Return to Transcripts main page


FEMA Director Brock Long Gives Storm Preparedness Update; Concerns Grow over Amount of Rain, Storm Surge; Trump Denies New Puerto Rico Death Toll & Blames Democrats, Bad Politics; Mitch Landrieu Talks How Unpredictable Huge Storms Are. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired September 13, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A short time ago, we heard from the FEMA director, Brock Long, giving an update on preparedness and what he's most concerned about with this huge storm.

Let's go to Rene Marsh in Washington, covering the federal response -- Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Right, he's most concerned, John, about people just not heeding those warnings. This morning, FEMA gave another briefing. It said it is fully prepositioned and it will be focused on evacuations and mass care when that time comes.

We know as the storm gets closer, FEMA also says that along with Army Corps of Engineers, they're carefully watching five federally operated dams. The Army Corps says that they're confident there won't be breaches. That being said, they're still monitoring them closely, managing the dams to prevent any breaches.

We also heard from the EPA today, with FEMA, they say that the number of toxic sites in the path of the storm that they're watching now includes Virginia, in addition to the Carolinas. There are roughly some 40 hazardous material sites they're following.

All of these are factors that they're paying close attention to. But they're keeping their message very clear. That window is pretty much closed as far as people evacuating on time safely.

BERMAN: Rene Marsh, for us in Washington.

Again, what they're most concerned about is the amount of rain forecast, three feet in some places, and the duration. This storm will hit for a long time. Two, two and a half days where I'm standing right now in Oak Island, North Carolina.

Just north of here, right around where the eye of the storm might hit, Wilmington, North Carolina.

Our Kaylee Hartung is there -- Kaylee?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, the water continues to rise higher than an average high tide, locals tell me.

I want to bring in longtime resident of the Wilmington area, Eric Schuette.

Eric, you were here when Hurricane Fran rolled through the area in 1996. Describe to me what the scene was like when a 10-foot storm surge destroyed the place.

ERIC SCHUETTE, WILMINGTON RESIDENT: Docks were flowing completely off the pilings and they'll be everywhere. The boats we find if the wind is strong enough, they'll come up over and everywhere. They'll end up on the street. It will be a big devastation is what it will be like.

HARTUNG: That's what you all anticipate here in the coming days.

Back in 1996, you were a firefighter.


HARTUNG: You were living in Carolina Beach, one of those barrier islands under mandatory evacuation. Right now, we know there are people who are trying to ride out the storm there. As a first responder yourself, what is the advice and the message you want those people to hear at this time?

SCHUETTE: Leave. Find a friend, go stay with a friend. I know you don't want to leave. I know a lot of people don't want to leave because if you leave it's hard to get back to the areas because the roads, 40, and all the country roads will flood and they can't get back. I understand that. But find a friend in town. It's not worth it over there. I have seen how much sand gets underneath people's Houses. I have seen the devastation, I have seen where people want to be rescued and can't be rescued. We had one, that was with Fran, a dumpster was floating up against a condo, and was banging on it, and they felt like the building was going to come down and wanted for somebody to come get them, and there's no way you can get them. And basically, we had to tell them you have to ride it out. You had a chance to leave, but it's not worth it. Just come off it. You know, you can always get back afterwards.

HARTUNG: Thank you, Eric.

John, we have heard it time and time again. If you're risking your life, if you're trying to stay on any of those barrier islands, if you call for help, it won't be there for you as long as the winds are above 50 miles per hour.

BERMAN: And they will be that way, Kaylee, for days.

Kaylee Hartung, in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they're concerned about seeing boats on the street in the next few days.

Where I am, in Oak Island, what they're concerned about is there won't be any streets after the storm passes through with a six to nine-foot storm surge. Kate, that's the concern here.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And days and days of being battered.

Thanks, John. We'll check back in with you. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

[11:34:02] Still coming up for us, as the nation is facing this devastating storm, the president rejects reality about another storm, denying the massive death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. And now he's blaming that on the Democrats. Why? And why now? We're going to go live to Puerto Rico next for a reality check.


BOLDUAN: As millions of Americans brace for the potentially catastrophic Hurricane Florence, President Trump just a short time ago making an outrageously false claim about another hurricane, Hurricane Maria, that devastating Puerto Rico last season. The current death toll from the government in Puerto Rico stands at 2,975.

With that in mind, here's the president's statement today. And it's lengthy. I'll read it for you: "3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the island after the storm had hit, they had anywhere from six to 18 deaths. As time went by, it did not go up by much. Then a long time later, they started to report really large numbers like 3,000. This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising billions of dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico." "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list," the president says. "Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico."

CNN's Leyla Santiago joins me live from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Leyla, you covered the storm before, during, and after. The president is choosing to ignore facts here. Please fact check this.

