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A Look at Hard-Hit Mexico Beach as Trump & First Lady Plan Florida Visit; Thousands in Florida Panhandle Assessing Damages to Determine Next Steps; Trump Arrives in Florida Panhandle to Assess Hurricane Damage; Speculations Grows Defense Secretary Mattis Will Leave Position. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired October 15, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But there's still a significant amount that has to be checked. And a lot of it is the really hard stuff to go through, the massive debris field as you know well, Erica.

Here's the problem. You're talking about a community that is called the forgotten coast. There are a lot of people who used to live here that were used to a lifestyle where they didn't have to account to anybody, primarily. And so that's why you had roughly 300 people who stayed for this storm. They know that, they did a head count before. And after the storm, they have been trying to track those people down. They did it by address. As you can tell, that's almost impossible in certain areas. So in other ways they have been doing it is not just search and recovery teams but also by waiting at food distribution sites. And as people show up to collect food and water, they have been asking their name. When they get the name, they check it off against the list of those they haven't got an accounting for. Yesterday, the number was at 60. So they were able to whittle it down. Now it's at 30 to 35. That doesn't mean they believe there's 30 to 35 casualties still remaining to be found. It just means that there are people they would like to locate. However, there's a concern that the longer this goes on and the less they hear from anybody, that there could be more victims to be found, and as a result, they brought in a temporary morgue just in case. And the searching will continue -- Erica?

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I know that over the weekend the mayor there had said that food and water was making its way into Mexico Beach. In terms of supplies, what more do we know about where we stand, not just there but in other communities as well today?

SAVIDGE: Yes, they have a number of distribution points around the community where you can get food and water. And also city hall has become a center of focus of this kind of distribution. It appears there's enough food and water to support those that are here. Now, let's face it. They're down to a handful of people that are here because primarily, the city, the community, can't support anybody. No electricity, no sewer, no running water, and communication is on the fringe. So there's no way that this town in any way could support people coming back to live. Come back to maybe check your property and then leave. But for the few dozen people that maybe haven't left yet, there's enough. They're hoping, the city, that is, that those people too will choose to leave because you just can't continue to live in this community for the time being. And there are other dangers such as medical care, there's really none that exists if you injure yourself, and there's a growing fear about the danger of fire. And the ability to fight a fire. They don't even know if the fire hydrants work.

HILL: Wow.

SAVIDGE: There's no way for people to report a fire. And yet, there's just so much fuel ready to ignite if that were the case.

HILL: There are so many tentacles to this and to that damage.

Martin Savidge, on the ground in Mexico Beach, thank you.

We are seeing live pictures now. The president and first lady arriving at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. That's in the Ft. Walton area of Florida, so it's a little ways away from where Martin is in Mexico Beach. They'll be making their way, to Panama City as well, probably about an hour and a half by car. The president and first lady will be making their way to survey that hurricane damage just in the coming moments. We'll bring more of that to you.

Meantime, thousands of people in the panhandle area of Florida are only beginning to assess the damage, try to determine what their next steps will be. For many people, it's determining where they go, especially if their home is gone.

Our next guest lived through Michael. He was in his townhome in Panama City, which was torn apart when it was hit by a tornado. David Sebastian joining me by phone.

David, you made your way to Panama City beach, which was not hit as hard as Panama City. But just give me a sense, where are you at today, because you're still trying to find a place to stay, as I understand it?

DAVID SEBASTIAN, PANAMA CITY RESIDENT (via telephone): Right. We were able to get out. The townhome was a complete loss. You know, the situation where you just take everything that could be salvaged and throw it in a single suitcase, knowing you're probably not going to bother coming back because it's that bad. We're standing in ankle deep water, the roof is gone, the walls are falling in, the chandelier came down and it's done. Where can we go? We headed to the beach. We're lucky enough to get into a condo that was, you know, empty then. Now things are starting to come back to normal, people are coming back. You know, I had to move again. Where am I going? Now, I'm in a House full of other displaced friends. You know, and it's like, we have 12 people over here. There's no electricity. We're eating MREs. We have water by the case. And ice, just trying to stay cool.

