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Irma Decimates Parts of the Florida Keys. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 12, 2017 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, the message is not to rush reentry. There are still dangerous conditions.

[05:59:30] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've never seen it be like this. I've never seen this much destruction at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Streets flooded from the Florida Keys to South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were right on the ocean front there, and there's nothing left. It's completely gone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have no cell service, no electricity no water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's millions of people in Florida right now that are without power.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got rescue teams with all sorts of equipment trying to make sure we don't lose anybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's impossible to tell who survived, because communication is nearly impossible.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These are storms of catastrophic severity. When Americans are in need, Americans pull together.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. I'm Chris Cuomo. We are in the Florida Keys.

We now know the truth of what Hurricane Irma did to this country. We saw it go through the Caribbean, Puerto Rico. We know that it took lives in so many places, including in Cuba. But now this is the first time that we've been on the ground and see what actually happened in the Florida Keys. And it is absolutely devastating.

Right now, we're inside ten miles from where it actually made landfall, where that eye did its most devastating effects in a place called Cudjoe Key down here. We're in Big Pine Key, just a little north of there. And we'll be showing you things this morning. This is the first set of eyes they've had of first responders down here. Everyone is overwhelmed by the need and overwhelmed by the stories of survival. People did stay, even here, and made it through, thank God. So far, they have not had tragic ends to this hurricane to tell you about. But the searching literally just started overnight.

Here are the headlines from the storm overall. As you heard there, Irma is no longer a hurricane. The National Hurricane Center is no longer tracking her that way.

We do know that five people lost their lives in the United States so far because of this storm. Thirty-six in the Caribbean. But, again, that is a very unfinished story about what this storm has done. We're just starting to learn about the deepest senses of the impact.

In terms of power, that's going to be a huge tale of what Irma wrought on our country. Seven million customers. Customers. That means households. OK, so it's many more people than that.

But the customers were 7 million throughout the southeast. In Florida alone, 6.2 million. That's about two-thirds of the state is still in the dark. Where we are now, nobody has power. Once in a while, you hear the hum of a generator. But we have literally been knocked back 50 years here. We don't have any cell service. There's no way to find out anything. There's no such thing as the Internet down here right now.

Now, the good news is some of the Keys are reopening. As we were coming down, there are huge lines of people. So frustrated. They want to get home. They did what they were told to do. They evacuated. Now they want to come back. The problem is, it's so unsafe. Even in the special vehicles we're in so many of the roads are impassable. The National Guard just started to make them passable. It is -- you'll see the pictures. You'll judge for yourself. Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada, those will reopen today but just for residents and business owners. It's just too dangerous. There's nothing here. There's no power. There's no water. You know, there's no way to live here right now in any sustainable way.

So that is the reality. It will reopen. That's the good news. But only for certain people. And they're not going to like what they see. The Pentagon says that they are going to have to figure out what's happening down here. They may have to rescue 10,000 people.

Now, let me give you the reality. That may be what the government agencies are being told, but they cannot know for sure. And here's why. We are with the men and women who are going to be relaying the information of that first instance of observation and assessment. We're with them.

So anything that you've heard at this point about what they need in the Keys can only be hearsay, and second or third hand, because the official eyes just got on the ground with us. And these men and women we'll introduce you to this morning, they came down here. They were told to work at daylight. That's when it's safe. They put their own safety to the side. They immediately organized, Alisyn. They immediately got into groups and started going out to homes after we got here, after this incredibly long drive. None of them slept all night long. They went house to house in these horrible conditions, dealing with their own shock of what was here.

Because this is ground zero for Hurricane Irma. One hundred and 20 mile-an-hour sustained winds. What you saw us dealing with in Naples, it was 140-mile-an-hour gusts, but the sustained winds were about 100 miles an hour. Here they had it much worse. And the devastation will tell the story of that. Let me play you some of these things, and then Alisyn, please let me know what you think of what you see here.

First, I want to play you the chief and the organizing principal. Just the proof of the fact that they and the National Guard who got here just an hour or so before and did some clearing work earlier in the day but didn't do any checking.

