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THE SITUATION ROOM

Outer Bands of Hurricane Florence Battering Carolina Coast; Trump Falsely Claims 3,000 People Did Not Die In Puerto Rico. Aired 5- 6p ET

Aired September 13, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Tom Foreman. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

[17:00:15] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM, and we're following breaking news.

The start of what threatens to be one of the worst weather disasters to hit the Carolinas in decades. Outer bands from Hurricane Florence are now battering parts of the North Carolina coast. And there's a new forecast just out calling for the wind and rain on land to pick up in the coming hours. Before it's all over, Florence is expected to dump up to 10 trillion gallons of water on the region, causing catastrophic flooding.

We're going to get the latest this hour from the directors of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service, as well as our correspondents and experts. They're all standing by.

First, let's go straight to CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray. She's in the CNN Hurricane Center right now. Jennifer, there's a new forecast for Florence that's just been released. Update our viewers.

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, this storm has put on the brakes. It's only moving about five miles per hour, and this is the fear.

This is the storm that is going to basically sit over the Carolinas for the next 24 to 36 hours, just shredding the coast, bringing relentless rains, bringing a lot of wind and bringing that storm surge and flooding that we've been talking about, for days now.

We're already getting hurricane-force gusts around Cape Lookout, North Carolina, with 100-mile-per-hour winds, gusts of 120. This storm is not going anywhere fast. Only moving at 5 miles per hour. The track has actually slowed a little bit. Not making a landfall until tomorrow afternoon.

And if the storm decides to just sit offshore a little bit, we could be looking at even a longer period of time before we get an actual landfall.

But the storm surge and the rain is going to be the scariest part of the storm. It's basically sitting here out in the Atlantic in very warm waters. It's now sitting over the Gulf Stream. And so it is just churning and just bringing all of that rain and all of that wind along the coast.

So we're going to see this storm continue to sit there, travel off finally by the end of the weekend, if you can believe it.

But these outer bands already hitting the coast. It's pushing that water in. And the problem is when you get a high tide it's not going to be able to push the water out. This storm, as it's pushing the water in, it's going to basically build on top of each other. So each high tide cycle that we have to go through with this storm is going to continue to get worse.

The storm is only less than 100 miles offshore, but it could still sit here for another 24 hours before making landfall.

We're talking about extreme rain totals, 20 to 30 inches, and I was just looking at one of the models. And in this white area between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach there's a possibility that they could get 40 inches of rain in about a 48-hour period. That is absolutely incredible.

And we're also talking about major river flooding as this storm continues to push the water in. We could see it overfill the banks, and we could see record flood stages, with entire communities inundated with water. Streets about seven feet -- covered in water by seven feet.

And so the storm surge that's going to come in, we're talking about nine to 11 feet of storm surge that could fill somebody's entire first floor. It could even wipe somebody's house off their foundation.

When you're talking about a storm surge of nine to 11 feet for 24 to 36 hours, that is going to weaken structures big time. And it is going to cause a lot of devastation, a lot of destruction across these communities; not only coastal communities, Wolf, but communities well inland.

BLITZER: Our meteorologist Jennifer Gray with the latest. We'll get back to you, Jennifer. Thank you very much.

Let's head to the hurricane zone right now. CNN's Brian Todd is in Hampstead, North Carolina, for us. Brian, storm surge clearly one of the biggest concerns where you are.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf, and it is really starting to feel the storm surge that Jennifer was just talking about.

We're in Hampstead by the Intercoastal Waterway. We're on the mainland side of the Intercoastal Waterway, but the storm surge already affecting these homes. You can see it pushing the water from the Intercoastal Waterway, pushing towards these homes.

And this is low tide, Wolf. In a couple of hours, it's going to be much worse; and this water is not going to have anywhere to go but up into these homes and into the roadways just to my right. This as we're getting relentless rainfall from the storm that is right now just beginning in earnest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): As Florence makes landfall, the Carolina coast suffering the early stages of what will be days of battering. From South Carolina to Virginia, more than ten million people are now under hurricane watches and warnings.

