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White House: Trump to Visit Florida Thursday; U.S., South Korea Engage in Live Fire Drill; Virgin Islands Decimated by Hurricane Irma; FEMA: 90% of Homes in Keys Damaged. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired September 12, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And work to do. More than 30,000 federal personnel are now involved in responding to this disaster. Authorities are warning some residents eager to go home that the danger remains and lives are still very much at risk.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, President Trump is set to visit Florida Thursday as emergency forces are struggling to deliver lifelines to the hurricane-battered Keys.
New video and first-hand accounts are providing a clearer picture of the devastation two days after Irma made landfall. About 90 percent of the homes in the Keys are destroyed or damaged. That according to an initial estimate by FEMA.
The Lower Keys, largely isolated, and in dire straits, with unknown numbers of people in need of power, water and possibly rescue from crushed and flooded homes. Some residents are now returning to the Upper Keys facing a slow crawl as they head to the single highway connecting the entire island chain. State workers scrambling to repair two sections of that road that were washed away by the storm.
Also tonight, widespread power outages are endangering the health and safety of millions of people in Florida and four other Southern states slammed by Irma. About 15 million people don't have electricity in Florida alone.
The death toll from Irma rising. At least eight people have been killed in the United States; 36 other died during the hurricane's catastrophic rampage through the Caribbean.
We're covering this breaking story with our guests in the disaster zone, including the former FEMA Director Craig Fugate.
And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's go to CNN's John Berman. He just arrived by helicopter in Cudjoe Key. All right, John, tell us what's going on. We have this report.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, Floridians and first-responders are getting a clearer look at the scope and scale of the devastation from Hurricane Irma, scenes of complete destruction and the possibility of an impending humanitarian crisis.
The hardest-hit region, the Florida Keys, which turn Irma's first brutal punch on the continental U.S. There's no running water, no gas, no power. Crews have cleared parts of U.S. Highway 1 and the Upper Keys are now open to residents. But first-responders are anxious to get to the Lower Keys, and there is concern the bridges here are damaged.
GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: We have been sending the Department of Transportation down to the Keys to inspect all the bridges because even though you can see that people are traveling, you're not sure that on the bridges they can take any significant weight.
BERMAN: FEMA estimates well over half the homes in the Keys have major damage, and one in four destroyed.
BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: Basically, every house in the Keys was impacted in some way or another. This is why we asked people to leave.
BERMAN: With many roads still impassable, military aircraft are flying in personnel and supplies. Throughout the state, some 15 million people are still without power. And though countless evacuees are eager to return home, authorities are calling for patience and caution.
ROBERT GOULD, FLORIDA POWER & LIGHT: If you're out and about, especially at night, especially with all this flooded water, there could be a line that you don't know is there. It might not even be moving, and if you step on it, it could be energized. That could be fatal.
BERMAN: As a weakened Irma fans out across the Eastern U.S., its impact being felt across nine states, including Georgia, where a million customers are without power. So far, at least eight U.S. deaths are being blamed on the hurricane and its aftermath. That's in addition to at least 36 people killed when Irma tore through the Caribbean as a Category 5 hurricane.
BERMAN: Wolf, I'm actually now in Sugarloaf Key, which is right next to Cudjoe Key.
And the eye of the storm passed right over this island. I met the man who lives or lived in this house right here. He was trying to ride out the storm, and was doing OK, he said, but then he noticed these trees starting to creek and he got very, very nervous. He left. He waited for the eye to pass over, and when there was a lull, he got in his car and drove to a safer place on a different island and says he barely made it.
Again, the man, Armando, who lives here told me that he wants to move back, that he wants to continue his life here, that he has to rebuild after what happened. He does think that Irma was worse than he was expecting. I think he's relieved, frankly, Wolf, that it turned out like it did and he's still here to talk about what happened -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, John Berman in Sugarloaf Key near Cudjoe Key, with that story. We will get back to you, John.
It's certainly not easy for emergency crews or journalists, for that matter, to get to the Lower Keys, where conditions are the most dire, most dangerous right now.
CNN's Brian Todd is in an area between Key West and Key Largo for us.
