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Deadly Storms Rip Central U.S.; Death Toll Rises to 17; New Phase Search for Flight 370; Outrage Grows Against Clippers Owners' Alleged Racist Comments; Obama on New Sanctions Against Russia

Aired April 28, 2014 - 05:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news: deadly storms ripping through the central part of this country, tearing homes and towns apart. The death toll is now rising, and this morning we are live with the latest on the destruction and what Mother Nature has in store next.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Entering a new phase. The search for Flight 370 turns up nothing. Authorities announce new plans to refocus and scan an even larger area now, nearly two months after that jet disappeared. We're live with the new plans this morning.

HARLOW: And anger and outrage growing against an NBA owner for comments he allegedly made about race, about his own players, outrageous comments. His team showing their colors on the court there, making a statement, and more, calling on the NBA to do something.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. Good to see you this morning. It's Monday, April 28th. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

We do begin with breaking news.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: Just minutes ago, we learned that the death toll from a brutal band of storms has gone up. It is now 17, mostly in Arkansas. These violent storms cutting a path of destruction across several states overnight.

HARLOW: And 16 of those deaths from a twister that struck in central Arkansas. The damage said to be severe in the towns of Mayflower and Vilonia, just outside of little rock. The mayor of Vilonia telling CNN about the absolute devastation in his town.


MAYOR JAMES FIRESTONE, VILONIA, ARKANSAS: Our downtown area seems like it's completely leveled. There's a few buildings partially standing, but the amount of damage is tremendous. Utilities, there's gas lines spewing, power lines down, houses that are just a pile of brick.


BERMAN: As we said, Arkansas appears to be hardest hit this morning, but there is at least one death reported in Oklahoma after a tornado struck the small town of Quapaw. Officials say about half that town suffered extensive damage. The fire station just destroyed.

HARLOW: After the storms, there is unspeakable grief for a family in North Carolina. Gavin Soto, just 11 months old, died from injuries that he suffered on Friday. That's when a tornado sent the roof of his home crashing down inside. Multiple tornadoes destroyed hundreds of homes in the Tar Heel state.

BERMAN: A tornado also left a path of destruction in Kansas. Check out this picture, the funnel cloud hanging over the town of Baxter Springs there. Officials report extensive damage, dozens of homes and businesses destroyed.

As we said, we're just getting a better sense now of the destruction that these storms have caused over a large, large area. We'll learn a lot more as the sun starts to come up. We do know that the worst of this weather may not be over yet.

Indra Petersons tracking that for us this morning.

Good morning, Indra.

HARLOW: Good morning.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning. Yes, that is the concern, still dark outside. Even now we have a tornado warning in effect heading towards Shreveport, so definitely time to take cover. If you know anyone in the region, call them, tell them to take cover right now.

What are we looking at? We're looking at a huge line of storms that made its way across yesterday, 31 reports of damage from tornadoes, and that's not all -- wind sometimes just as strong as tornado reports, 102 reports of those and even large hail. You can really see as the storm made its way across, a long-track tornado was reported.

Just take a look at the damage reports, really kind of spreading towards Vilonia. Now, keep in mind, we have heard reports that homes there have been wiped completely down to the foundation. We'll have to have the National Weather Service investigate this, but we have the potential for an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado that cruised through the region yesterday.

What are we looking at? Looking at this debris ball, now this is just right around the Mayflower region yesterday. Where you see the pink, you can see the debris that was picked up as the rotating cell moved through the region. The concern this morning, of course, still tornado warnings in effect but also tornado watch boxes out towards Memphis, Little Rock, Shreveport, back south of Dallas. We still have that concern for a lot of instability out there. The warm, moist air, the dry air is all there with the cold front making its way across. So, today, another moderate risk. So, the heightened area we're concerned with around Huntsville, back in through Jackson, but also keep in mind a slight risk encompassing about 25 million of you today.

And this isn't where it ends, really kind of firing up again towards the afternoon. You get that sunlight out there, it heats things up and gives it more energy, but the system makes its way across again tonight. So, the potential for another deadly night is out there, and then a large slight risk area, including 58 million of you by tomorrow.

So, definitely, we still have a long ways to go -- dangerous this morning, only heightening that danger toward the afternoon and through the evening hours again tonight.

HARLOW: Absolutely. Thanks for the update. Gosh, the worst hopefully over, but we will see. Thanks, Indra. Appreciate it.

Well, turning now to the search for Flight 370, the Bluefin-21 submersible is now on its 16th mission looking for any sign of that missing plane in the Indian Ocean. To date, nothing has been found, 52 days after that plane disappeared.

