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Hurricane Rita Report From Lumberton; Hurricane Rita Report From Baytown; Hurricane Rita Report From Beaumont; Levee Update After Hurricane; Hurricane Rita Report From Lake Charles; Military Response To Hurricane Rita; Report From A Galveston Hospital; Update with Richard Wagenaar

Aired September 24, 2005 - 11:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Miles O'Brien live in Lumberton, Texas. The remnants of Hurricane Rita still blowing. The rain still coming down, though not nearly as hard. A grim assessment today as they try to figure out how much destruction Rita left on this AMERICAN MORNING.
And welcome to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING on this Saturday. This Saturday the morning after Rita. Rita still a category one storm but has moved inland significantly from where I stand right now. This city of about 8,700 is in the midst of making an assessment and thus far 80 miles of roads in this city, 75 percent of those roads are blocked one way or another by downed trees or downed power lines.

There's an assessment underway right now. People still trapped in homes. The authorities are out trying to get a good handle on what exactly is going on with people and whether there are any injuries or casualties. The word here, don't come back.

The word is the same for the city of Houston. We just spoke to the mayor of Houston, Bill White. He is telling evacuees, stay home for now. Not only is it unsafe, they want an orderly return. They didn't have such an orderly evacuation. And he wants to underscore the point, and the point is made here as well, that the place is secure. You don't need to worry about your valuables. So if you're an evacuee listening right now, sit tight. Wait for the authorities to give you the go ahead before you try to return home.

Back to you, Soledad.


While those teams are out, in fact, trying to get an better assessment of exactly how bad it is, we've got a little bit of a damage assessment, a preliminarily damage assessment in the aftermath of Rita. You're looking at pictures from Houston this morning. Evacuees in parts of Texas are being warned, as you said, Miles, not to come home. Not at least yet. The officials want to make sure that especially in Jefferson and in Orange Counties and the city of Beaumont, that those cities are safe before folks return to their homes.

Outside of Beaumont, emergency workers are responding to reports of a building collapse. Several people, we are told, are trapped and according to KBTV's Web site, response is slow because emergency vehicles were put on those military ships, they were moved out of the way to protect them from Hurricane Rita. Obviously, they've got to remove those move those response vehicles back on to land before they can even think about getting in there.

The entire area is home, of course, to some of the country's largest oil refineries and chemical plants. So far there, no reports of any significant damage. Refineries and plants could be back up and running in just about a week by some estimates.

In Port Arthur, Texas, some of the worst flooding we have seen so far this morning. CNN's John King is there reporting for us. He says up to seven feet of flood water under a bridge. Some streets have three to four feet of water.

Flooding also causing some problems in New Orleans. Most of the levees, though, appear to have held. There are some leaks to talk about. General Russel Honore and his team trying to get some 3,000 pound sandbags to reinforce the walls that are there.

Let's check in once again this morning with Randi Kaye. She's in Baytown this morning.

It really seems that things are deteriorating, Randi. Good morning.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning again, Soledad.

Yes, things are deteriorating here. We thought that we were through the worst of it. Now the wind and the rain seems to take turns. The wind has died down just a little bit and the rain has actually picked up, as I'm sure you can see.

But the wind was here with us throughout the night and it was certainly strong enough to take a couple of flags off our flag poles up there at our hotel that we're staying at. The middle pole was holding the American flag. And when that one went flying, we didn't want to see that happen, so we actually captured that flag and we're happy to say that it is now in safe hands and hopefully it will be flying again, although a bit frayed.

The news here out of Baytown, not such good news related to the water situation here. The water treatment facility apparently lost power about 3:00, 3:30 this morning. They went over there to try and turn a generator on and then that caught fire. So now the folks here, 66,000 people in Baytown, just about a half hour east of Houston, don't have any fresh water coming to them and they're being asked to conserve water as best they can. Apparently there are 4.5 millions gallons of water on reserve here but the city manager tells me that he wants to use those actually keep that on reserve in case the firefighters need it but they never know what this storm is going to bring.

But on a positive note, word from the folks who monitor the Ship Channel here, which is where Baytown sits, the Houston Ship Channel. Good news. Saying that they haven't had any reports of fires or chemical leaks or anything like that. There's 200 chemical facilities and refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. A lot of them have many lethal chemicals, chlorine, ammonia, phosgene (ph).

And if any of those got out, we would see some real trouble here. But so far this morning, reports are they didn't have any of that. They're going to get out as soon as they can, as soon as this rain dies down a bit and get over to those refineries and make as quick an assessment as they can and back up and running.


S. O'BRIEN: A little bit of good news there. Randi Kaye for us in Baytown. Randi, thanks.

Let's get some new video to show you. You're looking at the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. These are pictures today of what the flooding looks like there. The levees overtopped and there was some seepage as well. Some good news, though, from the folks who are working to reverse that, to de-water the area.

The pumps are operating at about 40 percent they say, way better than they were in the wake of Katrina, the immediate wake of Katrina, and they are confident that they'll be able to start de-watering the area again. That's the lower part of the Ninth Ward flooding again, up to three or four feet from reports that we have gotten.

Back to Miles O'Brien in a little bit of water himself this morning.

Good morning, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning, Soledad.

The water's actually going down here a little bit. That's some good news. The rain has it's just a little bit of drizzle in the air right now. Still getting a breeze though. Seventy-five percent of the roads here in Lumberton are blocked, although Main Street looks pretty clear here.