All right, Brian, what's the situation where you are?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, take a look at this.
This is what the Category 4 storm did to this complex here. This is the Sandy Cove condominium complex in Lower Matecumbe Key, Florida, just south of the main part of Islamorada. Look at this.
The floor you're seeing here -- I'm going to have our photojournalist David Brooks (ph) pan around this. The floor you're seeing here is the third floor. This was two floors up, Wolf.
The second floor and the garage was where I'm standing is now crushed underneath this. There was storm surge underneath this building, apparently, that washed out this section over here.
You can see where the storm surge took out the underpinnings of the building here and just washed it out. And then the force of the storm just crushed everything underneath it.
I spoke to an owner of one of these units, Tom Ross (ph). He owns this center unit right here. And we can pan over to your left here where I'm pointing. The center unit right here, he owns this. He says these go for about $300,000 each. They're about 700 square feet.
This is the third floor. This was the center unit and luckily he says he and everybody who he believes lives here got out before the storm. They could have not survived this, obviously.
He says they're confident they can rebuild here and build it back to code. This was built in the '70s. It was not living up to code. And after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the codes changed. He thinks they can build this back up. Hard to believe.
But throughout the 115-mile stretch of the Keys, Wolf, you have got people like Tom coming back to scenes like this and further south. We went to a checkpoint about five miles south. We tried to get further into the Keys by vehicle.
They would not let us. The Monroe County sheriffs deputies stopped us there. They said they could not let anyone, even residents back in there because they were concerned if residents got back in there, and something happened, it's still kind of dangerous to go home, with downed wires, other hazards in these homes.
If something happened to them, there are no cops. All the communications are down. No phone lines, no cell lines, no electricity, no water. If something happens to these people after they get past these checkpoints, they can't call anybody.
So, they're not letting people pass. That has drawn a lot of frustration from residents of the Florida Keys, Wolf, who want to get in there. They want to see what's left of their homes.
And what they're going to back to, Wolf, lord only knows, because FEMA has said that 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys were destroyed and another 65 percent suffered major damage. You have got almost every single home in the Florida Keys (INAUDIBLE) -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you.
Some Floridians are getting their power turned back on, but millions of Floridians don't have electricity and won't have it for some time.
Let's get an update from that from our national correspondent, Miguel Marquez, who's joining us.
Miguel, What's the latest?
MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Across, Florida, Wolf, it's not one problem or three problems or a handful of problems. It is thousands and thousands and thousands of problems, problems a little like this. The electricity everywhere is affected because of individual situations.
Sometimes the pole is literally just snapped. Other times, trees. Look at all the tree debris you have in this neighborhood. Trees brought down lines in many cases. We also saw lines where just whole rows of them were just sort of laying over to one side -- 6.6 million households. So that's many, many, many million more people across five different states are affected by this.
Florida Power and Light says that they hope to have most of the service restored along the coasts by the weekend. But here in Palm Beach County, for instance, about 53 percent of the county is without electricity.
This is also in the interior where we are now, in Pahokee. Places like Pinellas County and Lee County, Fort Myers and up near Sarasota, they are up to 77 percent of the people without electricity. So while the hope and the desire is there to get those lights back on by the weekend, it is a massive effort by work crews.
Many of them, thousands, tens of thousands coming from out of state to help Florida residents get their lights back on, but all of them working around the clock. They hope to get it going by the weekend, but it is a massive problem. And when you look at the small issues around every little neighborhood in Florida, it's going to take a long time before things are fully pack up in operation -- Wolf.
I was told earlier by a representative of Florida Power and Light that it could take this week, until this weekend for the eastern part of Florida to get back all the power, maybe the following weekend, another 10 or 11 or 12 days for the western part of Florida to get the power back.
It could be a while. For the Keys, forget about it. That could be weeks and weeks. Miguel, thank you very much.
Let's talk a little bit more about the response to Hurricane Irma with former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. He's joining us from Gainesville, Florida.
Craig, thanks very much for joining us.
What are FEMA's top priorities at this early stage of the recovery?
