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Hurricane Irma Headed for Florida; Governor: Time is Running Out for Evacuations; Irma Impacts Bahamas Ahead of Direct Hit on Florida; Irma Forecast To Hit Florida As Category 5 Hurricane; Construction Crane Danger. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 8, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Direct impact. A monster storm bigger than the entire state of Florida is bearing down on Florida and could bring catastrophic devastation from one end of the state to the other. It's expected to make a direct impact near Miami.

[17:00:28] Path of destruction. Hurricane Irma is lashing Cuba and the Bahamas right now after carving a path of destruction across the Caribbean, killing at least 24 people and leaving at least one island reduced to rubble.

Last chance. Florida's governor warns that this is the last chance or evacuate or get to shelter. A million people have been ordered to leave their homes. Millions more are trying to flee on very crowded highways as emergencies extend up the East Coast through Georgia, the Carolinas to Virginia.

And left behind. Officials warn that those who won't get out are putting their lives at risk and will be on their own once the storm hits. Rescuers will not be able to answer calls for help.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. The latest forecast is just coming in for Hurricane Irma. It's now a Category 4 with winds of 150 miles an hour, and it's roaring towards Florida. The monster storm, which has already killed at least two dozen people and devastated entire islands, is not finished with the Caribbean. Cuba and the Bahamas are being battered right now. But Florida is bracing for a catastrophic direct hit. There could be storm surges of up to 12 feet along the coast, and the powerful core of the storm could hit the Keys and then the Everglades near Miami, barreling up through the entire Florida Peninsula.

That's prompted what may turn out to be one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history. Florida's governor says time is quickly running out, urging residents to leave now. Hundreds of thousands have been ordered to evacuate, and millions more, they're trying to move out of harm's way, leading to clogged highways and gas shortages. Officials in south Florida warn that once the storm hits, they won't

be able to help those who decide to stay behind. Georgia and South Carolina have also ordered evacuations beginning tomorrow.

I'll speak with Florida's governor, Rick Scott, and the director of the National Weather Service. And our correspondents, specialists and guests are standing by with the kind of full coverage that only CNN can deliver.

The breaking news, a new forecast is just in for Hurricane Irma.

Let's go straight to our meteorologist, Allison Chinchar, at the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Allison, what is the very latest?

ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: The very latest, Wolf, is that we are seeing at least a moderate increase in terms of gusts going from 185 miles per hour up to 190 miles per hour.

Sustained winds are holding steady at 155, but I want you to understand, 2 miles an hour stronger, if this was 157, that would be a Category 5. Even though we are just a Category 4 now, it is at the very top end of that Category 4 strength. You can see the storm continuing its trek in between the Bahamas and Cuba.

This plays an important role, because over land, the storm weakens, but it's over open water. This is where the storms like to be. This is where they can either maintain strength or get even stronger because of that warm water.

We've also seen an increase. This swath of hurricane watches and warnings has expanded a little bit because we're getting closer to landfall time. And the closer and closer we get, the more these hurricane watches and warnings are going to spread further north into the state. Keep that in mind. Even if you see your county on the map and it's not on a hurricane watch or warning as of now, that could change as we get closer to landfall.

Speaking of landfall, we expect that to be around sunrise somewhere between overnight and sunrise Sunday morning. Again, depending on where exactly that landfall could end up being. It could be over the Keys. It could be around Key Largo. The exact point is still up in the air.

However, we do know that it will end up making landfall over some portion of southern Florida and then continue to trek further off to the north.

The good news is as it pushes further north, it is expected to weaken, so the folks in northern Florida won't have to contend with quite as strong of winds as the folks in southern Florida. However, with that said, even 60, 70 miles per hour is still a very high-end tropical storm. Places like Tampa, Orlando, you're still looking at, say, a Category 1 to a Category 2-strength hurricane as it makes over your particular locations. So that's going to be key. Basically, from the moment it makes landfall up until we get to, say,

Daytona Beach, we still expect this storm to maintain hurricane strength, even though it will be weakening.

[17:05:03] Now, the strongest storm surge that we expect to get will be along the southern edge of the storm. We're talking, say, West Palm Beach down through Key West could see storm surge of 5 to 10 feet.

