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Wildfires Raging in Three States; Midwest Flooding; IRS Targeting Scandal; Pistorius In Court

Aired June 4, 2013 - 08:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A taco bell employee licking a stack of tacos. Is this what happens behind closed doors?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: Yes, happy breakfast.

I'm Christine Romans. Tuesday, June 4th. Welcome to STARTING POINT.

Happening now: fierce wildfires burning in three states, torching homes and devastating lives.

In Evergreen, Colorado, thousands of residents are being warned to remain alert after being allowed now back into their homes. A wind- driven fire there has already has already scorched dozens of acres. And it's far from contained.

There's also an 8,000-acre fire burning right now north of Pecos, New Mexico. A hundred homes have been evacuated.

And 32,000-acres Powerhouse fire north of Los Angeles. It has already burned six homes to the ground.

Let's get the latest on that situation from our Stephanie Elam. She's live in Lake Hughes, California, this morning -- where at least they are containing some of this fire at this point, right, Stephanie?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's true and actually we've got good numbers there are Christine. They're saying that this fire is about 60 percent contained and they're looking for full containment by Monday. That's good news here.

But while that's the situation we're seeing here, on other fires, it's not as much progress being made so far.


ELAM (voice-over): Into the night, firefighters in Colorado battling a wildfire that erupted in the foothills west of Denver Monday, forcing thousands to evacuate and now being allowed to return home. Although small in acreage, the Bluebell fire burned dangerously close to homes. This place is just the latest outbreak of flames raging out West. From Colorado to the Tres Lagunas fire near Santa Fe,a New Mexico, to the Powerhouse fire near Palmdale, California, these flames consuming much in their path.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a battle, that this hill, that hill and this hill were all going at once, and they're right here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's devastating. And I feel really bad for all my neighbors. And I feel really lucky for the firefighters to have saved our house it.

ELAM: The wildfire in New Mexico was spread over 8,000 acres, forcing residents in 100 homes to evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's nerve-racking not knowing if your land is OK or not.

ELAM: And true to its name, the Powerhouse fire has packed a punch, scorching more than 30,000 acres of land, threatened 1,000 homes, and destroyed at least six.

Homes like the one where the Stilson family used to live reduced to rubble. The family is used to wildfires because they're a family of firefighters.

Retired fire captain Patrick Stilson now picking up the pieces of his parents' home. Like so many residents, he spent his life saving.

PATRICK STILSON, PARENTS LOST HOME: I couldn't believe it how the fire spread. It's -- you know, some of the wheelbarrows that I pushed when I was a teenager over there all melted.

ELAM: And sifting through what's left of the home where he and his wife tied the knot, he happily discovers that one of his mother's beloved keepsakes still stands.

STILSON: The most important thing for me and my mom is St. Francis over there. That's her patron saint.


ELAM: And out here now, a thin blue line of sky we can see as dawn is beginning break. And you can still smoke in the sky, but officials are cautiously optimistic that they will continue to make ground on this fire and there will not be any further evacuations, John, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. As dawn breaks, we fish firefighters a productive day there in Lake Hughes, California. Thanks, Stephanie.

BERMAN: A new round of spring floods threatening Mississippi river towns. The rising waters forcing residents in West Alton, Missouri, near St. Louis to evacuate after a levee break. Aerials live right here.

Efforts are ongoing right now to keep this river from swamping low- lying communities.

And CNN's Martin Savidge live in West Alton, Mississippi, right on the banks of the river.

How do things look right now, Martin?


Yes, this happens to be one of the roads that leads into the small town of West Alton. It's closed right now, and the reason, well, in part, has to do with that sound you are hearing. That is the Mississippi River racing over this road heading right into town.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Danger in the darkness in the small Missouri town of West Alton, a levee breach sent emergency teams rushing to get help hundreds of people to safety.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People could be locked into their house if they don't have a way to get through the water. If the water gets two or three foot deep, they're stuck in the house if they don't evacuate.

SAVIDGE: As floodwaters from the nearby Mississippi River threaten, many residents didn't need to be told twice to pack up and go.

HEATHER WENDLE, RESIDENT: I want to be safe than sorry, you know? I don't want to take the chances.

SAVIDGE: In many places along the Mississippi, near St. Louis, high water threatened small towns. Sandbags and temporary dikes often the only thing standing between a surge of storm water and mainstream.

In the some communities, commercial districts are already under water. Other towns are isolated, as the rising river closes roads. As bad as it is, it could have been worse. In most places, the water is expected to crest an inch shy of what is regarded as major flooding.