Here's what he said when we first got down here.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only thing that has been done here is driving through neighborhoods. That's it. Nobody's spent time doing -- they didn't have the boots on the ground to do the door-to-door searches. OK? So aside from that, National Guard is here. The only thing that they've done is established that we have good infrastructure as far as our bridges go and put heavy equipment on the ground to push all the way down to Key West and open the roads. That has only been done about an hour or two before you guys arrive. So you're hot on the trail of National Guard, who kind of, you know, pushed all the way down south.


CUOMO: So that's the reality. The National Guard here is trying to work on infrastructure, roads, see what they can do about the cell service, the power. But in terms of who made it, who stayed, what's the situation -- sure, local authorities have been out and, they've, by all accounts been doing, you know, heroes work here. But we're with the first responders, the first task force, Task Force Two from Florida, who are going to try to figure out what happened.

And what we're showing you over your shoulder. This home, Darwin lives here. He's sitting on the front of his truck. He's been out here with us this morning. These are the lucky people here, because the house is still here. But all of this, the tree and the crushing of the car, you know, all these signatures of a hurricane. This is the lucky. This is the good scenario. That's why I wanted to stand in front of it. This is the best that we've seen.

This is not the worst. This is not us finding the most ugly example and pretending it's the norm. This is the good outcome down here. This is not Naples. This is not Miami, where flooding was bad and there's been destruction, but they're getting it back. I don't know how they're going to do it here. I want to show you some other elements of what happened. They worked all through the night. In the light of day today, it's going to be far, far, far more

impactful in terms of what we're seeing. But I want to show, if I can, two more things. One is there was a man named Tim, one of the survivors, one of the people who stayed behind. Their estimate is that only 10 percent stayed behind. I hope that's true, because I want to play for you this man walking through his house. And the first responders lent him a cell phone, a sat phone. There is no cell service. So he could make contact. He left a voice mail for his wife enough to speak to his son. We're going to play that sound when it gets loaded in.

Another thing: all the information you're going to see this morning from us is coming old school over a device called a BGAN. You know, again, we don't have the normal transition services. They have the sound now. Let's play it. So you can meet this man, because he is one lucky fellow.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rescue guys came by. They've got a phone they could call, let you know that we're OK and we'll see you when you get ready to come back. And I'll call you as soon as we get cell-phone service here. All right. Love you. Talk to you later. Bye-bye.


CUOMO: That man had a pontoon boat in his front yard. It's not his. It came from the ocean, crashed through everything in his house. His -- the water was so high. Later in the show, we'll show you giving a tour to the first responders of his house. Fifteen feet up. His house got bashed in by those winds and water, and it went right through the house. Fifteen feet up. Not the ground floor, not the basement.

I think you're seeing it now on your screens. Just think about that for a second. Look, it's horrible to have any water had your home, there's no question about it. But just simple logic, 15 feet up in a home that was built up. Many of the homes here that are on the ocean side of these islands are built up. They're on stilts. It didn't matter. This storm surge either went super high, like what you're hearing about with him, or hollowed them out from the inside, as we'll be showing you this morning.

Now, Bill Weir is in Key Largo. The good news is they're going to open that up this morning only to residents and business owners. The bad news is the reality there is going to be shocking for them when they get there.

Bill, I know you were kind of stranded there yesterday. We saw the long lines driving down of people waiting for gas, you know, trying to figure out if they could get in or out. But I was shocked by, as bad as it is in Key Largo, I couldn't believe how much worse it got as we got closer to where this eye came ashore.

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So did -- I'm just hearing that you're in Big Pine for the first time, Chris. You went over land? You didn't take a chopper or a boat?

CUOMO: No. We came with the first responders. This Task Force Two from South Florida are the first group dispatched with the National Guard to give an accounting of what the situation is and to, hopefully, do search-and-rescue. So far, so good. They worked all night. They were supposed to start at daybreak.

WEIR: Yes, well, it's great that you're down there. That is -- that has been our target. We've been reporting up here. And between live shots trying to secure some sort of transportation to get down to where you are and even get down to Cudjoe Key, south of you, where the most devastation, we're hearing grim rumors of what might be waiting there.

