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Historic Deep Freeze; Unemployment Vote Set for Today; U.S. Support for Iraq

Aired January 7, 2014 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: An historic deep freeze gripping the country. This morning, more than a dozen people killed, thousands of flights canceled, roads and schools shut down, government leaders warning residents to stay inside.

But our Indra Petersons is outside, live in the cold to explain what's coming next and why this is happening in the first place. Look at her. She's smiling because she has to.

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


She's frozen solid. That smile frozen solid on her face.

It's Tuesday, January 7th. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

BERMAN: Welcome to EARLY START, by the way.

ROMANS: Thank you! Thank you.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, the official new co-anchor of the EARLY START broadcast.

ROMANS: I know. It's my first day, so please be nice. Please gentle.

BERMAN: Exactly. You're going to get hazed the whole broadcast.

ROMANS: Oh, no. Wait, we have a huge story this morning and it's cold. We begin with the cold weather. It's hard not to feel it this morning. You know, some 87 million Americans caught in the sting of Mother Nature. At least 15 deaths now blamed on this weather. Temperatures won't reach above zero in some places today.

BERMAN: Oh, man.

ROMANS: Won't reach above zero, the wind-chill even worse.

How bad? OK, we'll show you the map.

BERMAN: Real bad.

ROMANS: Try 55 below zero. And for many, the wind, that wind-chill is going to hit at least 10 below. That's why so many schools are shut down. So many people are staying home.

BERMAN: There is a state of emergency in 14 counties in western New York state. The Buffalo area in addition to all the cold is facing 3 feet of snow. In that cold, with wind-chills that could reach 40 below zero. Ouch!

The governor of New York has shut down parts of the New York state thruway because of these dangerous driving conditions. Look at that.

ROMANS: It's hard to believe it was above 50 degrees in New York City yesterday, and the sudden temperature change is blamed for this fire not far from Radio City Music Hall. So, they had melting snow mixed with salt dripping on to an electrical transformer that caught fire. Hundreds evacuated from the office building above it.

BERMAN: All kinds of strange stuff happening. Schools shut down statewide in Minnesota. You know, we always like to say in Minnesota they know cold?

ROMANS: Look at that.

BERMAN: Well, it's so cold there, they're shutting the schools down. Temperatures dipping to 40 below in Brimson, 30 below at the airport in Duluth with wind-chills of 60 below. They were recorded in several parts of the state.

ROMANS: Stay inside.

A tragic story out of Missouri, a 1-year-old boy killed in a crash involving a snowplow. State highway patrol says his mother lost control of the car, skidded and hit the snowplow head on Monday. Troopers say the boy was not properly restrained.

BERMAN: A major headache in downtown Columbus, Ohio, a huge water main break expected to make the morning commute a nightmare. Can you imagine having to work in this? Crews have been trying to deal with it in the subzero conditions overnight, hoping to have water service restored in the morning. People in homes and offices in the immediate area have been advised to boil water until further notice.

ROMANS: And you know, heavy snow being blamed for a roof collapse in a Kmart in Saginaw, Michigan. A big section of that roof giving way during the overnight hours on Monday. Luckily, only one employee inside was there and not hurt.

BERMAN: Can you believe the litany of things that are going on because of this cold? JetBlue airways promising to be back in operation later today, which is welcome news, perhaps, for the thousands of passengers left stranded when the airline stopped nearly all its operations in boston and the New York area. More than 400 JetBlue flights were canceled. The airline said it needed 17 hours for crews to rest and planes to be serviced. Those who were scheduled to fly out on Monday say they received no warning and no alternative options for getting out.

That's because thousands of other flights on other airlines were also canceled because of this weather. Even more grounded today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know if anyone actually knows where any of the lines go, like, or what they're for. Everyone just kind of gets -- and there's no one out here answering questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was sitting on my plane, and then there was an announcement that it was canceled, so then I had to get off. And then I went back with them and I've been stuck here for two days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've actually been kind of worried because the way this line is, I don't even want to know what security's like.


BERMAN: He was talking about driving and flying, get this -- some 5,000 passengers on three Amtrak trains are stuck on the tracks this morning just west of Chicago. That does not sound good. And they've been there for more than 12 hours.

