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Historic Ice Storm; House Passes Debt Ceiling Increases; Obama to Sign Minimum Wage Hike

Aired February 12, 2014 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening right now: a historic, catastrophic ice storm set to pummel the Deep South. This morning, thousands of flights canceled. Towns literally shut down as people are warned just stay home. Indra Petersons is tracking this monster for us.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's going to be a tough morning for a lot of people.

I'm John Berman. It is Wednesday, February 12th, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And you know -- you know it's trouble when forecasters are using the words like potentially catastrophic and historic to describe this winter storm that is hitting at this very moment.

Millions of Southerners, primarily in Georgia and the Carolinas just getting hammered right now, with snow and ice happening overnight, continuing at this moment into this morning. Ice is coating the roads, tree branches, power lines makes it really tough to get around. It could potentially knock out power to house to thousands and thousands in the storm's path. Air travel messy and beyond. More than 2,500 flights canceled today.

In Atlanta, the whole area doing what it can to avoid a repeat of its botched response two weeks ago. Schools across the metro area simply closed today. Meaning kids will not be stuck in buses this time or overnight in their school gyms -- 22,000 tons of salt, 75 gallons of brine, 45,000 tons of gravel on hand to treat Georgia's main roadways, another 180 tons of additional salt and sand are on standby.

Right now, the city of Atlanta -- well, it's looking wet. These are live pictures from the rooftop camera there at CNN.

BERMAN: So, the brunt of this is yet to come in North Carolina. Two to four inches of snow and sleet expected there with the worst ice accumulation happening through the evening and into the night. Then, of course, the evening rush.

ROMANS: A winter storm warning in effect for much of South Carolina into Thursday. Areas in the northwestern part of the state could get as much as eight inches of snow. So there is a lot going on here, obviously, with ice the big worry down South. The storm is going to come up the East Coast for the next 24 hours. Hit millions and millions more of us.

Indra Petersons is tracking it for us.

What do you got?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I mean, the big concern was, there were two waves of the system, the first one was yesterday. We knew it was not going to be as strong as the second wave. It's expected to impact the Southeast today. This one will be much stronger. We're looking at lot more ice from the system and also some heavier snow as it makes its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

You can see many places have already seen a quarter inch of ice. It's half an inch of ice that power lines may 30 times stronger, they weigh about 500 pounds and they can come down. So, that's the concern. You can see, we're still in that transition this morning, many places seeing rain, slowly starting to transition to freezing rain. So that's what we're going to be watching as we go into the evening hours.

Look at the potentials, guys. We're talking about places being upwards of an inch of ice. This is crippling. This is why they're calling it catastrophic. And it's potentially historic ice storm. This is the concern as we go through the next few hours. And it's not just ice. We're talking about ice and then some heavy snow, especially as that low makes its way up the coastline.

D.C. could see the biggest snowstorm they've seen in years, potentially nine, 10 inches of snow. And eventually that makes its way into the Northeast was well. So, a lot to be following here. Let's talk about what's going on.

Remember, it all has to do with temperature -- how far south the cold air makes its way. That's what gives this potential for freezing rain or snow. The colder it is at snow in this case, would be better. When you talk about freezing rain, that's the crippling effect.

And when you're right in this transition zone where you see the pink, this is the concern. So, especially as you go throughout the day, we're going to have that threat for ice in the Southeast. And then, tonight and tomorrow, the concern is that low makes its way up the coastline and starts bringing that heavy snow straight into the mid- Atlantic and the Northeast. So, a lot of parts to the system we're monitoring closely.

ROMANS: There is nothing pretty about that map, not any of it. Not the number, not the colors, nothing.

BERMAN: An inch of ice at some places. The power lines, tree limbs -- serious, serious risks there.

PETERSONS: It can be weeks without power in these places.

ROMANS: All right. Indra Petersons, thank you, Indra.

BERMAN: Thanks so much.

Four minutes after the hour right now.

And without the usual drama, the House voted to raise the government's borrowing limit for another year. This was the passage of a clean debt ceiling bill. It came after Republican leaders backed off any kind of strategy they used the debt ceiling as leverage for spending cuts, or actually in this case, spending increases as concessions from other Democrats.

The bill now heads to the Senate for final approval. It will likely happen this week, although the weather could wreak havoc with that timing.

