.

M. O'BRIEN: First assessment, though, is, you've got a lot of cleaning up to do.

REYNOLDS: We got a lot of cleaning up, and we got a lot of destruction and damage in the city.

M. O'BRIEN: Is this more than you anticipated?

REYNOLDS: Well, you know, yes, I guess I have to say I'm -- it's a little more than we expected.

M. O'BRIEN: You have a report of some people trapped in a house as we speak. Tell me about that.

REYNOLDS: (INAUDIBLE) others trapped in houses throughout the night that we've been able to get to. We've had to cut through trees across the highway to get to them and bring them back to safety. But we've got one couple who are in a house and trapped in their hallway that we're just totally blocked by power lines and downed trees. And until we can get the electric company in here to help us with those power lines, we're not going to be able to get to them.

They're not hurt, and they're able to stay there until we get there. But it's frustrating when you can't get to them.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, and I suppose it's frustrating when you did everything in your power to get them to evacuate.

REYNOLDS: Well, you know, everybody has to do what they think is right. But I believe this is going to be a lesson to some folks.

M. O'BRIEN: (INAUDIBLE) you've released your men in order for them to assess their own personal damage. Is that going to happen right now?

REYNOLDS: We -- even though the wind's still blowing a little bit, we're -- I released my people to go to their homes and see what the situation is, report back within an hour or two to start assessing the damage in the city, and seeing what we've got to do to get these roads opened up and try to get some mobility in the city.

M. O'BRIEN: And how about you, chief? Are you going to go check out your property as well?

REYNOLDS: I'm going on the spend 15, 20 minutes to go and see what it looks like.

M. O'BRIEN: I guess you got to be proud of your police station here. It fared pretty well. I know you designed this station. You -- it stood the test of the storm.

REYNOLDS: Yes, it's about three years old, and we're proud. It really did do well.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. So in essence -- I tell you what, we're going to put a camera with you as you go out. We'd like to get a sense of the -- of what happened here in Lumberton. I do see a lot more flooding than I expected. I don't know if you (INAUDIBLE).

REYNOLDS: Oh, I did, I did. We -- I don't know how many inches of rain we had. I don't know what the -- how strong the winds were. But I do know that we've gone through this for about 10 hours of continuous winds and rain.

M. O'BRIEN: (INAUDIBLE), I never seen a storm with so much rain.

Chief Norman Reynolds of the Lumberton Police, I'll let you get on your way, and you go make your assessment. We're going to put a camera in his car, and as soon as he gets back, we'll share with you that first assessment of what the damage is here in Lumberton, Texas, Soledad.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, Miles, thanks.

We want to get right to Colonel Duane Gapinski. He is the commander and unwatering task force, Army Corps of Engineers, and he joins us from New Orleans. Thank you for being with us. Can you hear me?

COL. DUANE GAPINSKI, COMMANDER, UNWATERING TASK FORCE, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS (on phone): Yes, I can.

S. O'BRIEN: Terrific. How concerned are you, and what's the biggest focus of your concern this morning with the levees that don't seem to be holding?

GAPINSKI: Well, I -- you know, actually, the levees are holding. The water just got higher than the height of the levees, so we had overtopping in four places on the Industrial Canal yesterday.

This morning, as soon as I'm done with you, I'm going to get up in a helicopter and see what's actually happening. You know, we're going to try and get some helicopters up in the air with sandbags, and put them on top of the levee repairs on the east side, and start -- and stem that flow. We couldn't do that yesterday because of the winds and the rain.

S. O'BRIEN: Of course, the timing couldn't be worse. You've been trying to work on dewatering the city. How much water's gotten back into New Orleans?

GAPINSKI: Well, we're not sure. That's one of the -- the other things we'll look at while we're up in the air this morning.

S. O'BRIEN: What's your big concern about the rain? I read -- I heard previously you said, you know, half an inch could be a big problem for you. And now it looks like they're saying maybe three inches or four inches of rain. What happens then?

