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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Winter Storm Batters Midwest; Hopes Of Fiscal Cliff Deal Dwindling; Geithner: U.S. Hits Debt Ceiling Monday; Anger Over Map Of Gun Permit Holders; $1.1 Billion Toyota Settlement

Aired December 27, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, going nowhere fast. Holiday travel on hold as a wet and nasty storm slams the northeast and strands thousands of airline passengers.

ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Trucks tossed like toys, a tornado's powerful fury captured on camera in Alabama.

GRIFFIN: And just five tense days until the fiscal cliff. President Obama getting back to Washington on the Air Force One where there's doubt that a deal can get done in time.

Good morning, everybody. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Drew Griffin.

CHO: And I'm Alina Cho. So glad you're with us on a Thursday. John and Zoraida have the day off. It is 6 a.m. in the East.

And up first, a powerful winter storm is hammering the northeast right now and snarling holiday travel plans for millions of American families. Just look at the live radar and all of that white there.

This system is expected to dump up to two feet of snow on Central Maine today and it is packing destructive winds. Six states are facing storm warnings, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, all could see at least a foot of snow or more.

More than 200,000 customers spanning several states are already without power. More than 1,700 flights cancelled yesterday, hundreds more already taken off the board this morning.

Six deaths are already blamed on the weather since Tuesday, and the threat certainly has not passed yet. Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider is tracking the system from the CNN Weather Center in Atlanta.

But first let's go to Ines Ferre. She is standing by live in Syracuse, New York this morning. Good morning, Ines. Has it stopped snowing?

INES FERRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, it hasn't stop snowing. We're seeing lighter snow, but it's still falling steadily and Governor Cuomo has asked people to avoid non-essential travel. Here's why, poor visibility and the possibility of ice on the roads. You can see the road conditions here in downtown Syracuse. We've seen plows coming in and out of these roads, but the snow is still accumulating. What you're seeing on the sides of the road too is accumulation from this snowstorm, which is expected to dump about 9 to 13 inches and also some previous snowstorms.

They have had 13 inches in the last four days. Syracuse officials say this area is used to getting snow. Of course, the big challenge is so much snow in such a short period of time. It's been almost two years since Syracuse has seen a foot of snow all in one shot -- Alina.

CHO: Ines Ferre in Syracuse, New York. Ines, thank you.

GRIFFIN: Well, a potent winter storm really socked the Midwest. Travel conditions were so treacherous that the NBA's Indiana Pacers had to postpone last night's game against the Bulls. That's real rarity.

Getting around the country today and the rest of the week will be a challenge. Let's get right to the CNN Weather Center in Atlanta. Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider tracking the system, what is the latest, especially for me, Bonnie, in New York where it's been raining, sleeting and miserable.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Rain and sleet and wind. So it's really going to be one of those days where the rain is blowing sideways on the streets of Manhattan. We'll be seeing that for today and tonight as well.

And then north of New York, we're looking at heavy snow across the upstate area, certainly across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. This snow will accumulate quite a bit.

Temperatures are also going to turn much colder. Remember, this storm is pulling down colder air in behind it as it wraps in from the west so we're seeing temperatures dropping down below freezing in Scranton, so that colder air is working its way to the east.

All of this rain and wind and snow will impact your air travel. We are anticipating lengthy delays today in the northeast and the mid- Atlantic and even Chicago, Salt Lake City and Seattle also facing delays so many millions of people traveling this weekend.

This winter storm coming in at the worst time, right now some of the hardest hit areas are Rhode Island, Connecticut, Long Island and certainly into New York City where we're seeing heavy downpours. Notice the rain coming in right at JFK and LaGuardia.

And then once you start driving up towards Kingston, New York, it's more of a wintry mix and that's will be seeing in terms of sleet and freezing rain, heavy snow accumulating across New England.

This is good news for those enjoying a ski holiday but for the rest of us traveling, trying to get somewhere, it's going to cause a lot of slowdowns so give yourself extra time where you're going this holiday week. CHO: Bonnie, try sleeping. It was a howling wind last night. It was so loud. It really kept people up. All right, Bonnie Schneider, thank you so much.

Several states in the south are picking up the pieces after getting torn up by tornados from this winter storm system. This incredible video comes from surveillance cameras at a Walgreens in Mobile, Alabama.