Naples, on the western side, down towards Key West, could see at much as 6 to 12 feet. OK, here's the thing. The average first story of a building is 10 feet tall. That means you could see entire homes' first stories submerged under water because of the potential storm surge that we'll be dealing with with this storm.

You also, on the western side, you may be wondering why that number is a little bit higher than that on the eastern side. It's called shoaling. The drop-off from the beach down into the deep ocean is not as deep on the western side as it is on the eastern side. That allows that water to be able to push in and go higher on the western side than it would on the eastern side. So keep that in mind, too.

Forecast intensity. Because of the incredible scale of this storm, how big it is, it will likely take hurricane-force winds from the east side of Florida to the west side of Florida. So it really doesn't matter which side of Florida you are on, east coast versus west coast, to determine who is going to have hurricane-force winds and who won't. Both sides are likely going to have that.

We've also, Wolf, heard about comparisons to Andrew. So I want to kind of break that down for you. This is Andrew on the left; this is Irma on the right. Technically, Andrew is expected to be slightly stronger at landfall, 165 miles per hour. We're expecting Irma around 150.

But it's the time over the state of Florida where the big difference is. Andrew only spent four hours from one side of the -- Florida to the other. Irma is expected to spend at least 30 hours over the entire state. And that's going to be the big concern, because that's going to allow a lot of heavy rain to fall, which could cause flooding, storm surge, not to mention hours upon hours, Wolf, of those incredibly strong winds.

BLITZER: Allison Chinchar, our meteorologist, we'll get back to you. Don't go too far away. I know you're getting information all the time.

I want to check in with our own Brian Todd. He's in West Palm Beach, Florida, for us, where police have been going door to door, telling residents to evacuate and evacuate now.

Brian, what have you been seeing there?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there is a real scramble tonight to get people out of this area. They're trying to get them off Palm Beach Island, this barrier island here to my right -- to my left, your right. Across these bridges, they're trying to get them over here to West Palm Beach where we're standing into shelters and into other higher ground. Because that's a very vulnerable area over there for storm surge.

As you mentioned, just moments ago, we saw police coming down this street where we're on right now, telling people over the loudspeaker, door to door, "Evacuate now." Wolf, they are trying to avoid the devastation, the loss of life, that just occurred in the Caribbean.


TODD (voice-over): Entire hillsides wiped out, like this one in the British Virgin Islands. Roofs blown off. Coastal buildings shredded. This devastation in the Caribbean is what Florida could be facing as soon as Saturday.

In the Dominican Republic, residents looked shell-shocked at the amount of destruction, with collapsed buildings, downed trees and debris strewn everywhere. In Barbuda, one victim hid her family of seven in a closet as their roof came off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every house, every infrastructure, every utility that is there is completely damaged and gone.

TODD: Coastal flooding also a problem on islands like St. Barts. In St. Martin, where buildings are flattened, cars are overturned and streets are blocked with debris. Security forces had to be deployed to counter looting.

The Bahamas and Cuba now closest to the deadly storm's path, with Florida up next. Forty million people are estimated to live in the forecast cone. Hurricane-force winds stretching about as wide as the width of the state of Florida. And coastal storm surges of 5 to 10 feet are possible.

It is now the final hours in Florida for residents to get ready or get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Attention, attention, attention. There is a mandatory evacuation order. Please evacuate.

TODD (on camera): Police here in West Palm Beach are going door to door at this point in the final hours before the storm hits. They can't, even in a mandatory evacuation, force people from their homes. This is as close as they can come to doing that.

(voice-over): Mandatory evacuations now covering counties throughout the state, including more than 600,000 people in Miami-Dade alone.

MAYOR BARBARA SHANEF (D), BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA: Get in place now. Leave now and get to where you're going to be sheltered for the storm.

TODD: Residents around Lake Okeechobee ordered to evacuate based on revised forecasts. Even if the dike holds, there are now concerns about the massive lake's overflow. GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: We can see some water coming over the

top, as the -- it will slosh over the top, which will impact the areas that we evacuated.

TODD: At Miami Airport, more than half of the day's flights were canceled and motorists are reporting heavy congestion on some stretches of interstate, with drive times sometimes taking hours longer than normal.

