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Trump to Visit Florida Disaster Zone; FEMA: 90% of Homes Destroyed or Damaged in Keys; More Than Six Million Customers Without Power in Southeast; First Look at Site of Irma's First U.S. Landfall. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 12, 2017 - 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: Happening now, staggering damage. A s emergency teams make their way through the Florida Keys, the scale of the devastation is slowly being revealed. FEMA now estimates a quarter of the homes in the island chain have been destroyed, most of the rest damaged.

[17:00:21] Long way home. Long lines of vehicles are backing up as residents start to return to the Keys. But many have no homes to return to, and without power, water or cell service, the recovery is likely to be slow and very painful.

Island devastation. CNN is now in place on Caribbean islands where survivors of Hurricane Irma face severe shortages of water and food and a growing threat of violent crime. Why have rescue and relief efforts taken so long?

And presidential visit. The White House announces President Trump will travel to the Florida disaster zone this Thursday. He'll be joined by the first lady. Sources say they'll visit the Fort Myers area on Florida's Gulf Coast.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, President Trump will travel to the Florida disaster zone Thursday. Sources say he'll visit Fort Myers on the hard-hit Gulf Coast. The extent of Florida's devastation is just starting to become clear.

Days after Irma first landed ashore as a Category 4 hurricane, the storm has moved on, leaving a trail of damage and destruction stretching hundreds of miles into neighboring states. The Florida Keys got the worst of it. The fragile island chain took the first blow from Irma and remains partially cut off.

FEMA estimates that 25 percent of the homes in the islands have been destroyed and most of the rest have been damaged. There's no power, water or cell service. Rescue crews are making their way through the ruins, even as some residents make their way back to the islands.

Across the southeast, more than 6.5 million customers, meaning homes and business, are without power, most of them in Florida. That means up to 15 million individuals in Florida are in the dark. Utility crews from other states have deployed in the disaster zone. Officials warn that some people could be without power for weeks.

And CNN is on the ground in the Caribbean where relief efforts are finally gaining some tractions as storm survivors face severe shortages of food and water and a surge in violent crime. I'll speak with Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Congressman Carlos Curbelo, whose district includes the Florida Keys. Our correspondents, specialists and guests are standing by with full coverage.

We begin in the Florida Keys, where Irma began its destructive rampage across the state. Our Brian Todd reports from Lower Matecumbe Key.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Florida Keys recovering from winds of over 130 miles an hour, plus a devastating storm surge. Further down on the delicate chains of islands, debris has piled up on the storm, and some homes have their roofs ripped off. On many islands, the water, the sewer, the power and the cell service is out. Authorities setting up shelters, including water distribution points.

GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: My heart goes out to the people in the Keys. I mean, it's -- there's devastation. It's -- it's -- and, you know, I just -- I just hope everybody, you know, survived. It's -- it's horrible, and we saw it. I know for our entire state but especially for the Keys, it's going to be a long road. There's a lot of damage.

TODD: In Lower Matecumbe Key, this is what's left of a three-story condominium complex, with a garage on the first floor. Seventy-three- year-old Tom Ross owns a unit here. He says he and the other condo owners all evacuated before the storm.

TOM ROSS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What you're looking at right here is the third floor of our building.

TODD (on camera): Third floor?

ROSS: Third floor, top floor. Then there's a second floor and a parking garage. So all of this has collapsed down.

TODD (voice-over): On nearby Islamorada Key, a picture of how livelihoods are also destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

ERIC FRACKER, BUSINESS OWNER, LOWER MATECUMBE KEY: I know it's devastating for a lot of people.

TODD: Sail maker Eric Fracker takes us out on his dinghy and shows us two restaurants that are completely gutted. The Island Grill was once known for its tuna nachos. The Hog Heaven dockside bar was a hopping place until 4 a.m. each morning. Now, it's obliterated.

(on camera): Here's an illustration with which Irma hit the Florida Keys. We're on Islamorada Key. The owner of this property says the storm dragged this 45 foot sailboat, the Mariah, all the way up here. He says it was moored a quarter mile offshore. The anchor was dragged. This large buoy was dragged along with it, and it narrowly missed this house.

(voice-over): On Cudjoe Key, where the storm made landfall, even the sides of some houses are ripped off.

