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Florida Keys Devastated by Hurricane Irma; FEMA Administrator Brock Long Discusses Recovery Efforts in Florida Keys. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired September 13, 2017 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get right to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have never seen a hurricane like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I started crying because I did not realize how bad this was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: FEMA estimates well over half the homes in the Keys have major damage and one in four destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to go home. I want to see that we have a home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest challenge we have right now is just the lack of power and the lack of water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A humanitarian crisis quickly growing in the Caribbean.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is not anything we could have been prepared for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The goal is to get people back as soon as possible. We're just not prepared to do that at this hour.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: While we may be down, we're not out right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: This is Chris Cuomo. We are here, the CNN team, in the Florida Keys. This is the hardest hit part of Florida in terms of hurricane Irma. We have new information for you -- 55 deaths from this storm, 24 from the United States. That may well not be a final count. It's almost impossible to believe they have surveyed the entire scope of devastation.

Power -- 5 million customers were without power. We are getting updates that the number is much lower now, that in Florida the reported early number of 4.2 million customers still not having it, that that's low, that they've been working around the clock and they're making unexpected progress. On the mainland, not here, not in the Caribbean, major distinction, FEMA estimates that 90 percent of the homes in the Keys have been damaged or destroyed. We're trying to feed you in this fuzzy picture you may be seeing because there's no coms, there's no communications, there's no internet. All the usual equipment we use we can't. We are using older, more primitive equipment to get you any kind of broadcast at all. We are trying to send you drone footage that our producer John Griffin has been shooting to show just how terrible this is, Alisyn, because -- Alisyn is in New York obviously holding the ship steady. We haven't seen anything like what we have been seeing here on Big Pine Key. Here's our story from being out with the first responders, the first team, task force two, to make it to the Keys.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CUOMO: The destruction you haven't, the first Key, Key West, disabled by Irma. No power, water, gas. No hope for better anytime soon. And yet these scenes, backed up by the fact that so few lost their lives, a better than expected outcome.

But each step closer to CudJoe Key where Irma's evil eye made landfall, devastation. Blocks of debris, downed power lines, and mutilated memories, tempest tossed, more severe than anywhere else in Florida. First responders of task force two in Florida doing search and rescue have never seen anything like this.

How do you make sense of all these houses are gone and then this house is standing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Luck of the draw, I guess.

CUOMO: Big Pine Key, not a big pine to be seen here. Houses splinters, gone. Boats everywhere, reminding streets were rivers for hours. Ground littered with personal affects. One tape, a surreal suggestion. Yes, that says gone with the wind.

It looks like you had a crew with pledge hammers in here who were angry at somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you are right. Mother Nature, she does what she wants when she wants to. This is where the eye hit, so that's why we are focusing our primary search efforts here.

CUOMO: Another house blown off its slab and collapsed. A search dog gets excited. The saws and anxious looks come out. Thankfully nothing worse than spoiled meet this time.

Each block can take hours to clear, shouting, sawing, searching, sweaty sleep-deprived saviors work all day and into the night again. Everywhere you walk a horror of the unknown. And yet for all that is lost, people remain. They come to us shell-shocked and with the same request -- to use our satellite phone to call and tell loved ones they are alive. This young family lost their home. Solace in survival and a beautiful son who will still have a future. But this is so hard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't believe the water is still in the house. We can't even get in there yet.

CUOMO: More come, desperate to tell their kids they're OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, Jess, I'm alive.

CUOMO: To tell siblings they made it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're an incredibly awesome brother, and me and mom are OK. We're kind of wiped out down here. We will get in touch with you whenever we can, but we are OK.

CUOMO: This mother and son have each other and their sense of humor.

[08:05:00] You are the best thing I have seen all day, I want you to know.

(LAUGHTER)

CUOMO: The best I've seen all day.

They will need both to make it through the next few weeks and months.

