Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Death Toll Soars To 76 In Florida, Officials Defend Response; Ukraine Forces Gain Ground, Russia Acknowledges Advances. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired October 03, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR, here are the big questions. Should evacuations have been ordered earlier ahead of Hurricane Ian? And would that have made a difference? Plus, how is Russia going to respond now that Ukraine is taking back land that Putin wants to say is his. And what kind of roller coaster ride are we in for as the Supreme Court kicks off its new term today. This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.

Thank you so much for being here. I'm Kate Bolduan. The death toll from Hurricane Ian is rising still in Florida as rescuers are now working through some of the hardest hit areas. At least 76 people have died in the state from this monster storm. Governor Ron DeSantis says more than 1,600 rescues have been conducted in parts of Southwest and Central Florida. More than half of those people killed are in one county, Lee County. And now county officials are facing questions about how long they waited to order a mandatory evacuation despite repeated forecasts of the life threatening storm surge projections from the National Hurricane Center. I'm going to speak with the top official in Lee County in just a moment.

Still over 600,000 customers are without power in Florida this morning. Many residents don't have safe drinking water either. Let's get started with the very latest on the rescue and recovery. CNN's Nadia Romero is in Arcadia with the very latest. Nadia, what are you seeing right now?

NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, we're still seeing so many people who are desperate for resources. Remember we're only about four days or so since the storm and that means four days without power. So everything they have in their freezer and their fridge has spoiled and everything else has been destroyed or damaged by water. So that's why you'll see the National Guard here with drinking water, cases of water for people. These are MRE's for people to be able to use. There's also diapers and there's dog food, there's other supplies that people need to just keep them going for the next couple of days.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ROMERO (voice-over): Parts of Florida still dealing with devastating flooding following Hurricane Ian. And where that water has receded, destruction left behind.

LESTER MARTIN, BONITA SPRINGS, FLORIDA RESIDENT: The water was actually (inaudible) is half way to the front door was the waves crashing against the house.

ROMERO (voice-over): This man took us inside his Bonita Springs home, which is now gutted because of Ian.

MARTIN: This is from the beach.

ROMERO (voice-over): And this woman showed CNN her now mud-filled home in Iona, a home she said her dad was helping remodel.

PATTY MCIVER, IONA, FLORIDA RESIDENT: Just got a brand-new like sink. All this was retiled, new vanity.

ROMERO (voice-over): Both those homes in Lee County, one of the hardest hit areas.

At least 76 deaths in Florida are connected to Hurricane Ian and at least 42 of those deaths are in Lee County alone. Now Lee County and state officials are facing questions about why residents there weren't told to evacuate until Tuesday morning, a day after the neighboring counties.

MAYOR KEVIN ANDERSON, FORT MYERS, FLORIDA: Warnings for hurricane season start in June, so there's a degree of personal responsibility here. I think the county acted appropriately.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): They delivered the message to people. They had shelters open. You know, everybody had adequate opportunity to at least get to a shelter within the county, but a lot of residents did not want to do that.

ROMERO (voice-over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis echoed Lee County officials on Sunday, saying even after the evacuation orders were issued, many people chose to stay put.

DESANTIS: It's easy to second guess them, but they were ready the whole time. They informed people, and most people did not want to do it. I mean, that's just the reality.

ROMERO (voice-over): The governor made those comments while visiting another hard-hit area, Arcadia, where floodwater levels remain high. The U.S. Army is working to get food, water and other necessities to the people in this area.

CAPTAIN RYAN SULLIVAN, U.S. ARMY: I was born and raised in Tampa, to see, you know, fellow Floridians needing help that's the reason we're here is to help them.

ROMERO (voice-over): And the National Guard, Coast Guard and firefighters are landing helicopters on barrier islands to perform search-and-rescue missions.

DANA SOUZA, SANIBEL CITY MANAGER: Our situation is that we're still in the search-and-rescue mode and trying to access all parts of the island.

ROMERO (voice-over): So far, there's been more than 1,600 rescues in Florida. Also, more than 42,000 linemen are working to restore power across the state.

Overnight, around 670,000 customers were still without power. Most of the outages are in Lee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Collier, Volusia and Manatee counties.