We stayed in the bathroom in the hallways. It was -- for two days it was hell. You didn't know if you were going to make it or not.

[17:05:04] TODD: Route 1, the only way in and out of the Keys, took a beating, but officials say they hope to patch up two key stretches by the end of the day. Tonight, for the first time, residents are already returning to the first few islands. And in the hardest hit areas of the Keys, some are even turning down offers from the federal government to evacuate.

ROMAN GASTESI, MONROE COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR (via phone): That's ridiculous. And we're making due. Everybody is helping out and bringing down supplies.

TODD: In Lower Matecumbe Key, we asked Tom Ross about the future here.

ROSS: I'm devastated, but I'm always optimistic of rebuilding.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Tom Ross says that when they do rebuild this, he's confident it's going to be stronger. He says this structure was built in the 1970s before they had stronger building codes, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, so he's confident that what's left of this is going to be built up even stronger. But his wife Susan cannot even stand to come back here. She can't stand of the site of this, Wolf. She has not been back yet.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. We're going to get back to you in a little while. Brian Todd in the Keys for us. Thank you.

Let's turn now to our senior national correspondent, Kyung Lah. She's in Islamorada, Florida, also in the Keys. Some people are starting to return home, Kyung. What are you discovering where you are?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We were there as the roadblock was lifted, when the very first resident started to come back to their homes. We are talking about such a wide area of damage.

But when you go with the families to their homes, you quickly understand that this is a very personal story for every person who has lost their homes. In this case, what's right behind me, Wolf, and I'm going to step out of the way. We're not going to move our picture, because it's so difficult with technology down here.

But what you're seeing here is a boat. The boat, what used to sit, we think, about 150 yards away where the water is, you can see that what's separating the boat and what's impeding your view of the water is what's left of someone's home. That used to be a mobile home. It wasn't there. It was pushed there by the wind and the storm surge. There is a white trailer. I have no idea what it was originally connected to.

And this is just a snapshot of what we've seen as we've traveled around various areas here throughout the Upper Keys. This is just one area. It's much worse in the Lower Keys, and the people who are (AUDIO GAP)...

BLITZER: Just lost our connection with Kyung Lah in the Keys. It's understandable. This is a very, very serious situation unfolding in the Keys. Want to show you some images, some pictures.

Look at the traffic in the direction heading toward the Keys. A lot of people want the go there and see their homes, see places that are familiar with them on the other side. Not much traffic at all. This is Homestead, Florida. You can see the number of people trying to get into the Keys. Although officials there are recommending stay away, at least for now. Still a dangerous place to be.

Almost seven million customers are without power across the southeastern part of the United States right now. This is a situation that's been unfolding. Most of them in Florida where utility crews from around the country are converging to help out.

Our senior national correspondent, Alexander Marquardt, is joining us from Sarasota right now. Alexander, you're monitoring this critically important part of the story. What are you learning?

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are from around the country, and they are working around the clock. They are making steady progress, Wolf, since last night. Some two million customers here in Florida have gotten their power back. But that is of little comfort to the more than 5.2 million who are still out of power.

Now, need to make a strong differentiation between customers and people. Customers include homes and businesses. So when you hear 5.2 million customers, it's many millions more people.

Now, the lucky ones will get their power back within hours or days. But for many, it will take much longer.

We did get some news from Florida's biggest utility today, Florida Power and Light. They said that on the east coast, the full power should be restored by the end of the weekend.

Now, of course, the east coast didn't suffer nearly as much damage as the west coast. The vice president of communications, who you actually spoke with earlier, saying that for the west coast, full power should come back by Friday, September 22.

Now, this is a staging area for FPL, Florida Power and Light. We have watched crews and trucks coming and going at all hours of the day. These, what you're looking at here, are sleeping trailer, where around 1,800 people can sleep when they aren't working around 16-hour shifts. Now, the White House says that they are deploying the biggest ever

army of power workers from all across the country as well as from Canada to help out with the situation. But we can't forget the situation is not just limited to Florida. As the storm moves upwards, ad it moved north, it starting hitting Alabama, the Carolinas and Georgia, where around 1.4 million customers are still without power -- Wolf.

