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American Morning

Hurricane Rita Approches Gulf Coast

Aired September 24, 2005 - 07:00   ET


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that wind is serving to just flatten this surf out. So it's like -- more like a fast moving water that's pushed up against that sea wall. But, of course, at 17 feet, that sea wall was more than enough to contain this seven foot storm surge that they were predicting here, if, indeed, it got that high.
We went into town a short time ago. We were driving around. We did see some minor flooding on some streets in town, but nothing to the point where the streets were impassable. In fact, I was surprised at how easily we were able to get around, suggesting that these hurricane force winds did not do a great deal of damage, if they, in fact, did reach hurricane force winds all the way inside the island.

So, Soledad, community leaders here have to be very happy with the way their citizens responded to the appeal to get out of here and they also have to be very happy with the job that's ahead of them right now because a couple of days ago, the mayor had requested 1,500 National Guardsmen and two search and rescue teams to be on the standing by to come in here and assistant after the hurricane. That shows you how worried they were about what kind of damage, what sort of catastrophic damage they might have been anticipating here.

But we're not seeing that kind of damage and I have to wonder if we'll see any of those National Guardsmen and those search and rescue teams actually coming onto the island to help out.

So we'll see. They're going to do the damage assessment once the wind dies down and the sun comes up and we'll be able to see exactly, from east to west and all points in between, how Galveston truly fared in this storm.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. It'll be good to see when the light comes up, to get a sense, really, everywhere, David, just how bad it is or, it sounds like, in your case, in Galveston, Texas, how good it is. And everybody there may be breathing a sigh of relief today.

David Mattingly for us in Galveston this morning.

David, thanks.

It's the top of the hour and we want to reset for you, for those of you are just joining us this morning, we're following the progress of hurricane Rita and you are watching a special extended edition, Saturday morning edition of AMERICAN MORNING. It has been a furious night of rain along the Texas-Louisiana coast. Hurricane Rita came ashore a little more than, gosh, what is it now, four -- three-and-a-half hours ago and really hitting Louisiana and Texas on the coast, hitting hard as a category three storm. Winds 120 miles an hour.

In some cases, good news, as we just heard out of Galveston, Texas, because flooding and the direct hit and the catastrophic damage, at this point, does not seem to be the case. But as we've heard from Miles O'Brien, who's in Lumberton this -- in Lumberton, Texas this morning, strong winds. And he predicts at first light they're going to see some serious, serious damage there.

We've got Jacqui Jeras at the Weather Center.

She's been tracking this storm -- Jacqui, good morning.

What's Rita look like right now?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Rita is still holding very strong. Where Miles is, here's Lumberton, and there you can see the center of circulation. That's still a little bit of the eye of the storm. So it's just to the north and east of him where the heaviest of rain is. But he's also getting in on some of the strongest of winds.

Rita made landfall overnight about 2:30 local time. It is weakening. It was a category three when it made landfall. It's probably down at least to a two right now, because we're just kind of estimating the winds until we get some more specific numbers from the National Hurricane Center.

But it's continuing to pack a punch at this hour. We also have a tornado threat. We've got all these little lines, the outer feeder bands you can see moving through New Iberia up toward Lafayette and then even New Orleans and on up to the north of there. We're concerned about these individual cells, these little mini super cells that could possibly produce tornadoes at any time.

The storm ripped ashore moving pretty quickly, about 13 miles per hour, on up toward the north and the west. And, unfortunately, it's going to be stalling out over the next couple of days. And rain then will be our big focus, as we expect some significant flooding with this storm.

Here's the forecast track of where it's going to be going. Probably holding hurricane strength, we think, throughout much of today, even tonight. It's going to take probably 18 to 24 hours for this to weaken down to tropical storm status. Still a tropical storm, as you can see, over northeastern Texas overnight tonight and then becoming a tropical depression, we think, tomorrow. And then it's going to just sit here and spin across the ArkLaTex Region. Unfortunately, there's not a lot to steer this storm. It's just going to stall and bring in heavy rain.

How much rain are we talking about? Well, our computer models estimating as much as two feet of rain along the eastern Texas, western Louisiana state lines -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, we keep watching Rita.

Jacqui Jeras for us in the Weather Center.

Jacqui, thanks.

Let's get to Ted Rowlands.

He's in New Orleans. And as Jacqui talks about a storm that sort of sits and waits, that cannot be good news for the folks there, because flooding is a huge concern for the residents of New Orleans, those certainly who are left and those who would like to come back to something left of their homes one day soon -- good morning to you, Ted.


Yes, a lot of fingers were crossed overnight. So far so good.

As to the levee system, yesterday morning there was a breach much earlier than expected. The Ninth Ward flooded again, the lower portion of the Ninth Ward on the eastern side of the city. The Army Corps of Engineers had expected that at some point the Ninth Ward would flood. But when it flooded at 10:00 a.m. there was a lot of folks that were nervous because it was way earlier than it was anticipated and there was fear that Lake Pontchartrain could break through a levee or go over a levee, depending on the storm surge associated with hurricane Rita.

That has not happened. And overnight, quite frankly, it was relatively calm here. And this morning it is calm, a little bit of wind. And we've had off and on, in terms of rain, rainfall, but nothing that has caused any problems.

We've just talked to the chief of police. He came by here and said they had boats ready to go just in case to do some last minute rescues or do any rescues. And they haven't had to use those boats.

The Ninth Ward was devastated after Katrina, so this was really a double whammy for this area. Psychologically, a complete nightmare. From the practical stopped, the damage was already done and the city is pretty much vacant.

So New Orleans, at this point, looking at a major cleanup with the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. They have to redo that. They have reestablish the levee and re-pump out that portion of the city. But the outside, so far, is relatively dry and they're crossing their fingers that that will be the case as the remnants of this next -- of this storm continues to dump rain in the region.

