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Residents Return to Destruction; Widespread Damage in Keys; Irma Hits Storm Chaser at Home; Power out Across Florida. Aired 9- 9:30a ET

Aired September 13, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, the Big Pine Key is a lower key, I guess on what mile 23 marker right here. Big Pine is up about 23 miles from the war south. This is the worst that we've seen in terms of damage right now, Poppy.

You can see I'm standing on storm surge. I mean all this sand, all this muck was pushed up by the force of the storm. And you can see the house behind me. You can see the storm surge came through the garage. The wind and the surge pushed through the garage and pushed all this stuff right up here where I'm standing right now. You know, peoples' lives here washed out of their houses. Julie Garwood, "Heartbreaker," you know, the book that was pushed out of that house right now.

You said we flew in. We flew in by helicopter. Landed just south of here on Sugarloaf Key. When we flew in, what we saw was most structured intact. Most structures intact, but nearly every structure damaged. There will be work that needs to be done on nearly every building that I've seen in The Keys right now. That will be time consuming and that will be extensive.

We saw a whole lot of utilities and a whole lot of recovery efforts staged, waiting to get under way. In that about 10-mile drive from Sugarloaf Key up here to Big Pine Key, I saw a row of 23 utility trucks just waiting to get to work.

The military has been in here. I saw military police here for law enforcement. They want to keep order here while there is this sort of feeling of chaos around and about. And I did talk to local law enforcement as well, who are doing the best they can. They're stretched thin. They're worried about their own homes. One officer told me that his whole entire first floor was washed out, but he hasn't been home because he's been keeping the peace.

Now this is Big Pine Key. This is the worst we've seen. We have seen houses destroyed here. Many houses completely destroyed, including this blue one here behind me. We don't see the owner of this house. He has not come back yet since the storm.

But I did find Mike Wallace. Mike Wallace joins me now.

Walk over here, Mike, you're too talk to stand up on a mound here.

MIKE WALLACE, BIG PINE KEY, FLORIDA, RESIDENT: No problem. BERMAN: Mike Wallace, who's a Massachusetts native, so I like him just to begin with here.

Mike actually was house sitting across the street. Went from his relatively safer place elsewhere in Big Pine Key over to here, where the storm hit really bad.

Mike, what was it like to go through the middle of the storm?

WALLACE: It was unbelievable. It was like being in a war zone, basically. Just the surge coming at us, hitting that house. I could literally feel that house just shaking, banging. The winds were intense. There's total devastation here.

BERMAN: How high was the storm surge? I mean we see this sand piled up. We see the sand piled up five feet here. How high did the storm surge get here?

WALLACE: In the house we were staying, watching, the storm surge, the water inside on the first level was approximately eight feet tall, eight feel high.

BERMAN: When that storm surge was going up to eight feet, were you 100 percent sure you were going to make it through?

WALLACE: I was fairly confident that the house we're in, it's a solid, concrete home. I was very, very worried. You know, with two other people in the house and I was extremely worried for the safety of us, absolutely.

BERMAN: So after the storm, after the storm, what was the first point of contact either with the military or officials? What happened first thing after the storm and when?

WALLACE: We actually -- we had a vehicle. We have a vehicle. We got down to where I used to work in Big Pine. Totally devastated. Destroyed business. And at that point search and rescue found us over there. They were out of Alaska, Air Force, and they were phenomenal. And so kudos to them. Thank you very much. You know, they gave us water and, you know, whatever. And we're slowly getting supplies down here. But we really need communication services and food and fuel desperately. There's a lot of people there that are really suffering.

BERMAN: What -- the greatest need is fuel and communications?

WALLACE: Fuel and communications is the greatest need, and food has been trickling in.

BERMAN: And Mike did tell me, the search and rescuers was here the day after going door to door to make sure that people weren't trapped. The first order of business of these wonderful angels from Alaska was to save lives.

WALLACE: Absolutely. And search and rescue actually came by here at midnight two nights ago and knocked on the door to make sure that we were OK. They saw the vehicles here and they were just phenomenal. And there's a strong military presence down here now, a lot of heavy equipment. Things are moving, but, guys, we need more help down here, you know, please.