RICKEY ANDERSON, DISPLACED SANIBEL ISLAND RESIDENT: Can we get some help down here? You know, would that be too much to ask? I mean, you look around here, there's nothing. We have no power, no phone service, nothing. So we'd just like a little help, get a little help to get my home back in shape, because I have nowhere to go.


ROMERO: And one of the biggest please I keep hearing is for ice, people don't have ice to keep food cool and to keep themselves cool because it is so hot in this Florida sun. Take a look. This is highway 70 right here, it should extend. Now you can notice today how quickly the water is moving. Previously, it was just at a standstill, when you see those campers out there. Just a couple of days ago, we can only see the roof of those RVs. Now you're starting to see the windows, the doors, that's a sign that the water is coming down. But still, you need a boat to get on this highway. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, and the fact that that's how we're measuring how it's receding just shows how high that water is and how much devastation there is still to be seen. Nadia, thank you so much. As we've mentioned, the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, they were warning for days of the significant threat of life threatening storm surge in southwest Florida, including in Lee County, which we're just talking about. CNN meteorologist Chad Myers joining me now for more on this. Chad, can you walk us through what was known, what changed and when?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: What was known was that the European model was over here across Florida, across the peninsula itself. The American model was over here. And I believe that American model actually hurt the forecast. Because you're always kind of saying which one is right, which one is wrong, you know. And so at about 72 hours, they finally began to agree. But at that point in time, you know, you're starting to really wind down from landfall.

And by the time we got into Tuesday morning, that's when some of the numbers really went up as the storm was turning to the right. You can begin to see that little bit of a right turn there. And then eventually back to the left as it went up toward Myrtle Beach. But here we go, a search out on Friday, you're inside the cone, it's hard to see the cone because it's so big. The cone is not a function of how good the models are doing. The cone is a function of how wide the spread is or the forecast error from the National Hurricane Center, including two-thirds of all storms have to fit inside that cone, only one-third.

So one-sixth on the left, one six on the right could be a miss. So it could not maybe even get inside the cone. And certainly we've had a lot of damage outside the cone itself. Fort Myers, though, Sunday evening, four to seven feet. That was the surge forecast. Let me kind of turn our attention to the north, maybe this thing is going to go to the north. And I think that's where people took their eyes off.

By Tuesday overnight though, all of a sudden, we're eight to 12. And this thing hit at 3 o'clock Wednesday afternoon. So that's why people were saying, wait a minute, we really didn't know this was coming. This was four to seven, up until 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday. And then all of a sudden, it went eight to 12. And then it just got worse and worse and worse. We know what happened. Kate?

BOLDUAN: That's true. There's a lot to be learned. Every time we see one of these storms. That's for sure. It's good to see Chad, thank you so much. Joining me now on the phone is Cecil Pendergrass. He is the chairman of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners. Can you hear me Mr. Chairman?


BOLDUAN: Thank you so much for spending some time with me. First off, can you just describe for me the progress that's been made and getting help to people? I mean, how is it going in Lee County right now?

PENDERGRASS: It's actually, you know, I've been here all my life and work many hurricanes throughout my career in law enforcement now as a county commissioner, and it's unbelievable the amount of resources are coming in between the state and federal and local agencies. Day five today is from the hurricane. We already started rebuilding a bridge today with FDOT here, one in Pine Island, one of our very islands that was cut off.

Within 48 hours, we already had half the county back up on power, water distribution sites. As of Saturday, we had eight sites throughout the county. It's a large county, 800 square miles. We had eight pod sites out for food water and ice to get out to the citizens of victims of the storm.

BOLDUAN: With so much devastation and we're just looking at images, kind of throughout Lee County as we're talking. How much of the county do you think may never come back?

PENDERGRASS: We will come back. You know, this is a storm that we all, you know, over 50 years and we was hoping this storm that would hit, angle coming in from the Gulf of Mexico with a surge just north of the river. So the all the barrier islands, the beaches got the brunt of the surge. And that was something we all hoped would never would happen. Unfortunately, it happened this year. But this, we're so resilient here, you know, our airport this past year was number one in the nation of comeback recovery after COVID. So we will as a community recover from this.

BOLDUAN: The order to evacuate in Lee County went out Tuesday morning for the hardest hit areas, we know that. Neighboring counties issued those same orders though a day earlier. Did the order to evacuate in Lee County go out too late?

