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Hurricane Irma Damage Assessments Begin; Jacksonville Flooding; Rescues Underway After Hurricane; Florida Electric Restoration; Cities Seeing Hurricane Damage for First Time; Miami Beach Storm Recovery. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 11, 2017 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We start with now tropical storm Irma still tearing through the southeast. More than 6 million homes and businesses are without power.

We are also seeing record flooding in some areas, especially in north Eastern Florida right now, right around Jacksonville. We're going to take you through the path of this storm and see community after community assessing the damage.

The Florida Keys were the first to be hit by Hurricane Irma here in the United States. Right now, officials say the Keys are closed and that residents who evacuated should stay away while they assess the damage.

Our Bill Weir rode out the storm and in the Keys. He's in Key Largo for us right now. Bill, tell our viewers, here in the United States and around the world, what you've been seeing as you traveled through the Keys today.

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's really interesting, Wolf. It depends on which side of the coastal Highway U.S. 1 you go on. The folks on the bayside seem to have a much better go of it. Got through it much better than those folks on the Atlantic Ocean side.

You're getting a sample of the damage as we have Coast Guard and Naval helicopters taking surveys up and down the coast.

But, I mean, it goes back to the old story of the big bad wolf, right? You know, it's -- no pun intended, Wolf. But those who live in houses made of sticks or mobile homes of tin did not nearly fare as well as those who lived in the better constructed houses made of stone.

But we're getting a sense here, this is a community of -- how are you, sir? You make it through all right?


WEIR: Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're all right. WEIR: You're all right. Just checking the damage?

We're seeing a lot of mobile homes that have been torn apart. Here's a power line. Be careful, Rod (ph). This is some of the most dangerous hazards is live electrical wires. You can hear them buzzing as we go around.

And this is just one canal, a sample of the -- you know, this is a good, I would say, 300 yards from the coastline. And a lot of debris just got pounded over here by the -- by the winds, the waves, pushing, you know, piles of rocks up against doors over on that side of the community.

The good news as we get word from officials down in Key West, no fatalities reported, miraculously. It's amazing.

But they're worried about the humanitarian assistance that they're going to need. A lot of elderly and infirm that couldn't evacuate. They need food. They need fuel.

They have a desalinization plant down there and a generator. So, even if they are cut off from the mainland, in terms of those supplies, they can get by.

But the destruction up here is nothing compared to what happened further down. If you know the Keys, you know that mile marker zero is Key West and it goes all the up to, like, 125, I believe, as you get closer to Miami-Dade County.

We're at about 97. And this is, sort of, a rough approximation of what we've been seeing up here. But the storm came about -- came ashore down around mile marker -- I want to say in the 30s, I believe.

So, we're in the process right now of securing a boat because we can't go by road down to the lower Keys. The Florida Department of Transportation says they want to survey all the bridges.

There are some buckled roadways that they need to sign off on before they open it up to traffic. So, that -- as you can imagine, with 43 interconnected islands, that is a big job to inspect all of those bridges.

So, they're telling people, if you've a vacation planned down in the Keys, thanks for that. Thanks for the thought but you may want to postpone it for a while.

And, of course, there's a lot of folks who were on the line, Wolf, as to whether to evacuate or not. And this was their biggest concern is that if they did evacuate, they couldn't get back home.

BLITZER: Does it look like most of the homes there -- here in (ph) Key Largo, further south, it's obviously a lot worse. It looks like a lot of those homes were pretty much destroyed. Is that right?

WEIR: Well, again, it comes down to what construction. I mean, some of it is cosmetic, some of it is -- some of it is structural, depending on what it's made of.

But if you look at a house like this one here, I'd hazard a guess that's probably built after Andrew when they toughened up the building codes and it's on stilts so you have a storm that can go under it. And strong, you know, cement construction to survive. But a mobile home is a different story.

BLITZER: Bill Weir on the scene for us. We'll stay in very close touch with you as you head south. Be careful over there.

Let's move north right now. The storm is moving north. We're seeing some of the worst flooding around Jacksonville, Florida, in the northern part of the state where the storm surge has come ashore, putting streets and homes under water.