And we've got some people that are emerging. These are some of the people, clearly, who rode the storm out and are no worse for the wear. They're getting their own personal assessment. Take a look here. Our photographer, Danny, is at the City Hall across the way here. This is the Chamber of Commerce building. Definitely not Chamber of Commerce weather today. But the building looks pretty much unscathed.

But take a look at this communications tower. This is one of the primary radio towers for the police department here. Completely up ended by the storm and, as a result, the communications here for the officers is greatly inhibited.

Generally speaking, what we see here is kind of the superficial sort of damage. Signs are down and so forth. But beyond here, we have reports of a lot of trees down. We have reports of some people that they've been trying to get to, lacking oxygen and so forth. There were some rescues that were done overnight.

The big issue here has been getting the trees cleared. And in one case when they went to go rescue a family of six last night, there were no less than six trees blocking their effort. This is right in the heart of the storm. And they had to cut those trees back to order to get to them. They ultimately did rescue those people and they spent the rest of the night in a nursing home nearby.

Beaumont, Texas, about 15 miles south of here, situation there, some significant damage but not anywhere what was most feared. That seems to be a recurring theme on the left side or the west side of the eye. Rob Marciano rode the storm out there and he joins us now.

Rob, good morning.


If I had to compare the damage of Beaumont to a storm as recent as last year, I would say Hurricane Ivan, Mobile, Alabama. Because when Ivan came on shore as a category three, it came just to the east of Mobile, raked them with 100, 120 mile an hour winds and we saw similar damage in Mobile as we're seeing right now.

Namely, a lot of poles down. A lot of power lines down. A lot of big trees down. An some minor structural damage. But these big live Oaks, man, they're just torn up all over town. It's heartbreaking in a way because they're just magnificent trees down here in the south and they easily rip down the light poles and things like that.

I'm standing down here. I'm at about 13 feet in elevation. We once we were fearing that we might get a 20 foot storm surge from the Neches River right here. Because if the storm came to the west of us, then all this water would be pushed up with that storm surge. It could very well have been over our head and flooded the entire downtown of Beaumont. That obviously didn't happen because the storm shifted to the east. Looks like Lake Charles got the brunt of the burden of that because of that bit of a shift.

But now our winds have shifted. All last night they were just ripping out of the east and northeast. Now they're southwesterly. And if anything, they're actually push they're trying to push this water, trying to create a little bit of a storm surge up the Neches River today.

And actually some of the discussions out of the National Weather Service indicate that, you know, if you do have a surge, namely maybe over the Sabine River, over the Calcasieu River and Calcasieu Lake Brown (ph) Lake, you know, that surge may hang around a little bit longer than usual because of its persistent southwest wind continuing to pump things up.

Word out of the emergency management area, the shelter where we hunkered down last night, is that they're starting to filter out into the field. They do have fire and rescue crews that are beginning to answer calls that came in last night from people who didn't evacuate. Now they're getting to those people. And then they'll eventually get to the blocked roadways and some of the trees and power lines down. But no reports of any fatalities or major injuries at this point. And that, of course, good news.

So, could have been a lot worse here in Beaumont. But still windy, still rainy, still kind of miserable, Miles. I'm sure you're experiencing some of the same things up there. And then last night, it was just unreal. When we called it quits at 1:00 a.m. and had to get try to get back in the vehicles, back to the shelter, Deborah Goldsman (ph), my field producer, we had to grab her by the back of the jacket because she was literally being blown away. It was a bit hairy for the crew, that's for sure. I'm glad you made it out all right, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, Rob. There were a few moments when I felt like a human sail, as well. And it is still miserable, as well, this morning.

Back to you, Soledad.

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

Let's get a check on the levees once again. We were talking earlier with Duane Gapinski. He was helping us out, understanding what's going on with the levee system. And we asked him to come back and update us once he was able to do his flyover.

Thanks for being back with us. What did you get to see?

DUANE GAPINSKI, COMMANDER UNWATERING TASK FORCE: Well, it actually looks pretty good. Of course, there is significant flooding in the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. But on the Industrial Canal, on the east side, there were two expedient repairs that were over topped. The northern one, the waters receded enough so it's no longer over topping.

And that's right on the northeast corner of the Lower Ninth Ward. At the southern breach, there's still some overtopping. Probably 150 foot wide gap. And, you know, we hope today to either drop sandbags by the air, weather permitting. We're also working on trying to get a barge full of rock to do that from canal side. From the water side.

S. O'BRIEN: And what are the chances that you'll be able to get a chopper in the air and start doing that? I know the weather's kind of going in and out.

GAPINSKI: Sure. Yes. That's going to be a problem today.

On the other side of the canal, on the west side, we also had two over toppings. And it looks like the canal level water has receded enough that there's no longer water going from the canal through those two over toppings. So any water is just surface water that was in the parking lots there.

So pretty good news. We're going shore up to stop that water even further in case canal level rises and then we're going to start working on pumping it out.

S. O'BRIEN: Can you tell at this point how much water has gotten back into the Ninth Ward?

GAPINSKI: Well, in certainly in the northern part of the Ninth Ward, there's a good eight feet of water. It's pretty deep. There are houses where just the roof is exposed.

S. O'BRIEN: So how is that going to complicate what you've got to do now? I know you mentioned earlier, last time we talked, that it was about 40 percent with the capacity for the pumps, which is guess is good news compared to what it was not too long ago. How's this going to complicate what you're trying to do now?