But what makes this event so dramatic is just five months ago, the Mississippi was at record lows due to drought, as I found in Memphis.

(on camera): I'm actually standing on the exposed bottom of the Mississippi River.

(voice-over): Since then, the river shot up close 45 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's pretty crazy to see how fast it came.

SAVIDGE: There had been fears the drought would close the river to barge traffic. That never happened, until Monday when the coast guard shut down the section of the river at St. Louis saying it was too dangerous to navigate because the water was so high.


SAVIDGE: By the way this happens to be the second round of flooding in the Mississippi River in just the last six weeks. The hope is, at least here in West Alton and elsewhere, that the river is going to crest today and begin to subside, but it's rushing by right now -- John.

BERMAN: Martin, those are amazing images, you're standing on the road with the Mississippi River flowing right over your feet when are you standing on the side of the road.

Martin Savidge in the Mississippi River this morning -- thanks so much, Martin.

ROMANS: Let's go to Oklahoma now where the death toll has now risen to 18 since Friday's violent storm.

The possibility that severe weather could return today. There's another big story developing as well. The potential for more heavy rains in Florida, from a storm system that may soon become a tropical depression.

Meteorologist Indra Petersons has the latest on that for us.

Good morning.


It's hard to believe. I mean, Florida has already endured so much rain. Seven inches in seven days and now, we're watching the system that used to be tropical storm Barbara track across the gulf. Remnants there, just that tropical moisture out there, really thick moisture now tracking right over Florida. So, with that, as we go through the next five days, look at the amount of rainfall they are expecting.

And it really piles up, anywhere from four to six inches of rain still in the forecast. Flood threat will be high obviously with a situation like this. And that will make it up the Eastern Seaboard.

Also, we continue to watch the Midwest. I mean, think about all the systems we've been talking about with the severe weather. They've been tracking very slowly, system after system, all that dumping rain.

Now, keep in mind, the early part of this year in January, when we're talking about 4 1/2 feet below. That's where the Mississippi River was. The top 10 driest and now, we're in the top ten highest level. We're currently they're at 40.1 feet in a major flood stage. Unbelievable the amount of rain and water they're seeing in that area.

And, of course, more rain expect in the future. Also want to mention the bull's-eye, once again, that severe weather out there, right in tornado alley, Oklahoma City, under the gun today.

BERMAN: Still a threat out there.

ROMANS: Thanks, Indra.

BERMAN: All right. A new report due out today shines the light on how the IRS handles it's own business expenses. It focuses on IRS spending, including a 2010 event where IRS workers stayed in luxury hotel suites that go from between $1,500 to $3,500 a night. And training videos produced for that conference cost the IRS more than $60,000. This is one you're looking at which as you can tell features a "Gilligan's Island" theme.

And this latest bombshell comes on a day when House Ways and Means Committee will hear from conservative groups who say they were unfairly singled out by the IRS. A big day ahead.

CNN's Brianna Keilar live in Washington with the preview.

Good morning, Brianna.


You know, yesterday, we heard from the IRS, and inspector general who investigated this controversy. Today, we'll be hearing from the alleged victims and we caught up with some of them before they testified before the very powerful House tax-writing committee.


KEILAR (voice-over): Becky Gerritson will tell congressional investigators this morning that her Tea Party group in Alabama was unfairly scrutinized by the IRS. In 2010, just before the midterm elections were victories by Tea Party candidates gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives, the group applied for tax- exempt status and was sent a 90-question form.

BECKY GERRITSON, WETUMPKA TEA PARTY: They wanted me to identify volunteers, donors. And they wanted to know about every speech we had ever given. I felt like it was just an oppression over me as a citizen.

I live in America. And I should be able to express my views. I felt like it was very unfair. It was a little scary.

KEILAR: After nearly two years, Gerritson's group finally did get IRS approval.

Susan Martinek is president of a small anti-abortion group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She says the IRS ultimately granted her group tax- exempt status. But a worker at the Cincinnati IRS office asked the group to agree not to picket Planned Parenthood offices.

SUSAN MARTINEK, COALITION OF LIFE OF IOWA: And she required that their entire board would sign a letter under perjury of oath that we would not protest or picket at Planned Parenthood.

KEILAR: After the group's attorney sent a letter asking the basis for this demand, Martinek says it was dropped.

By the end of this week, Congress will have held half a dozen hearings on the IRS controversy. Monday, the new acting commissioner of the IRS pledged to clean up the agency. Daniel Werfel and the inspector general who first investigated the allegations also denied knowing of any direct White House involvement.

