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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Hurricane Isaac Coverage; Interview With Sen. Rob Portman; Levee Overtopped in Plaquemines Parish; RNC in Full Swing

Aired August 29, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to STARTING POINT as we continue to cover breaking news as Hurricane Isaac makes its way into Louisiana. Plaquemines Parish is hardest hit so far. We'll tell you what's happening there in just a moment.

Where I'm standing, which is really the center of tourist New Orleans, at Jackson Square, high winds and driving rain are the biggest problems here. And they are watching for the standing water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I have to say, Colonel Fleming has updated us and says that so far, the levee system seems to be fine.

What they concerned about is the west bank of the city, and the pumping system, the largest pumping system in the world. They are worried about how that's going to fair. They are watching that because, of course, the water is the big problem.

This storm is kind of just sitting over us, traveling at six miles an hour. Very slow moving, which is the reason we continue to be hammered by the high winds and the pouring rain, which is flooding the area here in Jackson Square and many other intersections around the city as well. Treacherous in the dark, the sun is coming up now, and that's good news.

The sun coming up now is good news as well for the folks in Plaquemines Parish -- as I mentioned -- one of the hardest hit areas. We're watching that very closely because they have had an overtopping of the levee, the east levee. There are homes there.

Some of the folks there decided to ride out the storm. And when that water started overtopping the levee, those homes started to flood. Some of those folks were rescued.

Here's Eugene Oddo, here's what he had to say about what happened to him in that location in Plaquemines Parish.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EUGENE ODDO, TRAPPED IN ATTIC (via telephone): Right now, in my attic with my wife and my year and a half old baby. The local police came around about 2:00 in the morning and told us the levee broke. And within an hour, the water was coming up.

The river levee is dry. But the water came up so quick, it looks like we lost everything. If I have to, I'm going to have to shoot a hole in the attic here to get out on our roof.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Talking about the devastating effects. He said the levee broke. The levee didn't break. It was overtopped, as some of the driving wind was really speeding that up a little bit.

So there in Plaquemines Parish they are very concerned about some of the effects and some of the people who maybe they don't even realize might be stuck in their homes. They are going to have to go in and continue search and rescue efforts this morning as the sun comes up.

Entergy is telling us that 400,000 plus people are without power this morning. And that would be about 70 percent of the city. Entergy, of course, is powering lots of this Gulf region. So 70 percent of the city of New Orleans apparently without power at this hour.

We continue to watch what's happening here in Louisiana. Also Mississippi.

David Mattingly is in Gulfport, Mississippi, for us -- experiencing much the same thing we are having here. Heavy rain and heavy winds as well, right, David?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Soledad. And as this storm continues to park on the Gulf Coast, everyone here having to change their plans. They thought they might be out of it before now, but instead, we are still seeing very strong tropical storm force conditions. There was a curfew in effect until 7:00 a.m.

That's been extended here in the Gulfport area. Just to show you because this storm has been relentless all morning long. Conditions like this ever since midnight. We're also now that the sun has come up.

Looking back behind me at the ocean, there is beach back there. But the beach is completely covered right now by the waves that are coming in.

And to show you the stark contrast of what we're looking at, those waves usually aren't there. This is a very calm part of the Gulf of Mexico on a very peaceful day. That might look like a lake back there. But you can see it's anything but the case right now.

It's completely covered the beaches, lapping up against the seawall. And a spokesman for the city here tells me that in a couple of -- at least in one place, we have water coming over highway 90, which is right here behind me.

So we are continuing to watch as this water is encroaching. If we haven't hit high tide yet, that's going to be mid-morning. But right now you can see the wind is still pushing just as hard as it has all night long, the rain continuing to fall. They are raising their estimates now. Possibly up to 18 inches of rain on some parts of the gulf coast of Mississippi -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. David Mattingly for us -- watching that. We're watching it obviously as well.

So, let me point out a little bit what's going on around us. We are watching very carefully this tree. There's lots of debris. And these high winds, that's something to keep an eye on. The heavy winds something to keep an eye out. We don't to be caught in the head by a major branch falling off.

The heavy wind and the rain really just hurts, frankly, when it drives into you. Jackson Square normally at this time would be full of tourists, obviously. But now a big issue that they are concerned about is the standing water. The debris makes it worse.

This is very similar situation to what you're going to see in a lot of the intersections. We're told now a dozen intersections in the city are unpassable. And now that the sun has come up, that's a little better because the people can see that it's flooded. In the darkness, there were some concerns that people couldn't tell that the roads weren't passable and that they would try and get stuck.

