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Blizzard Batters Southern Plains; Vatican Scandal; Hot Air Balloon Horror; Forced Spending Cuts Looming; Interview with Ray Mabus; How Will Spending Cuts Affect Navy?

Aired February 26, 2013 - 08:00   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT this morning: millions of people are waking up to a deadly winter blast, impassable roads, airports that are closed, roofs collapsing, rescue workers unable to get to people who are injured, blizzard and flood warnings spanning the country. We've got live team coverage for you this morning.

And we're learning more about the pope's plans after he steps down. Also exploring the scandal that clouds his final days as the head of the Catholic Church. Christiane Amanpour joins us with some details, straight ahead.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We have a developing story. At least 14 tourists are dead after a hot air balloon explodes and plummets to the ground. We will take you there live.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And will markets take another big fall on Wall Street? Or is there more hope for today? Why investors today are keeping a close eye on Europe this morning.

O'BRIEN: It's Tuesday, February 26th and STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody.

Our team this morning: Ron Brownstein is with us. He's editorial director at "National Journal".

Natalie Jackson is with us as well. She's an attorney for Trayvon Martin's family.

It's nice to have you both with us.


O'BRIEN: John Berman, of course, sticks around.

Our big story this morning is that developing blizzard. Some people are calling it the blizzard of the ages. It's bearing down on millions of Americans in the Midwest. It's already battered the Southern Plains, left large parts of Texas and Oklahoma buried under a foot of snow. One local mayor says we have roofs collapsing all over town. That's in Oklahoma City.

Take a look at this video. This is from Amarillo, Texas. They got 17 inches of snow. Amarillo, Texas, second worst snowstorm ever to hit that city.

Two people have died on the storm, one at an icy Kansas interstate. The one at home in Oklahoma where the roof caved in under the weight of all that snow.

Here's Mayor Roscoe Hill -- he's mayor of Woodward, Oklahoma -- describing what the blizzard is doing to his small town.


MAYOR ROSCOE HILL, WOODWARD, OKLAHOMA (via telephone): We're in such a mess we got about 20 degrees right now and we're frozen up pretty hard and we are -- our emergency vehicles are having a hard time getting around, we just have a pretty good size mess on our hands.


O'BRIEN: At this hour, winter storm warnings are in effect all the way to the Great Lakes, as this massive system tracks north and east with Kansas and Missouri and Wisconsin and Illinois and Michigan all those states in its path.

Jennifer Delgado is tracking the storm for us. He's at the CNN weather center this morning. Erin McPike is live for us in Kansas City where they're expecting maybe more than a foot of snow.

So, Erin, let's start with you. Every time I come to you, you look more covered in snow. Good morning.


Yes, I am more covered in snow. And I can tell you, it's getting worse out, over the last few hours. It's getting harder to see and it's coming down harder. It's windier. We're expecting gusts up to 30 miles an hour today in Kansas City.

And, Soledad, right behind me, there are still cars coming up and down this hill. We did just see a big truck try to come up and he rolled all the way back down the hill and came back up.

Something else I want to show you is just how heavy the snow is. It's really heavy. And because of that, it's snapping branches and it's bringing down power lines.

That's a problem because there are a lot of lots of power outages throughout the area. Kansas City has gone up to over 30,000 power outages, we're seeing over 40,000 in the state, with Missouri and Kansas, more in Texas, more in Oklahoma. So we really need to be careful about that obviously, with heating, that's going to be a problem, Soledad, for the rest of the next couple of days.

O'BRIEN: Oh, what a mess.

All right. Erin, thank you for the update.

Let's get right to Jim Simms. He's the city commissioner in Amarillo, Texas. As we were telling you just a moment ago, Amarillo has been hit hard. Lots of snow there.

I guess you're looking at some historic snowfall, 18 inches, maybe even as much as 20 inches.

How is your city doing?

JIM SIMMS, CITY COMMISSIONER, AMARILLO, TEXAS (via telephone): We're holding up really well. It was a lot of snow, blizzard conditions because of the winds we had but we have a great staff here, great crew and good equipment and we handled it.

I hate hearing the problems, but other places have, like Woodward, Oklahoma, (INAUDIBLE) but we fared relatively well.

O'BRIEN: We're glad to hear that. You sound almost practically chipper while you talk to me. It's not been the case for some of the other city leaders that I've been talking to.

How about stranded motorists? That's been a problem all over the Midwest and certainly parts -- even out in the Plains. Tell me a little bit about -- if that's a struggle and problem for you guys.

SIMMS: Well, yes, ma'am, it was, because people were caught on the highway traveling on Interstate 40 and then our own residents, remember that early Sunday afternoon, it was 63 degrees. And within 24 hours we had 40-mile-an-hour winds and 20 inches of snow.

