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New Forecast: Hurricane Irma To Slam Florida As A Category 5; Window To Evacuate Is Closing As "Catastrophic" Storm Nears; Officials: Don't Call 911 During Storm, Can't Rescue You. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired September 8, 2017 - 19:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OutFront next, breaking news, get out, it's happening. Hurricane Irma, a storm the size of Texas is heading for Florida.

The latest forecast, Irma getting stronger. It will be a category 5 as it crosses the Florida Keys.

Let's go OutFront.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

Good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. OutFront this evening, the breaking news. Impact, this is as real as it gets. Those are the exact words from the National Weather Service, warning people to get out of the way of Hurricane Irma now.

The full message came out on Twitter, I'll read it fall, "This is as real as it gets. Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe. You still have time to evacuate."

The dire warning coming as Irma is projected to be a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 160 miles an hour as it crosses the Florida Keys this weekend. The video that you see right now is a new video that we just got in a moment ago. Here, OutFront, this is destruction in the Caribbean Island of Barbuda. The first images and one of the hardest hit areas so far by the storm.

Just to give everyone in the path a sense of what could happen, why it is so crucial to evacuate, the storm is deadly. It is record-breaking and it's about to get even stronger before it hits the United States.

Residents at this hour are still trying to get out of harm's way. You see the shots there of the highways, it's a mass exodus and it is one of the biggest in American history.

Right now, it is the last call for people to flee. In just a matter of hours it will be too late. And first responders are warning, they will not be able to save anyone during the storm once it hits.

The stunning image that you see right there is from the space station. It shows Irma, massive and terrifying, moving towards Florida. Many times bigger than Hurricane Andrew was.

Governor Rick Scott says all Floridians should be ready to leave. The window though he says is closing.


GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), TEXAS: I'm a dad and I'm a grandfather. I love my family. I can't imagine life without them.

Do not put yourself or your family at risk. If you've been ordered to evacuate and you're still home, please go to a shelter.


BURNETT: This is life or death. And Governor Scott is going to be OutFront updating us in just a couple of moments. At this hour, we're not only tracking Irma, we are catching Hurricane Jose, now a category 4 storm right behind Irma in the Atlantic. We have reporters across Irma's reach. Firsthand witnesses to the storm and its effect.

We begin with Allison Chinchar in the CNN Weather Center. Allison, you're looking at the very latest models, the forecasts that are just coming in. And right now, is it fair to say it is nearly certain Southern Florida will be hit by this storm as a major catastrophic hurricane.

ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: All of the models, Erin have really come together in the last several hours to make very clear what that track is going to be. And that track clearly includes Florida and in the short term. So here's what we know.

As of the last advisory, several things have changed. For starters, wind gusts have now gone up from 185 to 190 miles per hour. The forward movement is now west at 12 miles per hour. This has slowed a little bit.

But this is not uncommon. You often get a slower movement as it interacts with land, namely Cuba and The Bahamas right now. But the thing to note, it's sliding in between the two in some of the warmest waters in this area.

That is exactly what every hurricane wants, nice warm water. That is big fuel for these storms and it's likely going to allow Irma to intensify over the next 24 hours.

We expected as well as the National Hurricane Center to increase up to around 160 miles per hour winds, which is a category 5 storm as it crosses over the Florida Keys. Then as it goes over the main peninsula of Florida, likely a category 4 storm and then it quickly weakens as it makes its way to the north.

But still likely to be awfully close to hurricane strength as it reaches over the Georgia state line. Storm surge is going to be one of the big factors with this storm. From West Palm Beach, stretching down to the Key West, we're looking at storm surge of five to 10 feet. On the southwest side, it's actually going to be slightly higher. Naples stretching down to Key West eight to 12 feet. This has to do with the drop off on the eastern side of Florida. It's a much sharper drop in the ocean when you're going from the beach.

On the west side, it's much more gradual. That allows the water to accumulate up much higher than it would on the eastern side. So that's why you're going to get likely much higher storm surge on that southwestern region.

We have also added counties to hurricane watches and hurricane warnings. This is likely going to continue in the next 24 hours as we get closer to landfall. So even if you don't see your particular county under a hurricane watch or a hurricane warning in Florida, doesn't mean it's going to stay that way.

[19:05:01] Landfall as of this point, Erin is expected to be early Sunday morning Local Time. However, many of these cities, including Naples, Miami, Key West are likely going to start to see impacts from the outer bands of this storm in a couple hours from now.

BURNETT: All right, Allison, thank you very much. And we're going to be checking back in with you in just a few moments to the hour. Of course, as every tiny little change in this forecast makes such a huge difference.

As we speak, the storm's crippling winds, the rains are already pummeling Cuba and streets are flooded, power is out. Look, this is a country that was ravaged by Hurricane Matthew just a year ago reducing homes to piles of timbers. Hurricane Andrew, that sort of just skirted by Florida and not going to happen this year.