CRAIG FUGATE, FORMER ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: Well, right now, I think search-and-rescue teams have completed most of their work. Still working down in the Keys.
That was the first wave. The second wave is going to be getting commodities in. As you pointed out, they're having to use National Guard helicopters and other resources to actually fly down to some of the Keys.
With the power outages working with the private sector where stores can open, but where can't get open, getting supplies in to support the state, and then housing is going to be the next big step, particularly those folks who have lost their homes.
What are the options? Is there rental properties and motels and hotels they can put them up in? But as you already seeing from the Keys, there's not going to be a lot of good options down there. There's such devastation. I think that's going to be a real challenge to how do you do the housing mission down in the Florida Keys?
BLITZER: You're closer to the northern part of the state right now. You're in Gainesville. What are the conditions like there?
FUGATE: At my home, we're still without power. It's coming back up.
But long lines at gas stations and those kinds of things. But a lot of stores, restaurants and things are starting to get back to normal. But we're still dealing with power outages and fuel. That's why they're telling people, hey, look, if you're somewhere safe right now, everyone wants to go home and we know that. But traffic is heavy on the interstates. There's not a lot of fuel
and there's no power. So you're just going to get home to a situation that's probably worse than where you're at. Stay where you are and give people time to get things stabilized, get fuel in the system and get power turned back on before you rush home.
BLITZER: How long will it take, and you're an expert in this area, to get services functioning once again to most of the state?
FUGATE: Power is going to be the driver.
Once electricity comes back on, things tend to normalize pretty quick. Fuel, I think, again is starting to flow. But you have got to have gas, you got to have power to get things going. That's happening.
And I think utilities are right. They will have a lot of electricity up except for some of the hard-hit areas or homes that are damaged and can't take power. But, by and large, we've seen they do a much better job of getting power back, but it's not going as fast as people want. This is a statewide impact.
BLITZER: So much of the gas, the fuel is brought in from the ports. And there's serious problems in the ports right now. You speak about the gas shortage and the impact on the recovery effort. Elaborate a little bit on that.
FUGATE: Well, again, Florida gets its fuel from ports, not pipelines.
Port Everglades down in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Jacksonville are your main ports. And they could not release all the fuel, because they use soft-sided tanks, so they have to hold fuel through the storm, and then they had to make repairs and get power back up to start releasing fuel.
Their priorities are going to be the emergency responders and all the critical infrastructure that's been running on generator for several days. So, everything from hospitals to nursing homes to TV and radio stations that are all starting to run low in diesel, those are going to be the priorities.
And then it will be getting fuel out for the rest of the public. So there is a process here. And the process is to keep focused on the responders and those crews restoring power, but also critical infrastructures on diesel that need that for their generators.
BLITZER: As you know, the president, President Trump, and the first lady, for that matter, they will travel to Florida on Thursday. What advice would you give him for this trip?
FUGATE: Well, I don't know give advice to presidents. I work for them.
And I think the president knows what he's doing. He's got a good team there with Brock Long and FEMA. I think his words of encouragement, but more importantly the commitment of the federal government to Governor Scott and the rest of the Florida team, is going to be critical.
This is not going to be a fast recovery. It's going to take us years, and we need that commitment from the federal government they're going to be there through the entire recovery process.
It's going to take a lot more than just FEMA. And I think the president can bring that message, but also reassure people that Florida is not by themselves. The nation is behind us.
BLITZER: Yes. You're right. Florida is not by itself. The nation is behind Florida and Texas, Louisiana, the other states suffering right now.
Craig, thank you so much. Craig Fugate is the former FEMA administrator. He's done incredibly important work over the years.
Coming up, the Caribbean islands that took the first and worst beating from Hurricane Irma, our correspondents have now landed in some of the hard-hit areas. We will have live reports. That's coming up.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news.
Our correspondents are getting their first expensive look at the devastation Hurricane Irma left in the Florida Keys.
I want to go back to CNN's John Berman. He just arrived in Sugarloaf Key.
John, tell us about how you got there and what you're seeing now.
BERMAN: All right, Wolf.
