Update on Hurrican Georges heading for Florida.
JIM LEHRER: Bracing for the storm. Spencer Michels begins our coverage.
SPENCER MICHELS: The evacuation advisory to hundreds of thousands of people in Florida is evidence that Hurricane Georges could be the most dangerous storm to threaten the state in six years. In August, 1992, Hurricane Andrew did $25 billion damage in the area around Miami. It was the most costly natural disaster in American history up to then.Hurricane Georges is predicted to be headed for the Florida Keys. But at least four other Florida counties are under evacuation advisories, and five more may be added to the list. Many residents have refused to leave. The hurricane has created havoc in both impoverished and affluent areas of the Caribbean, including St. Kitts & Nevis, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba's eastern coast. With winds of up to 110 miles per hour, Hurricane Georges raged through Puerto Rico Monday. The conditions forced thousands of residents into makeshift shelters. Georges destroyed homes and businesses, while heavy rains flooded the area, leaving more than 80 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.8 million people without electricity and more than 70 percent without water. Damage estimates there were a billion dollars. At least 28 people died. And the hurricane's pace increased Tuesday. Georges bore down on the Dominican Republic with winds of up to 120 miles per hour, downing trees, power lines, and flooding streets. The hurricane left at least 70 people dead there. But Georges' destruction was far from over. Yesterday, the hurricane's winds and rains struck Haiti with deadly force, killing at least 27 people. And today the hurricane's path took it across the Northern Caribbean, where it hit Cuba. Latest figures indicate that at least 110 people and perhaps many more have been killed by the storm.
JIM LEHRER: And now for the latest and to Max Mayfield, Deputy Director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. I spoke with him a few moments ago.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Mayfield, welcome.
MAX MAYFIELD, Deputy Director, National Hurricane Center: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Tell us where the hurricane is right now.
MAX MAYFIELD: Well, it's centered about 250 miles Southeast of Key West, Florida right now in the north central coast of Cuba. But you can see it's out of the rain bands - it's well out and already approaching the Florida Keys and southern tip of the Florida Peninsula. We just had an aircraft report - seeing 40 or 50 miles per hour in this rain band all the way up here near Andros Island, so I think we will start getting storm force very shortly tonight.
JIM LEHRER: How large is - how wide is that storm?
MAX MAYFIELD: The whole circulation is about 300 miles in diameter. The main thing that counts is the side, you know, closest to land here, about 150 miles or so to the Northwest.
JIM LEHRER: Northwest. So it's moving in a Northwesterly direction about how fast?
MAX MAYFIELD: About 14 miles per hour and our track really takes the core down here through the Keys. But this is a slight deviation. It could still come up here into the Florida Peninsula. It will be affecting this area tonight and tomorrow. Then we'll get into the Gulf of Mexico. We fully expect this to become a major hurricane in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico in the next couple of days.
JIM LEHRER: What are the highest winds it has right now?
MAX MAYFIELD: Right now about 80 miles an hour - it's a category one hurricane. But I don't want to minimize that. We think that now that it's getting away from Cuba it will continue to strengthen some. And we're really forecasting a category two hurricane taking Florida Keys and South Florida tonight and tomorrow, like a category three hurricane - a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond that.
JIM LEHRER: Category two, three - give us an idea for miles per hour what that means.
MAX MAYFIELD: Category three is above 110 miles per hour. That makes it a major hurricane. We're really not forecasting that to happen until it gets into the Gulf of Mexico. But the point here is that in addition to just South Florida, people in the Gulf, from the Florida Panhandle all the way over to Southeast Louisiana need to start monitoring this system as well.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. So, you expect it to hit the Keys, what, about midnight tonight?
MAX MAYFIELD: Well, the outer rain bands are going to be here in the upper Keys within 30 minutes or so, and they will get the same storm force winds and for a few hours. There can be another lull, but the core of the hurricane will be there early tomorrow morning.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. And then it will continue to go - you expect it to continue to go Northwest, up through the Gulf, right?
MAX MAYFIELD: Yes. Into the Gulf of Mexico, there's a lot of uncertainty there. We have a hurricane watch in effect now for the Southwest Florida coast. That may be extended Northward with time. If it gets out away from Florida now, it could threaten anywhere all the way over to Louisiana.
JIM LEHRER: What is it likely to do once it goes back over water primarily? In other words, let's say it hits Florida, keeps going Northwest, up in the Gulf, what happens?
MAX MAYFIELD: Well, the only thing that is inhibiting this hurricane from developing the last three days or so since it hit the islands has been land. It moved right over Puerto Rico - and now Cuba. That's the only thing that has held it back. The environment is very favorable. The Gulf of Mexico waters are warm, and that's why we think it will go ahead and intensify the next two to three days.
JIM LEHRER: Intensify, maybe hit - in other words Louisiana, the Gulf Coast with a big bang?
MAX MAYFIELD: There's still, you know, the usual uncertainty there. But everybody from Louisiana Eastward in the Gulf of Mexico needs to go ahead and monitor this hurricane.
JIM LEHRER: All right. More specifically tonight and tomorrow in the Keys and Southwest Florida, what should they be expecting, and not in terms of miles per hour but just in ferociousness?
MAX MAYFIELD: Jim, let me share our biggest concern. This was a picture taken back in 1965 of the Florida Keys. They had nine feet of storm surge over the Key Largo area. This picture - U.S. Highway 1 is right here somewhere, well under water. They're going to get storm surges on two sides here. They're going to get storm surges three to five feet on the North side of the eye from the Florida Straits, and then as the hurricane moves into the Southeastern Gulf, they're going to get storm surge following on the back side of the hurricane from the Florida Bay. The roads are going to be cut off. They're actually going to stop the evacuation of the Keys here at 6 o'clock. So people down there that have not left need to understand that if this does strengthen, as was forecasted, they will have a significant storm surge and they're going to have to find a refuge of last resort because shelters are not open in Florida Keys.
JIM LEHRER: And the reason you have storm surges from both sides is because it's so narrow, is that right?
MAX MAYFIELD: Well, you've got water in both sides, the wind goes counterclockwise, you know, around the center of the hurricane, so when you have that water in your direction, towards your island, that is going to pile water up in that vicinity.
JIM LEHRER: Now, specifically where are the hurricane warnings in effect now?
MAX MAYFIELD: Okay. On the East Coast of Florida they go from Deerfield Beach southward, all the way through the Keys, actually down to Tortugas, and on the west coast they go from Bonita Beach southward. That's the hurricane warning area. And we really want to emphasize the uncertainty in the track there, even though we're forecasting a track like this, you know, a hurricane is not a point - it's not going to take just a little skinny line. This is a large hurricane. It will take a large area. A little deviation, just a little bit to the right, could bring the core of the hurricane into South Florida Peninsula.
JIM LEHRER: Right into the middle of Florida, you mean, not just the Keys?
MAX MAYFIELD: Well, the biggest threat and the biggest loss of life historically, nine out of ten people that are killed in a hurricane are killed by the storm surge. So that's our biggest immediate threat. They will certainly have winds and rain. We're very concerned about the rainfall. We're already very saturated down here. If it keeps moving in this 14 mile per hour cede, we'll easily have six to twelve inches, some - above that over much of South Florida.
JIM LEHRER: All right. And then tornadoes and other storms could come out of that.
MAX MAYFIELD: You always have some isolated tornadoes with hurricanes like this, and this will likely not be an exception.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Mayfield, thank you very much for the update.
MAX MAYFIELD: Thank you, sure, my pleasure