ROMANS: It really takes a big uncertainty out of the economy, too, which is really important.

President Obama is set to sign his promised executive order today raising the minimum wage to $10.10 on new federal contracts. White House officials have been finalizing these details since he made that announcement during the State of the Union. This order will cover people performing janitorial work, kitchen work, other low wage services, for new government contracts. The White House expects roughly 250,000 workers to eventually benefit.

BERMAN: Lots of new developments this morning in the scandal that has become known as bridgegate. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie heading to the shore today for Sandy relief event, after spending Tuesday in Chicago, at a Republican fund-raiser. He told the crowd there that the lane closing scandal will not get in the way of his work.

Also new in the story, state police say that the governor's helicopter did not fly over the George Washington Bridge during the lane closures last September. His flight history came into question when investigators issued 18 new subpoenas on Monday.

Finally, the governor has learned that he can use campaign funds to cover the cost of legal fees for this investigation.

ROMANS: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is taking President Obama to court. The Republican firebrand potential 2016 candidate announcing plans for a class action lawsuit over National Security Agency's surveillance programs. In a statement, Paul says he's bringing the suit because the president has, quote, "publicly refused to stop a clear and continuing violation of the Fourth Amendment". The suit will also name the national intelligence director, FBI director and the head of the NSA.

BERMAN: Attorney General Eric Holder is making the case for convicted felons to get their voting rights back once their sentence has been served. In a speech Tuesday, Holder called on individual states to repeal laws that prohibit them as being convicted felons from voting after being released from prison. He says that current laws make it even harder for felons to reintegrate into society. These changes would allow millions across the country to cast ballots.

ROMANS: Solid gains in global markets right now. All Asian markets closing higher. Take a look at European stock markets, too, climbing for the six day in a row. Futures in the U.S. all higher.

Yesterday was a blowout, 190 points higher on the Dow. Investors liked what they heard from the new Fed chief, Janet Yellen. Fourth day of gains for the Dow, but the market is still down 3 1/2 percent for the year.

Broader mix of stocks, the S&P 500 now less than 2 percent away from its all-time high. The NASDAQ is now on the positive side for the year again. It's been a bumpy ride so far. CNN Money surveys how investors are feeling in its fear and greed index.

For of the past weeks, investors have been in extreme fear mode. Yesterday, they moved back to plain old general fear.

BERMAN: More disappointment, deflation than glory for Team USA in Sochi right now. One of America's best known Olympians, I would say, in fact, its best known Olympian is coming home from Sochi empty- handed.

Andy Scholes in Atlanta with the details on the "Bleacher Report" -- Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Guys, you know, when it came to a sure thing in the Olympics, Shaun White at least medaling in the halfpipe competition was definitely one of them. He was looking to become the first U.S. man to win gold in the same event in three straight Olympics. But, unfortunately for him and Team USA, things didn't go his way. In his first run, White comes down here and slams into the pipe on the way down. Now, he tried to pull out all the stops in his second run but it just wasn't just to medal. He ended up finishing fourth in the competition.

So, for the first time since 1998, the U.S. did not medal in the men's halfpipe. But they made up for it in women's luge. Erin Hamlin brought home the bronze, becoming the first American ever to medal in the single's luge. That was a 50-year drought for the Americans. U.S. had medaled in the doubles luge before.

Now, here's a story that captures true Olympic spirit. In the men's free sprint, a Russian skier was having a miserable run. He was three minutes behind the leaders because he had crushed and one of his skis was broken. Well, that's when Canadian ski coach Justin Wadsworth jumped into action and went on the course to help the Russian. The two didn't know each other and they didn't speak, as Wadsworth replaced the broken ski with one of the spared he had for his team. Now, Wadsworth is a three-time Olympian himself. He said, "I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line."

BERMAN: Good stuff there.

SCHOLES: All right. American speed skater Shani Davis will look to make history in the three-peat in the men's 1,000 meters. Davis is taking gold in the past two Olympics in the event. And if he does it again today, he'll become the first American man to win an Olympic event three times in a row.

All right. Here's a look at the current medal, Norway on top with 11. Right now, Canada right behind him with 9, Team USA guys hanging in there, we've got 7. Still work to do, hopefully, we can climb that ladder as the Olympics progress.

