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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Isaac Heading For New Orleans; Mississippi Braces For Isaac; Alabama Coast Under Hurricane Warning; Isaac's Arrival; Showtime In Tampa; FEMA Prepares For Isaac; Romney Campaign Out with New Education Ad

Aired August 28, 2012 - 06:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Bracing for Isaac. The massive storm hurdles towards the gulf Coast taking aim right at New Orleans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right now, we're on a wing and a prayer, you know? Lot of prayers.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: With one eye on Isaac, Republicans get ready to formally nominate Mitt Romney at their convention tonight.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman live in Tampa, Florida. This is the CNN Grill, a hub of activity at the Republican National Convention. We will have more from the CNN Grill in just a few minutes.

SAMBOLIN: We are really looking forward to that, John. I'm Zoraida Sambolin back here in New York at 6 a.m. in the East.

First here, New Orleans, bracing for a direct hit from Isaac, the storm is gaining strength overnight in the warm gulf waters and it is right on the verge of becoming a hurricane at this hour.

Take a look at the satellite view. Isaac is expected to make landfall tonight or early tomorrow morning and when it does, New Orleans may get soaked by a Category 2 hurricane with 100-mile-an-hour winds.

It could create storm surges of 6 to 12 feet. Thousands of people in Louisiana, as well as Mississippi and Alabama have already packed up and hit the highways and taking a look at them there.

Isaac directly impacting more than 5 million lives this morning. CNN has Isaac covered for you like no other network. David Mattingly is live this morning in Gulfport, Mississippi.

But we're going to begin with Rob Marciano at the port of New Orleans where they are hoping a new $10 billion flood control system will hold up in the face of its first big test -- Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, they are putting it to the test this go around since Katrina, seven years ago, almost to the day, beefed up the levee system, the flood gate system and the pumps are used to pump water out of the city into the lakes and rivers.

The levees that are meant to be the barrier between the storm surge and the city itself and some of these pumps can move water at a rate of 100,000, 150,000 gallons per second.

But that sounds like a lot, Zoraida, but really by design they can only really handle about an inch of rainfall per hour and every hour after that, about a half inch of rainfall. That's really a typical thunderstorm.

So when we start to get the more solid rain shield in here, the rain rate is going to be much, much higher than that. Take a look at what we expect to see as far as rainfall totals if you take the weather switcher.

The bright white on here indicates rainfall that should -- at least with this graphic, the yellow, will be rainfall that exceeds 10 inches of rainfall. So that includes New Orleans. We could see a foot of rainfall and most of that will come within a 12-hour period.

So that would definitely be over the rate that these pumps can handle. There's going to be significant flooding in the city. The question is do the levee walls hold the storm surge as well because we'll see at least a 6 to 12 foot storm surge as this comes onshore.

Regardless of the strength, the circulation is so large and the way the Gulf of Mexico's floor is set up in the north eastern gulf, we'll get a significant surge, not only here, but across the Southern Mississippi coastline.

So, you know, you talk about the Katrina anniversary. You talk about this storm's approach, which will be similar in surge, but not in strength and size. So the same people that were affected by Katrina will be definitely affected by Isaac.

Just not to the extent that Katrina was. Preliminary evacuations, just voluntarily here within the city, they are not going to make it mandatory until this thing becomes a 2 or 3 and quite frankly, it's too late for that.

There are no shelters of last resort. They have a handful of smaller shelters for homeless people to go into, but they basically have warned people to make your choice and then basically live with it.

But they are prepped for rescue if they need it. But at this point they are not -- they are not making evacuations mandatory here in the city. Folks are going to have to ride it out -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, I was reading that this morning, if you haven't made it out, you're staying and hopefully you don't have to be rescued. Live for us in New Orleans, Rob Marciano, thank you.

That massive storm is triggering hurricane warnings along a wide stretch of the gulf coast including the entire Mississippi coast. Some spots are all too familiar with this type of disaster.

Katrina's storm surge totally smashed homes in places like Waveland, Gulfport and Long Beach. Take a look at those pictures. That was on the eastern side of the storm. It killed more than 200 people in that state as well.

So seven years later, these places are in that same dangerous position. David Mattingly is live in Gulfport for us this morning. David, are people feeling more prepared this time around?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me put it this way. They have a big lesson to learn after Katrina. During that storm, storm surge from Katrina was 6 to 10 feet over my head where I'm standing right now.