BERMAN: Any message you want to send to the good people of Lowell, Massachusetts.

WALLACE: Lowell, pray for us. We need lots of help. My friends, my kids are in Vegas, but if you guys see this, Lisa, I'm safe.

Thank you.

BERMAN: Thank you. Thank God you are.

My friend Poppy Harlow in New York has a question, which she's going to rely through me right now.

Poppy, go ahead.

HARLOW: Oh, no, John, it's actually a question -- it's actually a question for you. And my thanks to Mike as well for being there, the good man from Lowell, Massachusetts.

But, John, I mean he says they need food, they need water, they need fuel and communication. It was hard for you to get there as a journalist with CNN. I mean how hard is it going to be for these supplies to get there in mass?

[09:05:02] BERMAN: They're coming. The C-130s are landing on Key West, which is the southern tip of the island. The supplies are landing there and they're being driven up. There are supplies now coming in from the north as well. I've seen streams of cars in both directions. Mostly official vehicles right now.

If you live in The Keys, you're allowed to move around and about but they don't really want people driving down this far from the mainland just yet. But things are starting to get here. It's slow going. I mean it is very slow going. I think, Mike, you know, we get the sense that we may be on the cusp of a whole lot arriving in a hurry.

WALLACE: I think -- I think within the next couple days we'll probably be inundated with help, which we really need. You know, you can see the devastation here. I've never seen anything like this. It's just phenomenal. I'm glad I stayed to help out a couple of friends. I could have left, but I made the decision to stay.

BERMAN: And, Poppy, I can tell you this, most people we've talked to who have chosen to stay, they were well stocked up. I mean, look, they kept days and days' worth of water and days' worth of food. If you were hearty enough to make the decision to stay, you generally prepared for probably what could be the worst situation. I will tell you, as you can see, because I'm a hot, sweaty mess, I mean it's hot here. It is hot here.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: And it's going to be very difficult for anyone to cool off for days until the electricity's back on.

HARLOW: And there's no air-conditioning.

BERMAN: Yes, but, you know, that's the least of everyone's worries down here. They're just happy to be alive. The need to get the water they need and get the message out to their loved ones that they're doing OK, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes, 100 percent. Thank you, obviously, for being there. John, you've been there for a week now, and for helping them get that message out and to Mike Wallace as well. John, you guys are doing great.

BERMAN: Thanks, Poppy.

HARLOW: All right, let's get to Bill Weir, because he's another one of our correspondent who is on a boat, as he has been for the last 48 hours or so. He's off the coast of Little Torch Key. That's due east of Sugarloaf Key. Here's a report that he filed.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a beautifully tranquil Wednesday here in the Torch Keys, just west of Big Pine Key. And it's hard to believe that this glassy ocean caused such utter devastation on the other side.

I wish we could get closer to show you. We're stuck in sort of shallows here. But I can tell you through the binoculars, there's not a house that is unscathed. Some are standing. The strongest are standing. Let's hear it for the building codes. But everything around it, boats on top of boats and power lines snarled in the water with lobster traps. We drove under the Long Key Bridge, where the fresh water pipe is ruptured and is raining down into the sea. So the basic necessities of water and power, who knows when they'll get that back up.

And then the more frustrating thing is communication. We met people on Marathon Key, a guy named William "Dub" Richardson (ph), who's the caretaker, refused to leave, who said, could you please tell my family I'm alive. Everyone in these neighborhoods, though, everyone they know who stayed has survived. Thus far the body count is pretty low.

But we went to islands where you can only access by water and there was no way for us to go through every house to see if anybody is inside.

So, search and rescue continues and the long, brutal clean-up and rebuilding continues down here in The Keys.

Bill Weir, CNN, Little Torch Key.


HARLOW: Bill Weir, thank you for that look as well.

We're pretty fortunate to have folks all over The Keys showing you what's happening in the most devastated parts after Irma.

You've got extreme weather events that are really, frankly, a day at the office for Mike Theiss. But for him, Irma is personal. He's a storm chaser, he's a nature photographer, and a life-long resident of Key Largo, and he joins me now.

I remember speaking with you before Irma hit and your perspective on all of it, especially this being so personal for you. Thank you for being here today. I know your home was severely damaged. How are you holding up? How are your neighbors holding up?

