Irma floods out Florida, knocks out power for millions
JUDY WOODRUFF: The storm that was once Hurricane Irma is churning into the Deep South tonight, after moving up the entire peninsula of Florida. It lost more of its punch today, but not before it left at least 34 dead across the Caribbean, five dead in Florida and two more in Georgia, more than seven million power customers in the dark, across Florida, and a growing tally of damage, including in some cities like Jacksonville, where floodwaters have been surging.
P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.
P.J. TOBIA: The sun rose on vast stretches of coastal Florida, waterlogged and still without power, after the howling winds and lashing rain of Hurricane Irma ravaged the state yesterday.
Irma's power weakened to a tropical storm earlier today as it churned across the Florida Panhandle. It's on track to sweep through Georgia before veering west toward Alabama. Those states were scrambling to prepare.
The National Guard was on the scene in this Orlando community, where homes were inundated with murky floodwaters. Other residents waded through knee-deep water to see the damage for themselves.
Like many areas in Florida, this Pine Hills neighborhood regularly experiences flooding. But despite days of planning and pumping thousands of gallons from a nearby lake, county officials say they have never seen water levels this high.
Rescues were also under way in Jacksonville as the storm battered that area today. Officials there warned people to get out as the Saint Johns River rose to historic levels.
MAYOR LENNY CURRY, Jacksonville, Florida: We have search-and-rescue teams ready to deploy. Something that represents a white flag that can be viewed from the street, if you are in this very isolated and very specific flood threat, which is along the river.
P.J. TOBIA: Governor Rick Scott deployed state resources to help.
GOV. RICK SCOTT, R-Fla.: In Jacksonville, in Northeast Florida, storm surge is three to five feet on top of more than a foot of rainfall, which is causing record and historical flooding along the Saint Johns River. They also explained to me this morning in a weather briefing that Hurricane Jose is also pushing water into the northern part of our state.
P.J. TOBIA: One major issue throughout the state: no power for millions of homes and businesses.
Hundreds of trucks from power companies around the country arrived in Florida today to aid the effort to restore electricity, but authorities warned that it could take weeks. In some places, the damage was far worse. In Naples, some roads were made impassable by the floodwaters, others by downed trees.
Whole neighborhoods in Fort Myers were inundated. Some people there sought shelter in a hockey arena, only to see the water come seeping in.
MARY FITZGERALD, Ft. Myers Resident: Irma went over. Oh, good, we survived. And then all of a sudden, I guess some of the panels came off the roof and we started getting water pouring down in different places.
P.J. TOBIA: Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are still in shelters as they wait for the all-clear to return home. One woman's family rode out the storm in their Pasco County home. She vowed it would be the last time.
WOMAN: I wouldn't stay for another one. It's just the intensity, not knowing what could happen, flying debris, a tree. So, I wouldn't stay. Thankfully, we're OK, but in the future, no.
P.J. TOBIA: People in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area had been bracing for their first major hurricane in 100 years. But Irma's wind speeds had dropped by the time it struck there overnight.
Irma first made landfall in the Florida Keys as a roaring Category 4 hurricane. After the storm rolled past, the Keys lay eerily still, trailers and boats overturned, roadways washed away, and few signs of life as communications with the mainland remained largely severed.
Authorities began door-to-door searches today for anyone stranded on the Keys. The state's eastern coastline was also blasted by the storm. As sheets in Miami's of water rushed through Miami's downtown boulevards yesterday, it was hard to tell where the city ended and the bay began. But, today, the floodwaters had mostly receded.
Entry to Miami Beach was still cut off as officials began to clear debris and assess the damage there.
DANIEL ALFONSO, City Manager, Miami: The biggest thing that we want our residents to understand is that it is still dangerous to be out in the street. And for us to clean streets and do so in a safe way, it is best to not have people driving around.
P.J. TOBIA: In coastal Brevard County, an entire chunk of roadway caved in. South Florida's airports remain closed, and thousands of flights were canceled today. There were also disruptions at the world's biggest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, as the storm heads in its direction.
Georgia Governor Nathan deal said the forecast looked better for the state's coastal areas, but issued a warning.
GOV. NATHAN DEAL, R-Ga.: We urge you to not get on the roads until you have been given clearance by everyone that is required to give the clearance, so that we do not have the kind of confusion that can result from a mass exodus.