HILL: What about registering for disaster assistance? I know alerts are going out on cell phones even where there's no cell phone service and there have been alerts about registering with FEMA. Have you been able to do any of that? SEBASTIAN: Right, and they have been telling us that at all the PODs

when we go to get supplies. We're still in a circumstance, a handful of things out on the fringes are opening up, but in Panama City, especially, nothing is open. Maybe a couple gas stations. You have to get water at the points of distribution. The store is not just open for you to get it. So you know, they're telling us $z register for aid and to get help. We registered for FEMA. I have not heard anything yet about their assistance, and I know they're backlogged. I have heard of other people just now today getting a text for the first time that their aid will be approved for housing.

[11:35:22] HILL: Right, which is a huge step forward.

There have also been reports of looting in Panama City itself. You made your way to Panama City Beach. Do you have any safety concerns at this point? We know that curfew is still in effect from sunset to sunrise.

SEBASTIAN: You know, there are safety concerns out here. You know, I was staying with my roommate on the beach. Her kid, we made sure to leave in the next county over where they don't have power, with the grandparents, because it's not safe for kids out here in general. It's so funny because we're really at the beginning of the hurricane right now. The storm was terrible, but you know, day one, you're assessing the damage. The next couple days, it's about checking on your neighbors. Day four and day five, no power and water, it's OK. We're at day six now. Tempers are flaring. People are walking around, armed. You're seeing signs like spray paint on buildings, looters will be shot. There's fights in the gas line all the time. We have the National Guard and police out managing gas because the gas line is probably the most serious thing. We do have gas in, but there's only a handful of stations. In Panama City, that line can be hours long.

HILL: Right. That gas is so important. For folks who aren't familiar with the area, it feels like it's not too far from you, yet it can be if you don't have gas. From where you are, if you drive even less than an hour away, there could be cell phone service, power, water, gas. But getting there can be problematic.

Talk to me, too, about the communication. We're on the phone with you now. Is there full cell service in Panama City beach?

SEBASTIAN: Right now, we have AT&T. AT&T never went down in the whole entire storm and afterwards. I have AT&T. I was lucky enough to have service through that. As far as I know, Verizon and all the rest of the major networks are not back up yet. Now, I know they have put some temporary towers in certain places like hot spots where people can go to that location. But for most of Panama City, if you don't have that cell service, you don't have communication. There's runs on phones because the prepaid phones, maybe someone could get one quick to contact their loved ones. Everyone is taking it. They don't have a lot of prepaid phones because everybody is trying to get on a network that works.

HILL: And any way they can do it. The president and first lady just landing. We're looking at live

pictures at Eglin Air Force Base.

What's your message to the president? What do you want them to know about your situation, about the situation itself in the panhandle?

SEBASTIAN: You know, honestly, I hope Mr. Trump, while he's here, he really gets in here and surveys how serious this damage is. I know we have had complaints in past disasters about how they were handled. It's really a chance for him to step up. Because this is what I would assume a war zone looks like. Panama City is completely destroyed. And Mexico Beach is completely destroyed. And we need all the help that we can get in any type of way. You know, point blank, period.

HILL: I have to say, having been in both of those places that you mentioned, and driving through the area, it is almost beyond words. I mean. This is certainly a story where the pictures need to tell the story because you almost can't believe the extent of the damage.

How much outside information are you able to get at this point in terms of what's happening in other communities around you, what the need is there versus what you're seeing in Panama City Beach or Panama City?

SEBASTIAN: It's getting a little better now. That was a big thing. For about two to days after the storm, we didn't know what was going on. And it was, you know, old school. You're asking people, passers-by for information. People are like, yes, this area got hit. This area is OK. You know, because even through that time, in the beginning, even though we had cell service, we didn't have any data. Not only that, almost every media outlet in Panama City got destroyed. The TV station was down. All the radio stations were down at the time. So that natural flow of information is just not really happening. You know, through a while, now, everyone knows that Mexico Beach obviously is completely destroyed and Panama City, you know, and the close cities there to Panama City on that side of the beach, you know, like Harper and Springfield and Callaway got a lot of damage out there. The air force base, they had 10,000 people, they didn't have a single unit left on the air force base. They got 10,000 soldiers they have to send someplace. Everything in that area is pretty well destroyed.