MIKE THEISS, HURRICANE CHASER: I'm holding up OK. I was actually very lucky. My home was minorly damaged. But my neighbors' were severely damaged. So I don't know how nature picks one home and then not the other, but I was lucky on that aspect.

But, yes, The Keys is severely damaged all the way up -- all the way down to Key West. That storm surge came in and affected the entire coastline and just took out buildings that were right on the coast.

HARLOW: You were trying to do your job at the same time as you were trying to make it through Irma, right, and deal with the personal impact. And as you said, it could have been your home that was wiped away or your home that was severely damaged. What was that like for you?

THEISS: It was tough because I was actually documenting this hurricane on some of the other islands as it came up to Florida. But the entire time that in-track (ph) always pointed at the Florida Keys. So I had stayed put, prepared my personal items, as well as trying to prepare myself for staying in The Keys. But it was very sad, up until the day before, because I realized, wow, this is really about to happen. The forecasted track was accurate and it's actually about to go over the Florida Keys.

[09:10:08] The Florida Keys is so exposed to the wind and the water that it does -- it only takes a category one hurricane to cause some pretty big damage there. So I knew this being a category four or a category five possibly, that this was going to be really bad.

HARLOW: Let me ask you, you know, you and a number of folks at CNN spoke to leading up to Irma in The Keys said, we're going to tough it out. We have the supplies. We're going to stay. We're going to brave this one out. You know, we need to be here for our jobs. We need to be here to protect our home. We need to document it, et cetera. Would you stay again?

THEISS: Oh, I would. This is the 41st hurricane landfall that I've covered. This is what I do for my job. But I spoke to many residents, and every single resident told me, no, they would not stay again. They don't know what they were thinking. They didn't know what -- they had no clue how bad this was going to be. So I think next time we get any kind of a hurricane threat to The Keys, you're going to see a lot more people evacuate.

HARLOW: You have said -- you were on with my colleague and friend, Brooke Baldwin, yesterday, and you said to her, look, the upper keys, they're going to bounce back pretty quickly, your hope by Christmas, right, because tourism's so important. But for the lower keys, I mean look where my colleague John Berman is. He's in Big Pine Key. It's going to take long time.

THEISS: Yes, the road to recovery is pretty long ahead here, but we're going to come together as a community. And this isn't our first hurricane. We're used to getting hurricanes, actually. We've been in a little bit of a drought for hurricanes. But they're actually very common in the Florida Keys.

So, you know, we're prepared for this. We're going to come back. Yes, it's going to take some rebuilding. But, fortunately, a lot of our activities that people come to The Keys for is our coral reefs and fishing and diving and offshore activities, which everything is fine there. So we just need to get our infrastructure back, we need to get our hotels back up and running and we will be welcoming tourists with open arms very soon.

HARLOW: We will come. I would love a vacation there, certainly, and I think so many people will come to help you guys, support you and this rebuilding process.

Mike, thank you so much. We're glad you are OK.

THEISS: Thank you.


BERMAN: All right, right now, I think we have some live pictures to show you of Governor Rick Scott, who is doing a tour right now, a boat tour, of Middleburg, Florida, checking out the damage along so much of this peninsula.

Again, you know, some of the hardest hit areas were the Florida Keys, where I am, that all the way up in the northeast, in Jacksonville, which saw severe flooding. So there is so much different damage to see. So much to assess right now.

And one of the biggest problems for the most people, the way most people are affected right now in Florida in the southeast is the power. We just got a new update on the power. Some 5 million customers in the southeast without power. But don't be deceived by that phrase "customers," because that means probably 10 million human beings are without power still right now. A lot of people suffering. So much work to do. Especially I see so many lines down here. It's going to take an awful long time to get these back up and running.

Our Dianna Gallagher covering this part of the story for us. She is up in Tampa.

Dianne, what have you learned?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, John, you mentioned that. That's a lot of people still without power. A lot of businesses as well. I talked to people here. We were in north Tampa. I want to show you the roads because this is really key here. You can see that in these neighborhoods you've got all sorts of trees, cut up, put on the sides. Trees and high winds took out power. There's still almost 4 million people just in the state of Florida who do not have power.