We're not expecting to see anything like that with Isaac, but in the years that followed Katrina, they were committed to rebuilding here, a lot of infrastructure is wiped out along the shorelines.

So they rebuilt better and stronger and wherever they had structures they rebuilt, they rebuilt them higher. You're seeing a lot of homes up higher than they used to be, built with concrete and steel before they were wood frame houses.

So people feeling more confident that they are ready for whatever nature dishes out, but at the same time, you're finding that everyone is treating all storms with respect including Isaac.

Even though it's following the same path, the same timing as Katrina, they don't believe it's going to be nearly as bad more than as Katrina was, but they are watching it very closely.

Some of that construction that has been going on over the past couple of years, here in Gulfport, for example, they rebuilt their harbor before they used materials like wood.

Now it's also built with more sturdy materials and they are quite confident that center piece of their reconstruction after Katrina will stand up to this storm. Listen.

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RYAN LAFONTAINE, GULFPOR SPOKESMAN: The one that was here before Katrina was built out of wood. This one is concrete and built like a fortress.

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MATTINGLY: Built like a fortress, so that shows you the confidence that they have here. Some people also say they have a great deal of confidence in the homes that they've rebuilt.

But, again, they are treating this storm with respect. There's no such thing as any structure that is truly hurricane proof. With this storm, while we might not see the storm surge we saw with Katrina or the winds, we are expecting a lot of rain and flooding here -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: It's nice to see that they are taking it seriously. David Mattingly live for us in Gulfport this morning. Appreciate that.

Right now, a hurricane warning in effect for the entire Alabama Coast and even Isaac continues on its track towards New Orleans, Mobile Bay could see a 4-foot storm surge.

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for parts of Baldwin and Mobile Counties in Alabama with tropical storm force winds expected as early as this afternoon.

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GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY (R), ALABAMA: We always have to remember that what we're trying to do is protect the lives of the people of this area. Everything else is secondary.

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SAMBOLIN: As the Florida panhandle prepares for Isaac to arrive with hurricane strength, other parts of Florida are recovering from the damage that was caused Monday by Tropical Storm Isaac.

That storm knocked down trees Monday in Fort Lauderdale. You're taking look at that right there and flooding shut down the Saw Grass Expressway in nearby Sunrise.

And in Vero Beach, it spun off a reported tornado. Look at the damage. It caused damage to three mobile home parks.

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ANTHONY DIPIAZZA, VERO BEACH RESIDENT: We heard like a freight train, maybe like a jet plane coming close by and she had asked me what was that, and I said that's a tornado.

JOYCE MARRACCINI, VERO BEACH RESIDENT: The door flew past me and glass was flying and I was sitting on my bed doing paperwork and watching a movie. And all of a sudden things were flying.

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SAMBOLIN: The Indian River County sheriff says it is a miracle no serious injuries were reported there when you look at those pictures.

Coming up later this hour, we'll hear live from FEMA Director Craig Fugate who is monitoring Isaac from Tallahassee, Florida for us -- John.

BERMAN: Here in Tampa, the Republican Party is storm watching. The GOP National Convention is set to kick off really in full today. Of course, they are keeping a careful eye on the gulf coast.

The question is could the storm force keynote speaker, Chris Christie, to tone it down a bit? We're going to be joined by our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, to talk about this and much more coming up live from the CNN Grill in just a moment.

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SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 12 minutes past the hour. We continue to track Tropical Storm Isaac. It is nearly a full-blown hurricane. Take a look at that.

It's expected to happen sometime this morning as Isaac moves through the Gulf of Mexico. You see it churning now. Right now, Isaac has sustained winds of 70 miles per hour.

Current projections have this slamming into the gulf coast near New Orleans tonight or maybe early tomorrow morning. That -- it could be a Category 1 hurricane. The storm surge could be as high as 12 feet in some areas.

John, we're going to head back out to you now.

BERMAN: All right, here in Tampa, the tone of the Republican convention, it might need to be toned down a bit because of Isaac's potential impact.

But it is still full speed ahead today for the Republican Party as the convention begins really in earnest with Mitt Romney's formal nomination and big prime time speeches by Ann Romney, his wife, and Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey.

Now the big thing today is last night we learned that Mitt Romney himself is expected in Tampa today and this is two full days before his big speech.

