Florida, Cuba brace for wrath of Hurricane Irma

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hurricane Irma has lost a bit of intensity at this hour, but its danger is undiminished. Sustained winds dropped slightly today to 175 miles an hour. The storm is still heading for Florida. And it's left a trail of at least 10 dead and heavy damage in the Northern Caribbean.

William Brangham begins our coverage.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Whole islands lay wrecked today, 24 hours after taking direct hits from Hurricane Irma. Destruction on Barbuda spread as far as the eye could see. The prime minister said 95 percent of the buildings are damaged or simply gone.

GASTON BROWNE, Prime Minister, Antigua and Barbuda: We just did a flyover, and I have to tell you, my heart sunk and this has been one of the worst days of my life. So I know how you must feel as Barbudans.

The entire country has been decimated. I have never seen anything like this before.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The storm's record-breaking power also smashed the surrounding islands. Seen from above today, the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin was in ruins. The Dutch navy flew in supplies and troops by helicopter because Saint Martin's airport and harbor were damaged beyond use.

The Dutch prime minister said even reaching the battered island was a challenge.

MARK RUTTE, Prime Minister, Netherlands (through interpreter): There is widespread destruction of infrastructure, of homes and businesses. There is no power, no petrol, no running water.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To the west, the hurricane battered Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Social media video showed one family fighting to keep windows closed as the storm passed over and their home filled with water.

Puerto Rico was also ravaged, and woke this morning to its own devastation. More than one million people had lost power, and authorities said there was no way to know how long the outage would last.

A story also circulated of a miraculous flight by a Delta Airlines plane from New York to San Juan. The pilot managed to land in Puerto Rico safely, and then quickly take off again with a final load of passengers, just before the storm closed in.

By late today, Irma roared past the northern coasts of the Dominican Republican and Haiti. It's sweeping over Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas tonight, and beginning its run past Cuba.

By the weekend, a turn north takes it over Florida's Atlantic Coast, and north onto Georgia and the Carolinas. Skies were still blue over Turks and Caicos this morning, but people were hurrying to stock up before the storm rolled in.

CHANDRA CRAIG, Providenciales Resident: I wanted to make sure that I was very prepared this time, so I have done everything. I'm going to go home and shortly I'm going to be filling in bins of water just in case we don't have access to water in the next couple of days.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: South Florida is bracing for what could be the worst hurricane it's seen in decades. Shelves were already empty at stores today. Highways were clogged with people heading north, and people waited for flights at Miami's main airport.

Governor Rick Scott warned Floridians everywhere to take heed.

GOV. RICK SCOTT, R-Fla.: It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts on both coasts, coast to coast. Regardless of which coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Preparations were also under way farther north. A mandatory evacuation order was issued today for Savannah, Georgia, and Georgia as well as north and South Carolina have all declared states of emergency ahead of Irma's arrival.

The damage in its wake could be compounded by yet another storm. Hurricane Jose powered up today to 120-mile-an-hour winds. It's poised this weekend to hit some of the same islands already hammered by Irma, and a third hurricane, Katia, is still brewing in the Gulf of Mexico.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where Irma actually makes landfall on the U.S. mainland could make all the difference for places like Miami.

That's where Ed Rappaport is, closely watching the storm's path. He's acting director of the National Hurricane Center.

Ed, first of all, what is the very latest on the direction of this storm?

ED RAPPAPORT, Acting Director, National Hurricane Center: Yes.

At this hour, the hurricane is located about 650 miles off of the Florida Peninsula, and, unfortunately, is moving in that direction. And the forecast we have is for the center to continue in that direction and then take a turn to the north, very near or over the Florida Peninsula.

And if that does occur, then indeed we will have potentially devastating impacts on the Florida Peninsula and Florida Keys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How strong could it still be at that point?

ED RAPPAPORT: At this point, the hurricane is at the upper level or upper category of 5, the highest winds on our scale.

And we think that it will be either a Category 5 or Category 4 when it comes ashore. The difference isn't going to make — there won't be a big difference in terms of the impact. It will be potentially devastating. We have concerns, usually for the water, and, of course, that is the case here with storm surge and rainfall, but this storm is so strong that in fact the winds are also going to be a great risk for property and life from Hurricane Irma.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the message from this to residents of the entire state of Florida is what?

ED RAPPAPORT: At this point, they need to prepare.