REP. NITA LOWEY (D), NEW YORK: Is there any evidence that the White House directed, requested, recommended, or in any way supported such a review?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not aware of any evidence of that.


KEILAR: And we'll be keeping our eye on the next IRS hearing which begins here on -- I would say on Capitol Hill here in Washington at 10:00 a.m. Eastern, John and Christine.

BERMAN: Brianna, despite the swirling controversy, the IRS situation, the White House very much trying to keep business moving. And there is a busy morning this morning at the White House.

KEILAR: That's right. President Obama will hold a Rose Garden event where he will announce his picks to fill out the U.S. Court of Appeals for the circuit here in Washington, D.C.

Very important picks, John, because you have a lot of cases, government-related cases that go to the Supreme Court. From this court, as well as I should say, there have been a number of Supreme Court justices who hail from the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. district -- or circuit.

BERMAN: Often referred to as the second most powerful court in the country.

Brianna, thanks so much.

ROMANS: A quick look now to some of the other top stories this morning.

A five-count indictment this morning in a ricin tainted letter case. James Edward Dutschke stands accused of sending letters laced with that toxin to President Obama. Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker and a state judge sent those letters allegedly back in April. He tried to pin the crimes on a former friend. Dutschke is set to be arraigned Thursday. He could face life in prison.

BERMAN: The Department of Justice says that Eric Holder's testimony last month about classified leaks and searching reporters' e-mails, they say that testimony was accurate. A former State Department contractor Steven Jin-Woo Kim allegedly gave classified information to a FOX News reporter. The attorney general, Eric Holder, claimed that he didn't push for the press to be prosecuted in the case. Kim has a hearing later this morning. ROMANS: Justice, or unjust shaming? That's the debate in suburban Long Island, New York. More than 100 men since April had been arrested and charged in a prostitution sting. The attorney for several suspects says it's wrong for Nassau County to post the men's mug shots publicly before the day in court. The D.A. disagrees. The alleged johns range in age from 17 to 79, and include doctors, lawyers, professors, and college students.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, Oscar Pistorius back in court this morning. The judge making a critical decision about the Blade Runner's upcoming murder trial. A live report is ahead.

BERMAN: And if you're thinking of heading to a Disney themepark with the family this summer, break out the calculator. You might need a little more magic to make it happen.

You're watching STARTING POINT.


BERMAN: New this morning, the blade runner, Oscar Pistorius, back in court for the first time in four months. The Olympic star appearing at a free trial hearing overnight for the shooting death of his girlfriend, the model, Reeva Steenkamp. A judge agreed to postpone the start of this trial until August now. Robyn Curnow live from the Pretoria this morning. Robyn, what's the latest?

ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest is that the world saw Oscar Pistorius for the first time since he was released from police custody in February. He's literally been hiding out, keeping a very low profile at his uncle's home for the past three months. When he did appear in this court behind me, he seemed quite emotionally blank.

Certainly none of the emotion that sobbing, that crying, we saw during the bail hearing. He was briefly in court here today, ten minutes, and it was just a postponement until August.

BERMAN: What was his demeanor (ph) to you in court today?

CURNOW: He looked sad. He looked quite blank. I saw him last week in his home when I went to interview his uncle, and he had a beard last week. He's obviously shaved this. he came into court quite clean shaven. He certainly doesn't look as skinny. He hasn't lost as much weight as he did during the bail hearing. We know that he's doing a lot of gym during the day at home, you know, sort of pumping iron.

So, I think, from that point of view, his family and those around him are trying to get him both physically, emotionally, and spiritually prepared for this legal process which could take about three years. So, you know, this is a long process, but many people, they are also noting that even though Oscar Pistorius had the support of his family in the court today, no word, no presence from Reeva Steenkamp's family who said they don't want to be part of these legal proceedings. And also, I must just add in a twist of fate, this next court appearance is on 19th of August, and that sadly is Reeva Steenkamp's birthday. She would have turned 30.

BERMAN: A sad irony in that, no doubt.

CURNOW: Absolutely.

BERMAN: So, when they do return to court in August, what are the next legal steps then come August 19th?

CURNOW: OK. So, what we're seeing on August 19th is actually what is supposed to have happened today. The state had asked for a postponement. They said they're not ready with their investigations, which legal experts say is an indication they're not confident with their case. So, what we're liking to see in mid-August is charges laid out.

We'll get a sense of the kind of charges that the state has against him and also trial date will be set. So, definitely one more step further in this very long and complicated and tragic legal process.