GAPINSKI: Well, this -- there'll be some significant flooding. We've already had reports that, you know, under -- excuse me -- highway underpasses, six feet of water. So, you know, we'll assess that. You know, the good news is, we do -- we should be good on pump capacity. You know, we've had upwards of 40 percent of the design capacity. So if we keep that running, we should be able to evacuate that water, you know, much more quickly than after Katrina.

S. O'BRIEN: Forty percent sounds kind of low, but you think that's actually a doable, workable number?

GAPINSKI: Well, it was zero after Katrina, so we're starting off much better.

S. O'BRIEN: It's all relative, isn't it? The Ninth Ward, much of it flooded, although I'm told not all of it. Has anybody -- have you seen a lot of people in the Ninth Ward? We heard from Lieutenant General Russel Honore that there are some people who are still there.

GAPINSKI: There were people around. But, you know, there were search and rescue trying to evacuate yesterday while we were there inspecting those overtoppings.

S. O'BRIEN: Now, the lower Ninth Ward, which is adjacent to St. Bernard Parish, this is really the center of all the problems. And this -- how much does this complicate what you've been trying to do? I mean, how far back does this set you?

GAPINSKI: Well, again, you know, until we know the extent of the flooding, we're not going to be able to tell. You know, again, we're going to drop sandbags on top of that levee as soon as we can. We're going to get portable pumps out there and start pumping and trying and get rid of that water.

S. O'BRIEN: If you'll recall, the other day, when we had you on our program, you said your level of concern was about a five or a six. You were talking to Carol Costello. And you said, How -- she asked you how worried you were. You said, Oh, a five or a six. Has that number gone up a lot now?

GAPINSKI: Well, not -- no, not really, because, you know, we're pretty much going to start to -- the storm's going to ebb. So, you know, we'll be able to start making progress again.

S. O'BRIEN: So you're keeping it at a four -- five or a six as you go forward. When do you get to start working on it, at what point? It looks like it's first light about now.

GAPINSKI: Right. Well, you know, again, it's going to depend on the weather, because initially, some of the work's going to be done by helicopter. We hope to have access on the west side of Industrial Canal by truck, and then we'll start work, you know, right away, as soon as we determine how we get in there.

S. O'BRIEN: Are you feeling incredibly frustrated with this one- two punch from Katrina, then Rita? Are you feeling hopeful that you'll be able to learn some lessons from Katrina and bring this around a little bit faster?

GAPINSKI: Sure. Well, of course, we always -- we try to learn from the past, and, you know, we got to play the cards we're dealt. So we're going to, you know, drive on and get the city unwatered again.

S. O'BRIEN: Colonel Duane Gapinski joining us by phone this morning. Thanks for your time. I know you got a busy day ahead of you. We appreciate it.

We want to take you to Houston, Texas, now, where officials are briefing the press as first light has come up, and they have more information about the situation. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the medical center up around through the west side of Houston and up into the FM 1960 (ph) area.

I did also want to look firsthand at the flood-control structures, and again, the rains were not as great as we might have anticipated. Everything seems to be within the banks of the bayous.

So in general, for a storm that, 24 hours ago, was supposed to be the largest storm in the history of the Gulf, and actually was the largest storm maybe in the history of the Gulf of Mexico, or one of the largest storms, bearing down on Houston, we have come out reasonably well.

I would ask the mayor to talk a little bit. He and I have both been out in separate areas looking at damage in the community.

So Mayor, why don't you give a little report on what you have seen this morning as well?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Consistent with Judge's (ph) observations, in the southeast area, we're spent some time, one of the first places to flood, as the Edgebrook Community, and there was some, one place on Edgebrook where it was impassable. But on the some of the (INAUDIBLE) residential side streets still intact.

But I tell you what, it's still raining, so it's too early. As you can see, the people sitting around this room, outside there are gusts of wind. There is driving rain out there. So we're not doing some final analysis of storm damage. But at least right now, OK, Simms (ph) Bayou looked what was not over its banks at all.

Northwest Houston, same thing, we'd see throughout the town that Judge described. Branches down, lights out, some large section of town didn't have any lights, occasional blinking lights, couple of billboards down, streets quiet. Wide Oak Bayou was not -- did not look much higher than normal. And neighborhoods safe and quiet.