[17:10:07] In Miami-Dade, over 10,000 have already gone to shelters. Five out of 13 shelters are already full.

Authorities at emergency operations centers like this one in West Palm trying to get people out or get people safe.

BILL JOHNSON, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DIRECTOR, PALM BEACH COUNTY: My biggest worry is that people will get stuck on the highway in the middle of the storm, the wrong place to be in a hurricane of this stature.


TODD: And another county official told me a short time ago, they want people off the roads by tomorrow morning.

Wolf, also a scramble tonight to get the elderly into safe places. We've been talking about this for the last couple of days. A county official just told me they're going to elderly people's residence right now with special vehicles to try to get them out, get them to shelters, get them to more secure locations. They're continuing their communications outreach to that segment of the population. They are very, very concerned about them tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm very concerned about the elderly, as well. And a lot of them down in Florida.

Brian Todd in West Palm Beach, thank you.

Florida officials are making a last-minute appeal to residents to evacuate or to find shelter. Joining us now on the phone, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott.

Governor, thanks once again for joining us. So how should Florida residents and visitors be preparing at this last minute?

SCOTT (via phone): So, Wolf, if you can see the latest update, we're going to see more storm surge. People have got to understand, if you're in an evacuation zone, you should be very cautious. You should get out now, and you should get to a shelter or get to higher ground. Get inland away from the storm surge.

And this is a powerful storm bigger than our state. It's going to impact both of our coasts. I care about every citizen, and we all love our families. I don't want anybody to lose their life.

BLITZER: When will it be too late to get out of the evacuation zones? SCOTT: When the -- when the storm -- when the winds start, you're

going to have a very difficult time. And by the way, when those winds start and we start getting the higher winds, nobody is going to be able to save you. So if you're in an evacuation zone, you've got to get out now.

I just -- I was just at the operations center, left Fort Myers an hour ago. The -- as I told the residents down there, don't get on the highways after midnight. You -- you've made your decision; you're not going to be able to get north. We're opening up shelters all over the state. Get into these shelters if you don't have a place to go, but we can't save you once the storm starts. We can't get out there to get you once the storm starts. Do it now, don't wait.

BLITZER: Earlier you had said that all Floridians -- and there are more than 20 million people who live in Florida -- should be prepared to evacuate if necessary. Do you anticipate, Governor, any further mandatory evacuations being ordered between now and landfall?

SCOTT: Absolutely. Here's where I think it's going to continue to happen, Wolf. What we just saw with the latest update, higher storm surge on the west coast. So, you know, I'm not sure exactly what they're going to do in the Fort Myers area, but it's a little bit higher storm surge, so that might impact what they're doing.

But as this travels north, and as we know what's going to happen, these communities are going to continue to do evacuations. And so we're going to see more evacuations as it goes -- the storm comes up through our state. And I think you'll probably see way more on the west coast now.

The big risk on the west coast now is what we've been saying all along. The storm surge, it can be over your house. I mean -- I mean, it's up to 12 feet high now.

And here's what people don't understand about the storm surge. It flows in very rapidly. You won't have time to get away from it. It's going to come in very rapidly, and it's going to go out very rapidly. So we saw this a year ago when we had a hurricane up in the Panhandle. The water comes in fast and goes out fast. It will be too late.

So if you're in an evacuation zone, go now. If they -- if they add more evacuation zones in your county, leave as soon as they happen. So be prepared right now to follow the directions of the local officials.

BLITZER: Important advice from the governor of Florida, Rick Scott.

Governor, good luck to you. Good luck to all the people in Florida right now. These are delicate and potentially very, very dangerous moments we're following. Thanks very much for everything you're doing.

SCOTT: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Joining us now, the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini.

Louis, once again, thank you so much for joining us. A lot of older people, for example, it's too late for them to evacuate. And here's the problem: a whole bunch of the shelters, they're already filled up or they're filling up very quickly. So what should they do?

LOUIS UCCELLINI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE: Well, this is where you have to rely on the local officials, the state officials. They're making important decisions to address the vulnerable people as the, you know -- now and as the system comes up. So there are plans in place. They're executing those plans, and they're addressing the evacuation as best they can.