So, it caught a lot of people by surprise. But here again, our first responders including fire trucks were out getting people out of their cars to try to get them unstuck if we could but then you try to get them to safety.

O'BRIEN: Wow. Wow. I'm glad to hear you were able to handle it. Thank you for talking with us on a morning I know you're really busy, Mayor Jim Simms of Amarillo, Texas, joining us, thank you, sir.

It's also a dangerous winter storm and it's not even done or even close to being done. Jennifer Delgado has been tracking it for us all morning. And she's at the CNN weather center in Atlanta.

So, where is it going and now short term and long-term, too?

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right. You know, everything's done in Texas. Right now, it's spinning right on top of the Midwest. You can see across Missouri, still dealing with that snow, you see the center of circulation. What Kansas City is going to pick up, it looks potentially another four to five inches of snowfall. Already, they've picked up between four and five inches.

And if you look towards the east, a little bit quiet there, but we're still going to see a chance of the snow coming in roughly about an inch for St. Louis on the back side of that low. Now, of course, a lot of that moisture is going to be moving up towards the Northeast and that means snow for areas including Chicago, and Chicago we are talking three to six inches of snowfall and that will start to come down right around 3:00 and, of course, that evening commute will be a bit messy there and then for Detroit, three to six inches.

The other part of the story, the severe storms moving through Florida right now. We do have a tornado watch in place until 3:00 and that means the potential for severe weather from the Florida panhandle, all the way up towards South Carolina through 3:00 this afternoon. And then, of course, flooding is going to be a big deal, many areas right now under flood warnings and watches. Soledad, one to two inches.

O'BRIEN: Jennifer Delgado is like Ms. Doom and Gloom.

DELGADO: I am doom and gloom. But you match my graphic right now.

O'BRIEN: Wow, wow. You're right now, and all that spring training somewhere.

BROWNSTEIN: There's hope out there. Yes.

O'BRIEN: Thanks, Jennifer. Appreciate it.

Let's get some new details on the scandal that's really looming over the final days of Pope Benedict's eight-year reign at a news conference this morning. One of Britain's top Roman Catholics, the highest ranking Catholic in the U.K., that would be Cardinal Keith O'Brien, voluntarily stepped down as the archbishop of Scotland after he was accused of, quote, "inappropriate acts" by fellow priests. They made it clear in this news conference that he was not forced out.

We're also learning that Pope Benedict is going to keep his "Holiness" title once he retires and preparations are being made for the tens of thousands of Catholics who are expected to show up to say farewell to the pope.

Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent. She's in Vatican City this morning.

Christiane, good morning.


And as you can imagine, all of those things you've been talking about are really transfixing so many Catholics, 1.2 billion around the world, just want to know every detail of what's going on here in the Vatican. And as you mentioned, Cardinal O'Brien will not be coming. He did resign. The pope did accept his resignation because of the scandal that's swirling around him, which he denies by the way. Nonetheless, it is unprecedented that a cardinal will not be here to take part in the conclave to elect the next pope.

What we're hearing is as regards to that conclave, we don't know exactly when it's going to start but what we do know according to the Vatican press people today that they won't even have a formal meeting until next Monday, and only then or after then will they tell us what date the actual election starts, the conclave to elect the next pope.

So all sorts of things happening here -- this road right next to me is going to be full of pilgrims tomorrow. They're coming to see Pope Benedict, doing his last sort of turnaround St. Peter's Square, which is just behind me. He's going to be in the pope mobile and he's going to give his last public appearance there before taking off 8:00 p.m. on Thursday night Rome time, at which point he will no longer be pope, but he will be pope emeritus, we were told today.

Also, some little details, if people care, and many of them do. That he will not be wearing the red shoes that have become his signature -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Well, what does he wear then? Just --


AMANPOUR: Exactly. It begs the question. We're told maybe some brown shoes, maybe some shoes that he was given on his last visit to Mexico.

Seriously, on that account, though, it was his trip to Mexico and Cuba which I covered last year which I think really solidified for him according to all that we're hearing he could not go on as pope, that he was too tired, that he felt he needed to start paving the way. And very plugged in Vatican watchers tell me he had been talking about the idea of resignation about a year ago, if not more, and they started to pick up on this.

Again, an unprecedented situation. There's never been a pope emeritus. It will definitely affect how the next pope handles business.

And, of course, remember, this isn't just the head of the Roman Catholic Church, it's a global statesman. You know and we all know that any time a pope moves, travels, says, does anything, it's world news, for better or for worse. And there is no other faith leader that has such a huge following, such a huge flock, more than 1 billion people -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: That's right. His pontiff emeritus is certainly a new title now.

All right. Christiane Amanpour for us -- thanks, Christiane.

John Berman has got a look at some of other stories making news this morning.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad.