I'm joined right now by CNN chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. Jes, Mitt Romney coming to town, that seems like a pretty big deal.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, and you know, it's usual for the candidate to come in himself a few days before the speech.

It really seems to put a spotlight on Ann Romney's speech to really highlight the fact that this is a moment when we're going to see the personal side of Mitt Romney.

If the whole point of this convention is to give voters a different picture of Romney, the family man, the warm guy, it's also more opportunity for him to be on stage and seen in two more nights in that light.

BERMAN: You know, normally we see the candidate himself piped in by some satellite image from some other state waving to his wife, but now they're presumably they'll be on stage together.

YELLIN: Let's hope no kiss. That Al Gore and Tipper Gore lip lock --

BERMAN: We did perhaps learn our lesson with that. You know, we've been talking a lot about the Republican convention and should it be toned down. Should they change the nature of this event given what's happening with Isaac? We haven't spoken as much about President Obama, who is on a two-day campaign swing starting today.

YELLIN: That is true and it's also unusual for the rival candidate to go out and campaign sometimes during the other's convention --

BERMAN: At all.

YELLIN: This is sort of a first. I didn't mean to say convention, convention but that's funny. The president is going to three battleground states, Iowa, Colorado and Virginia. These are states that the campaign is fighting for.

He's also speaking to college -- at college campuses so that's the crucial youth vote that the president hopes to win and so really sticking it to Romney with the key demographic and these battleground states.

BERMAN: There does seem to be an enthusiasm gap among America's youth right now. But the White House could face questions going into tomorrow if the impact of the storm perhaps is stronger than we anticipate. The same times of questions the Republicans are facing.

YELLIN: And the president and White House have made it clear that he continues to get ongoing briefings from FEMA and issuing declarations as needed. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a severe situation that they could call off the event or alter just like Vice President Biden changed his plans when they found out that Florida was under potential impact.

BERMAN: All right. Jess, our chief White House correspondent, my personal friend. Thank you very much for being here right now.

We do have some other political news to discuss. And it is perhaps sad news.

A source close to CNN tells us that former five-term Pennsylvania Senator Says Arlen Specter is now battling for his life. This source claims that Specter was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer around six weeks ago. Now, this is not the first cancer scare for the 82- year-old. In the past 20 years. He's overcome a brain tumor and Non- Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Our thoughts are with Arlen Specter and his family this morning -- Zoraida.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. And our prayers as well. That's very sad news.

And coming up, officials warning that Isaac could be a cat like event for oil production. Rigs shut down as the storm bears down. How much could you be paying for gas by Labor Day? We are minding your business, coming up next.

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BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I am John Berman. This is the CNN grill. We are live in Tampa.

Mitt Romney coming to town today for the Republican National Convention and we will have more from here in just a few minutes.

SAMBOLIN: I've got to tell you, we're missing you here in New York, but we're happy you're anchoring in Tampa. We'll check in soon there.

I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

We are minding your business this morning: oil and gas production being cut down sharply out of the Gulf with Isaac fast approaching.

Christine Romans is here, tracking the shutdown of rigs, refinery, platforms.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Right. And I'm telling you, emergency preparations are underway right now. You got 78 percent of the oil production facilities in the region are shut down. They are evacuating people from these rigs and platforms, 41 rigs evacuated, 346 platforms evacuated.

I want to show why these emergency preparations are happening, because we had major hurricanes come through here before. What they are eyeing, Katrina, remember, Rita, both of those storms, you can see them there, they came right through the heart, artery really of America's gulf oil production and they are watching the path of this storm as well, watching as that comes forward and concerned about it hitting exactly the same areas that have been hit before and they're going to make sure that chemical facilities are secured, and oil rigs are secured, refineries are secured, all of these oil terminals and pipelines and all of that are secured. That's important for your money today.

Also important for your money today, we're taking a very close look at some campaigning that's happening in the heartland. The president, Zoraida, is going to make his case to a demographic that has been good to him in the past, America's college students. He's going to Iowa State University then he's going to Fort Collins and he's going to make the case that you want him to be the steward for the next four years for America's youth.

And the Obamney team -- team Romney, team Romney comes out with an ad on education saying to kids, there's more to it, sort of an info graphic. This is the part saying, hey, you know, hope and change hasn't been so great, has it kids? It has failed the youth of America.

Half of new college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Youth unemployment rate has doubled the unemployment rate for other Americans. You have tuition at all-time highs. How is the president's stewardship doing for you?