[17:15:08] And as you -- as you've seen and heard, some people who had the opportunity to leave yesterday and the day before aren't heeding those warnings. And they're not going to come back for those people. They're really addressing the most vulnerable people now.

BLITZER: You're, you know, the head of the National Weather Service, and we're grateful that you're joining us. The latest forecast has, what, 155-mile-an-hour winds. That's technically a Category 4, but it's almost a Category 5.

UCCELLINI: And we've seen evidence today that the eye is getting better formed again.

BLITZER: What does that mean exactly?

UCCELLINI: It means that the wind field itself could be strengthening around the eye.

BLITZER: So there's even more bad news?

UCCELLINI: Well, it -- there's -- there's this possibility -- we keep on emphasizing this -- that this storm could continue to re-intensify -- could -- as it approaches the coastline. It's part of the uncertainty we have in the forecast.

We're getting this track pretty well nailed down. We're still concerned about exactly what the intensity will be as it approaches. There could be a slight increase in, like, say 2 miles per hour. You're over -- you're into the Cat 5 territory.

The bottom line is this is a very dangerous, powerful storm. People shouldn't let their guards down, and they should listen to the local officials. And if they're telling them to get out, get out.

BLITZER: Is this potentially the worst one you've ever seen?

UCCELLINI: This is -- this is certainly going to be the big one for this generation down in Florida since Andrew. And it's a much larger storm than Andrew. It could create a lot more damage.

BLITZER: What scares you the most over the next 24 hours?

UCCELLINI: Well, it's the landfall and the storm surge associated with it, and the very strong winds. And then, when we move from there, it's the heavy rainfall and potential flooding right up the spine of Florida, into Georgia and perhaps the Carolinas.

BLITZER: See, Andrew went across Florida. This one's going up Florida so potentially could impact 20 million people or more.

UCCELLINI: Right, and Andrew was a very small hurricane as it moved across Florida. Where it hit, tremendous damage. But relatively small.

BLITZER: That was back in 1992, 25 years ago.

Stay with us. You're going to be with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Louis Uccellini is the director of the National Weather Service.

Up next, more on the breaking news. Millions of people right now, they are fleeing as Hurricane Irma heads for a direct hit on Florida. We're tracking the storm's path with the latest forecast. Stay with us.


[17:21:37] BLITZER: The breaking news, Hurricane Irma is nearing Cuba and the Bahamas right now as it moves closer and closer to a direct hit on Florida.

Across the islands of the Caribbean, the storm has left at least 24 people dead, as well as widespread catastrophic damage.

CNN anchor Cyril Vanier is in Nassau in the Bahamas for us.

Cyril, what are the conditions like where you are?

CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR: Look, Wolf, I've probably got one of the rare encouraging reports, at least the most encouraging that you're probably going to hear all night long. And for two reasons.

No. 1, which is the islands at the -- on the southernmost tip of the Bahamas, which are on the front line of this storm, have now weathered the hurricane; and as far as the authorities have told us, there are no known fatalities.

Now, I've looked at some of the pictures. Yes, there is some damage but only to the weaker structures, like houses that are made of wood, for instance, which are not a majority in the Bahamas. By and large, the houses and the structures, buildings that are made of concrete and cement have withstood the storm. So that's No. 1.

No. 2, because the storm has moved westward, we are not, here in the capital of Nassau where I have, we are not going to get the hurricane- force winds that we thought we would less than 24 hours ago. Right now, what we're looking at are tropical-storm-force winds. They're about to hit in about 45 minutes.

And people, by and large, there's a great level of readiness here. There are hundreds of people in shelters. Other people have stocked up on food, water in bulk and have bought generators, because they're used to this, and they know they may have to go without power.

So I would say for the moment -- for the moment -- and this is just an early assessment, the Bahamas are weathering the storm with less damage than other parts of the Caribbean.

BLITZER: All right. Well, that's encouraging to hear that, Cyril. Thank you very much.

Cyril Vanier on the scene for us in the Bahamas.