PENDERGRASS: No, actually we put the order out, 72 hours based upon the data of the cone and based upon the projection of the storm. And for the low wire is first with mandatory evacuation for zone A which is the barrier islands and then the next day zone B, which has more interior. But people chose to stay is that it's so unfortunate. We've seen this throughout the years, throughout the country, and people do not listen to the warnings from the media and from the local officials. They made that choice. That's what's happened over the years here. We've had so many different storms. And with the media reporting these tragic storms come in, nothing happens. They received nothing happened. They said, well, we're just going to stay home this year and ride it out. Well, this is a one storm that people didn't ever think of having the storm surge on the beaches. And that's what happened.


BOLDUAN: Yes. 5:00 p.m. Monday, the National Hurricane Center wrote that the highest risk of life threatening storm surge was in the area, you know, ranging from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay. When you look at that life threatening storm surge risk, would you personally have liked the evacuation orders to have gone out sooner?

PENDERGRASS: Oh, no, we based upon the data at the time, that's 32 hours well enough notice. I mean, if you lived on a barrier island, you know, you're sitting next to the Gulf of Mexico, and you see the storm coming at 72 hours away, why would you not leave. People made that choice. But right now I'm just focused on trying to find our neighbors who are still missing and recover those that are we obviously could be a victim of the storm and rebuilding here. And well, obviously, you look back on the storm. We always do after any storm. We have always have a debriefing after the storm to see how well we can do better.

But based upon what we're looking at now, we've looked at these last few days, the data was provided with the storm turn. And you couldn't see it but until the last minute and then but again, they were put out 72 hours to mandatory evacuation but people chose to stay.

BOLDUAN: One of the things that we're seeing is the emergency plan that's been published is part for the county. It says that if 10 -- if there's a 10 percent chance of six feet of water to start evacuations, I guess that means that there would have been a chance to start those evacuations then on Sunday. That's kind of -- and that is in the published plan guidelines. Can you take me inside the room then with your fellow commissioners and the county manager and all of the stakeholders who make the call, who make the decision? What were you all weighing when it came to this decision?

PENDERGRASS: So once it said merged, was actually affected the county commissioners going to follow that process, it's all down at the emergency management work from the state, emergency management and the county manager. The county manager then has the power is in charge of the county at that time, because you would not want, you know, five elected officials making those decisions. We have dependent experts. We depend on data, factual data, and the forecast. And that's what we did that staff was dependent on was that forecast cone. And they gave us 72 hours notice. They put the shelters together, shelters are open. And people just did not go. And with Irma, we had over 36,000 people under the same forecast, same projections, same timeline, when the shelters this storm, we only had 5,000 chose to go to the shelters.

BOLDUAN: So are you saying that this decision was out of your hands completely?

PENDERGRASS: Oh, yes, at the time, the Board of Commissioners were not making decision, we're not voting on this. It's something through the county management. And as far as emergency management that makes those decisions based upon the data coming from the state emergency management down to the local emergency management.

BOLDUAN: And the emergency plan, it doesn't really -- it doesn't say anything about the cone though. And Chad Myers was just on air talking about, you know, the cone only represents two-thirds of the impact. There's always right outside of the cone, that's going to get a major impact, especially the right side of any storm. I'm just wondering, you said you know, there is a review after any major disaster after any storm as there should be to figure out lessons learned. And hurricane season isn't even over. Are you going to do anything different? Do you want to see anything done different for the next storm?

PENDERGRASS: Based upon the data I have in front of me now? No, because we gave warnings to the residents. And you know, Governor DeSantis, I remember seeing Sunday night, he's been -- his great leadership here in southern Florida, told the residents, if you're on the west coast of Florida, you're going to see storm surge, you need to evacuate those islands now. That was a Monday, I mean, sorry, Sunday, four days before the storm hit. So the warnings were going out to the citizens. Our shelters were already open. And we were had resources to get people shelters, they just chose not to go.

BOLDUAN: Long road ahead, many people who still need help, Mr. Chairman?

PENDERGRASS: I'll be focused on right now on recovery. We're trying to recover victims, and also survivors that can still be out there. We have a lot of debris that's still on the ground, and houses and buildings is condemned to be victims underneath that. We're trying to find those people as we speak some focus on that.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. A lot to be focused on for anyone in a leadership position, looking at the current and the future is what a leadership role requires. Thank you, Mr. Chairman for coming on and calling in. I appreciate your time.