ROMANS: Oh, wow.

BERMAN: Yikes! Amtrak says blowing and drifting snow to blame for this. Again, the weather at work here. Crews are working to reopen the tracks. The trains, luckily, have power and heat, and the passengers are being fed.

ROMANS: This cold extends far now into the south, including parts of Florida. Farmers there taking steps to protect their crops of citrus fruit and strawberries, racing to pick the fruit before a freeze hits and then cover the plants with cloth or even ice to try to save them.

BERMAN: What a morning! A cold, cold morning. All this going on. We want to know how much longer will it last and what's causing this?

Indra Petersons smiling but with us in the 8-degree temperatures of New York with the forecast.

I should tell you, the wind-chill where she's standing 12 below.

You're brave, Indra.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. You know, I have to tell you, I know you were standing out here just a week or so ago, John, when it felt like about the same temperature, and I was just in Boston where it felt like it was 20 below, but this is way worse. Remember, wind-chill's a combination of the cold air mass and the winds. Yes, you put them both together and it tells you the feels-like.

But there's a difference when 40 and 50-mile-per-hour winds are blowing that cold air straight at you. This is miserable today and this is something New Yorkers and a huge chunk of the entire Northeast will be dealing with. They're finally joining the party that the rest of the country has already been dealing with for several days here. So, yes, these wind-chills are cold, but keep in mind, even as we go throughout the day today, this cold air mass is still making its way in, so we're not going to be warming up as the day goes on. That is tough news to bear. As you noted, it's already cold right now.

So, there are very strong winds out here. I don't know if you can see the signs behind me. They're shaking. Our news trucks, our satellite trucks, they are shaking even as we're running in for cover right now. So, those strong winds are also the winds that are going to be producing blizzard conditions off of the lakes, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, anywhere from one to three, or even two to five feet of snow will be possible in those regions with the strong winds and heavy amounts of snow bringing visibility down.

Now, this cold air mass we know is moving all the way down even into the southeast today where temperatures are going to be dropping 30 degrees from just yesterday. So, many places in the southeast, hard to believe, are going to be below freezing even as we go throughout the afternoon. Now, I know it feels miserable for so many of us.

But remember, the worst is still out towards Minneapolis, out towards Minnesota. We're talking about temperatures there still in that particularly dangerous situation, that rare issuance of awareness there. We're talking about temperatures 40 below to even 60 below. They're still talking about those dangerous temperatures out there. The relief, we all need to know, comes as early as tomorrow, about a good 10-degree warm-up every day. And, of course, it takes time to get back to where we need to be when it is this cold.

BERMAN: That is crazy, Indra. She did say 3 to 5 feet of snow in upstate New York, so crazy stuff going on.

Thank you so much, Indra. Try to stay warm.

ROMANS: All right. The Senate again will try to take up the issue of extending unemployment benefits for more than a million out-of-work Americans. The procedural vote was originally scheduled for Monday.

But that vote had to postponed, after many senators couldn't get to Washington because of the weather. And it wasn't clear that enough votes were there to get past the 60-vote hurdle anyway. Democrats in the White House are pushing for the measure, which would resume sending checks, about $300 a week for three months to families who had their benefits cut off last month.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That would give immediate relief to these families and remove the fear that I think now many of them face, not knowing if and when they'll ever get those benefits back. And it would allow for time for further discussions about how to move forward for the rest of 2014.


ROMANS: Jay Carney's beard almost overshadowing the substance of the story.

Some Republicans say Democrats are trying to force through the bill without a full debate and that the economy has now recovered enough that the extended benefits are no longer necessary. This was supposed to be an emergency program and can't go on forever. That's what they say.

BERMAN: Congressman Trey Radel heading back to Washington this week amid an ethics investigation into his admitted confession of cocaine. The Florida Republican has now hired a top D.C. ethics lawyer to represent him. You'll remember that Radel pleaded guilty back in November to cocaine charges and has been on a leave of absence since then, including a stint in rehab.

He has pledged that he will try to rebuild the trust of voters.