We took a helicopter from Miami, a private helicopter from Miami and tried to take the most direct line here to conserve fuel. So I did not flyover the entire Keys or the entire 101 down here.
We did fly over a few of the islands, namely Cudjoe Key, which is over there, and Sugarloaf Key, right where I am. Let me tell you what I saw from the air.
I saw most structures still intact. Most structures still intact, but very few houses were undamaged. Almost every roof I saw had lost some shingles. I saw a whole lot of boats in places where boats aren't supposed to be, often in people's yards and in streets, around and about.
But I will say the structures did seem to withstand the storm. By and large, from the air, the structures did seem to withstand the storm. Where I'm standing right now was an area that looked particularly hard-hit from the air. There is a campground over there, and we saw some trailers overturned. You would expect to see trailers overturned in a hurricane. I don't think that in and of itself is unusual. Actually, there's an Airstream right there.
Pull into that. There's an Airstream you can see on its side right there. That's the type of thing you would expect to see in a hurricane.
And also some of the homes around here where I am right now clearly also more or less destroyed. So we put the helicopter down near here because we wanted to take a look and see the damage for ourselves.
We walked around. We met Armando, whose house this is. I'm near the main road here, and I do hear cars going by. These appear to be the aid convoys, flashing lights going by. That's going north.
I have also seen cars going south. Armando has told me they had come both ways. So here at least the roads appear to be open, also a good sign.
I will tell you that we haven't walked that far, but the only human we have seen is Armando, who lives here. I don't know how many chose to ride out the storm. He does have some friends nearby who did ride out the storm.
But he's doing well. He says his friends are all doing well. His house, as you have seen here, more or less destroyed, although in the back, he took me to the bathroom, which is still intact, although I suppose that's a start, but just a start.
You can see what is his living room right there and now open to the world. The painting, amazingly, still hanging on the wall.
So, Wolf, we just got here. We're going to see what we can see and hopefully, hopefully, they continue to get the help they need here -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And, John, there's no power where you are. Might not be power there, electricity for weeks. You're using a satellite phone. There's no cell service. You're using a satellite phone to communicate with us. Tell us about that.
BERMAN: All right, so, no, there's definitely no power, no water lines, no cell service.
This is a satellite phone. The last time I think I used a satellite phone, Wolf, was in Iraq back in 2003 or 2004. This is really one of the only ways we can get out.
I know it looks rudimentary, but I think getting this message out to the world so people can see what happened here is very important. And again I think it's a message of hope and also need. I think the message of hope here is that they're going to get through this and they have survived, the people who chose to stay. The message of need is you can see by the fact I'm using this phone
that the resources here are nonexistent. And they're going to need to come in either from the air, which is how we got here, from the water. And I know the Navy is behind that. Or from the roads again, which is just over behind my cameraman, about 200 yards.
I have been seeing cars driving north with sirens. So, that is how people here are going to get the help they need.
But I have to say it's encouraging to me that I am seeing those cars drive by.
BLITZER: All right, John Berman on the scene for us, we will stay in close touch. Excellent reporting, as usual, not just today, but for the past several days. John Berman has been on the front lines in covering this hurricane.
The death toll from Hurricane Irma, by the way, rising right now to eight here in the United States, the casualty count many times in the Caribbean, where Irma struck as a Category 5 storm.
We're getting new first-hand accounts of the devastation there as well, the urgent need for food, water and lots of other supplies.
Our senior national correspondent, Clarissa Ward, is on the island of Guadeloupe for us.
Clarissa, you're at a staging ground for emergency operations in the Caribbean. Tell us what you're learning.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
So this is essentially a processing center. And in the last few days, some 4,000 people have passed through here, the vast majority of them from the island of Saint Martin, which has quite simply been decimated by Irma.
Authorities now saying 91 percent of the buildings on that island have been damaged. Many of them have simply been wiped out. And what we have seen from the people, many of whom are almost staggering in here, some on crutches, in wheelchairs, many crying, looking dazed, some describing some fairly traumatic sort of "Lord of Flies"-esque scenarios as they waited for days and days for evacuation, as food was running out, as water running out, and as they saw a rise in criminality.