Meantime, the Australian prime minister announcing a new phase in the operation, scrapping the search for debris on the surface and focusing on a much larger area of the ocean floor.

Our Anna Coren was at the prime minister's announcement. She is live this morning in Canberra, Australia.

What can you tell us, because I know that he talked about bringing in more high-tech submersibles that can stay under water for longer, right?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, under water for longer, go deeper and cover a much larger area. So, this is what we're moving into with this search operation, this new phase that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced here in Canberra parliament house behind me.

He said that it will get going in the next couple of weeks. It's going to take that long for them to, I guess, you know, confirm the availability of the submersibles, also get them, you know, to the search area. It's now being expanded to some almost 40,000 square miles. So, an enormous amount of area to cover, which could take anywhere between six to eight months minimum.

So, you know, certainly frustrating and heartbreaking for the families and relatives of the 239 victims on board MH-370. They are desperately wanting answers. But, you know, Tony Abbott here this afternoon described this as the most difficult search in history. But he said, despite the obstacles, despite the cost, that Australia is going to continue looking for this missing plane.

Take a listen to what he had to say a bit earlier. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. Therefore, we are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area.


COREN: So, thousands of miles have been covered by sea, by air, and obviously, underwater, the Bluefin-21 covering hundreds of square miles but is yet to find anything. There was a great deal of frustration and disappointment that came from this joint press conference that was held here in Canberra, but as I said and as you heard from the prime minister earlier, you know, they are not going to give up. They feel they owe it to the family, to the relatives, and to the public.

HARLOW: You know, when you said it will be possibly weeks before sort of a new search gets under way with more high-tech submersibles that can stay under water for long, why? Because they knew, you know, it was 80 percent complete, 90 percent complete, 95 percent complete without finding anything.

Wouldn't those arrangements have been made sooner? I'm sure that the families hearing this have to be unbelievably frustrated and disappointed.

COREN: Yes, without a doubt. I mean, there is such scarce information that is coming from authorities, not just here in Australia, but also, obviously, from Malaysia. There is, you know, enormous amount of questions that remain unanswered, and this is the problem going forward.

I mean, the fact that it's now 52 days since MH-370 went down or disappeared, you know, a scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has just vanished, and still nothing, still no debris, still no sign of, you know, of any remains. So, yes, definitely a frustrating process, Poppy.

HARLOW: All right, appreciate the report this morning, Anna. Thank you.

BERMAN: Nearly nine minutes after the hour right now. Another big story we're following this morning, universal condemnation for racist comments being attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Now, these remarks have triggered an investigation by the NBA.

The audio recordings were released by TMZ Sports and Deadspin. They appear to catch an offensive, racist, rambling rant from Sterling, who was arguing with a girlfriend, not his wife, his girlfriend, over her association with African Americans.

This comes with the Clippers, his team, in the middle of a playoff series. And on Sunday, the players on that team staged a silent pregame protest.

Let's get more on that now from CNN's Stephanie Elam.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Clippers/Warriors series is now tied at two after the Clippers lost this game here in Oakland, but they did let their feelings known in some way at the beginning of the game about this entire scandal with the owner of the Clippers, Donald Sterling.

At the beginning of the game, while they were warming up, they all met in center court and took off their sweatshirts and dropped them in the middle there and then revealed that they all had on red T-shirts, long, red T-shirts that were on inside-out with the logo against their chest, expressing some discomfort, some frustration, we're sure, but still doing their job and playing the game as they are expected to do here.

Taking a look at the situation with Donald Sterling, it is perhaps affecting the team collectively. You take a look at the players association. The president is Chris Paul. He is a member of the Clippers team. And he put out a statement saying that they want swift reaction to whatever sanctions are put on or whatever needs to happen with the owner.

Also, seeing that Kevin Johnson is now going to help out -- he's a former NBA player, now mayor of Sacramento -- he is going to help out and see if they can find a resolution to this situation.

But now as the series heads back to Los Angeles, many are waiting to see what's going on happen on home turf when the Clippers take Staples Center and to see how fans will react once they're there.

Stephanie Elam, CNN, Oakland, California.


HARLOW: And you were saying that you think that the NBA is going to come up with some sort of response by tomorrow night?

BERMAN: I think they have to by tomorrow night. The Clippers play at home tomorrow night in the Staples Center there. You know, Donald Sterling goes to all the games there. I do not think he will be in attendance, but every player in the league is against what he's said.