Even speaking French, the message is clear. I made it, and I will never stay for a hurricane again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The main thing I said, I don't care, even if we don't have a house, we can rebuild, but as long as everybody is safe.

CUOMO: Here in what was once paradise, so many say they don't know when they will look at the sky the same way again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CUOMO: The sun is now up on another beautiful day in the Keys, but what it is shining on is ugly beyond any kind of description. The pictures tell the story. This is Big Pine. Little Torch Key is another one in the chain leading down to Key West, also very hard hit, very tough to get to by land or water. Bill Weir braved these just storm passed seas to come from Key Largo down here on a fishing boat. We heard from him earlier this morning. He's moved again. Bill, how is it there in Little Torch?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is absolutely gorgeous. And this is the kind of morning that makes people want to live down here in the southernmost neighborhood. But it is almost cruel in its beauty. Look at this, glassy seas. But just across them, I wish we could get closer to the homes there on Torch Key, unfortunately too shallow here, but I can tell you through my glasses that there's not a structure that was not completely hammered by Irma.

Some of the other infrastructure problems we've seen coming down, as we crossed over from the inner coastal to the Atlantic side of the Keys, we went under a bridge, was Long Key, captain? Yes, Long Key Bridge. And it was like a water ride at an amusement park, fresh water pouring down from the ruptured pipe that carries sweet water down into Key west. We also went ashore and one of the few islands that is only accessible

from the water, Cook Island, this little stretch, just gorgeous, a couple dozen homes there and a setting right out of a Mexican beer commercial, just utterly, completely destroyed in jaw-dropping ways. And then on top of that, the way you see snowdrifts after a blizzard, piles of coral, the kind of deep water coral you find five miles out and 60 feet deep. So the people like these folks over here who are waving.

The people who rely on these waters to make a living as divers, as fishermen, the health of that reef matters as much as the health of their property. So the biomass that lost its life in this is grave. Luckily, Chris, the human death toll, you know, blessedly but shockingly low so far.

CUOMO: Beautifully said and accurate. It is surprising, with the caveat that we don't know the full extent yet. I hear you Bill, and I am grateful for that, to have from that perspective on the water and coming on land is huge. When you go ashore with your crew, bring all the essentials and your sat phone if you have one, because people are going to come up to you and they're going to need to communicate with loved one who haven't heard from them for days. Bill Weir on a location that you wouldn't not get to see otherwise. Our thanks to him. We will check back with him later in the show and I'm sure throughout the day.

But now, we have a key interview, Brock Long, the FEMA administrator, he has been meeting in Puerto Rico with the governor there and governors of the Virgin Islands. Mr. Long, if you can hear us, thank you for joining us, especially in this emergency period. What is the situation like there to your eyes?

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: So yesterday, as you just stated, I first went to the Virgin Islands and met with the other staff, and the island took a tremendous hit. So obviously what we are trying to do is make sure that we can establish emergency power where needed to get the infrastructure back up and running. There's going to be a very sizeable debris mission on the island, both vegetative and commercial demolition debris.

I also wanted to put my feet on the ground to assess the security situations, and I have to say the islands are safe and secure. There may be isolated events of crime here and there, but overall the island is safe and secure and people are working together around the clock to, you know, restore a pathway of hope and a bridge to recovery there, and FEMA is working around the clock with our partners to help make that happen.

I also met with Governor Rossello. He and his tremendous leadership have put forward a very clear path of recovery to Puerto Rico.

[08:10:02] Obviously the biggest issues were power failures. There were over a million without power, but power has been pretty much 75 percent restored and will continue to come down today. So our island partners are our equal, and I look forward to getting back to the continental United States today, particularly south Florida to put my feet on the ground and assess the situation there.

CUOMO: We know you will be with the president when he comes to visit the southwestern part of Florida. The closest analogy to where you are is where we are here in Big Pine Key. I'm sure you can appraise the situation. We're with task force two here, many of the men and women who are feeding that information back to FEMA and the state authorities as well. What do you make of the situation here on the ground?