They described gangs of men with machetes looting. They described having to stay up all night and keep guard and sort of stay in the same area together to afford each other protection.
So there was a sense among many people from Saint Martin they were sort of abandoned, abandoned by the French government. We saw the French president today here in Guadeloupe and also in Saint Martin. And he was vowing the power would be back, the place will be rebuilt, the water will be back, the schools will be open.
But, frankly, Wolf, it is difficult to see how that will happen quickly, because we are still some 150 nautical miles away from Saint Martin. The situation there still very desperate.
They're still trying to evacuate people. They're still trying to get more security forces on the ground to get it controlled or contained the security situation, which, of course, for many people has already made an already horrifying scenario all the more traumatic.
Imagine you lose your house, and then you're in a situation where you fear for your life. So a lot of people here dazed, exhausted, traumatized and a little bit rang angry, too, at what they see as being help that has been late in coming, Wolf.
BLITZER: Awful situation indeed. Clarissa Ward, thanks for your great reporting.
I want to quickly check in on the conditions in the U.S. Virgin Islands right now.
CNN's Sara Ganim has made it over to Saint Thomas for us. She's joining us on the phone.
What's it like there, Sara?
SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The first thing you notice that you notice when you come up on this island of Saint Thomas is that it's completely Brown.
It's usually a lush vegetation island with a lot of foliage and trees. And when you come up, it's simply -- all the of the trees are decimated. It's not an exaggeration to say there's not a single leaf left here. Both litters the shores.
When you get closer, you realize there's really not a building that isn't damaged in some way, as well as people that aren't struggling in some way almost a week after this storm to get by.
We have seen downed power lines, trees that are making streets unpassable. This is a week later. People say -- people we talk to here say that when Hurricane Irma passed over, it sounded like a freight train had come and was riding on top of them.
We spoke to several families who lost everything except for a few suitcases that had to evacuate. People are trying to get off the island and never return.
What we're seeing here from the locals is local people helping other local people to survive in the days after this storm. People with private jets, people with yachts, things that they would otherwise be using for fun times, island life, they're using them to bring in supplies into this island and then get people off, because this island is fairly isolated.
It takes time (AUDIO GAP) the circumstances. And what they're seeing here is the absolute worst circumstances and they're struggling. Most of the island does not have power. A lot of people do not have clean water.
They're trying to bring medicine in on private planes, to bring medicine in on boats, diapers, food, bottled water. We talked to people who spent two or three days simply trying to chain saw their way off of their street to get to the main roads.
And now what they're doing is trying to help each other get the supplies that they need. I talked to three brothers who have been coordinating these relief efforts to get diapers and bottled water to families here.
We actually came in on one of their boats because the airport is damaged, the ferries are damaged. It's very hard to get on and off the island. This is one of the islands (AUDIO GAP) hit by Hurricane Irma. And almost a week later, they are some of the last to get home -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Sara Ganim reporting for us. All right, Sarah, we will stay in close touch with you. Sara is out in the Caribbean watching all of this unfold.
I want to quickly check in with the U.S. Virgin Islands delegate to the U.S. Congress. Stacey Plaskett is joining us from Saint Croix right now.
Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.
What's the level of devastation on the Virgin Islands right now?
STACEY PLASKETT (D), U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS DELEGATE: Well, thanks for having me this evening.
As you're aware, Hurricane Irma hit us almost direct impact while it was a Category 5. And it hit on the north side. So, Saint Thomas and Saint John have been tremendously affected by it.
The small island of Saint John has been completely decimated. We have lost 100 percent of our utilities there. Most of our major structures are down. On Saint Thomas as well, there's -- the destruction is to the point where the roofs of our hospital came off. Our airport, the terminals looks as if grenades have been there and bombed the place out. Airport terminals, fire stations, police stations, schools are all gone, as well as major communities on that island.
[18:30:20] But I have to say, we've had great support from FEMA, from the Department of Defense. Our governor has been working very closely with the federal government, along with our local emergency management agencies, first to prepare for this and now in the aftermath. This is not anything that we could have been prepared for, despite the fact that all of our buildings were really at code at the time of impact.