This story still developing this morning. Fourteen tourists trying to get a bird's-eye view of Egyptian sites were killed when their hot air balloon exploded and plummeted 1,000 feet to the group. State-run Nile TV reports that the crash happened in Luxor, in southern Egypt. Three people, an Egyptian and two British tourists are in the hospital, four others are still missing.

Ian Lee is following the developments from Cairo.

Good morning, Ian.


What we're hearing, there was confusion over the number of dead. We're hearing from state media that up to 18 people have been killed in this incident, where a gas canister exploded in this hot air balloon when it was travel about 1,000 feet up, plummeting towards the ground. And this is area of Luxor when you go up on one of those balloons, you can see the whole Nile Valley, very popular with tourists. You can see the Valley of the Kings.

The governor in Luxor has banned all hot air balloons while they investigate and this is the first real major incident we've seen in the last four years when we saw 80 people injured over the span of two months. There were some investigations, some actions were taken. So this is the first -- investigation will take place to find out what caused and what happened when the hot air balloon blew up, John.

BERMAN: All right. Ian Lee, our thanks to you.

New this morning, our country faces a bio terror threat from its own labs, that according to "USA Today." Government watchdogs have cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for failing to secure deadly agents like anthrax and the plague. The CDC spokesman responding this morning, saying the agency accepts responsibility for the infractions, has moved swiftly to fix the problems and that nothing they say got out of the labs.

So, right now in Berlin, America's new Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with his German counterpart. He just addressed Iran's nuclear program, saying there is, quote, "a diplomatic path that needs to be created with Tehran". Later, he's set to meet with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He met her earlier this morning -- he met earlier this morning with the nation's foreign minister.

Germany is the second stop on Kerry's premiere diplomatic tour. He'll visit nine countries over 11 days.

A short time ago, Kerry talked about Iran and its nuclear program. He insisted that there is a diplomatic path to be forced with Iran as six world powers began meeting today with Iranian officials in Kazakhstan.

President Obama will be talking about the forced spending cuts later today at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. An estimated 40,000 civilian Defense Department jobs in the region could be furloughed if those cuts are not stopped.

We'll get more now from our White House correspondent Dan Lothian.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From the welders to sheet metal maintenance workers who do repairs and maintenance on these massive Navy ships, Washington's inability to so far avert deep cuts has left them concerned about their futures.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody's talking about it. Everybody is worried.

LOTHIAN: Last week, the military notified DEA (ph) that work on 13 ships at several of its sites would have to stop if a deal wasn't struck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it goes fully and we run completely out of work, there will be a skeletal crew in here, just to keep the plant up and running.

LOTHIAN: This air of uncertainty is why some members of Virginia's congressional delegation took part in a town hall meeting in Newport News Monday, where they've got an earful from residents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've given my personal salary into my business because I love my business and you guys I think need to do the same thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not a Republican issue. It's not a Democratic issue. It's a national issue. It's our boys, our girls, our families.

LOTHIAN: President Obama is painting a grim picture to put pressure on Congress. This shipyard is part of his mosaic.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise.

LOTHIAN: But some Republicans aren't buying it.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: I think that the president needs to stop trying to scare the American people.

LOTHIAN: And at the town hall meeting, lawmakers all convinced that cuts will happen were blaming the president.

REP. SCOTT RIGELL (R), VIRGINIA: We welcome him to Newport shipbuilding. I hope he brings with him a definitive proposal with all the entourage he'll have with him.

(END VIDEOTAPE) LOTHIAN: Now, it's not just those civilian defense workers who are concerned here in the region. There are a lot of small business owners who are worried that if those furloughs happen, there will be fewer customers coming to them so we expect the president to address the broad impact of those cuts. But also we expect the president to go after Republicans, accusing them of trying to protect those loopholes that benefit the wealthy and big companies -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Dan Lothian in Newport News, a lot of politics still going on just three days away from those spending cuts.

O'BRIEN: Not exactly a shocker, right? Down to the bitter end that we're going to be -- we've seen this movie before.

BROWNSTEIN: I think this time we go over the bitter end before -- before there's any kind of serious effort to see if there's an alternative and there may not be.

O'BRIEN: And is that partly because it doesn't have sort of that moment like the fiscal cliff did --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. The consequences are more spread out.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. We're going to have more on these cuts straight ahead, one of the hardest hit groups the military and defense. So, are we putting our country at risk? Ray Mabus is the secretary of the Navy and he's going to join us up next. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. We were just talking about -- excuse me -- a moment ago, today, the president is heading to Newport News, Virginia, to talk about job losses in the shipbuilding industry. My next guest is going to be joining the president. Ray Mabus is the secretary of the Navy.

It's nice to have you with us, sir. Why this particular shipbuilding operation is where you're going to be -- really, the president will be coming to us this afternoon, this morning or this afternoon?