S. O'BRIEN: How much water did they actually have in the Ninth Ward? I mean obviously the middle of the afternoon, really, before they had predicted getting -- having these problems, they started having these problems. And that was a big concern to the mayor and others. So how much water did they get and what is the likelihood that they will be able to just pump it out slowly even?

ROWLANDS: Well, they'll be able to pump it out once they fix the levee breach. The problem is that water has been flowing from the Mississippi River, presumably all night. And where those water levels are and to what extent the water has traveled, we'll have to wait for first light to investigate it. But it's assumed that it's well into St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward is completely underwater. They were saying between three and five feet of water at some point yesterday, and it's a huge job ahead.

This was an area that was completely devastated, where the water went above two story homes. So, you know, they're redoing -- they have to go back and do it again. But from the other standpoint, the city was vacant. Nobody injured and no real loss of property, because all of that area had already been devastated.

S. O'BRIEN: Ted, where are you reporting from right now? I can see lights on behind you, but of course I can't really make out where you are in the city.

ROWLANDS: We are in the French Quarter, on Bourbon Street. And this is an area that was not hit very hard from Katrina. It didn't take on too much water. And it is coming back to life. Some hotels are open. A lot of military police from around the country are staying here in the French Quarter. That's where we are. It's where we came to be safe last night.

We will be moving toward -- to these levees, though, in the next few hours to check them out once the sun comes up.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, you and a lot of other people.

The workers, I know, had to evacuate as this hurricane starting coming in their direction again.

How many people are left, since you're in the part of town that's really not too bad, how many folks are kind of around where you are?

ROWLANDS: Well, it's mainly all the folks that are working on the reconstruction of the city in some capacity. There has been a mandatory evacuation of the city again. Of course, people in areas like Algiers that were not heavily hit had an opportunity to come back, a small window. And they've stayed, for the most part. But for the most part New Orleans is empty and there is a real concern about bringing people in too quickly. And we have heard differing opinions on when that should be done. It's safe to say until this storm is done dumping rain and until they have the levee fixed, they're going to try to prevent people from coming back into the city to repopulate it; and then the long, long road ahead of trying to rebuild what has been damaged here. And that is, as you know, very extensive.

S. O'BRIEN: We sure do.

Ted Rowlands in New Orleans. Ted, we'll continue to check in with you throughout the morning as the sun comes up. Interesting to see exactly what the damage is in New Orleans, how much water really has gotten into the Ninth Ward.

Let's get back to Jacqui Jeras.

She's been telling us about the progress of hurricane Rita and also, really, I guess, the next step, which is the problems of flooding.

What, potentially, Jacqui, could be the hardest hit by the flooding that now could follow for the next four or five days?

JERAS: Well, we think that it's going to be right on the state lines of Texas and Louisiana, Soledad, just kind of right in that little alley, almost all the way up and down. Both of those states as much as one to two feet of water is expected.

We're looking at, on average, probably about eight to 12 inches, maybe as much as 15 inches of rain in the direct path of the storm over the next 24 hours, we think. But then it's the next two, three, four plus days when the system stalls out across the ArkLaTex, where we're talking about a good one to two feet of rain.

And, you know, more people die in the freshwater flooding from the flood events after the hurricane than they do from the storm surge and from the winds. So it's something you need to keep in mind. This is just not a coastal storm. This is affecting millions of people inland, as well. And we always try to tell you about that motto from the National Weather Service -- turn around, don't drown. If you can't see the bottom of that road, you do not want to drive in it, because you just never know how deep it is. As much as six inches of water, if it's moving fast enough, can move your car off of the road.

Our other big concern today is not just the flooding rains, but also some of the tornadoes. We've got a tornado warning in effect for St. Mary's Parish in Louisiana. And then there are also some tornado warnings which are in effect, and that's basically for the eye wall of the storm, since that is bringing in some very heavy winds.

These feeder bands are going to continue to push through. We've got two lines right now that we're most concerned about. One kind of starts just to the south and west of New Orleans and extends on up into lower parts of Mississippi. And then the other one over here toward New Iberia, that one includes the St. Mary's Parish storm. That's moving off to the north and the west.

And these are moving pretty quickly, about 45 miles per hour -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Any reports of tornado activity at this point or are they just warnings?

JERAS: Right now we've just had warnings. I believe there was one report of a tornado. That was yesterday afternoon. A lot of the warnings, though, Soledad, something else to keep in mind, yesterday and overnight, were in the New Orleans area. There's nobody there, really, to tell us whether or not one touched down.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Jacqui, thanks.

We're looking, Jacqui, as we talk to you, at pictures from Galveston, Texas. These were taken overnight. Look at this fire. No one reported injured or killed, which is the great news there. But you can see the conditions under which these firefighters had to try to work, with these -- and I don't know the wind speed. And, maybe, Jacqui, you can jump in for me and tell me what the wind speed was in Galveston, Texas overnight as Rita hit, because you can see what these guys are -- and women -- are dealing with and struggling with as they're called out to perform rescues and bring out their equipment and deal with the high winds and fight a fire at the same time.

JERAS: They basically have been -- the Houston and Galveston areas both have been dealing mostly with sustained tropical storm force winds. So that's between 39 and 74 miles per hour. There have been a few reports of some occasional gusts pushing hurricane strength around 75 miles per hour or so. We haven't seen a lot of data in yet, believe it or not, in terms of the wind gusts or the rainfall. We've got some Doppler radar estimates of the rain, but still waiting for some of those wind gust reports to come in.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Jacqui, thanks a lot.

Let's bring in Ed Rappaport.

He's with the National Weather Center.

We've been talking to him really since hurricane season began, the National Hurricane Center, sorry, Ed.

Good morning to you.