Patrick Oppmann is OutFront live in Cuba in the midst of this. And Patrick, it is really started to arrive.

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN HAVANA-BASED CORRESPONDENT: It has deteriorated almost in the last few minutes, Erin. It went from a moment where we're getting ready for a live shot. My cameraman (INAUDIBLE) and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this gust came in, the sky turned black. I didn't have a rain jacket on because we hadn't had a drop of rainfall all day.

And then just this ton of water came and almost knocked me over. So just goes to show you how quickly and how unexpectedly things can change. We are getting a much weaker version of this storm because it is far, far off the coast. Florida is not going to be so lucky. They're in for a direct hit and they're going to see much worse conditions than what we're experiencing right now in Cuba.

BURNETT: And, you know, we're looking at the images right here of what just happened to you a moment ago, Patrick. I think what you're pointing out is, it just came upon you suddenly. It's not as if you had any warning.

OPPMANN: Absolutely. All day long, you know, we saw the weather change. But it just happened so quickly and so violently. So, when this storm is coming at you, you shouldn't be outside. You shouldn't certainly be near the water and you have to be prepared because it can change at a moment and you can be just completely overwhelmed by the sheer furry and power of the storm.

BURNETT: All right, Patrick Oppmann, thank you very much. Reporting from Cuba where as we said that storm is starting to impact right now as it gets ready for that turn to Miami and the Florida Keys. Thank you, Patrick and I want to go now to Reed Timmer, a AccuWeather Storm Chaser who witnessed firsthand frankly some of the most powerful storms in history.

And Reed, I'm glad to have you back. You know, we just saw that sudden -- that image there of our reporter. He was standing there and all of a sudden the wind and the rain and literally unable to put a coat on. Now, that storm is going to turn into warmer water and head to the Keys. What is your biggest concern?

Yes. This is an absolute worth case scenario for the Florida Keys, this west ward shift that yesterday is just disastrous for South Florida. That center will likely cross right over the central part of the Keys. Maybe (INAUDIBLE) is where that forecast track is right now.

That would put all the upper Keys in that most dangerous part of the storm. (INAUDIBLE) the right side of the hurricane especially with the south and north (INAUDIBLE) storm. And then also Key West all the way through, there's also a storm surge from the other side, the Gulf of Mexico side as well. And the wind will likely to be gusting to a 190 miles an hour, stronger than any wind speed I have ever experienced in 20 years of storm chasing.

BURNETT: I mean, it's incredible. I mean, when you think about Miami and all the construction cranes, they're built to withstand winds of 145. We're talking about gusts of 190. If that were to happen in Miami, I think people can imagine the horrific destruction that we could see.

You have been inside major hurricanes, the biggest and strongest that have ever happened in history here. In the Atlantic, Katrina, Rita, Harvey. You've been in eye walls with 140 miles an hour winds. Why is Irma different, do you think, Reed?

REED TIMMER, STORM CHASER, ACCUWEATHER: Well, all of these storms are unique. But Irma is like all these storms but much stronger. Stronger wind speed, winds gusting to 190 miles an hour. It's a category five, it sustained a category 5 status for longer than any other storm. It's the strongest in the Atlantic Ocean.

And it's still going to intensify, it's still going to be moving over very warm waters and also a (INAUDIBLE) size. It's a lot larger than Hurricane Andrew, for example.

So those impacts will stretch out further from the center. It's undergoing (INAUDIBLE) like the rain now so it will likely have a larger eye when it comes. Impact in the Keys, look, there also spread out the wind field and potentially a storm surge impact as well. And (INAUDIBLE) for Southwest Florida, this is an area that's especially prone to devastating storm surging (INAUDIBLE) Fort Myers area. It's going to be -- this is the hardest hit area of South Florida.

BURNETT: Reed, you're right now, of course in Key Largo. And I know you've seen the National Weather Service warning, "This is as real as it gets. Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe. You still have time to evacuate."

Obviously, you know, you're a professional. This is what you do. But I know you have an exit plan. What is it?

TIMMER: Yes, you always have to have an exit strategy when you're out here chasing the storm. They're constantly evaluating all scenarios (INAUDIBLE) forecast models change.

[19:10:04] I've got this instrument tool here that measures wind speed and the pressure fall that it's unmanned so we can deploy this on top of a bridge, fasten it down and it will record the data without us having to be there. So if this thing does get way too strong we could still leave tomorrow morning. It is very important for everybody to heed those evacuation warnings because this storm is absolutely deadly and the National Weather Service saying nowhere in the Florida Keys are safe is absolutely true.

BURNETT: All right, Reed, thank you very much. We wish you luck and of course I know you've got a plan and that it works and you are safe. Thank you.