[13:05:00] Our Kaylee Hartung is joining us live from Jacksonville right now. So, Kaylee, how bad is it?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it looks bad now. In downtown Jacksonville, we're about two blocks off of the St. Johns River in the middle of downtown.

But I'll tell you, it is going to get worse. High tide at 2:00 p.m. They expect that storm surge that's already flooded these streets to bring waters four to six feet above high tide here. So, as bad as this looks, it will get worse.

Now, I am not willing to get in this water much deeper than my ankles. It's been interesting to me to see so many spectators. Look, you can see spectators here on dry ground, checking out the scene down here despite these crazy wind gusts. We've even seen pickup trucks trying to drive into this.

But what surprised me, more than anything, was Otis here who we just saw walking through this water. Otis, how far did you walk through these waters?

OTIS SHEPPARD: Oh, I went from that bridge all the way down to here.

HARTUNG: Why did you think that was a good idea? Was it out of necessity?

SHEPPARD: No, I was just having fun. It's hurricane season. You know what I'm saying? I just wanted to experience something. That's all.

HARTUNG: Did you feel like you were ever unsafe out there? Were you ever concerned for your safety?

SHEPPARD: Oh, no, no, no. Because this is the after effects. The hurricane is about gone, really.

HARTUNG: Oh. They say the waters are going to continue rising. How high was the water as you walked through it?

SHEPPARD: I'm going to say about -- say about four -- about four -- about three -- about three to four foot.

HARTUNG: With high tide, they say the water could rise two or three more feet. We're not advocating for anybody to do what Otis did. But, Otis, I'm glad you were able to make it through here safely.

How long have you lived in the Jacksonville area?

SHEPPARD: Oh, pretty much all my life.

HARTUNG: Have you seen anything like this or felt winds like this here?

SHEPPARD: Well, I've seen a lot of hurricanes in my lifetime.

HARTUNG: Does this one feel different?

SHEPPARD: Yes, it felt like -- it did feel a little different, yes, it did.

HARTUNG: What makes it feel different? I mean, this is not something you're going to see every hurricane season with waters rolling up to downtown high-rises and hotels.

SHEPPARD: It feels like -- it feels like -- you know, it's windy and something like this. You know, (INAUDIBLE) I just can't explain it.

HARTUNG: Well, please tell me you've got a safe way to get home that doesn't involve walking back through these floodwaters.

SHEPPARD: Oh, I've got a safe place to go home. Yes, I'm just having fun.

HARTUNG: If you say so. If you say so, Otis. I'm glad -- I'm so glad that you're safe.

Wolf, these winds continue to batter us here. I mean, we're looking at what's nearly white caps coming up as the St. Johns River flows through downtown Jacksonville.

The fear that this water continues to rise. A couple of bridges, I should mention, in this area have reopened with traffic going both ways. It purely depends on the wind speeds there.

But all bridges are open from the westbound side, letting anybody who stayed on those barrier islands, like Jacksonville Beach or Ponte Vedra Beach, who tried to ride out the storm there, trying to get those people back to safety.

Those west-bound lanes are open. Rescues are underway in the Jacksonville area. The sheriff's department saying they were out in boats this morning and water up to their waist, trying to get people to safety, Wolf.

But these winds continue to gust. I'm not wearing a rain jacket because there's rain falling out of the sky. I'm wearing a rain jacket to protect me from the spray of water we get as this wind flies up what's become a tunnel here on Hogan Street.

And for anybody familiar with downtown Jacksonville, we're just a block off the corner of Water and Independent Streets. And the landing, just behind me on that opposite corner, a very popular watering hole here.

I'm not willing to do what Otis and wade in this water, which would surely be above my waste, to find out if the landing is flooded.

But you can only imagine so many areas right on the banks of the St. Johns River in dire conditions. As we're looking at waters, let's see, three blocks from the banks here, flooded.

Wolf, we'll be standing by as tide continues to rise here.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Kaylee. Were the folks prepared? Were they told there were this kind of -- there would be this kind of serious flooding?

