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Massive Winter Storm; Chris Christie Inauguration; Olympic Terror Threat

Aired January 21, 2014 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A huge blast of winter about to slam the East Coast after hammering the Midwest from heavy snow to freezing temperatures. We have what you need to know this morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Raining on his parade. Governor Chris Christie's second inauguration happening under a cloud of controversy as more allegations of political payback mar his second term before it even begins.

BERMAN: On high alert. New details this morning as security teams search for a terror suspect in Sochi just weeks before the Olympic Games. Could there be more attackers there just waiting to strike?

ROMANS: Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It's Tuesday, January 21st, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

ROMANS: Let's begin with another calling card from old man winter. The Eastern U.S. bracing for a heavy hit of snow, ice and bitterly cold temperatures. This is just a couple of weeks after, remember the polar vortex experience?

The federal government has already closed for the day and more than 1,800 flights have already been canceled.

BERMAN: Parts of the Midwest getting slammed already with snow. Take a live look at the snowy roads in Indianapolis. Really just look like they're crawling along there. Yikes!

And here's what you could see driving on a highway in Bismarck, North Dakota, Monday. Just about nothing! You can't see a thing!

Needless to say, the combination of freezing snow and high winds have made for very, very dangerous conditions this morning, and they will stay that way.

Our meteorologist, Indra Petersons, is here with the latest on this unwelcome storm.

ROMANS: Good morning.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, that's a perfect example, what you just showed. You talked about the high winds and some very dry snow. That's going to be the concern as we go through today.

We're still going to be talking about potentially near blizzard-like conditions in many places, and on the cape itself, blizzard warnings already in effect. Let's talk about where we currently see the storm.

You can still see it kind of making its way over the Ohio Valley, still pretty dry. Notice Chicago's got about 3 inches of lake-effect snow, but generally, the snow totals we've seen have already been dry, thanks to it not having gone over the water yet. That is going to change as soon as that low connects with the ocean. You really get all that moisture.

Look at the totals we're expecting. New York City, anywhere up to as high as 10 inches of snow possible, same thing for D.C., even Philly. Notice on the cape itself, where they have those blizzard warnings, they could be looking for a foot of snow combined again with those strong winds.

Let's talk about the timing. Looks like early this morning, by 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, we could start to see the snow falling in D.C., maybe 11:00 or 12:00, starting to see it in New York City. Then, it's going to make its way up to Boston, maybe 4:00 p.m. or so by tonight, we're still talking about snow, but 11:00 p.m., maybe exiting out of the D.C. area. Still snowing in New York and Boston, early morning hours it clears out in New York. Still in Boston, up towards New England, even by the time we talk about tomorrow.

So, it's going to be a little bit long-lived here, talking about strong winds in addition. And remember, it is so cold and very similar to what we saw a few weeks ago, that very dry snow, that it doesn't take that much wind to blow it around and bring that visibility very low.

So, speaking of those temperatures, take a look. Well below normal. Looking at 33 today in through tomorrow, cooling off even more. Add in that wind-chill, it's going to feel a lot cooler. We're talking about New York City feeling like two degrees, and if it's this cold, that snow will be sticking around for a while as well.

ROMANS: All right. Indra Petersons -- thanks, Indra.

As with the cold weather comes another concern, propane gas and heating oil running low in some areas after last week's blast of arctic air. The governor of Ohio declaring a statewide energy emergency. Governor Kasich also has asked the federal government to speed up fuel shipments to his state, and he's asking residents to turn down the thermostats for conservation.

BERMAN: A lot of schools dealing with a tough question this morning. You know it's going to start snowing hard midday. Do you call school off before the day even starts?

ROMANS: I know. I'm actually watching my phone right now to see when I'm going to get the alert.

BERMAN: Yes. Over the next few hours, you will all be getting those alerts, I trust.

All right. From winter storm to the political storm surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He will be sworn in today for a second term. It is safe to say, though, this is not how he envisioned this inauguration playing out.