I want to go straight now to the mayor of Miami-Dade, Florida, Carlos Gimenez who joins me now on the phone. And Mayor, you know, look, everyone we're just here. This is going to be record-breaking.

Nowhere is safe but there is still time to evacuate. Are people right now heeding that? Are enough people getting out?

MAYOR CARLOS GIMENZE, MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FLORIDA (via telephone): Yes, I think we're having a record number of people going into our shelters. We've actually made provisions to open an unprecedented number of shelters where about 100,000 person capacity. So that's record-breaking in itself.

And, so, yes, I do believe that they're heeding the warning. I think also an unprecedented number of Miamians ended up leaving Dade Count and going further into other states. So, normally we just look at these hurricanes as part of our life and we hunker down and we do OK, but, you know, this hurricane is something different. It's, you know, category 5. It's been a category 5 for a long time and so people are really respecting it.

And also the images that came out of Houston (INAUDIBLE). You know, that put an impression and so, yes, we're getting prepared. We are prepared today and it was good to see that a lot of people have done their preparations. Traffic was very light which indicates to me that they had already done what they're going to do and they're hunkering down for the storm.

BURNETT: For those who have not, and we're going to hear from some of them later this hour, but for those who have not, at what point is it too late, right? Because we all know one of the worst places to be of course is on the road when a storm hits. That is -- that could be death warrant.

At what point would you say, if you haven't gone, you need to stay?

GIMENEZ (via telephone): You know, it's difficult to say. I mean, how many people make that decision at the last minute. The more people will make that decision at the last minute the more likely it is and you're going to be starting traffic and they won't be able to get out.

And so -- but I know that a lot of people have already made that decision and already left. The people that need to evacuate can evacuate, you know, into a friend's house, co-workers, et cetera here in Miami-Dade County. We do have capacity for 100,000 people but, you know, that's for us and we've always said it's the -- ours are the shelter of last resort.

You know, it is much better to be with friends and co-workers and family versus being in a shelter. Those that have no other place to go, that's who we shelter. We expect a lot of people to actually take, you know, advantage of our shelters.

BURNETT: I'm sorry, where will you be? Obviously, you're going to be, you know, leading a lot of disaster response. Where will you be when the storm strikes?

GIMENEZ (via telephone): I'll be in our emergency operations center and -- you know, when the storm hits because as soon as the storm passes then it begins the process of recuperating and the restoration and also assessing damage and then getting our folks to respond to those most in need. And then, you know, whatever it is that happened to Miami-Dade County, we'll make it right and that's where I'm going to be. It has to start from the first minute after the winds subside.

BURNETT: And Mayor, what is your biggest fear when you look at a storm here that is several times the size of Hurricane Andrew. It's going to get stronger as it hits the warm water off the coast of the Keys. What is your biggest fear?

GIMENEZ (via telephone): Obviously a storm surge is the one that kills the most people, it's the storm surge. And we have -- and the reasons for evacuation for a residents of 600,000 people is because the storm surge (INAUDIBLE) the National Hurricane Center. And so, I want to make sure that those folks in those areas especially (INAUDIBLE) along the coast move out because they could have some very deadly storm surge coming from this hurricane and it is very large and could push a large amount of water inland.

Second thing I'm worried about obviously is property damage. First thing, obviously, loss of life. But outside of that, you know, storm surge is loss of life, and then, you know, property damage and then our economic engines, the airport and the sea port, you know, and then everybody else's livelihood.

So yes, there's a lot of things to worry about. I was here -- I was a fire chief for the city of Miami, 25 years ago when Hurricane Andrew hit and that left a lasting impression on me.

[19:15:02] This one, you know, I hope that somehow it turns off and goes back in the Atlantic and leaves us alone but it doesn't appear that's going to happen. But we're going to -- we're prepared for the worst and we're going to pray for the best.

BURNETT: Of course, everyone is hoping that, you know, all the modeling can say all what it wants, they can all converge on a horrific path but that maybe -- it could be wrong. Thank you so much, Mayor Gimenez, I appreciate your time tonight.

And next, escaping the storm. This is -- we're getting here in the last hours for people to head inland and to points north. Some though are refusing to leave despite the dire warnings. Why? Why are they staying put?

Plus, that's a scene from Great Exuma Island, the is the Bahamas. There is an American stuck there as the hurricane's wrath just starts to strike. She is my guest.

And Irma's relentless assault closing in on Miami. The Florida governor, Rick Scott, is OutFront next.


BURNETT: Breaking news, mass exodus out of Florida. Residents fleeing Irma's path. The hurricane now expected to make landfall as a category 5. Evacuations are underway out of the Miami area, it is one of the largest evacuations in American history.

Ed Lavandera is OutFront in Miami. And Ed, what are people telling you?