We've got Richard Knabb. He's the director of the National Hurricane Center.

So, Richard, you know, when we heard from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of their concerns was as the storm turns to the west, that it's really going to put the pumping system to the test, because that's where on the west bank where the main pumping system is.

Can you tell me a little bit about the storm's movement there and what they should be concerned about?

RICHARD KNABB, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Well, it's a slow, slow motion. And it's not along the same path as Katrina, for example. Every hurricane is different, and where the circulation goes determines what direction the wind is blowing from in a particular location and where the onshore flow is.

And with the motion of this system having gone south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving off slowly to the northwest, it's putting that onshore flow from the south into Plaquemines Parish, and into the Mississippi River area that's going through that parish. So that's one of the reasons that in this case, things are different in localized spots than even Katrina because it's on the different side of the Mississippi River.

And the onshore flow is going to persist for hours. So it's going to take a while for things to -- the forces to abate such that you would not get the water being pushed in the same direction. And the rainfall is going to continue, and it's going to be an all-day event. It's only the first half of the event that has reached Plaquemines Parish. And New Orleans still has some of the first half of it to go.

So I know people have to really be patient here to wait for the conditions to get better. It's going to take well into tomorrow for the rains to stop and for the winds to really die down.

O'BRIEN: So then tell me where the storm is right now. It's passed over Plaquemines Parish or is it on top of Plaquemines Parish right now?

KNABB: Well, the eastern side, where the stronger winds coming out of the south are all over Plaquemines Parish and the northern part is over New Orleans. So that whole area getting hammered with a stronger side of the hurricane and the onshore flow from the south. And that's going to persist for hours. It's going to take until late in the day for that configuration to change such that with the center of circulation going further north that things will start to come off the land direction instead of off the Gulf of Mexico.

O'BRIEN: And then what does that mean for the rest of the progress of the storm? Where is this heading next and when?

KNABB: Well, next, it's going to go very slowly up into the state of Louisiana. The center of circulation will probably take into Thursday night, early Friday morning to actually leave the state of Louisiana. And that's just the center. And then behind that will be the heavy rains on the south side.

So it's going to take a long time. And that's why, you know, we're not at all shy about saying that we could get localized spots where the rains could be 20 inches. And until the circulation moves far enough onshore so that you're not getting that onshore push, the storm surge of six to 12 feet above ground level is still in play for southeastern Louisiana, because right now it's just pushing the water in and not letting it out all day today.

O'BRIEN: Sounds like you're saying we're going to continue to experience what we're experiencing right now, is the driving rains and the high, high winds, blowing us around out here. Richard Knabb with us from the National Hurricane Center.

KNABB: All day long. Yes.

O'BRIEN: He's the director there. Thank you. Appreciate that.

Rob Marciano is at the port of New Orleans.

Hey, Rob, first of all, tell me what it's like where you are and then I want to talk to you about what's happened at Plaquemines Parish and the overtopping of the levee on the east side there.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: OK. Well, I will start with what's going on here. We are in the port of New Orleans, which of course is closed. And we're just kind of -- just to the left or just to the west of where the unload and load off the Carnival Cruise Line. That's not happening any time too soon.

We're near kind of along the river. This is a Mardi Gras complex. You've got a huge warehouse behind the camera. You've got a huge ballroom to my left here. And kind of the outdoor part of the facility is this canopy structure, which is coming apart with the winds of this storm.

Obviously, this is not built to withstand a hurricane. Not sure why at least the fabric part of it wasn't taken down. But there's concert stage lighting underneath there that's dangling. The structures that support it are bolted down to the concrete. Some of those have been ripped up.

So with this persistent wind, it's not going to take too much longer for that thing to completely come apart and potentially fly away. It is, I'll say this right now, downwind of it.

So when it happens, that should be coming towards us and we're well aware of that. Now that the sun comes up, we can see the river which, by the way, visibly actually looks higher than it was yesterday.

No threat of that coming over the top of the main levee here across this part of the river. But to talk about what's going on in Plaquemines Parish, Soledad, you've been down there. You know what it's like. Those are earthen levees for the most part. They are out of the control of the federally souped up levee and pump system that we have so much highlighted the past couple of days that is protecting New Orleans proper and parts of the other parishes.

But the southern part of Plaquemines Parish, where that levee is being overtopped, that's unprotected. And what's frustrating is that that was an area that was under mandatory evacuation. The people that are trapped or having to be potentially rescued there right now chose to be there. So their homes are being flooded. Much of that community is being flooded and will continue to be flooded as we go through time, because the storm surge continues as that storm -- this storm is just 50, 60 miles to our south and not moving very much.