So, you're going to see both going after the youth vote and that's playing out politically today at least.

SAMBOLIN: You know, it's really interesting because in 2008, President Obama took the youth, right? He rallied all of the youth to come out and vote. So, at the end of the day, you wonder how they are going to feel.

ROMANS: He got two-thirds of that vote and now you've got team Romney that's saying every minute of the day, that he was the president, he racked up all of the debt to get out of the financial crisis.

And so, kids are graduating from college and what the Romney team says, you kids, you have a bill for this president. He has handed you a bill, not opportunity.

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SAMBOLIN: The RNC has the clock ticking for four days to see how the deficit racks up in four days.

ROMANS: This has been a demographic that's been good to President Obama, certainly was in 2008.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thank you very much, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

SAMBIOLIN: It is 22 minutes past the hour.

The National Hurricane Center out with a brand-new assessment of tropical storm Isaac. The latest on the storm's strength, its projected path -- that is coming up.

If you are leaving the house, you can watch any time on your desktop or on your mobile phone, just go to CNN.com/TV.

And as the Gulf Coast braces for Isaac, we're getting iReports showing live get back to normal, at least in south Florida. Do we have one here from Feel Great Now (ph)? He sent us some great video.

It shows choppy waters off Ft. Lauderdale Beach right after Isaac. Are those people in the water? Maybe I'm seeing things? No, I'm not seeing things.

All right, send us your Isaac iReports, but be safe, folks. Go to CNNiReport.com. Look for assignment tropical storm Isaac.

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SAMBOLIN: On the verge, Isaac very close to becoming a hurricane with New Orleans right in its path.

BERMAN: Tampa despite the storm, Republicans wrestling with the tone as the party prepares to formally nominate Mitt Romney tonight.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I am John Berman, live at the CNN grill. We're in Tampa, Florida, for the Republican National Convention. We will have more full reports coming up in just a few minutes.

And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It is 27 minutes past the hour.

First here, New Orleans just hours away from a head-on collision with Isaac and the National Hurricane Center out this morning with the latest on the storm.

For that, we will go to meteorologist Karen Maginnis. She is live in Atlanta for us.

What's the update there?

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Thank you, Zoraida.

And, yes, this is the critical information you need to know right now, from the National Hurricane Center. This is still supporting 70-mile- an-hour wind. It is just on the verge of becoming a hurricane.

Moving fairly rapidly at the northwest or to the northwest at about 12 miles an hour. This puts it at just about 125 miles from the Southeast of New Orleans or just from the mouth of the Mississippi river. Have a different perspective for you.

This is a view of the water vapor. We show you this because there are two aspects that are kind of critical. You can see the fairly dry air here and all of this is the moisture that's wrapping around what is soon probably to become hurricane Isaac.

There's not a clearly defined eye. If it were it would be just about in this vicinity but there's a little dry slot of air coming in that is also cut off across the north edge of the system. Why do we care about that? Well, the more moisture we have wrapped into the system, that's where we're going to see the intensity change with this. We're going to see a lot more moisture, maybe that eye developing more clearly.

Here's a view off the coast the radar. Some of those bands just kind of interrupting things along the coast, nothing very heavy right now but the wind is the key piece of this. Some of the winds have been gusting around 40 miles per hour. That at Boothville, Louisiana.

And the spaghetti models, you see this when we start covering the hurricanes or tropical systems and they are in pretty much agreement going onshore across southeastern, Louisiana, and from there, taking it more towards the north and northwest, maybe towards Little Rock. As a much smaller system, but nonetheless, it's going to be critical because we're looking at powerful amounts of rainfall. Storm surge, these are the critical things that will happen as we go into the next 24 and indeed 36 hours.

Now, at about Tuesday morning, sometime during those early morning hours, we're expecting it to be a category one hurricane making landfall with about 85-mile-per-hour winds in the vicinity of New Orleans of early morning hours on Tuesday and weakening over the next 36 hours. We'll keep you updated on that.

Another update from the Hurricane Center is coming up at 8:00 Eastern -- Zoraida. SAMBOLIN: Karen, I know we talked about potentially a category 2 hurricane at some point. Has that changed?

MAGINNIS: It looks like right now National Hurricane Center is saying it's interacting or so close to land right now, maybe that north edge will not develop so much. So, they are keeping it at a category one. This is very warm water. Very fickle things can happen when we start to see this encounter, 88, 89 degree water temperatures.