We were looking, and I was with HPD for public safety. So assessment so far is that Houston is weathering this storm.

And additional piece of information, the call for service by Houston Police Department overall was significantly lower than normal. The -- we enhanced deployment. There were 28 calls for service, reports of burglaries, 16 arrests. The overall number of calls for service in the fourth-largest city of the United States, we get a lot of calls for service every night. The overall amount down. But the chances of being caught are extremely high.

So we are securing the property of citizens of the 16 arrests, eight of the arrests were just in one incident involving a Target store, three arrest in another. So there were a handful of incidents that contributed to some of those arrests.

The pace of EMS and fire, EMS calls were down from the ordinary volume. Fire calls were up, some of that dealing with electrical, you know, switches tripping alarms. But there was a two-alarm fire in southeast Houston that was responded to. It's premature to say what the cause of that particular fire was.

We went there, and we helped the firefighters in Galveston on the fire that was called in between 10:00 and 11:00 last night. We deployed four engines to ladder trucks, an ambulance, and a district chief in support of the efforts on the Galveston fire.

And then, congresswoman had a note on safety and -- that she wanted to make. And (INAUDIBLE). Yes, road, if we could do this, road closures.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good morning. To echo some of the things that Mayor White said, in unincorporated Harris County, the overall call volume was down. We had no disruption of service. Our deputies continued to patrol all night.

Again, echoing some of the things that he said, our deputies were checking businesses during the night and happened to roll up upon some burglars loading up goods from a Wal-Mart store up 1960 at T.C. Jester (ph). We had five arrests in that one incident.

Again, the overall call volume was down, number of burglaries was significantly less than you would have on a regular night. We've had a couple of reports of trees down.

S. O'BRIEN: You're listening to local official in Houston. They're updating on the situation, now that there is first light in Houston, filling everybody in. Talking specifically there about burglaries, saying that calls for service or responding from the police actually overall down in the wake of Hurricane Rita coming onshore.

Talked about, we heard from the mayor of Houston, the flooding and the potential problems, saying that much of the places -- much of the region is still very intact, but it is still raining, and he doesn't want to go out on a limb with his predictions of how bad it could be.

And they also talked specifically about something we've been telling you about all day, the fire in Galveston. Houston officials say that their firefighters sent to help out with that fire. Unclear of the cause at this time. The fire broke out late last night, 10:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. they were on the scene, trying to bring that fire under control.

We're going to take a short break here. When we come back in just a few moments, we're going to update you on where Rita is now. And also, now that first light has risen, we'll be able to give you a sense of just how bad it is where Rita has been.

CNN's your hurricane headquarters. We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. There she is. There it is. Hurricane Rita came on shore about 3:30 in the morning. Really heading right for Lake Charles, Louisiana. Houston effected as well. Galveston seems to have dodged a bullet in this case. Let's get right to Jacqui Jeras. She can tell us a little bit more about the path of Rita and where Rita is now.

Good morning again, Jacqui.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, good morning, Soledad. Rita's right between Jasper and Beaumont, Texas, right now. It's been downgraded to a category two storm. Maximum sustained winds right now are about 100 miles per hour. So it's still well within the category two range and that can still cause a considerable amount of damage.

We've been checking in with Miles O'Brien all morning long. He's down here in Lumberton, Texas. And there you can see what's left of the eye wall of this storm. Still producing some very damaging winds and also some torrential downpours.

So just because we're down to a two now and the storm is inland doesn't mean we can't take this seriously. This is still a very serious situation through the rest of the morning and over the next several days as this storm heads on up to the north. It's still moving pretty quickly, about 12 to 15 miles per hour, but it's expected to slow down in forward speed gradually throughout the day today and then just kind of stall out right up across the ArkLaTex region.

Want to show you what kind of damage you can expect from a category two. You're still going to see some damage now that this is inland. Still some storm surge along the coast lines. Particularly across the Louisiana coastline. That could range from five to 10 feet we think today. Typically with a two it's about six to eight.