S. O'BRIEN: Let's get right to it.

What's your biggest concern now that Rita has made landfall, and by some reports, really, some areas that you thought would be hardest hit kind of avoided being hit, which is great news? But what's your big concern now?

RAPPAPORT: The big concern remains the storm surge along the coast. Hopefully, and I think fortunately people are out of there, in the areas near and to the east of where the center came ashore. It looks like landfall, as you know, was just east of Sabine Pass, Texas. So that would have put southwestern Louisiana along the coast in the area of greatest risk.

And we still think there's going to be a storm surge that will remain -- the water will remain high for much of the day today, on the order of five to 10 feet, maybe a little bit higher than that this morning. And then, of course, inland later on, with the storm expected to slow, there is going to be a threat for additional rain and flooding from that rain. S. O'BRIEN: What's the wind speed of Rita right now? I mean how bad is the storm itself?

RAPPAPORT: At this time, we don't have any observations in the hurricane because it's now over land and the hurricane hunters don't fly through the hurricane when it's over land. But our estimates are now it's down to probably a category two strength. We think there'll be further weakening during the day. But even so, the area near and to the east of the center is going to have tropical storm force, hurricane force winds much of the day. Still storm surge, water high along the coast of southwestern Louisiana.

S. O'BRIEN: Chad was talking earlier to us about the spaghetti models, all the different options for Rita even after she hangs out maybe for four or five days.

What do you think is going to happen to this storm?

RAPPAPORT: We do think the forward motion will slow, but because of the spread in the models, we're not sure in what direction it's going to loiter over the southeastern United States, south-central to southeastern. So it's likely to be some area here that's going to get in excess of 10 to 20 inches of rain. And that's in addition to what's going on here at the coast.

But we can't pinpoint exactly yet where that's going to be.

S. O'BRIEN: We're looking, as we talk to you, Ed, at live pictures from Galveston, Texas. And when you and I spoke the other day, I've got to tell you, things sounded so dire for Galveston because the predictions showed -- you could literally have wiped Galveston right off the map with some of those models that were being run.

RAPPAPORT: That's right. And the forecast wound up shifting up a little bit north of Galveston. But we were always concerned that there could be a little deviation right or left. It turned out that the storm actually edged a little bit to the right in the last 12 to 24 hours, maybe 30 miles off the forecast track.

That was good for Galveston and Houston. Had it gone the other way, they would have gotten much more severe weather. Unfortunately, it was bad for the areas in southwestern Louisiana, Beaumont and Port Arthur.

S. O'BRIEN: We heard from our reporter there, David Mattingly. He talked about the sea wall where he had been reporting from a couple of days previously. And he said that, you know, that he didn't see the storm surge that maybe was expected a couple of days before.

Is that still a risk for Galveston? Are you at all concerned about the storm surge?

RAPPAPORT: Well, it will be a risk in future storms. It's not for this one. And part of the reason was that they were on the west or the left side of the storm. And so the winds are not as strong there. And they were also, importantly, from the land to the sea. So the water wasn't coming in from the ocean. It was actually blowing out toward the Gulf and blowing the water out toward the Gulf.

It would have been a very different story if the hurricane had come inland about 60 to 80 miles down the road.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I think that's certainly very fair to say.

Jacqui Jeras, I know, has a question for you, Ed -- Jacqui?

JERAS: Yes, Ed, I wanted to know how many days do you think this storm could potentially just kind of sit and stall out over the ArkLaTex Region?

RAPPAPORT: It looks like we lost our feed.

S. O'BRIEN: She was asking you how long, Ed, do you think that this storm -- we've heard predictions ranging anywhere from 24 hours to...

RAPPAPORT: OK, they were right in the middle of just asking me a question...

S. O'BRIEN: I don't know if Ed can -- it looks like Ed is having some technical difficulties with us.

Well, Jacqui, we'll get that question to him next time we're able to get someone from the National Hurricane Center back and we work out our communications problems. And she was asking how long could this storm sit and be stalled, essentially, over Texas? Because, of course, that stalling essentially brings with it lots of water. That water brings with it lots of flooding. And as Jacqui pointed out, flooding is often where people lose their lives in these storms. It's not necessarily in the brunt of the hurricane.

Jacqui, can I ask you a question about that?

JERAS: Sure.

S. O'BRIEN: Why is that? I mean what -- is it, as you gave the example, people look at water, it doesn't seem too deep, they get stuck in their cars and that's how they lose their lives?

JERAS: Yes. That's exactly it. People think that their car is heavy enough or their SUV is tall enough that they can make it through the water and they get caught off guard. Their car will stall out or the water is continuing to rise and they just don't think it's as deep as it actually is, and that's when they get into trouble.

S. O'BRIEN: What are your computer models showing you for as long as this storm is going to sit, really, and park itself, because it doesn't look like it's going to move for maybe even, I don't know, what, three, four, five days?

JERAS: Yes, that's kind of what it looks like right now. But as you had alluded to, what Chad was talking about in the last hour, those spaghetti models that we were talking about, some of the models are bringing it already up toward the Ohio Valley eventually, making it up toward Kentucky over the next three days or so. And that would be the best case scenario. And there are a couple of models that are bringing it up that way.

A couple of them are bringing it down toward Louisiana and some even have it doing just kind of a loop-de-loop. Three to five days is kind of what we're looking like potentially, I think. I wanted to know what Ed thought, if he agreed or if he thought it could potentially be longer.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, we will see when we get him back.

All right, Jacqui, thanks.

We'll ask you to stick around.

We want to check in with Mickey Bertrand.

He is with the Beaumont fire chief -- Beaumont, Texas getting pretty hard hit by Rita.

Mickey is the head of the emergency operations and he's on the phone for us this morning.

Mickey, good morning.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

I know you're probably busy and we certainly appreciate your time.

Give me an assessment of how things look to you, at least right now.

