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Blizzard Batters Southern Plains; Scandal Sour Pope's Final Week; Telegenic First Lady

Aired February 26, 2013 - 06:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, at this very important, a major blizzard blasting the nation's midsection with Kansas caught right in the middle.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: An intense manhunt under way for the ex-con cops say shot up a Maserati causing the fireball crash on the Vegas Strip.

BERMAN: Counting down to Pope Benedict XVI's final day. The Catholic leader's last week of the Vatican marred by more emerging scandals.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. Nice to have you with us this morning. It is 30 minutes past the hour.

Happening right now, five Midwest states squarely in the path of a deadly winter storm. A blizzard battering large part of Texas and Oklahoma, leaving thousands buried under a foot of snow this morning. Drivers are stranded on snow-choked roads and two people have been killed. At this hour, winter storm warnings stretch from Oklahoma to Illinois. This epic winter system now tracking to the North and to the East as well, with Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan in its crosshairs.

So, let's get right to Jennifer Delgado. She is in the CNN weather center.

And where is the system headed? Where is it now?

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, it's not moving very fast right now. It's still right on top of the Midwest, bringing a lot of snow, Zoraida for areas like Kansas City, as well as into Missouri.

We can see where the freeze line is, but the heaviest snow certainly is to the west for areas like Oklahoma and Texas. Yesterday, we had those blizzard warnings. Well, those have all sense been expired and you're getting a break from the snow and rain right now, getting a break in St. Louis.

Now, let's talk more about Kansas City as we show you a live view this morning. I know officials when we've been talking to the mayor, he said don't get on the roadways. And that's really good news, because this is potentially going to be a very dangerous situation.

What you are looking at is snow covered roadways. This is highway. This is Interstate 75 at 18th Street. At last hour, we looked at 9th Street.

And that means, basically, when you combine in the very strong winds, as well as the heavy snow, this is going to make for potentially a dangerous and deadly commute. We're talking 10 to 12 inches of snowfall, anywhere you're seeing purple.

Missouri, you're going to take the brunt of the storm for areas like southeastern parts of Nebraska, Iowa, you'll be picking up roughly three inches of snow.

And then, for Chicago, you're going to see that changing over to snow, right around 3:00. And it gets heavier in the evening, three to six inches.

Down in the Southeast, a totally different story there. Look, we still have a tornado watch in place until 9:00 a.m. There's a line of storm, they have been weakening a bit. But still, nonetheless, we're going to deal with the potential threat for severe weather, as well as flooding problems as we go through today, as well as tomorrow.

Anywhere from South Carolina, all the way over towards, really, Louisiana, we'll see the heaviest rainfall for today with the slight risk category for sever threats. We're talking damaging winds, as well as isolated tornadoes out there and, of course, a lot of delays.

If you're flying out of Chicago, winds, that's going to delay you, with those winds up to about 40 miles per hour. Same for Philadelphia, D.C., Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando, New York. Shall I go on? Or should I --


SAMBOLIN: No, it's pretty bad. You know what? I was traveling, I was coming back from Phoenix yesterday and there were four-hour delays into and out of Chicago. So, folks, pack your patience.

DELGADO: At least you had the sunshine.

SAMBOLIN: I had it for a minute. I had it for a minute.

DELGADO: Yes, John is like, OK.


SAMBOLIN: All right. Thank you, Jennifer.

DELGADO: You're welcome, guys.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-three minutes past the hour. The manhunt is now stretching from the Vegas Strip, all the way to the East Coast for this guy, Ammar Harris. The man wanted in connection with last week's deadly shooting and that horrific crash in Las Vegas. Investigators extending their search to South Carolina, Georgia, south Florida -- those are places where Harris used to live.

Harris is wanted for allegedly shooting rapper Kenneth Cherry, also known as Kenny Clutch, while Cherry drove his Maserati down the Vegas Strip. Cherry's Maserati then hit a taxi which went up in flames. Cherry and two people in the taxi died.

BERMAN: The Coast Guard frustrated, but not giving up on a family who could be floating in the Pacific Ocean for a second night. A husband, wife and two young children were forced out of their sailboat on Sunday when it started taking on water about 65 miles off of Monterey, California.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coast Guard, Coast Guard, we are abandoning ship. This is the Charm Blow. We are abandoning ship.


BERMAN: That mayday call was the last word from them. The Coast Guard and other crews are going to continue looking for today. So far, but they do not have many clues to work with. They don't know where the boat sailed from, where it was headed, or even who the family is.