Winds, 96 to 110 miles per hour with a category two storm. And considerable damage in particular to mobile homes and poorly- constructed signs and piers can be significantly damage with the category two. And additional power outages can also be expected.

Another concern as we head throughout the rest of the day today is the potential for tornadoes. There is a brand new tornado watch box that has just been issued, includes much of Louisiana, eastern Texas and heading on up to the north. Eventually we'll watch that move into Arkansas later on for today.

Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: No surprise, Jacqui, when you talk about what damage a category three or even category two storm can bring because we're looking at pictures as you're talking of some of the damage and it's really consistent with what you're talking about there.

JERAS: Right. And this is a very large storm, too. That's something else to keep in mind. Still at this time, the hurricane force winds go out 85 miles from the center of the storm, so that can reach, you know, more than 160 about 170 miles out. That's pretty significant. Tropical storm force winds extend 400 miles wall to wall.

S. O'BRIEN: It is a huge, huge storm and still with us.

Jacqui Jeras, thanks. We'll check back with you in just a little bit. Let's get back to Miles. We've been talking to him from Lumberton, Texas, all morning and now we can really see what it looks like. Yes, there's the flooding you were talking about. There's an alarm going off behind you, Miles. What is that?

M. O'BRIEN: Well, it's city hall, believe it or not. I'm going to try to get the police chief to get in there and kill it. It's driving us nuts here. But, yes, obviously somewhere along the way the alarm tripped. What's interesting is, I didn't think there was any power but there's obviously enough of a battery back-up in that alarm.

Let me give you a quick assessment of what's going on here. Lots of signage down. You'll see the Dairy Queen over there lost its signage. That shopping center sign is tilted in the direction the wind was blowing this way and it's kind of tilted in that direction. You've got a tree down here. Got a ton of asphalt shingles in the puddle that is the parking lot here. There's a bunch of singles off of the city hall here as well.

Take a look at this sign over here. Home coming parade, September 24th, 9:00 a.m. Soledad, I don't think there's going to be a parade today, just for the record. It's a Hawaiian theme, but I think we'll have to suspend the homecoming.

Beyond there is the Shell station. A lot of its signage down here. This is a piece of siding which I think came off of city hall at the edge of city hall there when it came off over night it startled us but fortunately we were safe and sound.

As we do our kind of assessment right around here, the police chief has told us he's released his 14 officers. They're all headed out, looking at their own personal property and making their own assessment. We have a camera with the police chief and in a few minutes we should be able to get some pictures, give you an early assessment of what happened here.

But his general reaction, Soledad, a lot worse than he anticipated here in Lumberton, Texas.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, certainly the flooding is pretty remarkable.

Miles, thanks. We'll check back with you when we hear back from the police chief. Thank you.

Let's get to Ted Rowlands. He's in New Orleans. And they have been focused on the levees and how those levees are holding up today.

Good morning to you again, Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad.

So far so good at first light according to our initial reports. The levee system is holding. Of course yesterday, early on, there was that breach which flooded portions of New Orleans again and now in the ninth ward they're saying there's about three to five feet of water in the worst- flooded areas. And that is only a small area of the lower ninth ward. On the east side of the breached levee, it does go into St. Bernard Parish, some of the water, but to what extent, they're going to look at that today.

They're also going to look at trying to repair that levee. They're hoping to get up in the air as soon as possible, weather conditions wanted, and they can begin to dump sandbag on that levee area and then try to get ground crews in with gravel and rocks to repair that levee so they can then begin the arduous task of pumping all of the water out of that area.

Of course, they've already done it once with Katrina. The good news is, though, overnight, there wasn't a breach at the 17th Street area, which was a big concern. The water of Lake Pontchartrain has been held at bay, except for some seepage and a little bit of spill over yesterday. But for the most part, that area of New Orleans, the west, downtown, all of that is dry this morning, which is very good news as people try to rebuild their lives and they begin to rebuild this city.

