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East Coast Floods; Flight 370 Report Due Out Soon; Crisis in Ukraine: Brink of War?

Aired May 1, 2014 - 04:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning: the East Coast under water. Historic water just covering neighborhoods. Severe storms so dangerous, millions told just to stay home, and the rain, it is not over yet. Indra Petersons tracking what is still to come this morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Also breaking this morning, investigators finally ready to reveal what they know about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. A report set to be released within the hour.

Right now, frustrated families of those on board hoping to get answers they've waited weeks for, as crews comb the southern Indian Ocean for any sign of that vanished jetliner. We've got a team of reporters covering all angles this morning.

BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. A lot going on this morning. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Thursday, a very wet Thursday, May 1st. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East and much of the East Coast is waking up drenched this morning.

The flooding reported from Florida all the way to the Northeast. Worst part about this, it is not over yet. Your Thursday may yet be another washout.

BERMAN: The Gulf Coast hit the hardest with historic rainfall in the Pensacola area. Nearly two feet of rain fell in just two days, just destroying roads, wiping out homes.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is there.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and John, residents here along Piedmont Road in Pensacola, just south of the airport, tell me that it was the middle of the night when pieces of their road started slopping up on to their front lawn, and that's when they knew things were not going very well in this neighborhood. Several homes took in almost 3 feet of water along this stretch here. And now that the floodwaters have really started to recede, people are able to get inside their home, start the cleanup process and assess the damage. Many roadways here in the Pensacola area were heavily damaged by these floodwaters and the massive amount of rain that fell for almost 12 hours here in this region, and it just caused some serious destruction. Scenic highway, a very picturesque roadway on the eastern side of Pensacola, a big, gaping hole washed away. Several cars fell into a crater there. And that happened, and that scene, not to that magnitude, but many roadways were washed away by these floodwaters.

In some neighborhoods we were in, we saw some houses that had taken up to five feet of water, and those waters had already receded. So that was good news, but that cleanup process will take weeks and weeks, and then we'll also see that fixing up many of the roadways that were so severely damaged. That is a process that could take several months.

Christine and John, back to you.


BERMAN: And breaking overnight from Pensacola, an apparent gas explosion leaving about 100 prisoners hurt at the county jail. The building partially collapsed. Now, it is not clear at this point if the weather was responsible, but officials do say the jail did suffer significant flooding.

ROMANS: Breaking news also in Maryland.

Evacuations under way right now in Laurel, Maryland, after a dam opened, leaking thousands of gallons of water. And take a look. This is from Baltimore. That's a sinkhole, a sinkhole that swallowed up several cars.


ROMANS: That's right. Several homes nearby had to be evacuated, but there were no injuries reported.

And this is why we always say don't drive through water? Look at this. This guy had to be rescued after his SUV got stuck in four feet of water near Bowie, Maryland. He's OK, but if you see standing water, don't do what he did. Find another way to get around the flood. A line of cars this morning on route 3 in New Jersey drove right into some standing water. A whole bunch of people stranded this morning on there, or late last night going home in their commute.

BERMAN: All kinds of road closures around here. Of course, the same situation across the Potomac in Virginia, though the water wasn't quite as high on these roads in Alexandria near the nation's capital, the risk of flooding still high there this morning.

ROMANS: Some creeks starting to overflow their banks in Delaware. These pictures are from Newark, where the water flowed into the streets, making driving very tough. More than four inches of rain fell on much of that area throughout the day.

BERMAN: All this rain is coming from the same storm system that left 37 people dead across the south. Several of those in Alabama. That state's governor, Robert Bentley, toured the damage. Look at it right there. He said he's grateful that the number of lives lost in Alabama was not higher, though the damage and destruction obviously so severe.

ROMANS: All right, Indra Petersons is tracking all the storms for us this morning.

Indra, this behind us, this still happening?

BERMAN: No, unfortunately, we're still talking about rain in the forecast today for many places. Let's talk about some of these totals, because they were unbelievably impressive, not a good when you're talking about rainfall totals like this. Pensacola, Florida, since Sunday -- all that attention we saw yesterday with the intense flooding, over 17 inches of rain. Placed on the radar, the radar itself indicated some places could have seen over 20 inches, maybe two feet of rain. Unbelievable. Many places, of course, broke records.