So, right now, we're saying category 1. But we'll get another update at 8:00.

SAMBOLIN: Well, thank you for clearing that up for us. We appreciate it.

Karen Maginnis, live in Atlanta for us, thank you.

It is a number one question right now in New Orleans -- are the levees ready? The Army Corps of Engineers was given $14 billion to improve flood defenses right after Katrina.

So, here's a result for you. Take a look at this. The system includes the biggest pumping station in the world, spanning across the inter-coastal waterway, along with another 73 pumping stations across five parishes, the levee walls dug deeper, built stronger and standing higher than seven years ago. We certainly hope so.

And thousands of people in low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast have been told to leave their homes with Isaac approaching, that includes the tiny fishing village of Grand Isle, Louisiana, which is under a mandatory evacuation order. People there are still reeling from the Gulf oil spill. Remember?

CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in Grand Isle, talking to a shrimper who maybe very familiar to our CNN viewers.

They've had a really tough time out there, haven't they, Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's no question going back to hurricane Katrina, hurricane Gustav, the BP oil spill, this is a community that has dealt with a great deal. So, this is another one of those challenges that lies ahead in the next few hours and we're preparing to hunker down here to ride out the storm here at the home of Dean Blanchard, you've seen him many times on CNN, a friend of the program as we like to say.

What are you expecting today as we begin to prepare to hunker down here?

DEAN BLANCHARD, SHRIMPER: Well, we expect a little wind today and probably get a little rain later on and get rid for tonight and see what Mother Nature got in store for us, you know?

LAVANDERA: You don't like to leave your home behind, you like to ride the storms out, why is that? BLANCHARD: We specially built this home for this, been through many hurricanes and I like to watch my business. It seems like if you leave, you got a hard time coming back. The law enforcement, don't want no looting, and so they'll start -- try to stop you from coming back so I just quit leaving.

LAVANDERA: And do you think this island will be able to hold up relatively well throughout the storm?

BLANCHARD: Oh, yes. The people over here are real resilient. I mean, no matter how much damage we have, within a couple of days people will be rebuilding and ready to come home.

LAVANDERA: As we prepare to do this throughout the day here, we're on the highest point of the island, right?

BLANCHARD: Well, we're on a ridge. I think we're pretty safe. You know, you don't feel nothing in the house, you're real safe.

LAVANDERA: All right. There's a ridge that goes through the island here. We got the ocean -- the gulf on this side and the bay side and back towards New Orleans this way, Zoraida.

Do you think a lot of people will be leaving? Will they be sticking around?

BLANCHARD: We had 42 people here last night, what the fire chief told me and I believe 30 of them will leave this morning. We'll be down between seven and 12 people tonight.

LAVANDERA: A little disheartening, not many will be left here in a few hours.

BLANCHARD: It will be nice and quiet.

LAVANDERA: Nice and quiet. Zoraida, so the preparations that we're going through, we'll be able to show that, stick with us here throughout the day.

And my good friend and colleague, Ali Velshi rode out hurricane Gustav back in 2008 with Dean. That was quite a storm.

We anticipate a little bit of the same there and we're anxiously awaiting to see exactly what this tropical storm when it becomes a hurricane and what that will mean in the hours ahead -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Ed Lavandera, one of seven of 12 people that is going to hang out during this hurricane.

I have to tell you, right next to you, we had a picture of the storm churning as it's barreling towards that area. So be safe, you are one brave soul out there.

ZARRELLA: You know, the deceiving thing so far is we haven't had a drop of rain yet. The wind has started to pick up but no rain yet.

SAMBOLIN: It's headed your way. You can probably be guaranteed of that. Hopefully we'll check back in with you. Good luck to you.

So, as Isaac barrels through the Gulf of Mexico, here's what it looks like from space.

NASA satellite imagery showing the massive storm system as it moved past Cuba and the Florida keys over the past couple of days into the Gulf where its sights are set on New Orleans -- John.

BERMAN: Here in Tampa, the issue is selling the candidate while showing compassion. It is a careful balance for the Republicans as Isaac barrels towards New Orleans. This is all happening during the Republican National Convention. We are live in Tampa with analysis, next.