Now, we were on this street and it's been pretty indiscriminate. Some people on one side of the road had power, the others did not because of these trees here. We watched them actually run extension cords, neighbors who had power, to the next one.

Now, I want you to take a look. This is the problem right here on this right here. And I spoke to the people. We have a little vehicle here that's got cameras all over it. I'm going to hop out and show you. Don't worry, I'm not going to jump over with these lines or anything. But these are cable lines. They're still down.

But earlier today they came out, they fixed the power lines right in this area. And I talked to them. They had been without power for four days at some point. Some of the people who live here in north Tampa are waiting to get cable because they have power. Others may not actually get their power, John, until Sunday night at midnight. Now, that's actually an improvement. Some of them were expecting it could be even later. They were thinking it could be ten days from yesterday that they may actually start to get power back again.

So we spoke to people who have said that because their jobs don't have power, they can't go in. They have -- you know, they're hourly wages. Some people in this neighborhood in particular said, look, it's 85 degrees outside. It is so hot. We can't get ice because there's no ice. We're running out of gas because we have a fuel shortage right now. We can't charge our phones because batteries are dying in our cars because we're just using them. So they kind of feel trapped and helpless. And, again, it's all because of things like trees.

[09:14:55] One last thing, John. Because Florida has so many underground power lines, many thought they were safe. The winds were so strong, the trees ripped up from the roots. The water messed up those lines. The power company working 24 hours a day across the state with people from the west coast, the northeast, the Midwest, trying to get the people in Florida back online.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Dianne Gallagher for us in Tampa. You know, it's a beautiful sight after a storm like this to see the utility crews drive in. They take such pride in their work. They race against each other to restore power here. I know everybody is so grateful for the work they are doing.

OK. Live pictures again of Governor Rick Scott touring right now in the Jacksonville area, some of the damage that was done. Just getting a sense now at how much it will take to rebuild.

As bad as it is, what he's seeing is bad it is where I am in the Florida Keys, even worse damage in the Caribbean. We are really only now getting a sense of the scope of devastation there. A live special coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma continues right after this break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: So exactly one week ago today before Hurricane Irma took aim directly at Florida it ripped through the Caribbean making landfall as a Category 5 hurricane eventually killing at least 31 people across the Caribbean.

On day one, as you know, Irma battered Barbuda leaving that island barely habitable in the words of the prime minister with 95 percent of the structures on Barbuda completely destroyed.

And then on the island of St. Martin, which is half French, half Dutch and is considered a gateway to the smaller islands in the region. European leaders for both territories are vowing to rebuild amid scenes like this one from the French side.

North of St. Martin is another British territory, the island of Anguilla, that is where the British foreign minister says, quote, "The full blast of Irma was felt." Those are images from Anguilla.

And in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, a total of eight deaths so far have been reported as a result of Irma, extensive damage including a huge hit on the island's communication system has been reported.

As Irma marched on and lashed Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos, and then bore down on the Bahamas and Cuba, where we saw severe flooding and wide-spread wind damage, hammering Cuba. Ten people were killed in Cuba.

You do have cruise ships now helping in these recovery efforts, and taking people that were stranded on these islands off, and evacuating those as they can and bringing in food, water, supplies. But again, that certainly does not bring the power back.

Let's get to Cyril Vanier. He joins us in St. Martin. Yesterday when you were on with us, we were talking about your personal connection. Your family is from the region. I spent time on St. Martin. Looking behind you and looking and seeing what it has done to St. Martin, it's tragic. Are you on the French side where there was even more devastation?

CYRIL VANIER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: We are on the Dutch side and I will tell you the devastation is an equal measure on both sides of the island. The French side is just down the road.

And the devastation is huge. In fact, as far as the eye can see, I cannot see a building that has not been touched. Let me show you what is around me. First of all, this is the beach, and this is the hotel where you were saying you have come to St. Martin several times.

This is typically the kind of place where you may have stayed. This is about 200 rooms. The roof has been destroyed. None of the rooms are usable, the main building, the lobby area has totally broken down. You can see the state of the beach and the personal effects. You have to remember the winds. We are talking 185-mile-per-hour plus winds for 37 uninterrupted hours throughout the Caribbean. That's a record.