LONG: So hopefully I will be in and around Monroe County today. My schedule is to be determined depending on where we can get access and get into, but in regards to Monroe County, the damage you are seeing is exactly why we asked people to evacuate. Staying behind is not a smart idea. And not only are you putting your own life in danger when this type of event occurs, but as you can see it's tough for us to get there because the logistical nature of accessing Monroe Key. There's numerous bridges that support that have to be inspected before we can put commodities down the roadways to support citizens. Communication is lacking in many portions of Monroe County. So if the citizens are frustrated about not being able to get the support they need right now, that's exactly why we asked them to leave.

And I think we were trying to set that expectation up, but we are doing everything we can. I'm working very closely with Governor Scott to try to get there and alleviate the situation and stabilize the situation in Monroe County as quickly as we can.

CUOMO: So let's talk about what that means. I mean, we take your message about why people were told to evacuate. Live and learn. That's the past. The present is a very urgent one. And while FEMA and the state and locals, everybody is getting very high marks now, we know what happens with time. Time breeds desperation and a change in sentiment. How long do you think the people here in the Keys will have to go without power, will have to go without the essentials of sewage and water and fuel?

LONG: You know, unfortunately, as we have been saying, you know, collectively the state has done a remarkable job of getting, you know, the power turned back on. Obviously we are aware there are still several million people without power, and here, again, both the governor and I, if we could flip a switch and make the power work we would obviously want to do that, but that's not reality. It takes a long time to not only clear the pathways to get power crews in, but then also fixing the infrastructure and making sure you have the right equipment in the areas of where transformers may be needed, power lines, transmission lines may be needed. It takes time. So particularly those areas that were hardest hit as we were saying before the storm hit, expect the power to be out for multiple days if now weeks in some areas.

So it's my job to set the expectations, but I want the American people to know that, you know, my job is also to take care of people. We are working around the clock and have been and will continue to do so to try and stabilize the situation.

CUOMO: We see it. We see it firsthand how all the resources are coming together to make a difference here, but it certainly is going to take time. I don't want to keep you from your duties. As always, see CNN as a resource as you want information to get out to the affected people to the extent they can absorb the information right now because there are no coms, let us know, we'll pass it on to task force two. We'll be shadowing their efforts. Thank you very much, administrator, appreciate having you on the show.

LONG: All right, take care.

CUOMO: Be well, be safe.

David Ovalle is with "The Miami Herald." He's a reporter who braved the storm in Key West. He bedded down there so he could explain the reality immediately to everybody else. David, it's good to have you. Thank God you made it through safety. What do people need to know?

DAVID OVALLE, "MIAMI HERALD REPORTER," RODE OUT HURRICANE IN KEY WEST: I think the main thing that people need to know is that it's going to be a little bit of time before things get back to normal in the Keys, and a lot of the family members and of people who are still stuck in the Keys without communication need to just be patient. I have been swamped and inundated with messages asking me if I could please check on so-and-so in Summerland, or so-and-so on this street in Key West. And I just try to reassure everyone there hasn't been any reports of widespread casualties, there's hasn't been reports of widespread injuries, and so it's just a matter of being patient. There's just literally no communications there. It's very, very difficult to come out.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: They are looking at your footage at home as they watch this. I can't see it. I have been told it's very impressive. I am sure I have gotten a sense of what it is.

We were in Key West yesterday or the day before. I don't even remember now. They did not get hit the way Big Pine did and the areas around Cudjoe Key. But they have some real desperation down there in terms of normalcy, fuel especially. We saw a gas truck pull up and this line of, like, 40 cars, just appeared out of nowhere.

And then only to be told there's no electricity. So, they have gas but we can't pump it. And somebody said, well, I have a diesel generator but he had no diesel, and this guy was only pumping unleaded.