HARTUNG: It was, really, late yesterday when people started to recognize that this could be a place in danger. I've spoken to several people staying in the hotel. We're just outside of the Omni Hotel. People who would come here to find a safe place to be.

They had come here from some of those barrier islands and beaches. I met two different families from Ponte Vedra Beach who were worried about their homes and thought that coming here, to the middle of downtown Jacksonville, would be safe.

Right now, this is a place of utmost concern in the Jacksonville area. But no one I've spoken to here has felt like it will get much worse.

[13:10:03] And I think that's a concern now is that people see these waters and it looks so bad now. But everyone, from an official capacity, saying that these waters, over the next couple of hours, will continue to rise with the storm surge.

BLITZER: Kaylee, thanks very much. Be careful over there. Kaylee Hartung in Jacksonville for us.

In addition to assessing the damage from Irma, Florida has another major challenge right now. No power and more than 6.2 million people across the state are without power right now.

Joining us, Rob Gould. He's the vice president, chief communications officer for Florida Power and Light. Rob, so what are you doing now to get power restored? How quickly will it take to get power restored?

ROB GOULD, VICE PRESIDENT, CHIEF COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, FLORIDA POWER AND LIGHT: Well, it's going to take quite a while. This is a storm that is affecting 27 -- all 27,000 miles of our territory, 35 counties. We run from the Georgia line, just where you saw Jacksonville, that area. We're just south of Jacksonville. All the way down towards the Keys and then we come back toward Tampa. And what we're seeing is that on the east coast, we're still suffering the effects of the storm, obviously. So, our crews can't even get out and restore power in that area.

In the south and the Miami-Dade and Broward Palm Beach areas, we're out in force today. We're and assessing the damage. We have an army virtually of 19,500 restoration workers. It's the largest restoration worker force that we've put in place pre-storm arguably in our company's history and probably in the country.

And then, as we look at the west coast, we know they've seen some very significant damage. What we're thinking we're going to see on the west coast could be and will likely be a rebuild effort that could take weeks. As opposed to the Eastern side which would be more of a restoration, a typical restoration, more along the type of days that you would see in a restoration after a storm like this.

BLITZER: So, what are your biggest challenges right now?

GOULD: The biggest challenge is what you just saw, the flooding. That is a real debilitator (ph) for us to get out there, for our crews to move around. And we're also concerned about areas, like the tri- county area, where traffic is congested on a good day. So, we're going to be trying to move around as customers, as your viewers are moving back into the tri-county area.

I think the biggest concern we have is safety. Safety for our crews and safety for your viewers and the residents. The floodwaters can be very dangerous. They can hide lines that could be energized. People that are walking through them can step on them.

So, it's a real concern that everybody practice safety. We are going to get through this, but this is, no question, going to be one of the largest and most complex restoration efforts in U.S. history. Without question.

BLITZER: How do you prioritize restoring power right now, Rob?

GOULD: The first thing we do is we make sure the generating assets, the power plants are all up and running and good to go. Once we get through that, then we look at the critical infrastructure. We're talking about hospitals. We're talking about police, fire, 911 centers and water treatment and store (ph) facilities.

Then, we look at the main trunk lines, if you will. The main lines, main thoroughfares. And where we try to get the most amount of customers back in as quickly as possible.

And then, we go into the neighborhoods, if you will, house to house. And we've invested some $3 billion over the past decade. And we've seen significant benefits because of that investment in all of that innovation that we've put in.

We've actually seen upwards of 1.5 million outages restored since the storm began. So, that gives you a sense that investments in the infrastructure do work. But when you're talking about a storm of the magnitude of Irma coming onto shore, and then, again, facing all parts of our territory, this is a challenge we and others are going to have to really work through. And the best thing we can ask is that our customers just understand and be patient and be safe.

BLITZER: Well, when you say, be safe, what worries me, and I'm sure worries you and a lot of other folks, those power lines that are down. Especially, as you point out, in the water right now. How dangerous are they?

GOULD: It's very dangerous. We don't have a good count yet because we're assessing the situation. That's the first step in all of this.