The governor has been dogged by allegations of payback politics. First, of course, there was the bridge scandal. Now, he's accused of withholding Superstorm Sandy funds from the city of Hoboken unless the mayor went along with a favored real estate development project.

The lieutenant governor of New Jersey is publicly denying these charges, calling them false and illogical.


KIM GUADAGNO (R), NEW JERSEY LT. GOV.: Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false.


BERMAN: All right, I want to bring in CNN's Erin McPike, who is live in Trenton, New Jersey. Erin has practically moved to Trenton over the last few weeks to cover the events there.

The inauguration today was supposed to be this giant celebration of Chris Christie's second term. I think he wanted to put a national spotlight on the events there.

How overshadowed will these events now be?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot, John, obviously, but the guidance we've received from the Christie administration is that he doesn't plan to address any of these controversies in his inaugural address today, but it obviously has taken a big toll.

A new Pew Research Center poll came out yesterday that showed his unfavorable rating has jumped, doubled in the last year, and also, a majority of people who have heard of the George Washington Bridge controversy say they don't believe him when he says he didn't know anything about it, John.

BERMAN: And, Erin, what is the latest on, I suppose, the second controversy, what the mayor of Hoboken is saying that Superstorm Sandy funds were withheld unless she supported a certain real estate project? What's the status there?

MCPIKE: Well, John, the Christie administration has taken a very forceful approach to this. Obviously, the lieutenant governor came out and denied it multiple times yesterday, and there's no real concrete evidence yet to prove what the Hoboken mayor is saying. It's more of a she said/she said kind of a situation.

Take a listen to what she said last night on Anderson Cooper's show.


MAYOR DAWN ZIMMER (D), HOBOKEN, NJ: I couldn't believe it. I mean, I just, I couldn't believe that she was saying what she was saying. I mean, and she very clearly said these things shouldn't be connected, but they are. I know it's not right, and if you tell anyone, I will deny it.


MCPIKE: And the Christie administration is actually looking forward to this inquiry because they believe that they will be proved right in this situation -- John.

BERMAN: Nevertheless, I think it does show that there is already a drip, drip, drip of allegations and there could be more, even opportunistic allegations that the administration will have to deal with.

Erin McPike, thanks so much for being with us in Trenton this morning.

ROMANS: All right, as the Olympic torch draws closer to Sochi, anticipation for Winter Games is building along with concern the city could be a prime target for terrorists.

Russian authorities are searching for a so-called Black Widow terrorist who could be intent on doing harm during the Olympics. Meantime, the U.S. military is making contingency plans for evacuating Americans from Sochi, if necessary.

CNN's Phil Black is following the developments for us live in Volgograd, Russia.

And we just showed the picture of the so-called Black Widow. Authorities in Russia searching franticly for her. Tell us more on that.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Christine. They've distributed that photo and some information about this woman to hotels across the region, saying that they are very intent on finding her. Her name is Ruzan Ibragimova. They say she comes from Dagestan, she's 22 years old, the widow, they say, of a militant killed by Russian forces.

They believe they have information that suggests she is from Dagestan, a place in Russia where they are still fighting against Islamist militants almost daily. She's traveled from there to Sochi at some point earlier this month, and they believe that she is working with a terror group planning some sort of terror attack on the Olympic region of Sochi. They say she's quite -- distinct looking --


ROMANS: All right. We're obviously having technical problems with Phil Black, but clearly, that is something the Russian authorities are working very hard to try to make sure that nothing disrupts, no terrorism disrupts those events. Meantime, the United States actually looking at evacuation plans for Americans and for any tourists and athletes, John, who might be going there. So --

BERMAN: Sending ships to the Black Sea, just in case, to be close to the games.

ROMANS: So, we'll check in with Phil Black a little bit later.

BERMAN: All right. We have breaking news overnight, a student shot on a campus of Widener University in Pennsylvania. Police are not releasing the name of the victim, who was shot while sitting in the parking lot of the school's athletic center. They have locked down the campus just outside of Philadelphia and ordered students to stay indoors until 6:00 a.m. this morning. That's just under another hour right now.

