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Hurricane Irene Coverage: Hurricane Irene Makes its Way up the East Coast; Bloomberg Warns New Yorkers to Evacuate Ahead of Hurricane; Interview With NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan; Obama Returns to White House to Monitor Hurricane; Irene Roars Up the East Coast; Widespread Damage in North Carolina

Aired August 27, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And happening now, Hurricane Irene is heading right here to Washington, D.C. pushing farther north in its ferocious track up the East Coast. This category one storm first hit land in North Carolina this morning, and it's packing winds of about 85 miles an hour.

At least four deaths are reported along with widespread damage and flooding. Irene's winds are tearing through Virginia, ripping open roofs, almost one million customers are without power in Virginia, and North Carolina right now.

President Obama has declared a state of emergency in nine states, along the eastern seaboard. New York City has ordered an unprecedented evacuation, of 370,000 people. Some of America's biggest cities in fact are now bracing for the worst.

CNN correspondents are up and down the coast, covering this powerful hurricane. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We want to start with Chris Lawrence, he's joining us from Maryland, the Chesapeake Beach, right now.

Chris, this powerful storm is moving in your direction, what are you seeing, what are you feeling?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I feel very wet, and I can feel a tremendous amount of wind, that kicked up in the last few hours. Where I'm standing now and a lot of the areas right around it, earlier this morning when we were here at about 11:00 in the morning or noon, this was sand and very quickly over the past few hours, we have just seen the tide start to rise and the winds just get more and more intense here.

It really says something, when you consider how far we still are from the real brunt of this storm, the real worry here -- is right now the beach there because a lot of these homes here are built on a cliff and I was speaking with the mayor here just, you know, a little while ago and he said there was a real chance that because the majority of (AUDIO GAP) is going to hit this area at about maybe 2:00 in the morning. And 4:00 in the morning is high tide.

And he's very, very concerned with the amount of energy and (AUDIO GAP) storm that would (AUDIO GAP) that might just erode the soil enough to send some of those houses collapsing out from underneath themselves. So, that's one of the worries here, about a thousand people here already without power, the mayor has been going throughout the town trying to check on people. There was a mandatory evacuation for people who live within 100 feet of the beach, up on one of those cliffs. But the mayor was saying a lot of people have chosen to stay here and ride out the storm with their homes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris, are they saying, the experts that you're talking to including the mayor, this is worst than they expected, what they expected? Not as bad? What are they saying?

LAWRENCE: Two answers to that, Wolf, wind wise they're saying, they don't think it's going to be as bad as they initially expected. (AUDIO GAP) through other storms with the winds was much more powerful, Hurricane Isabel, and again the winds probably won't be as bad as they originally thought. But what they're very concerned about is the fact that this storm is moving so slowly and that the brunt of it is going to get right around the same time as high tide and that is a real concern, that it may bring so much water that the storm surge may flood a lot of these areas.

BLITZER: All right, we're losing our connection with Chris Lawrence. He's in Chesapeake Beach in Maryland. Obviously, a bad situation unfolding right there.

We're reporting live from Washington, D.C., the storm is moving towards the nation's capital right now, we'll be reporting a special situation room for the next three hours live from the nation's capital.

Let's bring in our severe weather expert Chad Myers.

Chad, the hurricane, they have just released a new update, a new forecast, is that right?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That is correct, Wolf, they have reduced it from an 85-mile-per-hour hurricane to an 80-mile-per-hour hurricane and that just means still category one. But I'll tell you what, you can just forget about the winds. Do not fear the wind as much as fearing the water. Sure the winds will blow down trees, but the water will cause flooding, it will cause surge and it will cause fresh water flooding in rivers.

And then, with all of this saturated ground, from D.C. all the way to New England, trees will fall on houses, trees will fall on cars, trees will fall on streets with all of this wind, and saturated ground the roots will not be able to hold those trees up. The hurricane right now was just about exiting North Carolina and will move back into the Gulf Stream. It may generate itself just a little bit. I'm not expecting any regeneration.

In fact as it moves off and just very close to Virginia Beach, it will travel right along the Jersey Shore and right into New York harbor. Why do I say fear the water more than the wind? You can deal with the 60 or 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts, even in D.C., it will be just fine. Limbs will be down, trees will be down.