ROMANS: Vice President Joe Biden offering U.S. support for Iraq in its fight against al Qaeda-linked militants. Biden spoke with the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on Monday as the administration announced it has accelerated deliveries of military equipment, including missiles and surveillance drones to help Iraq fight those militants.

BERMAN: Iran seems to be saying no, thanks, to a U.S. offer to help with Syrian peace talks which are set for later this month. Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested that Iran could possibly contribute from the sidelines, even though it may not be formally invited to take part. But a spokeswoman for the Iranian foreign ministry said the country will not accept any proposal that, quote, "does not respect its dignity."

ROMANS: The Senate has given its OK to Janet Yellen becoming the next chair of the Federal Reserve. That makes her one of the most powerful people in the world.

BERMAN: After Christine Romans.

ROMANS: And the Fed's first female leader. She's really big.

There's this debate about whether she's more powerful than --


ROMANS: No, I would say Angela Merkel from Germany, but that's another story altogether.

The vote, 56 to 26, weather delays meant some senators couldn't make it back to Washington in time to take part. Yellen will take over at the end of the month when Ben Bernanke steps down. How she does her job is going to affect your money this year.

All right, the new head of the IRS says so far, so good when it comes to implementing Obamacare, but John Koskinen told reporters budget constraints could mean cuts to other IRS programs if the agency needs to spend more on its part of the health care overhaul. The law made numerous changes to the tax code. The IRS is eventually responsible for making sure Americans have health insurance. The IRS will be responsible for making sure you pay your fine, take it out of your tax refund.

BERMAN: It will be complicated.

All right. The Florida State Seminoles are the champions of college football! This was quite a game. They defeated Auburn 34-31 in a thrilling BCS title game, a phrase we can retire soon. The lead changed three times in the final five minutes with just 13 seconds left.


BERMAN: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston threw a touchdown pass to win it all. College football fans will note that Florida State is the first non southeastern conference team to win the title since back in 2005. Now, as I mentioned before, this was the final BCS championship game, thank goodness.

Next year, college football will have a real-life, honest to goodness, four-team playoff.

ROMANS: In the break, John Berman will explain the significance of that to me.

BERMAN: Very significant. But that game, it was amazing. Sadly, it ended very, very late, but the last four minutes, nuts.

ROMANS: All right, coming up, a basketball matchup for the ages just one day away. Dennis Rodman and his group of former NBA players squaring off against a North Korean team. The drama soon to unfold. We are live there with a report.

BERMAN: Plus, an MMA fighter fending off four intruders inside his home. What we're learning now about the attack. New developments this morning.

ROMANS: And "Saturday Night Live" announcing a big change in its cast. That's right after the break.


ROMANS: All right. Welcome back to EARLY START.

For Dennis Rodman, it's a day to prepare. The ex-NBA star is in North Korea meeting and coaching along with his team of former pro- basketball players, all set to take part in a special exhibition game on Wednesday. The game is for the birthday of Kim Jong-un.

Paula Hancocks is live in Seoul this morning for us. Paula, the controversy around this trip, it just seems to be growing.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Christine. I mean, certainly, it's a birthday present that Kim Jong- un is likely to love. It's well known he's a big basketball fan, but of course, officials around the world say it's not a birthday present that he actually deserves. Critics are saying what Rodman and his fellow NBA players are doing is effectively handing a propaganda coup to the North Korean leader.

Now, remember, it's only a few weeks ago that Kim Jong-un executed his uncle on alleged charges of treason, trying to overthrow the regime. It's also a country that has one of the worst human rights records in the world. But what Rodman is saying is that's not his job, he's not there to try and change things, he's not there to try and change the world. He says he's there for sport and not politics.

But of course, the criticism is increasing. The State Department says the focus shouldn't be on basketball, it should actually be on the brutality of this regime.

Now, it's just gone 7:00 in the evening Korea time, and they will just be finishing off their first full day in Pyongyang, as you say, preparing for the big day on Wednesday. Tomorrow, they will be having this exhibition game. It's believed to be Kim Jong-un's birthday. He's believed to be 31 years old.

And some of the other players are saying that this could actually work like ping pong diplomacy did back in 1972. Remember, that improved the relationship between China and the United States, and they ask why not this time as well? Christine?