You know, so, there are problems and layers on top of it, and it's easy to say have patience. But -- what is your expectation about how long until the mood shifts under the heat with no sewage, no water, no power, no Internet?

OVALLE: Yes, I think -- I think the conditions in Key West will definitely be among the most challenging because it's more populated than some of the islands that got more hard hit with the winds. There's lot of people. There's a lot of people in Key West that are low income, elderly, and people with animals that didn't want to evacuate, and there were hundreds of people showing up in the shelter of last resort right before the storm. So, you're going to have those conditions. But one thing I'll tell you, the people in Key West are remarkably resilient. They kind of knew what they were getting into when they decided to stick it out, and I think a lot of people really are just driving for some sense of normalcy. I mean, the keys have been through these types of storms before. This is obviously much worse than anyone that has hit recently.

But I think the people down there are pretty resilient. I mean, you know, literally, the storm was still raging and they were still getting those last bands and rain squalls and there were already bars up on Deval Street (ph). I think the people will be fine. It's going to be miserable and it's going to be tough for a little bit, but I think they will be just OK.

CUOMO: Let me tell you something, David. I can -- I can affirm that in real time. We are here in Big Pine Key, OK? It is devastated. We met the Tabacco family, Italian family, and they are not only the home still intact.

This morning, despite everything they are dealing with, the guy just showed up, Richard Tabacco, and he brought us coffee and a carafe and cold drinks. With everything that he is dealing with in his own life, he just brought this stuff here. I am trying to get him to come on camera, but they are shy. They are so generous and resilient and the spirit of community is going to mean everything down here.

Your take?

OVALLE: Absolutely. You know, if you have spent anytime in the Keys, especially outside of Key West, you know, it's a pretty isolated area and it's pretty rural, there are some people that are, you know, especially hearty. I mean, we interviewed a gentleman that rode it out on his sailboat, and he said, look, I have been through a gazillion hurricanes, I wasn't going to go anywhere, and he survived.

Now, his boat ended up getting untethered and he ended up crashing into the mangroves. But he was out there still, you know, hanging out and he said once I get my boat fixed or a new boat, I will be out there again.

So, I think the people in the keys are especially resilient and I think they will get through this fine. You know, it's a pretty sparsely populated area all in all. So I don't think there will be the widespread catastrophe or at least humanitarian crisis that it could have been if it had been hit directly in Key West.

CUOMO: From your lips to God's ears. David, thank you very much for doing that hard job of staying there and documenting the reality of Key West. Appreciate it.

Alisyn, I don't care whether Richard wants to come in or not, Richard Tabacco, you have to come here, you have to let Alisyn see you. She's Italian. It's OK. You can say hello.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Let me see him. CUOMO: This is Richard Tabacco. He made through the storm. He

stayed with his family. He helped us all day when we were doing our shot yesterday and keep coming out. They were working the community and clearing things and getting their life back together this morning.

You just brought me hot coffee. Who is better than you?

RICHARD TABACCO, RODE OUT IRMA IN BIG PINE KEY: I brought you milk, and it's not cream. But --

CUOMO: The optimism that you have. Yesterday, we were walking around your house and you're showing me all the devastation and say, this is a win.

TABACCO: Sure. We can -- we got all our hands and toes and all my family members, and things can be replaced. You can't replace family.

CUOMO: To the people who say they want to come back. They want to see their homes. They want to deal, what do you say?

TABACCO: Don't even bother. We shouldn't be here. There's nothing. Services are a long way away.

[08:20:01] We are truly on our own. There's nothing here. There's no gas, there's no water, there's no stores, there's no electricity, there's no cell phone service.

Just stay away for about two weeks. Let the first responders and the CNN guys, let them do their job and you can all come back later, but there's nothing here to come back to.

CUOMO: How is today for you when you woke up this morning?

TABACCO: Today is an awesome day. My boss gave me a generator that didn't work and I fixed the carburetor on it three times, I have electricity. We slept in my bedroom with air-conditioning last night, and I got battery powered fans, hot coffee, food. The milk is cold again, and it's a good day.