So as long as these winds are strong enough, the water, that water will continue to pile up across and over that levee. And like you've been reporting on, it's causing some serious flooding down there and a dangerous situation unfolding this morning -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Rob Marciano for us -- thank you, Rob. Appreciate that update.

Let's get to Petty Officer Ryan Tippets. He's with the United States Coast Guard.

Petty Officer, thank you for talking with us.

As you are well, ware, there are reports of some problems and potentially people who need to be rescued in Plaquemines Parish.

Are you aware of those? And if so, what will be your next step?

PETTY OFFICER RYAN TIPPETS, U.S. COAST GUARD (via telephone): Yes, ma'am, we are aware. We have opened cases on all the calls we received through the night. And all of our assets are currently in a standby mode. As soon as the storm passes, the coast guard will be up and out there.

O'BRIEN: So you're in a standby mode. When I was talking earlier to the president of the parish, Billy Nungesser, he was telling me he was hoping when the sun came up it would be easier to go in and rescue folks. But now you're saying you have to wait for the storm to pass. We just heard from the National Hurricane Center that actually it's going to be a long time before the storm completely passes.

Does that mean another 24 hours potentially before people could be rescued?

TIPPETS: I don't have any timelines on when the rescues will begin. All our vessels and our aircrafts have certain parameters that we can't operate over. And so basically once the weather dies down, we'll be able to put our assets out there and start helping people.

O'BRIEN: What kind of information are you getting at this hour from Plaquemines Parish? What do you know of the situation there? Can you give us some details?

What we know is very sketchy. We just know that there are people potentially who need to be rescued.

TIPPETS: Right. As far as I know, that's pretty much what we have received. And we have received the calls, and we have opened -- every call we get, we have opened a case for. So we are documenting it. And as soon as we are able, we will start the --

O'BRIEN: Petty Officer Ryan Tippets for us this morning from the United States Coast Guard -- thank you for talking with us.

When we come back in just a moment, we're going to head back to the RNC, Republican National Convention, underway in Tampa, Florida, as hurricane Isaac rages on here in the state of Louisiana. Rob Portman will be John Berman's guest. That's straight ahead.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching our special coverage of hurricane Isaac. Soledad O'Brien, STARTING POINT coming to you live this morning from Jackson Square in New Orleans. This is the heart of the touristy section of the French Quarter. Today, full of water. Heavy winds, driving rain, kind of painful when it smacks you in the face.

Lots to tell you about this morning. One thing we're watching very closely is Plaquemines Parish. We just heard from the coast guard that as soon as the conditions permit, they're going to be able to get in there and start doing any kind of rescues. We've had word that there are people who are trapped in their homes.

Lots of water there as one of the levees on the east side has been overtopped. We're monitoring that situation very closely. We're also following what's happening in Mississippi as well. We want to get, though, to another story that's happening in Tampa, Florida, and that's the Republican National Convention. John Berman is there for us. Hey, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Soledad. We are much drier here, and I have to say, we're watching what's going on down there very closely. In the meantime, I'm joined by Senator Rob Portman. He is a leader in the Republican Party. He was also rumored to be on the vice presidential short list.

He didn't get that, but he is deeply involved in this campaign. He will be playing the part of Barack Obama in debate prep with Mitt Romney. Something he's something of an expert on. I should also say you are speaking tonight at the Republican convention.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN, (R) OHIO: Right.

BERMAN: Before we talk about tonight, let's talk about last night. Mitt Romney's wife, Ann Romney, was the speaker who really electrified the crowd. And her role there was to sort of humanize the candidate. And I want to play a little clip of what she said.

PORTMAN: Yes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: We got married and moved into a basement apartment.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on saw horses. Our dining room table was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen. But those were the best days.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So, did it work? I mean, did that help to humanize Mitt Romney? And why does he need it at this point?

PORTMAN: Well, first of all, I thought she was incredible. Genuine and warm. And I think she did give us a view into Mitt Romney's heart, you know, as a family man and a husband. And I just thought -- I thought it was a great performance in part because she's not a politician, you know? She's the one person onstage who wasn't.

BERMAN: She gave a heck of a political speech.

PORTMAN: Yes, I think she did, but it was from the heart. And, you know, she was nervous at times, and that's great, because that's how most people would be. I thought it was exactly what was needed.