HARLOW: Right, speaking out.

BERMAN: Every fan in the league is speaking out. There's no ambiguity here, assuming that those comments were from him. They're investigating that right now.

HARLOW: And what the NBA can do, where's the line?

BERMAN: Well, the NBA can do an awful lot. They can suspend an owner. Baseball did it with Marge Schott, who is the owner of the Cincinnati Reds for racist comments she made.

The NBA has the same power. They haven't used it this way yet, but they can, and I suspect they'll do something by tomorrow night, because the players simply won't stand for it.

HARLOW: Yes, we'll keep tracking it and bring you the latest, of course, as soon as we have it.

Also happening now, President Obama in the Philippines on the last leg of an Asian trip, but much of his attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia. We're live with what the president is saying this morning, straight ahead.


HARLOW: We're following breaking news this morning from Oklahoma and Arkansas, where the death toll now stands at 17 after tornadoes raced through overnight, destroying some towns and leveling homes. The number killed and injured is expected to rise.

Stay with us for the very latest throughout the morning.

BERMAN: Happening right now, President Obama in the Philippines, where he just held a news conference with that country's leader. They were detailing plans to send U.S. troops back to the Philippines for the first time in decades, but the big news this morning from that news conference comes on Ukraine. The president announcing that the United States will present expanded sanctions against Russia and Vladimir Putin within hours.

Our White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski traveling with the president.

Michelle, give us a sense of what the president is saying. What will these sanctions be and how hard will they hit?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a matter of hours now we'll see these expanded sanctions. We know that they will target more individuals, possibly around 15, some Russian companies, and also possibly U.S. high-tech exports to Russia. President Obama said he didn't see them as appropriate in this environment.

But, of course, you have the questions, are these sanctions going to work? Remember, this is the third round of U.S. sanctions. And will they target Putin directly this time? Well, the president said they won't necessarily work and that the goal is not to target President Vladimir Putin personally, but to try to change Russia's calculus in the situation.

And the president's words from yesterday, "Russia has not lifted a finger to de-escalate the situation." Here are some of President Obama's words from today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally. The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he's engaging in in Ukraine could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul and to encourage him to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk.


KOSINSKI: Yes, that long haul is what the administration has really been focused on, to try to isolate Russia, especially economically. And the president has emphasized that that would hurt Russia's own people, really through Russia's own actions.

I think what's also interesting about this trip is that it has such an impact on this region as well, the Ukraine crisis. Some analysts say that it's actually increased the appetite for more of a U.S. presence in Asia, especially militarily, these security agreements, and that many here in this region see Russia's actions in Ukraine as a worrying possible precedent for other countries, like China and North Korea -- John.

BERMAN: Really interesting comment from Michelle Kosinski. If you watch this news conference, the president of the Philippines seemed extraordinarily grateful that President Obama was there and that President Obama was announcing this new U.S. troop mission in the Philippines as well.

Great to have you here with us this morning, Michelle. Really appreciate it.

HARLOW: Well, this morning, dozens of people are being held in the eastern part of Ukraine, including a group of European observers there to monitor the fighting. One has been released, but the others were really paraded in front of cameras late Sunday, saying they were diplomats but could not go home. It was a bizarre situation.

Nick Paton Walsh is live in Ukraine this morning in the area where these observers were basically taken prisoner.

What is the latest you can tell us?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We understand from a spokeswoman for the self-declared mayor of Slaviansk, who's holding these six, perhaps seven, if you include the translator, OSCE diplomats who are monitoring movements in this area when they were detained, but the spokeswoman says they hope negotiations will continue. I think she said they were taking a pause for the time being, but we saw yesterday a second delegation from the OSCE, that monitoring body, turn up at that administration building where they've just given the press conference against their will, it was pretty clear, at the request of the self-declared mayor, and later they left with a Swedish citizen who is well known as having diabetic issues and was released on health grounds.

But this really adds another very complex element to this volatile situation. It's a strong bargaining chip, of course, for the pro- Russian protesters, militants in that town, really the hotbed of the unrest here. And we're seeing continued pockets of problems across this region. This morning the interior ministry confirming that some armed pro-Russian militants moved into the administration building of a different town to the south of where I'm staying. The interior ministry playing that down, saying it was brief, ended with talks, suggestions there and elsewhere on social media.