CUOMO: Alisyn -- first of all, thank you, brother. I appreciate it. I appreciate all the help.

Let me tell you something about this guy. Thank you brother. We will.

So, Richard yesterday wants to show me that everything is OK. He's a motor head, he can fix anything. So, the first thing he wanted to check when he came out of his house yesterday as he gets in his Mustang and he burns out down the street and that was the sense that life is going to be OK.

Richard, thank you very much. You are the best.

CAMEROTA: And I know how much you respect that, Chris.

CUOMO: It's the little things in the situation like this. There's no one within blocks of their family.

I respected that, but this coffee is a close second, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Well, that's interesting, Chris, because he seemed very upset not to deliver cream to you. I get the sense you are demanding your morning cappuccino from the residents there and perhaps the peeled grapes that we give you every the morning. And I would say, just lower the diva demands to those folks, OK?

CUOMO: Yes, it's impossible for me, and that's why they don't send me out on these. This is -- I am not built like these people down here. They are as real as they are resilient. They're coming together. The community spirit will mean everything to them.

And they all say hello. They're big fans of yours, of course.

CAMEROTA: Of course, they are. Honestly, Chris, it is so great to have you talking with all of the folks in the keys, because we really get a sense of that Conch culture that you and Bill Weir have been talking about, about what survivors they are, you know? About how resilient. I mean, it's like you -- as you have said, this culture has basically been thrusts 50 years back in time right now. I mean, with the lack of power and water and communications.

CUOMO: Yes.

CAMEROTA: I mean, it's sort of Robinson Caruso there, and we are getting a real sense of their character from your interviews with them.

CUOMO: I wish -- I wish we didn't have to tell the story, I really do. I wish that the desperation wasn't what drew the focus. But, you know, as we keep saying, often the worst in Mother Nature brings out the best in human nature, and we are seeing it. We're seeing it with the Tabacco family and families just like them, all over the Keys.

But the problem is their reality. You got the romanticism of the Conch culture meeting a reality of life that is going to be very hard for a long time to come.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Understood.

Well, listen, Chris, we'll be back with you in a moment.

But we want to go and check out some of the other places because several islands in the Caribbean have been destroyed by Hurricane Irma. So, at this hour, it's very hard for officials to accurately assess the size and scope of the damage. Look at the Caribbean there on your map.

So, international anchor Cyril Vanier gives us some sense of it all from the hard-hit island of St. Maarten.

Cyril, what are you seeing?

CYRIL VANIER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Yes. I want to take you through just a little 360 degree tour of what we're seeing and this is kind of what you see across St. Maarten right now. We just got in last night.

Look at the road around you. Pretty much everything is on the floor. What is left standing is the walls and the structures of these houses.

So, you have people who are huddling in these houses, but often the roofs are caved in and here's the checklist that people are going through. You've got to think short term and long term. And this is true for St. Maarten, but not just St. Maarten. It's also true for other islands in the Caribbean that were on the direct path of the storm.

So, your short term checklist is, are you safe? In the days after the hurricane, that was not necessarily because of the looting. Do you have food and water? The answers to those questions here today is really touch and go.

People are still living on the food supplies they bought in bulk before the hurricane, but they're going to start running out. The water, they're helping each other out. The same thing, they're going to start to run out. They have not seen -- all the people I spoke to here they have not seen the water supposed to be handed out by the Dutch marines on this side of St. Maarten.

So, food, water, safety and your power. That's the other key one. Power is really touch and go as well. Very passive, because the power company has to come in and connect the houses one by one, checking first there's no live wire.

So, that's the daily task. The daily challenges for the people around us.

And, by the way, when we flew into St. Maarten, we were actually traveling along a direct path that the storm took from St. Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

[08:25:01] So, we flew over the U.S. Virgin Islands. The reports are they are experiencing pretty much the same thing, going through the same list day after day. Your food, your water and your safety and your power.