The problem is already, Wolf, think about this, New York harbor at the Battery, how far is this storm away? Three hundred miles away sir, the wind has already pushed an extra foot of water to Battery Park. And that water is not coming out. That water is going to stay in there through these tidal surges. One high tide or low tide, there hasn't been low tides, water just keeps getting pushed in there. If we're already one foot high, and this storm is 300 miles away, almost 12 hours from being at its peak in New York City, this is going to be a flood event even for the city itself.

BLITZER: That explains why they shut down all the subways, the trains in New York City, already. Chad, you know, a million people in North Carolina and Virginia have already lost power, think about it, no electricity for a million people and this storm is moving to Maryland, and it's heading north towards New York. A lot more people are going to be losing power.

MYERS: And you know what? This is the mutual aid issue. Typically if something hits North Carolina, they'll call Virginia and they'll say, hey, can you send your crews down here to help? And they'll say yes, sure, we'll send them down, we'll get your power back up. There can be no mutual delay because everybody has to worry about their own stuff. Crews will be coming in from Ohio, in Indiana, in Illinois trying to put this power lines back up. I'm going to make you, I'm letting you go, hour by hour here with this hurricane. Ocean City, you're already seeing now green, 40-mile-per-hour winds, so pay attention to the light green, but also pay attention to the yellow, when yellow gets close to your house, that's a 60-mile-per-hour wind.

Ocean City, you're going to get that in about three or four hours. All the way up here along the Atlantic shore, and here the eye just moving right over Virginia Beach, this is a 70-mile-per-hour wind gust, Cape May and Wildwood, all of this wind will pushing water into New York harbor, by about 3:00 in the morning, New York City is already 50 miles per hour and it goes up from there. There's the 60, 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts right along Long Island and even into Connecticut and now into Rhode Island. There's the eye, very close and just to the east of Philadelphia, winds will be coming from the north in Philadelphia because of the way the spin is here, so watch that out if you see your trees starting to blow, and you have trees here north, some of those trees may fall.

Philadelphia has had 13 inches of rainfall this month already, that including to hurricane, and there it goes past New York through Hartford knocking down trees in Boston and even up into Vermont as the wind speeds goes slow down. Those winds speeds right there are still 50 miles per hour. Huge storm, lots of wind, just not that 130-mile- per-hour court. Big storm though.

BLITZER: We can start feeling it right now in Washington, D.C. as well. You can see behind me, Chad, we'll stay in very close touch with you. It will be precise. One million power customers, customers have lost power in North Carolina and Virginia so far, so many more people, there are two, three, four, five people living in a household. So, a lot of people without power, many millions already without power.

Let's go to Jeanne Meserve, she's in Ocean City, Maryland, where they're supposed to be vacationing right now.

But Ocean City, I understand, Jeanne, pretty much deserted, is that right?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, the winds here are really starting to pick up now and as I look down the beach, I can see at least one window where draperies are blowing out and an indication that something is blowing out here already. And the hurricane force winds aren't expected here for an hour or so.

But what they're really worried about here is exactly what Chad was talking about, a water event. Look at this ocean, it is just ferocious, it is hungry, it is already chased us halfway up this dune in the ten or so minutes that we have been out in this weather. Fortunately, these dunes are here, their intention is to protect all this valuable real estate, most of the people, the 200 or so, thousand who were here did evacuate, about 300 were left last night. Some additional ones evacuated today. We spoke to the mayor earlier and he had a message for the people who have chosen to stay here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RICK MEEHAN, OCEAN CITY, MARYLAND: My message is it wasn't a good decision, but if you're here, stay inside. Do not venture outside. This is not a hurricane party, this is a very serious storm. I think everybody's reacted responsibly up and down the coast, we urge them to do the same. Be safe, keep yourself safe and do not put our emergency personnel in danger, that is a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: The message to those who left is, don't come back until we tell you. Want to come out and do an assessment after the storm leaves to see exactly what the damage is. Exactly how dangerous is, the word is the same for boaters, the coast guard is saying, we have to get into the water and check the navigation before you can bring your boats back here. Give us some time to get things back to normal. But for now, we're dealing with the storm itself.