GAPINSKI: Well on the west bank of the Industrial Canal, we should be able to pump that water out relatively quickly. It only looks to be about a foot deep, spread out over a pretty wide area in the northeast corner of the city. But we should be able to handle that relatively quickly.

The problem's going to be on the Lower Ninth Ward. That pump station, the fixed station, is out of commission. And it's going to take a long time to fix that. So we're going to mass as many temporary mobile pumps there and start pumping that water out. And the St. Bernard Parish, to the east, we'll be pumping water and that will also help clear out some of the Ninth Ward.

S. O'BRIEN: What was that like for you? You're flying over the Ninth Ward where you successfully removed a lot of the water and you've got eight feet again. Eight feet of water once again.

GAPINSKI: Well, it certainly was deja vu all over again. But, you know, again, we've got to deal with the situation. So we're going to we've got a plan and we're going to get to work today.

S. O'BRIEN: Obviously the folks in St. Bernard Parish hammered as well. How much water would you estimate they're looking at?

GAPINSKI: It seemed to me, from the air, about four to six feet of water in the northern part and all the way to the first major north-south canal.

S. O'BRIEN: So you feel that the overtopping is the big problem. It's really that structurally the levees have done pretty well?

GAPINSKI: Yes. Those expedient repairs held up. You know, those the large 200-pound rocks are still there. So we'll drop sandbags or get more rock, depending on whether we can fly or not or get barges there, and that will stem the flow of water and that levee will remain intact.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Well, good luck to you. We thank you for coming back to us and I hope once this gets underway you'll check in with us once again and let us know how it's going.

GAPINSKI: Sure. Thanks. S. O'BRIEN: We've got Richard Wagenaar briefing us as well. Let's listen in to a little bit of what he's saying.

COL. RICHARD WAGENAAR, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: And canal levels in the 1.5, 1.4 area. So the sheet pile that we placed to close the canals is working at this point. That was the intent, was to keep the water out of the canals so we could keep it away from our repairs.

So that's the major issues right here on London Avenue and 17th Street Canal. We'll continue to monitor those throughout the day.

Later today we're going to start helicopter operations to place sandbags over on the Inner Harbor Industrial Canal, as you know it, to reinforce and increase the elevation on some of those repairs that were overtopped yesterday. They were not breached. Generally, we had 200-pound stone as a base course and an aggregate placed over the top of that.

We had a significant raise in the elevation of the water yesterday. Unexpected rise. All the way to 7.8 feet. And so, it started overtopping, especially the eastern side, and started flooding St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.

That over toping has continued to this point. Generally taking away the top foot, foot and a half of small aggregate, and so waters continued flowing in there. We're trying to place sandbags on there today to do a temporary increase in elevation to keep water out of there.

We're also working right now on the west side of the Inner Harbor Industrial Canal to repair some breaches that were originally there from Katrina and reinforce those and try and keep the water from flowing in. That's currently the situation going on right now in the city.

QUESTION: Colonel, how far does this set you back?

WAGENAAR: Probably at least two to three weeks.

S. O'BRIEN: You've been listening to Colonel Richard Wagenaar of the Army Corps of Engineers updating us on the situation with the levee. Saying that they're going to start helicopter operations shortly to try to increase the elevation of these levees.

And what you're looking at right now are pictures from - where these from? Lake Charles? Does it look like that's gotten into Lake Charles? This is Lake Charles, Louisiana. And, as you know, this is the place everyone's been very interested in looking into because, of course, this seems to be the hardest hit region and these are the first daytime pictures that we've been able to get.

Rick Sanchez is in Hurricane One. It is an SUV that is equipped with satellite technology and so he can bring us the pictures. It's far more mobile than having to drive around with a big truck and try to set up live shots for us. So bear with the pictures. You can get the first shot of what we're seeing. Rick, can you hear me? Can you tell me what we're seeing here?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, I can hear you perfectly well.

And what you're looking at right there is Lake Charles. Lake Charles has obviously gone over its banks. By how much? Well, that's the question. You see we're being told that the levels of water here are still rising. So much so that they expect another three to four feet.

Here's a bridge we're showing you right now. This goes over what is called a coolie (ph). It's what they call a bayou in parts of Louisiana and Texas. It's called a coolie in these parts. It's a way of trying to create water flow so the area doesn't flood. The problem is, the water's not supposed to go over the bridge, obviously enough, but it's doing just that. And just moments ago, we were watching while fish were swimming from one side of the coolie into Lake Charles (INAUDIBLE).

Now, Rick, if you could, turn the camera. I want to show you something as well, Soledad. This is the coolie pumping station. This is what actually keeps the town from flooding. There's pumps in there that constantly make sure the water's pumped out so that the town doesn't flood. Well, we're not hearing any pumps going right now. There are supposed to be generators in there but they're not going.

Now look how high the water level is. It's probably about -- if you look there, it's probably about a foot or so, maybe less, maybe a little more in some places, from actually going over the side of the road. Once it goes over the side of the road, it's on to Lake Shore Drive where we are right now. And when it gets on to Lake Shore Drive, then, obviously, these people back here are going to have their homes flooded. Not to mention there's going to be no way of getting in or out. So that's the thing that they're trying to avoid right now here in Lake Charles.

I can tell you over in Harrah's Casino, one of the boats has been turned over. The entire back part of Harrah's Casino is flooded. We're seeing streets that basically have no entry because huge trees. More than 100 trees we've seen on the roadways covering these areas.