Cars just tossed around in the parking lot by a tornado. Winds well over 100 miles per hour clearing store shelves faster than any after Christmas sale could.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSH HOLMAN, ASSISTANT STORE MANAGER: I've never been in a war zone, but I'm sure it's what it looks like. There's a punch of tin. All of the stuff lifted all these buildings over here. I was just thankful I was alive. If it had been 100 yards the other way, it would have ripped through the middle of the store.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: Tornados also tore up parts of Pearl River County, Mississippi. Two dozen homes there were damaged or destroyed and at least 25 people were hurt.

GRIFFIN: For those of you getting back into your routines this morning, we are five days away from going over that fiscal cliff. Happy New Year, everybody. Here's what you might have missed.

President Barack Obama has left Hawaii, he left early. The Senate is also coming back from its Christmas vacation to work on a deal today. Sources tell us Majority Leader Harry Reid will be pushing a scaled- back version of the fiscal cliff package that President Obama laid out last week.

That moved the tax hike needle to $400,000. No word yet on when the House might come back with time ticking away. Democrats are hoping the scaled-back plan could get through the House, Senate and White House before January 1st.

Sometime on December 30th, maybe even New Year's Eve is when they're probably going to get that deal done. But let's go to Jonathan Allen, he is a senior Washington correspondent for "Politico."

The top headline on "Politico" this morning, fiscal cliff deal increasingly unlikely. Jonathan, really?

JONATHAN ALLEN, SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "POLITICO": I think there's a lot of pessimism here in Washington. You've got, as you pointed out, five days left. I think the real indicator here is that none of these parties are moving off their position, the Senate Democrats, the House Republicans, the White House.

There hasn't been any reason for folks to look at what's going on and say, I see where a deal could be coming together. So what you've got is what's described in economic game theory is where everyone has decided on their strategy, looked at the strategies of the other players and figured that their optable strategy is to go over the cliff and pick up the pieces later.

GRIFFIN: And basically fight for which party is going to get the most blame in the meantime, right?

ALLEN: That's right. This is a finger-pointing exercise. Everyone is sort of putting together their best case for why the other guy is at fault. You know, the possible exception here, Drew, is if the Senate can pass something, a scaled-back version of the Obama plan.

Perhaps if the Senate passes something, I think that will remove some of the pressure for House Speaker John Boehner. I think that will put more pressure on his troops. It's possible that something like that could get through the House, but I wouldn't bank on it, bet on it or gamble on it on the stock market.

GRIFFIN: Something very interesting happened yesterday, Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, sent a note to Harry Reid saying basically, we're out of money on January 31st. That has to do with the debt limit and raising the debt limit. Do you think at all that kind of financial pressure is going to play into this?

ALLEN: It's interesting, if we go over the fiscal cliff that should actually buy some room from the debt ceiling because, of course, the fiscal cliff is an increase in taxes and a cut in spending, which should actually relieve some of the pressure from building toward that debt limit.

It is a factor in terms of long range planning for the United States government in terms of the fiscal policy debate that goes on in Congress and with the White House, but actually going over the cliff might buy some more time.

So I think what Secretary Geithner was doing was sort of issuing a warning saying we should take care of this now. Whatever the plan is in the last five days or even if it's right after the New Year should probably take into account the fact we're going to need more room under that debt ceiling at some point.

GRIFFIN: Jonathan Allen, we'll rely on you throughout this crisis to see what's going on. Thanks for joining us this morning.

ALLEN: Take care, Drew.

Well, he was hoping he'd be home by Christmas, but former President George H.W. Bush is still in intensive care this morning at a Houston hospital. He's got an elevated fever. The nation's 41st president is on a liquid diet. He's listed as guarded.

How's the 88-year-old Bush coping with Christmas in the hospital? Well, his spokesman quotes him as saying, "I'm determined not to be grumpy with all of this."

CHO: Well, at least he has a good attitude about it.

Meanwhile, when a local newspaper publishes a map -- first, we're going to tell you about a whale because rescuers are racing to save a giant and clearly sick beached whale off Breezy Point in Queens, New York.

If that place sounds familiar, it was one of the areas just levelled by Hurricane Sandy and a fire sparked by the storm. The 50-foot-long whale is believed to be a female humpback whale and experts say the likelihood of it surviving is not just good because the whale appears to be very skinny and weak.

GRIFFIN: Poor thing.

When a local newspaper published a map with the names and addresses of legally registered gun owners, a blogger struck back in a big way and that blogger will join us live coming up.

CHO: Plus, you will hear an airline pilot caught on tape just ripping into his bosses as he apologizes to passengers. Hearing this, it is amazing, and you'll hear it next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GRIFFIN: Outrage growing this morning over a newspaper's decision to publish a map pin pointing the address of people with legal gun permits. It was published by the "Journal News," which is based in White Plains, New York.