P.J. TOBIA: Meanwhile, Cuba is reeling after Irma plowed over its coastline on Friday as a Category 5 hurricane.
WOMAN (through interpreter): We never thought the floodwaters could rise to such a height. The water in our house was as high as my waist at the beginning, and then it almost rose to the height of my neck.
P.J. TOBIA: Power is still out in most of Cuba's capital, Havana.
Here in Orlando and across Central Florida, curfews are being lifted in different counties as the state begins the long and difficult slog of rebuilding from Hurricane Irma — Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: P.J., I know you have been in the state for a few days. You have been talking to people who live in the community. What are they telling you?
P.J. TOBIA: Well, folks here, if they have had damage done to their properties, they're just thankful to be alive and thankful that their families are safe. When those things are destroyed, they say, it is, after all, just stuff.
I was covering Hurricane Harvey in Houston last week, and it's a similar kind of sentiment. Today, we were in a neighborhood and we saw people who were being rescued by high-water vehicles because their houses were flooded out. And their houses were going to be total losses. And as they would get down from the vehicles, I would go up and talk to them.
And they would say, you know what? Those are just things. Thank God I'm OK, the people I care about are OK, and pretty soon we're going to get to the process of rebuilding, and we're looking forward to that future.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It is remarkable the character that comes out at a time like this.
P.J., I know you were also telling us there are people who have come to Orlando other places, including from the Florida Keys, which have been truly dealt a huge amount of damage. What are they concerned about?
P.J. TOBIA: Since I have been here — I got here on Thursday, and since that time, I have been talking with a lot of folks from the Keys who came up.
They call themselves hard conchs. They're folks who live down there and it's a different kind of lifestyle. Many of them had never evacuated for a storm before, but they knew that Hurricane Irma was going to be different. And at first, many of them were just happy to be out of the storm's path and they were hoping it would pass quickly.
But now that pictures, images are starting to come out of their hometowns in places like Key Largo and the total devastation that's happened to their homes and their neighborhoods, a lot of worry written on their face and some fear about what they are going to find when they get home. And they're really trying to get home soon.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And I guess the forecast is it's going to take some time to take care of the damage, to make it a place where you can travel much less inhabitable.
So, P.J., are people there looking for government help, local help? Are they saying, we can do this on our own?
P.J. TOBIA: Well, it's a little bit of both.
In talking with county and city officials in different places that we have been to, you know, we have crisscrossed this part of Central Florida from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast talking to mayors and other officials.
They say it's going to be a combination. In places like Tampa, when I interviewed the mayor on Saturday, he said that they have a kind of rainy day fund, if you will, for such just an event. But, yes, they are going to be looking to the federal government, but also state government for help in that regard.
For people here, though, in Orlando in this neighborhood, you know, they're without power right now, and it's really in the hands of the city to turn the lights back on. They tell me that the city's told them that it may be weeks before the lights come back on.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that will be a test for all of them.
Well, we're wishing them the very best.
P.J., thank you for your hard work today and in the last days there in Florida. Thank you.
P.J. TOBIA: Thanks so much, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the eye of Irma passed right over Naples, Florida, knocking out power and water and downing phone lines.
Bill Barnett is mayor of Naples. We spoke on the phone a short time ago.
Mayor Bill Barnett of Naples, thank you very much for talking with us.
You have said that Naples was spared, in effect, that the 15-foot storm surge didn't materialize. But we have seen some pictures of pretty significant damage.
MAYOR BILL BARNETT, Naples, Florida: Yes, we — Judy, we have really taken a hit.
And, you know, I have said that we didn't get that storm surge that was predicted by pretty much everyone, and that's a blessing. But driving around the neighborhoods in Naples and seeing stop signs uprooted, we had just put new road signs, street signs in, and to see them uprooted, coconut palms that are stately just lying across roads, just a total — you just kind of shake your head when you drive by a street.
And the people are — you know, our citizens are out there trying to move palm fronds. And the city staff are certainly out there with all the emergency crews, utilities, and streets, and storm water, and everything you can imagine.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I think I read you had winds of up to 130 miles an hour. That's pretty hard to prepare for. What is the main thing that you need as a community right now?
MAYOR BILL BARNETT: That the one that's a one-word answer, power, because the last count I heard was six million Floridians without power from one end of the state to the other.
But I will tell you, it's a harsh realization, whether you're a mayor or whomever or whatever your responsibility is, to go for a day or two or three without the necessities that we're all so used to.