And so just as your last interview and discussion that you had, we're an island. And so getting supplies to us has been the challenge. Making sure that there are ways in which individuals can get back and forth have been the challenge. It took some time before the Coast Guard were even able to open our ports, removing sunken vessels, debris, boats that were flung up onto the port to have ships coming through.
And I have to tell you, Wolf, when you look in the day, during the days that followed at individuals and the amazing stories of support, individuals working with local government, our governor reaching out to the private sector, it's been a tremendous demonstration of the resilience of American people and how people have really looked out for one another.
We have quite a number of Virgin Islanders that are living in the States. They've organized themselves, bringing cargoes, bringing planes, ships here. And in the afternoons, mornings when you look on your waterways between the island of St. Croix, which was really not hit very hard, that has become the base camp. And there are flotillas of private ferries, guys in speed boats going back and forth, bringing individuals from St. Thomas and St. John and bringing supplies to that island, as well.
BLITZER: Your constituents, Congresswoman, how are they doing? Are they safe? Because we've heard all sorts of reports of looting that's going on, even heard reports of some areas in the Caribbean where there are looters with machetes. So what are you hearing?
PLASKETT: So, you know, I've made it a point of being on the ground. I flew into San Juan, got -- the Coast Guard were really great in getting me to St. Thomas; spent several days there. Actually, took a speedboat with some guys and spent some time on St. John.
There is minimal amount of looting that is going on. A lot of it is really just people being desperate for water and such that we're trying to get to them. A lot of jockeying, a lot of pushing at distribution centers that we're trying to bring under control.
And I have to tell you, unfortunately, part of the world that we live in right now, there are going to be some people who are trying to take advantage. People who were robbing before it was a hurricane who find the opportunity now. But that is not at the level that people are saying.
I was there on St. John where there was the rumors of so much, you know, police and armed robbers. And they tell us that's not the case, that people are really self-organized. They're cleaning debris. They're working with each other. They're locating family and friends. They're locating their neighbors. People are being evacuated if that's what they need to do. You know, they prioritize the elderly, the sick, disabled, children. And now it's first come, first serve.
Many people are choosing not to leave and are working on the rebuilding, because that's what we do here in the Caribbean. We're really a resilient people, and that's what I think that's happening on the ground.
I think there were panic initially. People who may not have been accustomed to what happens after a hurricane. But we've settled ourselves, and we're working really hard. We're grateful that the governor has been working with the federal government. There are a lot of Marines. I've talked to FBI agents who were here, our local police who are on the ground. They're really tired. But they're doing the job.
BLITZER: We wish you only the best, the delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands in the U.S. Congress, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett. Good luck to you. Good luck to all the folks over there. We certainly will stay in touch with you. I know you're doing the best that you possibly can under these horrendous circumstances. Thanks so much for joining us.
PLASKETT: Thank you. I want to thank you for demonstrating your commitment to us, as well. Because we are part of America, and people are concerned that we're not getting the news and the coverage and that we may be overcome by what's happening in other places of the United States. So thank you.
BLITZER: Thank you very much. I think I speak for all of our viewers. We love the U.S. Virgin Islands, and we're hoping only, only for the best for all of you. Thank you so much for joining us.
We're going to continue to stay on top of the breaking news. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:39:36] BLITZER: A shocking new estimate tonight of the hurricane devastation in the Florida Keys. Federal disaster officials say about 90 percent of the homes in the island chain are either damaged or completely destroyed.
CNN's Brian Todd is in the Lower Matecumbe Key area for us. Right now, Brian, Irma's fierce wind and storm surge simply ravaged that region.
TODD: They certainly did, Wolf. And it's still a very dangerous situation tonight. Tens of thousands of residents of the Florida Keys who are trying desperately to get back to their homes. Because many of them are homes like this one, this condominium complex here. It was three stories. Now it's one story of gutted-out wreckage.
You know, we talked to sheriff's deputies down the road, down U.S. 1, about five miles from us, where they set up a checkpoint. They would not let us through that checkpoint. Would not even let residents through because of situations like this. When they get home and there are buildings like this. The coms are completely down. No phone service, no cell service, no water, no power. They say if people get into these areas and something happens to them, they cannot call out. So it might be a lot of frustration, but sheriff's deputies are still keeping people away from their homes tonight, Wolf. They have to.