And Katrina's aftermath still very apparent obviously. The city is pretty much deserted. Nobody is here, which is a good thing. And the flooding yesterday really didn't affect people in terms of lives. There were a couple stragglers there but they've kept in contact for the most part with those people and they don't believe anybody was injured yesterday. And the hope is that the levee system can hold, they can reinforce and repair and move on.

S. O'BRIEN: How are things in the French Quarter where you are reporting from right now? That was, you know, relatively speaking, not hit so badly. How is it now?

ROWLANDS: It's up and running in most areas. There are businesses that have dried out. There was some flooding here but it was not extensive. And hotels are starting to open up. They are housing mainly law enforcement agencies from around the country that are here to help with the rebuilding effort. And also National Guard troops are in this area. We're seeing a lot of movement during the day here in the French Quarter. It's kind of a base of operations for a lot of people because it is dry and the electricity is on and the water is also up and running.

So this is the base. This is where they'll work to rebuild this city. The question is, when do you start bringing the people back and how many do you bring back. There has been some debate on how best to do that. And that will iron itself out over the next few days and weeks.

S. O'BRIEN: That is kind f the $64,000 question. Ted Rowlands for us in New Orleans.

Let's get right back to Miles. He's in Lumberton, Texas, where you can see flooding clearly an issue there.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, this rain was something, Soledad. It just keeps coming and coming. It still is sprinkling but the rain was absolutely incessant. Typically, in a lot of hurricanes you get doses of rain followed by dry periods. This was a very wet hurricane, indeed.

This whole region that was hit is a very important region for the nation's energy production. Lots of refineries here. It remains to be seen what sort of damage was incurred by Rita to those refineries. Baytown, Texas, is one area where a lot of these refineries are and that's where we find CNN's Randi Kaye. He's on the phone right now.

The last time we checked in with you, you were really getting battered, Randi. What's the situation now?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm still getting severely battered. I'm just going to step outside here with you. We can't get our satellite dish up because the wind is so bad, but we're working on moving the truck and seeing if that would help.

But right now it is, believe it or not, I mean after being out here all night, this is probably the worse that we've seen. The winds are pretty high and they're coming from all directions. It's a very disorganized wind. And the rain is the strongest it's been as well. I'm not sure if you can pick it up, just the sound of what we're experiencing over here.

But in terms of Baytown, it's a town of 66,000. It sits right on the Houston Ship Channel. And that is that waterway that is lined with about 200 chemical plants and refineries. I've been talking with this group CMAO (ph), the Channel Mutual Aid Organization, and they all night have been monitoring the activity at the chemical plants and refineries from a bunker, basically, that is can withstand a category five hurricane.

And the good news is, is that they say that they have not had any reports so far of any damage over there, any fires that they need to respond to. And certainly no chemical leaks, which is really good news. They've had power lines down. They're working a house fire and a fire at a strip mall. But other than that, all is quiet as far as industry goes. So that's really good news.

Of course, now it's just beginning to get light here and they'll have to get over to those plants today at some point and after these winds pass and make a visual assessment to make sure about the damage. But if there is damage, it could be anywhere from a week to a month or even longer before those plants could get up and running again. The plants and the refineries.

M. O'BRIEN: And, of course, that would have significant implications. I think we just lost Randi Kaye there who's in Baytown, Texas, monitoring there the refinery situation. What will be very interesting to see is how the refineries around the Lake Charles region are hit because that, of course, is where Rita ultimately came ashore right around Lake Charles where there's significant numbers of refineries as well.

As a matter of fact, here in Lumberton, there are several people who are associated with Dupont Chemical and a Total (ph) refinery. Here they are staged for just the possibility of spills or fires as a result of Rita. And as the wind dies down here, as the weather improves, probably very soon right now, they will begin making their way back into those refineries and beginning those early assessments which are under way now all throughout Lumberton. And, for that matter, all throughout the region as the wind let's up, the rain let's up a little bit and we get first light.

Soledad.

I don't think I . . .