[17:10:11] BLITZER: Lots of people waiting to get their power back Joining us now on the phone, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Senator, you've seen the damage firsthand. How bad was it, what you personally saw?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA (via phone): I think the Keys were the worst. I was in Kay West last night. The hurricane's worst damage is further up the Keys and towards marathon. And there is 125 miles per hour of sustained winds of gusts much more than that.

You can imagine what happened in Key West of the backside of the hurricane. We saw a lot of boats up on land and some boats sunk. The good news was that most of the people evacuated from the Keys, but that still meant that 10,000 people were left.

So they're just getting the emergency crews down there after they've checked the bridges to make sure they're structurally safe so they can move further south. But the Keys are going to be dark for a while. But those folks are tough, Wolf. They're conks. They're really tough.

BLITZER: When you say dark for a while, Senator, you're saying there's not going to be power there for how long, approximately?

NELSON: Remember, there's only one way in and one way out. It's a string of islands connected by bridges and a road. And, although we flew into Key West Naval Air Station, there's a limited way that they get in and out. So today I'm hoping they got all the bridges structurally checked.

Now, the other unusual thing about this storm: it was so massive it covered up the state of Florida. And so I have just been in Jacksonville, and there was the phenomena of all the rain water in the St. Johns River, combined with the counter clockwise winds at the mouth of the river from east to west, keeping the water back in the river. And therefore, the river flooded in the Jacksonville area, and it's over parts of Jacksonville that have never seen it flood.

BLITZER: We're showing our viewers, Senator, some live pictures from Jacksonville Beach right now. We've seen lots of pictures of the flooding in the city of Jacksonville. And by all accounts, record flooding. They have never seen anything like this before. How surprised were you that the enormity of Irma went all the way from the Keys, all the way up to the northern part of your state, up in Jacksonville? NELSON: I have never seen a hurricane that did it like this. And

just to give you another little surprise, two nights ago, I was with Anderson Cooper in Tampa, because we thought that was going to be ground zero. So I left Tampa, racing to my home in Orlando, thinking I'd be out of the way of the storm, and lo and behold, in the middle of the night, the storm has a mind of its own. It starts heading to Orlando. And I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, hearing the wind howling as 100-mile-an-hour winds. It was suddenly hitting Orlando, as well.

Hey Wolf, there are some great stories, and you have already run this story, I want to repeat it, and I just want to repeat it. Floridians helping other Floridians; people helping people.

Down in the little town, a migrant labor farming community, there's a university next to them. It's a Catholic university, Ave Maria University. There were nursing home patients that were abandoned, and the sheriff found them and took them to the university. And the students took them into their dormitories and are still, as we speak, taking care of those nursing home patients. That tells you about the generosity of people in times of need.

BLITZER: It certainly does. That's a beautiful story indeed. And hopefully, those senior citizens are OK right now, thanks to those students over at Ave Maria University.

Some of your colleagues, a political question I'm going to ask you, Senator, because money is going to be involved. Billions and billions of dollars will be needed to help rebuild your state of Florida. There are some of your colleagues in Congress, they're upset with the funding, for example. The funding process for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which seems to be used, at least at times, as a political bargaining chip in the aftermath of these major disasters.

Here's -- here's what I want to know. Are you satisfied, Senator, with the way Congress has funded FEMA?

NELSON: We will get it done one way or another. But isn't it interesting that 90 members of the House of Representatives voted against the $15 billion package for Texas and for Florida that we passed last week. And Wolf, that's only going to last a few weeks. The massiveness for this storm here and then what happened in Texas is going to take a lot more. We're going to run out of money in a few weeks. We're going to have to do this again in October. Can you believe 90 members of the House of Representatives voted against it? It just -- it boggles my mind.

BLITZER: They didn't like it because of the increase in the nation's debt ceiling, which accompanied the legislation, as well as the stopgap measure to keep the government functioning so there would be no government shutdown. So what are you saying? That if -- that you should vote this kind of funding, no matter what is attached to it?

NELSON: Well, what was attached to it, what you just described, was so that the United States government wouldn't default on its debt. I think that's a pretty important vote.

BLITZER: And a lot of your colleagues, of course, the majority of your colleagues in the House and the Senate, totally agreed with you. I suspect there will be some political fighting going on.

One final question, Senator, before I let you go: how much damage, in the terms of tens of billions of dollars, did Florida sustain?