I will tell you, the Army Corps of Engineers built an extension to this -- and these dunes after Gloria in 1985 would hit this city hard. The intention of course to protect things, but the army corps was out here this week, taking measurements, surveying, so they can determine after Irene goes exactly how much rebuilding they're going to have to do to again protect all the real estate here. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Jeanne. Just after 5:00 p.m. on the East Coast, where you are once again, when do they expect the worst to hit Ocean City, Maryland.

MESERVE: Well, we're expecting the hurricane force winds to start here in about an hour. Of course of course the storm track a little bit uncertain, but they're saying, four, five, six hours, we will be very close to the eye of this storm. And let me tell you, the water is right up here by our ankles already, right at the foot of this dune, so it's going to be quite an interesting evening. Back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Be careful over there. Jean, we'll check back with you, regularly. David Mattingly is in a state where Irene made landfall this morning, we're talking about North Carolina. David's joining us now live from Kill Devil Hills.

You lived through that hurricane, once it hit there, how did it go David?

(AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: Unfortunately, we're not hearing David Mattingly. We're going to try to reconnect with him. We'll get his audio going, you have to be patient, all of us have to be patient. These are very difficult circumstances to bring reporters up live from areas that have been hit hard by hurricane. Let's try one more time to see if we can check in with David.

David, can you hear me OK?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, I can hear you, can you hear me now?

BLITZER: Yes, we hear you fine. Go ahead and tell us what it was like when that hurricane hit where you are?

MATTINGLY: Well, it hit and it's hitting, Wolf. And we felt the effects of this storm for 24 hours now. And for the last couple of hours (AUDIO GAP).

BLITZER: All right, we got obviously, we are going to try to reconnect there with David. Let's be patient for a second and see if we can reconnect with him. David, are you still there? Can you hear me?

MATTINGLY: Can you hear me now?

BLITZER: Yes, we hear you, go ahead, we lost some of you. Start again where you begin.

MATTINGLY: OK. All right, as I was saying this, storm has been (AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: All right, we're obviously having hurricane related technical problems. We'll going to check out with David soon and hopefully we'll be able to speak with him from North Carolina. This storm is continuing to move up the eastern seaboard. All of this area coming under a lot of rain. We're in Washington, D.C. right now. We're going to be reporting live for the next almost three hours as this storm moves closer and closer to the nation's capital. We're also going to New York City where hospitals have been evacuated, and people are getting very, very nervous.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're watching Hurricane Irene move up the East Coast of the United States. It landed earlier today in North Carolina. Let's check in with David Mattingly once again, I think we have re- established contact with him. David, you're still feeling the power of Irene, aren't you?

MATTINGLY: Wolf, and that's why you keep losing my audio is that (AUDIO GAP) feeling this storm kicking up now for over 24 hours. It has been absolutely relentless, the last couple of hours have been the worst. That was the when the eye wall went over this area, the winds intensified very abruptly, and we ended up actually the hotel that we're in suffered damage, part of an exterior wall peeled away, littered the entire area with debris. Of course, when you have things like that in the air, that's when the hurricanes is its most dangerous.

But this storm has been causing flooding, has been causing massive power outages and widespread damage, and it's not done yet. As you can see, the wind is still blowing. And take a look at this surf, the sea is still absolutely white with foam as far as the eye can see here, that's not going to be going away any time soon. (AUDIO GAP) heads north, and it's been (AUDIO GAP) not floating from the ocean, surprisingly enough, but from the sound on the other side of these islands. When this storm goes out -- it's going to blow that water in the sound on to (AUDIO GAP).

BLITZER: All right, well, we got the gist of it.

Unfortunately, we keep losing that audio from David Mattingly in Kill Devil Hills. We're going to check back with him. This is a serious hurricane. The technical problems will be evident not only with David Mattingly but with a lot our other reporters that are covering this story.

In New York City, five New York City hospitals now under evacuation along with 370,000 people, living in some of the low-lying areas of New York City. The mayor Michael Bloomberg is warning residence to take this unprecedented order to leave seriously.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK CITY: We have seen a marked increase in the number of people evacuating, most are getting the message, but for some reason, some people have yet to leave, so let me just one more time, I hate to sound like a broken record, but it is exactly what we are trying to do. If you haven't left, you should leave now. Not later this evening, not later this afternoon, but immediately.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is covering the hospital evacuations in New York City right now.