And you know, now, while people are staying safe, it's a matter of comfort. Not only for people in their personal level but as far as what people are doing here. Because when the attitudes are starting to come out and tempers are starting to flare, it's typically about the comfort type issues. We all have water. But you know, gas to go see someone or maybe some dry clothes or anything that is not like that. You know, they have the National Guard, for example, and the police have went through the county and they shut down all the alcohol establishments that were coming through. You have people that, you know, are looking for alcohol. And everything is, you know, a barter and supply for people.

[11:40:45] HILL: It's, again, as you said before, the tentacles of this go so far. There's so much to this disaster. David, really appreciate you joining us with your perspective this

morning. I'm glad you're safe.

Stay with us, everyone, as we see Air Force One on the ground there.

We'll take a short break. We'll bring you the president and the first lady as they disembark to tour Florida in a moment. Stay with us.


[11:45:41] HILL: Live pictures of President Trump arriving at Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle, along with the first lady, FEMA administrator, Brock Long. Florida Governor Rick Scott also on hand there. The president making his way there. He'll tour the damage today.

Let's bring in CNN's Martin Savidge, who is in hard-hit Mexico Beach, Florida, ground zero, really, as we have said, for this storm that roared ashore with 150-plus mile an hour winds, which we understand the results are responsible for much of the damage we're seeing.

Martin, I'm not sure how much -- are folks there aware the folks making their way into Mexico Beach to survey the damage, I'm not sure how much they're aware the president is here today. Communications still remain difficult in the area.

SAVIDGE: They do. And some folks are aware, some are not. City officials have certainly been made aware. It's unclear whether the president will be on the ground in Mexico Beach or something like a near flyover. We're waiting to see that.

For the president himself, for anyone who comes here and sees it with their own eyes, it is a whole different thing. Because I can tell you that just trying to convey these pictures on television or trying to give you the words to describe not just Mexico Beach but the many other communities that had been absolutely flattened, the scale is almost beyond our ability with the camera to do. So when the president comes, the first lady comes, flies over or sees it from the ground level, they can't help but be impressed with the devastation they're facing and the monstrous recovery job.

We're five days in and this is usually where you see the cracks begin to appear in the recovery effort. People are getting over the shock and getting over what they have lost and now they're looking towards what will they get back and how can they do it and how quickly. In this community, they have lost everything. Everything in the infrastructure and in most cases people have lost everything inside of their homes. So they're going to be looking to the administration, they're going to look to state government and local government.

And I tell you there are already stresses in local government here. It's wearing on the government leaders here. It's not just the disaster that's befallen their community. It's the decisions they have to make, the hard ones, trying to recover those who are lost and also trying to decide when to allow many other people to try to come back. It's a very difficult, delicate balance. There have been heated exchanges. And there are differences of opinions. It is typical in any natural disaster of this scale to have this happen. It's part of the grieving process for an entire community, to work through it. But the president is going to realize the job ahead is huge.

HILL: It is massive, as you point out. And really, when you do see it from the sky, whether it's in drone footage or from helicopter footage, it gives you a sense of the scope. Even just trying to get into Mexico Beach, which is tough, for at least the first 24, 36 hours, the roads to get in there are gone. In Mexico Beach, we're not just talking about people's homes, but 100 percent of the businesses are gone.

Let's listen in quickly to the president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- working with FEMA, working with first responders, the law enforcement. The job they have done in Florida is incredible and, likewise, I'm hearing in Georgia, very good things.

I want to thank you. You're a great company.

He stepped up in the biggest emergencies, the biggest problems, and he gets it done.

Rick Scott, thank you.


We talked almost every day. Everything I have asked for, he comes through. Brock long is here from FEMA. Everything I have asked for from FEMA, they have done. We have water, food out. We altogether had search-and-rescue teams the night of the hurricane going into communities to save lives. Our Coast Guard was out at night saving lives. Everybody is working together, National Guard, highway safety. I want to thank everybody for all the coordination. (INAUDIBLE).

I want to thank the president again. Every time I have called, he came through and did exactly what he said he was going to do.

