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Florida prepares for ‘major’ Hurricane Dorian, but trajectory remains uncertain

Ten million people along the east coast of Florida could be at risk from Hurricane Dorian. The storm will reach the Bahamas Sunday, then hit Florida by Tuesday -- with Category 4 winds of 140 miles per hour. Judy Woodruff talks to Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, for the forecast, and Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator, about emergency preparation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hurricane Dorian is still growing tonight, and 10 million people along the east coast of Florida could be at risk. The storm will reach the Bahamas on Sunday, then slam into Florida by Tuesday with Category 4 winds of 140 miles an hour.

    But with the actual track still uncertain, Governor Ron DeSantis held off ordering evacuations today.

  • Ron Desnatis:

    We know it's going west. It's going to eventually go north. Will it go north before it hits the east coast. Will it go — ride 95? Will it go up the center of the state? Will it go up the west coast or even into the Gulf?

    We don't know that yet. But I think if folks are in some of those areas, they need to do what's best to prepare. But, yes, it'd be great for me to say if I could say, it's been totally ruled out to go one direction or another.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's hear more about Dorian's trajectory as of this evening and the risks of this hurricane.

    Edward Rappaport is the deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, and he joins me from the center in Miami.

    Ed Rappaport, thank you for being with us.

    So what is the latest information on Dorian?

  • Ed Rappaport:

    Good evening. Judy.

    Yes, during the day today, Dorian did strengthen and became what we call a major hurricane, Category 3. The track is also beginning to change, and this was expected. The storm had been moving toward the northwest, but is now beginning to turn toward the west-northwest with.

    And in fact we expect it is going to turn even more towards the left there, which is going to make it go towards the west. And here is the forecast now, the center located about 600 miles to the east of the Florida east coast, and the track we have now forecasts for it to approach by late in the weekend the coast, but then slow significantly and turn very near the coast.

    So while typically forecasting intensity is the hardest, in this case, the track forecast is particularly problematic for us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why problematic?

  • Ed Rappaport:

    Well, in this case, if the hurricane should turn a little earlier than we are forecasting, which would be really great news, it would take the center offshore.

    If the turn is delayed just a little bit — we are talking about maybe 50 miles — then we have a landfall of a major hurricane on the south or central coast of Florida, with the impacts that would be quite significant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were saying it had slowed. And what does that mean in terms of the danger that it represents?

  • Ed Rappaport:

    Yes.

    There are a number of — there are positive and negative factors for a slowing storm. The positive is, it gives us a little more time to prepare. Prepare. The negative is, though, that once it arrives, it is a prolonged period of those strong winds, very heavy and flooding rains and storm surge, which might go through multiple high tide cycles, which would make things even worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And any — what are the chances now that it could weaken at this point?

  • Ed Rappaport:

    In this case, we don't think there will be much chance for a weakening. Again, we have now what is Category 3 hurricane, 115-mile-per-hour winds. We are forecasting it to become even stronger over the next day or so.

    The issue for us is, will the center actually make it to the coast? And at this stage, there is still a fairly significant chance of that. And we're looking for all folks in Florida to prepare because of that potential eventuality.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure. If there is any chance at all, preparation is so important.

    Ed Rappaport at the National Hurricane Center, we thank you.

  • Ed Rappaport:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, we have seen pictures of gas lines. And we're seeing people lined up in grocery stores.

    To give us some better perspective on what people need to know and what the state is doing to get ready, we turn to Craig Fugate. He headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Obama. Before that, he was director of Florida's Emergency Management Division. Today, he lives and works as an adviser in Gainesville, Florida.

    And he joins us from there.

    Craig Fugate, listening just now to Ed Rappaport at the National Hurricane Center, what should the state of Florida be doing to prepare?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, the folks up at Tallahassee in the state emergency operations center, Governor DeSantis has called out the National Guard, is they are getting ready for all of the worst-case scenarios.

    Is this storm going to come in as a major hurricane and do tremendous damage? Is it going to be a slow-moving storm with lots of rain, you know, torrential rainfall measured in feet? So they have to plan for all of these.

    The problem is, Florida is a peninsula, so there is not too many options about how you can pre-position resources. So you have to kind of play this out and go worst-case scenario, how do I get close enough, how do I have the right resources?

    But until that track gets closer, and we actually start seeing the likelier impacts, they are just having to plan for a lot of scenarios from South to North Florida.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we heard the governor say, we just don't have enough information yet to tell people to start evacuating.