It shows homes where public records indicate someone living there holds a gun permit of the part of an article called "the gun owner next door." They say they got the information from public records.

It has readers online furious, including one blogger who decided to strike back and posted the home address of most of the leadership and staff of the "Journal News."

That blogger is Christopher Fountain and his blog titled "For What It's Worth" can be found at christopherfountain.wordpress.com. He joins us now. I got that blog right.

CHRISTOPHER FOUNTAIN, BLOGGER: Good morning. Yes, christopherfountain.com.

GRIFFIN: OK, so why did you do this? Why did you basically try to turn the tables and show where these people lived?

FOUNTAIN: Well, I just thought they were being hypocrites. They were taking perfectly -- in the aftermath of Newtown, it was obviously one tragedy, but somehow they were conflating legal gun owners with some craze, tormented devil up in Newtown and putting the two together. I was offended by that and I've wondered if how they'd like it if their addresses were published.

GRIFFIN: That was your addressed published? Do you own a gun? FOUNTAIN: I do own a gun. I'm a licensed permit carrier in Connecticut and there were some Connecticut residents who were picked up by that. I was not.

GRIFFIN: And the implication, I guess, by the newspaper, although we should point out nobody on that newspaper is coming on our air like you are, the implication seems to be that there's something wrong. There's something bad, there's something dangerous here.

FOUNTAIN: Exactly. They defended their publishing it under the grounds that parents of small children would have the right to know whether there were guns in a house the children were playing at.

The statistics are that a child is something like 540 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than to die accidentally by a gun. So my thought was go on the property records were and show where swimming pools were.

The fact that they didn't tie it back to Newtown. The real point was to harass gun owners.

GRIFFIN: Yes, well, let me read what the paper's publisher printed. Again, Janet Hassen is her name, is not coming on our air.

FOUNTAIN: I have her address, if you like.

GRIFFIN: I'm sure you do.

"One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings."

You obviously disagree.

FOUNTAIN: Well, she could have just published the number of gun permits, which is actually quite small if she wanted to show an issue that there are 2,000 legally registered guns in her county, fine.

But the fact that they put the addresses -- I've received e-mails from abused women who were under protective order in hiding and they're terribly afraid that now their names and addresses are all over the Internet and accessible through that map.

GRIFFIN: Let me ask you if you've gotten any nasty e-mails after you posted where the publisher lives, where these reporters live?

FOUNTAIN: I would say 95 percent are positive, probably because of the nature of the readers of my blog and where it's being cited. But, yes, I have received some nasty -- but I've received that in my life before. So --

GRIFFIN: Yes, you obviously wanted to make a statement. You printed -- you posted a lot of people that had nothing to do with the gun story. FOUNTAIN: Absolutely. And in fact originally I just posted the publisher, the editor and the reporter's names and addresses. Other readers started digging around and supplied them. As they came in, I published those too.

And I'm not -- they used a blender bust to publish every licensed permit holder, whether it's abused wives in hiding, retired -- I've received a call from a New York City detective who had been receiving death threats after that map was published. So I thought I saw nothing wrong with using the readers' research and posted it all.

GRIFFIN: Thanks for joining us. A bold move.

FOUNTAIN: OK, thank you.

GRIFFIN: We'll read your blog from now on, see what else you're going to have posted.

FOUNTAIN: Lots of interesting stuff. Thank you.

GRIFFIN: OK, take care.

Alina?

CHO: Thanks, Drew. It's 17 minutes after the hour. Let's get you up-to-date with the top stories.

Six Northeast states -- Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine all under a winter storm warning this morning. Some places are facing up to two feet of snow. Holiday travel, of course, already snarled. More than 1,700 flights canceled yesterday and more of the same expected today.

This afternoon, late Senator Daniel Inouye's successor will be sworn in. Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie appointed Lieutenant Governor Brian Schatz to fill the seat. He's flying to D.C. with President Obama. Abercrombie was widely expected to appoint Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa to take over. Before he died, Inouye named her as his preferred successor.

GRIFFIN: Nelson Mandela is out of the hospital but he's going to keep getting medical treatment at his home. South Africa's former president has had a couple of health problems this month. He had a lung infection and gallstone surgery. He's 94 years old, hasn't appeared in public in more than two years.

CHO: Heavy delays have tempers flaring and eyes rolling at airports all over the country.