We're going to -- about to get on the Sea Spirit, this 50-foot fishing boat, and head down to the Keys and check out the damage there. But as far as the northern Keys, as you said, the upper Keys, they are opening it up to residents and business owners up till mile marker 73.

What's interesting, we went to the one place in town that was open. Tower of Pizza. And it was this sort of listening post where we got to hear people who hadn't eaten in three days and were trying to catch up on friends, hugging, very emotional. And some of them were saying, yes, they just gave us the yellow resident stickers to get us out of here, and then they're not going to let us back. So the same mentality that prevented some from evacuating is now coming the other way.

But it's good news, officially, that they're saying those folks can come down because they need each other. Communities down here need each other.

I just want to give you sort of a sensory experience, if you would. Imagine -- close your eyes and imagine you're at your home and the difference is it's 93 degrees inside your home. And there's not a breath of wind. And there are mosquitos getting in through the screens and maybe your neighbor has a noisy generator going.

So, people down here, as you can imagine, are on their last raw nerve. And then they have to come together and realize just the enormity of the task ahead, the cleanup. And while the stress of the unknown of their loved ones is still ongoing. It is going to be a taxing time. This is one of those times when nature reminds man that Florida is not built for man. They invented bug spray and air conditioning and Social Security so people came down here and settled in and got comfortable. But every now and then, it rears up and says, yes, this is not a human habitat normally.

I'm just curious, Chris. Are there any big pines standing in Big Pine Key? We did a wonderless (ph) episode, you know, and the inundation from the salt water coming in. Even those iconic trees are threatened. Do you see any of those left?

CUOMO: Yes. Yes. Yes. There are still some of the signature foliage here but, Bill, I've got to tell you -- I mean, you know, you and I have seen a lot of storm damage. It's not that I'm seeing things I've never seen before. I just -- I don't remember seeing this much of it.

You know, again, I put this house over my shoulder. I don't know if you have return. If you do, it's a hallelujah moment, because nothing -- but we picked it, because this is like the good scenario. The tree's on the house, but the house is still there. The rooster is still obviously alive and active. But so many of the homes are hollowed out. And I could not believe when people came walking out of them with the -- with the first responders. They would be like, yes.

They met a woman last night -- and again, they worked all night long, so it's like the middle of the night. There was a woman who stayed here not because she didn't want to leave her home. She was watching cats for friends of hers, and she didn't want to leave them, which you know, is noble. People love their pets. She rode out this storm on the ocean's edge, because she was house sitting and she was with cats. And she stayed and made it, thank God.

But when you see the homes and stuff, it's just completely devastating. But Bill, we'll check back with you in a little bit. You should be able to work your way down here right now.

Let's bring in some of the people who can give us some perspective on the task down here. First one is a local official from Monroe County, Heather Carruthers. She's joining us on the phone right now.

And Heather, if you can hear me -- right, let's establish that.

HEATHER CARRUTHERS, MONROE COUNTY OFFICIAL (via phone): Yes, I can hear you. All right. Can you hear me?

CUOMO: All right. Thank you for joining us, ma'am. I can only imagine how much you have on your plate.

And I can -- I can report to you that the first responders you sent from Task Force Two that came down here to help you all in the Keys, they worked all night long. And the conditions that they're dealing with here, luckily, the National Guard did a really solid job of clearing a lot of the roads so they can get through with their heavier equipment. No normal vehicles would make it through. But the devastation that they're seeing is remarkable in its frequency as well as its degree. It's like nobody seemed to escape it down here in Big Pine and, as we get closer to Cudjoe.

What's your understanding of the situation of who remains behind and what the situations are?

CARRUTHERS: Well, the situation vary, depending of which island you're in. You know, we're 100 miles of islands connected by 42 bridges, and you are probably in the worst of it at Big Pine. Big Pine is our lowest lying area of the Keys.