For South Florida, all the preparations need to be complete by tomorrow, by Friday, because the initial tropical-storm-force winds, which are the threshold beyond which you shouldn't be outside, it becomes dangerous, those are going be arriving Saturday morning, it appears, in South Florida.

And then the weather will deteriorate even further from then, with the worst of the conditions being Saturday night into Sunday. So, all preparations need to be complete. There are evacuations under way. And we urge everyone to follow the advice of their local emergency management officials.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I remember, as Harvey was bearing down on Texas and the Gulf Coast, Ed, some days ago, you were saying at that point Harvey wasn't changing in its strength and its predictability.

How is Irma different in that regard? How much change could we see at this point?

ED RAPPAPORT: Much like Harvey, we don't expect there to be much change in terms of the strength of the hurricane. And that's really bad news, because it's considerably stronger than Harvey was.

This is, again, a Category 5 hurricane. And our biggest concern is going to be, in addition to the wind and potential rainfall, is going to be storm surge. This map shows where the greatest risk from storm surge is.

Could see 5 to 10 feet of surge. That's the rise of water, inundation above ground level. We will have waves across the top of that. So, this is where we have a storm surge watch in place, which means that there is the potential for life-threatening storm surge within the next 48 hours.

So, particularly along the coast and in Florida, that is where most of the lives have been lost, is at the coast in a storm surge. This is the area that needs to be most prepared for the water. And then even inland, though, you are going to have risk from very strong wind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It looks like a lot of square miles.

Ed Rappaport working hard on yet another major hurricane, thank you, Ed.

ED RAPPAPORT: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Regardless of where the eye of Irma strikes, Florida is poised to get hit hard by winds and flooding. Residents throughout the state are bracing for the worst.

And our P.J. Tobia is there.

P.J., I know you just arrived. You are on the Atlantic coast of the state. Tell us exactly where you are and what you are looking at.

P.J. TOBIA: That's right, Judy.

I'm here in Port Canaveral, not too far from Orlando. This port is the second largest cruise ship port in the world. It sees millions of cruise ship passengers a year. And there's been a flurry of activity since we got here a few hours ago.

The cruise ships are coming in from all directions, disgorging passengers and then taking off for safer waters where the hurricane isn't going to be. I was actually talking to the director of this port not too long ago. He said that in just the last 48 hours, more than 10,000 cruise ship customers have had their cruises cut short.

While we were speaking, he got a phone call from a Carnival cruise ship that was on its way here and was saying they were rerouting to New Orleans. So a lot of people's travel plans being disrupted by this storm.

The cruise ship industry brings Florida about $8 billion in revenue each year. So, it is a lot of disruption to state revenue. This port also a major source for natural gas coming into the state and also motor fuel. So, people are worried about price rises in filling their tanks over the coming weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, P.J., I see a little bit of blue sky behind you. So the storm has clearly not hit yet.

But how are people who get off these ships, who are dropped there when they thought they were going to be traveling, what are they doing?

P.J. TOBIA: That's actually a big worry.

There are no vacant hotel rooms in this area or really anywhere in the state of Florida, according to folks we have spoken to. And just trying to book our own travel in the area was a challenge. And that is why some ships are now being diverted from this location to other places in the region that are hopefully not going to be harmed by the storm.

The airport also was completely jammed. And just for people who live in this area, we saw long lines around gas stations, many gas stations out of fuel entirely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can't imagine that.

P.J. Tobia, who will be reporting for us from there at Port Canaveral on the Atlantic Coast, thank you.

P.J. TOBIA: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So many streets in Miami Beach were underwater just last month after seven inches of rain. Now the city is one of the places in Florida under a mandatory evacuation order. Residents spent today piling sandbags and battening down before leaving town.

I spoke by phone with Miami Beach's Mayor Philip Levine just a short time ago.

Mayor Philip Levine, thank you very much for talking with us.

Your evacuation orders were effective today. How are people complying?

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE, Miami Beach: Really good so far.

As a matter of fact, I have been all over the city all day, and literally seeing people leaving. It's quiet. The streets are deserted, and from a town that you can imagine is always packed, now the streets are empty, which is a very good thing.

I started urging and encouraging the residents and the visitors to leave Miami Beach literally two to three days ago, because we felt we didn't want to wait for an evacuation order. We wanted people to start getting going and get through their plan or leave Miami Beach as soon as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you preparing for? What are you telling people to prepare for? Of course, they're leaving, so I assume you have a much smaller population, but what are you preparing for?