[17:05:05] GOV. ROY COOPER (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Make no mistake, whether the eye of the storm makes landfall along our shores or further south, we're on wrong side of this thing. This storm will bring destruction to North Carolina.

TODD: Forecasters are predicting up to 13 feet of storm surge and the potential for more than three feet of rainfall.

MICHAEL CRAMER, TOWN MANAGER, CAROLINA BEACH, NORTH CAROLINA (via phone): That would mean that we would have probably about a third of our community under water. We have not -- not only Atlantic Ocean right next to us, we have the Cape Fear River behind us, and that means that with nine to 13 feet of storm surge, we will have the ocean in our sound touch.

TODD: Once the massive slow-moving storm treks inland, historic flooding is expected. The National Weather Service says the Cape Fear River could rise more than 20 feet above normal.

Also of concern, the several major nuclear power plants which lie in the hurricane's projected path. The Brunswick nuclear power plant was built in the 1970s and has the same design as the Fukushima power plant in Japan, which suffered catastrophic meltdowns after the 2011 tsunami.

ARNIE HEGLER, FORMER REACTOR OPERATOR, BRUNSWICK NUCLEAR POWER PLANT: They have plenty of pumps to get rid of the water that comes in, and also they've got some modifications they've done since Fukushima to bring in engine-driven pumping facilities to help with that, and also the -- the staff trains continuously on this type of event.

TODD: For those structures and the cities and towns in Florence's path, tonight they're bracing for the worst. In normally bustling Charleston, the streets are deserted, the businesses boarded up.

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: We call them disasters because they break things. The infrastructure is going to break. The power is going to go out. It could go out for a number of days. It could go out for many weeks, it's hard to say at this point.

TODD: For those who've ignored the mandatory evacuations, officials warn that emergency services may not be able to rescue victims due to road and bridge damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am taking a life-threatening risk, but it's my opportunity to protect my property. Anybody is injured there may be something I can do, especially older residents that are staying here. It's not because I want to. It's because as though I feel I need to.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And to put this in perspective, Wolf, officials and forecasters here talking about getting maybe eight months' worth of rainfall in a period of maybe just three days. And again, beginning here in earnest by the Intercoastal Waterway, this flood surge is really getting dangerous right now.

BLITZER: Just be careful over there. Brian, quick question. When you see the folks you've been talking to over there, do they understand completely the enormity of this crisis?

TODD: You know, they seem to understand it. They say that they've ridden out many hurricanes. Each of them have ridden out many hurricanes.

The governor of North Carolina is telling those people on the barrier islands and in these areas, "You think you know this storm. You think you know storms like it. You don't know this storm. This storm is not like those storms."

So you get a sense that, while people here are experienced; they know what they're doing. They know how to ride out these storms. They may not, people who have elected to stay, may not quite have the best perspective on this particular storm and the amount of water that it's about to drop here.

BLITZER: Awful situation indeed. Brian Todd, be careful over there. Thank you very much.

CNN's Drew Griffin is in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for us. Drew, what are you seeing where you are?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Just the first, really, bands. I wouldn't even call them bands, but the outer clouds that are in orbit around Florence here.

And what's interesting, as I push back to this iconic Ferris wheel where all the gondolas have been removed for several days now, Wolf, if you can see past, you see the clouds. Those clouds are actually moving southeast. We're on the backspin of Hurricane Florence. Those clouds are moving out to sea.

It's been like that all day and could explain why the surf down here, along with the tide that is going out, is still relatively flat. We're just getting a few drops here and there.

But this area, Myrtle Beach, is still another day waiting for this slow-moving storm. And folks here are really, really getting antsy as they have evacuated now, Wolf, and are just waiting for this storm to arrive so they can, hopefully, get rid of it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So the people in the area left, or are most staying put?

GRIFFIN: Most of them have left, we are told. County, city officials, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach say somewhere between 60 and 85 percent of people have left.

There are quite a few people still on the beach, as you can see. They are mostly people who have now chosen to stay. They had another day of determining whether to leave or not. Why they stay? Why don't we just ask this fellow here? He's right here.

Are you -- are you staying?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

GRIFFIN: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a local, yes.