PENDERGRASS: Thank you Kate.

BOLDUAN: Thank you. We are learning more about the dozens of people killed in Florida by Hurricane Ian. CNN's Boris Sanchez, he's live in Fort Myers for us with a look at this. So Boris, what are you learning about some of these people who didn't make it through?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, so many tragic stories about those who suffered immense loss during Hurricane Ian. And one of the stories that has stood out to me as we've been reporting here is that of Scott Lumley (ph). He is -- he was one of Fort Myers' most vulnerable residents. We are told that he actually had to use a cane. He had difficulty moving, because he had Lou Gehrig's disease, and he was progressively losing the use of his legs and his right arm.


And during the storm, he huddled with some friends, two friends, and as their home started to become inundated, they rushed to try to get to the ceiling. And as you hear a helicopter come over us, they rushed to get to the ceiling. And unfortunately for Scott, they couldn't help him get out. They were faced with the unthinkable decision of saving themselves or potentially getting swept away while trying to save their friend.

One of them telling "The Washington Post" quote, we tried to get him, but we couldn't. I feel awful about it. But I think if we kept trying, we three would have all been washed away. Just one of so many tragedies here in South Florida, Kate, and we'll likely hear more stories similar to this one, 76 fatalities in the state of Florida. That number likely to climb as we just heard from the county commissioner, that officials are now accessing areas that were previously cut off because of the storm. The devastation here, very difficult to put into words, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And the fear is that under all of that massive, heartbreaking debris that we've seen in the devastated, most devastated areas that they will find more people who did not make it through. Boris, thank you for being there.

So President Biden, he's actually on his way right now to hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico. The President and the First Lady departed just moments ago. You're seeing some video of it there. They're set to get a firsthand look at the damage left by Hurricane Fiona two weeks ago. CNN's Arlette Saenz is live at the White House to look at this. Arlette, the president is also expected to be making an announcement while down there. What are you hearing about it?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, President Biden is set to announce that they will be sending $60 million of infrastructure funding to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. This funding will be coming from the bipartisan infrastructure law. And it's aiming to try to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and also create a new flood warning system to help Puerto Rico in the event of future storms.

Now, just before President Biden left the White House, he told reporters that more needs to be done to help Puerto Rico, which is reeling after the impact of Hurricane Fiona two weeks ago, and still recovering from Hurricane Maria back in 2017.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And to Puerto Rico, because they haven't been taken very good care of. We've been trying like hell to catch up on the last hurricane. I want to see the state of affairs today and make sure we fix everything we can.


SAENZ: The President and First Lady are set to land in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 2:00 p.m. hour where President Biden will receive a briefing on recovery efforts and the couple will later meet with families who were impacted by this hurricane.

BOLDUAN: It seems so long ago and so not long ago two weeks ago that Hurricane Fiona hit and now we've seen Hurricane Ian hitting the southwest part of Florida. There's so much to be dealing with right now. Thank you so much Arlette, I really appreciate it.


Coming up for us, Ukraine is claiming new victories as it fights to liberate Russian occupied Ukrainian cities. The very latest on these major moves, that's next


BOLDUAN: There is some major movement happening in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops liberating strategic towns in the eastern Donetsk region. Soldiers raising the Ukrainian flag over the city of Lyman just hours after Russia illegally claimed they were annexed. Russia is also acknowledging these advances which is in and of itself surprising, but there are also reports of Russians going door to door in occupied areas of Ukraine looking now for young men to enlist in their fight.

Today, Russia's legislature is beginning the process of approving President Putin's plans to annex these four key parts of Ukraine. Joining me now on this very -- on the very latest here is CNN military analyst retired General Wesley Clark. He's a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. And CNN national security analyst, Steve Hall, he's the CIA's former Chief of Russia operations. It's good to see both. General Clark What do you make of the gains that President Zelenskyy is now claiming that Ukrainian troops are gaining -- regaining ground, we should say in the very same places that Putin is claiming now, as part of Russia.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's very heartening to see the gains the Ukrainians have made. The concern is don't go too fast. Don't outrun your supplies. Don't not run your reinforcements, keep steady, pressure on, steady wins this race. BOLDUAN: Steve, Putin is trying to claim now that an area -- that an attack in these areas is essentially and directly an attack on Russia is what Putin is trying to say. I want to play for you how White House Spokesman John Kirby responded to this today.