S. O'BRIEN: First daylight images from Lake Charles, Louisiana. And it looks like we just lost him there. We're going to see if we can get Rick Sanchez back again because those are the first pictures that we have seen out of Lake Charles. Lots of damage. And you can see clearly, even with a little bit of the fuzziness of the pictures, the water is rising. And they expect several more feet. A huge problem for some of the homeowners there.

Let's see if we can get Rick back. Meanwhile, you're looking at some pictures from Beaumont, Texas. Again, new video into CNN of some of the damage in the wake of Hurricane Rita. And you can see, clearly, this house had lost -- has had some structural damage and the impact of the wind on this property pretty intense. Hard to make out what we're seeing right here, frankly, because the camera's obscured by the rain on the lens.

But if you look on the left side, you can see exactly the path of Hurricane Rita as it slammed right into the Gulf Coast. Lake Charles smack dab in the middle there.

Miles O'Brien has been reporting for us.

Hey, Miles. Did you hear a little bit of what Rick was saying?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. It sounds pretty dramatic. You know, when he was talking about those casinos being up ended, it reminded me of Biloxi. As you know, Biloxi was a similar story.

Those casinos were floating casinos. Huge, huge barges that were tossed around like they were, you know, bathtub toys. And it sounds like a similar story there. Obviously, that story is unfolding. That is the story -- that is the date line to watch, Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The response to all of this, in the wake of Katrina, we hope is better, quite frankly, and part of that involves the National Guard Troops in both Texas and Louisiana. But also it involves active duty troops. And CNN's Barbara Starr is in Washington at our bureau there to give us -- sort of the big picture on the military response to Rita.

Barbara, good morning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Miles.

We'll get to the Lake Charles situation in a minute. But we did wanted to get a look at the big picture. So early this morning we did sit in exclusively on an operational update about what is going on. Now the Texas situation, military officials say, is in hand in terms of they believe they have plenty of troops and relief supplies for that area.

But there is another concern now emerging with the National Guard and the military. That is that the storm will stall out north of Louisiana. A forecast for extended, heavy rainfall as it moves north. A lot of concern about the possibility of flooding in Arkansas and Oklahoma and some dams overflowing there. Listen for one minute to Lieutenant General Steven Blum, the head of the National Guard.


LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM, CHIEF, NATIONAL GUARD BUREAU: We'll call Arkansas and Oklahoma and let them realize that the main event may be done in your area, but the secondary event may be right in their lap. And they may have some complications they haven't considered.


STARR: But I spoke a little earlier on the phone to Lieutenant General Russel Honore. He spent the night hunkered down with a small team in Lafayette, Louisiana. There is now a strategy to move out and move into that Lake Charles area. He told us that there is significant tornado-like damage at the Lake Charles Airport. There is a lot of damage, he says, and flooding, of course, as we have just seen throughout the city.

But what they did over the last 24 hours, as they saw that storm track move into Western Louisiana, they pre-positioned five teams of combat engineers, several hundred members of the 82nd Airborne Division. What they are going to do now, as the weather calms down hopefully, is move from Lafayette into the Lake Charles area. They will have high water vehicles, they will have Humvees, and they will begin to search over land for those people who need rescue. They hope later today to begin flying helicopters over Lake Charles and get a look at more of the damage there.


M. O'BRIEN: OK. All right, Barbara Starr. Thank you very much, Barbara Starr. Appreciate that.

Back to you, Soledad.

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

We're going to take a short break here. We're trying to get more pictures from Hurricane One. That's our SUV that's able to get into some of the most difficult to access places because it's got a satellite technology on it. We've got Rick Sanchez at the wheel taking some of those pictures. We're going to try to bring that back up for you, get into Lake Charles with some of the first daylight pictures from there.

Much more ahead on the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. We'll take a short break. We're back in a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: In the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, CNN is your hurricane headquarters. And you're looking at some live pictures from Galveston, Texas, this morning as clearly the wind has picked up and the waves still pretty rough in the background there.

What is happening in Galveston today? There were some dire predictions not long ago. The University of Texas Medical Center in Galveston operating with just a skeleton crew, tending to emergency cases only.

Let's get right to the phones with the medical center. Dr. Karen Sexton is the hospital's incident commander.

Dr. Sexton, thanks for talking with us.

I know you were responsible for evacuating the staff and the patients and overseeing the emergency command center. How did it go?

DR. KAREN SEXTON, U. TX. MEDICAL BRANCH, GALVESTON: Well, it was a very hectic day but we were determined to get our patients out on Wednesday when that category five was coming at us at that time and we did it over less than a 12-hour period and we felt good about our accomplishment.

S. O'BRIEN: How many patients did you have to evacuate? And how many staff left, too?

SEXTON: We had 424 patients that we started out with on that Wednesday morning. And we either evacuated those patients or were able to discharge them home with the families. And on Thursday morning, then our concern became our employees because that storm was still coming at us and we allowed the majority of our essential personnel to leave with their families or we evacuated them.

S. O'BRIEN: We're looking, Dr. Sexton, at some pictures from Galveston, Texas. Some of the damage there. And you can see a decent amount of structural damage, even though people have been saying that Galveston really dodged the bullet on this one. What's the status of the hospital where you are? What kind of condition is it in?

SEXTON: We are still assessing that. We know we have power. We have lost our server. We've lost our air conditioning at this point. But we're -- structurally we're intact.