I mean, just planning a meal, none of the food stores — there's no grocery stores open. We did get a 7/Eleven that opened up, but it's very tough to deal with, and especially with this heat.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just curious to know, any lessons learned? Do you feel you did all you could ahead of time to get ready?
MAYOR BILL BARNETT: We did. We really pre-prepared well, not only from the beginning, where the first hint that this storm might get to Florida, and then as it was tracking toward Florida, our people early evacuated, which was great.
And I have said before I think Harvey was a real wakeup call. But then, as you said, when this thing came roaring through here, and we had gusts of 143 miles an hour yesterday, it was — there's no other word than say scary.
And today is just — you know, it's kind of an emotional day. But I go out there and I see everybody pitching in and working. We have got a small crew even at city hall, which is open. So, lessons learned, every hurricane, you're going to learn something.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mayor Bill Barnett, I know the country is watching and wishing you and everyone in the Naples community and the entire state of Florida the best.
MAYOR BILL BARNETT:And thank you. Take care. Bye-bye.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And moving up Florida's Gulf Coast, the Tampa/St. Petersburg area feared a massive storm surge from Irma. Thankfully, it was spared the worst, but there are challenges, especially, as we have heard, when it comes to power and planning for future hurricanes.
I also spoke by phone late today with Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn, thank you for talking with us.
So, how much of this storm did Tampa get?
MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN, Tampa, Florida: Well, not nearly as much as we thought we were going to get, Judy.
This could have been a knockout punch for us. Instead, it was just a glancing blow. We got a lot of winds. We got a lot of rain. There's a lot of debris on the ground, some trees that are falling down, but the surge didn't occur, for which we are eternally grateful. So, the crews are out clearing the streets right now.
The one lingering issue is the power that's out and I would imagine, in some cases, might be out for a couple of days.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about.
What are the main things that you're dealing with?
MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN: Well, it's predominantly power.
We have been at it since about 3:00 this morning, when our police crews starred checking every street. And we deployed about 1,000 officers yesterday. And so we got a good analysis of what was wrong, where the standing water was, where the trees were down, where the power lines were down.
And much to our surprise, it wasn't nearly as bad as we thought it was going to be. No surge to any extent. The flooding was almost minimal. So, the only remaining issue is the power outages. And, you know, that's going to be a big issue. And there will be folks who will be inconvenienced for a couple of days, which, as you know in Tampa in the middle of September, is not a pleasant thing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: No, it's not.
I do want to ask you about — we know there's some analysis that has been pointed out to us, analysis going back several years, experts saying that Tampa is one of the most unprepared cities in the country to deal with a major hurricane, in terms of the fact that you're at sea level, that you have got so much water so close.
How do you — do you think the city was prepared, as prepared as it could have been?
MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN: I do.
Some of those things that were referenced in that story were not of our making. Some of it is the fact that we are a low-lying city right on Hillsborough Bay. Our infrastructure is like every other infrastructure in America. It's aging. It's 100-year-old pipes trying to deal with 2017 growth.
I think, in terms of our preparation and our ability to react to this storm, I think we're in great shape. Even though we haven't been hit in 90 years, Judy, we train for this all year long because we know at some point our number is up.
And I thought a day ago that our number was up. So we were ready. We were deployed. We had assets deployed. We had our people ready. Our command posts had been up and running for three days.
I think if it had been a Cat 3, Cat 4, Cat 5, we would have reacted the same as we did. Fortunately, it wasn't. But, you know, there are some things that we can't fix here that Mother Nature has given us, but, you know, in terms of infrastructure and hardening of our infrastructure, those are things that this country needs to have a discussion about.
And, certainly, if the president is interested in helping America's mayors, an infrastructure bill would be much needed. And these storms are a great indication of why it's needed.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know a lot of people are talking about that right now.
Very quickly, finally, how long do you think it will take to clean Tampa up, get it back in the shape it was in?
MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN: I think we will have the place cleaned up over the next two days, and I think back to normal by tomorrow.
I think schools are closed tomorrow, but city hall is open. I think the power will be the remaining issue. And that will be a function of how quickly all of those out-of-state line men can get into the state to help their sister utility companies get this power hooked up again.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The mayor of Tampa, Florida, Bob Buckhorn, we thank you very much. And we're so glad, along with you, that it wasn't worse than it was.
MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN: Well, thank the country for their prayers, Judy.