Even into the Northeast, where you're not talking about 17, 18 inches of rain, we saw heavy amounts of rain in short periods of time, which is just as devastating. A lot of flooding was out there in New York City. Look at the records we broke for just the daily record, almost 5 inches of rain in just one day.

Here's how it looks right now. Of course, very easy to see, the rain is still out there, going to feel a little different this morning with a warm front out there. So, we're still going to be talking about chances of showers throughout the day, even picking up overnight as the cold front tries to exit out of here. One to two inches, so not as impressive, but again, out towards Florida, still looking at higher amounts.

There you go, there's the cold front, going to try exiting out of here, but right now it will feel warmer on the East Coast, as you're talking about the warm air filling in. But that will change. By the weekend, this cold front will exit offshore, temperatures will moderate.

Now, there's a lot of attention on the southeast and East Coast, but I also want to point out, towards the West Coast, record-breaking heat, and not just record-breaking heat, but wind gusts anywhere from 40 to even 60, some places in the mountains as high as 100 miles per hour.

So, red flag warnings, fire danger is high, and unfortunately, a lot of wildfires already in California.

BERMAN: That's a bad combination.

PETERSONS: Very bad combination.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Indra.

Now to Malaysia, where in about one hour, we are expecting to finally see for the first time the government's preliminary report on what happened to Flight 370, a flight missing now for nearly two months.

Will Ripley is live for us this morning in Kuala Lumpur.

Will, any expectations for what we think they report is going to reveal?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, we're not expecting any surprises here. We're told that this report is going to be pretty similar to one that was submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organization a couple days ago.

So, essentially, what this report is going to lay out are the facts that we already know and the facts that are assumed. The flight took off, made a turn. Based on the satellite data that a team of experts here in Kuala Lumpur have been analyzing, they believe the plane took a southern turn down towards the Indian Ocean, where the flight ended, the area where they're searching now.

We know that search chief, Angus Houston, is here in Kuala Lumpur, expected to arrive here at some point today. He will be meeting with the acting transport minister and other officials here.

One thing, Christine, we don't expect to be mentioned in this preliminary report is this new news from the Australian company GeoResonance, claiming they found evidence of plane wreckage in the Bay of Bengal. But we do know that Malaysian officials here are taking a look at this, assessing the credibility, and we've learned that two ships from Bangladesh are on their way to this area right now to take a look and see what they can find there.

So, no surprises. But certainly, this is a concrete piece of information, the document for the first time now, nearly eight weeks in, that we'll be able to look at what investigators know.

ROMANS: Will, why are they releasing this now? Some of the families have been saying and accusing the government of keeping all this secret. Is this the first report? Why now are they releasing this information?

RIPLEY: You know, that's a good question, something that our aviation expert, Richard Quest, asked the prime minister in an interview here in Kuala Lumpur. He asked if there was anything in the report that may be embarrassing to the Malaysian government, is that the reason why this preliminary report has been delayed so much.

The prime minister said, no, simply that they've been having their experts go over it to make sure that there's nothing in there that could compromise this investigation. Obviously, Christine, this has been a concern all along, the lack of transparency, the delays in getting information out, but nonetheless, the report expected to be released possibly within the hour.

And as soon as we get our hands on it, we'll let you know what's in there.

ROMANS: I know the families are really interested to know what's in that report and if there's anything they haven't known to date.

Thank you so much, Will Ripley, this morning in Kuala Lumpur.

BERMAN: Yes, I don't think anybody wants to see this report more than the families, the families who have been demanding to see it for weeks. They want as much information as they can get on what happened to that jet.

Now, finally, perhaps within the hour, they could get more answers. This comes days after they heard the radio transmissions from the cockpit just before Flight 370 disappeared.

David McKenzie is with the families in Beijing.

David, what are they saying this morning as we wait for this report to be released?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they're anticipating this report, but I have to say, they probably have expectations managed a little bit. There have been so many false endings to the story.