S. O'BRIEN: How about flooding?

SEXTON: And we're still operating our urgent care out of our emergency room.

S. O'BRIEN: You are? How about flooding? Has that been a problem at all?

SEXTON: Flooding is not a problem. Most of the water looks like -- in the way the storm -- the currents were going, our water was sucked away from us.

S. O'BRIEN: You said you were operating your emergency center. You have people coming in? What kind of injuries are you seeing?

SEXTON: We received a burn patient last night. And we also received three firefighters as a result of those fires. And -- so we felt good about being able to still be here and help our community.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I belt they felt good about it too.

How long before you think the patients can come back?

SEXTON: We are still currently evacuating that. We are on emergency status. Still a lot of our employees had to evacuate the area and we are still having -- trying the reach out to them. We know that they don't have gas to put in their cars to return to the area, so we're just working with the city and the state on those issues.

S. O'BRIEN: And I know city leaders don't want anybody back until really everything is up and running. They don't think there would really be a point at this point.

You've been working now for, well, at least 48 hours straight. How's everybody holding up?

SEXTON: We're doing OK. We're -- tempers are getting a little short. Some of us have been without rest for a good long time. But, you know, we're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and we survived the storm and we kept our patients safe and, you know, we're happy about that.

S. O'BRIEN: Dr. Sexton, thanks for talking with us. Dr. Karen Sexton at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She's the incident commander over there. Thanks very much. Let's get right back to Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad, I'm at the Lumberton Police headquarters here. There's the chief right there. He just got back from his assessment. We're going to talk to him in just a little bit about what he sees here in the city of Lumberton. But first, let's check in with Jacqui Jeras and get an update on where Rita is and lies ahead for people in its path. Jacqui, good morning.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Miles. Well, Rita has continued to move on a northerly trek now, and it's very near the state line of Texas and Louisiana still. It's moving north at about 12 miles per hour. And it's going to kind of hover there, we think, within about 12 to 24 hours. There you can see the center of the storm right about there. We'll zoom in on it for you. It's now well up to your north.

Here's Natchitoches. And we're expecting it to start to stall out, we think, over the next day or so. We are going to show you the radar picture here because some of the immediate concerns that we still have include tornadoes, particularly across southeastern parts of Louisiana and into Mississippi.

And you can see the wind flow associated with that. That means on-shore flow is still taking place. That means surge is still a problem here today across much of Louisiana. in fact, as much as five to 10 feet throughout the day today. And that also includes you on Lake Pontchartrain. We could see some of those high surge levels still.

The peak wind gusts - we're starting to get reports just starting to trickle in. One hundred and seventeen miles per hour. That's as high as I could find at Lake Livingston Dam. These are all Texas numbers for you. Port Arthur - gusts around 116. Devers (ph), Liberty and Moss Hill all sustained winds between 80 and 100 miles per hour and Galveston with a gust of 65 miles per hour. So they just missed out on the hurricane force wind gusts.

Forecast track -- here's what's going to happen. Just basically moving due north throughout much of the rest of the day today and then slowly kind of curving around. We have got two areas of high pressure which are kind of helping to block out this storm from moving a whole heck of a lot. And that's why it's going to sit here. But there is a trough across the upper Midwest that could eventually start to guide this up towards the Tennessee River Valley. We're hoping that's going to pick it up and drive it up to the north and east. But right now the outlook is not good, one to two feet of rain possible right in this blue area here.


M. O'BRIEN: Thanks very much, Jacqui. Appreciate that. We're here at the Lumberton Police headquarters. I'm here with the chief, Norman Reynolds, who's had a chance to make his own assessment.

First of all, perhaps let's not bury the lead here, as we say in the news business. You have a word to evacuees from Lumberton. And what is the word?

NORMAN REYNOLDS, LUMBERTON CHIEF OF POLICE: For the time being until further notice, our mayor, Donald Sharratt (ph), has asked that evacuees, folks who left due to the storm, not attempt to return to their homes until further notice. This is because about 75% of the streets in Lumberton are impassable due to trees across the streets. Probably half of the streets in Lumberton have electric wires down.

Energy is overloaded. Southeast Texas is in the same shape as Lumberton, so we don't anticipate that our power's going to be up any time soon. There's no businesses open. There's no places to buy goods and services. And there's no electricity in Lumberton or southeast Texas.

M. O'BRIEN: So, stay where you are for now?

REYNOLDS: That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: And is there a curfew in place?

REYNOLDS: We're going to put a curfew in place beginning today from seven a.m. to five p.m.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

REYNOLDS: And this is to protect the property of the homeowners and businesspeople in Lumberton.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, chief. Let's go into the truck here for a minute. You just got back from a tour. I want to get a little sense of what you saw as you made your assessment there. Towanda, take it easy there. Don't hurt yourself. Go on in there, chief. And we're going to play some tape for you on his tour just a little while ago. This happened just, what, a couple of hours ago.

Alec - why don't you sit down there, chief? Go ahead and roll the tape - I want you to just narrate as you see it. Narrate as you see -- there you go. Where are we here?

REYNOLDS: This is Captain Jennings, one of our officers attempting to get back to his house. As you can see, the road to his house is completely blocked. He's having to try to walk into his house. And it doesn't look like he ever -- I don't think he was ever successful getting in.