[11:40:15] LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right, so listen, what the president is not taking into account is what we call the indirect deaths. He's absolutely right. When he was here, shortly after the storm, there were not -- there wasn't -- those numbers were in the teens. As a matter of fact, and hours after he left, they shot up to 30. Then later on, those numbers really, really just skyrocketed. What he's not taking into account are the indirect deaths, which, by the way, aren't just old people dying, add them to the list. Those are the people that, because of the conditions that came after Hurricane Maria, you know, the lack of light, the lack of power, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of medical care, lack of roads, all of that, those things led to the hurricane. The people would say, if Hurricane Maria had not come through this island, they argue, those people would still be alive. So we're talking about the people who couldn't get to the dialysis centers, the people who died because they -- a man who uses Nutallio (ph), a man who died in the middle of the night because his generator ran out of diesel. As a result, he couldn't use the machine that he used to breathe. He died that very night.

The reaction here, as you might imagine, people are shocked, appalled. People have said shame. The governor of Puerto Rico just talked on Facebook live and said the people of Puerto Rico do not deserve to have their pain questioned. The mayor of San Juan tweeted earlier this morning, saying she was

appalled. I want to show you her tweet. She said, "This is what denial following neglect looks like. Mr. President, in the real world, people died on your watch. Your lack of respect is appalling."

And I've got to tell you, Kate, as I have been going across this island in just the last few days, there's still very much an anxiety, a trauma that exists as people deal with the trauma that lingers after Hurricane Maria, and the storm might just be around the corner. So to have this type of a statement put on top of that, it sort of just adds to the pain felt here that is associated with Hurricane Maria, the response that came later, and the conditions that people were forced to live in, not for weeks, but for months.

BOLDUAN: Leyla Santiago, thank you so much.

To be clear, as Leyla is pointing out, this is part of every hurricane. People die in the aftermath. That is part of a hurricane death. Contaminated water, falling debris, you name it, all the things Leyla laid out, that's part of the hurricane, that's part of a death toll.

Joining me right now, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. She's joining me now from Capitol Hill.

Congressman, thank you for coming in.

You were born in Puerto Rico. Your family still lives there. You lost contact. I remember you sitting on set with me and telling me you had lost contact with them for days after Maria had hit. You see this tweet today from the president, and you think what?

REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ, (D), NEW YORK: It just -- it's appalling. It's outrageous. But we know, and I know, that what the president is trying to do is to gaslight the American people. He's gaslighting the people to try to deflect blame. We all know how ill prepared the administration was when they knew that Hurricane Maria was on track to hit Puerto Rico. In fact, they didn't preposition water, supplies, power generators, so the issue here is whether it's not whether 3,000 people died as a direct hit of Maria. They died because of the dismal response of this administration. In fact, Kate, FEMA put out a report that basically it's an indictment of the president and the administration's response. The problem here is that the president doesn't read. We know that. But I invite the president to read FEMA's own report.

BOLDUAN: FEMA's report lays out there were lessons learned. They could have done better in the report. I have gone through it and spoken to FEMA about it.

You take real issue with this president, Congresswoman. You suggested to me at one point that you thought maybe there had been even a cover- up when it comes to the death toll. But this coming today goes beyond that. The president is denying that these deaths occurred. Do you think he does not care or do you think he does not get it? VELAZQUEZ: Again, he's trying to deflect the blame. It lies on his

administration. For him to do this while people in Puerto Rico, our fellow citizens, are still recovering, is just beyond the pale. To expect that from a sitting president, it just totally is shameful. It's totally immoral. And it makes me angry. He continues to lie, expecting that the perception and the notion that he wasn't prepared, that he did not act in advance, that we didn't deploy the kind of resources, the power generators, to have a hospital near the island, that in fact FEMA workers were taking materials and supplies off the island to help the Virgin Islands. Of course, that we needed to do that. But not at the expense, knowing in advance that Maria was on track to hit Puerto Rico.


[11:46:05] VELAZQUEZ: Kate, Kate, for him to do this and to say that this is political, it just is shameful.


BOLDUAN: That's what I was going to ask you. He's also putting it on Democrats. I am scratching my head on that one. It was an independent study commissioned by the government, by the governor in Puerto Rico, by G.W., by George Washington University.

VELAZQUEZ: Well, we have two studies. One by Harvard and one by G.W. And these are institutions that have credibility. On this issue and on so many other issues, this president lacks credibility.

BOLDUAN: Well, House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked about this, asked about the president's statement today. Let me play what he said.


REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Casualties don't make a person look bad. That's not -- so I have no reason to dispute these numbers. I was in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. It was devastating. This was a horrible storm and the casualties mounted for a long time. I have no reason to dispute those numbers.


BOLDUAN: You can call the president's response appalling. Does it bring you comfort that you hear that from Paul Ryan?

VELAZQUEZ: It's about time that the Republican leadership do what is right. And that is to call into question and to call out the president. When people are -- when people in Puerto Rico are suffering because of the thousands of victims, what we need from the federal government is to say that they are going to support my legislation that calls for a 9/11 style commission so we get to the bottom of this, or to support a new standard to set up standards as to how we count victims of a federal disaster. That is what is responsible to do.