[17:10:03] Well, you know, we just got four dogs, two cats and 120- gallon aquarium, you know. So we figure we're just going to stay and ride it out. Figure like, you know, if we can hunker down and get through it, that's what we're hoping for.

GRIFFIN: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hoping. Hopefully. We prepared. We have. We've been all week preparing, securing everything, you know.

GRIFFIN: Gotcha.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tying down everything, getting the --

GRIFFIN: Good luck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

GRIFFIN: Wolf, we're hearing that from a lot of people, especially those with pets. A lot of these shelters don't take pets. A lot of hotels have trouble keeping the pets.

But again, they've had a whole nother extra day to get prepared, and the local officials think they are prepared, no matter what Florence brings -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I hope they're going to be OK. All right, Drew. Thank you. We'll get back to you, as well.

Let's get some more on the breaking news with storm chaser Ben McMillan of weather nation. He's in Topsail, North Carolina. Ben, so what are you seeing where you are at Topsail Beach?

BEN MCMILLAN, STORM CHASER: Hi, Wolf.

We are just getting sandblasted out here by the center of Florence, which is just about 75 miles now to my northeast out over the sea. We'll show you a live look at a very angry ocean.

But the concerning thing is this is actually low tide right now, Wolf. Earlier today at about noon, we had large waves coming up, crashing against all of these houses here, a very busy coast here. Lots of property, and we hope these folks make it through the storm OK.

BLITZER: How quickly, Ben, are conditions starting to worsen?

MCMILLAN: Wolf, we saw periods of sunshine this morning and very light winds. Those have changed pretty rapidly here. We've had wind gusts in the 30s and 40s, and those have continued to go up. As the center of the hurricane moves closer, currently, with 100-mile-an-hour sustained winds in the center.

BLITZER: When do you expect to see this storm get even closer to landfall?

MCMILLAN: Wolf, we're going to see that as we go into the overnight hours into your Friday, early Friday. Could be when when that center, that center of Florence is at its closest to this part of coastal North Carolina. And then it will move south towards places like Myrtle Beach and continue to batter the Carolina coast.

BLITZER: Are people staying put, or are they -- have they left?

MCMILLAN: We've seen several people that have decided to ride out the storm. But areas like this, there's just not a lot of protection. These large sandbags have been placed to try to stop the ocean from previous storms, but as we saw earlier today at high tide, they're no match for the waters of Florence.

BLITZER: Yes. Doesn't look like it's going to be much of a match.

Ben, we're going to get back to you, as well. Ben McMillan from Weather Nation, thanks very much for joining us.

I quickly want to turn now to the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini.

Louis, thanks so much once again for helping us. What concerns you the most about this storm right now?

LOUIS UCCELLINI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE: So right now, the storm is going according to schedule. It is slowing down. It is actually looking like it's stalling near the Gulf Stream, very warm waters. So even though we now have a Category 2 storm, it's still well-organized, and will likely make landfall as a Category 2.

And as you've heard, it's moving very slowly, very slowly. So the rains that have already hit the coast, coastal area, will start moving inland and will persist.

So with the surge coming in and building up the waters along the coast in North Carolina and then the heavy rains starting, it's the perfect recipe for catastrophic flooding, and that's what we are very, very concerned about.

BLITZER: The size of this hurricane is really huge. How widespread are the effects going to be?

UCCELLINI: The effects are going to -- as you said, it's a large storm. It's been expanding over the past 24 hours, so the whole coastal area of North Carolina will be affected by this, and as that storm starts to shift towards the southwest, we'll start seeing the effects in northeast South Carolina and along the coast, as well.

So you have a very large domain that will be affected by the storm surge. Seven to 11 feet, and -- and that surge will move up the rivers, as well. So it's going to cover a very large area in eastern Carolinas.

BLITZER: Do you have any advice for people who decided against evacuating?

UCCELLINI: My advice is don't let your guard down. This is going to be a dangerous storm. It's going to be a long storm. For the inland areas, a prolonged period of rain through the reason, so we're looking for the potential of catastrophic flooding. Don't let your guard down on this storm.

BLITZER: So what should people do if they decided to stay put and not evacuate?