[19:20:05] ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Erin. Well, we were on the roads of the Miami are today expecting to see a mass exodus of even more people hitting the roads, but what we heard from several people throughout the day is that they had survived Hurricane Andrew nearly 25 years ago and they feel they can do the same this time around as well.


JOHN ANGELICA, MIAMI RESIDENT: (INAUDIBLE) to go, the three chewy cheese fries are to go.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): John Angelica commands the counter at Arbetter's hotdog shop just like he has for 20 years, slinging chili dogs and cheese fries for a steady line of customers who have no intention of leaving.

ANGELICA: Heck, no. I'm not leaving. I've been here for every other hurricane and haven't had a problem. So, you know, not afraid of Irma. Maybe should be but.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are in a mandatory evacuation zone. Please evacuate.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The calls to evacuate have been blasted across South Florida as the final hours tick down. State officials continue urging residents to move.

SCOTT: Anywhere in the state, if you're told to evacuate, leave, get out quickly. I'm a dad and I'm a grandfather. I love my family, I can't imagine life without them. Do not put yourself or your family at risk.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Hundreds of thousands of people have hit the roads to escape the path of Hurricane Irma. But there is still the league of unshakable residents who refuse to leave like Bob Birdwell.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): He didn't evacuate for Hurricane Andrew and won't again this time.

BIRDWELL: I went through Andrew so this is just another wind and rain, I think.

LAVANDERA (on camera): If you need help, they're saying that nobody can come for you.

BIRDWELL: That's OK. I can swim, I've got guns. I've got dogs (INAUDIBLE) and a wife.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Do you feel like you're taking a gamble, though?

BIRDWELL: Oh, I think so. But, you know, I think when your day is up, your day is up.

ANGELICA: Make it three fries and a cheese fries.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): John Angelica made it through Hurricane Andrew as well. And after he's done selling the last hot dogs on the shelf.

ANGELICA: Drive (INAUDIBLE) and pick it up.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): He'll lockup Arbetter's, go home and wait.

ANGELICA: There's a fine line between bravery and stupidity sometimes.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Fine line between bravery and stupidity.

ANGELICA: Sometimes, or foolishness, whatever you want to call it.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Are you dancing along that line?

ANGELICA: Yes, it might be. We're going to find out on Monday, I guess.


LAVANDERA: And, Erin, the other thing we heard a lot from people as well today is that, they have been seeing those images of the traffic congestion, the stories of gas stations running out of gas. And that was another reason they felt very nervous making their way north, essentially following the same path that this hurricane would be taking and then finding themselves stranded on the Florida peninsula, making matters worst for them.

So that's where we are tonight hours away from the landfall of this hurricane. Erin?

BURNETT: All right, just hours away and of course the window closing for anyone who changes their mind. Ed, thank you very much.

I want to go straight to the governor of Florida, Rick Scott who joins me on the phone. Governor, I don't know how much of that you heard but some of these folks saying, look, I survived Andrew, I'll do the same this time, I'm not afraid of Irma. And one man saying when your day is up, your day is up.

What do you say to these people who are saying they're not going to heed the evacuation warnings?

SCOTT (via telephone): You know, I think, you know, they all have a family and their family loves them. And I want every family to survive this.

Here's the difference. This is much bigger. This is engulfing almost our entire state. It can be coast to coast, much bigger than Andrew was.

It's got 150 plus mile winds, it could be more. Here's the big difference, the storm surge. We can see nine feet of storm surge. When this comes in, I mean, it comes in fast, it engulfs your entire house and then it goes out.

It's very difficult to survive that. And, so, I'm going to do everything I can to get everybody that's in an evacuation zone evacuated. You don't have to all go north. We have shelters in every county, other than the county the Keys (INAUDIBLE).

We have shelters that you can go to. They -- we're opening up more shelters. As we see this storm change as it move to the west, we're opening up more shelters. So everybody can shelter in their county, except Monroe County. And there you can shelter in Miami-Dade. We have a shelter dedicated to the Keys.

So I care about everybody's life. And that's my job, is to worry about everybody's life. I'm not going to not spare any expense to save a life. But in the end, you know, when this hits, we can't save you.

I mean, that's why like in the southern part of the state now we're telling people if you're not on the road by midnight, don't get on the road. We're doing everything we can to make sure we have fuel, especially on our evacuation route so people can get to where they want to go. But it's getting later and later.

The storm is coming, it's going to hit our state. And so I'm asking people to evacuate and worry about their entire family and take care of their neighbors. If you see a neighbor who needs help, go see and help them.

[19:25:03] BURNETT: And how -- you know, some of the people that we've talked to, you know, one woman I was talking to, there is this fear of the traffic, right? That they can't get out in time or running out of gasoline.