MICKEY BERTRAND, HEAD OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well, we're still waiting for daylight, so we really can't see a whole lot at this point. We've got a lot of calls through the night for private fire alarm systems, trees falling on houses. And we actually had one call where we had a young 17-year-old male that a tree fell on him. And, you know, he went outside to kind of see what was going on and hurt his back and leg. And, of course, we can't get to him, but, you know, the folks that were with him were able to bring him back inside the house and we gave him direction on care and, you know, he's going to be one of the many that we're going to do a welfare check on as soon as we're able to respond.

S. O'BRIEN: Have you had lots of calls like that, I mean where you just say I'm sorry, we cannot get to you, it is too dangerous for my people to put themselves at risk to get to you?

BERTRAND: Well, we've had a number of those. And a lot of people realize, though, I mean, you know, we've been calling for an evacuation for many days now and they realize. And, you know, we're just concerned with, you know, who all we've got left here in the city. I mean we have evacuated most everybody, but we know there's quite a few that's still here. And we just want to look after them.

S. O'BRIEN: What kind of provisions did you put in place for communications? I mean obviously we're talking on the phone and, as you know, in the wake of hurricane Katrina, communications just a disaster. People who wanted to call in and see if they could get help weren't able to contact anybody.

How have you been able to -- what did you put in place before the storm to try to protect against any problems?

BERTRAND: Well, I'll tell you, we've got, you know, a pretty good little system here. Ironically, about four or five weeks ago, our fire department switched over to the 800 megahertz system. We've been working on that for many years and did that through one of these homeland security grants, and finally was able to do it. And so what we've got, just about a half a block down the street here, we had an emergency operations center set up at our public utilities company, Entergy, here for southeast Texas. And so we've actually been using that as our joint operations center.

Then we've got an 800 communications with them. We have backup vhf radios in case that goes out. We've got satellite phones in case all of those go out. And so we haven't had any trouble being able to communicate with all of our emergency workers and we're all on standing by. We've probably got 180 firemen right now at the Entergy building and then we've got about 32 in this building. And we're ready to go out as soon as these winds die down enough that we can.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, you are clearly very prepared.

How about as the winds right now -- and I should mention, we're showing some pictures of Beaumont and really just how much it was gusting and how bad it was.

How is it -- what is it like for you right now?

BERTRAND: You know, right now I feel like I'm in paradise here and I never thought I'd say that with like 50 or 60 mile an hour winds or whatever it is that we've got. But, you know, after what we went through a few hours ago, I mean I literally had six firemen standing on my credenza a while ago, nailing up boards up. We had a makeshift boards. We took cabinet doors off of our weight room lockers and had to board up our windows. We've lost most all the windows on the north and east sides of our building and anyway, they were just blowing out into the street and we had to do something quick.

So these guys are very resourceful. I'm proud of them. But we're OK. We're high and dry and we still have our generator going. We've got electricity and the phones and communication. So we feel pretty good. We just want to get to work as soon as all of this blows through.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I bet you do, and, you know, I can't even imagine as that storm is hitting and the windows are blowing out. That must have been some pretty scary moments and -- you know, and you're a bunch of people who have -- with your job, have seen a lot of tough things I would imagine.

BERTRAND: You know, it's more frustrating than scary, I guess. You know, we just -- we're just like everybody else, you know? We're in a facility -- this building was built in 1927. It's held up rather well. But, you know, these kind of storms, they're going to find weak points and, you know, we're just going to make it through whatever it takes.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, well, we'll check back in with you again as soon as it's first light and you've had an opportunity to drive around and check out all the areas and make sure that everybody who you're worried about is safe.

Mickey Bertrand is the Beaumont fire chief in charge of all the emergency operations there.

Thanks for talking with us.

We're going to take a short break.

Remember, CNN is your hurricane headquarters.

As soon as day breaks, we're going to get a much clearer picture of just how bad it is in the wake of hurricane Rita.

We're back in just a moment.

Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

You're watching a special Saturday edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

You can see right there hurricane Rita as it makes landfall. Lake Charles, Louisiana right in its path. Hurricane Rita hitting Texas and Louisiana as a category three with winds of 120 miles an hour. Structural damage reported out of Galveston, Texas and other areas, as well, Lumberton, Texas. We've got reporters all across the scene.

Miles O'Brien is on the phone for us this morning.

Let's get right to him -- Miles, what's it like right now?


S. O'BRIEN: Hey, Miles, I'm going to stop you there because we're having some serious problems hearing you. I know you've got waterlogged equipment and I know that there are still some very high winds that you're struggling with. Let's see if we can get that fixed.

We'll check in with Jacqui Jeras. As we look, Jacqui, at some of these pictures of the structural damage that I was talking about, not only in Texas -- this is Galveston, Texas where these pictures are from -- but also Louisiana, as well, really getting hit quite hard.

Give me a sense of when Rita hit and how bad it was.

JERAS: Well, Rita hit about 2:30 local time. It was a category three storm. I believe winds were about 120 miles per hour sustained in the one northeastern quadrant of the storm. The highest peak wind report we've seen so far, the Port Arthur area at 116 miles per hour, and that looks easily like a category three or better damage.

Take a look at some of those high rises. Look at the bricks that have come down out of this building. So this is the kind of damage that a major hurricane can do. And we were trying to warn you when this was a four and a five, and telling you the storm is going to weaken down to a three, that it still needs to be taken very seriously. And these pictures proof positive there that this is a very powerful storm.

I think a lot of the reasons why we're having some trouble getting with Miles is he's very near the center of the storm right now. We're going to zoom into that area. There's Lumberton. This is where Miles is and this is what's left of the eye wall, right around the center of the circulation of the storm. So he is in some of the worst winds right now.