The elevation is barely above sea level in many cases in Big Pine. And the storm, you know, was a very strange storm. We expected to have higher surges in Key West, which we didn't. We didn't even experience what we saw in Wilma in Key West. But from Cudjoe up to Marathon we saw much greater storm surge than we

actually had predicted. And we're seeing a lot of damage. But, you know, it's not damage from which we're -- we can't recover. The Keys has gone through many cycles in our history and the -- probably the most challenging one, certainly, in our lifetime, but -- but we'll get through it. Thanks to the tremendous support we've had from the state and from the National Guard as well as locals. I have to say the Monroe County Sheriff's Department has done yeoman's job in the middle Keys and in Marathon. You know, they've been working at it through the storm.

So, we could have a long road ahead of us, but we're a resilient group. We'll be back at it.

CUOMO: You know, you talk about the power of the storm in there. We were trying to figure out how so much cement -- like these massive pilings and things that you don't usually see being storm affected were just tossed over roads down here. You expect to see the local airplanes, you know, thrown around like toys and all the typical flotsam, jetsam and the detritus of the surrounding area. They're dealing with very heavy movement of material down here.

It gave us some perspective of why the government gave that initial sober reckoning that the Keys won't be open for business any time soon. Do you even have a hint -- I know that the first responders we're with are going to be your eyes and ears on the ground and, really, this is the first time you're getting genuine appraisal of people with expert opinion down here.

But timing, what are you looking at in terms of timing of establishing basic needs and then getting open for business? What do you think?

CARRUTHERS: I think it's really going to vary, depending on the area of the Keys. You know, as I mentioned, Key West fared quite well. The problem, of course, is getting to Key West. However, we did inspect -- Florida's Department of Transportation inspected all the bridges over the last -- since Sunday, frankly. And we know that they are all passable. And we're, you know, clearing the roads.

So first we have to clear our main artery. Then we have to get into the neighborhoods and clear those areas. In Key West, all the major roads, they're cleared. They're working on the secondary roads right now.

It is going to be a staged, probably, reentry. You know, as you mentioned, the upper Keys down to mile marker 74, folks who are residents and business owners and either have a sticker or have proof of residency or business ownership can return. I don't know when it's going to be into Marathon. And we have a couple of challenges, as you mentioned.

We have no electricity. We have no water. And that's, frankly, a bigger concern right now, because we have -- we're testing the lines. For a couple of hours every day we can turn on the water, for instance in Key West, and try to locate where some of these water breaks are. We know that the main transmission line is OK. But there's a lot of

distribution. As you know, the Keys, it has tendrils going off of U.S. 1, and there are potential breaks in all of those tendrils. So that's a big challenge. This morning they're going to begin water testing in Key Largo and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority will work its way down the Keys testing water quality.

We've got about 40 different crews to help with utilities, with the restoration of power. We expect it will be a week to ten days before power is available throughout Key West. In the lower Keys, it could be up to a month. There are about 200 downed power lines that need to be restored.

You know, you talk about the concrete. There's a couple of reasons for that. We have limestone and very coarse soil down there. So water literally percolates up and breaks things up from underneath the ground. And when you're built on stilts, somebody's car is floating and banging into the stilts on your house. That's likely to break, as well.

So we had a lot of dynamics going on during that storm, some of which were predicted, some of which exceeded our expectations. You know, but what we're so happy for right now is, as of this moment, the death toll is quite low for a storm of this magnitude.

CUOMO: Absolutely. You get a big "amen" on that. And I've been very cautious not to report on any type of ultimate tragedies of deaths unless they're absolutely confirmed, because we wanted to wait until you could get your first responders down here, all the way to the kind of ground zero point of where Irma came ashore so we could get a better sense of how much false optimism there are in those numbers.

But we were really -- you know, you've got a buoyed spirit when you hear that. There were evacuations here, more than were expected, in the Keys. They are really looking for only 10 percent of the population as remainders. So that's very helpful.

And I can report to you that we watched the National Guard doing those bridge assessments for you all with their engineers on the way down. And that was -- you know, there's some anxiety in that, because you're waiting to cross it. And these men and women are down there, telling you whether or not you'll make it across. But they did it, all the way down.

[06:20:08] And we saw a lot of power poles up. But there were a lot of wires down. And I know that that creates different phases of work, but there was some optimism on the bunch -- on the part of the infrastructure guys that they weren't dealing with as many downed cement poles as they thought they were going to deal with, Ms. Carruthers.