The one source of deep concern as Hurricane Irma closes in, Florida's huge Lake Okeechobee, surrounded by a 143-mile earthen dike. Our national correspondent, Miguel Marquez, is in nearby Belle Glade for us.

Miguel, there are, what, mandatory evacuations. Lots of them in the area where you are?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's the entire area south of the lake, basically, Wolf.

And I want to point out this bus here, because officials said that 5 p.m., which was about 20 minutes ago, is the cutoff point for evacuations from Belle -- Belle Glade and this area. That may be the last bus out of town.

This is a very rural area, mostly agricultural workers, an immigrant area. A lot of Creole spoken here. They have two problems: one, it is on or near the path of the storm; and the second problem is Lake Okeechobee. They're not entirely sure that that levee system, which was built starting in the 1930s, it's been improved in recent years, but there are very weak spots along it, and they are not sure that, if the rain and the fury of that storm washing up on that levee and then the rains above the lake in the watershed there. It's a massive, massive, vast watershed that would pour water into that lake for days after it stops coming down out of the sky. If that will eventually stress the lake and those levees out enough that you could then flood this area.

So people moving from here, and they're busing them -- a lot of people don't even have cars here -- they're busing them to about 30, 40 miles away to the far eastern end of Palm Beach County -- Wolf.

[17:25:03] BLITZER: Awful news, indeed. All right. Thanks very much. Miguel, we're going to get back to you.

Miguel Marquez reporting for us from the scene in Florida.

Louis Uccellini is still with us, the National Weather Service director.

Right now the winds are, what, 155 miles an hour, but the latest forecast -- that's a Category 4. But the latest forecast that you're getting -- and you're the director of the National Weather Service -- is it could hit, make landfall in Florida as a Category 5.

UCCELLINI: Yes. So the latest forecast actually ups the wind speed to 160 miles per hour, which is just on the other side of the boundary, 157. So it would be hitting landfall as a Cat 5. So that's only five mile-per-hour difference. The fact remains that this is a very dangerous storm, and it's going to come in, you know, full bore; and it's going to be very destructive when it happens.

BLITZER: Whether it comes in at 155 miles an hour, which technically is a Category 4--

UCCELLINI: It's four.

BLITZER: -- or 160 miles an hour, which technically is a Category 5, that really doesn't make much difference.

UCCELLINI: It doesn't make much difference. But it does also show that this storm is expected to sustain its intensity and increase its intensity as it's approaching the shoreline. That makes these storms even much more dangerous.

BLITZER: But is it possible it could come even more -- stronger than 116 miles an hour?

UCCELLINI: Well, as we've said, there's -- there are these, especially the intensity forecasts. It's one forecast we have the most uncertainty in. We're just -- you know, once you get up to this level, you know, you should be -- you should be just paying attention to it, taking the necessary action to get out of its way.

BLITZER: Yes, and the shocking thing is there are plenty of people down there who aren't paying attention who think, "Well, we can ride it out." And this is a life and death matter.

UCCELLINI: That's right. And the storm has increased size, so we really have a larger area that's going to be impacted by hurricane- force winds.

BLITZER: Potentially, the whole state.

UCCELLINI: Even as it comes in.

BLITZER: Yes. There are 20 million people there.

All right. Louis, stand by. I'm going to get back to you, as well.

Much more on the breaking news coming up as Florida braces for a direct hit by a catastrophic storm. We're tracking Hurricane Irma with the latest forecast, getting new information. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:31:51] BLITZER: Our breaking news, Hurricane Irma is headed for a direct hit on Florida and could bring catastrophic damage from one end of the state to the other. New forecast is just out. Let's go to our meteorologist Allison Chinchar, she's at the CNN severe weather center. So, what can we expect, Allison?

CHINCHAR: We had a lot of changes with the update that came out at the top of the hour, so let's break it down for you. Forward speed is now west at 12 miles per hour that has actually slowed a little bit in the last advisory. Wind gusts have actually increased, now up to 190 miles per hour, and we actually expect more intensification once it gets just a little bit further North over the coast of Cuba. When it does, it's likely going to be, again, in some of the warmest water in this region. That's what hurricanes like to be. And they like to be in that incredibly warm water that helps them intensify. And that's what we expect.