ROMANS: There are many, though, who say that what Dennis Rodman gets his publicity and what Kim Jong-un gets is a pawn, and this all just legitimizes what is a very, a very brutal, brutal rule.

HANCOCKS: Absolutely, and critics are questioning why he would want to give, basically give good publicity to the North Korean leader. Remember as well, there's actually a U.S. citizen who is still in custody, in prison in North Korea. He's been there for well over a year now, Kenneth Bae. He is a former missionary, a tour guide, and Rodman has said that he's not there to try and lobby for Kenneth Bae either.

So, critics are really asking why he is there. They believe that this dictatorship, as they call it, this regime is just simply too brutal to be able to have this kind of propaganda coup.

ROMANS: Yes. Paula Hancocks, thank you. In fact, Dennis Rodman kind of shrugged off Kenneth Bae when he was asked by reporters at the airport, literally shrugging off Kenneth Bae. Thank you so much Paula Hancocks in Seoul.

BERMAN: Sixteen minutes after the hour now.

Gay marriages on hold in Utah. The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped and issued a stay. The high court ordered marriages to stop for now while the state appeals a lower court ruling that a ban on same-sex nuptials was unconstitutional. Utah had asked two courts to stop the marriage ease from happening. Both said no.

The Supreme Court has not revealed its reasoning for taking this step, but with hundreds of Utah couples, maybe even more than 1,000 having already married, many are wondering -- are their unions still legal now?


SEAN REYES, UTAH ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is precisely the uncertainty we were hoping to avoid. By requesting a stay immediately upon the decision of the district court, it's unfortunate that many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo.

JOHN NETTO, UTAH PRIDE CENTER: We consider we're on the right side of history here, that, in fact, we're on the right side of love, we're on the right side of the Constitution.

The next step in the legal battle should come by the spring, when the appeals court hears arguments in this case. It could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court some time in the fall, or at least next year.


ROMANS: A federal judge has thrown out Chicago's ban on gun sales, ruling that it runs afoul of the second amendment. It goes too far in stopping dealers and buyers from making legal gun purchases. The law prohibited anyone from giving a firearm to anyone else, even family members, except through inheritance, but the judge put his decision on hold pending an appeal.

BERMAN: More details this morning over the fate of Jahi McMath, the brain-dead 13-year-old from California. She was transferred from an Oakland hospital to a care facility on Sunday night. A lawyer for her family says the teenager is in bad shape and they plan to sue the hospital for not feeding her after she was declared brain-dead.

The family is not saying where her body was taken but has now indicated she traveled by land, which sort of suggests she's still in California. They say she is now receiving intravenous antibiotics and supplements while she remains on a ventilator.

ROMANS: Still big questions about how a tonsillectomy could lead to a girl's death.

A mixed martial arts fighter from New Mexico is now working on his legal defense after a deadly confrontation with suspected gang members at his home on New Year's Day.

Joseph Torres lives in Las Cruces and fought four men who allegedly broke into his home. One of them was found dead nearby afterwards. He had been beaten and stabbed. Police initially said they were treating what happened as self-defense, but they won't clear Torres of committing a crime, and his lawyer has told his client to stop cooperating.


KELLY JAMESON, SPOKESMAN, COUNTY SHERRIFF: The four men that went to the home were allegedly trying to settle some kind of an argument with the man who lives inside the home. C.J. MCELHINNEY, ATTORNEY FOR JOSEPH TORRES: My client did what he had to do, did what any other person would do, he defended himself and he defended his family.


ROMANS: It's not clear what sparked the home invasion, but court documents show Torres had gotten phone calls from one of the men before the incident.

BERMAN: We're finding out more this morning about the death of a northern California priest found murdered inside his rectory on New Year's Day. The autopsy shows that Father Eric Freed was beaten to death with a wooden stake and a metal gutter pipe. Gary Lee Bullock is facing murder charges in this death. Authorities say he had been released from jail just hours before this priest was killed.

ROMANS: A former Steubenville high school football player convicted last year of raping a 16-year-old girl has been released from juvenile prison. The family of Ma'lik Richmond says he is now, quote, "a better person." Two students were convicted in that case that rocked that small Ohio City and ignited a nationwide debate. The second football player, Trenton Mayes, is serving a two-year sentence.