I remember I was on this spot nearly two months ago when the families first started arriving in shock when the plane vanished. And other than a bit of analysis, really, that indicates that the plane went down, according to Malaysian authorities, in the southern ocean, the families say they have seen no concrete evidence.

That's what they want, something to grasp on to, something solid so they can get some kind of closure. The last few days, they have had very detailed, technical briefings here in Beijing, asking very detailed questions, but the feeling here is they might not get the answers they want today, and there is, in fact, a strong police presence here, and cameras are not allowed inside the building.

So, perhaps the Chinese authorities don't want to see the coverage of the very emotional reactions that we saw last time there was a major bit of news. But like everyone else, we are waiting here and waiting in anticipation what will be the contents of that report.

BERMAN: And that report could come out within the hour. But as you say, I think the families there have their expectations well in check after more than 50 days of waiting there.

Thanks, David McKenzie, in Beijing.

ROMANS: All right. A state of emergency after a train carrying thousands of gallons of oil derailed and explodes in Virginia.

Look at those pictures. This morning the cleanup begins, investigators trying to figure out what went so terribly wrong.

BERMAN: And then there is this, folks. Toronto's controversial mayor. Yes, Rob ford, who admitted to smoking crack once, he takes a sudden leave of absence again. Why? What's going on this time? Folks, you will not believe it. Or actually, maybe you will, after the break.


BERMAN: Breaking news overnight: Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, is taking a leave of absence. The admitted one-time crack smoker has now acknowledged in a statement that he does have a substance abuse problem and he is going to take a break, he says this time to get help.

This as "The Global Mail" newspaper reports the existence of a new video allegedly showing him smoking crack again. Ford, at least up until now, is running to try for another term as Toronto's mayor, despite the fact that the city council has stripped him of almost all of his powers.

I've got to say, this raises so many questions about just the people around him. This happened in plain sight, in front of millions of people, not to mention the world. People have been making jokes about this for a long time, but it's not funny.

ROMANS: It isn't funny at all, seriously. He clearly has a problem, and the kind of, you know, signal it's sending, I think, to other people in Canada, especially young people, is troubling.

All right, in Virginia this morning, cleanup crews racing to contain the damage after a train carrying crude oil derailed, bursting into flames in downtown Lynchburg. Wow. About 50,000 gallons of oil are unaccounted for. Some is believed to have spilled into the James River. The city's declared a state of emergency. Booms have been set up to contain the spill.

Amazingly -- I mean, you look at these pictures, you can hardly believe, no injuries reported.

BERMAN: So much fuel being shipped by rail right now.

ROMANS: That's right.

BERMAN: That raises a lot of questions.

All right. This morning, hundreds of people allowed back in their homes in the hills east of Los Angeles. Mandatory evacuation orders lifted near Rancho Cucamonga as winds shift again after a brush fire close to homes there. Hundreds of firefighters on the scene trying to contain the blaze that grew from 20 acres to 1,000 just in a few hours.

ROMANS: This morning, activists say Oklahoma is not doing enough to figure out what went wrong during an execution that left a death row inmate shaking and talking for 40 minutes after he was supposed to die.

Convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was injected with lethal drugs when one of his veins ruptured. He was writhing in full view of witnesses before he died of a heart attack. Now another execution is on hold in Oklahoma and the governor pledges to figure out what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. MARY FALLIN (R), OKLAHOMA: I expect the review process to be deliberate, to be thorough, and it will be the first step in evaluating our state's execution protocols.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have a fundamental standard in this country, that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely. And I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.


ROMANS: Activists are demanding an independent investigation and an autopsy, saying they fear the state won't be transparent. They also want to know just where the state bought the lethal injection drugs, something state law keeps secret.

BERMAN: New details this morning of just how far enrollees have gone to sign up for Obamacare. The House Energy and Commerce Committee says it has collected data which shows that 67 percent of those who signed up for coverage have paid their first monthly premiums. Now, that's only as of April 15th, so no word yet on how many people may have signed up from the 15th to the 1st of may. You have the whole month to do it.