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JERAS: I'm Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Weather Center with the latest on Hurricane Rita. It made landfall about 2:30 local time this morning as a category three storm. One hundred and twenty mile-per- hour winds. Right now it's gown to a category two but winds have only dropped 20 miles an hour. We still have 100 mile per hour sustained winds. The center of the storm is between Beaumont and Jasper, Texas.

We'll expect the storm to continue to weaken as it moves inland but bringing very, very heavy rain with it and also the threat of tornadoes. You can see the watches across Eastern Texas, much of Louisiana and including much of Southern Mississippi. And as we get into the afternoon hours especially and get some of that daytime heating, that threat of tornadoes will increase for today.

Here's the forecast track. We're expecting it to continue to push up to the north and the west. It's moving very quickly right now, about 13 to 15 miles per hour, but it's going to start to slow down and, unfortunately, it's going to be stalling out right up here across the ArkLaTex region and that means some seriously bad news with some flooding rain. We've already seen some radar estimates across Eastern Texas of eight to 10 inches.

And this is a computer model forecast with our Titan system here anticipating. There you can see it, five plus inches of rain across much of Louisiana, on up into Arkansas and throughout eastern parts of Texas. Other computer models are showing as much of 25 inches within this alley over the next five days.

Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: As Hurricane Rita goes through, really the focus now on flooding. Jacqui Jeras.

Thanks, Jacqui.

Let's get to Gary Tuchman. He's in Beaumont, Texas. Really got the brunt of the storm. Now it's daylight.

How does it look there, Gary?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Soledad, it's shaping up to be an absolutely beautiful day in Beaumont, Texas. At least compared to the previous 17 hours. The rain has sort of stopped. The winds have let up. And we've taken a look at the damage. And while there is significant damage, this is not a Gulfport, Mississippi, this is not a Biloxi, Mississippi and this is certainly not . . .

S. O'BRIEN: Clearly we have lost our connection with Gary Tuchman. Gary reporting us to from Beaumont, Texas, where he was telling us that while there is significant damage, it is nothing like we saw in Gulfport, Mississippi, and other areas where frankly help was unable to get for many, many days.

Let's check back in with our affiliate George Flickinger is covering this storm as well. He is with KOKI.

George, where are you? And it still looks pretty bad where you are.

GEORGE FLICKINGER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is. Right now we are in Beaumont, Texas. We're at an office building. It's called EMG Global. And there has been significant damage to this building.

In fact, this is where we rode out the storm last night. As we were taking shelter, this occurred about 30 feet from us. The upper facade of the building, this is about a two, two-and-a-half story building, as you can see. The upper facade up there was ripped away by the strong wind. And it came crashing down into the parking lot. Also one of the cars that someone has left parked here, the back windshield was destroyed as well.

And much of the rest of this building, not only this building but a lot of the other structures in this area, have been completely shredded. All of the buildings on the north and west side have been destroyed on the bottom floor and also the top floor. And once we started seeing the worse conditions, which was around 2:00 to 3:00 a.m. last night, when we were seeing sustained winds of over 60 miles an hour, that's when we started to observe the worst damage.

S. O'BRIEN: He's reporting from KOKI. Now, George, what is it like right now as you walk around? And I can tell you're obviously assessing the damage which sounds, as Gary was telling us, pretty significant. And what's the weather like?

FLICKINGER: Right now the weather, it's the worst is certainly over here in Beaumont. In fact, as far as rain, we're just getting light rain right now. Still gusty. I can see some of the trees blowing around in the wind. The highest wind that I had last night, I got out in the absolute worse of the storm. The highest wind that I was able to observe with my handheld wind gauge was 85 to 90 miles per hour.

But some of the wind gusts were stronger than that. Some of the wind gusts, I would estimate, closer to 100 miles an hour. And any time we were starting to hear or see wind reports in that vicinity, wind that strong, that's when we could start hearing strange noises as far as things peeling away, broken glass, tearing metal and other things that we didn't know what they were at the time. And also, we could also observe some of the homes.

I don't know if you can see. There is a subdivision, kind of an upper scale, very nice part of Beaumont, as you can see, behind me. We witnessed some of the guttering on the homes being removed and also several of the homes were de-shingled. And there are numerous trees down.