As you were saying, it started in Barbuda, 95 percent destruction here, and came here to St. Martin on the Dutch side. We are talking maybe 80 percent destruction, hard to put a number on it.

The French side, they are talking 60 percent destruction, and then it moved along in a northwesterly orientation towards the Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cuba.

The Caribbean, this part, this arc of the Caribbean right now all looks this way, whether it's the Dutch side or the French side. That means you have to think both short term and long term.

Short term is where am I going to eat and how will I get water to drink? People making those decisions and those calls on a daily basis. People leave their wife and kids in the morning and thinking I have enough water in the house for them to drink today.

But then they are going to have to start again the following the day unless they are one of the lucky few who got handouts or who managed to get help from a friend. Same thing with the food.

And then you have to think long term. This is where I would draw your attention once again to this picture because for St. Martin, the economy is 80 percent to 90 percent dependent on tourism.

That is the story of the Caribbean as a whole, not just St. Martin. So, when you see this, you know that their high season has been wiped out. Now is not the right season. There was a low occupancy rate in those hotels when the hurricane struck relatively speaking.

But December, January, that is the high season. That is the main source of revenue for these islands. It's the main source of jobs and livelihoods for the people who live here. How is all of this going to be rebuilt?

HARLOW: Cyril, it's incredible to see, as you said and I misspoke. I thought that there was more damage on the French side, 80 percent damage, not a building untouched on the Dutch side, and 65 percent, 70 percent damage on the French side. Thank you for bringing us the story really, bringing it home for all of us. We appreciate it, Cyril.

John, let me go back to you.

BERMAN: All right. Poppy, thanks so much. I think it's so important to put some of the focus on the Caribbean because they suffered so much in this storm.

[09:25:07] And remember, the first Americans affected by the storm, not here in Key West where I am, but in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Johns. Joining me now is the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, David Hall, joins me from St. Thomas. Mr. President, before we talk about anything buildings and everything else, and how are you and yours?

DAVID HALL, PRESIDENT, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGIN ISLANDS (via telephone): Well, I am safe. My family is safe. Fortunately, the university community is safe. We are thankful for that because this has been a devastating hurricane like no other that has come through the Virgin Islands.

BERMAN: I understand that some 20 percent -- you estimate 20 percent of the buildings at the university are either destroyed or completely unusable. Is that correct?

HALL: That is correct, but all buildings were affected. The others sustained water damage and other types of problems as well, but 20 percent of our buildings will have to be rebuilt before they can be used again, and that is certainly a devastating loss to us.

But we are committed to salvaging this semester. Education cannot stop because of Hurricane Irma or any other force and so the university is committed to saving this semester and to educating our students and using this as an opportunity to be more innovative because there are people in the territory that need to be served and need to be cared for and we see the university as part of the answer to that.

BERMAN: You say the semester will be salvaged. When do you expect to be able to teach classes again?

HALL: Well, on this campus we are looking to try and start classes sometime next week, and within two weeks we are committed to having all of our classes back up and running in some form. They may not be in the same building. They may not be all face-to-face. We have to explore online approaches.

We have to now digitize all of our teaching and learning materials, but we have made the commitment to the students that they will be held harmless because of Irma, and that means every course they registered for and signed up for at the beginning of the semester will be offered.

We are working with our faculty on this campus and we have a campus on St. Croix that was not damaged as much, and they are ready to be creative in ensuring that our students receive the education that they came here for despite the devastation that exists all around us.

The other challenge which is going to be even greater is the high schools and other primary and secondary schools that were probably devastated even more than us and some of them are being turned into shelters.

I am concerned about the education that those students will receive and the university, once we get up and running, will take on the task of trying to work with the Department of Ed to somehow help those students receive education as well.

BERMAN: Right. David Hall, the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, like one thing the storm cannot destroy, it can take down buildings but it can't damage the human mind or the thirst for knowledge.

Thank you for what you're doing, getting that university back up and teaching in a week in some cases, two weeks total. Mr. President, thank you so much.

HALL: You are welcome.

BERMAN: Our CNN special live coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma continues right after this from the Florida Keys. Stay with us.