How's that going, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, they went surprisingly well given that hospitals had about 12 hours to get all of their patients out. And if you take a look at this map, we're talking about five hospitals in New York City, Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Coney Island, et cetera. But when you add nursing homes, Wolf, and other kinds of health care facilities, 22 facilities had to get people out.

And I sat at New York University Hospital and watched as they brought people from the Intensive Care Unit, we're talking premature babies coming out of the NICU, and it was really done in a very smooth and calm fashion.

Now, as you can imagine, Wolf, there is a story behind every patient who had to leave the hospital to be transferred somewhere else. So, I caught up with one of those patients, her name is Eileen Findler (ph) and her brother has a cancerous brain tumor. He was supposed to start a new therapy tomorrow, but well, that didn't happen.

So, let's listen to Eileen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: It just feels like what else can you throw into this. You know, it's bad enough having to live with his diagnosis and try to get the medical help and then, you know, it's just -- everything that you try to do, you just keep getting slapped back down. So, but, you know, we'll get him to a hotel tonight and, you know, have a maid and we'll just weather the storm there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COHEN: Now her brother was in good enough shape that he could to make that trip out of the hospital, but you know what, Wolf, there's about ten patients at NYU who were too sick to evacuate that hospital. And they are there as we speak, so about 10 patients were, would have been more dangerous to move them than to keep them there.

And I want to show you, NYU is right near the east river. I mean, we're talking there's the river, there's FDR drive and then there's the hospital. And if that storm surge brings water into the basement, you know, that's going to be a real issue, because that's where their generators are -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do they have any backup plans if that were to happen at NYU Medical Center?

COHEN: Yes, they certainly do, they do have backup plans and they are just hoping that the surge doesn't also ruin the back-up plans. You know, they had to get special permission from the city to even keep those 10 patients there. But basically, it all came down to sort of an equation that moving them was just way too dangerous because they are so critically ill.

BLITZER: As if you're intensive care, you're premature baby, making a decision to move you at that stage of care. It's almost, you know, it's a tough choice between staying put or moving with all the complications that could develop from a move like that.

COHEN: That's right, Wolf. It is a tough choice. And when I talk to folks in NYU, they said they made each patient's decision painstakingly, a team of doctors and a team of nurses with each patient deciding, is this person healthy enough to be transferred uptown to a hospital that won't be affected so much by the hurricane.

And, you know, for most of the -- they could make it. I mean, to see those premature babies in their -- being put in the ambulance is just heartbreaking. But of course, it's great that there's a facility that they could go to, but you know, some of them may just think, they just couldn't make it. And so, you know, we're praying that they're safe staying there at NYU.

BLITZER: Are the experts in New York, Elizabeth, saying they learned vital lessons in how New Orleans dealt with hospitals during Katrina?

COHEN: Yes, absolutely, as a matter of fact, one of the highest ranking officials who was in Katrina at the time. One of the health officials is now in New York City, so he brought that wisdom with him.

You know, they certainly also learned from things that happened in the big snowstorm earlier this year and they have been practicing these kinds of evacuations really for years, since Katrina, and this is the first time they have been able to put it into practice and it seems to have worked quite well. I mean, they evacuated hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of patients in about 12 hours.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen on the sea for us in New York, thanks very, very much. Good luck to all those patients, doctors, nurses, enormously complicated job they have. This disturbing footnote, according to a government model, almost 40 million people are likely to see winds above 50 miles an hour. As a result of this storm, that's typically -- which damage starts to occur. More than 37,000 buildings will likely sustain wind damage alone, and economic losses just from the heavy winds, they're estimated at more than a billion dollars. If you're at corporate flood damage, those numbers obviously could be even higher.

We're going to Long Beach, New York which bracing for Irene, our special coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We want to bring you up to speed on the latest with Hurricane Irene. Right now, this monster storm just south of Norfolk, Virginia, barreling toward points northward including where I am right here in Washington, D.C.

Scores of trees are down throughout the East Coast. The number of people without power has jumped to almost one million. That's the number of households without power, a lot more people don't have power in North Carolina and Virginia right now.