So, we're out assessing the southern part of our territory, Miami-Dade County, Broward, West Palm, the Treasure Coast. And we will work our way up to the northern part once the storm exits.

Our crews can't fly their buckets in anything less than -- or anything greater, rather, than 35 miles per hour. As far as the west coast, we'll be doing the same.

[13:15:03] But it's not just the power lines, Wolf. It's also generator use. A lot of customers in Florida, a lot of your viewers, have generators and they use them. If they have generators, they need to put those -- those in operation outside their garage, away from windows and doors. You know, the fumes for carbon monoxide can be absolutely deadly. And what we have found in restorations like this is most of the fatalities occur after the storm has passed, not during the storm. So people lead their guard down. The weather gets nice. The sun comes out and they feel like life's going to restore to normal pretty quickly. That is the most dangerous time. And we're asking people to actually stay off the road.

The governor has been extremely forward leaning and making sure that the evacuations have been pushed forward. And local, state, and federal officials have been saying the same thing. And we're going to work with them. We're going to work with the community. We're going to get the lights back on as quickly as we can.

But, again, this is going to take some time. This is not going to be a typical restoration.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it certainly doesn't look like it.

Rob Gould is the vice president, chief communications officer for Florida Power and Light.

Rob, millions of people in Florida right now are counting on you guys. Good luck. We will, of course, stay in close touch with you. Thanks very much for that update.

I want to check in right now on Florida's west coast where many people are assessing the damage from Irma. CNN's Dianne Gallagher is joining us now from Bradenton, very close to Tampa Bay.

What's happening where you are, Dianna?

DIANNA GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, Wolf, your last guest that you just spoke to there was talking about all those power outages. A lot of it here in Bradenton is because of this. you can see behind me, this massive, uprooted tree. To give you some perspective, I'm almost six feet tall. You can see how large the root is with the pipe sticking out. And there are kids playing on this right now. This family is one of so many that are here in this area in Bradenton trying to pick up the trees out of the roads, get together, get their neighbors. We've seen the roofs and the carports ripped off of houses right now. Roughly half of Manatee County, which is where we are, is out of electricity right now. Trying to get them turned back on.

We watched firefighters have to avoid these downed trees because they still have so many live wires. In fact, they cannot get to Bradenton Beach, that island area, because of the live wires. They're not allowing anybody on there.

I have Michelle with me right here, Wolf. This is her home. You guys rode out the storm. What was it like for you? Were you scared? Was this what you were expected?

MICHELLE: Yes and no. It wasn't too scary for us. I mean the kids were playing and running around and we were watching outside. This was better than we expected. We didn't expect the tree, but we expected a flood. And it didn't, so that's a positive.

GALLAGHER: Now, when we first got here, this tree was all the way across this road breaking out.


GALLAGHER: We've been watching you, your neighbors, strangers use chainsaws. You didn't have gas or oil. How did you guys get that to be able to get the tree out of the road?

MICHELLE: You know, our driveway was blocked and we posted on FaceBook that we were in need of help and people started showing up. They brought us gas and oil and more people showed up with chainsaws. Neighbors came. And so within just a few hours, we had the whole road cleared and our driveway.

GALLAGHER: And thank you so much, Michelle.

And this family is dealing with what a lot of others here are dealing with as well, Wolf, and that is because we are having sewer lines that are breaking. We have sewage that is flowing in the streets, mixing with some of this rainwater, some of the floodwater. So they have a sewage problem. They have power problems. And, of course, they have trees that they're trying to get down on their own right now.

Technically there is a curfew until 3:00 p.m. here in Bradenton that was set yesterday. But as you can see, there are plenty of cars that have been passing by. People trying to get an idea of just what the damage was overnight. Many of them feel speared. But, look, Wolf, if you have a tree down in your front yard, it's a

big deal. This is a personal problem for a lot of people. So they're just trying to assess what Irma did and just how long it's going to cost them and how long it's going to take to repair.

BLITZER: Yes, you heard -- you heard Rob Gould of the power company saying it could take weeks, if not even longer, to get all that power restored on the western part of the state. Maybe days on the eastern part. We shall see.