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SAMBOLIN: Thirty-eight minutes past the hour. Isaac is yet to muscle up to hurricane strength but that is expected to happen soon and Isaac poses a major threat to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular. Right now, look at this -- the storm packing 70-mile-per-hour winds. Forecasters expect it to make landfall sometime tonight or tomorrow morning right near New Orleans -- John.

BERMAN: It is the first real day of the Republican National Convention here in Tampa. This is after the threat of Isaac pretty much forced the Republicans to cancel their events yesterday. Now the storm could steal the spotlight a bit all together as it slams into the Gulf Coast.

I'm joined right now by Ana Navarro, a CNN contributor and a Republican strategist, and a Floridian. I'm also joined by Erick Erickson, a CNN contributor and editor in chief of RedState.com.

Let me ask you guys both a little bit -- do you think Isaac is getting too much attention right now?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, I'm a Floridian, I know what the people are going through. I know what it's like to be waiting for a hurricane -- the distress, the preparation, the nervousness, what's going to happen to your family, keeping your kids safe, keeping yourself safe, keeping your home safe.

No, there's never too much attention given to a hurricane. It is so much better to be safe than sorry.

BERMAN: Eric, do you have to be careful of tone or (INAUDIBLE)?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, you've got to be careful with the tone to a degree. But I do have to tell you, I'm from Louisiana. I grew up with plenty of hurricanes. I look at the storm in the way the media is covering it, and think, yes, it's a hurricane, it's deserves coverage. People need to be prepared. But it's not as awful as people thought it was going to be.

NAVARRO: You live in Georgia now.

BERMAN: You think coverage maybe overblown a little bit?

ERICKSON: I think the coverage of most weather events is overblown. You get a snowstorm in New York City, then most of the media covers it for a week. You get a hurricane along the Gulf Coast, it gives everybody a chance to put on their poncho and --

NAVARRO: But, Erick, if you don't cover it, people don't prepare.

ERICKSON: Oh, yes, absolutely.

BERMAN: All right. Before this gets too heated, let me ask this -- we have Chris Christie giving the keynote address tonight. We have Ann Romney giving a speech people have been talking about for months. And we have Mitt Romney coming to town today for what I presume would be an on-stage appearance with his wife tonight.

When the convention is done this evening at 11:30, what will the Romney campaign need to have accomplished to be successful?

NAVARRO: I think three things. Number one, Ann Romney needs to open up her husband, needs to talk about her husband. I don't think she should unzip him but I think she should try to shed some light on some of the personal nature of him that he doesn't know.

On Christie, I think he's going to set the stage for some back-and- forth with Obama. That's what he's good. That's what we're expecting.

And third, I think we need to be sensitive and show great empathy to what's happening in the Gulf Coast, and make sure that that's a theme throughout the convention, not because it's the politically correct thing to do, but because it's the right thing to do.

BERMAN: Erick, what needs to be happening?

ERICKSON: Well, I'm still shocked I've got to be up to 11:30 to deal with this day. You know, I think she's got to humanize Mitt Romney in a way. They need to be able to start connecting to people. I think she has a story to tell and she needs to tell the story about Ann Romney.

There are people who don't know about her. She sells very well to independent voters. She's a great asset to Mitt Romney.

BERMAN: Quickly, a Romney aide was telling me overnight they think there are people out there on the fence but they are looking for a reason to vote for Mitt Romney that they haven't found yet. And they think Ann Romney might be able to find that magical combination.

ERICKSON: Yes. You know, I think the Romney team is right on that. There are people who they just want an excuse to vote, if not for Mitt Romney, against Barack Obama. I think Ann Romney, she's got a compelling personal story. She humanizes Mitt Romney. She relates to people very well.

NAVARRO: You were asking in the previous segment, previous hour about liking Mitt Romney. I've probably met Mitt Romney about 18 times. I've met Ann Romney one time. I really like Ann Romney.

BERMAN: By comparison then you're saying?

NAVARRO: You make all the assumptions you want, honey. I'm not saying a think I got myself in trouble already.

BERMAN: All right. Ana Navarro, Erick Erickson, thank you very much.

You want to know what it's really like? Behind the scenes we have the way to do it right now. You can join us in a chat at CNN election roundtable with Wolf Blitzer and the entire team. Submit your questions and get answers in real time.

Don't miss the CNN election roundtable live at 12:00 Noon Eastern. You do it by logging into CNN.com/roundtable.

SAMBOLIN: I'd like to revisit your chats, John Berman. That was great.