All right. Happening right now, Secretary of State John Kerry is in Berlin, his first trip to Germany as a nation's new top diplomat. It's a second stop on his 11-day, nine-country tour. Kerry held a series of high level meetings today with German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

BERMAN: Also developing this morning, tensions in the Middle East are very high right now after a rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israeli town overnight. This is the first such attack since a truce a November ended a week of cross-border fighting. And it follows days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the West Bank over a death of a Palestinian man inside an Israeli prison. The rocket did cause some damage. But so far, no deaths have been reported.

SAMBOLIN: And we're going to continue to follow developing story for you.

Fourteen tourists trying to get bird's eye view of Egyptian sites were killed when their hot air balloon exploded and then it plummeted 1,000 feet to the ground. State-run Nile TV reports that the crash happened in Luxor. That's in southern Egypt. A total of 21 people were onboard. Nineteen visitors from Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium, the U.K. and France, and two Egyptians, one of whom was the pilot.

BERMAN: It is Pope Benedict XVI's last few days as leader of the Catholic Church. He will be the first pope to step down in some 600 years, all while a string of sex abuse scandal surrounding the Vatican. From the U.K.'s highest cleric resigning voluntarily, but amid accusations of inappropriate behavior with men studying to be priests. The sordid accounts in the Italian press of homosexuality and black mail within the church's hierarchy.

Becky Anderson from CNN International joins us live now from Vatican City.

Becky, how are people reacting to this flood of recent accusations? Especially, you know, we're hours away, two days, but really hours away from the pope resigning?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Let me say concern, disappointment, and a certain sense of weariness, it's going to be said, John. I mean, some people will tell you that they heard all of this before and nothing ever changes in the Roman Catholic Church.

You know, we've been talking to people at CNN International all over the world. It won't stop people from coming here. They'll be here and there are tens of thousands in Vatican City, behind me, for the last general audience on Wednesday, and then, of course, the resignation, the historic, almost unprecedented resignation of a pope on Thursday. We'll see Pope Benedict XVI leaving in his helicopter from Vatican City, St. Peter's Square, behind me.

But it's been a very difficult for -- not just for the Roman Catholic Church, but those in the faith around the world, to really deal with what's come about over the last 48 hours. Through the story, the allegations about the Italian clerics here at the Vatican and the sex scandal or the allegations, this is what the Vatican has said.


JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST: There was already a conviction before this happened among many cardinals, that the next pope had to be more of a governor, that is had to take the reins of power more into his own hands and in particular lead a serious reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. The next pope has to have clean hands with regard to the abuse crisis.


ANDERSON: My apologies. That was John Allen, CNN senior Vatican analyst, speaking there.

What the Vatican said, this was deplorable, unverifiable and they tried to sort of move the story on. They met yesterday, the three cardinals that put the secret dossier together. The pope has announced that that secret dossier will not be released to cardinals and it will just be passed on to whoever gets the papacy going forward.

Difficult times I think we would describe things in Rome, John.

BERMAN: Indeed. Separate pockets of controversy bubbling up all at once. Our thanks to Becky Anderson, who is in Rome this morning.

SAMBOLIN: And taking a look at the top trends on The Mediterranean diet, getting a big thumbs up in a just published study in "The New England Journal". John loves it. This is what they found. Benefits were so clear, Spanish researchers say they decided to end the study early, after about five years, saying it would be unethical not to. They followed more than 7,000 people with heart disease risk factors. Some followed a low-fat diet, but those who followed a Mediterranean diet with extra virgin olive oil or nuts, and even wine at dinner, were 30 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or death associated with cardiovascular disease.

BERMAN: I like the wine. I like the olive oil. Not so much the fish. Not that you ask.

SAMBOLIN: But you have to do it all in order for it to be part of the Mediterranean diet and in order to lower the risk by 30 percent.

BERMAN: I do modify it. I do that with a Big Mac. It's my modified Mediterranean diet.

SAMBOLIN: Oh my goodness.

BERMAN: Thirty-nine minutes after the hour right now.

Iran put some clothes on Michelle Obama. The country's Fars news agency PhotoShopped the first lady to cover her shoulders when it reported on the first lady presenting the Oscar for best picture. Iran also dismissed the winning film "Argo" as an advertisement for the CIA. "Argo", of course, is about the secret separation to get Americans out of Tehran during the hostage crisis.