NELSON: Well, we don't know. They're just now doing the assessments. Because we don't know, and it will be a while, Wolf. Because it wasn't just wind damage. By the way, along the coast on southwest Florida with the Coast Guard, we looked at the buildings, and you would see....

BLITZER: I think we just lost your connection with Senator Nelson, as well. But I want to thank him for his report on what's going on in Florida right now. Senator, if you can hear me, thank you, as usual.

Up next, we're going to go live to the place where Hurricane Irma first hit the Florida Keys, as the staggering scale of the damage is slowly being revealed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When Hurricane Irma made its first landfall over Florida, it hit Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 storm. We're finally getting our first good look at the mess the storm left behind, and it is a mess. CNN's Randi Kaye is joining us from Cudjoe Key right now. Randi, tell our viewers what you're seeing.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a mess here, Wolf. We flew in on a helicopter with a couple of homeowners from Cudjoe Kay, which is just north of Key West, and it was beautiful when we first started out, and then the deeper and deeper we got into the Keys, we could see the damage. There were boats overturned in the water. There were rooftops blown off the homes. There were boats that were upside-down but up on the dock. There was a dock that had been on a home all the way out in the middle of the sea.

But now we came to the houses to tour with the homeowners, and we actually saw this pool. This is one of their homes. We saw this pool from our helicopter ride. It's normally nice, bright, beautiful blue. Now, it's all black and filled with debris. He says his house is a total loss. This is it right here. You can see the railings up on the top are a mess. His fans were blown out. His ceiling inside was blown out. And then on this side, this is a storage room that he has down there on the first floor. The giant garage door was just blown off it, and all the content of that room are just kind of spilling out into the street.

He also, by the way, has a boat that's on the front law on his property Wolf. And that's not even his boat. He's never seen it before; doesn't know where it came from.

But speaking of that storage room, let me show you. Because he had a couple of really huge freezers in that storage room. Look where they are. They ended up all the way over there, across the way on his neighbor's lawn. And if you look just a little bit further to the left, you can see there's their garage door is totally split in two. Their roof, that wood area, that brown wood, that was their roof on the side of their home. Totally gone.

So we've been driving around here just a little bit, and we could see just all of the damage. There are so many homes that are just not salvageable. It's -- it's pretty sad to see. The tempers are flaring a little bit, too. We talked with some of the homeowners. They're frustrated. They're out of gasoline. They don't know how they're going to get around. They don't know how to get off the Keys, and they don't know how they're going to savage their lives, their businesses -- a lot of them are fishermen here -- how they're going to go forward, Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's no power. It could be for weeks before they regain electricity and power, clean drinking water. Is it safe for folks to be there, Randi, right now?

KAYE: There's a lot -- you know, as we were driving around, someone was kind enough to loan us a golf cart, which I hate to say is running out of battery. But we were driving around. There were power lines down, so we had to, you know, duck and be careful about that. We drove over a lot of power lines. There's trees down everywhere. We didn't see a whole lot of people, but those people who are here seem to be taking precaution.

[17:25:14]: There are some police here, who seem to be trying to keep things in order. But without power, without water, I mean, everything is sort of makeshift. There's a couple of homes that have a generator. We ran into some people here, Wolf, who have actually ridden out of the storm here, and they were in their bathrooms or their -- whatever they could find, their basement, a safe room. And they remembered it swirling around. We're right off the water here, and they had about a six- to nine-foot storm surge where I am and winds of about 133 sustained, the owners told me and gusts of about 160. So it is quite a sight here.

BLITZER: Yes, those folks that stayed behind are lucky right now to be alive, given the enormity of this hurricane.

All right, Randi, we're going to check back with you. Randi Kaye on the scene for us in the Keys.

Up next, the urgent rush to get help to the Caribbean islands, where people have been cut-off for days after Hurricane Irma led to food shortages and looting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Today we're getting our first close-up look at the efforts to get help to the Caribbean islands, where Hurricane Irma did the greatest damage. There have been reports of food and water shortages, lots of them. And now aid workers are using the French island of Guadeloupe as a base.

[17:31:05] Our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, has made it to the scene.

Clarissa, tell our viewers what you're seeing.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: OK, so Wolf, we're basically here in a processing center. For the last couple of hours, we have just watched a steady stream of people, mostly from the island of St. Martin, 90 percent of which have been damaged, much of which has been devastated.