Soledad O'Brien is live in New Orleans for us with a look at what is ahead on "STARTING POINT".

Good morning to you, Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Zoraida.

Ahead this morning on "STARTING POINT," we're going to continue our live coverage here from New Orleans. A lot to tell you about this morning -- the storm clouds are taking center stage obviously at the Republican National Convention. If it becomes a disaster, then conversations have to be had about the event itself. We'll take a look at that.

We'll talk to Congressman Randy Forbes coming up.

Also, we're going to be talking about what's happening here in New Orleans. We'll talk to Senator Mary Landrieu and her brother, who is the mayor here, Mitch Landrieu. We're going to talk to Vitter as well, see how they are feeling about the levee system today. And talk to local folks who say they are not leaving. They decided not to evacuate.

That and much more this morning at "STARTING POINT" gets under way at the top of the hour. We'll see you then.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Looking forward to it, Soledad. Thank you very much. I know that place is very near and dear to her heart.

So boarding up and stocking up, getting out, riding it out, southern Alabama in the danger zone like it was seven years ago. We are talking to the director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to check in on how they are doing. That's coming up next.

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BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I am John Berman live at the CNN Grill. We're in Tampa for the Republican National Convention.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin in New York. Isaac is on track to make landfall in Louisiana, but parts of Alabama could be hit just as hard. A hurricane warning has been issued along the entire southern coast of the state. Landfall could come just shy of seven years since hurricane Katrina. And officials are taking every precaution to make sure people are really ready this time.

And joining me now over Skype is Art Faulkner. He is the director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. Thank you so much for taking some time to spend with us this morning. I know you're very busy. Can you tell us how you're preparing?

ART FAULKNER, DIRECTOR, ALA. EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: Well, Zoraida, we've been preparing for this since last week and throughout the weekend. We've monitored the situation.

The governor has made decisions well in advance of the storm to be able to put the safety of the citizens on our coast at the utmost importance and make sure that we can get them to safety in the event that the storm strengthens and impacts and braces down on the coast of Alabama.

SAMBOLIN: And the governor declared a state of emergency for Alabama on Sunday and, you know, working in conjunction with other agencies, FEMA, the National Guard. Do you feel that you have what you need, that you're prepared for the worst headed your way?

FAULKNER: We do. Governor yesterday was in contact with the president. I've been in contact with FEMA Administrator Fugate and will probably meet him later today, and we'll be down on the coast making sure that the first responders and others have everything they need to be able to get the citizens out and be able to respond to them if they stay behind.

SAMBOLIN: And at this stage of the game, we're still talking a storm here, Isaac, a storm but you know, potentially moving in as a hurricane, Category one. The governor ordered a wide evacuation, Baldwin, Mobile counties but then scaled it back. What happened? Why the change?

FAULKNER: Well, on Sunday when we were looking at the possibility of need to do those evacuations, you know, such a large storm with tropical force winds extending over 200 miles out from the center of the storm. And as that was on a very easterly track, you know, we couldn't wait until it got up on the coast of Alabama.

So, the governor made some decisions mainly to try to get people to understand just how serious the storm could be. And then on Monday, after meeting with local officials, he modified that evacuation order and put some of the local officials to where they could go in to certain areas that they felt needed to be focused on and then have others that could stay in place, unless, we felt that they absolutely had to get out.

SAMBOLIN: And the timing of this hurricane, we've been talking a lot about tropical storm now but, you know, headed to a hurricane, the anniversary, the seventh anniversary of hurricane Katrina. When we spoke to Mobile's mayor earlier, Sam Jones, he had said that there have been some changes that have been implemented since hurricane Katrina.

So, he felt that they were better prepared. Do you feel the same or is there some anxiety because it is on the anniversary?

FAULKNER: Well, you know, we take every storm serious, and we always try to prepare for any type of disaster. The state of Alabama, certainly, is no stranger to that, even though we've not faced a hurricane. Last spring, we essentially had a hurricane get the northern two-thirds of the state of Alabama.

And I think that you saw the first responders and the local elected officials and others and our governor be able to be proactive, get out there, and take care of our citizens. In this situation, we're trying to do that before the storm, because we certainly don't want to face the death that we faced out of the immediate threat of tornadoes in the state last year.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. That is very smart, indeed. Art Faulkner, director of Alabama Emergency Management, thank you for taking some time out this morning. We appreciate it.

