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Hurricane Irma could be catastrophic. Here’s how officials are preparing

September 6, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Hurricane Irma is punishing Puerto Rico with 185 mph winds as it takes aim at the U.S. mainland. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Ed Rappaport of the National Hurricane Center, Kathleen Fox of FEMA and Key West Mayor Craig Cates about how the storm is developing and what resources are being mobilized.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hurricane Irma is punishing Puerto Rico tonight, as it takes aim at the U.S. mainland.

Sustained winds are still blowing at a record 185 miles an hour, with gusts up to 225 miles an hour. One forecaster watching the assault today said this thing is a buzz saw.

The monster storm came in the night to the outermost islands of the Northeastern Caribbean. Heavy rain and howling wind slammed Antigua and Barbuda, cutting off communications and doing untold damage.

Officials on Barbuda confirmed one death. The hurricane raced on to the French island of Saint Martin, ripping the roofs off homes and triggering heavy flooding. By mid-afternoon, hurricane trackers found the eye of the storm roaring over the U.S. Virgin Islands; 185-mile-an-hour winds raged as we reached the territory’s Lieutenant Governor Osbert Potter by phone.

LT. GOV. OSBERT POTTER, U.S. Virgin Islands: The light posts, power poles, they are swaying. The trees are — what branches have not broken, and what trees have not fallen are being stressed a whole lot. Cars in the parking lot are literally shaking.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Puerto Rico stood next in line. Heavy rain and wind built throughout the day, and residents there scrambled to prepare for an all-out disaster. And the people of Haiti hoped to be spared the worst, after Hurricane Matthew devastated the island nation last year.

BARTHELEMY JEFFLINE, Haiti Resident (through interpreter): I have no place to go. I have to stay here. I will live or die depending on how this storm hits us. If God wants to help us, he will, but we have no place to go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After passing Haiti, the National Hurricane Center projects Irma to continue tracking northwest, hitting Eastern Cuba by Saturday morning. At the same time, the storm will be turning more to the north, and could strike at Miami, with 150 mile-an-hour winds, by early Sunday.

Irma’s approach resurfaced memories of the devastating Andrew that struck South Florida 25 years ago. Governor Rick Scott said he plans to activate 7,000 National Guard members by Friday.

GOV. RICK SCOTT, R-Fla.: The storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew. Do not ignore evacuation orders. Remember, we can rebuild your home, but we cannot rebuild your life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez joined the appeal to heed the warnings, and soon.

MAYOR CARLOS GIMENEZ, Miami-Dade County, Florida: We don’t want you to be caught in a hurricane in your car. That’s the worst thing you can do. So, if you are planning to do so and leaving by car, please do so as soon as you can.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stores and homes in the Florida Keys boarded up, as people left under mandatory evacuation orders.

ELIZABETH PRIETO, Marathon, Florida Resident: I have been through George, been through Andrew, been through Wilma, but I’m not staying for Irma. No, not happening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And heavy traffic was already slowing highways along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, with stores struggling to keep shelves stocked.

BARBARA EFFMAN, Sunrise, Florida Resident: They only let you get two waters, and the line is around the block. This is the third place I came to today. This is the first one I got any water at.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, two more storms are forming. Katia, in the Gulf of Mexico, could strike Veracruz this week. And Jose, in the open Atlantic, is tracking far behind Irma. Neither of those storms poses an immediate risk to the U.S. mainland.

Irma, on the other hand has taken dangerous aim at Florida, but exactly where it lands, and how bad, is uncertain. Meteorologists are tracking its path closely, in an already record-breaking hurricane season.

We check in again tonight with Ed Rappaport, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center. He’s in Miami.

Ed, we had you on the program last night. You have more information now than you did then. Where do we go from here? What do we know about where the storm is headed?

ED RAPPAPORT, Acting Director, National Hurricane Center: Well, last night, we talked about how the hurricane was moving into the Caribbean, and then in the longer range, was going to be taking aim at the Florida Peninsula, and that’s still the forecast.

We’re just one day closer to whatever we have for eventuality. At this point, the hurricane is just north of Puerto Rico. And the center is forecast to move by Saturday to just north of Cuba and then turn towards the north.

And Where that turn occurs is what’s really critical, because Florida is along one of those lines right up the middle. And if we get a hurricane at the strength that we’re forecasting, Category 4, for Irma coming along this track, then we will have impacts that will be perhaps the most significant, certainly for Florida, since Hurricane Andrew.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Speaking of going back in history, this almost seems like the same conditions back 11 years ago, when we had Katrina, Rita, and Wilma all in a row. What’s happening in this ocean that’s making this possible?