And you can see it on their faces. Some of them are injured. A couple we've seen in wheelchairs. Some of them simply traumatized, crying. They're actually offering psychological help here.

I spoke with a couple of people who were talking about some sort of "Lord of the Flies"-esque scenario, where food was running out, water was running out. They were having to ration things on the island between them. And this was compounded by a feeling of real fear, because there were these gangs, according to the families that I have spoken to, of young men kind of marauding around, looting, burgling people and even waiting for days, some of them, to be safely evacuated here to Guadeloupe.

So what happens now, they register here. People who were tourists, it's a little bit easier for them. They can obviously arrange with their own country to be repatriated back home. But for the residents of St. Martin and St. Barts, both of which are French territory, there are still real question marks. We saw the French president, Emanuel Marcon. He visited here in Guadeloupe and in St. Martin today. He said we're going to completely rebuild this. We're going to reinstate the power. We're going to reinstate the water. We're going to reopen the schools.

But frankly, Wolf, at this stage, that is really a tall order. From what we have heard from people on the ground, from the scale of the devastation and from the difficulty of trying to coordinate these aid (AUDIO GAP) from 150 nautical miles away. They certainly have their work cut out for them. Two hundred thousand people across the Caribbean currently now in need of aid.

And what complicates this even further, Wolf, is that this is a multinational approach. You have Dutch territory here. You have British territory. You have American territory. You have French territory. So you have all these different aid workers, all these different government resources meeting to kind of coordinate and work together. It's going to take a lot of coordination and a lot of money, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Of course, those children are going to need food desperately. Clarissa, you've covered a lot of humanitarian crises over these year. How would you say this crisis compares?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's interesting about this crisis, the majority of crises that I have covered have been in war- torn countries or countries that are prone to, let's say, earthquakes or natural disasters, where there's already a certain amount of difficulty in everyday life that people are somehow accustomed to. You're talking here about the island of St. Barts. This is a

playground for the rich and wealthy, Wolf. St. Martin also an incredibly popular tourism destination. Even among the local people, we're not talking about grinding, grinding poverty here. Part of the reason NGO groups (AUDIO GAP)...

BLITZER: All right, our technical problems continue. But that's not unusual, given the enormity of the crisis that's going on in the Caribbean. We'll check back with Clarissa Ward. She's on the scene for us.

Coming up, as flood waters slowly drain out of neighborhoods and businesses across Florida, there's new devastation that has just been revealed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:39:09] BLITZER: Irma wreaked havoc from one end of Florida to the other, leaving behind severe flooding in the northeast quarter of the state as it finally moved on.

Let's go live to CNN's Kaylee Hartung, who's near Saint Augustine for us, up in the northern part of Florida. So what are the condition like there now, Kaylee?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're 400 miles from where Irma made landfall on the Florida Peninsula here in Vilano Beach, just north of St. Augustine, and this is the devastation left behind. There are a significant number of homes on this 7-mile stretch of the Atlantic that are at risk of tumbling into the ocean. This beach has been dealt a one/two punch in the past 11 months. The flood waters of Hurricane Matthew put so many houses like this one in peril, and then the wind damage of Irma meant total destruction.

That was the case for Joe Solcz and his wife, Nora. This home, they bought it two weeks before Hurricane Matthew hit. Just last month they received plans from an engineer to rebuild, and then came Irma.

Earlier today, Joe took me inside the home and we stood inside this room, a room that was never meant to have an ocean view.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HARTUNG: How do you describe the emotions you feel?

JOE SOLCZ, HURRICANE VICTIM: It's terrible. Because I was just so gung-ho about moving in here before Matthew came. And now, it's not reality. It's -- it's tough. It's really tough.

HARTUNG: What was the dream here. How did you envision it?

SOLCZ: My wife and I are just going to -- going to enjoy ourselves, because we've worked so hard to buy this place. And she had all the ideas, and I'm -- I'm the contractor, so it was going to be special.

So we'll have to figure out what to do now. Start somewhere else. HARTUNG: Have you two discussed a new dream?