UCCELLINI: As always, they should be listening to their local and state officials. They have the latest information. They work very closely with us. They know where the safe areas are. You should be listening to your local officials and act if -- as the dangers increase.

BLITZER: Yes. It looks like those dangers are increasing dramatically.

The National Weather Service director, Louis Uccellini, we'll get back to you, as well. Thanks very much for joining us.

[17:15:03] The breaking news continuing next. Hurricane Florence pushing a wall of water up to 13 feet high ahead of it. Which areas will bear the brunt?

Plus, more on the latest forecast for the storm. I'll talk to the director of the National Hurricane Center. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, the battering has begun along the Carolina coast, where wind, rain and waves from Hurricane Florence are picking up dramatically. And in a very ominous development, the storm has doubled in size and slowed down.

Let's go to CNN's "NEW DAY" anchor John Berman.

John, you're right there in northeast Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina. The biggest concern there is flooding. That eye of the storm could go right over you.

[17:20:05] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. Could pass right over us sometime tomorrow, but the winds have already started. The bands already passing over Wilmington. We can field the wind gusting. You can see I'm soaked already.

And one of the major concerns here -- it's a double concern. It's the storm surge that could come up the Cape Fear River, the northeast Cape Fear River from the coast. And then the flooding, the 12 to 24 maybe higher inches of rain expected in this area over the next several days.

They're expecting the Cape Fear River to reach 22 feet. That's 10 feet higher than it is right now. And we've been speaking to the river master of the Cape Fear River, and he tells us all kinds of stories that just sends a chill down your spine. There are hog lagoons, swine lagoons north of here and west of here. They could wash into the river and flow down where we are. The animals could fall into the river and wash down where we are. This could be a mess.

The water right now, probably 10 feet lower than the banks, but, again, with a storm surge and with the amount of rain we're expecting we'll be watching very, very closely as these winds pick up, and we start to see the effects of the surge and the rain.

Wilmington, I should note, is already well over its average rainfall for the year, and over the next three days, it will get eight months' worth of rain. Eight months' worth of rain in the next three days.

And Wolf, as everyone has been saying all along, it's the duration of this storm that is the real concern. Everyone is saying, "Yes, it's only a Category 2." Make no mistake. That's a serious problem. If you're getting Category 1, Category 2 storms for two full days, 48 hours, that creates even more problems with the surge and with the pounding on these structures around us.

So, you know, Wilmington, they say they're ready. We haven't seen very many people on the streets. They're concerned here. They're in for a long couple of days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Just be careful over there. We're going to get back to you, John, so stand by.

Right now I want to bring in the National Hurricane Center director, Ken Graham. He's joining us right now.

Ken, thanks very much for joining us. Thanks for all the critically important work you and your team are doing. Tell us more, first of all, about the storm surge. How bad could it get for communities right along the coast?

KEN GRAHAM, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: You know, that's one of the problems that we have is a slow system like this and a large system. You get high storm surge values. And that's always one of the -- been the big issues with these. And really, we talk about the larger the storm and the slower the storm really piles up the water independent of the category. No matter what the category is, this is still a large storm with a really slow speed. So look at this here. By the way, this is our latest update to the

forecast, so portions, you know, looking at South Carolina, four to six feet. Running up to the coast, seven to 11 and six to nine.

Look how far away I'm getting away from the center of this system, because it's so large. You get that onshore flow well north, six to nine feet, four to six right up the coast. And the longer those winds are there, the further inland we can push some of that water. Miles inland at times, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, talking about that, the storm is moving so extremely slowly, so flooding could really become a huge, huge problem. Could rainfall totals approach what we saw with Hurricane Harvey last year?

GRAHAM: We look at the rainfall totals, we've been updating that forecast. Our weather prediction center does that. I mean, you can see some of these values. I mean, they're not as high as what we saw with Harvey. But here's the issue. Let's talk about that.

So you can have 20 to 30 inches right around where the center makes landfall, maybe even up to 40 inches in some areas. But here's another issue. You stretch inland, you start seeing the areas in orange, six to 10 feet. Charlotte, places like that. Even like Asheville. You can see four to six inches, even up into Virginia.