ED RAPPAPORT: We’re right at the peak of hurricane season, so we do see often strong hurricanes this time of year, even multiple storms.

What’s unfortunate this year is that these last couple of hurricanes have been not only very strong, but they have taken tracks that have brought them to land. Often, they stay offshore, but, in this case, that’s not occurring.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why that happening this time around? Is there a difference in the weather patterns on why it’s coming closer to the Eastern Seaboard?

ED RAPPAPORT: That’s right.

The storms that form out over the Eastern Atlantic all tend to move towards the west-northwest. But at some point in their lifetime, they typically turn to the north. Many of them do that way off the U.S. East Coast. Some of them make it all the way into the Gulf of Mexico, as did Harvey. In this case, we have got something in between.

And it just depends on when these storms form relative to what’s going on elsewhere in the atmosphere.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how much does the warmer temperature of the water factor in to how much strength these hurricanes have?

ED RAPPAPORT: The hurricanes draw their intensity, draw their strength from the warm waters.

And, again, we’re at the peak of hurricane season, and what that also means is we’re at the peak in terms of how warm the waters get during the season. And it just so happens that the hurricane is passing over what is nearly the warmest waters available to it. And that’s why we’re seeing these record to near-record intensities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, just looking at that map behind you there, it almost seems that the worst thing that could happen to Cuba is the best thing that could happen to Florida, in that these storms still wiggle back and forth.

Is there a chance that this could hit land somewhere else than the United States?

ED RAPPAPORT: There is a chance that it could move over the north coast of Cuba, and, if it did, you’re right, it would be very destructive for Cuba. It may well then weaken the storm a bit, at least temporarily.

But, still, it would be a major hurricane approaching the United States, and that’s what we’re most concerned about now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Ed Rappaport, thanks so much.

ED RAPPAPORT: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Irma is about to hit less than two weeks since Harvey struck Texas.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is leading the federal response and working with states on both fronts.

I spoke with the acting deputy administrator, Kathleen Fox, this afternoon and began by asking if FEMA can mobilize enough resources again so quickly.

KATHLEEN FOX, Acting Deputy Administrator, FEMA: We have a number of resources in place.

We have got about 700 personnel on the ground in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in Puerto Rico, and in Florida, and then personnel all along the Eastern Seaboard to be prepared to respond to any event that may occur.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is that enough people, considering that Governor Rick Scott has already mobilized all the National Guard that he can in the state?

KATHLEEN FOX: It depends on what happens.

I mean, you know, as the federal government, this is what we plan for and what we prepare for. So we’re prepared to mobilize more folks, should we need them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what kind of resources, in terms of housing or relocation or shelters?

I know you’re working with the people that are already in these states. But what can the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico expect, considering the storm is going right through them right now?

KATHLEEN FOX: Yes, the damages could be certainly severe in those places. And so we are mobilizing search-and-rescue assets, and working with the commonwealth, the territories, and the states to support them in whatever they need.

So we have set out mass care work with the American Red Cross and again search-and-rescue assets, food, water, other commodities, sort of the basic essentials. And then we will be there to provide recovery support, should they need it as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are you worried most about this storm?

In the case of Harvey, it was the rain that lasted days and days after the fact. This seems to be incredible winds like we haven’t experienced before.

KATHLEEN FOX: This is an incredibly powerful storm.

I mean, the National Weather Service has been calling it potentially catastrophic, so one of the most powerful storms in the Atlantic. So the — you know, the results could be really devastating for folks.

And what we’re asking people to do is take a few steps to get ready. You can go to for information about how to prepare, you know, having three days of food, water, emergency supplies like medicines or other things that you and your pets may need.

And, also, if you download the FEMA app, we have got checklists there, and then that gives you access to alerts from the National Weather Service, as well as other emergency information, such as where shelters might end up being located in your area.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, unfortunately, this is not the only crisis that you’re having to deal with. You have also got Harvey. How are the recovery efforts there going?

KATHLEEN FOX: The recovery efforts are going well.

I mean, we’re providing tremendous support. We have got thousands of people on the ground in support of the state of Texas, working to make sure that we get the folks in Texas, the survivors of Harvey, what they need. So that operation is certainly continuing, as we prepare for Irma and anything else that may follow.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how long until people in the Houston area or in Texas can get relief?

I mean, is there any sort of a guideline or a thumbnail that they should know that, OK, this is how long the process takes from the application to when I hear back?