Notice it goes from a 4 just barely up to a Category 5 as it's going over the Florida Keys. Now, we expected over the main Peninsula of Florida to be a Category 4 over landfall, but again, it's going to be at that high-end scale of Category 4 and as it goes over the Florida Keys, the National Hurricane Center expects it to be a Category 5 strength. In terms of storm surge, look at the most updated numbers that we got at the top of the hour, 5 to 10 feet along the eastern edge of Florida, Southwestern from Naples down to the Key. We're talking 8-12 feet, Venice down towards Fort Myers, 5 to 8 feet. And Tampa, you're talking about 3 to 5 feet. Now, you have to understand, in terms of the scale, say, of Miami, here is a Google earth image of Miami.

This is what it would look like. In a lot of the streets where you see the blue, that's what the storm surge would do. That's how far inland it could end up bringing some of that storm surge. So you're talking numerous streets that would be under water as well as, Wolf, you have to understand, when you're talking 10 feet, that's an entire first story of a building. So for a lot of these homes that are there that aren't high rises per se, you could have a lot of people that are dealing with what the same thing they dealt with in Houston, where the entire first story of their home is underwater and they may have to seek refuge, say, on the roof of their home, just like what we saw on Texas. We may end up seeing a similar scenario for the folks in Southern Florida.

BLITZER: I'm very familiar with that part of Miami you're showing. All those streets, a lot of high rise buildings, condominiums, office buildings, a lot of streets you're pointing out, would clearly be flooded, right?

CHINCHAR: Yes, absolutely. And again, we're not just talking a foot or two. Many of these would be 6 to 10 feet of storm surge that would come in. That's not passable for most vehicles, so at that point, you have to stay put. You can't go out on the roads when that storm surge would be that high.

BLITZER: Allison, we'll going to get back to you shortly. I know you're getting more information as well, Allison Chinchar, meteorologist. CNN's Patrick Oppmann is along the North Central coast of Cuba right now, where they're expecting hurricane conditions. Patrick, what is it like right now?

[17:34:53] PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're starting with those first bands from Hurricane Irma coming into this area where I am. Gusts of rain, increased winds, some pretty big waves off the coast. Further east of us, they've been getting battered all day long. Thousands are without power. The Cuban government has been evacuating hundreds of thousands of people, ahead of the storm, all day long, where we are. We've heard government officials coming by with loudspeakers telling people that if you want to get out, now is the time. Many have done that, putting their belongings sometimes on horse and carts and going to off to government shelters, caves or old bunkers from the cold war just to get out of this area, which is expected to flood. Others are hunkering down, Wolf. They said they don't want to leave their homes and they're going to ride it out. But as weather conditions get worse here, it's going to be a long night.

BLITZER: Be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch with you. Good luck to all the folks in Cuba, as well. Coming up, the updated forecast for Hurricane Irma, the National Hurricane Center, now warns of life-threatening wind impacting much of Florida, regardless of the exact track the storm takes.


[17:40:32] BLITZER: This hour, breaking news, Hurricane Irma is nearing the Bahamas and Cuba right now, as the extremely dangerous Category 4 storm closes in on Florida. It is expected to be a Category 5 when it first hits the Florida Keys. That's according to the latest forecast earlier this hour. The Florida Governor Rick Scott told me, he absolutely expects more mandatory evacuations throughout the state. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine who has referred to Irma as a nuclear hurricane, is joining us on the phone right now. Mayor, so how should residents in Miami Beach where you are be preparing at this last minute? I understand Miami Beach, all the residents there, all the visitors there, have been told to evacuate.

PHILIP LEVINE, MAYOR OF MIAMI BEACH (via telephone): Absolutely right, Wolf. And basically, our buses and our trolleys will begin, actually, stop service at 10:00 p.m. tonight. And at that point, we're going to tell people to just bunker in. But we want more people to get on those buses and get to the shelters. I've been all over the city. I've met with homeless people. We've got them, convinced them to get on these buses. And matter of fact, I went to a senior center, at least a couple of them, and the seniors have been going but there is a couple holdouts. I met one lady who unfortunately didn't want to go, 92 years old. I pleaded with her, tried to convince her. And I said, Anna, my God, if you need something, here is my cell phone. And she turned to me and said, Mayor, you take my cell phone. I'm here to help you as well. The people have a tremendous spirit, but it's hard to convince a few of these holdouts, but so far, so good.