And we have just received word the storm already has claimed five lives, among them a boy killed in Virginia after a tree crashed on an apartment complex. Three people died in North Carolina, and another person died in Virginia. We'll give you all the specifics, that's coming up soon.

Our meteorologist and severe weather expert Chad Myers is standing by at the CNN Hurricane Headquarters with the latest on this forecast. It's moving slowly but surely. The problem Chad is this is a really wide, big hurricane.

MYERS: Correct. And I'm going to go through that, about the wind field we're talking about and how the pressure is so low that it could be a much bigger hurricane if there were a nice big eye in the middle or a little eye in the middle. Wind speeds could be category three. And I'll get to that and I'll tell you how old that works.

Right now, the storm is just about to exit North Carolina, that's the center of circulation. They're truly isn't an eye anymore. It will travel just to the east of Virginia Beach and then on up the coast right into New York City. Right as making landfall somewhere near Long Beach, New York. That is right on Long Island.

And all of this rain now pouring onshore causing significant flooding where at least pounding at this point. You have to understand Wolf that this rain is going to last. In some spot, 24 more hours.

Here's what we're going to go. We're going to take you minute by minute or at least hour by hour. This is 5:00 today. This is right now, the storm there exiting Virginia Beach there getting up into the ocean.

The yellow areas here have come over to the scale. The yellow areas 60 mile per hour winds but everywhere that you see, any color at all that's at least 40 miles per hour wind. Understand that there's an hour wind, 40 miles per hour all the way from Atlantic City, all the way down into central parts of North Carolina and South Carolina.

Put this into motion for the next three hours. It moves offshore, 7:00, Ocean City, you're already in the dark green, that's 60-miles-per-hour winds, Richmond, you're in the 40-mile-per-hour winds. Washington, D.C., Baltimore, you're getting there, by about 1:00 in the morning. And Philadelphia, all the way to long branch up in New Jersey, about 40-miles-per-hour, but by 3:00 in the morning, Wolf, Long Island picks up the dark green. That's 50 miles per hour or more. Now notice that there are some very big winds in the ocean. They don't really wrap all the way around for a while, but you will see the winds here, the orange, 70 miles per hour, will affect the eastern sections of Long Island. Right there, 6:00 in the morning, this storm running up over Atlantic City and then toward New York City. The closest approach to Philadelphia, wind speeds 50 to 60-mile per hour in Philadelphia.

At 9:00 in the morning, knocking trees down, because the ground is so saturated. And then by the afternoon, it does move onshore. And those are those 70 miles per hour winds in eastern Long Island. Boston, you're going to get winds to 60 as well. And even as it moves up to the east coast, you could see Portland, Maine, along with Kennebunkport here, those very beautiful cliffs here, picking up wind speeds to 60 miles per hour.

So getting back to my original point, we just had an airplane, a hurricane hunter, fly through the storm. It picked up the pressure. It dropped a little box. We call it the drops on. It found a pressure of 950 millibars. Anybody that's been watching this at all would know that 950 millibars could sustain an eyewall of a Category 3.

But right now, there's not a Category 3 anywhere. It's just spread out 60 and 80 miles-per-hour winds for hundreds of miles rather than one small pore. We have a big storm with moderate winds rather than a big storm with one small wind of 150 in the middle.

This is a very big event. It's the water surge we're going to have to watch everywhere -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Chad. We'll stay in very, very close touch with you. Thank you.

Let's go to New York now, where the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is warning the city will not have the resources to get everyone out of its evacuation zones once this storm hits. These zones represent varying threat levels based on coastal flooding brought on by storm surges.

Residents in Zone A are in orange. They are at the highest risk. These low-lying areas will likely get storm surges on any hurricane that makes landfall near New York City.

Residents in Zone B, in yellow, would primarily be flooded in a hurricane of Category 2 strength or higher.

And residents in Zone C, in green, would see surge flooding only in a major hurricane of Category 3 strength or higher. That's unlikely in New York City, not necessarily impossible, but very unlikely right now.

Let's stay in New York.