This, though, an important marker, some people say, of how effective the law will be. It needs about 80 percent or higher to make it solvent. Now, the administration does question some of the House committee numbers. However, the White House hasn't released any of its own numbers along this front, so hard to know for sure until we see them for ourselves.

Senate Republicans have blocked debate on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The wage hike has become a top election year issue for Democrats, who pushed for the vote, as President Obama urged supporters to put pressure on Republicans. Though really, the most party line vote was 54-42, Republicans arguing that the rate hike would cost jobs.

ROMANS: Could we see another big day on Wall Street? The Dow Jones Industrial Average setting a record high, finishing at 16,580, and wow, investors holding their ground after the Federal Reserve made it clear it will continue scaling back its stimulus program, reducing its bond purchases to just $45 billion.

That's despite the latest reading on GDP pointing to slow growth, actually, stalled growth in the first quarter. But they thought, look, that's rearview mirror, likely because of the bad winter. It did not scare investors. Record high for the Dow.

BERMAN: Winter caused a lot of problems.


BERMAN: Happening today, an important meeting of some NBA owners as the league discusses what is next for Donald Sterling. The Clippers' owner now banned for life after those racist comments were caught on tape. The league's ten-member advisory and finance committee is reportedly holding a conference call today where they will discuss next steps. The commissioner is pushing the owners to force sterling to sell his team. That requires a three-quarters vote.

ROMANS: Ukraine on the brink of war this morning. The president admitting pro-Russian militants have taken over the East. The country is in chaos. We're live with what's happening right now after the break.


BERMAN: A startling admission to tell you about in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists now essentially control regions close to the eastern border with Russia. Ukraine's acting president now says all his government can do is try to contain the violence, because in his words, police and security forces are helpless to stop it. He says there's nothing they can do at this point.

Senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is live in Slaviansk, Ukraine.

Nick, I've got to say, this admission from the president makes it seem like a lot of the efforts going on, both by the United States and elsewhere at this point, are just completely futile.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's almost bizarre to hear the acting president of the country, ahead of the presidential elections, say there's nothing they can do to stop what's happening here in eastern Ukraine, and I think there are perhaps two reasons behind that. One is to put blame on the security forces here, who he also in the same statement said weren't doing their job properly, were out of his control. That's effectively saying they've chosen to switch sides, perhaps, or are unwilling to shoot against some of the local residents here who are actually the pro-Russian militants in many ways.

And of course, also, perhaps there is electoral politics involved where he wants to distance himself to what's happening. As we saw in Kiev, particularly special forces moving around parliament suddenly in the middle of the night in a drill, perhaps a bid to show force in the center of the city.

But today, there should be protests. It's May Day here, a public holiday. In many of the cities held by pro-Russian militants, we're trying to work out quite what their end game is. We saw yesterday at a checkpoint, Ukrainian military forces moved in quickly with armored personnel carriers, but when a few shots were fired, simply turned away.

So, the question really is, do they have any plans to move in or confront these militants and what do the militants actually want? We know they are looking towards May the 11th for a referendum to determine the fate of the Donetsk region, which is two days ago, key buildings were stormed again by pro-Russian militants.

Could that be what they want? Many worry about a repeat of what happened in Crimea. We've begun to slowly see better-equipped militants show up at some point near Slaviansk here. I think we're looking in the days ahead to see what the final end game, the goal of the self-declared people's administration in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk, now actually is in eastern Ukraine -- John.

BERMAN: The key question is, what does Vladimir Putin now do this about, now that eastern Ukraine says we've lost control of that part of the country? What do the troops do just across the border? These are questions that will take days to answer. Nick Paton Walsh in Ukraine with this stunning development.

ROMANS: Iraq this morning is counting ballots after the first parliamentary elections since U.S. troops left three years ago. While there were some incidents at the polls, throughout the country, no major attacks were reported amid intense security. Some 12 million people, or about 60 percent of registered voters, turned out to cast their votes.

An exit poll seems to show Nouri al Maliki's party as the front- runners to retain power. Election results expected in about 30 days.

BERMAN: All right. We do have breaking news this morning. In just minutes, investigators set to reveal what they really know at this point about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. We'll have live team coverage just ahead.