But police believe there is no active shooter on campus. The injured student is hospitalized in critical but stable condition this morning.

ROMANS: Developing this morning in Omaha, authorities there investigating the cause of an explosion and a fire at an industrial animal feed plant. Two people were killed, 10 others injured. Officials say the death toll could have been much worse.

One man who was inside the building describing the chaos.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard a loud noise and I looked up, I seen everything collapsing. I started running. Next thing I know, I see a big fireball, and I tried to run, get away as fast as I could.


ROMANS: Officials have recovered the body of one of the victims, but they say the building is too unstable to reach the other person killed.

BERMAN: New this morning, the family of the American held in North Korea right now is speaking out this morning. It comes after Kenneth Bae appeared before reporters Monday saying he committed serious crimes and he urged the Obama administration to work to free him.

In response, his sister issued a statement asking for mercy and apologizing to North Korea's leader on Bae's behalf.

In the meantime, U.S. officials are offering to send a special envoy to North Korea to help secure his release.

ROMANS: The majority of Americans oppose the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records and don't believe the president's proposals to reform that agency will change anything.

Take a look at this new survey by the Pew Research Center and "USA Today." Fifty-three percent of the adults surveyed disapprove of the NSA's phone-spying tactics. Just 40 percent approve. And an overwhelming 73 percent say the changes offered up by the president won't increase privacy protections. Just 21 percent say they will.

BERMAN: New this morning, the FAA is taking steps to reduce the chance of plane collisions. Sounds like a good idea. With more staggered take-offs and landings at more than a dozen major airports. Problems have been arising as planes abandoning landing attempts have landed on routes intersecting with planes taking off. The changes could make travel time delays even longer.

ROMANS: And you know our airport infrastructure has not kept up with demand, and that's a problem, a real problem.

U.S. stock futures higher this morning following a trend we've been seeing in the markets today. Stocks around the world generally higher. Dow futures up 41 points right now. And that's ahead of a big earnings week.

Today alone, three Dow stocks are reporting earnings. You're going to hear IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Verizon.

And stocks in London, Frankfurt, Paris, all higher right now. Stocks in Asia higher this morning. In Japan, the Nikkei up nearly 1 percent. Stocks in Asia gained as China's central bank pumped about $43 billion into money markets to ease fears of a credit crunch there.

Here's a sobering thought for you. I want you to look at this statistic. About half of the world's wealth is owned by just 1 percent of the world's population. That works out to the 85 richest people owning the same amount as the bottom 3.5 billion.


ROMANS: This is a study from Oxfam that comes just at the start of the world economic forum this week. Leaders there in Davos, Switzerland, have identified income inequality as one of the greatest risks facing the world in 2014. And not just risk to developing nations but a risk to developed nations as well.

BERMAN: You're hearing it from the pope. You're now hearing it from the president. It is becoming in some ways the issue of our day.


BERMAN: Eleven minutes after the hour right now.

After three years of power-saving hibernation, a European comet- chasing spacecraft has phoned home. Rosetta, that's the name, is now awake. It sent a signal back to earth on Monday from just past Jupiter's orbit, causing cheers to erupt in the European Space Agency's mission control.


BERMAN: Very European cheer. The history-making adventure began 10 years ago when the unmanned spacecraft was launched. If all goes well, Rosetta will rendezvous with its target comet in August. It's going to fly with it for three years.

ROMANS: That is so cool.

BERMAN: I like the three-year hibernation, which sounds good, at 5:12 a.m.

ROMANS: All right. Let's look at this video. Here's something else really cool. Surfers not the only ones showing off their skills. This is a competition in Santa Barbara.

Take a look at that in the wave, a group of at least a dozen dolphins making a cameo. This is the women's final over the weekend. Surfer Abbey Brown (ph) caught the wave and drop alongside the dolphins, taking off as they swam just beneath her. So cool.

The tandem ride drew applause and cheers from the crowd.

BERMAN: She should get extra points for dolphins.

ROMANS: I know.