We don't have any exact numbers on where those winds are. It was 120 earlier. We think it's probably down somewhere in the category two range. And category two hurricanes have winds that range from 96 to 110 miles per hour. So that's still very powerful. That is going to knock over some trees. That is going to cause power outages. That will be ongoing.

And this storm is going to stay pretty strong throughout the day today. In fact, we think this is probably still going to be a hurricane 12 to 18 hours from this time, moving down toward tropical storm maybe overnight for tonight and then a tropical depression eventually for tomorrow.

And some of the rain that has been coming down has just been unbelievable. Some tropical downpours. And this is Doppler radar estimated rainfall so far from Rita. And this dark, dark red area right here, which is right near where the center of the storm is at this time, averaging about eight to 10 inches. And those numbers are going to continue to go up. You get a little farther on off to the east and there you can see, around Lake Charles or so, they're looking at maybe six to eight inches here and then the orange bands a little closer to the coastline and just a little farther off to the east here, that's approximately three to six inches of rain.

And we're talking about the potential of maybe a foot of rain right within this path and then when this storm stalls out farther on up to the north, we're going to be dealing with maybe one to two feet of rain. Of course, not everybody is going to get in on that much rainfall. But there are going to be pockets of that and that is going to be our next concern once we get through some of the worst of the wind damage and that storm surge that we've been talking about. I'm going to show you, there you can see the radar picture. And when we talk about storm surge, that's that big wall of water. Those winds pushing the waves up over the coast and the storm surge throughout much of the day today is still going to be five to 10 feet. And then it's going to bring water a good ways inland still. The peak of the storm, we were probably seeing surge anywhere between 10 and 20 feet. So the worst of the surge is over and done with, but that's going to be ongoing throughout the day today, also -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Before we talk about how long the storm is going to stick around, Jacqui, I want to ask you a question about some of the reports that we've heard. I mean it sounds, as we do these phone interviews with some of the neighborhoods and the local leaders, that things have gone well. They still have communications, if they're able to talk to us, they're sort of breathing a sigh of relief. But a category three, the sun is not up yet, you really don't know how bad it is.

How bad could it be?

JERAS: Well, it could be very bad. I mean these pictures that I'm seeing behind me, I think, are pretty devastating. To see brick buildings like that that have been knocked down.

One of the other things to keep in mind, you know, you hate to say that it's the best case scenario, but where the storm came ashore, where the eye wall was and where some of the worst of the damage are going to be, is going to be pretty much the least populated areas across Texas and Louisiana. Had it gone a little bit far off to the left, we would have been talking about more damage in Beaumont, Port Arthur or over toward Galveston. Had it gone a little bit father on off to the right, we would have been a little bit more worried about some of the bigger cities, even New Orleans, extending over toward Lafayette and Baton Rouge.

And so where the area of this storm is coming in, right along that state line, most of these towns are a little bit smaller. Of course, we've got Lake Charles, which has been in there, as well. But right now where the storm is, it's pretty rural.

S. O'BRIEN: A big problem, of course, is when these -- the power lines fall. And as we can see as we talk to you, Jacqui, we're looking at a picture of a fire in Houston. It's not really clear because, of course, it's really early on in understanding how these things started. But clearly these things can start when a power line hits a building. And it's hard for rescue workers to get there to try to fight the fire, certainly in the conditions that they're seeing.

We have been showing you other fires, as well. There is a fire in Galveston, Texas. And there was a fire in Pasadena, Texas. This fire in Pasadena, Texas broke out at a shopping center.

Priscilla Kwan, who's with KPRC-TV, filed this report about that just a few moments ago.

PRISCILLA KWAN, KPRC-TV CORRESPONDENT: We are actually outside of a shopping center. It is a Family Dollar Store that is on fire and next door it is an Auto Zone store.

When we first arrived here, the Family Dollar Store behind me was on fire and the roof had collapsed. The roof had just cratered in and firefighters were really concerned that the fire would spread to the Auto Zone store next door because of all the materials and the chemicals that are inside.

Sure enough, the fire did spread next door and now that Auto Zone store is on fire and that roof has collapsed.

So the main concern is the chemicals that are inside.

Firefighters have water going onto the businesses that are next door, that Amco auto insurance company. They don't have any water going onto the fire because they're afraid of runoff. Chemicals can go into the water and the runoff can go into the bayous and eventually into our bay. So that is something that they are very concerned about here.

The fire has been burning for about two hours. So far we haven't heard of any reports of any injuries. The power is out in many parts of this neighborhood and firefighters say that's actually a good thing as far as this fire is concerned, because firefighters don't have to worry about becoming electrocuted. So that is some good news for this fire, at least.

The winds here have been very intense. Definitely hampering the firefighters' efforts here, frustrating them. One police officer here estimated the winds as going at about 50 miles per hour. And I heard in one of your reports earlier that the reporter was in her live truck and it was rocking back and forth. The same thing with us as we were feeding, editing the video here.

So, again, this shopping center is on fire. Passing the firefighters here trying to get a handle on this. The electricity is out, which is a good thing for firefighters because they don't have to worry about becoming electrocuted.

Another thing here, most of the people here evacuated before Rita arrived. And so there was no one here to report the fire. The firefighters saw the fire themselves and just came out here to put it out.

We're live in Pasadena.

I'm Priscilla Kwan.

Now back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: Priscilla Kwan with KPRC-TV reporting for us on this fire burning at a Pasadena, Texas store. Apparently a Family Dollar Store is where the fire broke out. The roof collapsing there and the fire spreading to an Auto Zone. And as Priscilla reported, the big concern is they actually can't pour water on the fire because they're concerned about runoff and chemicals in that runoff. So they're just sort of spraying down the buildings nearby, hoping to keep that from spreading. That is in shopping center and it's obviously a huge problem that they are dealing with, the fire burning for in excess of two hours.

We're going to keep updating you on that story, coming to us from Pasadena, Texas this morning.