I know you've done a lot on the gas front, you know, trying to say you're going to escort even people who work at the gas stations. You're going escort (INAUDIBLE), you're going to escort them out to make sure that people have enough. But it sounds like what you're saying is that you really just have a few hours left or you stay put.

SCOTT (via telephone): Right. In the southern parts of the state, if you're not on the road by midnight, don't get on the road. But you don't have to leave your counties. We get shelters in all of our counties, other than the Keys.

You can go there, you go there. We've got an 800 number. If you can't get there because of fuel or whatever reason, call 800-342-3772.

So just, you know, call the state emergency hotline. We will figure in how to get you out. But we can't do it during the storm.

So I'm telling everybody, if you're in an evacuation route, get out now. And I said this all along, I love my family. I can't imagine life without any family. I'm sure everybody is in that same position.

As a governor, I am going to do everything I can to get them out. You can look at the traffic, (INAUDIBLE). You can look at those traffic cameras all across the state plus, we have information.

You can go to -- there's an app called Gas Buddy, you can see where the gas is. Now unfortunately, the ports are closing down and so we're not get more gas after -- in the next few hours.

BURNETT: All right, and that of course gives the timing everyone needs to know. Governor, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much. All of our thoughts are with you. Thanks.

SCOTT (via telephone): All right, thank you, bye-bye.

BURNETT: And next, the head of the National Hurricane Center warning that it may not be a survivable situation for anyone riding the storm out in the Florida Keys. He's OutFront next.

And the incredible images that we are just getting in from Barbuda. Our reporter just back, 95% of this island destroyed. This is what that looks like. We are going to show you here, of course as the storm turns and accelerates into Florida.

And flying through the heart of Hurricane Irma. My next guest is on a plane right now, literally collecting storm data in that storm. Let's going to hope (INAUDIBLE) going to call us from that flight.


[19:30:45] BURNETT: Breaking news, an alarming new projection as we're tracking Hurricane Irma's deadly march towards Florida. The National Weather Service now forecasting that Irma will slam Florida as a monster category five storm. That would put Irma in the same intensity as when it tore through the Caribbean decimating entire islands. It had been downgraded to a four, but it come back up, speed upcoming into Florida.

Tonight, exclusive new pictures just in to CNN of the destruction the storm is wreaking.

Our Leyla Santiago is OUTFRONT live in Antigua, which is an island in the Caribbean that has been flattened by this hurricane.

Leyla, you know, we heard the governor there say 95 percent of the island was gone. You actually were able to get in there after the storm. You went up. You flew over it. You saw the destruction.

What does that look like?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, when you get the aerial perspective, Erin, you are flying in and as soon as you see just the edge of the land, you see devastation immediately. Trees wrapped in aluminum roofs, homes just rubble. But I suppose what struck me the most is when you get on the ground and you talk to the people, you feel the desperation.

I mean, people who are used to storms like this, used to hurricanes will tell you they have never seen or felt anything like this. One man describing it like a lion roaring. Another man who was evacuated, shortly after he was evacuated, tells me that he now is reminded that nature truly has the power here.

All day long, we saw ferries going back and forth between Barbuda and where we are right now, Antigua, trying to get the last few people out of there. And these are people who understand now the wrath of the hurricane system and, you know, they have very little left, bringing just a few bags on these ferries, on these helicopters trying to get out in time before Hurricane Jose hits that same exact island. One would think maybe there is not much left to take out, but we will find out after Hurricane Jose sort of makes his way through this area.

And every single time I asked someone, Erin, I said, listen, Hurricane Irma not done yet. What would you tell someone in that path every single time, the immediate answer was get out, get out quickly, because, remember, this was a hurricane that claimed at least one life on Barbuda and it was the life of an infant -- Erin. BURNETT: I mean, which is so tragic, Leyla. But, of course, in a

sense what a miracle what when you look at the footage that you were able to get --


BURNETT: -- there was not more loss of life.

I mean, when you are up looking, you know, on the horizon, how stunning is it to just see destruction in every direction as far as the eye can see?

SANTIAGO: Well, you know, many of the Caribbean islands when you fly over them are mountainous. Barbuda is not like that. It tends to just naturally be flat. So, to then see it become even more flat.

I mean, it is surrounded by that pristine, turquoise, beautiful, Caribbean water. And then you see land that is typically bright green, typically has buildings and structures that are just vibrant colors and culture and people who themselves are so vibrant. And then you arrive to what is desolate.

I mean, we didn't see too many people around. We saw straw cats and dogs, some wild horses, I understand. So, to go from the before and after, and to understand that it is not over yet, that they have something else coming that way is amazing.

And one of the interesting things when I talk to someone here in Antigua, they say, we will support our sister nation. We are brothers and sisters, only water in between. So, they are at least finding some help on this island, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Leyla Santiago.