We've got a lot of terrain here, so if there's higher values, sometimes you get this precipitation that sits, so it can even get higher than that. You've got terrain; you've got mountains. So we are talking about flash flooding and even mudslides with times. So very dangerous, not just a coastal event but well inland.

BLITZER: Well, let's talk about that, because we know the coast is going to get the worst of it, but should the inland areas of the Carolinas be as concerned about flooding right now?

GRAHAM: Yes, absolutely with time, because you know, we talk about this forecast, and we've been advertising how slow this is. I want to make this point, because I think it's important. And so we're talking about the latest forecast here. And if you follow it with time, right here is 2 p.m. on Friday, 2 a.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 2 a.m. there. Look, there's hardly any geography that's taken up here. So very slow movement.

The longer we sit there and push those winds inland, we get the storm surge, the water levels to stay up, and the rainfall. Those rain bands, continuous rain bands around this system. The water piles up really quick when it comes to the rain, because these tropically efficient rain showers, they really dump a lot of rain really fast.

BLITZER: The storm has doubled in size recently. That's what we're told. So how widespread will this disaster be?

GRAHAM: Let's look at it. Even looking at radar trying to see this system. And we always talk about, you know, a lot of concentration around the center, but we really try to focus people on outside the center. We've got hurricane-force winds that could stretch out 70 miles. So

we've seen some of those hurricane-force winds stretching onto the coast throughout the afternoon and the tropical-storm-force winds.

[17:25:07] Think about this: 170 miles in certain directions away from the center. That's staggering. So it's back to not just a coastal event. You can be pretty far away from the actual center of this and still receive a lot of this rain.

And think about it. With the winds and rain and the system sitting so long, you start saturating the ground. You start knocking over trees and that's going to cause prolonged power outages for many regions.

BLITZER: What's your message, Ken, to people who are still deciding whether or not to evacuate? Is it too late now?

GRAHAM: You know, I think at this point, you know, you start looking back at these storm surge values. These are definitely life- threatening. So it's a matter of you had to listen. We had to be done yesterday. And I think at this point, you know, taking cover definitely, but you've got to be safe out there. Watch out for the water.

And I want to talk about this statistic, because it's important. Ninety percent of the fatalities in tropical systems, it comes from the water. Half of those are storm surge; another 25 percent is actually the inland rain.

So the message is in the only for the coast but for everybody inland, just be in a safe place, because the rainfall could cause some flash flooding to be very dangerous.

BLITZER: As you know, it's now a Category 2 storm, this hurricane. A lot of people say, "Well, it's not a 3 or a 4." What's your response to them?

GRAHAM: My response is really easy. You know, I've been watching hurricanes for, you know, 24 years in the Weather Service and longer than that, you know, and the message is this. Those impacts are absolutely independent of the category. It's about the size. It's about the speed. It's about those characteristics about the hurricane that we have to talk about. It's about the impacts.

I've seen Category 1s produce 12 feet of storm surge. It is not about the wind. And really, what separates a -- one category from another is one-mile-per-hour. So that's why we concentrate so much in the Weather Service and here at the Hurricane Center on those impacts. We have to listen to those and not necessarily pay attention to the category.

BLITZER: So how long do you think the folks over there in the Carolinas will be dealing with the impact of this hurricane?

GRAHAM: It's going to be a while, Wolf. I mean, you go back to this forecast. Think about this. I mean, you're looking at -- this is Saturday afternoon. Still a storm, so you're still going to have those battering winds circling around this system. So you're still going to have onshore flow.

And I do want to make another interesting point. Depending on the wind field, some people on the coast might not get all the storm surge initially, but then the winds rotate around this system as we go inland. Some of that water level can stay high and some places can actually see the highest water levels a day or so after the system so that's something to keep an eye on.

But look, 2 p.m. Sunday. This is 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. So it's going to be a while before we get this system out of here. So once we do and the system is -- moves well to the northeast, it's going to leave behind a trail of flooding. River flooding could last a week in this situation. So a lot of water. Dangerous water is definitely an aspect to this hurricane.

BLITZER: And the other enormous problem is going to be the power outages. That probably will be significant as well, right?