In Dallas, CNN affiliate WFAA reports that one American Airlines flight sat at the gate for nearly five hours. That's without leaving the gate.

One passenger said the airline told them they could get off, but also warned them that they could be leaving at any minute. And now, listen to the pilot's apology to his passengers. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

PILOT: It is beyond reproach. I have no words to tell you how sorry I am for all of this. Decisions are being made way above our heads by people that obviously in my humble opinion don't have a clue what they're doing.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

CHO: Certainly not something you hear every day.

Meanwhile, American Airlines offering this up statement. Quote, "Our hindered ability to de-ice and approach aircraft with ground equipment, jetways and ramp stairs created serious delays -- for aircraft inbound and outbound. Operating safely was our focus."

Safety should be the focus, but nonetheless.

GRIFFIN: Well, good for that time.

CHO: I mean, I have to tell you being a passenger on that flight for five hours, at least you get that.

GRIFFIN: All right.

Well, it's one of the largest settlements of its kind. Coming up, Toyota paying billions to customers impacted by those stuck accelerators.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Welcome back to EARLY START. It's 23 minutes after the hour.

Minding your business this morning -- stock markets worldwide are in a holding pattern waiting the results of those fiscal cliff talks in Washington. Stocks could take a big hit next week if Congress does not make a decision in time.

Adding to concerns, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warning Congress yesterday we will reach the nation's debt ceiling on Monday. That's when the government reaches its legal borrowing limit. Treasury can keep the government operating for a couple of weeks using emergency measures, but Congress needs to act on this too to avoid a full-blown debt crisis.

GRIFFIN: Toyota is announcing a record $1.1 billion settlement over the unintended accelerator issue. The bulk of the money, according to Toyota, will go directly to its customers, past and present.

Under the agreement, Toyota is going to install brake override systems for vehicles identified by Toyota as having problems with floor mats getting stuck. Toyota is also setting aside $250 million to compensate owners who sold their cars while values were plummeting. A separate $250 million will be used to compensate owners who don't qualify for the brake override system and finally, all 16 million current Toyota owners will be eligible for a warranty of certain parts related to sudden unintended acceleration.

Now, Toyota maintains it doesn't have a sudden unintended acceleration problem in its vehicles. It says those problems involve floor mats getting stuck, gas pedals getting stuck and drivers hitting the gas instead of the brake by mistake.

So why are they settling? Here's what Toyota's U.S. legal officer said in a statement: "It was a difficult decision, especially since reliable scientific evidence and multiple independent evaluations confirmed the safety of Toyota's electronic control systems. However, Toyota concluded that turning the page on this legacy legal issue through the positive steps we are taking is in the best interests of the company, our employees, our dealers and most of all, our customers."

A little behind the scenes here, the trials were beginning to creep up on Toyota over these issues, and a lot of lawyers were asking for a lot of documents and depositions. The settlement can keep a lot of those Toyota records out of the public eye. Also a settlement gets the lawyers off the company's back and perhaps puts this entire episode behind Toyota.

Shares in the company up about a quarter of a percent ahead of the opening bell.

CHO: Chipmaker Marvell Technology Group has been ordered to pay $1.17 billion in damages to Carnegie Mellon University for patent infringement. Marvell shares fell more than 10 percent on the news yesterday. This is one of the largest patent suits in history, actually tops the Samsung/Apple settlement last summer.

Pittsburgh jury found that Marvell infringed on the university's patent related to disk drive circuits and also that it sold billions of chips incorporating the university's technology without a license.

GRIFFIN: More good news for the housing market. Home prices posted their biggest annual jump in two years in October. Home prices trending higher and have been for the past five months. Later this morning, we're going to get fresh data on new home sales for November, expected to show some strength in that part of the housing market.

Well, of all the holiday exchanges going on the day after Christmas, this one had the most fire power. More coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Winter storm warnings -- a big swath of the Northeast getting socked with wind-driven snow and soaking rain.

GRIFFIN: Dramatic new recordings from the scene where a gunman torched his house just to lure firefighters into a deadly trap. We're talking to that fire marshal in that town live.

CHO: And panic at the mall. Just have a look at this. Shoppers running away as a big brawl breaks out. Can't wait to hear more about that, right? Welcome back to EARLY START. It's 30 minutes after the hour on a Thursday morning. So glad you're with us. I'm Alina Cho.

GRIFFIN: I'm Drew Griffin. John and Zoraida are off. It's 29, almost 30 minutes after the hour.