SAMBOLIN: The Iranians are not the only ones who think the first lady is overexposed. Some Republicans critics think so too, but for much different reason. A closer look at that, coming up.

BERMAN: Plus, you know times are tough when Tom Brady takes a pay cut.


BERMAN: Academy Award winner Soledad O'Brien back from the Oscars now with a look of what's ahead on "STARTING POINT."

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I would like to thank the Academy.

Ahead this morning on "STARTING POINT," we're talking about impassable roads, closed airports right now, a second dangerous winter storm is punishing the Midwest. So far, two deaths have been reported. We have live team coverage this morning, bringing you the very latest on this record snow.

And it's been one year since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin shot and killed by George Zimmerman. The case, as you'll remember, sparked nationwide to tests over race and stand your ground laws. We'll talk this morning with Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Also, their lawyers, Ben Crump and Natalie Jackson, will join us, about the very latest on where the case stands right now. And Nelson Mandela's daughter Maki (ph) and granddaughter Tukwini will join us live. They've got a new line of wine that's benefitting South Africa's poverty-stricken communities. We'll pop it open, get a little taste early in the morning.

SAMBOLIN: Great idea.

O'BRIEN: Plus, this morning, we're talking to celebrity chef and top chef all-stars champ, Richard Blais, is with us. He's got a new cookbook.

A busy morning on "STARTING POINT." We're going to share that all with you this morning.

SAMBOLIN: Maybe he'll bring a little food for that wine.

O'BRIEN: Wouldn't that, see, it all comes together -- today and every day.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

SAMBOLIN: All right. We're learning more about the deadly explosion last week at a Kansas City restaurant.


SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Remember that? It turns out a company laying down a fiber optic cable did not have a work permit for that job. An employee ended up drilling into a gas line, and about an hour later, that huge blast killed one person and injured at least 15 others. Not having that permit could mean up to six months in jail.

Sacramento police have fired and arrested one of their own. Former officer, Sergio Alvarez, is accused of sexually assaulting at least six women. Investigators say Alvarez was in uniform during the attacks and that some happened in his patrol car. Police officials are now debating whether to let officers patrol alone late at night.

And we could see some gun control bills moving on Capitol Hill this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee might start looking at them Thursday. One measure would ban military style assault weapons. Republicans and some Democrats oppose that one. A background checks bill could offer a better chance of passing, John.


BERMAN: So, First Lady Michelle Obama's appearance at the end of the Oscar telecast on Sunday night caught everyone by surprise, but maybe it shouldn't have. As President Obama kicks his second term into gear, his wife appears to be playing an increasingly prominent public role. Our Tom Foreman takes a look.




TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At the academy awards, the camera whipped around to the winners, but back in the White House, it is clear who the real star is these days. The first lady's approval rating in our CNN/ORC poll two months ago stood at 73 percent, more than 20 points higher than the president's, and a slew of high-profile appearances may be widening the gap.

The first lady is in the spotlight everywhere, dancing with Jimmy Fallon, bantering about her bangs with Rachel Ray.

OBAMA: This is my midlife crisis.


FOREMAN: She has lit up Twitter with her Tweets, and she even took a stroll to "Sesame Street."

OBAMA: There are so many different activities you can do indoors or outside.

FOREMAN: Talking of healthy eating habits and exercise with Big Bird.

OBAMA: Get moving. It's good for you.

FOREMAN: All of this is hardly new, except when Syria's policy matters at stake as when Hillary Clinton took on health care.

OBAMA: Health care reform must be achieved for the good of our country.

FOREMAN: First ladies are generally liked more than their husbands. Michelle Obama, for example, is about as popular as Laura Bush.

(on-camera) Still, the headlines swirling around Mrs. Obama have ruffled some conservative critic who, in the past, have groused about her trips to Europe and her expensive clothing and suggest even now she's trying to distract voters from her husband's political struggles.

(voice-over) Her awards show appearance has only inflamed such talk and a "Washington Post" blog, quote, "It makes both the president and first lady seem small and grasping. It was just downright weird.

OBAMA: I hope you all got some rest after last night. We had a good time.

FOREMAN: But an awful lot of her fans were giving her Oscar debut two thumbs up.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


SAMBOLIN: There will always be criticism, right?

Forty-eight minutes past the hour. Scandal played Notre Dame star, Manti Te'o, trying to make NFL scouts forget about the whole fake dead girlfriend thing. Find out how did, coming up.

BERMAN: Plus, the new movement in Congress to legalize medical marijuana.