M. O'BRIEN: He never even made it to his house. Wow, that gives you a sense of the kind of damage that we're talking about here. Look at those trees, hardwood trees, pine trees, all kinds of trees down there. It's really an extensive amount of damage, isn't it?

REYNOLDS: That's correct.

M. O'BRIEN: Now, you made an attempt to get to your own house. Let's change tapes, if we could, Alec, And we'll take a look there. Just seeing that amount of tree damage down, would you care to venture a guess how many trees are down in the street (ph) right now?

REYNOLDS: Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. I have seen trees down, like I say, on almost two-thirds or three-fourths of the streets in Lumberton. We have 80 miles of streets in Lumberton, and almost every street is impassable.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Alec, why don't you roll that second tape? This is your own house. Tell me what happened here.

REYNOLDS: Well, I had a (INAUDIBLE) of heavily Wooded property and a lot of probably 20 large trees. That tree right there fell right through the left.

M. O'BRIEN: (INAUDIBLE) right at the base there. That (INAUDIBLE).

REYNOLDS: It's probably a 200-year old cedar tree just split off. We've got two trees on top of my house. In fact, from the street, you can't even see my house.

M. O'BRIEN: The house, though, just looking right there, looks like you were dry and fairly intact. In that sense, you dodged a bullet, didn't you?

REYNOLDS: We were blessed. It could have been much worse.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

REYNOLDS: But this is an example of why you don't need to be in a house when something like this is going on.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, and the point is underscored. You had a couple of rescues you had to do, people trying to ride it out. (INAUDIBLE) a lot of your people in jeopardy. (INAUDIBLE) as you're on your way to help (INAUDIBLE) that is stuck.

REYNOLDS: That's correct. We were trying to perform these rescues at the height of the hurricane, you know, in Lumberton. I don't know what the winds got up to. But whatever they were, my officers and I were out there trying to do this thing that we're sworn to do.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, chief. Norman Reynolds, thank you very much. Thanks for that a tour of that first assessment. Amazing the number of trees down here. And as we say, Soledad, this is a place that's 50 miles inland on the easy side - so-called easy side of the storm. We're just now beginning to see what unfolded on the east side of the storm.


S. O'BRIEN: Yes, the first pictures coming into us now. All right, Miles, thanks.

We want to get to Major General Charles Rodriguez. He's in Austin, Texas. He's with the Texas National Guard. We were speaking earlier in the week, Major General -- nice to see you. And you told me that you had 3,500 troops already getting ready to mobilize. What is that number right now? And where are they exactly?

MAJOR GENERAL CHARLES RODRIGUEZ, TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD: We have the same number with the rest of the Guard standing by on high alert. The location of our current deployments is - we already closed in in the Houston area, just to the west at the Astrodome and also up by College Station to take -- to have precautions for when that rain starts coming down.

S. O'BRIEN: We're looking at pictures of Beaumont, Texas, sir, while we talk. How quickly could they mobilize? I mean, I know that right now, the initial assessments are under way. It looks like Lake Charles, Louisiana might be the hardest hit region. We're not completely sure of that at this point, though. How quickly could your folks get there if they had to?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, in the state of Texas, we can roll as soon as the word comes of the high priority target, the high priority location is identified. We're waiting the assessments that the governor's office and emergency management people are conducting right now.

S. O'BRIEN: We heard from President Bush as he was being briefed that search and rescue is the priority. Saving lives is the priority. Is that your priority, as well?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, search and rescue is number one. We will be rolling in with some high profile vehicles, some medical, some food, some water, some ice and, of course, soldiers, about 100 per -- about 500 of the soldiers per each of our three task forces to assist in evacuation.

S. O'BRIEN: While you and I are talking, we're looking at some pictures now from Galveston, Texas and some of the damage there, some new pictures into CNN. Communications, as you well know, disastrous, fair to say, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What's been done to resolve that issue in Texas?

RODRIGUEZ: The damage? Well, at this point, we're waiting for assessment teams. And as soon as they have established what the priority missions are, local officials and utilities will be the first priority. And then, of course, right on top of that is the saving of life and limb and evacuation of anybody who still might be there.

S. O'BRIEN: How have you worked around the communication problems that plagued efforts in Hurricane Katrina? RODRIGUEZ: We have had a very successful federal and state cooperative arrangement. There are satellite based mobile communications vans which are with each of our task forces. And we're also sharing them with the district disaster coordinators who are the state officials in some of these counties.

S. O'BRIEN: Again, Galveston, Texas, That's pictures that we're looking at while we talk to you, sir. Supply, again, another issue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Well, sometimes troops would get there, but their supplies would not. Have you been able to work around any potential problems on that front?

RODRIGUEZ: The rescue task forces which we have established are fully equipped, fully stocked. And we have easy reach-back. We have an additional 2,000 soldiers who are ready to push forward any kind of provisions, engineer support, including medical.

S. O'BRIEN: I know that there are some concerns about getting choppers in the air. The weather, as you have seen in some reports, kind of on and off. It looks good and then declines and then gets good again. When will you be able to get clear assessments of how just how bad it is, what is the hardest hit place within Texas, for example?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, it's looking like right now it's going to be in the Beaumont or the southeast Texas area. And, we are, in fact, looking to get our marching orders right now. We will actually roll our high profile trucks immediately, even if the winds are still too strong for the helicopter.