I would say that it we knew that Beaumont was going to be hit hard. We knew that the eye, the center of this storm was going to pass fairly close to this area. But it's probably going to be a big surprise to the residents of Southeast Texas in this area exactly how much damage there is. In fact, later today I'm going to go to my hometown of Orange, Texas, which is about 20 miles east of here, and I'm afraid the damage there is going to be even worse because I think that's where the strongest part of the storm went early this morning.

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, George, have you had a chance to talk to anybody from your hometown?

FLICKINGER: Well, actually, what we had to end up doing, I had to go rescue my mother yesterday. She was stranded at her house and she was going to ride out this storm at her house. I convinced my mother that that was probably not a very good idea. So we took our news truck into Orange, Texas, picked up my mom and she followed us for the rest of the day and last night she stayed the night in a hotel not too far from here.

That hotel was significantly damaged as well. A lot of glass and window damage. First and second floor of the just a lot of damage at the building. But she is doing OK this morning. Though after I can tell you, after I'm done with this report, I'm going to have to go check on her very soon.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, yes. You certainly better. George Flickinger reporting for us from our affiliate KOKI. Go take care of your mom. And also, George, if you don't mind, check back in with us when you get back to your hometown of Orange. We'd like to hear what it looks like from where you are, OK?

FLICKINGER: OK. I sure will. I saw a before picture of the house I grew up in when I went there yesterday. I really I know I have to but I really don't want to go back to see what my house is going to look like. I think I know where the answer's going to be.

S. O'BRIEN: Probably you shouldn't take your mom with you, would be my advice. Maybe keep her at a safer hotel for a while.

FLICKINGER: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, George Flickinger from our affiliate KOKI. Thanks for the update. Appreciate it.

Let's get right back to Miles. As we've been mentioning, he's in Lumberton.

Oh, the alarm's still going on behind you, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: We're working on that. We've got our crack group of technicians out here trying to stifle the alarm. In the meantime, always important to check on mom first. Always important to do that. Let's talk about the hospital situation. Do you remember in the wake of Katrina in New Orleans, Charity Hospital and the terrible situation there where they had the loss of power. They didn't have running water. They were actually having to vent people, actually keep them people who were on breathing machines alive manually by taking turns and the term is bagging them to keep them alive. It was a truly heroic agents performed. And the truth of the matter is, that there were many patients who didn't make it through all of that.

So we focus a lot this time about the hospitals and how they would fair in the midst of this, the remnants of Rita as you see right here. CNN's Sanjay Gupta has been doing just that from Lake Charles.

And, Sanjay, what have you seen? What have you heard? And I assume is it an improvement over New Orleans.

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A huge improvement over New Orleans for sure. Certainly a lot of lessons were learned. I know everyone's been saying that.

But some specific things, Miles. And you'll remember, you and I talked when I was at Charity about the fact, for example, that the generators were in the basement. The fact that the generators were in the basement, they quickly shorted out and that's what led to that tragic situation where patients' breathing machines did not have enough power and they actually had to be hand bagged for days at a time.

None of that happened here at this particular hospital. Christus-St. Patrick's Hospital in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Now we picked this particular hospital, Miles, because we knew it was actually going to stay open. Not only were they going to keep patients here, but they were also going to take patients as needed through the hurricane. You know, as somewhat expected, it was not very busy through the hurricane. There just was nobody moving around on the roads.

They did get a patient here. And this is a good sort of an interesting story. A patient last night who actually broke his leg while trying to board up some windows in his house. And subsequently, you know, he fell and he broke his leg. There was no orthopedic surgeon on duty, so the neurosurgeon, brain surgeon, actually had to do that operation.

And that's the reality of what happens to a hospital in a hurricane. The patient did fine and all the patients that were already here in the hospital as of this morning doing very well. The emergency generators kicked in and have been doing their job.

Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Boy, that is really good to hear, Sanjay.

What do you think the key is in this case? There was a storm that came through here, Alison, back in 2001, which caused people to think twice about how they are set up in hospitals. Do you think they learned some lessons through those storms?