GRAHAM: Absolutely. We talk about those impacts. So you know, we talk about the direct fatalities, the direct impact that people have with these hurricanes. There's also the indirect. It's the power outages afterwards.

That kind of rainfall total is going to saturate the area so fast. And we hear about some places already being well above average. It's not going to take much in a lot of these areas to saturate the soil. So trees are going to come down really easy. That knocks out the power. There's going to be places without power for weeks, and that's something we've got to consider as we prepare for this storm inland and beyond.

BITZER: Ken Graham of the National Hurricane Center, thank you so much and once again thanks to everything you guys are doing. We're really grateful to you. Appreciate it.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: And stay with us. We're going to go live to some of the resort and fishing towns along the North Carolina coast where they're expecting the worst.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:33:24] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following breaking news. The winds and the surf are picking up as the center of Hurricane Florence approaches the coast of North and South Carolina. Let's bring in CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's joining us from Morehead City in North Carolina right now. So, what's it like where you are?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf, we're on the top side of this storm, the northeastern quadrant and that is where you see the strongest winds and the heaviest rains. Right now, we're in a rather dry spot within bands, as the bands of this storm have been lashing against this part of the coast. But the winds are definitely sustaining at much higher speeds now from what we've seen over the last few hours. The intensity of those wind, you can see out here in this cove as it pushes out towards the barrier island from Morehead City, and you can see just the whitecaps off those waves and how much intensity there is off of those waves. It's all being created by the wind here.

That's essentially where we are pushing out of the north down to the south, and if you look across this cove, you can see here over the course of the last few hours the winds have battered some of these sail boats that were left in the cove and pushed up against that bank on the other side toppled over because of these winds. The rains at times have been very intense. We've been reaching out to emergency management officials here in the county, in Morehead City. They say they still haven't had any major reports of issues, but they're still trying to assess all of that as the storm has been just been coming ashore here over the last few hours, Wolf, so that can very quickly change. But the intensity of the winds are much more sustained than we've seen at any point throughout the day today. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Ed. Thank you. Be careful over there. Ed Lavandera reporting. Let's move south and west down the coast. CNN National Correspondent Miguel Marquez is at Carolina Beach in North Carolina. What are you seeing?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're starting to see those winds really pick up, Wolf. You can see the trees here at the hotel where we are staying. They are starting to, you know, move quite a bit. There's a building that's under construction just near here that is also, we're quite curious, how that is going to stand up. We've been watching the beach for much of the day, and those waves really building throughout the day. Police don't want anybody on the beaches here in Carolina Beach. They are already seeing some flooding, and that's why they don't want folks on the beaches here.

There's a (INAUDIBLE). a dune that goes on that beach, and it started to -- the wave has started to wash over, and the north (INAUDIBLE). Two feet of water, and they're expecting as much as a third of this town is under water by the time all of this is over. 6,200 people live here. The city manager estimating that maybe 600 or so have decided to ride out this storm, but we are just beginning to see the amount of rain, that storm surge and the wind that will just sit over this area for what looks like the next 24, or perhaps 36 hours. It is not going to be pleasant for a very, very long time. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Miguel, thank you very much. Miguel Marquez on the scene for us. Joining us now on the phone from Charleston, South Carolina, is the U.S. Coast Guard Captain John Reid, he's the Commander of the Charleston Coast Guard Sector. Commander, thanks very much for joining us. So, tell us how the coast guard is preparing for rescue operations.

JOHN REID, CAPTAIN, U.S. COAST GUARD (via Telephone): Good evening, Wolf. Thank you very much, and our readiness right now is one of standing by. We've shifted most of our focus into protecting our resources, our aircraft and our boats, so that's the greatest somewhat of our ability to respond during the storm, in order to protect it and be able to immediately respond afterward. You know, we're specifically focused on after the storm, being able to respond to life saving and environmental issues that will pop up as a result of Florence.

BLITZER: Captain, what are the biggest challenges that you expect to face?

REID: I think some of those bigger challenges are the same things that they had seen a couple years ago in the 2015, 1,000-year floods for South Carolina, with regard to flooding; heavy rainfall in North Carolina and South Carolina. That can really cause the rivers to swell in which we'll likely be called in to help provide some shallow water response assets and be able to, again, contribute to life saving.