And OUTFRONT now, I want to go to Ed Rappaport, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center.

Ed, you know, you see those pictures.

[19:35:01] I know they say a lot to you. You forecasted this hurricane which had weakened a little bit after striking Barbuda to category four. It is going to hit Florida as a category five. It is going to intensify. Why?

ED RAPPAPORT, ACTING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Actually, we are forecasting it to be near the category four, category five threshold, may get a little stronger the next 12 hours. But regardless, we are looking for a potentially devastating impact on Florida.

And the greatest concern is for storm surge. Got videos from some previous storms to show people what it looks like and what it can do. At this stage, we're expecting a storm surge of five to ten feet. That's the rise of the water along the southeaster coast of Florida, and in the Florida Keys and perhaps even six to 12 feet on the southwest coast of Florida. Here again is our storm surge warning. This is the first tier of the

National Weather Service has issued such a warning. The definition is life threatening inundation within the next 36 hours, and we have particular concerns, again, along the coast and for the Florida Keys.

BURNETT: Ed, I know or my understanding is when we are talking about the Florida Keys, that you had said it is not clear that it is a survivable situation for anyone who chooses to stay in the Florida Keys. That's a -- I know you don't say that lightly.

RAPPAPORT: Right. And the keys have maximum elevations on the order of five or ten feet, a little bit higher. We're talking about a five to ten foot storm surge. That's the rise of the water above ground level. And on top of that, we're talking about significant waves, 15, 20 feet above that.

And those waves are going to be extremely destructive to any buildings they encounter. And at this point, anybody who has not left, encouraged to get out as soon as possible.

BURNETT: So, you're basically saying you could have 25 to 30 feet of water above the ground in the Florida Keys in some places?

RAPPAPORT: If you -- that's correct. If you add the waves on top, that's possible. And even without the waves, though, five to 10 feet will cover most of the islands there.

BURNETT: And in terms of the actual strike itself, Ed, obviously I know a little bit shift here, a little bit shift there could make a huge difference. It could make a massive difference, right?

Right now, I know the models are all converging. The storm is coming straight into Florida heading up to Miami. If there is a move 15, 20 miles to the east or west, how big of a difference will that make?

RAPPAPORT: It will be of extreme importance in the end. The problem is we don't know whether that will occur and which way it will occur. So, everybody has to prepare Florida for the possibility of category four conditions. If the storm shifts off a little bit in one way, well, maybe, we'll get category one or category two and feel lucky about that.

But there is still the risk of category three and four on both coasts of the southern Florida peninsula.

BURNETT: All right. Ed, I appreciate your time and thank you.

RAPPAPORT: Thank you.

BURNETT: And next, the track of Irma as it bores down a population centers in Florida, predicted to hit as a category five, as you heard Ed say, right on that four or five line. The latest forecast from Allison is next.

And very few people flying directly into a category five hurricane. There is a reason for that. Some, though, need to do it. Our next guest is one of them. He's in the air right now, hunting Irma.


[19:42:15] BURNETT: Breaking news, Hurricane Irma barreling towards Florida. New forecast shows the deadly storm expected to gain strength. The National Weather Service making it clear to those denying evacuation orders, quote, this is as real as it gets. Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe.

Meteorologist Allison Chinchar is tracking this in the weather center.

And, Allison, where is the storm right now?

CHINCHAR: The storm right now is currently in between the Bahamas and Cuba in very incredibly warm water. And that's not a good thing. That's going to allow the storm to re-intensify over the next 24 hours. Winds right now, 155 miles per hour.

Keep in mind, that's only two miles per hour off from a category five strength. It is expected to intensify back up to a category five storm, winds around 160 miles an hour as it crosses over the Keys. Then it will likely be a category four as it heads over the main peninsula for this reason. We have hurricane watches and hurricane warnings in effect for much of Florida. And these are likely to expand northward as we get closer to that landfall timeline.

In terms of storm surge, from West Palm Beach down to Key West, we're talking five to 10 feet. From Naples down to Key West, you are talking eight to 12 feet. So, again, this is at least a single story building of a home that we're talking about.

And it's not just Irma. We're also talking about Jose, which is now making its way to the Lesser Antilles and some of those other alien nations there.

The good news, at least in the long term, is it is expected to veer right, back out over open water, Erin. That's what everybody wants to hear. You don't want it to hit too many places right after they got hit from Irma.

BURNETT: Oh, I mean, yes, absolutely. When you talk about that storm surge, you know, we're just hearing on top of that, that surge, you got waves of up to 25 feet, to give people a sense of why it is simply not safe to be anywhere near any of that.

It's the storm surge, Allison, and also the winds. You know, you are saying it could hit the keys at 160 miles an hour or so. Right on that category five line.