Let's get right to Randi Kaye.

Randi is on the phone and she's joining us from Baytown in Texas.

The big issue there, of course, the refineries, a big concern, and this is right when the center of the storm is apparently hitting -- Randi, how is it going?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Soledad, we are still in the midst of probably the peak winds that we've seen, having been out here now about seven hours. These are the strongest winds that we've seen so we are outside, but we're in our car outside.

And I can tell you, it kind of feels like you're going through a car wash. We're being tossed around a little bit by the winds and heavy rains coming down and we're just waiting for it to clear so we can get our satellite truck back up and going.

But so far so good in terms of the industry here. There's about 200 chemical plants and refineries that line the Houston ship channel, which is where the town of Baytown sits. And so far, speaking with the folks who have been monitoring all of those plants throughout the night, telling us that so far they haven't had any reports of any chemical leaks, any damage at the plants yet. And so far so good.

So they'll make an assessment once daylight breaks and once these high winds clear out from this area. They're just hearing a lot of reports of power lines down. And, as you mentioned, and they've been talking about all morning now, that fire at that Pasadena strip mall. They're working that. And, but in terms of what's happening here, we're looking at some debris certainly being loosened up by these high winds. We were outside and it was actually a little scary just to be out there, because you could hear things clinking around in the dark. And you know they're coming loose and you just hope that they're not coming your way.

So that is the news here from Baytown, which is about half an hour east of Houston and about 45 minutes west of Beaumont, just to let you know where we are.

S. O'BRIEN: We are looking at a map of it right now.

We've also been looking at radar and really the yellow spots being the most intense as this storm passes right through you. You can see it right there.

You know, Randi, I've got to tell you, I'm a little concerned when you tell me you're in the height of the storm and you're in your car and you're hearing things kind of, you know, debris around you and you really can't see because it's still dark where you are. Give me a sense of what it feels like to be in -- and I hope it's a big car, I hope it's a safe car, because I'm getting a little worried here.

KAYE: It is a big car and I'm sitting in here with my producer, Henry Schuster. And we're OK. We're under the awning here and we're at our hotel, which is actually the only hotel that's open in Baytown. It's one of the few things that's open at all in Baytown, maybe the only thing. And we're up against the building. And we feel somewhat sheltered.

But there are a couple of flag poles that are -- or, actually, three flag poles that are pretty much right next to us. And they've lost two of the flags already overnight. So -- but the flag poles are still intact. They're 10 feet down into the ground. But we were concerned a little bit earlier that they might snap. We're still a little bit concerned about that.

But we're surrounded by other vehicles and a couple of buildings. So I think we're OK. We're not taking any chances just trying to bring you the real feel of the storm.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, well, we're glad to hear that.

We're looking at pictures, by the way, of Houston, Texas, as you've been talking to us. You're not very far from Houston.

I guess in reality it's not going to be clear how bad it is for the refineries, even though it sounds like people are beginning to breath a sigh of relief, you really won't know until the sun comes up and they can eyeball how bad it is.

KAYE: Exactly. And, you know, they've only had just a few employees that they've left behind there. So who knows how communication is. I mean so far it's amazing, I believe, that we've been able to even get cell phone service out and that some of the emergency responders, at least here in Baytown, have been able to talk to you by phone, because usually that's not the case.

But I know at the Shell plant in this area, they had about 1,700 employees. They left 20 behind. And I know that they're going to -- they're certainly going to be anxious to talk to some of those people and see what they've experienced and take a real close look at what some of these refineries and plants have experienced. Because here in the Houston ship channel area, more than 25 percent of all the gasoline products that's used around the world is produced. So if there is any kind of delay, even just a few days or a week, that could really set the country back, set the world back, and who knows how it might affect our prices at the pump.

S. O'BRIEN: Right.

Well, everyone is going to be out there assessing the damage to t.

Randi is in Baytown. Randi Kaye reporting for us from Baytown this morning.

Randi, thanks.

We'll check in with you again.

As we go to a break, I want to remind you, we have got crews up and down the Gulf Coast. And it's really, as the storm comes through and then sits right out off the Gulf Coast, these -- this equipment taking a real hammering. The wind speeds 50 miles an hour in some places. And we are efforting all our reporters, bringing you live reports on the situation where they are. And certainly as first light comes up, it'll be interesting to see and asses the damage this morning.

Rita, a category two storm now, we believe. We've been unable to get an exact reading on the wind speeds. But it hit land as a category three. Wind speeds reported around 120 miles an hour.

Now we watch and we wait to see the damage that's done.

We've going to take a short break.

And we're back in just a moment.

You're watching a Saturday edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

And we're back in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

You're watching a special weekend edition of AMERICAN MORNING as we follow the progress of hurricane Rita.

As you can see there Miles O'Brien in Lumberton, Texas trying to clean off the camera so we can see what's happening there -- hey, Miles, good morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Lumberton has had a wild ride this last hour-and-a- half or so as the, really, the thick of it -- the thick of Rita has come through. The waters have been rising. The rain really has been intense. It has not stopped in the six hours or so that we've been up trying to broadcast. And we finally have gotten to the point where we feel comfortable putting that satellite dish back up again. So here we are.

We're told that right now the police department here is in the midst of a rescue operation. We're trying to get some further information on that. As we told you earlier, they rescued a family from a house with a tree down earlier tonight. They have a shelter nearby in a nursing home where they're housing about eight people.

The winds seem to be dying down a little bit as the eye passes by, at least glances by here in Lumberton. We're about 50 miles from the coast and Port Arthur, about 15 miles north of Beaumont. And 40 feet or so above sea level. What -- and one of the reasons we came here was that, there wouldn't be a big storm surge. But there is evidence of a lot of flooding as this torrential rain, this storm Rita has been a storm that has produced a tremendous amount of rain.