BLITZER: When will it be too late to get out of Miami Beach?

LEVINE: Well, by 10:00 p.m. tonight, we'll no longer be having the buses to take you to the shelters. You can still leave, of course, but we believe by later this evening, or early morning, these winds are starting to pick up tremendously at that point. And of course at that point, you don't even advise people to do it. You have to just start advising them just to bunker down where they are. It's a mistake. People need to get off Miami Beach. They need to evacuate. Unless you're in a complete hurricane shelter, it's not safe.

BLITZER: But for some people especially the elderly, evacuating, might be impossible. Are local shelters their only real option?

LEVINE: Yes, you know, but we don't actually have hurricane shelters on Miami Beach. I mean, clearly, our shelters are on the main land. But we have been working out with outreach; we have people going to senior centers, talking to folks with special needs. I mean, we have to know specifically what the issue is, and we'll take them to that specific shelter that can accommodate them, whether it's for dialysis or whether it's someone that needs oxygen, we have that type of facility, and that's what we're doing all across the city.

BLITZER: Mayor, what advice do you have to residents who can't make it out and decides to hunker down in their own homes?

LEVINE: Well, one thing I would say is, stay away from windows and number two, if need be, and you're in a high-rose building, go into the stairwell. That for you, would be the best advice and of course, don't go outside.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen anything like this before in Miami Beach?

LEVINE: No, never before. I mean, Hurricane Andrew, when you compare the size of it, this storm, Irma, is literally twice the size. That's why I refer to it as a nuclear hurricane based on the damage it's already created throughout the entire Caribbean.

BLITZER: And as you know, the latest forecast says, once it hits the Keys, it could be a Category 5 with winds up to 160 miles an hour -- 160 miles an hour that is a Category 5, a Category 4 is below 157. This would be a potential disaster. How many people, though, do you estimate are still hunkering down in Miami Beach?

LEVINE: Well, we don't have an actual count. It's impossible for us to know, but I could tell you this, Ocean Drive is empty, the streets are empty, it looks like a ghost town and that's what I like to see. No people on the streets that we assume a lot of people have left. And remember, we started this evacuation way before the mandatory evacuation order was given which we believe was the right thing to do.

BLITZER: And all the hotels, all the restaurants in South Beach along the Atlantic going up towards the Fontainebleau, everything towards Belle Harbor, all those hotels, all those restaurants, all the stores, everything is shut down?

LEVINE: Everything is closed, everything is shuttered up. On famous Ocean Drive, it's all boarded up. You could literally throw a bowling ball down Ocean Drive and you wouldn't hit anyone or anything.

BLITZER: So, this is a real dangerous thing. What's the last bit of advice you want to share with viewers who may be listening, who may be in Miami Beach, right now? [17:44:58] LEVINE: Well, I would say this, number one, please, please, try to get out now. Get on one of our buses, go to a shelter off the island. And then number two, of course, if for some reason you can't bunker down, stay away from windows, go into a stairwell if you have to during the storm, but we're going to be here and we'll be here right after the storm to help anybody and everybody out.

BLITZER: Good advice from Mayor Philip Levine of Miami Beach. Be careful. A final quick question, where are you going to ride out the storm?

LEVINE: I'll be right here in Miami Beach. I'll be at our hostel at Mount Sinai and I'll be there with the command staff, it'll be a skeletal staff but we'll be there. And most of our first responders who have been incredible will be right across the bridge ready to come over as soon as we're able to clear the roads.

BLITZER: How safe is Mount Sinai Hospital?

LEVINE: We think it's very safe.

BLITZER: And is the -- is the hospital still open, are there patients there?

LEVINE: The hospital -- the hospital was not evacuated. They've kept it open. It's a -- it's a hardened building to withstand a hurricane.

BLITZER: Good luck. Good luck to you, good luck to all the folks in Miami Beach, good luck to all the folks in Florida right now. This is an awful, awful situation that is unfolding. Philip Levine is the Mayor of Miami Beach. Mayor, thanks very much.