Susan Candiotti, our national correspondent, is in Long Beach, New York. Are they getting ready for this hurricane there in Long Beach?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

I think, for the most part, they are. And certainly, the reason that we are positioned here in Long Beach, which is a barrier island off Long Island, is that it is one of the possible targets for the eye of Hurricane Irene. So we may very well be straight in the path of that eye, passing right over us.

You see the surf picking up here. It's been building each day, but still, remember the storm is at least 340 miles due south of here so we have quite a way. Not expected to hit, as Chad was telling you, until Sunday morning most likely. So that storm surge will really be coming up.

These barrier islands are very close to sea level. Only about three to four feet above sea level. So one of the things they've been doing here along the beach here in the last couple of days is to take some of this sand, move it around and try to create more of a barrier. So you see these dunes that they're building up here. I would say, OK, I'm about five feet tall, so at its highest, it's built up to maybe 20 feet here.

But all with the idea of trying to protect the buildings that are on the opposite side, in front of me here. Some of these buildings are about 10 stories high, probably at their highest. And the thing about that is that when a hurricane comes in, remember the higher up you are -- and that's for here, that's for any place -- the stronger the winds are. Another 20 percent higher, the higher you go. So if you're on an upper floor, that can be very dangerous. Obviously, the windows can also blow out.

And we have seen people preparing, they have been built -- putting together sandbags. They have been boarding up their homes and businesses.

And we talked to one contractor who was busy doing that. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: I have been running around like a chicken with his head cut off, boarding up house after the house, bagging up as much sand as possible to get ready for this storm.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: I'm not concerned about the house. I'm just taking an extra course just in case. Because you never know what can happen. You know, it could be just a windy day or it could be the end of a day.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CANDIOTTI: Now one thing all the officials around here, police, fire, are all saying they're all sure of is that there will be flooding. This is such a low-lying area. The question is how much. Both the south shore and the north shore are in danger of that -- Wolf?

Back to you.

BLITZER: In Long Island, there's going to be an attack by this hurricane.

Susan, we'll stay in close touch with you as well.

We're watching it all unfold here in Washington, D.C. This hurricane is just leaving North Carolina, entering Virginia, but we're beginning to feel the outer bands here in the nation's capital. It's raining. It's been raining for several hours, so it's only going to get more intense here in Washington, D.C. We're watching it together with you.

Meanwhile when we come back, we will get some unique perspective on Hurricane Irene from one woman, one very courageous you woman, who flew right over it. Our special coverage continues right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here in Washington, D.C., an estimated 6,000 sandbags are being handed out to residents to prepare for Hurricane Irene. The distribution line over at RFK stadium was cut off a couple of hours ago because the supply was running out. We're going to speak later with the mayor of Washington, D.C.

Right now, let's bring in the deputy administrator for NOAA, Kathryn Sullivan. We spoke with her yesterday.

I spoke with you yesterday. I was actually flying back to Washington, watching CNN on this plane, and you told an amazing story when you were flying through this hurricane.

Tell us what that was all about.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN, DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR, NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION: I was out with NOAA's Petry (ph) hurricane hunter airplanes last night. We're flying every 12 hours into the storm, right through the middle of it, different slices at difference altitudes, making some of the critical measurements from within that go into NOAA's forecast models. Those are --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So when Chad Myers gives us the new forecast, that's the work of NOAA?

SULLIVAN: That's right.

BLITZER: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

SULLIVAN: That's right. And you can image with the hurricane, oceans and atmospheres have to be really richly understood to get the forecast right. So NOAA pulls all that information together from around the globe. We run it through the certified supercomputer models that create the track forecast, the intensity forecast. And then we turn and rely on partners like you, Wolf, and Chad Myers to do the job of taking it the next miles and make sure our citizens understand. We go the other way and work with core partners in the emergency management sectors, so the mayors and governors that you've been featuring on your show today, our guys are tied directly and embedded with their staff to make sure they have the seamless information they need to make the tough decisions they have to make with this danger bearing down on their communities.

BLITZER: Not only are you a scientist, but you are also a former astronaut. I have been on bumpy flights where there's been turbulence. I can only imagine on this -- it's a P-3, right?

SULLIVAN: It's a P-3.

BLITZER: I can only imagine going through hundreds of miles of a hurricane, at what, 12,000 feet?

SULLIVAN: 12,000 feet and below.