JOHN KIRBY, NATL. SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: It's not an attack on Russia. It is Ukrainian soil. It was Ukrainian soil. It is today and it will be tomorrow. And we're not in the business of telling President Zelenskyy how he goes about conducting military operations. What we are doing is making sure he has the capabilities and the systems that he needs to do that effectively and he is.


BOLDUAN: But does this change anything about how Russia will respond when Ukrainians do attack?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, I'm not sure Kate that it really will. I think what's happened is that, you know, Putin has tried to do this bait and switch operation where he simply says OK now this is all mine of course he doesn't control that territory fully so it's difficult to understand, you know, what reasonable person would think that he actually, you know, can annex something that he doesn't control.


But now, I'm not sure that it will change things. I mean, the most effective thing that Putin has done so far is nuclear saber rattling. He can't use those weapons. He knows that paying an extremely high price. So he's doing the next best thing. He's making us worried about it and asking ourselves that question, if we move into those areas, which they have now annexed, would you consider something like that? That's really his strongest option right now, Kate?

BOLDUAN: I do want to ask you more about that in just a second. But first, general, we do know that one consideration of the Biden administration around supplying weapons to Ukraine all along is not wanting to be seen as a direct party to the conflict in direct conflict with Russia, if you will. Alex Marquardt, my colleague is reporting as a way to overcome us resistance to supplying a certain longer range rocket system, Ukraine is offering the U.S. full visibility into their list of Russian targets, essentially, given the U.S. veto power. What do you think of that? And what do we need to know then about this missile system, the army tactical missile systems that Ukraine is asking for?

CLARK: Well, first of all, as far as Putin is concerned, we are directly involved. So we're playing a game with our own population here. But the Russians say it's World War III against us and against NATO. So we're only fooling ourselves. Now, I think it's a wonderful thing that the Ukrainians are going to expose their target list to us and give us a veto power on these things. They know more than we do, though. And we've got to be careful about this. Because they are the ones, it's their territory, it's their lives that are being spent. And so got to respect what they're doing.

I'm going to tell you, we need those ATACMS in there. The president so far has said no, but we need the switchblade 600s, and they're being held up and had been held up for six months in various bureaucratic snack foods inside the administration. And those drones, those killer drones that are we're going to put in there are critical. They can do some of the same things that the ATACMS can do, not as far, but they're very effective going across the lines, and they need these weapons in Ukraine. So I hope we're going to accelerate and expedite what we're providing to the Ukrainians, they've got momentum, this is the time to do it.

BOLDUAN: That's interesting. You know, Steve, you talked about a nuclear saber rattling. And I wanted to ask you more about that, because with concerns now growing that Putin will escalate further to even using nuclear weapons, the White House is warning and generally saying over and over again, consequences will follow. Be sure of that I want to play for you what General David Petraeus actually says those consequences could be.


GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a NATO a collective effort that would take out every Russia wrenching conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine, and also in Crimea, and every ship on the Black Sea Fleet.


BOLDUAN: If that is what is being considered in response, Steve, how does Vladimir Putin receive that?

HALL: You know, Vladimir Putin is in a really difficult position with his nuclear weapons is, as I indicated earlier, I mean, these are sort of the weapons that he dare not use, unless he is willing to fully deal with the consequences, which of course, could result in anything from a significant non-nuclear response from the West, potentially a nuclear response from the west.

But the thing that he also has to consider is the price that he would pay both internally and internationally for use of any nuclear weapon, whether it was low yield, or whether it was strategic. I mean, China and India have already both expressed grave concerns about that. And I can only imagine that there are folks inside leadership circles in the Kremlin who are saying look, we have to be extremely careful with this. So it's -- it must be incredibly frustrating for Vladimir Putin have these really strong weapons that he knows he can't use unless he's willing to fully face the music if he decides to use them. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, it's good to see you Steve. General, always great to have you, thank you so much.

[11:29:09] Coming up for us, Sanibel Island remains completely cut off from the Florida mainland right now after Ian ripped through and collapsed part of its only causeway. The mayor of the island joins me next.