BLITZER: We apologize to our viewers for the communications, but I'm sure everyone understands the circumstances. There is a disaster unfolding in the Florida Keys right now. We're going to try to get better communications. Brian, thank you very much for that report. Also tonight, millions of Florida residents are still without power.
And for some of them, it could take maybe a week, maybe two weeks, some of them even longer to get the lights back on.
Robert Gould is the vice president, chief of communications officer for the parent company of Florida Power and Light.
Rob, thanks very much for joining us. When I spoke with you earlier today you told me it could be another 10, 11 or 12 days before the west coast of Florida has power fully restored, maybe by this weekend, the east coast of Florida. Why does the process take that long?
GOULD: Well, to be very -- to be very simple -- candid, what we've seen is less damage on the east coast. More traditional what you would expect to see with a major hurricane. Less poles down, more wire type of thing. We can restore that much quicker.
But on the west coast, we're actually seeing some areas that have some significant damage where we have to rebuild certain parts of the infrastructure.
And I will tell you the good news is our preliminary assessments on the west coast in particular are showing that the billions of dollars that we've spent over the past decade to harden our system -- for example, take wood poles and put in concrete and steel structures -- those are holding. We're not finding a lot of transmission poles on the ground or structures in damaged form.
So that's a really good thing in terms of our ability to get the backbone of the infrastructure back. And that allows us to restore power much, much quicker than had we not made those investments.
BLITZER: Do you have to shut down, Rob, the gas lines before you restore power? Because this is a dangerous operation for the -- for the workers who are doing this job.
GOULD: Well, what we have to do -- and there are times that some of our customers will actually be taken out of service so that we can restore service to them. As a matter of fact, we estimate about 5 million customer interruptions. That means that some customers have had one, two, or three interruptions or will have that kind of a pattern. And then, in order to restore our customers we have to do that to your point, to make sure it's done safely. Not just for our employees but for the customers, as well.
BLITZER: Florida Power and Light, you have operations in much of the state but not all of the state. You don't operate in the Keys, for example. But based on what your latest estimates are, how many customers that you serve are without power right now?
GOULD: Right now, we have about 4.4 million customers who we've actually been Affected. We have about 2.6 million customers right now that are out of service. We're shooting to have half of our customers back in the lights, back in service sometime tomorrow. And that's our goal. We're going to keep working hard to make sure we get all of them on very, very soon. BLITZER: Well, good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women
who work with you. Robert Gould, Florida Power and Light Company. Thanks for everything you're doing.
We're following the breaking news. There's much more coming up.
The White House now says President Trump will visit Florida. We have new details on his trip. That's next.
[18:49:04] BLITZER: There's breaking news on the hurricane disaster from the White House, which has announced that President Trump will visit Florida on Thursday.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. He's got details.
Jim, the first lady tweeted she'll be joining the president.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The White House says President Trump will be headed to Florida on Thursday to survey the damage left by hurricane Irma. We're hearing through our sources that it appears at this point that will be in the Ft. Myers area, that part of southwest border that was so hard hit.
The first lady, as you said, as well as the vice president, are also set to travel down to Florida on Thursday. This will obviously be another test for the president when he arrives on the ground down there. After Hurricane Harvey, of course, the president was criticized for being insensitive when he commented on the size of his crowd when he gave remarks to storm victims. Later on in the week, though, we should mention, the president did earn higher remarks when he actually met face-to-face with those displaced residents in both Texas and Louisiana, Wolf.
BLITZER: There was also some other news at the White House briefing today. As you know, you were there, Jim.
[18:50:02] The press secretary, Sarah Sanders, was asked about the fired FBI Director James Comey.
Tell us about that.
ACOSTA: Well, it was a pretty stunning moment. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders took the very unusual step of appearing to advocate for a Justice Department investigation into former FBI Director James Comey. At first, when she was asked about this notion of prosecuting Comey, Sanders said that would be up to the Justice Department, but pressed again on what the White House preference would be on the subject, Sanders made the suggestion that Comey somehow broke the law, but she didn't specify how.