BERMAN: There's a new battle over whether the Oklahoma state house should get a new document. Get this, a group called the satanic temple unveiled designs Monday for a 7-foot goat-headed statue of Satan, Satan with children at its feet.

The state legislature OK'd a privately funded Ten Commandments monument erected in 2012, opening the door for Satan, at least according to the Satanists. Opponents say the group is just trying to stir things up.


REP. PAUL WESSELHOFT, OKLAHOMA STATE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: What will disqualify them has really nothing to do with Satan as such, it's that it has no historical significance for the state of Oklahoma.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not only was a satanic monument send a clear and distinct message that America respects plurality, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, but it would also stand as a historical marker, commemorating scapegoats, the marginalized and the demonized minority.

BERMAN: Advocates for the statue say it would also double as a place for visitors to sit. They could, you know, cozy up on the lap of Lucifer.

ROMANS: So, it would technically be the devil's advocate.

BERMAN: Exactly. The people who support the statue are devil's advocates. Thank you, Christine Romans.

ROMANS: All right. "Saturday Night Live" has is woman. Sasheer Zamata will be a featured player when they return January 18th is in when it comes back. The show conducted a coast-to-coast search for an African-American female cast member after coming under fire for its historic lack of black females.

The issue came to a head when "SNL" regulars like Jay Ferrell and Keenan Thompson said the show was too white. They'd no longer dress in drag to play black females in sketches. And there are so many prominent, amazing black females that there's kind of a lot of sketches.

BERMAN: A lot of people think this is way overdue.

Coming up, what a way to say good-bye to the BCS, a game for the ages in Pasadena, and let's just say for all those who thought this would be a cake walk, think again. What a game! Andy Scholes will have the play-by-play in "Bleacher Report," coming up.


BERMAN: What a game to end the college football season. Florida State mounting a huge comeback to beat Auburn for the BCS national championship!

ROMANS: And that means Andy Scholes is here with more in this morning's "Bleacher Report." Hi, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Hey, good morning, guys. You know, this is the end of the BCS. Next year, we're going to go to the four- team playoff, but what a way to go out. Last night's game will definitely go down as one of the best championship games in college football history. The Seminoles and Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston looking to complete an undefeated season.

Now, they fell behind in the first half of this game, but they rallied to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers continued to look like a team of destiny. Under a minute and a half to go, Trey Mason breaks off a 37-yard touchdown run. Check him out, he strikes the Heisman pose. It should have been me.

Auburn up by four at that point, but Florida State drives right down the field. And after a pass interference penalty put them at the 2 yard line, Winston hits Calvin Benjamin for the touchdown. There's your Heisman moment right there. Florida State beats Auburn 34-31 to claim the national title.


JAMEIS WINSTON, FSU QUARTERBACK: I'm pretty sure I got more respect for my teammates and the people around me on that last drive than I got the whole year.

JIMBO FISHER, FSU HEADCOACH: It's the best football game he played all year, and I'll tell you why, because for three quarters, he was up and down. Anybody can do it when it's their "A" game night. A lot of guys can do that. Very few can do it when it's not their night, and to pull it out in an atmosphere and environment and with what was on the line tonight, to me, if that's not a great player, I don't know what one is.


SCHOLES: All right. This past weekend's NFL games were really good, so good that they set a new record for TV ratings. The NFL announced it had more than 34 million viewers per game, making it the most- watched wild card weekend ever.

The Niners/Packers frostbite bowl? They had a FOX record of more than 47 million viewers. That's 7 million more viewers than the Oscars had.

Now, is the NFL more popular this year than last year? Maybe, but guys, the record could have a lot to do with the frigid weather and snowstorms sweeping across the country. You know, a lot of people are hunkered down indoors on their couch watching TV. And what better thing is there to watch than NFL football?

ROMANS: There's been some good football.

BERMAN: It was a crazy weekend.

ROMANS: You were rewarded if you stayed inside and watched football.

BERMAN: Might watch a few games coming up this weekend.

ROMANS: Thanks, Andy.

BERMAN: Andy, appreciate it.

Coming up next, the top headlines and everything you need to know for your day, right after the break.