[11:49:52] TRUMP: I have to say, one of the most important things, it's always how. We have thousands and thousands of electricians at the top level. The electric companies have followed. As the hurricane left, they followed right behind it and put on hundreds of thousands of homes back on. One problem is some homes don't exist anymore. They are literally wiped out. They have electric going to empty site. But the electric companies have been really incredible and responsive. We want to thank them.

Making sure everyone is safe and fed. Many people have no homes. Some of them don't have a trace of a home. Their homes got wiped off the footings. So our big things is feeding, order and safety.

Again, Rick Scott has done an incredible job.

Really, I want to thank you. Thank you, everybody.

HILL: The president there, thanking Governor Rick Scott, who was by his side for the response in Florida since this storm hit. Governor Scott saying everything he asked the president for or FEMA, everything has been done.

The president brought up the electric companies. And it's true. In the area, your staging areas for these trucks coming in trying to restore power. Fueling stations as well set up for the trucks to get into the hard-hit areas. Part of the challenge -- and I'm not sure Martin Savage is with us. Part of the challenge being that power lines in some areas are not only downed but covered in trees and debris. Just to move that debris and get to the power lines to begin this process of restoring electricity is massive in and of itself.

Marty, if --


SAVIDGE: Eric, if you can hear me --

HILL: Go ahead.

SAVIDGE: The number of trees that are down has to be in the millions. We are talking massive trees. They have fallen across major highways. Most of those have been cleared, but the secondary roads and the side roads and the homes in which those trees now rest, the businesses and the impact of just those trees coming down alone is massive. Let alone we talk about tidal or storm surge or wind, the trees have done a tremendous amount of damage. You just see what looks like a tree grave yard as you drive closer and closer. They are all broken off about four feet above ground and all falling exactly in the same direction. If the tree isn't down, every or pine needle is stripped away. It, too, is a testament to what has happened. The problem is that does block all of the roads. There are many times you think you will peel off a side road or turn down this road. It's completely blocked by both trees and power lines that came down with it.

HILL: That puts in perspective the scope of the task in front of so many.

Stay with us. We will take a quick break. The president boarding the helicopter there. Our coverage continues in a moment.


[11:57:28] HILL: Speculation has been growing for months about the future of Defense Secretary James Mattis. In an interview with CBS, the president said he is not sure whether the general will stick around, while also downplaying some of their reported feuds.


LESLIE STAHL, CORRESPOIDENT, "60 MINUTES": Is it true General Mattis said to you the reason for NATO and the reason for NATO and for all these alliances is to prevent World War III?

TRUMP: No, it's not true. Frankly, I like General Mattis. I think I know more about it than he does.

STAHL: Sorry, he going to leave?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know. He hasn't told me that.


STAHL: Do you want him to leave?

TRUMP: It could be that he is. I think he is sort of a Democrat if you want to know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. At some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That's Washington.


HILL: CNN pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joining us with more.

Yes, it's true, people do leave their posts, certainly a secretary of defense Is there any word this morning, Barbara, that Mattis is close to leaving?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not right now, Erica. What we've seen is the president goes from Mad Dog Mattis, very boisterous support for the secretary, to maybe he's a Democrat. No evidence of secretary Mattis's partisan leanings, if any, in any direction. People are noticing, for the first time, you did not see that unequivocal support from President Trump for Secretary Mattis. You are getting chatter about is this the first shot across the bow. Is this going to turn out the same way it did for former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. You saw the run up of less than support for them from the president. Is this the beginning of that for Secretary Mattis? Nobody really knows. Mattis, right now, traveling to Asia this week as long expected. Sticking with his program. People here say there's no signs right here that he's leaving, but the mid-terms are coming up, and who really knows -- Erica?

HILL: Quickly, Barbara, has there ever been an indication where the political affiliation of a defense secretary mattered or was an issue.

STARR: Typically, the Pentagon is nonpartisan. A secretary of defense gives the president the best national security military advice. Very quickly, you will recall William Cohen, Republican Senator, served under Bill Clinton as secretary of defense. Chuck Hagel, also a Republican Senator, served under President Obama -- Erica?

HILL: Barbara Starr, always good to talk with you. Thank you.

STARR: Sure.

HILL: Thanks so much for being with us today.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts now.