SOLCZ: Not yet, but I'm told it's not going to be here, unfortunately.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARTUNG: Florida Congressman John Rutherford among the officials who toured this area today. He told me that just before Irma hit, local and state officials had authorized a beach renourishment project here. They'd authorized it, but they had not yet funded it. They knew that the erosion on this stretch of beach was a problem. Now some big decisions need to be made about the future of this shoreline and how to save it.

Wolf, even if Joe Solcz can't see a future for himself and his wife here, maybe others can.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story that is. And there are so, so many stories just like that, some even worse. Kaylee, thank you for that report. Kaylee Hartung on the scene for us.

Joining for us now on the phone, Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, whose district includes the Florida Keys, goes all the way down from Miami down to the Florida Keys.

Congressman, you actually took a tour of the damage in southwest Florida and the Keys. Tell us your impressions, what you saw.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA (via phone): Wolf, the structural damage on the southwest coast was not what I anticipated. A lot of the structures there are looking better than I had expected.

When we did get to Monroe County, there in the Lower Keys near Cudjoe Key, on Cudjoe Key and all the surrounding Keys, there was more extensive damage. You can tell that there had been a significant storm surge.

We did land in Key West, and I can also say that in Key West, the structural damage was not as catastrophic as many had predicted. A lot of people are going to have to do work on their homes and properties. But they certainly were not devastated the way we saw some properties devastated here in South Dade after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Wolf, I think the major pain in the Florida Keys, what's going to hurt the most, is that this is a tourism-dependent economy. Visitors from all over the world come to the Florida Keys. You have a lot of people who work in hotels and restaurants and bars; and for those people to be without pay for a week, two weeks, a month is going to put a lot of financial stress on a lot of individuals and families.

So I think that is going to start emerging as the big story out of the Florida Keys. Of course, there is work to do with regards to structures. We visited Naval Air Station and Key West. Their control tower cannot be used under current conditions. There's a gaping hole at the top of the control tower, so certainly a lot of work to do there.

But, again, I think the real story as we move forward is going to be the financial struggles of the people of the Florida Keys and, to a lesser extent, South Florida and Southwest Florida.

BLITZER: Is it safe, Congressman, for people to go back to their homes in the Florida, Keys, right now? This is your district. Given the fact there's no power and, perhaps, some parts of the Florida Keys may not have power for weeks? There may not be clean drinking water or any kind of water, except for bottled water for a long time, no cell service, cell phone service. Is it safe to go back there?

CURBELO: The short answer, Wolf, is no. And it's a tough answer for a lot of Florida Keys residents. I just left Florida International University, which is hosting two evacuation shelters for Monroe, one for a special-needs population and then one for a general population. People are very anxious. People really want to get back home. But in the Middle and Lower Keys, it's just not safe yet, Wolf.

As you said, there's no cell-phone communication, no power, no Internet, no land line. So if someone goes down in the Middle Keys, to the lower Keys and God forbid something happens to them, there is no way for anyone to find out. So although people are angry and frustrated...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:45:00] REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA (via telephone): -- no cellphone communication, no power, no internet, no landline, so if someone goes down to the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys, God forbid something happens to them. There is no way for anyone to find out.

So although people are angry and frustrated, I support local leaders in Monroe who are saying that they need more time to secure the island chain to then allow residents back in. And the goal is to get people back as soon as possible. We're just not prepared to do that at this hour.

BLITZER: Good advice from Congressman Carlos Curbelo.

Congressman, we'll stay in close touch with you. I'm also deeply worried about those down powerlines, right now, people are trying to maneuver around.

Coming up, we're going to hear from the U.S. Coast Guard about the urgent effort to bring relief supplies to the storm-devastated U.S. Virgin Islands.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:32] BLITZER: We're following the long, hot wait as millions and millions of Floridians try to get back to their homes to survey the damage left by Hurricane Irma. At the same time, people who chose to ride out the storm are waiting for new supplies to arrive and power to be restored. Some of the worst devastation is in the Florida Keys where Irma hit as

a Category 4 storm. CNN's Brian Todd is in the Lower Matecumbe Key area for us, about 75 miles from Key West.

Brian, what's the situation like there?

TODD: Wolf, this is what a Category 4 storm can do to an apartment complex, a condominium complex. Take a look at this.