SAMBOLIN: Manti Te'o finally took the field at the NFL combine in Indianapolis yesterday and the reviews of his performance were, shall we say, less than impressive.

BERMAN: That's right. Vince Cellini is here with more on Te'o's workout in today's Bleacher Report. Hey, Vince.

VINCE CELLINI, BLEACHER REPORTER: Hi, John. The girlfriend was a hoax, but the results were all too real for Manti Te'o at the NFL scouting camp by (ph) in Indianapolis. It turns out Te'o is smaller and slower than expected. Now, this doesn't mean that Te'o can't play at the NFL level, but a combined 40-yard dash time of 4.82 seconds was 20th of 26 linebacker who ran Monday, and that's generally unimpressive by pro football standards.

He's also lost some weight. He's dropped to 241 pounds. He's 6'1" and quarter inch in height. Now, that's not big to play inside linebacker, yet, the projection for Te'o could be a top 20 pick in the April draft.

Also at the combine, top five prospect, Star Lotulelei of Utah, held out of workouts after doctors found that the all-American has a heart condition. They found that following his physical. He still took hard (ph) in team interviews but was told to seat out the on-field workouts just to be safe. Star will fly back to Salt Lake City to see a specialist. He's still planning to participate in his pro day in March.

Well, talk about taking one for the team. New England Patriot quarterback, Tom Brady, taking a pay cut to help out his team's salary cap according to "Sports Illustrated's" Peter King. The new contract extension said to be worth $27 million over three years. And Brady will be 40 when the deal is over.

Now, to put those numbers in perspective, the patriots were on the hook to give Brady $43.6 million over the next two years until they reworked the deal and his new contract will allow New England much more flexibility in building their team in the near future. So, a generous move by Brady.

And a high school basketball manager with dwarfism finally got his chance on the court. Dade Baker not only got to play for his varsity team in Kansas. He also earned the chance to start on senior night. Dade looked comfortable with his teammates on the court. The team ran a play for him where he shot a three-pointer, and after the game, the crowd stormed the court and lifted him on their shoulders. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DADE BAKER, TALKS ABOUT "UNREAL" MOMENT ON THE COURT: It means a lot, like, I've kind of -- like, since I've managed high school, I've always kinds of have the thought that what if I could play a little bit, and now, it's here, and unreal.


CELLINI: It was all too real. And for all your entertaining sports news, including more on what Tom Brady's new contract means to seems (ph) future, please go to

BERMAN: You know what it does mean for the Patriots is that Tom Brady will retire as a Patriot and all likelihood will be a Patriot for his whole career, which is pretty much the best thing ever. So, Vince, thank you for that.


CELLINI: Got it.

SAMBOLIN: Pretty much best thing ever.


SAMBOLIN: All right. Fifty-four minutes past the hour. Some people in Congress want to legalize medical marijuana. A bill that has more than a dozen cosponsors would allow states to make the drug legal and would block the federal government for taking action against states where it's already allowed. And Politico reports that the FDA could eventually make medical marijuana a legal product.

BERMAN: Interesting. All right. So, EARLY START back after the break.


SAMBOLIN: Are we done?

BERMAN: We are done. That is all for EARLY START, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "Starting Point" with Soledad O'Brien starts right now.

O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning, a developing story. Bitter winter storm is wreaking havoc across much of the country this morning. Roofs collapsing, drivers trapped, and airports a mess. At least, two people are dead as record snow falls on the plains and flood warnings threaten the southeast. The storm is turning out to be much worse than was expected. We've got live team coverage ahead this morning.

And this morning, a new shocking investigation. "USA Today" says there's a growing bioterror threat from within our own country. We're talking about diseases like anthrax and the plague. We'll have details in a live report.

BERMAN: And new overnight, a hot air balloon carrying more than a dozen tourists explodes and crashes to the ground in Egypt.

Also happening, one of Britain's top catholic leaders speaking out this morning about the latest scandal rocking the church. Our Christiane Amanpour joins us with that and claims by a former friar that homosexuality is, quote, "a ticking time bomb" for the church.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And a horrible day in stocks. The worst day for the Dow and the S&P all year. This morning, we're all looking at Italy and why what's happening in politics there may be important for what's happening or not happening in Washington.

O'BRIEN: A packed show for you this morning. Georgia congressman, Tom Price, is going to join us. The secretary of the navy, Ray Mabus, is with us. Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin join us, and their attorney, too, Benjamin Crump.