Here's what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's not the president's role. That's the job of the Department of Justice and something they should certainly look at.
REPORTER: It's definitely he'd like to see?
SANDERS: I'm not sure about that specifically, but I think if there's ever a moment where we feel someone's broken the law, particularly if they're the head of the FBI, I think that's something that certainly should be looked at.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now, normally, the White House would stay out of these kinds of questions about criminal matters, leaving that up to law enforcement professionals.
Two other notes on the Russia probe, Wolf. Sanders also pushed back on stories that there was a discussion here at the White House earlier this year over whether the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner would step aside and Sanders, get this, did not knock down the idea of the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., testifying publicly in the Russia investigation. That is something that some prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill like Senator Dianne Feinstein would like to see -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta with the latest at the White House.
We have much more coverage coming up on the hurricane aftermath, including the stunning new scope of the destruction in the Florida Keys.
Plus, an exclusive live report from inside North Korea, as the Kim Jong-un regime react to new sanctions with a new threat to the United States.
[18:56:27] BLITZER: New tonight, a show of strength and unity by the U.S. and South Korean military, staging a live fire drill in South Korea amid rising tension with North Korea over its aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons.
CNN's Will Ripley is in the North Korean capital for us. This, his 15th trip to that city of Pyongyang. He's the only Western journalist on the scene there right now.
Will, this live fire drill in South Korea comes on the heels of new sanctions against North Korea just unanimously approved by the United Nations Security Council. Give us the reaction where you are.
WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Just minutes ago, Wolf, we received a response from the North Korean government to this latest round of U.N. sanctions. They're condemning them in the strongest possible terms. And they are threatening to redouble their efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear warheads and the missals that could deliver them to the mainland U.S.
Of course, adding fuel to the fire on the peninsula here, this new show of force by the United States and South Korea. These live fire- drills where you saw artillery and tanks and aerial support, all an attempt by the United States and its South Korean ally to show North Korea that in the event of an actual war, they would have the tactical upper hand.
But when you're dealing with a North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with an increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal from the North Korean perspective, it is hard to convince them to give up those nuclear weapons despite these sanctions -- the strongest that have ever been passed against this country, Wolf.
BLITZER: In the 15 visits you've had to North Korea over the past few years, Will, have you seen any signs at all that the North Korean economy is suffering because of these sanctions?
RIPLEY: We really haven't, Wolf. And granted, we're only allowed to see a limited picture of the country, mostly the capital of Pyongyang, home of the most privileged citizens. But we did travel throughout other regions and people are not starving or at least they don't appear to be, the people who we are allowed to see. We see more people with cell phones, more cars on the streets, more products on store shelves.
And in fact, the North Korean economy grew by almost 4 percent last year, according to South Korean central bank estimates, despite round after round of increasingly strong sanctions.
So, the limited window that we have into this country, their economy is improving despite this mounting economic pressure. But of course, sanctions do take a long time to kick in. So, we'll have to see if this latest round has the bite that the previous sanctions didn't.
BLITZER: You have an amazing documentary that will air here on CNN Friday night. Tell us a little bit about that.
RIPLEY: This is something that we have been wanting to do for a long time. And we finally got permission from the North Koreans to leave the capitol of Pyongyang and travel throughout the country, from the South, the border with South Korea, the demilitarized zone along the coast, and for the first time in CNN history, more than 25 years of traveling to this country, we were allowed to visit the northern border region near China, the same region just one province over where North Korea recently conducted its sixth nuclear test.
We were able to have really unprecedented conversations with people, the kind of discussions we have never been allowed to have before, and some of the things that they told us were really, really revealing, Wolf. It's one of these situations where often I find myself driving through this country looking out the window, wishing we could stop and talk to people and tell their stories, and we had the opportunity to do that with this documentary.
BLITZER: CNN's Will Ripley in the North Korean capital for us exclusively. Thanks very, very much.
And once again, Will's documentary airs Friday night, 10:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.