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE: Well, listen, we — this is a very powerful storm. This is a historically powerful storm.

It is so aggressive. It is coming our way. We hope it doesn't. We are planning for the worst. We're hoping for the best. We have brought in emergency generators, emergency pumps. We have given out free sand for sandbags to our residents in multiple locations.

We have closed down construction sites, tied down both public and private machinery and things that could potentially become debris. We're working very close with the county, offering bus service, trolley service, to get folks to shelters across, not on the island, but on the mainland.

So we're doing everything we possibly can preventively and, of course, constantly communicating with our residents and our visitors, so they understand what to do and how serious this situation is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was one of the questions I wanted to ask you is, where are people going? And how are you cooperating with other jurisdictions in the area, other cities, the county and so forth?

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE: Very well.

I got to tell you, Miami-Dade County, Miami, everyone works very well together. We have had various crises. Of course, this is something unbelievably serious in nature. And the machine works well. So people are responding. People are listening. Obviously, there's traffic and gridlock throughout the state.

But I can tell you that on Miami Beach right now, we have done everything in our power to evacuate the city, and lock things down for what we expect to be a very powerful, very dangerous storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you going to remain in Miami Beach?

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE: One hundred percent, absolutely. I will be bunkered down with the command staff in a hardened location, which is the best place for us, is the actual major hospital here, Mount Sinai Hospital. And that is where I will be riding out the storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as you do prepare in these final hours, what are you most worried about?

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE: Well, I'm most worried about any residents that don't believe that this is very serious, that would somehow want to stay here.

I know that some of the buildings, condominium buildings, are turning off electricity, turning off water, and literally turning off the air conditioning. And, of course, that is a pretty big incentive for those residents to leave their building and leave Miami Beach.

That, of course, is the major concern, coupled with, besides just the wind damage, we're very concerned about tidal surge. We know when a storm like this comes in, we understand how high you could have a storm surge come, and that could be very devastating to the city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Philip Levine, preparing for this very big storm, thank you so much.

MAYOR PHILIP LEVINE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cuba is also preparing for Irma's wrath, less than a year after parts of the island were hit hard by Hurricane Matthew.

For more on the situation there, I spoke a short time ago with Richard Paterson in Havana. He's lived in Cuba for two decades as the representative for CARE, the international aid group.

I started by asking about where preparations stand now.

RICHARD PATERSON, Country Representative, CARE International: We're right now preparing in the sense of refreshing our contacts with suppliers of relief items, reviewing the list of items that we need to procure to respond to the needs of the population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what exactly do you expect those needs will be?

RICHARD PATERSON: We anticipate that coastal communities are going to be severely affected.

Heavy rains, strong winds, storm surge will no doubt result in flooding to particularly coastal communities. And people will have to leave their homes, seek higher ground.

The Cuban Civil Defense has evacuation plans in place and are kicking in. But then CARE's response kicks in when people start returning home. Typically, we provide hygiene goods, water handling and water purification supplies, basic household supplies, because it's likely that people will have lost virtually everything at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How well-equipped is the Cuban government to handle this, just to give folks a sense of the state of preparation there?

RICHARD PATERSON: Cuba's Civil Defense has evacuation plans, very effective at their evacuating of families, people that are in particularly vulnerable situations.

So, there are centers ready to receive families where there's drinking water, where there's food. And a year ago, when Hurricane Matthew hit, there were upwards of 500,000 people that had to be evacuated. And that happened quite smoothly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As I understand it, though, evacuation orders have not yet gone into effect. Just from a human standpoint, how are the Cuban people dealing with this?

RICHARD PATERSON: It's a struggle, for sure, particularly in Guantanamo Province, which went through or faced Hurricane Matthew less than a year ago.

At the same time, they have some experience, and there are clear orientations from the Cuban Civil Defense in terms of how families need to prepare, whether it's protecting their homes, whether it's necessary evacuating, whether it's storing supplies.

There are clear guidance available. And it's disseminated extensively amongst the population that is potentially going to be hit by the storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Richard Paterson with the CARE organization in Cuba, thank you very much. And we wish you the best in dealing with this.

RICHARD PATERSON: Thanks very much, Judy.

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