BERMAN: You have said yourself that Governor Romney has a likability issue. Let me read you a quote from "Bloomberg," an interview you gave. You said, it's true that the president is more likeable at this stage. One of the reasons you suggested was because of all the negative ads in Ohio and everywhere else, but you do think there's a likability gap.

PORTMAN: Well, I'm just talking about the polling. Likability gap is not a surprise. I mean, in Ohio, we've been bombarded with negative ads. And they've been about Mitt Romney and his character. And you know, they're very personal, about his business career. Many of them misleading. Some of them downright inaccurate.

But if you're an Ohio voter, that's what you've been seeing. You know, it's been a barrage. And it's actually been because of the primary and the Romney campaign not having the dollars for the primary, it's been heavily on the Obama and the negative side.

BERMAN: Well, that will change immediately --

(CROSSTALK)

PORTMAN: But that's why I think some people have that impression. But, look, Mitt Romney is a generous guy. She talked a lot about his character as a family guy. I've gotten to see him a lot on the campaign trail. People are going to like this guy the more they get to know him.

BERMAN: You gave her performance last night great reviews. Not all reviews have been fantastic, including from some conservative commentators. Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan wrote in the "Wall Street Journal" this morning. She said that Ann Romney may have missed an opportunity.

She said, "I want to tell you they marched out of the hall Tuesday night on fire for their side, but I was there, and they did not. They walked out like people who weren't quite sure what to think or how to feel but were hoping for the best, because they love their country a lot." A missed opportunity, says Peggy Noonan.

PORTMAN: Well, I don't think it was a missed opportunity in the sense that she was talking to the voters of America, not necessarily to the folks at the convention. Look, everybody here is supporting Mitt Romney. They are crazy about him. They are crazy about her. You saw the reaction she got.

But, she was talking to those folks who hadn't made their mind up yet. And there are a lot of people out there, I think a lot more than the pollsters tell us. They may say they're for one candidate or another, but they're really wondering and it's enlarge measure because they aren't happy. They aren't happy with the direction of the economy, the direction of the country in general.

I think what she was able to do is say, look, if you give my husband a chance, she talked about his hard work ethic, you know, the fact that he's going to work harder than anybody else, and that he's all about results and helping people to achieve something for themselves and their family. I think that's what people wanted to hear. And I thought she did a great job with that.

BERMAN: You are playing Barack Obama in the debate prep. How tough are you going to be on Mitt Romney?

PORTMAN: I hope tough, because that's -- you know, the opportunity is to be tougher than the opponent so that halfway through the debate he says, well, that wasn't so bad.

BERMAN: Has anybody ever taken a swing at you in these things?

PORTMAN: Oh, yes. I mean, you kind of swing back and forth. I mean, nothing physical, although, it's come close at times. Usually, it's the candidate's spouse, you know, who's listening in.

BERMAN: So, no wonder you're being so nice to Ann Romney about her speech last night.

PORTMAN: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

PORTMAN: -- process that she doesn't, you know, dislike me I've done something wrong, because you do want to be tough.

BERMAN: Sen. Portman, thank you so much for joining us. We're watching your speech today at the convention.

PORTMAN: Appreciate it.

BERMAN: CNN's primetime coverage of the Republican National Convention continues tonight at 7:00 p.m. eastern with Wolf Blitzer. During the 10:00 p.m. hour, vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, he will address the delegates. A lot of excitement about that. And then, at midnight, Piers Morgan wraps up night two of the Republican National Convention right here from the CNN Grill.

It is all right here on CNN. And now, I want to go back to my very wet colleague in New Orleans, Soledad O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: All right, John. Thank you. We're continuing to update you on what's happening here as the storm, hurricane Isaac roars through Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. We're monitoring what's happening in the state of Mississippi.

Also, we're going to take a closer look at Plaquemines Parish. We're getting some reports of major flooding there, overtopping of a levee on the east side. And some reports of people trapped in their homes. We're going to see if we can check in with parish president, Billy Nungusser straight ahead.

We're back in just a moment. You're watching a special edition of STARTING POINT. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching our special coverage of hurricane Isaac as it roars through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We're monitoring things here in New Orleans where 70 percent of the city is now without power. More than 400,000 people according to Intergy (ph).

We'll tell you what the U.S. army corps of engineers is saying about the levee system. We'll talk a little bit about the pumping system. And we'll focus on Plaquemines Parish. They've had an overrunning of the levee there on the east side, and it means that some homes are now being flooded massively.