BLITZER: All right. Just describe it. How bumpy, how shaky is it?

SULLIVAN: There are some hurricanes with very intense, compact eyewalls that are terribly bumpy, and put the airplane at some risk now and then. Irene, last night, when we through the eye, it was beginning to come apart a little bit. It was astonishingly wide. The eye was 60 miles wide. It's sort of like an ice skater. instead of tight compacting and spinning fast, a ice skater who puts her arms out and was sort of slowing down a bit. But a very wide eye, a little bit of a stadium effect. You come in the middle and the winds are calm and you feel like you have the walls of a stadium around you.

But I got bumped more getting back to Washington on a commercial flight today than I did on that whole flight?

BLITZER: Really? Why?

SULLIVAN: I think, number one, a P-3 is a tank, compared to a commercial jet liner, so it just plowed through the turbulence and the rain bands that we did have. It's just a more stable platform. And, again, with the eyewall coming apart a little bit at that moment, we didn't have such a tight line of thunderstorms to go through.

BLITZER: Everybody is worried, not only about what's going to happen here in Washington or Philadelphia, New Jersey, but New York City, how much danger is New York City in right now?

SULLIVAN: Well, this exposure to tropical storm or low hurricane force winds, the water that's mounding up, you've got surge, plus rainfall, plus waves, on saturated ground at high tide, so it's a stacking up of factors that really do pose great jeopardy for low- lying coastal areas, all the way up to shore.

New York City has not seen these kinds of conditions coming right on the money as the current track suggests. So it's -- people should definitely take heed. Listen to your local officials and what's telling you. They're getting their best data together and fusing it to make these evacuation orders. It's a wise thing to do to listen to them.

BLITZER: Some people are tweeting me or e-mailing me saying, we're blowing this out of all proportion, it's not that big a deal. You disagree?

SULLIVAN: I do disagree. And I guess I'd invoke a little bit of astronaut wisdom. If you've got something complex and dangerous that you're involved in, it's better to be a bit over prepared and under challenged. The other way around is a bad circumstance.

BLITZER: Kathryn Sullivan, PhD, astronaut --

SULLIVAN: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: -- hurricane hunter, all of that. Thanks very much for coming in.

SULLIVAN: My pleasure.

BLITZER: I admire you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: President Obama is watching what's going on over at the White House. He cut short his vacation in Martha's Vineyard. We're going and speak to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, when we come back.

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BLITZER: We're here in Washington, D.C. I'm on one of the balconies at our CNN bureau. You can see Capitol Hill behind me. The winds are picking up, picking up sort of dramatically right now, even though the -- we're just beginning to see some of the outer bands of Hurricane Irene.

The hurricane has just moved from North Carolina into Virginia. It will still be a few hours before it reaches any place close to Washington, but this is such a wide, big hurricane, we're beginning to feel it. It's raining. It's been raining for hours here in the nation's capitol. The wind is picking up. We're staying on top of this story.

Not far from where I am, Dan Lothian, our White House correspondent, is standing by. He's inside the White House.

Smart, Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

BLITZER: Tell us what's going on. The president made a point of being on top of this crisis earlier in the day. LOTHIAN: That's right, Wolf. First of all, I should point out, as you know, the president cut his vacation short on Martha's Vineyard, so he could come back here to Washington. The White House saying they felt it was prudent for him to be here rather than on an island, so the president began with this morning with a conference call with his emergency management team to get a sense of the track of the storm and an update on what all the various federal agencies are doing to respond to the hurricane.

Then, later in the day, the president did go over to FEMA headquarters, more specific, he went to the National Response Coordination Center. That is where you have representatives from different parts of the federal government who are able to stay in touch with state and local officials, also private organizations and volunteers. The idea here is to make sure there's a free throw of information so that areas that need assistance can get that assistance quickly. The president toured the facility. He told everyone there that they're doing a good job, but they need to stay on top of the situation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's going to be a long 72 hours. And obviously, a lot of families are going to be affected. What we heard, the biggest concern I'm having right now, as do (INAUDIBLE), it sounds like that is really going to be an enormous strength on a lot of states. And that take days, even longer in some cases. (INAUDIBLE) So we're really going to have to stay on top of the recovery, the path of responsive recovery (ph) with this thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: While the president was over at FEMA, he took part in a video conference call with the emergency management officials across the country, also governors in those states that are being heavily impacted by the hurricane.