We're back with the Director of the National Weather Service, Louie Uccellini. Louie, this is a dire situation. I don't remember, and I've covered a lot of hurricanes over the years, anything this close.

LOUIE UCCELLINI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE: Well, this is -- this is a historic storm in terms of its intensity and its size. And another historic aspect of this is it's been predicted over a week in advance, both track and intensity, and you see the connections that we have with the federal, state, and local emergency management community. You've seen this consistent messaging and actions well in advance of the storm. That's one thing that's really different from Andrew, is the preparations ahead of the storm and my hat's off to the emergency management community across the whole spectrum, because they're ready and they're taking this very seriously. And then people should take the advice of the local officials, when they say get out, get out.

BLITZER: It's not too late. There's still time to get out of this danger zone, and unfortunately, it's a large danger zone. Louie, we're going to get back to you. Along Florida's coast right now, evacuation orders have been issued. Shelters are open, more are opening. Up next, an effort -- and update on efforts to get to safety before it's too late. Plus, worries about what will happen when Irma's Category 4 winds hit the construction cranes across Miami, and there are many of them.


[17:52:09] BLITZER: We are following breaking news. The urgent rush to get hundreds of thousands of people away from Florida's coast before Hurricane Irma makes a direct hit on the state. Not only will the wind and the storm surge pose life-threatening dangers, there are deep worries right now about what could happen when the storm hits nearly two dozen construction cranes currently up around Miami.

Let's go to our CNN Anchor John Berman who is in Miami for us. John, what, are they just leaving those cranes up even though they're so vulnerable to the huge winds?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: They have to. They have to leave them up. It takes a week or so to take them down. Even then, they would clog the streets, Wolf, and they want the streets open for people to evacuate. More than 20 of these cranes in the city behind me, everywhere you look, you see them. And we see at least 10 from this hotel balcony right here. It's a sign of the progress in this city. They are built to withstand 145 mile an hour wind, but as you've been reporting, Wolf, Irma is going to hit as a Category 5 storm somewhere in Florida. That will bring wind gusts of more than 145 miles an hour, 160 miles an hour, and that could be extremely, extremely dangerous.

Now, these cranes are fastened to the buildings very, very tightly. But one feature here is that the boom, the arms that you see up there, they are not tied down. If they were tied down, it would provide too much resistance and work like a sail and pull everything down. Those booms are loose and they're designed to work like a weather vane. We have some video of what it's supposed to look like in Puerto Rico, they sway, they're supposed to swing, but that is terrifying. And also again, when the winds get north of 145 miles an hour, very, very dangerous. One of the building officials in Miami this week put out an official statement saying, "I would not advise staying in a building next to a crane." In other words, if you are next to one of these cranes and one of these high-rise buildings, you might need to evacuate because it may not be able to withstand the strength of the storm.

And obviously, Wolf, a lot of people remember in Super Storm Sandy, not even Hurricane Sandy, not even 75 miles an hour in New York City Sandy, there was a crane that sort of, you know, that tipped over and was a cause of serious concern and led to evacuations in New York City. So, you can see why there is this fear here in Miami right now. Again, they've had so much progress, they're thrilled to have the construction, but they're not happy to have these more than 20 cranes standing up right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Potentially, really, really an enormous threat. Well, hopefully, they'll be able to deal with these powerful, powerful hurricane winds. John Berman reporting for us from Miami. Thank you very much.

[17:54:53] Coming up, the latest on our breaking news, this monstrous storm barrelling towards Florida right now. Florida bracing for a direct hit. Millions of people are fleeing. There are dire warnings for those who don't get out. We have the latest forecast.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Irma's wrath, the killer storm is on track to become one of the largest ever to hit Florida with a wall of water up to 12 feet high and ferocious wind with millions of people in its path. We have a new forecast that's just been released.

Destructive force, we're getting grim new images of the devastation Irma has caused across the Caribbean, where the storm has killed at least two dozen people. And tonight, another powerful hurricane, Jose, is looming in the Atlantic.

Converging paths, multiple forecasting models now show Irma's monstrous eyes striking the Florida Keys first, then whipping its way up the entire --