(CROSSTALK) BOLDUAN: If Congress has a question, Congress could seek answers on exactly what happened.


BOLDUAN: That's something you have been pushing for.

Congresswoman, I really appreciate you coming on. Thank you.

VELAZQUEZ: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, I'm going to talk with someone who knows firsthand how unpredictable these storms can be. Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana's lieutenant governor during Katrina, the former mayor of New Orleans, joins me next.


[11:52:51] BOLDUAN: We are keeping a close eye on Hurricane Florence, the massive storm bearing down on the Carolina coast. FEMA issuing warnings a short time ago about the deadly storm surge. It could be reaching up to nine to 13 feet in places.

Joining me now is Mitch Landrieu, the former Democratic mayor of New Orleans. He was lieutenant governor when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf.

Mayor, thank you for coming in.


BOLDUAN: I do want to talk to you about the preparations for this storm bearing down on the east coast. I have to ask you about what the president said today. How would the people of Louisiana had felt if the president or anyone would have questioned or rejected the death toll after Katrina?

LANDRIEU: They would have been devastated by it. Honestly, when people have gone through that level of trauma, they want to know the commander-in-chief sees them and understands what they have been through and they are not invisible. Our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico are in trauma today. When you see another storm coming the year after you get hit, you are under a tremendous amount of stress, too. It was unfortunate that the president chose to say that today of all days. Primarily, because as commander-in-chief, what we need to be doing for the next 120 hours is stay focused like a laser on the storm that's about to hit us. We have to revisit the issue of Puerto Rico as soon as we can take our eyes off of the ball in front of us. But the challenge now is for everyone in the Carolinas to stay focused on this massive storm that's coming their way. That's what we have to think about for the next 120 hours.

BOLDUAN: I absolutely agree, Mayor. That's why everyone is a little bit stunned about why the president would even be taking this moment to put out a statement like this. But I do wonder --

LANDRIEU: I can't --


BOLDUAN: -- do you think the president --


LANDRIEU: I just want to be clear. I can't second-guess why he does what he does. I just know when you have a massive disaster coming your way, the country wants to stay focused on what's right in front of us. I'm not trying to dismiss the Puerto Rico issue. It's a serious issue and we have to get back to it.


LANDRIEU: And the president is wrong about it. But the best thing we can do right now is to help the people in the Carolinas to focus the instructions from Governor Cooper and Governor McMaster on what they need to do to prepare themselves for what's about to hit them.

BOLDUAN: I do wonder, though, is -- as you said, you need to stay laser focused -- do you think the president rejecting reality, if you will, of that storm, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, do you think that impact the response of this storm? Do you think it has a real impact?

[11:55:12] LANDRIEU: Well, I don't -- it would be against my advice. What I would suggest to him, respectfully, is to let's stop talking about everything except Florence for the next 120 hours. The storm is about to hit us. One of the things that Governor Cooper spoke about, which is a real danger, is that when the storm goes from a three to a two, people think, oh, that's not a problem. That's not true.


LANDIEU: Because it's not just about wind. When you have a storm like this, this is going to be a trifecta. You have wind coming. You have storm surge, which they registered out in the water at a 70-foot wave at one point in time.


BOLDUAN: I think even a three or four-foot wave.

LANDRIEU: Yes. Pick your poison. OK?


LANDRIEU: The other thing that can happen with this storm is if people understand this, it went from 17 miles an hour to 50 and then 12. So if this storm hits, even if it's a two or three and it stays and you get substantial vertical rainfall, you can have a consequence like you had in Houston. Now, every storm is different. What you have to do is to be ready for

whatever comes your way. They can change at the last minute. What the governor and the elected officials need -- and I think they're doing a great job -- is they need folks to listen to them and take responsibility. If for some reason you have rejected their advice and decided to stay behind, you need to make sure that you are prepared to be by yourself for a long period of time. The next thing is there will be an electrical outage that we think will last a substantial period of time.


LANDRIEU: This is a very serious storm. If they would just listen to the governor and the mayors -- they are doing a great job. I know they are leaning forward. But it requires people to help. Otherwise, you put first responders in harm's way and they won't be able to get to you. That's going to be a real challenge because saving is always the most important priority for the first responders.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Your perspective on this and lessons that you learned from the path of many storms is an important lesson today going forward as we are looking at the next 24, 48 to 72 hours, going ahead.

I really appreciate your time, Major.

LANDRIEU: If you can -- stay focused. But if you can get out, get out. If you are going to stay, make sure you are prepared to hang on for a while before the first responders get to you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, sir.

LANDRIEU: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, bracing for impact. Hurricane Florence grows in size with a possible landfall near Wilmington, North Carolina, tonight. We're going to get the latest forecast. That's next.


[12:00:13] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello. And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS." I'm John King.