We've got reports of people being rescued and all the people who have not been rescued yet. We'll update you on all that as this special report on STARTING POINT continues our special coverage of hurricane Isaac. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching special live coverage of Hurricane Isaac. We're here in New Orleans where the winds have obviously picked up. Just as they died down, I thought we were getting a break, but they have picked up again. The wind is a driving wind.

We're watching very closely what's happening today in Plaquemines Parish because we got word overnight that a levee on the east side had been overtopped, had been overrun. And what that meant was that severe flooding was happening to the homes behind that levee. Those are levees that are outside the federal protection system. So those are not the levees that have been upgraded in the area. These are different levees. A big problem, though. And we heard from one man who had to be rescued from his home. His name is Eugene Odom (ph). This is what he told our affiliate, WWL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now I'm in my attic with my wife and my year-and-a-half-year-old baby. The local police came around at about 2:00 in the morning and told us the levee broke. And within an hour, the water was coming up. I barely got my vehicle to the levee. The river levee is dry. But the water came up so quick. It looks like we lost everything. If I had to, I'm going to have to shoot a hole in my attic here to get out on our roof.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: We were told by the parish president that some folks have been rescued by the goodness of their neighbors because it was really dark and impossible for rescue teams to get in. The sun has come up. The coast guard says until the storm passes through they can't get in there to start doing some rescues. So we are monitoring that situation in Plaquemines Parish very closely. It's unclear how many people might still be stuck in their homes at this hour.

Rob Marciano has much more for us. Rob, every time I think the wind is dying down it picks up right again.

ROB MARCIANO, METEOROLOGIST: Yes. It's deceiving. You think for a second that, hey, maybe this thing is winding down. Well, no. As slow as this storm is moving, it's certainly not. OK, behind me, you see flapping in the breeze here, this is a structure that's meant to be a canopy for parties and not to be flapping around in a hurricane. Obviously, it's not hurricane strength. You can kind of see some -- we've got some steel beams that are bolted down to the concrete. On the right side already a couple of those have lifted off and been torn up from the bolted concrete. There's some stage lights in there. They are flapping around. I don't suspect that will be around too much longer. Thankfully, it is downwind of us.

Over here is the Mississippi River that has come up a little bit since yesterday. Pan out if you can and show some of the whitecaps. Yesterday, the whitecaps were going upstream against the current. Now they are coming this way towards the east -- or towards the west as we have this strong east wind continuing. So the wind and rain continues here. The port of New Orleans obviously is closed. This facility, which is typically houses Mardi Gras balls and weddings and probably other events, that is closed. And the rainfall obviously continues to pile up too. So this is such a slow-moving storm, Soledad. It's just pounding New Orleans and the surrounding areas hour after hour. And it's beginning to take a toll, that's for sure. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: Yes, it certainly is. All right, Rob. Thank you. Appreciate that update.

We want to get to Senator David Vitter. We had a chance to talk to him yesterday. He had embedded with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was going to do it again. We were going to check in with him. Good morning, Senator. Thank you for joining us.

SEN. DAVID VITTER, LOUISIANA (via telephone): Good morning, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: We heard a report earlier from Colonel Fleming saying that so far, so good, as it concerns the levees. One of the things they are worried about, though, is the pumping system. Tell me about what you saw overnight, sir.

VITTER: Well, yes. I'm here at the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters. And we're experiencing the same sort of conditions you are in a different part of the city. I just walked out of an hour- long briefing that Colonel Fleming led with his corps of engineers team. I think the bottom line summary is two things. First of all, on the nonfederal system as you said, there's this significant issue on east Plaquemines Parish where a lot of folks who were asked to evacuate, there was a mandatory evacuation, but not everyone did, so those folks are having to be rescued. And that's very, very unfortunate.

Secondly, I think that probably the biggest challenge in this area right now is as a rain event with pumping capacity versus the levee system. That's what it appears right now. Now there's no crisis, there's no problem in terms of that pumping capacity. But just overall, this event seems like an even bigger challenge in terms of the rain versus storm surge and wind. O'BRIEN: Senator, let me ask you a question since you mentioned Plaquemines Parish. And clearly that was a levee that didn't quite fail, it's just been overtopped. So it's not a big enough levee. And some of the folks we know are still stuck in their homes or still cannot get out.

VITTER: Certainly it's overtopped. There's also a possibility that there is a breach or a small break in it or some sort of break in it. But that's unconfirmed. I just wanted to throw that out. But it certainly is overtopped at a minimum.