RAY MABUS, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY: He's going to be coming to Huntington Ingalls Industry here in Newport News. They're the ones that build all our nuclear carriers or the ones that refuel our nuclear carrier and they build half of all our nuclear submarines. So, they're incredibly important and to Navy, to Navy readiness and to the protection of this country.

O'BRIEN: OK. So, if the sequester happens in three days, then what happens literally day one to that particular shipping operation?

MABUS: Well, there's going to be some real impacts to Navy readiness, in particular. I mean, we've already had the delay the "Truman" strike group going to the Middle East. We're going to have to delay an amphibious ready group going out. We're going to have to, if sequestration keeps going, we're going to have to take down four of nine carrier air wings and it will take us a year to get them back and it will cost two or three times as much.

And if we lurch from this budget crisis to the next artificial budget crisis, and that's the continuing resolution at the end of March, we'll start cutting some significant number of workers here. We'll lose about 7,500 workers by the end of the year, and these are highly skilled, highly motivated people who build ships that nobody else can build.

And if sequestration hits, you're looking at the possibility of furloughing 5,000 workers at the public shipyard here, and you're looking at another 40,000 government workers here in the Norfolk area and 90,000 across Virginia who will lose 20 percent of their salary before the end of the year and the resulting impact on just the readiness of the Navy and Marine Corps to protect this country.

O'BRIEN: And Ron wants to jump in.

BROWNSTEIN: Mr. Secretary, Ron Brownstein from "National Journal." Good morning. Some in Congress would like to give you more authority to allocate these cuts. Would you be better off if they did not have to be simply across the board, but you could have more ability to channel them in one direction or another?

MABUS: Well, you know, everybody knows sequestration is just a bad idea and the notion of somehow playing around the edges to make a bad idea a little bit better is not a solution. A solution is to fix this thing and the president has presented a balance, a strategic, and a comprehensive approach.

We've just got to fix sequestration. We've got to fix the continuing resolution. We've got to fix the underlying issue and not just play around the edges and try to make a really bad idea somewhat marginally better.

O'BRIEN: Ray Mabus is the secretary of the Navy joining us this morning. Thank you for your time, sir, appreciate it.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, many say working from home is the future of the workforce, but one company says no, they're putting a stop to it. We'll tell you about the uproar that's been created by this new policy at Yahoo! We'll look at what's trending coming up next.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Taking a look at what's trending this morning. No more working in your PJs, at least, at Yahoo! CEO Marisa Mayer has ordered her employees who've been working from home to get back in the office by June. There's been blowback from many folks who work from home. They say they need that flexible workplace.

The British billionaire, for some reason, Richard Branson, has decided to weigh in on this, and he says, she's totally wrong. That this is the way of the future. He believes in remote, you know, working from home. Donald Trump, though, says yes, employees should be expected to come into the office. BROWNSTEIN: Well, isn't the point -- I mean the media and message are kind of colliding here. Isn't the point of the internet revolution of which Yahoo! is supposed to be at the cutting edge partially to get people more flexibility in how and where they work?

BERMAN: Not feeling -- tech world, apparently, in where she comes from, and Google part of the whole thing was (ph) hanging out on campus, get creative in the hallways. It's all about, you know, (INAUDIBLE) there, and you don't get that when you're working from home.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, I guess.

O'BRIEN: It's been interesting, the number of people who pointed out as a female CEO that somehow she owes a debt of, I guess laying out a way to work for family-friendly environment which I'm not sure sort of necessarily is her burden because she's a woman.

BROWNSTEIN: She is not accepting that mantle.

O'BRIEN: She doesn't want to accept the mantle.

NATALIE JACKSON, ATTORNEY: Yes. I don't think that's her burden. But I do think that it's important that people have other people to work with, because we work from home, sometimes, but we meet, because you have to have an exchange of ideas and to make productivity. So, I think it's important.

O'BRIEN: She's not even going for that. She's not even doing the well I work from home one day a week.


O'BRIEN: She's like it's done. So, Iran, apparently, put some clothes on Michelle Obama, the country's (ph) news agency has photo shopped the first lady's dress to cover her shoulders when they reported on her presentation for the Oscars for Best Picture. They also dismissed the winning film, "Argo," as an advertisement for the CIA. "Argo," of course, is about the secret operation to get Americans out during the hostage crisis.

BERMAN: The dress still looks good with sleeves.


BERMAN: They did a nice job.

O'BRIEN: She's probably like, oh, I should get that with sleeves, too. They did a beautiful job.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, more horse meat troubles to talk about as it turns up in Ikea meatballs that are sold in Europe. Should Americans be worried about horse meat in our meat supply? Dr. David Acheson, the managing director of Food Safety Import Practice at Leavitt Partners with some information that could surprise you. Then, a New York lawmaker at the center of a controversy over a costume that he wore to a holiday party. Yes, it's 2013 and he's in black face (ph). Please. You're watching STARTING POINT. We'll talk about that right after the break.