CARRUTHERS: That's -- yes, that's absolutely true. You know, honestly, I'm stunned that all of our bridges survived. I think that everybody was really, really pleased with that, because that's one -- when you're connected by 42 bridges, that's one of your very first concerns, is there's bridge out, because how am I going to get anywhere if that happens?

So that -- that was remarkable. And, yes, many places along the Keys, our power poles do exist, are still standing. But you know, 200 in the lower Keys is a lot to come down. So it's going to take a while for those to get put back up. Which is why we're saying, telling people, you know, don't come down unless you have to. Certainly, don't come down until we give you the OK based on your -- on your area.

But you know, I think -- I think we're going to be in a very different place, certainly, within a week, and absolutely within a month. But it's -- it's going to be a tough go. But we're up for it.

CUOMO: Well, I believe that. I mean, everyone you meet down here just has so much tremendous spirit and resolve. Heather Carruthers, thank you very much. Please see us as a resource and let us know what information we can relay. And you'll have my contact information. Of course, I can't get to you right now, because I have no communication service. But I will give you information if you want it throughout the day about what we observe down here with the first responders, Task Force Two and the National Guard. Just so you know.

CARRUTHERS: Terrific. Thank you very much, Chris. And we appreciate your cooperation and that from folks all around the country, in fact, the world. So the Keys are a special place. And we're glad that everybody is going to help us get back to it.

CUOMO: All right. Be well. Heather Carruthers, Monroe County, one of the leaders who's going to have to help get this place get back on its feet.

Let's bring in Dave Halstead. Now, he was in charge of emergency management here in Florida. He understands their capabilities and what they faced in the past. We're lucky to have them as a CNN resource now.

Big Dave, I've got to tell you, the density, the frequency of the damage is awesome down here. And I don't mean that in the way kids use that word. I mean, it inspires awe. I cannot believe how much of the place was crushed by this storm. I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else in the state.

Now, we are at ground zero. This is where that eye, you know, first hit Cudjoe Key. I mean, this -- this was the biggest sustained winds in Naples. Where we were before this, we saw that one big gust. That's just the headline, sticker shock. This is the reality down here. And I can't believe people will be able to live here in any kind of sustainable way any time soon. What's your sense?

DAVID HALSTEAD, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Such a reality check there in the Keys. And certainly, throughout Florida, but especially the Keys. The Keys are -- is such a sensitive area. I mean, the Big Pine area where you're at, I think that's the home of the key deer and, you know, just such an iconic place.

But our greatest fear when I was state director and when administrator Craig Fugate was state director, was the Keys. That is such a vulnerable spot to get hit with such a catastrophic storm and enough of a storm surge, certainly, to cause such catastrophic results is disheartening.

We're hoping that the injuries are going to be low, and we're hoping for no deaths. But that may not be a true reality check of what's going to go on.

But the life-saving efforts -- and you've got Florida Task Force Two there, and they're some of the best in the country. Are going to go through the rubble piles. They're going to go door-to-door. They're going to go street by street, but it's going to take some time for them to do that.

So the life-saving mission goes on. Meanwhile, what you're going to deal with there is a life-sustaining mission for the 10 percent that stayed, and now the other folks that are going to want to come in is going to be how do I get water to them? How do I get food to them? How do we make them comfortable? Do we bring in tents? Do we try to bring in temporary shelters? Those are going to be the issues facing not only Monroe County but the state as they support that. And then FEMA, who backs up the state.

CUOMO: Understandable. But you know, this place, just by its geography, is so much more of a challenge. Not only did it get worse, in my, you know, nonexpert opinion, exponentially worse than anything they'd seen around the state before I lost coms overnight here. But so it's geographically remove, and just in terms of the level of degree and frequency of the devastation. It's going to take a long time.

[06:25:18] But I can tell you this. Those first responders, they were given their own water, their own Gatorades out to everyone that they found here. And they were finding people who stayed behind, and they were supposed to start at daybreak, Dave.