BERMAN: And, Andy, just a few minutes ago, something we almost never see in the Olympics, a tie for gold in the women's downhill, the exact same time. Two women will split the gold medal.

SCHOLES: Unbelievable.

BERMAN: It really is kind of crazy.

ROMANS: Thanks, Andy.

BERMAN: Thanks, Andy.

All right. Trending this morning, French President Francois Hollande, he went stag but there was a who's who of celebrities on hand for the White House state dinner in his honor. They included singer Mary J. Blige, who performed at the event.

Also on hand to dine with the suddenly singer French leader, actress Julie Louis-Dreyfus. She plays "Veep", of course, and she sat next to the Vice President Joe Biden. Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, a close personal friend of Christine Romans, was there.

ROMANS: He's (INAUDIBLE) in French, you know?

BERMAN: I've heard, also there.

Also there, talk show host Stephen Colbert, who is not French, by the way, despite his last name.

The event was the seventh state dinner of the Obama presidency. I have to say the best dressed person at the event last night, CNN president Jeff Zucker, I'm not saying that because he just gave me a new show. He was absolutely great.

ROMANS: What was he wearing? Love to find out (ph).

BERMAN: It was black tux, white shirt and black tie. And it just -- it sparkled.

ROMANS: Oh, man, you're sucking up big time on this Wednesday morning.

All right. Coming up, he said he had no choice but to shoot. An emotional testimony as a man explains how an argument over loud music with some teenagers ended with an unarmed teen dead. New developments on the stand and what's happening again today.

BERMAN: And should airlines let you make cell phone calls in flight? Here's a hint: no. Congress has picked up this debate. They are pushing for an answer. That's coming up next.


BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone.

The jury could get charged today in the case of a Florida man who shot and killed a teenager after an argument over loud music. Michael Dunn took the stand Tuesday, telling a jury he fired in self-defense when he felt threatened. But prosecutors, they don't buy that story. And Dunn's girlfriend may have given the most crucial testimony of the day.

CNN's Martin Savidge has the latest from Jacksonville.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's quite possible but this trial could be in the hands of the jury by the end of the day. Meanwhile, many are still talking about Michael Dunn's testimony yesterday. He's maintaining self-defense. That's the reason he fired nine bullets into that SUV with four teenagers inside of it, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

On the witness stand, he described how at a gas station Jordan Davis became more angry at him, using racial and using all kinds of profanity against him. And then, at one point, appearing to reach for something inside of the SUV. And that's the point at which Michael Dunn said that he pulled out a gun and fired into the vehicle. And then after firing those shots, once his fiancee is back in his car, they drive off without calling police.

On cross-examination, that's when the prosecution said look, this really wasn't in self-defense, was it? They maintain this was actually Michael Dunn firing into that vehicle because a 17-year-old kid mouthed off against him, disrespected him. Dunn said it was nothing about that. It was all about self-defense.

The prosecution countered and said, how come you didn't tell your fiance that those teenagers had a gun. Dunn said he was pretty sure he did.

Then, they said, why did you drive off? Dunn said he felt threatened. He was worried they come back. Besides, he didn't think he hit anybody.

And the next day, they said, when you knew you killed a teenager, why didn't you call police? Dunn said he wasn't thinking right but he did reach out to a friend in federal law enforcement to begin turning himself in. Prosecution produced phone records that showed he made no call to anyone.

And then they put his fiancee on the stand and asked her -- did, in fact, Michael Dunn tell you about a gun with the teenagers?

Here's what she said.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did the defendant ever tell you that he saw a weapon of any kind in that SUV?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no mention of a stick?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no mention of a shotgun?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no mention of a barrel?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no mention of a lead pipe?


SAVIDGE: If there was ever an a-ha moment in this trial, that might very well have been it.

Closing arguments are expected in just a few hours.

Back to you.


BERMAN: Thanks to Martin Savidge for that. She was in tears. He was in tears on the stand. It was high, high drama in the court.

ROMANS: All right. A court date today for federal prosecutors and lawyers for this guy, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He's the surviving Boston marathon bombing suspect, asking for a trial date no earlier than September 2015. Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty in the attack last April that killed three and wounded more than 260 people. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

BERMAN: The governor of Washington state putting a halt to executions. Governor Jay Inslee is calling for a moratorium on capital punishment for the rest of his term. Inslee says there's too much at stake. He's not asking the legislation to abolish the death penalty though. And he will not commute any death sentences. Rather, he'll issue temporary reprieves. There are currently nine men on death row in Washington.