We'll be back here in just a moment.

Back to you now -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles, thanks.

Hurricane Rita hit as a category three storm. We believe it's about a category two now.

We want to check in with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And acting director David Paulison is in Washington this morning.

Thank you for being with us.


S. O'BRIEN: Clearly, the Gulf Coast being battered. Unclear how bad it is.

Do you feel confident about the things you had in place as the storm was approaching?

PAULISON: I think that we've pretty much put everything in place that we can possibly do. We have food, water, ice in not only Texas, but also Louisiana. We've got urban search and rescue teams on the ground. The Coast Guard is ready. The military ships are moving in right behind the storm. We're absolutely as ready as we can be.

S. O'BRIEN: What's the latest information you've gotten, or do you also have to wait until daylight before you're able to really assess the worst hit areas?

PAULISON: Yes, I think we're going to have to wait not only until daylight, but until the winds die down before we can get a very good assessment. I talked to Thad Allen, the vice admiral, Thad Allen, in Louisiana this morning and he's going to try to get out and look at the levees -- we know that they've already been breached -- see what we can do to stop that as quickly as possible, and also talk to people in Texas.

And right now the -- all the teams are just holding tight in a safe location until they can move in when this thing gets a little bit calmer to handle.

S. O'BRIEN: Do you think government officials in Louisiana and in Texas have what they need, at least right now?

PAULISON: We believe so, yes. We've talked -- I've talked to both governors. We've talked to the mayors in some of the major cities and right now everybody is comfortable they have the supplies they need. And we're ready to move in with supplies as quickly as we can, as quickly as the roads can get cleared and we can find out what is going on.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about some of those evacuees. I think the number is well over two-and-a-half million, maybe even 2.7 million people evacuating out of the area.

What's FEMA doing for all these people and can you manage that number of people?

PAULISON: Well, they're not all in shelters. They've moved to other places. But the shelters they're in will have food and water. Yes, we're comfortable that we can handle what is there. The state did the right thing. The local officials did the right thing by calling for an evacuation early to get people out of harm's way. And so that'll make our job easier, and to take care of those that are left in the cities and some of those outlying areas.

S. O'BRIEN: Certainly as storms come through and even evacuation plans work or don't work, there are lessons that are learned.

What did you learn from the evacuation plans in Texas? We saw a lot of frustration. We saw people who thought that they were doing the right thing who felt, 24 hours later, that maybe they had made the wrong decision and almost evacuated too soon.

PAULISON: No, they did not make the wrong decision. It was the right thing to do. It was a little rough around the edges, but if you're evacuating a major city like Houston, there's going to be some issues there.

Again, the state did the right thing. The local officials did the right thing and the people there, the residents paid attention and left like they were supposed to do. And I'm sure Texas will go back and look at what went real well and what went a little rough and fix some of those things.

But believe me, moving out of harm's way was absolutely the right thing to do in this storm.

S. O'BRIEN: With hurricane Rita now an issue, and it's unclear how bad it is, and hurricane Katrina, which was obviously devastating, and we're still really a fair way away from hurricane season being over, do you feel that FEMA is just stretched too thin, that you've got everybody pulling on your resources and you're not abler to give 100 percent to everybody?

PAULISON: Everybody's tired, there's no question about that. But I have to tell you that I have never, ever been so impressed with a group of employees as I have been with the people here in FEMA. When Rita came out and we saw what it was going to do, it was almost as if everybody was re-energized and getting their second wind.

I am comfortable that despite the amount of hours these people have been putting in -- and some of those people have been putting in 18 and 20 hours a day -- and, but they're ready to go. They're charged up and they're going to do a good job for the people in Texas and Louisiana. I am very confident of that.

S. O'BRIEN: FEMA, as an organization, and I don't need to tell you this, took a lot of bashing, frankly, in the wake of the response to hurricane Katrina.

How are the employees feeling about that? I mean the fingers were pointed at FEMA and the failures in FEMA for the problems after Katrina.

PAULISON: Well, right now everybody is focused on Rita. We are going to go back and look very, very carefully at what happened in hurricane Katrina. But right now everybody, including all of our employees, are focusing on Rita and what we can do for the people in Texas and Louisiana.

S. O'BRIEN: In the short-term, give me a sense of what you learned sort of off the bat from hurricane Katrina that you've been able to apply, you think, successfully in hurricane Rita.

PAULISON: Well, again, you know, I'm not going to look back too far. You know, we put communications systems in place. We had issues with communications. We're making sure that we have people in the governor's office and people in the municipalities, sitting with the local officials so we can understand what their needs are, where the needs are and they can understand exactly what we can give to them.

S. O'BRIEN: We'll see how it turns out when you have a chance to check in with all the teams that are out there and assess the damage overall.

David Paulison, the assistant director of FEMA, thanks for talking with us this morning.

PAULISON: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's get right back to Lumberton, Texas, which is where Miles is -- Miles, actually, you know what? Looking at you, it seems that the wind has died down significantly from when I saw you earlier.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, it has, Soledad.

I'm getting a few decent gusts and I don't -- it's hard to tell from where you are, of course. It's shifting around on us now as the eye passes by. It was coming -- that's north there, that's south. And now it's kind of coming in (AUDIO GAP) there.

Obviously as the storm goes in that counter-clockwise swirl we're going to get a little bit of a shift here. So what the tells us is we think the worst of it is over and that's why we're back up on the satellite dish (AUDIO GAP).

Like so many places, a pretty orderly and good evacuation. And that is pretty good because this is not a town that is going to be unscathed, by any stretch. The police chief, who drove through the town earlier this evening on a rescue mission, reported numerous trees down. Had to literally cut his way through the roads in order to get to the houses. And lots of structural damage. There's an out building here at the police station which is completely flattened. Lots of signs down. Lots of pieces of roofing material that are missing.