At that wind speed, what happens? Just to give people a sense of why it is so dire.

CHINCHAR: Yes. So, that's not only going to rip up power lines and trees and things like that, it is going to do significant damage to buildings. You have to understand that there are a lot of high rises, hotels, condo complexes and things like that in Florida, and the wind only increases as you go up.

So, let's say for example, it's 145 at the surface. You get up to a 30-story building, that wind now goes up 174 miles per hour. Then you get up even higher, say, to an 80-story building or taller, now you're talking nearly 190 miles per hour.

This can do not just a little damage. This will do substantial damage. You're talking roofs being ripped off of buildings. You're talking siding coming off, not to mention your smaller homes, say like mobile homes. This will not only take them off their foundation but may chuck them a few blocks down the road.

[19:45:04] Again, this is going too be substantial with some of these wind speeds that we are expecting in south Florida.

BURNETT: All right. Allison, thank you very much.

And, you know, as Allison is talking about these winds, whatever it may end up being, 150, 160 or more per hour, it is expected, of course, to intensify.

Joining me on the phone is Richard Henning. He's actually a flight director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. He is flying through hurricane Irma.

And, Richard, thank you very much. I know you are gathering crucial data for all of us to understand what's happening and maybe stop it in the future.

Tell me what you just saw. I know you were just in the storm.

RICHARD HENNING, FLIGHT DIRECTOR, NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION (via telephone): Well, first of all, thank you, Erin, for giving me the opportunity to talk to your audience and just stress to everybody just how bad this storm is. I've been flying hurricane reconnaissance for 21 years, and this is every bit as bad as what I saw in hurricane Katrina in 2005.

So, people need to take this very seriously. We still have a storm that is right there on the borderline between category four and category five. I don't think that people need to worry too much about fluctuations and intensity. In other words, that it goes from five to four, that it's necessarily weakening. It just means that the wind field is maybe just broadening. Maybe some of the energy from the center of the storm is spreading out, which is actually not good news, that that makes more storm surge.

So, what we're doing right now is we're flying up to 45,000 feet, dropping a pattern of 32 drop sondes into the storm and even more importantly into the path of the storm and the parts of the atmosphere that will dictate where the storm goes and what we call the steering current. And from all the information we've gathered, the Hurricane Center forecast looks very good right now. And that's bad news.

I don't anticipate based on what we've seen any kind of sharp unexpected turns that would spare south Florida. So, everybody needs to really, really pay attention to the latest advisories.

BURNETT: And, Richard, I mean, you are literally there up on the front line. I mean, if you are saying that, I hope everyone is listening. And, you know, we have talked to some people who are not heeding those warnings. So, I hope they're listening to you right now.

When you say you have been flying into these storms for 21 years and this one is different, what makes it so different? Why is Irma such a record breaking storm?

HENNING: Well, Irma stormed in a part of the Atlantic where you typically don't get category five hurricanes. Irma is the strongest hurricane that we have on record, at least over the last 1,500 years to hit the northeast corner of the Leeward Islands and it did an incredible amount of damage in places like Barbuda and Anguilla.

And so, Puerto Rico was somewhat lucky because the worst of the eyewall stayed on shore. Some of the Bahamian islands in its path may not be so lucky. They may encounter the full brunt of the storm.

And, again, I'm very concerned about the southern end of Florida and whether it heads towards Fort Myers, whether it heads across the center of the Florida Keys. It doesn't matter. It's going to -- it's got a very wide swath of hurricane force winds and very wide storm surge.

People shouldn't worry too much about the exact movement, left or right, of the forecast track. They shouldn't feel like they have lucked out if it inches just a hair to the right or a hair to the left. It doesn't really get them off the hook.

BURNETT: And, Richard, I know, you know, just to make sure everyone listening they hear the background noise that's because you are up in the air right now and I know y'all have been flying through Irma.

Can you explain what it's like when you go in when you are flying in the bands to gather this data, what is that like?

HENNING: Well, in our P-3 aircraft, which is what we use to fly at low altitudes, through the teeth of the eyewall, and that aircraft, it is like a roller coaster through a car wash. I mean, it's a very wild, just crazy ride through the eyewall.

[19:50:01] In the G-4 aircraft that I'm currently flying, this airplane is up much higher. This is up at 45,000 feet. Even up at 45,000 feet, when you fly across the top of a storm as powerful as Irma, you get a lot of turbulence. And that turbulence is caused by all of the mass of the storm that's being sucked into the center, into that eyewall, going up and then going out, what we call the outflow.

And so, the outflow of this storm is extremely vigorous up at 45,000 feet. So, it's very bumpy going over the top of the storm. The outflow is kind of like a chimney at your house, where the fire and the flame goes up and out, and that's sort of exactly what goes on with the atmosphere. Up at 45,000 feet, we have the chimney of Hurricane Irma.