GUPTA: Yes. Yes, I'm having a little bit of a hard time hearing you, Miles. The signal's getting a little bit bad here. But, you know, they had some preparations specifically about the flooding, which has not occurred. I'm standing on the fifth floor of the hospital, the top floor of the hospital now looking down. Some people have been outside already. There's not significant flooding on the streets around this particular hospital.

There is a fair amount of debris and there were some reports that another hospital in town that had been shut down lost part of its roof, some windows, glass went flying through the air as well around there. But over here, you know, every precaution that they could possibly think of they tried to take care of.

A couple of Achilles heels, really, in a hospital like this, and they thought about this as well, is that they have to keep diesel fuel, for example, in the hospital to run these generator, which kick in automatically. They also keep a lot of compressed oxygen, which can also be a potential source of combustion. But again, none of those things happened. They're thinking about these things but it seems that the worst has passed over here, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Sanjay Gupta, thank you very much.

The town of Port Arthur, much of the actually the town leadership is here in Lumberton. The police, the fire department, all the heavy equipment, all the police vehicles staged here, evacuated because of concerns in Port Arthur, being right there on the coast as Rita came through. Tremendous concerns with a I think the storm wall there is 14 feet with a 25-foot surge. Many people rode this storm out. CNN's John King joining us from there right now, from Port Arthur, with a videophone report.

John, how has Port Arthur weathered the storm?

KING: Well, Miles, I'm not sure that many people rode it out. We were in town here last night and we were the only people in town that we could fine in the 1:00 a.m., 1:30 a.m. range. We have now found a couple of local residents who did ride out the night.

Let me try to show you the sea behind me on the videophone. I'm not sure how clear the picture will come out in these conditions. But there is a bridge underpass that you can see behind me. We drove through there at midnight last night. So about nine hours ago. There were two feet of water under that bridge. It is now just at seven feet. We are 1.4 miles now, 1.4 miles from the sea wall, the levee, that protects this town and, obviously, we have significant flooding, 1.4 miles away from this wall.

It is not disastrous flooding in a sense because most of that water it goes under the underpass at about seven feet but most of the water in the streets is about three to four feet deep. But again, it runs we've driven around the neighborhood. It runs up the side, the roof's blown off a church over here. Some trees down. Some buildings down. We have a local resident, quite a remarkable site a little while go, this gentleman walking through the scene behind me, pushing his bicycle, starting to come in and if you can tell me, you live how many blokes down?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. I'm about six blocks down and about six blocks over. And it was horrible. It was horrible on the other side of town there. People are just going to have to expect that we've got problems over there. The businesses, they're wide open. I saw no other people there. And I can tell you one thing there, if people start moving around there, the businesses are wide open.

KING: And what is the most significant damage you saw down there? Are power lines down, trees down, buildings destroyed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every tree that you can imagine is down. It's a horrible scene. There's a lot of homes took window damage. All the windows are bursted out of homes. Shingles you don't have no shingles on the roofs. The water, we did not you know, the water didn't get up there. It was the wind that got us. About 3:00 or 4:00 this morning the wind come through and it busted every window I had in my house out. I mean, it was horrible. I'm sorry that I rode it out.

KING: You say you're sorry that you rode it out. We're going to let you try to get dry for the moment. And, Miles, as we toss it back, we're going to try to get a better scope of the damage. We can walk over an overpass here. We're going to see how deep the water is on the other side and try to get closer down to the sea wall.

Obviously, you can see from the weather here, one of the concerns is continuing storm surges. There is debris up that way. So at one point the surge went a little further. It has now receded just a little bit. We're going to try to get a better assessment of the scope of the damage.

One quick point before we toss it back to you. We did drive to the edge of a property with a big refinery on it not too far from here. It appeared to be in fine shape.

Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: CNN's John King in Port Arthur, Texas. Just hearing him say I'm sorry I decided to ride it out. That's probably a sentiment a lot of people have this morning in this part of the world.

Back with more of our coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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