BERMAN: Very cool.

That reminds me of the shark fish. Remember the controversial picture.

ROMANS: Two little kids and the shark.

BERMAN: Very, very cool.

All right, 13 minutes after the hour.

Coming up from us, controversial invite, international uproar over crucial peace talks. Did the United Nations bungle this delicate situation?

ROMANS: And caught on tape. A man survives an avalanche while filming it on his helmet cam. Find out what he says about the ordeal.


BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. An international conference on Syria will be held beginning tomorrow in Geneva without Iran, President Bashar al Assad's main backer. An about-face for the United Nations, which is really an embarrassment, Iran was disinvited to the peace talks after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott and Tehran rejected U.N. plans for a transitional government in Syria.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has more for us from Damascus.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The U.N. canceling the invitation for Iran to attend the Geneva Conference certainly is a blow to the Syrian government. However, the Syrians did send off their delegation to Geneva on Monday. They were sought off by President Bashar al Assad himself.

And when he did that, he once again reiterated that he believes that the Geneva negotiations should be about what he calls fighting terrorism. With that, he obviously means fighting all of the groups that are opposed to the regime, even the ones that the U.S. and other Western nations consider to be moderate rebel groups.

Now, speaking to people here on the ground in Damascus, many of them will tell you that, yes, they do have hopes that this Geneva conference could bring about some sort of cease-fire or peace accord. However, many of them will also tell you that they simply cannot imagine a Syria without Bashar al Assad at the helm. They say they're afraid that chaos would ensue if he steps down. They look, of course, to the north and to the east of this country, where you have groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda that are giving many people there a lot of problems.

But at the same time, people we speak to say they cannot go on the way they are right now. Of course, even those who live in the government- controlled area feel the civil war that's been raging here for more than three years now, and they just feel that things seem to be getting worse and worse in this country. So they do hope that these negotiations could bring about some sort of solution. However, that hope is not very big.


BERMAN: Our thanks to Fred Pleitgen in Damascus. Again, you know, a lot of people are putting a lot of hope in these discussions, which the United Nations might have put in jeopardy with that last minute invite to Iran.

ROMANS: All right. A shocking new report this morning claims to have found direct evidence of systemic torture and killing by Syrian President Assad's regime. The report from a team of renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts was given to CNN's Christiane Amanpour. It's based on thousands of photographs of detainees killed in Syrian custody. The experts claim their findings would stand up in an international criminal tribunal.

BERMAN: Deliberations are less than 10 days away in the Amanda Knox retrial in Italy. On Monday, both sides made their rebuttals to closing arguments. The prosecution demanding that Knox be extradited if convicted. She is being tried in absentia for the 2007 murder of her roommate.

This is her third trial for this crime, having served four years before her conviction was overturned in 2011. A verdict is expected soon after deliberations on January 30th.

ROMANS: New developments on the West Virginia chemical leak that contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people. Top state officials calling now for tighter regulations. A proposed bill by the governor would mandate annual tank inspections and require new emergency plans in the event of a spill.

Now, the company whose plant leaked 7,500 coal-cleaning chemicals earlier this month filed for bankruptcy last week.

BERMAN: In Japan, fishermen say an infamous annual dolphin slaughter has begun. Nearly 500 bottlenose dolphins were driven to Taiji Cove. It's an annual event defended by Japanese officials as an annual tradition, but activists are outraged, and so as new U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. It's not clear how many dolphins will be killed, but the local government allows for the hunting of over 2,000 porpoises and dolphins.

ROMANS: Stunning, new video of a volcano erupting in Indonesia. Mt. Sinabung has been erupting since September and has forced thousands of people to leave their home and seek temporary government-run shelters. Officials are saying that 16 people have died of illnesses related to the volcano's eruption. Clean water is in short supply and calls are mounting for the government to declare the situation a national disaster.

BERMAN: Wow. You know that was incredible video.

We also have some incredible, new video from the helmet cam of a skier who actually triggered an avalanche in Colorado's backcountry. Lance Light and his ski buddy survived this ordeal.