And if their resolve is any kind of indication of what you're going to see in the waves of those who come in to help recover, they will get on their feet here quicker than I would have expected. These guys and women worked through the night. They didn't even think twice about it. And they're out there in this crazy, muggy, high heat. And the bugs. The key deer are still here. We saw them all over the place. Everything is in shock. We saw an alligator. You know, you see a deer and then an alligator. And they're not even looking at each other. Everything is in shock.

But those men and women, that task force, too, every house is a 15-, 20-minute appraisal. They have to find their way in; they've got to look through it. There are all kinds of horrible conditions. And they know they may find people, Dave. So this is going to take a long time.

HALSTEAD: Yes. It's not a quick life-saving mission. And I'll tell you, the urban search-and-rescue teams and the one you're with, as I mentioned, is one of the best, certainly, in the country. But there's 28 of them. They'll move more teams down if necessary. But again, you've got to be able to sustain the teams that you send down there. And without any infrastructure, we're going to have to send some logistics behind there simply to support the folks that are in that area to be able to do those life-saving missions.

And the National Guard again, the frontline troops here in America when it comes to disasters moving forward and, again, the Florida National Guard are some of the best around. But they're being backed up, the National Guard, from around the country and they will get through national aid resources.

So the missions that are going on now and the ones that are personnel- heavy and logistics-heavy are going to be mutual aid from around the country, and mutual aid will be the word there that we'll use in Monroe. Because we're going to help the Kays. And as you've learned from Ms. Carruthers, they're so resilient, but we're going to need to support them. We're going to help them.

CUOMO: They're going to need it, David. You know, throughout this show, you'll be seeing the footage that we shot overnight. We haven't been out in the daylight yet. We got here, it was day. But you know, by the time they organized and it's nighttime, you're going to see -- I mean, the way these houses were hollowed out, the way the infrastructure is done down here, they've got just an enormous challenge.

Let me get it back to Alisyn. You know, with -- being with these first responders, you know, the first set of eyes, it really did remind me of something. I'm not the poet. Bill Weir is the poet, and you're the author. But there's just a paragraph that just fits this perfectly. Paulo Coello, this famous Brazilian author, has a passage, where he says that fate whispers to the warrior, "You cannot withstand the storm," and the warrior whispers back, "I am the storm."

That is the resolve that you see in these first responders. They look at the devastation around them. And again, we picked this because this was a good outcome. Darwin is still alive. I know, ironically named. Darwin is sitting in his front yard this morning. He's one of the lucky ones. But these first responders and the people who are down here, they feel that they are equal to the task. And that is so important in being able to overcome just being -- you know, just completely mind-boggling devastation, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Well, Chris, I mean, first of all, let me just say it's remarkable to have you there in Big Pine Key. You are, as far as I can tell, the reporter who has made it the farthest west, meaning to the most remote spot. So, we get to have a view of what life is like there, thanks to your limited communications, but they're good enough for us to see just what the rebuilding is going to be.

I mean, the idea that they haven't started the door-to-door searches yet. So we really have no idea what condition people are in or how these first responders are going to find them. So, that is remarkable.

And, I mean, you're just at the very, very cusp of all of this. So it's wonderful to have you there. We'll obviously be seeing, as light comes up, what it looks like around you.

Meanwhile, speaking of light, nearly 8 million customers are without power throughout the southeast. The White House warns that it could be weeks before the power is fully restored in Florida.

CNN's Alex Marquardt is live in Sarasota with more. What are you seeing, Alex?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Morning, Alisyn. Well, progress is being made in terms of getting people's lights back on. It certainly doesn't seem like it when you see those scenes that Bill is experiencing. But the progress is being made. The numbers are still staggering, though.

Here in Florida, just under 60 percent now are without power. That's still over 6 million customers. And we have to make an important differentiation between people and customers. Because customers can include entire households.

For the lucky ones, it could mean hours before their power is back on. It could mean days. For the unlucky ones, down where Bill is, down farther south, in Miami and Naples, it could mean weeks.

Now, the -- the White House has said that they are deploying the biggest army of power workers in the wake of this storm from all over the country, even from Canada.