O'BRIEN: That's a levee that on the east side that is something like eight to nine feet high. Here is my question to you, sir. Have you gotten a figure on how many people may actually be trapped there and how many homes are right near that levee? I know on the west side, it's not very populated. They were a little bit less concerned about that levee. But on the east side, there are more homes there. How many folks do they think might still be stuck there?

VITTER: Well, first of all, the east bank is actually far less populated than the West Bank of Plaquemines Parish. Most of Plaquemines Parish, most of the populated areas are on the east bank. But there are some -- there is one major subdivision and some significant homes on the east bank. I don't have the number overall in front of me, either homes or people who stayed. I believe I remember for the briefing that they may be on the order of 40 or 50 people to evacuate on an emergency basis.

O'BRIEN: All right, Plaquemines Parish is where we are putting our focus this morning. Senator David Vitter joining us. Thank you, sir. We appreciate your time.

We know that he has been embedded over the last couple of days with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We got a notice from the Corps of Engineers saying that the levee system doing well. Now putting their focus on the pumping system as the storm makes its way onto the west side.

We're going to take a short break. Come back in just a moment. Oh, you know what? I actually think it sounds like we have Lieutenant General Russell Honore joining us. Can you hear me, sir?

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, AUTHOR, "SURVIVAL": Yes, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Forgive me. I'm having a hard time hearing you, so my apologies in advance. Tell me what you think so far of what you've seen first from the storm and secondly from the coordination around the storm and the response to the storm.

HONORE: I think the first big test of all of the preparation work done by the corps and the federal government. And right now I think all we can do is hold on. And this is going to take several hours for this storm to run its course, particularly at the speed it's going. So I think the preparations were good. Right now of course you were just talking about what's going on down in Plaquemines Parish. And knowing that team down in Plaquemines Parish, they are going to get to those people as soon as they can.

Everybody that still has power in this community should hunker down and stay off all the roads.

O'BRIEN: That's excellent advice. The wind is really, really strong. I have moved behind a shelter so I can hear you better.

Let's talk specifically about Plaquemines Parish. Some of the folks who decided to ignore the mandatory evacuation order, and now with the levee being overtopped or as Senator Vitter said maybe we'll find out that in fact the levee has been breached, it's unclear at this point. Those folks, some of them we know, have been pulled out by neighbors. Others it seems are just stuck. Any idea what you can tell us at this point about that?

HONORE: Yes. I think the best thing you can do is hunker down and get in the attics. If you can listen to radio, or by some other means, try to make a hole through the attic. And continue to call for assistance. They are lucky in the other sense that they have the best boaters in the world in Plaquemines Parish. If anybody can go in there and get them it will be those shrimpers in Plaquemines Parish.

O'BRIEN: Lieutenant General Russell Honore, sir, great to talk to you from even from a distance. We certainly appreciate your insight.

I want to throw it back to David Mattingly as I head back out here in the high winds. It's a very similar situation to what David is experiencing in Gulfport, Mississippi. David, tell me a little bit about what it's like now where you are.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, sounds like I'm seeing about the same thing that you are right now, a torrent of rain right now. We've also had continuous tropical storm conditions since midnight. It's ramped up in about the last 10 minutes, one of those bands going through. You just really don't know what to expect from minute to minute with these storms, and Isaac is proving to be no different from what we've seen in the past.

Take a look behind me. This was what we're all watching right now. It was a very nice, calm, smooth water a few minutes ago. Look at it now. The water is up, actually lapping up against the seawall behind me. Further down the road on Highway 90, it's actually up on the highway, I'm told, by city officials.

But what we're looking for is a high tide that happens midmorning. This wasn't supposed to be a problem because Isaac shouldn't still be here at this kind of intensity, but because it's been so, so slow moving and because it seems to have parked right here on the gulf coast for a while, we're watching that high tide. We're watching to see just how high the water from the ocean is going to be pushed up from this storm.

They are revising their predictions. They're looking at possibly a 10-foot storm surge in some parts along coastal Mississippi. They are revising the rainfall estimates from about a foot of rain up to about 18 inches of rain in some areas. And if it keeps up like this, we'll have no problem making that mark.

They have also changed the curfew. The curfew has been extended here in Gulfport. It was supposed to be over at 7:00 this morning. They took a look at the weather and realized that this storm isn't moving out the way they thought it would so they are extending that curfew. But I tell you, Soledad, right now, we are getting tropical storm conditions. But it feels very much like a hurricane with the way the wind is stinging, blowing so hard in the wind. And of course so much water coming down right now. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: All right, David Mattingly for us this morning. He is in Gulfport, Mississippi. Thank you, David, for that update.