BLITZER: So, I just want to be precise. Will you be conducting rescues during the actual storm, or do you have to wait until the worst of the hurricane passes?

REID: Well, that all depends, Wolf, and if need be, we will do our best to make that assessment. During a storm, some levels of the storm, we would be able to try to do that, but given its current condition, that would be highly unlikely. If it continues to decrease possibly, we would have to make that risk assessment at that time.

BLITZER: Will this be a long-term rescue operation?

[17:38:25] REID: You know, that's hard to tell at this point, Wolf, but seeing the way things have gone in the past, I know these can last days into weeks because of the time that it takes for that water to work its way down the river system, and the flooding can continue long after the storm has passed.

BLITZER: And as you know, for a lot of people it's probably too late right now to evacuate. What should they do?

REID: Well, in certain parts of South Carolina, it may not be too late. Some of them it would be, but for those who may be in distress, you know, avoid the use of social media. If you want to communicate that distress, use your 911 call on your phone, or if you're in the maritime environment, use your VHS F.M. radio. I would hate for something to get lost in the social media and the volume of traffic that flows that way when we can get it right to a 911 call center.

BLITZER: How are you coordinating, captain, with local, state and federal officials who are on the scene right now trying to help as much as they can?

REID: Well, Wolf, we're doing that through a great team here in Charleston as well as a number of liaison officers and agency representatives at county emergency operation centers as well as the state's emergency operations center in Columbia.

BLITZER: How does this compare to other storms that you've seen, captain?

REID: This one has got me a little bit more on edge because we still don't actually know what's going to turn out for South Carolina. The if that does stay out there over the cost and linger south, maintaining any kind of steam and building over the water, it could turn into a multi-day rain event with wind, and that could be -- that could be devastating.

BLITZER: I know a lot of times when a storm like this approaches ports, for example, the U.S. Navy, they start deploying ships out into the Atlantic. Did you have to do that as well, or are your ships docked?

REID: Well, Wolf, we did a combination of both. Our larger ships definitely left the port of Charleston and are actually steaming with some of the Navy assets down south waiting for the storm's passage. For our smaller boats and stations, we kind of laid them up into what is called that "protective posture," moved them up river, shut down some of the stations. We've evacuated our families, and we've just kind of set back and we're ready to be responsive to any of those life-saving or environmental issues that may pop up as a result of Florence's wrath.

BLITZER: In addition to the Coast Guard, captain, is the U.S. Navy on the scene as well to help?

REID: Actually, we are on scene with joint base partners here in Charleston. We work very closely with them, and they are a great partner down here in the low country.

BLITZER: Well, good luck to you. We're grateful to all the work that the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard do for us. We appreciate it very much. John Reid, Coast Guard Captain. Thank you very much.

REID: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stay with us. We're monitoring the conditions along the North and South Carolina coast lines as Hurricane Florence approaches. And as the storm closes in, President Trump picks a fight over the death toll from the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last year. What is he thinking?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[17:46:14] BLITZER: On top of everything else, we have another major breaking story just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Look at this, multiple suspected gas explosions have set several structures on fire and forced evacuations in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts. A middle school in North Andover and residents of a senior citizen center, in Andover, have already been evacuated according to Massachusetts State Police.

Officials have not confirmed responses to 17 separate addresses for fire explosions or other investigations. There was no immediate information about available about the extent or the damage about any injury or fatalities. We're covering this story for you. We'll update you. We'll get more information. A very, very disturbing development in Massachusetts that we're following right now. We're also following the very deteriorating conditions along the North