    How long can they wait, though, before they tell them…

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, this…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead.

  • Craig Fugate:

    Yes.

    This is well-practiced. And it's not something we just like jump and say it's time to evacuate. Every one of these counties along the coast knows about how long it takes to evacuate their at-risk populations. And they're looking for the arrival of the tropical force winds.

    And they will count backwards from that forecast. And let's say it takes them 24 hours to evacuate. They're looking for that forecast how early tropical force winds would reach their area. And they would want to get their evacuations completed, if required, before that. They just don't want to put people up on the highways and going across bridges when you got 40 plus-mile-an-hour winds.

    So this is really based upon the timing of the arrival of tropical force winds, how long it takes to evacuate counties, and the fact that all these counties on the east coast are going to share evacuation routes like I-95 and I-4.

    So they all work together on conference calls with the state and the Hurricane Center to make that call.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because they have to think about traffic and traffic jams?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Exactly.

    You have got some counties that, if they go too early, they may actually be a bottleneck for a much larger population that needed to go. So everybody gets on these conference calls, all the counties, the Hurricane Center, the state, and they kind of walk through this on the timing issues.

    But we know that the larger counties take more time. The big thing is, do people know if they're in an evacuation zone? And, if not, that's what we want them to do right now. Find out if you're an evacuation zone, know where you're going to go. You don't have to go hundreds of miles.

    These counties will open up shelters. For most people, you don't have to go more than 10 miles. But if you are going to leave your county and head to hotel, motel or somewhere else, make sure you have a destination and a reservation before you get on the highway.

    You just want to get on there and drive and hope something's going to work out. Those are the folks that end up having to drive to Atlanta.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, OK, so beyond evacuating, what else can people be doing, other than watching television, listening to the radio, of course, following the Internet right now?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, I plan to do a barbecue on Saturday or Sunday.

  • Craig Fugate:

    So I don't think it's going to be that soon that storm gets here.

    Is, if you got your plan, you got your supplies, you know what you're going to do, just monitor the storm and keep on doing what you would be doing.

    A lot of people are getting ready last minute. There's still plenty of time. But this is kind of the challenge with these kind of storms, is they're so far out. They have slowed down. We have got lots of time. People, get your supplies and stuff. But if you have got everything and you're set, there's no reason why you can't at least salvage some of these July — this Labor Day holiday.

    But if you're not ready, you still got time to get — you get your supplies. But what you're preparing for, for a lot of folks inland is going to be a lot of rain and, unfortunately, probably a lot of power outages if the storm does come over the state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as somebody who has been the head of FEMA and, of course, has been in charge of emergency situations in the state of Florida, what is your biggest worry about this storm?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, it's going to be the three principal threats.

    First one is going to be storm surge in the evacuated areas. Do people comply with those evacuations? Do they leave? We don't want people waiting for the next forecast or delaying. They may not get out in time.

    The second thing is going to be the winds. Outside of what you would see from just devastation, winds are the primary thing that's going to cause widespread power outages. And this is a big storm. So its potential is causing a lot of damage well inland, really a challenge for all the utilities to deal with.

    But with a slow-moving storm, the third thing you're worried about now is heavy rainfall. And the slower that storm is and the longer it takes, you start measuring rainfall in feet, and you saw what happened in Houston during Harvey.

    Imagine that in places like Orlando that are well inland from the coast, but could see a lot of rain if the storm slows down and tracks in that direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally, does it look to you at this point, Craig Fugate, that the state of Florida, that the federal — that FEMA, the federal folks, are adequately prepared for this?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, we always talk about what our state and federal partners are doing.

    And it really comes down to what our public's doing. If the public's doing their part, then, yes. The governor's called out the National Guard. People are getting resources ordered up. FEMA has got their folks in Tallahassee. They have got folks that are bringing in supplies. They have got urban search-and-rescue teams that have water rescue capabilities on standby.

    So everybody up and down is getting ready. It really comes back to how prepared did the public get, and what's really critical is that people heed any evacuation orders and move to higher ground.

    So that's going to be the key to keeping our fatalities low, is getting people to evacuate, evacuating early, and making sure that people aren't staying behind, saying, it won't be that bad.

    That's just not — it's just — you just can't make that gamble with yourself and your family.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's hope people are listening.

    Craig Fugate, someone who knows very well about emergency management, thank you very much.

  • Craig Fugate:

    Thank you.

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