Oh, my goodness. The camera on his helmet captured everything before, during and after the avalanche.


LANCE LIGHT, SKIER: And when you watch the video up close, I ski over a couple other people's tracks that didn't trigger it initially. So you know, it just kind of comes down to whoever is going to, I don't know, just kind of random chance. Then I saw it fracture and I just tried to straight-line it over the cliff and instantly deploy my airbag.


BERMAN: It really is amazing. An expert described this as a medium avalanche with snow six to eight feet in some parts. I guess Lance was lucky it wasn't worse than that. He will be talking about this adventure in the 8:00 hour of NEW DAY.

ROMANS: Gosh, some of the technology for these skiers, the airbags, they have GPS locators, they have, you know, a helmet cam so they can look at what happened? Amazing, amazing the technology.

BERMAN: Soon there will be a robot on the ski trail.

ROMANS: Coming up, the self-proclaimed world's best cornerback -- he's the best in the world! -- is actually dialed it back and apologizing for his epic post-championship rant. Details in the "Bleacher Report," up next.


BERMAN: So, we all know the basic rules of football, right? When you score a touchdown, next up is the extra point. Well, Christine Romans is alarmed this morning that the NFL is considering changing all that.

ROMANS: No, does anybody not get the extra point? I mean, it really is sort of a --

BERMAN: I guess, five times all this year it was missed, hardly ever, out of like 1,200.

Andy Scholes with the "Bleacher Report" this morning -- Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Hey, good morning, guys.

In an interview with NFL network yesterday, Commissioner Roger Goodell, he said basically that the extra point, it's become so automatic and really boring that they're considering doing away with it altogether.

Now, extra points, they rarely miss, as you said, John. They've had a 99.1 percent success rate since 2004.

Now, if they do away with it, one of the proposed ideas is that teams would automatically get seven points for a touchdown, and then they would have the option to run a play from the 2 yard line. If they're successful, they would get an extra point, but if they fail, they would lose a point. That's just one of the proposed ideas.

All right. Number one in the lineup section of today, the Seahawks' Richard Sherman is now apologizing for his epic rant following Seattle's win in the NFC championship game. Sherman told ESPN, "I apologize for attacking an individual and taking the attention away from a fantastic game by my teammates." He added, given another chance, he would do things differently.

All right, we all know the tickets to the Super Bowl are expensive, but this year's game is taking it to another level. The cheapest ticket on StubHub right now going for more than $2,500. You want to sit in the lower level on the 50 yard line? That's going to cost you close to $11,000 a ticket.

According to, tickets to this year's big game are on pace to be the most expensive ever.

Now, one lucky fan in Texas doesn't have to worry about ponying up the money for the game. Fifteen-year-old Tyler Samson won three tickets after being selected a winner in the NFL together we make football contest. Tyler shared his story playing football despite being born without much of his right arm. He was presented the tickets by the Dallas Cowboys' Demarcus Ware at a pep rally in front of his whole school. What a cool deal for him guys.

I want to get your take, John and Christine? What do you think about the extra point? Do you like it? You want to keep it?

ROMANS: I like it. I like the two-point thing, where if you lose it you lose it or you get an extra point, I like that. I'm voting for that one.

BERMAN: I'm compelled to agree with her for a variety of reasons, Andy.

No, actually, I think it's a really interesting -- it would really speed the games up, and I love the idea of losing the point if you don't get the two-point conversion.

SCHOLES: Yes, it's like a wager.

BERMAN: I say go for it.

SCHOLES: Yes, I like the change. All right.

ROMANS: And I think the price of super bowl tickets is warranted when you look at the beautiful swamps of Jersey where this is happening. I mean, you've got to pay for that kind of a zip code, right?

BERMAN: She can say that because she's a New Jersey resident.

ROMANS: I know. I'm charging $10,000 for my couch. You can tweet me.

BERMAN: All right, Andy. Thank you so much.

ROMANS: Top headlines, everything you need to know for the day, including details on this major winter storm, right after the break.