ROMANS: West Virginia officials will begin testing the water inside people's homes amid safety concerns after last month's chemical spill. An estimated 10,000 gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals leaking into a river outside Charleston, leaving 300,000 people without tap water for days, and a lot of jitters still. Earlier this week, state officials declined to call the water safe to drink. And in some places a do not use alert is still in effect with pregnant women.

Meanwhile, another spill is causing new water warnings in the state. More than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry believed to have leaked in eastern West Virginia blackening six miles of a creek.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there should be no stream in West Virginia that runs like this, around coal mining areas, around chemical plants, around (INAUDIBLE), the water quality of the state of West Virginia has to take precedence over the profits of those companies.


ROMANS: State environmental officials say it was caused by a malfunction inside the plant but say the spill did not affect the water supply.

BERMAN: NBC anchor Tom Brokaw is battling cancer. The 74-year-old veteran broadcaster and chronicler of the greatest generation has announced that he has multiple myeloma, the cancer for the blood and bone marrow. Brokaw was diagnosed in August. He continues to work as a special correspondent for NBC.

In a statement, he says doctors are encouraged by his progress, adding, "I remain the luckiest guy I know."

ROMANS: Wish him well.

Congress is one step closer to a ban on in-flight telephone calls. After a house panel approved a new bill Tuesday, it would require the Department of Transportation to issue the prohibition to move they were already considering. But it would not impact the FAA's decision last year allowing passengers to surf the web and send e-mail on their phones.

Which brings me to today's "Road Warriors." Looks may be deceiving but just don't look guilty. You are being watched very closely at the airport. The TSA has about 3,000 officers who are look for people who look like they're up to something. The TSA says that these special officers are proactively seeking out trouble all the time, instead of just reacting to the latest threat.

While the presence of these officers has resulted in arrests of people carrying false IDs, carrying drugs or being in the country illegally, the program isn't without its critics. The TSA has faced accusations of racial profiling. However, officials say those claims have been ruled unfounded, but a word to the wise, 3,000 folks out there watching you and how you're behaving.

BERMAN: Walk straight. Stand tall.

All right. Twenty minutes after the hour.

Historic floods leaving not just the United States under water, thousands evacuated this morning as rivers keep rising. And a country is battling, battling historic floods. We're live with the very latest after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone.

Breaking overnight, while the southern United States deals with a potentially catastrophic storm, overseas, Britain is getting battered by historic flooding that has devastated parts of the English countryside. The pictures are stunning.

CNN's Jim Boulden is live in Datchet, England.

Jim, what's the situation this morning?

JIM BOULDEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is usually an idyllic village here. We're not too far from the Windsor Castle, but unfortunately, we're also not far from the River Thames. And as you can see, these idyllic villages along the Thames are being flooded and have been for a number of days.

What's happened is that it rained so much in January, record amount of rain in January, the ground is saturated. So the water has nowhere to go.

Let me show you what the residents have to deal with. Here's a very nice pub that does weddings as well. They've been pumping out their water for days to try to keep it from going in.

You can see sandbags as well. They continue to pump more water out. They put this blue tube through the hose through the window to get out of it.

Because, of course, they would have business this weekend for weddings, and it looks to me that it's going to be impossible. You see emergency vehicles continue to come through. We've seen people with boats that are taking residents back and forth.

Look, it's just about ankle high. Not knee-high. But it has been higher. The thing is, it's so much water, John, they just weren't prepared for this.

It's been a bit of criticism of the government because they didn't tell people it's as bad as it's been. Here getting closer to London, it's worrying people that it will continue to rise. We're going to get terrible weather this afternoon, and terrible weather on Friday. It just isn't letting up, John.

BERMAN: They don't need that weather there.

All right. Those towns, those beautiful little villages just covered in water right now. Thanks so much, Jim. We appreciate that.

ROMANS: All right. Here in this country, forecasters using the words "historic" "catastrophic" to talk about an ice storm pummeling the south as we speak. It's going to head north. Tens of millions in its path.

We're tracking the very latest for you. Everything you need to know after the break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)