We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll send it back to the Republican National Convention. John Berman will pick up our coverage from there. And we'll continue of course to take a look at what's happening with hurricane Isaac. Plaquemines Parish is where our focus is this morning talking about folks who seem to be trapped in their homes, overtopped levees there. In fact, are the levees breached? We'll take a look at that as well. Entergy says 400,000 people are out of power, 70 percent of the city. And we'll check in with folks who decided to stay through the storm. All that and much more is ahead as this special edition of STARTING POINT continues. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

You're watching our special coverage of Hurricane Isaac. And as we've been told and as was predicted by the National Hurricane Center and Rob Marciano who has been heading our coverage weather-wise all morning, this heavy wind and driving rain is to be expected as the storm pretty much just parks itself over Louisiana and is moving very, very slowly. A big concern now as water. And we've even seen in the few hours we've been here the water here behind me rising a lot just because obviously the drainage system, which is in that corner there, at least one part of it is, is now blocked by debris so it's not -- it's not draining. And that's an issue that could be happening all over the city.

We know of 12 other intersections at least where because of standing water those intersections are not passable. Lots to tell you about this morning, we're covering Plaquemines Parish where we believe that people are still trapped in their homes. Boaters are going out today to try to rescue those folks. But they are small boats; impossible of course for the Coast Guard to get in. The weather will not allow for any kind of aircraft clearly to get into the air.

John Berman is covering the other story that we're following this morning, which is the Republican National Convention, which is taking place in Tampa, Florida, where John Berman, it is not driving rain and absolute downpour and high winds. Good morning.

BERMAN: No, Soledad. It's really nice in here. You know good work down there. I know it's got to be tough standing out there with that driving rain.

Here in Tampa, not raining at all. Chris Christie took the stage last night, he delivered the keynote address. And in it he argued that Mitt Romney won't sugar coat the tough decisions that are facing Congress and facing America today. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: And Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on a path to growth and create good-paying, private sector jobs again in America. Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy. Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world's greatest health care system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So tonight -- last night belonged to Chris Christie. Tonight belongs to Paul Ryan, the vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party.

I am joined right now by a Democrat, Chris Van Hollen, who will be playing Congressman Paul Ryan in the debate prep with Senator Joe -- well, with Vice President Joe Biden coming up. I want to talk about politics and the convention in a second.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Sure.

BERMAN: But I want to start first with the storm.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes.

BERMAN: Obviously, we've seen Soledad down there in some ways getting worse down there this morning. There have been a lot of questions to Republicans about what they should and shouldn't be doing with their convention this week.

But I want to ask you about the President, the President is out on a campaign tour right now, speaking at college campuses. Is that really appropriate when New Orleans is being hit like this?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, look the President has been on top of this storm from the beginning, as you know. He -- just the other day, authorized the federal government to provide all support necessary through FEMA for this purposes. I know that he is tracking the storm very closely. The Republicans are having their convention here in Florida. The President is also talking about issues that face American families around the country.

But he is always monitoring the storm. And as I said, he's provided all of the relief necessary, authorized all the relief necessary.

BERMAN: Sir, Chris Christie was talking about issues last night too. What did you make of his speech?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, what I heard Governor Christie talk about was we need more truth-telling. Unfortunately, I didn't hear any more truth-telling from him. And I think they're going to have to persuade the American people why it's brave to say that we're not going to ask the very wealthy in this country to pay one more penny to help reduce the deficit. In fact, they want to give another round of tax cuts to people like Mitt Romney, and that comes at the expense of everybody else.

If you really want to tackle our fiscal challenges, you need to take a balanced approach. You need to make some cuts and reforms, of course, but you also need to ask the folks at the very top to contribute to reducing our deficit. And -- and they don't want to do that.

BERMAN: Well, there is that debt clock which the Republicans are proudly pointing to and all here. I mean, the debt has gone up and up and up over the last three years.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, let's remember it's interesting to see the debt clock. Of course, when President Bush left office, he left President Obama with a record deficit that year, over $1 trillion that year. And an economy that was in total freefall.

So the President had to take action, stop the freefall, turn the corner, and start moving back up. Now everyone recognizes we've got a long way to go. However, going back to the trickle-down economic theory that Bush had, that got us into this mess to begin with, is not an answer. Investing in the middle class, investing in our people, is the answer.

BERMAN: You have a big job coming up. You'll be playing Paul Ryan in the mock presidential debates.

VAN HOLLEN: Right.