Dianne Gallagher joining us.

Miami Beach still prohibiting people from getting in as families are desperate to see their homes and their businesses. The mayor of Miami Beach is standing by live. We'll discuss.

And there's still a threat of storm surge along the coast in Georgia, and in South Carolina as well, as Irma makes its way north. This is CNN's special live coverage.


[13:23:37] BLITZER: Tropical Storm Irma is certainly bringing high winds and heavy rain right now to north Florida, including Jacksonville over the weekend. Miami felt the wrath of Irma. Miami Beach did as well when it slammed into the state as a strong hurricane. We just got these pictures, by the way, from Miami just a little while ago. You can see tree after tree snapped in half, lining the streets, making roads undriveable, at least for now. The city's airport is still closed because of significant water damage.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is joining us now. He's assessing the damage. He's on the scene for us in Miami Beach.

So, mayor, how did Miami Beach hold up against Irma? What are you dealing with now?

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE, MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA (via telephone): Wolf, I can tell you this, Miami Beach didn't dodge a bullet, we dodged a cannon. We got hurricane three force winds, but thank God the damage we received was trees all over the ground. There's power lines down. There's gas leaks.

But we've have teams on the ground since the crack of dawn this morning and they have been there making sure that we can clean up the city as fast as possible because we want the residents to return ASAP.

BLITZER: Right now the curfew remains in effect. You don't want anyone to return today. When is that curfew going to be lifted?

LEVINE: So our curfew tonight is 8:00 p.m. We're not allowing anybody to return to Miami Beach until tomorrow at 12:00. Now, it's possible that we're -- we're making a lot of progress here, that we can get the people in before, but we're going to let them know if we can. Otherwise it's 12:00 tomorrow afternoon because we need to make it -- we need to make it safe. It's so important. I mean can you imagine, we kept people safe in preparation, we kept them safe during the storm. We need to keep them safe in the recovery effort.

[13:25:23] BLITZER: How much power is out right now in Miami Beach? Are street lights, for example, working?

LEVINE: It really depends, Wolf, on what section of the city. It's very, very spotty. There are certain areas that have power now, certain areas that don't. Just got off a call with the president of FP&L, Florida Power and Light, and they're working diligently. But as you know, there's millions of people in Florida right now that are without power. So this is stretching the resources of FP&L dramatically. They're bringing in people from all across the country to help them take care of what's happening in Florida.

BLITZER: But are there power lines down in Miami Beach that potentially could be very dangerous?

LEVINE: Absolutely. I saw them early this morning. I saw them last night. And we see FP&L crews there, along with our first responders, our public works teams, our fire departments that have gone incredible, beyond the call of duty in order to secure these power lines to make sure that God forbid no one can get hurt. And that's one of the main reasons why we can't have people back in Miami Beach until we are able to secure it.

BLITZER: So what are your biggest challenges right now?

LEVINE: Well, Wolf, I can tell you this. The good news is this, we have invested a tremendous amount of money in making our city resilient. We've been raising roads, putting in pumps, putting in generators because we have been fighting back against sea level (INAUDIBLE). That's been our big issue in Miami Beach, even during sunny days. And what we found is during this historic high tide that we experienced with this tidal surge, all those areas we improved were absolutely dry. So, for us, we are very excited. It was a success. But, once again, you know, you never declare a victory against Mother Nature. We have years and years to go and I think it's a model for other cities, they need to invest in coastal cities to make them resilient because these weather events, they may have been an abnormality, but for the future, I think they're the new normal.

BLITZER: Mayor Philip Levine is the mayor of Miami Beach. Good luck, mayor. Good luck to all the folks in Miami Beach. We're going to be staying in close touch with you as well.

There are some new pictures coming in from the coast right now. A high risk of storm surge in cities like Charleston and Savannah, where Irma is lashing right now. Take a look at this. Also, some tragic pictures of complete devastation across the Caribbean. Homes destroyed. People suffering very much so. Still stranded right now. We'll take you there. Stay with us.