BERMAN: Now, there is a delay to the drama, at least, until August 19th. Robyn Curnow for us in Pretoria this morning. Thanks so much, Robyn.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, just in time for summer, what it costs for a family of four to hit The Magic Kingdom? Can you afford the new price hike? Is it worth it? Those numbers right after the break.

BERMAN: And a Nevada mother thrilled about the birth of her healthy new baby twins, but wait until you hear where she was forced to deliver them. You're watching STARTING POINT.


ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back to STARTING POINT, "Minding Your Business."

The S&P 500 getting a new member, an old member that's a new member. General Motors. It was kicked out when it filed for bankruptcy back in 2009. GM now replaces Heinz. That company is going private. Looking at all the major averages after yesterday's rally. Stock futures point to a mixed open, but we're watching out for another super Tuesday. Did you know that Dow has risen the past 20 Tuesdays, gaining more than 1,500 points on Tuesdays?

BERMAN: That's a ridiculous streak.

ROMANS: Tuesdays -- who knew that Tuesdays were so great? The longest winning streak for any day of the week since 1900.

The happiest place on Earth is beginning feel like the most expensive. Disney is raising prices at all of its theme parks. But, will this move by Disney price out families from one of America's favorite vacation spots?



ROMANS (voice-over): Disney, famous for fantasy, from movies to theme parks. But now, you will pay a little more to join Mickey and all of his friends in Orlando and California. Disney, raising ticket prices to its theme parks. One-day admission to the magic kingdom in Orlando now costs $95. That's for visitors ten and older and up from $89 last year. In California, it's now $92 up from $87.

So, for two parents and two kids, that's almost $400 for just one visit. Some visitors on Disney's blog aren't happy. Terrell (ph) says, "At $95 a day per person, a family of four is already priced out."

Another one reads, "Yes. The memories are valuable and what Disney offers is magical, but you can't get those memories if you can't afford to make them," says Crystal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you look at all the ticket process, it just really becomes ridiculous. It really, really, really does.

ROMANS: The company tells us the tickets are still a great value. You get access from 9:00 in the morning until midnight. There's Main Street U.S.A., Splash Mountain, Cinderella's castle, a parade each night, and fireworks. And other parks around Disney aren't that much cheaper. Universal Studios Orlando, $92 a day for adults, 86 for children. Busch Gardens in Tampa, 85 for adults, 77 for kids, and other summer entertainment options may not be as cheap as you think.


ROMANS: The cheapest ticket to see the musical "Annie" on Broadway? Fifty bucks. You want to see a Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston? On average, that's $53. And even a 3D movie like Epic costs about 15 bucks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aw! That hurts. Those are my eyes.

ROMANS: For some, visiting what's called the happiest place on Earth maybe priceless, while others may feel priced out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have to really think about where you want to spend your money. You can't do all the facts (ph) anymore.


ROMANS (on-camera): Experts we talked to say they don't think this is going to keep people from coming. Attendance is up and people are spending more at the parks already. So, Disney has a lot of room to raise those prices.

All right. To get to Disney, you might have to fly, right? If you fly a lot, then you're all too familiar with all the added fees at airlines add to your ticket price. Now, United Airlines offering a new twist to the ala carte fee game, prepaid subscriptions. Here's how it works. You can pay United for a year's worth of certain fees ahead of time.

Prices start at 349 bucks for checked baggage, 499 for an economy plus subscription. That gives flyers access to more spacious coach seats on every single flight. It's a new twist. It's a new twist to that fee game. We'll see if United flyers go for it.

BERMAN: They will find a new way to make money, somehow.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, take a look at this picture. That is a Taco Bell employee going to first base with a stack of taco shells right there. It is turning stomachs of internet users across the country. So, what is the fast food giant doing about it? That story coming up later this hour. You are watching STARTING POINT.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: The parents of the Boston marathon bombing suspects are sharing intimate details of their first conversation with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since he was arrested. The Tsarnaev's played audio recordings of the conversation during an interview aired on British television. CNNs Phil Black is live in Moscow. And Phil, what do the Tsarnaevs have to say now about their son?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Dzhokhar's mother, Zubeidat, was clearly very emotional as this recording of a conversation from a week ago was played again during this interview. Apparently at the time they spoke, they were not allowed to discuss details of the Boston bombing case itself.

So, the relatively brief conversation is really dominated by Dzhokhar's parents, asking him, how's he doing? How's his health, his welfare, and so forth? At one point, they asked him, is he in pain? This is how he replied. He said, "No, of course not. I'm already eating and have been for a long time. They're giving me rice and chicken now. Everything is fine."