and South Carolina coastlines as Hurricane Florence closed in this morning. President Trump decided, get this, to pick a fight over how many people died because of the devastating hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last year. Let's go to our White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, tell us what the president is claiming.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're seeing such a stark contrast back here at the White House today. The president has had no public events on his schedule, but he's been working the phones with state and local officials there on the East Coast that will be affected by this. He just left a briefing with members of the National Security Council and Vice President Mike Pence ahead of Florence as the administration is trying to show that they are prepared for what this storm hits. But, Wolf, that comes just hours after the president this morning rejected the idea that 3,000 people died after the last big storm hit Puerto Rico.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: President Trump in the middle of a man-made disaster tonight after falsely claiming 3,000 people didn't die when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year. Trump tweeting today that there were less than two dozen deaths when he visited the island a year ago, accusing Democrats of padding the death toll in order to make me look as bad as possible. Puerto Rico increased the official death toll last month after George Washington University published a 69-page study estimating nearly 3,000 people died in the six months after Maria hit. Trump offering no reason to doubt that study today and providing no evidence for his claim that Democrats were to blame, as the White House side-stepped questions. The Governor of Puerto Rico blasting Trump.

GOV. ROSSELLO NAVARES, PUERTO RICO (through translator): The victims and the people of Puerto Rico do not deserve to have their pain questioned.

COLLINS: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz telling Trump to focus on Hurricane Florence writing in a statement: "He should concern himself with doing everything possible to save their lives rather than continuing this senseless effort to make everything about him." Trump facing a surge of criticism from Capitol Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's misleading. It's clearly inaccurate.

COLLINS: As even his political allies abandoned him.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: There is no reason to dispute these numbers.

COLLINS: Florida Governor Rick Scott breaking with the president, saying he witnessed the devastation in Puerto Rico firsthand. Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor in Florida, saying he doesn't believe any loss of life had been inflated. All hurricanes prove to be a challenge for presidents, and this moment from Hurricane Katrina...

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.

COLLINS: Still hangs over President George W. Bush's legacy. All this as the White House seeks to seek they are prepared for Hurricane Florence as it starts to bear down on the East Coast.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Wolf, George Washington University, which conducted that study on the Puerto Rico death toll, issued a statement saying that they stand by the science in their steady, and that they are confident that the number, 2,975, is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excessed mortality to date. Now, no word on whether that statement from them has been showed to the president, and the White House is still refusing to answer any questions on the president's claim this morning.

[17:50:23] BLITZER: Yes, the government of Puerto Rico stands by that number as well. Kaitlan, we're going to get back to you. Thank you very much. We're watching these conditions along the North and South Carolina Coast. They are deteriorating. The conditions are deteriorating. The latest forecast says Hurricane Florence is near and will batter the coast for more than a full day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:55:22] BLITZER: Our breaking news, Hurricane Florence may have stalled but it's expected the slowly drift along the coastline of the Carolinas before coming ashore. Let's go back to CNN's John Berman, he's on the Northeast Cape Fear River area in Wilmington, North Carolina. What's the latest over there, John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, Wolf, the winds are here. The rains, as you can see, are falling. And people are settling in for two full days of frustration and two full days of real danger. And it's a double threat here with the water. This is the Northeast Cape Fear River right behind me. The Cape Fear River is just over there. The Cape Fear River, they're expecting to reach highs of 22 feet. Ten-full feet higher than where it is right now.

And just to give you a sense of what that would mean here, these boats -- imagine these boats, a full ten feet higher than where they are right now. That would mean they are here on this dock where I'm standing. It's enough water to put the boats on the land. That is a serious issue. That could be from the rain and also the storm surge, the force of the wind pushing the river upstream here, essentially. And that will be met in two days by the rainfall, two feet or more flooding downstream. It will have an impact here for days and days to come.

And Wolf, Wilmington, North Carolina hit its average rainfall for the year at the beginning of August. And over the next three days, they will get eight months-worth of rain. Which will mean that Wilmington will go way over its record rainfall for the year. Again, there's the wind right now. When you have winds that are higher than 45 miles an hour, Category 1 at 75, even higher than that for two full days, that is a serious danger. Wolf.

BLITZER: John Berman on the scene for us. John, we're going to get back to you. Thank you very much. Be careful where you are. I tell that to all of our reporters covering this hurricane.

The breaking news continues next. We're live up and down the Carolina Coast where conditions are clearly deteriorating as Hurricane Florence closes in. And there's a disturbing new development tonight: concern, the storm may have stalled.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[18:00:01] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Hurricane Florence is making its initial on the Carolinas and gradually intensifying, as the new forecast shows the storm --