And I should also point out that the president has issued a state of emergency in at least nine states including -- also Puerto Rico. This obviously will free up federal dollars when they're needed most -- Wolf?

BLITZER: The president, I assume, and his top advisors, they are very sensitive to making sure they don't repeat some of the mistakes that President Bush made in the build up during and after Katrina. Are you hearing that from White House officials?

LOTHIAN: Privately, those are things that certainly they are thinking about, Wolf. As you know, any president that doesn't act quickly enough in a disaster like this, whether a man-made disaster or a natural disaster, will get criticized for that. We saw that last summer with the president and the oil spill. There was criticism that they didn't respond quickly enough, as you point out, former President Bush and Hurricane Katrina. So they're going out of their way to show that the administration has been getting ready for this, not just over the past couple of days, but over the last few weeks, and certainly back to 2009 even, they point out that President Obama took part in an exercise simulating a Category 3 hurricane -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much. Dan Lothian is our White House correspondent.

By the way, we're going to be speaking live with the mayor of Washington, D.C., Vincent Gray. He'll be coming here to our Washington bureau. We'll speak with him as Irene heads right towards the nation's capital.

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BLITZER: Raining here in Washington. Raining, sort of major rain, windy. But these are just the outer, outer bands of Hurricane Irene. You can see the streets of Washington. You see, basically empty right now. Almost everyone -- smart, very smart. They are inside. They are riding out this storm right now. But not many cars on the streets of the nation's capital.

CNN is getting remarkable iReports from the hurricane zone. Our meteorologist, Alexandra Steele, is getting a look at them.

Alexandra, share some of them with our viewers.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, really, this is unbelievable on so many fronts, including the travel perspective. In terms of the planes, traveling in and around the northeast corridor, over 7,000 flights cancelled and certainly that will only grow in time.

Trains as well. Amtrak in the northeast, not at all will be used tomorrow. Service completely suspended for that.

Cruise lines in and around New York and mid-Atlantic at least 20 rerouting their cruise lines. Mass transit, which has been an unbelievable scenario, never before, an unprecedented scenario in and around New York City.

Take a look at this, iReport from Rob Harper, kind of an ominous look. They've never done anything like this in terms of this overhaul of mass transit. Of course, the subways and the trains, including the LIR, everything you could imagine. Last time this was done was in 2005 and then also just days after 9/11, but never for the amount of time, the anticipation, maybe not even on Monday re-opening these subways.

So thank you, Rob Harper, for sending this in.

So closures at the airports today. We got them around New York, of course, including LaGuardia, JFK and Newark. Closures in the sense that they are not allowing any arrival flights. Why? Because then when they get to the airports, where would they go? What would they do? And how would they get there? Because there's no mass transit. That's really the scenario. Nothing coming into New York any way you slice it. Stewart in the Hudson Valley, similar scenario and Philadelphia as well.

Wolf, another iReport from Brian Delzan (ph).

Thank you, Brian (ph).

This is from Fairfield, Connecticut. We do have hurricane warnings in Fairfield County and along that 95 corridor. That bumps up along the Long Island Sound, so pretty scary scenario.

And also, we're waiting on the governor of Connecticut, who has talked about potentially banning any roadway, any highway traffic on those interstates in Connecticut. We'll learn more about that later today. But he's potentially saying, beginning tomorrow, he wants everybody off the roads tonight. Beginning tomorrow potentially, no road traffic on the highways in Connecticut. So we'll wait and see.

Wolf, just an incredible scenario as this all develops.

BLITZER: Yes.

STEELE: Something the northeast has never seen.

BLITZER: Who would have thought?

Alexandra, thanks very much.

And, please, to our viewers out there, if you have a chance, send us more iReports. We love your iReports. Don't do anything risky or dangerous to get those iReports. Video, still photographs, your own reports, be an iReporter here on CNN. We'll share your iReports here in the United States and around the world.

Coming up, we're going to speak live with the head of New York's emergency management. We'll talk about the shutdowns, how long, what's going on. Lots of questions need to be answered. We'll have the answers when we come back.

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