BURNETT: And, Richard, from what you said you're gathering, I want to make sure everyone understands, you do not see any sudden move out. And, you know, I know the window for that has narrowed. You are not seeing anything that would indicate some sort of a near miss or a salvation for southern Florida right now?

HENNING: No. We have been very, very careful in analyzing all the data that we have gathered. We have dropped 28 drop sondes so far. We have sampled the atmosphere through the hurricane itself. And importantly, just to the north of where the hurricane is, in the area east of Cape Canaveral, there's a Bermuda high out there that's dictating which way the storm is going to go.

So, we did a very careful job of analyzing how strong that high pressure system is. And it's holding strong. It's holding rock solid.

So, if that area were to weaken, that might allow the storm to turn to the right and spare Florida. But there's no indication, based on the data that we just gathered, that is weakening any. So, that block of granite that you might think of it that way that is north of the storm is not giving any. Not allowing it to turn right.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Richard --

HENNING: Again, there's nothing -- I'm just say thing's nothing that I've seen here personally from this aircraft that would shed any kind of doubt on the Hurricane Center's forecast right now. The forecast track looks extremely accurate.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Richard, thank you very much. We all appreciate you taking the time and good luck to your crew up there.

As we said, they are flying over Irma right now, gathering that data.

And next, one man is staying put in his home, despite the dire warnings and the images of mass destruction. Why? Well, he'll tell you next.


[19:56:15] BURNETT: Breaking news: Hurricane Irma closing in on Florida now, expected to make landfall as a category 5 or very close to it storm. The Florida governor warning residents in southern Florida if they're not on road by midnight tonight it's too late.

My next guest is Joel Melendez. He lives in Homestead, Florida, and we told you his story last night. He's been boarding up houses for free, trying to help others, trying to help his neighbors and loved ones.


JOEL MELENDEZ, HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA RESIDENT: It's traumatizing, you know? It's serious, you know? This ain't no game. I feel for a lot of people that I can't get to because I am only one guy, my brother and I, you know? So, I've -- hopefully I made some type of change, I saved a life or two. That's all that matters.


BURNETT: Parts of Homestead are under a mandatory evacuation. Joel, though, is not leaving and he joins me now.

Joel, look, we hope you're doing well. I know you've been doing so much to try to help others. I know you were planning to evacuate. But late last night, you decided not to. How come?

MELENDEZ: Well, ma'am, it's a lot of reasons why, ma'am. You know, I've tried to create a buddy system where all my loved ones and my wife's loved ones as well evacuated, but it just didn't work out like that, you know? And due to the fact that they have many, many years here in Homestead and us being -- growing up here, we just, you know, decided that we're going to stick it out and we're not going to leave one another behind.

So, we've set up quite a few things, a buddy system and attacks plans and making sure we're able to ride this storm out, you know, as safe as we can. You know, just to make sure that we're alive come Monday or Tuesday or when this does blow over.

It's not just for us here in Homestead, ma'am. You know, everybody -- you know, whoever is watch thing right now, take this serious. You know, don't wait until the last minute to get on the road. Listen to the governor. Get out of here now.

You know, if you're going to get out of here, get out of here now. If you're going to hunker down, make your plan of attack and have your secondary, you know, processing, plan B, plan A. Make sure that everybody you're going to be responsible for is aware of the drills and when they are announcing, they're given an order, to make a move that we have to make a move together. Because that's the only way we can survive this, ma'am.

BURNETT: Joel, I know when you see the images, you know, Barbuda coming in, just the complete devastation. You were there for Hurricane Andrew. You're (INAUDIBLE) story. You are aware of this. We saw you tearing up yesterday, talking about trying to help others.

I mean, are you afraid now that you made this choice to stay?

MELENDEZ: Ma'am, unfortunately, I would like to answer that, ma'am, but I have to make sure I stay strong for my daughter and my wife and my loved ones here. Everybody is afraid, ma'am. It's just not me.

The people that are here, they don't know what's coming. You know, it's not about running last minute now, it's not worrying about the grocery store right now, ma'am. It's about being prepared and making sure that when this comes through, you're ready.

And with whatever comes, the storm surges, make sure you got your life vest. If you own a boat or you can share or you got any floatable devices, you know, the aftermath is what is going to be horrible for Homestead natives. It's just going to be catastrophic.

And I'm sorry to say this, and I hope -- you know, if my daughter is listening to me now, she'll know that I'm going to make sure that I'm going to do my best and I'm going to give it all I got to make sure that we're all alive come Monday.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Joel, we will talk to you then. And we -- you are in our thoughts. Thank you very much.

MELENDEZ: Thank you, ma'am. God bless you all.

BURNETT: And thanks to all of you for joining us. Our breaking news coverage continues.