BERMAN: Make your case. Be Paul Ryan. Sell the Ryan Medicare plan. Sell the Ryan budget.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I can't, because I think it really is a hard sell.

BERMAN: You're going to have to.

VAN HOLLEN: Well no, of course. When I'm talking about the Vice President, I will -- I'll try and give their version of the story. But if you look at for example the Romney ad on Medicare, it's a total distortion of the facts. Because what Obamacare did was eliminate a lot of the overpayments to private insurance companies in Medicare and used the savings to strengthen Medicare benefits. They would turn back the clock on that and ask seniors to pay a lot more so that people like Mitt Romney can get another tax cut.

BERMAN: If you act like this in the debate prep, it's not going to be very helpful to the Vice President. Listen, there are some news today. There're some newly released e-mails that that say the administration had offered to provide help to a documentary on the Navy SEALs. I guess the issue again of how much the administration is or isn't doing in releasing information about the raid in Osama bin Laden's house. Is there a concern here, a security concern?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think there are questions obviously of the foremost interest should be protecting the security of the folks who were involved in that very important mission. I don't know all the details. But that should be first and foremost, is the -- is the security and safety of those people.

BERMAN: Congressman Chris Van Hollen, thank you very much for joining us in Tampa.

VAN HOLLEN: It's nice to be here.

BERMAN: You're surrounded by Republicans, but you seem to be enjoying yourself here.

VAN HOLLEN: Well I'm here with my -- I just saw my friend Rob Portman who was here. We -- we worked together on the Super Committee. Unfortunately, we were not able to bridge the differences. But I hope we're able to do it going forward.

BERMAN: Thank you for joining us.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

BERMAN: And I hope to see you again soon.

VAN HOLLEN: Thanks.

BERMAN: All right, Soledad back to you down in New Orleans.

O'BRIEN: All right John, thank you. We continue to cover what's happening here in New Orleans and in Mississippi and all over Louisiana as we are monitoring Hurricane Isaac.

We've got to take a short break. We're back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: Welcome back to our special coverage of Hurricane Isaac. While we've been riding out the storm here in Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans, about an hour or so from us is Grand Isle, Louisiana. And that is where Ed Lavendera has been riding out the storm. He's been with a family.

He says waters rose so dramatically in just the last couple of hours they've had to move to the next level of the house. Here are some of his reporting, take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We woke up this morning in Grand Isle, Louisiana to conditions that were much worse than what we saw last night. In the overnight hours, the storm surge really started to go up. What we've been looking at quite closely, if you can see the water line there on the siding of the home, there's a layer of bricks just below that. And we've seen in probably in the overnight hours the water levels go up about a foot and a half, maybe even as much as two feet.

And what that means for us is that the house that we're in is now starting to take in water. We've got about six inches on the ground level. So we'll continue to watch that.

We are on the right edge of the eye of this storm. This is looking back out toward the Gulf of Mexico over here. And you can see wherever you look, just how much water is now surrounding us.

And what is impressive is just the -- the power and just how quickly the water is moving. Look back over this way. These trees, this is the driveway that leads into the house, Dean Blanchard's home here in Grand Isle, Louisiana. And the water levels have gone up quite dramatically.

We have been trying to get in touch with the mayor here in Grand Isle, who is just a few blocks away. They -- they have spent the night in a command post just a few blocks away. We haven't been able to get in touch with them.

But now that the sunlight has broken here in Grand Isle, we can see that there is some -- some damage to rooftops. Nothing structurally damaged. You haven't seen houses collapse. Remember most all the homes around here are built on stilts so that the storm surge can go and the water can pass below these homes and cause the least amount of damage possible.

So that is very typical. But we haven't seen a lot of structural damage or any of these homes collapse. The winds have been rather intense. But you know, the storm surge here is what we're most concerned about. And as I said, anywhere you look around here, the water levels have just gone up dramatically. And it's really made any kind of driving or moving around on this island virtually impossible at this point.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Grand Isle, Louisiana.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: All right, Ed Lavandera for us this morning. Thank you Ed for that report. He continues to report for us from Grand Isle, Louisiana.

We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our coverage of Hurricane Isaac as it hits Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

We're back in just a moment. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back everybody. We're going to continue to monitor what's happening with Hurricane Isaac right here in the city of New Orleans, and in the outskirts as well.

Carol Costello will pick up our coverage at "CNN NEWSROOM". And I'll see you back here tomorrow morning starting at 7:00 a.m. Eastern time. We'll update you on all the aftermath as this hurricane bores through.

Carol -- to you.