FAULKNER: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: Fifty-one minutes past the hour. Tropical storm Isaac hasn't made landfall, but there's already a fight over money and the emergency response. The president declares an emergency in Louisiana and the governor says that's not enough. FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, is going to join us next.

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BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman. This is the CNN Grill. We're live in Tampa for the Republican National Convention.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin back in New York. It's nice to have you this morning. Another quick look at the progress of Isaac this morning. The storm could make landfall along the Gulf Coast as early as tonight as a hurricane. The president yesterday declared a state of emergency for Louisiana, freeing up federal aid, but Louisiana is asking for more help.

FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, is with me now live from Tallahassee, Florida. Thank you so much for taking the time this morning. We were talking about the state of emergency that's been declared, because a lot of the governors in several states have done that. But the president has now gotten involved and declared a state of emergency for Louisiana. Could you explain the difference between it being a governor versus a president?

CRAIG FUGATE, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Absolutely. Governors are authorized under their constitutions to take extraordinary actions in disasters. So, they declared emergency that turns on their state plans and gives them the authority to call the National Guard, and they're in charge of that response in that state.

However, when they may need federal assistance whether it's financial or direct federal assistance, they can request from the president that the president declare an emergency or declare a disaster.

And so, yesterday, Governor Obama (ph) declared a disaster for the state of Louisiana for direct federal assistance so that if there are any request the state has other than financial assistance at this point, particularly for search and rescue, aircraft, whatever the federal government may need for life saving activities, that's authorized. And then, we'll continue to look at the impacts and determine what more assistance may be needed.

SAMBOLIN: I know you meant President Obama there. You said Governor Obama.

FUGATE: President Obama, I'm sorry.

SAMBOLIN: No, no, that's fine. So, let's talk about what are the measures that are happening right now?

FUGATE: We've been working with the states, I think, you heard from the director in Alabama as people have been getting ready for this along the Gulf Coast over the weekend. We had teams move in, work with the states, and set up. We don't wait for disasters to be declared or request to come in.

So, we're already in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. And we have supplies coming in. The other lesson we learned, we don't want to wait until something happens and do assessments and determine what we need. So, we move supplies, particularly in this case, generator, water, food, infant supplies, and types of things that may be needed if the states do have a lot of flooding or other types of damages.

SAMBOLIN: And that cost a lot of money. There was a "New York Times" editorial this morning talking about the GOP-backed cuts to FEMA. And I want to read what it says here, "Between 2010 and 2012, House Republicans forced the reduction of 43 percent in the primary grants for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that pay for disaster preparedness."

It goes on to talk about the $1.8 billion that will not be available. Does it concern you, these cuts and the negative impact that it could have for FEMA in order to help during disasters?

FUGATE: I think you got to really look at the overall federal budget, what the president has requested in the prior years, what he's requested this year. And, you know, we're basing upon what the needs are of the agency as well as what our responders need. And again, we look at the president's budget as where we would like to be, and in many cases. when you talk about disaster response.

Last year, the Budget Stabilization Act, the agreement was we'd get fully funded for the recovery relief fund, which is our primary fund we use to respond to disasters, and we are very healthy with those funds going into this storm. So, unlike last year, if you remember we had a lot of problems with that money.

Congress and president agreed to fully fund these accounts. And so, going into the storm, we're in good shape for response.

SAMBOLIN: That is very good news. I'm sure everybody is happy to hear that. But after the president declared a state of emergency, Governor Jindal sent a letter requesting full disaster declaration for his state. So, if the state would be reimbursed for all expenses, do you think that that's going to happen?

FUGATE: It depends upon the impacts. Again, primary responsibility for evacuations really state and local governments and when it's extraordinary the federal government can support that with financial assistance. What the president said yesterday was if you have a request for specific federal assistance, we're ready to provide that life safety issues.

We're not going to hold anything up. But we'll look at the impacts and determine, does this really exceed the state's capability that require federal tax dollars to support that response and particularly if they start having damages. So, early on the request was direct federal assistance.

If the financial impacts are greater than the state of Louisiana can manage, we assess that and we'll make recommendations again looking at what the governor has requested.

SAMBOLIN: I know that you have your hands full so we really appreciate the time that you've taken with us this morning. Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thank you for your time.

That is it for EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. A special edition of "STARTING POINT" live from New Orleans with Soledad O'Brien starts right now.