S. O'BRIEN: Looks like we're having - looks like we just lost our satellite image with Major General Charles Rodriguez from the Texas National Guard joining us to talk about the military efforts and really how they're staging and preparing to get the call if they have to come in and help out in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

We're going to give you a first look in Port Arthur, Texas right after this short break, see what the damage is there, one of the hardest hit regions in the wake of this hurricane. Short break. We're back in a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back to our special Saturday morning edition of American Morning live now from Lumberton, Texas. And I just got off the phone with a judge, the county judge. That's tantamount to a county commissioner here in Texas. Harden County is where we are, populations of about 50,000. And that curfew which they have instituted for Lumberton which we just told you about, five p.m. to seven a.m. local time, applies for the entire county. And the judge has asked all evacuees the stay put for now.

There's no power. There's no services. There's no businesses. In short, there's no point in coming home. They're setting up a perimeter around the affected areas, and there'll be check points. He wants to assure evacuees that their property will be safe and there will be very minimal chance of looting.

So I suspect this story will be repeated throughout all the counties of Texas and into the parishes in Louisiana in the wake of this storm. Very, very similar to the kind of story we saw in the wake of Katrina, quite frankly.

Jefferson County, Texas is probably one of those places that will probably institute a similar kind of restriction. Lots of damage there. That's where Beaumont, Texas, is. And that's also where we find CNN's Chris Lawrence joining us now on the telephone.

Chris, what are you seeing?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, we are on the road. We are on Interstate 10 driving from Baytown, Texas heading to Lake Charles, Louisiana where Rick Sanchez is set up. And we've just been surveying, checking out the damage along I-10.

We saw a phone line down laying across the road outside of Baytown. There were two huge water spouts where you drive into them and all of the cars kind of hydroplane somewhat. We also just passed an overpass where a huge piece of metal is dangling off the overpass, and it looks like it could fall just about any time.

Other than that, it's wet, not many cars on the road, a lot of downed trees alongside the road. But they are not blocking Interstate 10. So, at this point, that is very good news because when areas, you know, like Lake Charles and some of the hardest hit areas are going to need help from outside, Interstate 10 is the main thoroughfare.

This is the road that a lot of the rescue vehicles will have to come through to get the help to the people that need it there. So the fact that right now it appears to be passable, some very good news. We are going to keep heading east into Lake Charles. And we'll keep you updated on the road situation on Interstate 10.


M. O'BRIEN: Well, that's an important piece of news, Chris, because there was a report I heard on a local radio station here that one of those bridges might have been out. And what you're saying is so far, so good for I-10.

LAWRENCE: Yes, and like I said, you know, we're making our way east, so we may come across some bigger problems other than, you know, like I said, the metal hanging off the overpass, the downed phone line, the water spouts. We may have some bigger problems as we get closer to Lake Charles. We'll keep calling in and let you know if anything changes on the situation out here.

M. O'BRIEN: Chris Lawrence on Interstate 10 eastbound toward lake Charles. Let's head back into Port Arthur where CNN's John King weathered this storm. And some of his pictures now have gotten back to us, and he has an opportunity to explain what he saw, what he experienced. It was kind of a wild night for you, wasn't it, John? JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was a bit of a wild night, Miles, watching the storm. The pictures we've been able to see so far, we have some technological issues. We're out on the videophone in still a pretty dicey, windy, rainy environment. But we have been able to feed in, I think, so far, several minutes of our driving tour this morning to show some of the damage here in Port Arthur.

And mostly what we see -- you see some of the street lights swinging from their cables. You see quite a few places -- downed power lines with the lines dangling across the street. We've seen six, eight, 10, maybe 12 examples of that and a lot of other cases where the power poles are snapped and the lines are dangling very gingerly. So that obviously is a very dangerous situation.

Trees are down everywhere. Roofs occasionally ripped off the house. There is water to varying degrees, depending on where you are in the city. None of this city is very high above sea level, but some parts are much lower. And the water came in almost sideways, if you will, through town. And you see some streets where there's just a little bit of water. It looks like a bad rainstorm. Other streets where you have four, five and in a few cases, seven feet of standing water.

We have been to one area where several houses have waist deep water through them. Those are pictures unfortunately we have been unable to get back just yet. But the scope of the devastation here is significant. But I think when the officials get back - and that is a striking thing, Miles. We know they evacuated to where you are. We were here all night, and we have been here now all day. We're sitting right now outside the main fire station in town. We have seen no evidence of any city officials, any police, any fire, any utility workers, anyone trying to get in here and survey the damage.

We have been wandering around a virtually empty town since last night. Some other journalists came in early this morning. But we've seen no evidence at all of local officials just yet. I assume they're at their emergency operations center making plans to come in here and assess the damage. But we have not seen them yet.

Again, there is significant flooding from the storm surge in some areas of the city, a lot of things knocked down, broken. But based on what they were thinking when they evacuated yesterday, I think when they do get to make their own assessment, they will find the damage, while it is significant and is going to cost quite a bit to repair and to fix, I believe it will be significantly less than what they feared when they had that evacuation yesterday.

M. O'BRIEN: I think that is the fact, John King. As a matter of fact, I spoke to the battalion chief a the Port Arthur Fire Department a little while ago. And he indicated there was a reconnaissance team en route. But I suspect they're having a difficult time getting there. And I suspect, John, you will see them before too long there trying to get their first assessment of the damage there in Port Arthur. Back with more American Morning in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. CNN, your hurricane headquarters. We want to get right back to Mark Biello. He joins us by phone. He's a CNN photo journalist who has been making his way from the east, I believe, in Lafayette heading toward Lake Charles.