And as you see here, we've got a significant amount of flooding. It's just been sheets and sheets of rain. And as you look into this parking lot, it's become a bit of a pond. It's not that deep. In fact, you can still wade through it, in some parts getting, you know, kind of calf height. But that flooding extends all the way across Main Street there.

You might be able to see, we're getting a little bit of first light here.

Fifteen miles to the south of us is the city of Beaumont, Texas. And Beaumont was the first to take the battering. And it's about 20 feet below us near a river, so there was some concern there about storm surge and additional issues with flooding.

CNN's Gary Tuchman is there with a video phone -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, the conditions here in Beaumont, Texas have improved dramatically over the last hour. We had, by my count, about 12 hours of tropical storm force winds, about seven hours of hurricane force winds. The rains finally stopped coming down heavily about 45 minutes ago and now we've been able to take our first look outside here in downtown Beaumont.

This is the entertainment district here in Beaumont and normally on a Friday night this place is jammed. Usually lots of bikers are here. There are 50 to 60 bikers who park their bikes here and go into some of the bars and some of the restaurants on this street here, on Crockett Street.

But it's been completely empty. For the first time now we're seeing cars because people want to explore a little bit. And in this downtown area, there is tremendous damage. We took refuge in a restaurant. The restaurant started springing a leak. We discovered that part of the roof on the second floor had been destroyed, so we stayed away from the leak. None of the windows broke, but this restaurant is lucky because many of the other stores and restaurants and offices on the street lost windows.

Across the street, there's an office place and you may be able to hear the metal sheeting banging against the wall. Let me see if you can hear it. I don't know if you can hear it with this video phone, this video phone, which we have used all night and all day today to be able to get in and out of places quickly. It gives us the ability to go to places with less protection because we can pack up really quickly and leave when it gets dangerous.

But metal sheeting just going all over the place, all over the streets here, blowing from buildings onto the street, blowing into other buildings, windows breaking. It was quite a wild night. And until it gets complete daylight, we won't know completely how much damage there is.

But what is encouraging to see here in Beaumont is we haven't seen any severe flooding. We've taken a little walk around here and haven't seen it yet. The big concern, though, was 15 miles to the east of here in Port Arthur, Texas. There was a lot of fear of severe flooding there. And at this point, it's not exactly clear what's happened there, although it does not appear to be as bad as originally feared.

We talked to everyone, nearly everyone here in this town, in Beaumont, in Port Arthur, evacuated. And we know there's a correlation between that and hurricane Katrina because people really had fear in their eyes when they talked to us, saying where should we go to get away from this hurricane Rita -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Gary Tuchman in Beaumont, Texas, thank you very much.

The rescue team, the emergency services, the police from Port Arthur have all evacuated here to Lumberton. They've staged all their equipment here. And when this wind dies down a little bit, and as you can see, it's still blowing here, when it dies down, they will go back into town.

As they left, they indicated to me that there were several hundred people who remained in Port Arthur, insisting on riding out the storm. It remains to be seen what has become of them in the wake of Rita. Perhaps they were lucky because they were on the so-called clean side of the storm. The eye passing to the east of Port Arthur.

We'll be back with more AMERICAN MORNING in just a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: Live pictures, Lumberton, Texas, first light, Main Street. And it is a morning fit for ducks. And that's about it here, as the flooding is significant here. Much of this Main Street area, the parking lot that we're in at the police station covered with water, as an incessant rain from hurricane Rita came down. Never really a break from the driving rain. Only now just slightly beginning to let up, as Rita becomes officially now (AUDIO GAP) category two hurricane.

It's quite clear, however, that Rita, over the course of this night, has caused significant (AUDIO GAP).

In Houston, Texas (AUDIO GAP) Houston appear to have escaped the worst fears of this storm, as the storm passed to the east, closer to where I am now.

The Red Cross in Houston and around this region, though, is staged and ready to respond.

Carol Yelverton is with the American Red Cross. She joins us on the line from Houston.

First of all, Carol, many people evacuated in Houston and the problem there, in many cases, were people stranded on the side of the road.

Has the Red Cross been able to help them out?

CAROL YELVERTON, RED CROSS SPOKESWOMAN: Yes, it was a pretty amazing thing that happened. Of course, we saw all these folks on the side of the road or in mall parking lots with no gas and, you know, a high level of anxiety. And we were able to really wake our people up, get them out of bed, turn on the lights in community centers and churches, and open up shelters that, you know, we had already worked out shelter spaces with many cities and towns ahead of time just to have. And we were able to move 1,400 people in last night -- I'm sorry, the night before. And last night we ended up with 6,000 people in 50 shelters throughout southeast Texas. And these are folks who truly did have shelter from the storm, a safe place to stay as Rita hit the coast.

M. O'BRIEN: It must have been very difficult to respond to all of this.

What is the plan of action this morning? What will the Red Cross be doing in some of these hard hit areas? Do you have stuff and equipment and people staged?

YELVERTON: We do. And, you know, that really is the resiliency of this organization, is that, you know, we have a good plan in effect and we're able to also be adaptive as necessary. We have moved about 1,500 of our relief workers into sites in Austin and San Antonio. So they're ready, you know, as soon as this is over to kind of move in as we see what other shelters we need to set up or where we need to realign everything.

We also have our supplies staged in Dallas and San Antonio. So we're going to be able to, you know, just crank up the meals. We have mobile kitchens we'll move in.

So we really -- we know that we've been able to keep people safe overnight. You know, they're warm, they're dry, breakfast for 6,000. And once this thing has passed, then we'll really assess the communities where there's the greatest need and see where we can be helpful and helping folks get their lives put back together.

M. O'BRIEN: I imagine your resources are incredibly taxed in the wake of Katrina.

Do you have resources to respond to this one?

YELVERTON: 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 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.