KATHLEEN FOX: I mean, we ask folks to go to, and to register, and if they have flood insurance, to file their claim. We’re providing expedited assistance for flood insurance, and also for transitional housing, so, putting, you know, thousands and thousands of people into hotels in the short-term.

We have got, you know, working with the Red Cross in the state of Texas on the shelters that they have there. And then we’re also — we have begun a huge effort to do planning for long-term housing. What I would say is that, you know, the federal government and the state have some resources to provide immediate relief.

But, you know, given the devastation that they faced in Texas, the recovery from the storm will likely take years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, Ms. Fox, does FEMA have enough money to be able to do both of these things at the same time?

KATHLEEN FOX: The administration is, you know, working with the Congress to make sure that we are sufficiently funded, but that is not standing in the way of life-sustaining life safety needs at this point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Kathleen Fox, thanks so much for joining us.

KATHLEEN FOX: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As we mentioned earlier, the Florida Keys could be at serious risk from Hurricane Irma.

Residents there are being told to evacuate.

I spoke with the mayor of Key West, Craig Cates, about how preparations are going.

Sir, do you have all the resources you need to deal with what’s coming your way?

MAYOR CRAIG CATES, Key West, Florida: Yes.

Obviously, if we get a direct hit, we’d need a lot more resources. But, as it stands now, we’re in very good shape.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How are the mandatory evacuations going?

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: We started this morning with the tourists, and that’s been going very well. And we started this afternoon with the residents.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the lessons learned here? You guys see these storms a lot more frequently than the rest of the country does. What can you do differently?

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: Well, we have been very fortunate. We haven’t been hit by a hurricane in 11 years, though we have had a couple of close calls in the last few years.

But, before that, I think we were hit three times in one year. So, yes, we’re definitely prepared for it. We know what — the size of this hurricane and the strength of this hurricane is kind of unprecedented for anybody here in the United States. And so we’re taking it very serious. And the residents have taken it very serious. And they are evacuating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s a good chance that nothing is going to withstand 180-mile-an-hour winds if you get hit.

But what about those older homes?

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: The real old homes were built very strong and withstood many hurricanes. That’s what we call Old Town part of Key West.

The newer homes, which were built in the late 50s, is — they are much lower. They have a tendency to flood in storms like this. But there’s not a lot of homes in Key West, old homes, built still on the water. Very fortunate about that.

Anything on the water that’s been damaged over the years has been rebuilt with much stronger homes or hotels and stuff. So, we don’t have as much damage from the wind.

It’s the water that comes up in certain areas that, you know, don’t total out the properties, but definitely does flood damage to them, which takes quite a bit of money to repair.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How many people are still left in Key West and the other areas?

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: When I was out riding around today, obviously, we have no way to count exactly how many. But this is the least amount I have ever seen that stayed for a hurricane. They took this very serious.

We have been preaching to them, telling them how bad it is. And I think they — coming off of Houston and seeing the impact that was done over there and seeing all the issues that they have, I think people paid a lot closer attention to this, and are definitely evacuating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The other thing that concerns me is, where do they evacuate to? If they go to South Florida, that’s where the hurricane could land.

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: No, you’re absolutely right.

And we have concerns over that. We were going to start running buses tomorrow to our shelter, which is in Miami at Florida International University. And that’s where our shelter is. But the hurricane may hit there.

So we’re looking at that very closely, and the ones that haven’t left, or left with a car, they can go wherever they want. They can move on to whatever area is safe.

But if we’re going to bus these residents to a certain area, how are they going to get out of there if they have to be evacuated? So, that’s something we will be discussing tonight and definitely through tomorrow at the EOC.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the absolute deadline where you aren’t going to be out there trying to help someone who has chosen to stay? You don’t want to put your first-responders at risk either.

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: Well, we’re supposed to start getting storm-force winds very early Saturday morning.

It’s moved back a little bit as the hurricane has slowed down some, and it’s turned up some. So we are — it looks like we’re not going to get a direct hit like was possible before. We’re going to be on the better side of the storm, but we’re still going to get a lot of very strong winds and water.

So, that being said, starting Thursday Saturday morning, there will be no more evacuations, because the upper part of Keys will actually be closer to the storm than we are. So, that being said, you would be getting — driving into worse weather. So, whoever is there then will have to stay, and we will have to deal with the storm.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mayor Craig Cates, thanks for joining us.

MAYOR CRAIG CATES: OK, guys, thanks for having us.