Mark, thanks for joining us once again. Give me a sense of what you're seeing right now. How bad is it?

MARK BIELLO, CNN PHOTO JOURNALIST: Well, right now, we are down here underneath the I-10 bridge that crosses over Lake Charles. The storm's picking up in intensity, believe it or not. Winds have picked up. The storm surge is coming in. And, from what we can tell here, it's far from over.

The waves are very choppy. They have thrown some boats up against the railroad tracks here on the trestle bridge that crosses over the river. And we're still getting very heavy wind gusts and a lot of storm surge coming in from the river.

S. O'BRIEN: How much flooding are you getting there? What are you seeing there?

BIELLO: The flooding is flooded in the parking lots of the casinos. There's also danger of these casinos breaking loose, the ones that are floating. There's a few of these steam boats along the river here. Right now, we can also see some of the boats are pinned up against the trestle bridge here that have loosened from their moorings, and some of the recreational boats are being tossed around as they're pinned up against the trestle bridge.

S. O'BRIEN: Mark Biello is following the story for us in Lake Charles. All right, Mark, we'll check in again and see as you make your way through that region and give us a sense of just how bad it's gotten. Let's get to Jamie McIntyre, once again.

Jamie, good morning.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Standing with me is Lieutenant General Bob Clark. He is the commanding general of the 5th Army and right now his more important position probably is head of joint task force Rita. Tell me what kind of job you're facing. I know you've been on a video-teleconference with the president. You've been in touch with General Honore. What are you facing this morning?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BOB CLARK, 5TH ARMY: Well, our first priority requirement is search and rescue operations. And we've pulled together a synchronized plan with the military forces that have aviation assets and the Coast Guard in a synchronized way to provide aviation and search and rescue along the coast initially. That is...

MCINTYRE: Are those helicopters in the air now?

CLARK: Helicopters in the air. And, in fact, there are three fast-moving, fixed-wing aircraft from the Coast Guard and nine helicopters from the Coast Guard that are working search and rescue along the coastline as we speak. I have no reports from them. Of course, they're not organic to me, but we're working in coordination with them.

MCINTYRE: Do you have a sense of how big a challenge you're facing at this point?

CLARK: Well, no, but that's what we'll find out here over the next few hours as they work the coastline and begin to work inland. And then we have other aviation resources from both Army, Army Guard, working for the adjutant general of the state of Texas and Air Force that we can apply to the situation and Naval later on. So we've got depth and capability to get this job done.

MCINTYRE: And you know that fairly or unfairly, some people thought the military was a little slow to help local and state enforcement the last time around. How soon are people going to see boots on the ground in terms of aid from the U.S. military?

CLARK: Well, there are boots on the ground from the Texas National Guard already. So, the public is seeing boots on ground as we speak. And I don't think we're going to have that problem at all. This response for search and rescue is actually very rapid. And we'll continue with great depth. And the state has an excellent plan. And the National Guard has an excellent plan for dealing with displaced persons and people who are injured and all of that. So...

MCINTYRE: OK. Well, General, I know you're really busy. We are going to take a helicopter tour with the general and see, take a look, firsthand look at the damage later. And we'll get back to you. Back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, thanks, Jamie. As clearly, the military waits to get an assessment of exactly where those boots on the ground need to go, Lake Charles clearly being pounded by Hurricane Rita. The crews on the scene telling us that the water is still rising, that the winds are actually very high. Rita is not done. And our special Saturday edition of American Morning continues as we follow the progress and the track of this path.

Let's get right back to Miles. You know, I think there was a sense that maybe the damage not as great as some had thought. But actually when you hear these reports coming from Mark Biello and others on the ground in Lake Charles, it could be devastating to that region.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, you know, it occurs to me, Soledad, imagine if we weren't covering this storm on the heels of Katrina what we would be saying. A lot of this has to do with our expectations. Sadly, Katrina changed the bar-setting on what we anticipate for a hurricane because it was so widespread, so devastating. And that I think we all are kind of comparing it to that recent storm.

The fact is, this is a storm to reckon with, a storm of historic proportions. And Towanda, you can wipe that lens, if you want to. Go ahead. And it's just a situation where, you know, those earlier assessments - remember what we said, Soledad, The first indications we said about New Orleans, everybody said that they dodged a bullet. Well, things, of course, changed there. That was a unique situation with the levees.

But it is difficult because it's such a big storm, such a broad area. And we're only converging on areas which might be the hardest hit - to really get a solid assessment of what is going on. It's been a long morning, Soledad, but thanks for getting me through those dark patches when we couldn't get on the air there.

S. O'BRIEN: I am always - I always have your back, technologically speaking, Miles. But, you know, in all seriousness, you think in the four weeks between Katrina and now Rita the state of Louisiana utterly hammered. I mean, I-10, I-10 across the state is down in many places. And a full assessment of the damage is yet to come. It could be very bad in the end.


M. O'BRIEN: All right, Soledad. Well, that's it for us today. We're out of time for this special Saturday morning edition of American Morning. We're going to be back tomorrow with an assessment of the damage. We'll probably be coming to you from Lake Charles, Louisiana.

In the meantime, let's continue our coverage. Rita is still something to be reckoned with, is still a storm that is alive and well and causing havoc. Joining us to continue our coverage here on CNN, your hurricane headquarters, Wolf Blitzer and Fredericka Whitfield from Atlanta.