The Ukrainian military helicopter's just flown over us recently and there is an increasing presence here. The real issue is do they actually decide to make a move here or are they simply waiting, hoping the presidential elections will pass towards the latter part of May, or is there a broader security plan from Kiev as they have been maintaining, at least rhetorically in the last couple weeks -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Big question remains, are those new, additional sanctions that are coming down from the president today against Russia, will that actually do anything on the ground there? That is yet to be seen. A lot of skeptics on that one. Appreciate the report this morning. Thank you, Nick.

BERMAN: About 20 minutes after the hour. In South Korea this morning, three more arrests in connection with the ferry sinking that happened nearly two weeks ago now. Prosecutors say three members of the Korea shipping association are in custody, suspected of destroying evidence related to the ferry investigation. Officials held a closed- door meeting with families this weekend and discussed possible new tactics in retrieving bodies from the ship.

The death toll now stands at 189 with more than 100 people still unaccounted for. Meanwhile, South Korea's prime minister has resigned, saying he takes responsibility for what he called an inadequate response to the ferry disaster.

HARLOW: All right, let's take a check of your markets this morning before trading begins here in the U.S. European stocks trading higher this morning. Making headlines, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer confirming it has made a renewed offer for its British competitor, AstraZeneca. A deal, if one is reached, would be the biggest ever foreign takeover of a British company.

Here in the United States, looking at stocks, futures are mostly flat as investors gear up for another round of corporate earnings this week and economic data. We'll hear from Fed Chair Janet Yellen later this week.

Also, Toyota reportedly set to move its U.S. operations, the headquarters there, to Texas. CNN is working to confirm, but several reports out this morning say that Toyota's sales and marketing division, which is currently based in California, will move to Texas over the next several years. That shift would be a victory for Texas Governor Rick Perry in his quest to lure businesses from the Golden State. Toyota expected to make the news to its employees later today.

BERMAN: That would be big.


BERMAN: Rick Perry, a public and active campaign to lure businesses from other states.

HARLOW: Come to Texas.

BERMAN: It will be interesting.

All right. Twenty-one minutes after the hour.

This is casting a shadow over the NBA playoffs, comments said to be from an NBA owner about race, appalling comments contributed to him. Now some members of his team are making clear they are not one bit happy. Andy Scholes has the details in the "Bleacher Report," next.


BERMAN: All right, the NBA, NBA fans, sports fans, human beings everywhere, I think, outraged this morning. Why? Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, his alleged racist comments really caused this outrage everywhere. The Clippers players even discussed boycotting a playoff game yesterday against the Warriors. They did play, but not without staging a silent protest.

HARLOW: Yes, let's talk about all of it with Andy Scholes. He joins us now with the "Bleacher Report" this morning.

Hi, Andy.

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

Doc Rivers and the Clippers roster were clearly outraged when they heard the audio recordings released by TMZ and Deadspin, but said they wouldn't let sterling's alleged comments stop them from competing for an NBA championship. Now, when the team came out before the game yesterday, they met at center court, removed their shooting shirts and then warmed up wearing inside-out red shirts that did not display the Clippers' name or logo. They also all wore black socks in a silent protest.

Now, Donald Sterling was not at the game, but his wife, Rochelle, was, sitting across from the clippers' bench. She told ESPN, quote, "I don't condone those statements and I do not believe in them."

As for the game, the Clippers had a tough time from the get-go, they fell behind early and lost 118-97. Series tied at two games apiece and will shift back to L.A. for game five. Now, usually, that would be a good thing for the Clippers, but after sterling's alleged comments, they aren't quite sure what kind of home court advantage they will have.


DOC RIVERS, L.A. CLIPPERS COACH: We're going home now, and usually, that would mean we're going to our safe haven, and I don't even know if that's true. CHRIS PAUL, L.A. CLIPPERS POINT GUARD: I'd be lying if I was to say I wasn't nervous, you know, about what it's going to be like, because our fans have been amazing all season long, and obviously, I hope that it will be the same. But you know, you just never know. You know, they've been amazing and we wouldn't be where we are without them, but it's tough.


SCHOLES: Guys, it will be interesting to see what kind of crowd they do have at the staples center tomorrow night with what's going on. Fans obviously don't want to go there and support Donald Sterling, buying tickets, concessions and whatnot, another reason why the NBA wants to have this investigation wrapped up before the next game.


BERMAN: I think the fans will be behind the players 100 percent but not behind sterling one bit.

Andy Scholes, great to have you this morning. Really appreciate it.

About 27 minutes after the hour.

Dangerous, deadly storms breaking news cutting across the central part of the country overnight. This morning, rescuers picking through the rubble, the death toll rising just minutes ago. We'll have the latest after this.