CUOMO: All right. Look, they are the lucky ones. Even though life has been reduced to such essential basics, they have a life to live, and that takes us to how so many were able to survive in the hands of rescuers and we have somebody who's doing that job, an ordinary citizen who decided to make a difference and somebody who is the beneficiary of just that type of spirit.

Danny Charak, he's a boat captain, he was in Puerto Rico trying to save people, and Laura Strickling, she knows Danny's wife, she was rescued and got away from the storm and its effects.

Can you both hear me?

DANNY CHARAK, RUNNING BOATS TO ST. THOMAS TO HELP EVACUATE PEOPLE TO SAN JUAN: Yes, good morning.

LAURA STRICKLING, ST. THOAMS RESIDENT WHO WAS EVACUATED BY BOAT: Yes, good morning.

CUOMO: All right. Captain, thank you very much for everything you did. Tell us about -- great, it's good to have you. Tell us about the decision you made to use your boat and get out there and to help people?

CHARAK: To be honest, I'm not a captain. It was a big group of Puerto Ricans who are all private boat owners, and they decided to accept donations in different spots in San Juan, and we loaded up an estimate of 30 boats to take to St. Thomas and St. John, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, offload over there, and then we welcomed people to get on the boats to come back to Puerto Rico for those that wanted to leave the island.

CUOMO: Danny, anybody who gets in a boat and loads it up with supplies and goes into a hard-hit desperate area to help people is a captain as far as I'm concerned.

Laura, you were one of the people who were beneficiary of this. What was it like for you to have people from your community reach out and provide that kind of help in that moment of need?

STRICKLING: We really started to feel desperate. We had not seen any officials on the ground in the four days since the hurricane. We were running out of supplies. We weren't sure when we were going to get more, because again, we hadn't seen anyone officials on the ground in our neighborhood.

We have a 15-month-old baby, and we started to realize that unless help came soon, the situation was going to get desperate. So, when I received a phone call saying there might be a way off and it was not going to be an easy way off, but we knew we had to take it.

We live about ten minutes from the drop point in normal times, and it took us an hour and ten minutes to get to the dock that day. They told us that the boat would arrive at 2:30. And because of different delays the boat didn't come until 6:00, but we didn't know if it was going to come.

So, we just stood there and hoped for any signs our babies for several hours with five other mothers and their babies, and I can't tell you I never was happier than when we saw that boat enter the harbor.

CUOMO: Oh, my goodness. I can't imagine how -- those are the longest hours of your life. How is the baby? What is their names? How is everybody now?

STRICKLING: Sorry, her name is Elizabeth. She's doing so well.

You know, she's young enough that she is not going to remember this. I'm thankful for that. I am worried about the babies still in St. Thomas who need help. They still needed water. They still needed food and I will do anything to get that message out. We feel abandoned by the government. We need to have real, visible

care and aid now.

CUOMO: We understand the urgency. We understand the message. Laura, thank God you are OK.

Your baby will know about Irma. She will know about it in the lessons you teach to her about how people came together and how you were rescued and that's an important lesson. Thank God you are safe.

And, Captain, Danny, thank you for what you did.

CHARAK: Yes.

CUOMO: People like you made an immeasurable difference in a horrible situation.

CHARAK: Thanks. It was a group effort. Lots of people involved in this. I was just a small piece of the pie.

CUOMO: Understood. Understood. We're grateful for what you did and others as well.

Alisyn, back to you in New York.

Look, you know, we can show you this. This is how we got here. But how you survive and move forward, that's going to be about people not places, and these stories matter just as much as any statistics or footage of the despair.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. We are so happy to be able to bring them to our viewers this morning.

Chris, we will be back in a moment but there's other news today including what is going on in Washington.

President Trump continues to try to woo Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin. He had dinner with the president last night. What did they agree on? He'll be here next.

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