This is Sandy Cove condominium complex. This floor that you're seeing right here, that's the third floor. That was two floors up. The second floor and the garage, which is where I'm standing at this level, have been crushed underneath. This is now one floor of gutted out wreckage.

Look at this. There were three units at the top floor here, three units right below it -- those are now completely underground in water -- and a garage below that.

I talked to the owner of one of these units, Tom Ross, 73 years old. He told me that he believes everybody who owns these units got out of here. Everybody evacuated. They're all OK.

But look at this. You see beds just being tossed around like they're cardboard. Entire sections of wall collapsing. The roof has buckled. And again, there's a garage underneath there with some cars there.

You know, this is the scene of devastation that is repeated throughout the 115-mile stretch of the Florida Keys. Tom Ross says he's keen on actually coming back here. He wants to rebuild this. He is confident that this can be rebuilt to code.

This was built in the 1970s. He says after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, they changed the codes. He is confident that this can built -- be built back to code. But, you know, the things he's going through here are repeated throughout the Florida Keys, and it gets worse the further south you get to Key West, Wolf.

BLITZER: Awful situation, indeed. We'll get back to you, Brian. Thank you.

Joining us through the phone right now is U.S. Coast Guard Captain Holly Najarian.

Captain, thanks so much for joining us. So tell us how the coastguard is helping the recovery effort right now.

CAPT. HOLLY NAJARIAN, SECTOR COMMANDER, UNITED STATES COAST GUARD ATLANTIC AREA (via telephone): Well, actually, we do that -- I'm here in the Port of St. Pete and Tampa. And by opening up the Port of Tampa, basically, what we do is we open up the flow of goods and commodities that come into the state. And those goods and commodities can go to the areas that they need to help those that were affected.

BLITZER: How long is the cleanup, based on everything you're hearing, Captain, going to take in the hardest hit areas of Florida? NAJARIAN (via telephone): Well, I mean, right now, we're still in

assessment phase, particularly in those areas that were hardest hit like Key West, Charleston, Jacksonville, and some parts of Miami. So it's really hard to determine how long it will take and how long it will take the right people to get to where it's needed because we're still in that assessment phase.

BLITZER: Are you engaged simply in bringing supplies? But are there rescue operations that the Coast Guard is engaged in as well, search and rescue operations, shall we call it?

NAJARIAN (via telephone): There have been some search and rescue cases. But as we said, leading up to the storm and through the storm, we wanted to make sure that people understood that our 911 ready status wasn't as capable as we would normally would like it to be because we were hunkering down just like everybody else was to protect our assets and make sure that they were ready to spring into action as soon as the storm had passed.

BLITZER: Are there enough personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard on the scene, or do you need a lot more?

NAJARIAN (via telephone): Well, just like in Harvey, once the situation happens, the Coast Guard will go in and assess what the need is, and then basically stream those resources in from other parts of the country that weren't affected. And the Coast Guard will continue to do that until the job is done.

BLITZER: How much coordination is there, let's say, with the U.S. Navy? I understand a U.S. aircraft carrier is on the way to the Keys right now, the Abraham Lincoln.

NAJARIAN (via telephone): That is my understanding as well. I don't know the exact details of that, but I know that we work alongside a lot of other government agencies. We use their resources or vice versa, and we basically all come to the table to collaborate and figure out the best way to attack the situation.

BLITZER: Thank you so much to Captain Holly Najarian of the U.S. Coast Guard. Thanks to all the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard for the critically important work they are doing saving lives right now.

Coming up, as emergency teams make their way through the Florida Keys, the scale of the devastation is slowly but surely being revealed. FEMA now estimates 90 percent of the homes in the island chain are either destroyed completely or severely damaged.

[17:54:59] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, houses leveled. We're getting stunning new assessments of the hurricane devastation in the Florida Keys. Officials say virtually every home was impacted by Irma in some way. CNN is moving deeper into the isolated areas in crisis right now.

Caribbean desperation. We're following the struggle for survival on island after island ravaged by Irma's fullest force. Our correspondents are on the ground in places where food, water, and patience are running out.

Restoring power. There's an urgent need for electricity across Florida and multiple southern states slammed by Irma. How much longer will millions of people suffer in the heat and in the dark?

[18:00:03] And work to do. More than 30,000 federal personnel are now involved in responding to this disaster.