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Houston Threatened with Severe Flooding; Rescue Missions Underway in Texas; Interview with Houston Police Chief. President Trump To Travel To Texas Tomorrow. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired August 28, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: This is just an unprecedented and catastrophic flooding disaster. America's fourth largest city is under water. The situation in Houston is not about the aftermath. It's about the right now and it getting worse in coming days. FEMA urging Americans to step up and help, literally, the rescue effort demands citizen involvement. If you're in the area, you're physically capable, you have a boat and some friends, get out there and find people. Officials are asking for this help. It's not us. This is what you're hearing from FEMA.

Now, in terms of the situation, 15 to 25 more inches of rain may fall this week. Rivers are not expected to crest until later this week. There's going to be water there for weeks and weeks to come.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So the Army Corps of Engineers are working to prevent an even greater disaster by releasing water from two flood-controlled dams, as President Trump gets set to visit this region tomorrow. Let's begin our coverage CNN's Alex Marquardt. He is live in suburban Houston. What's the situation at this hour, Alex?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. At this hour the sun is about to come up. We just heard from the director of the National Weather Service who said there's currently a lull in this storm in the Houston area. Indeed we have seen less wind and less rain in the last hour. But make no mistake there's a lot more of it coming.

Here in Harris County they saw 30 inches of rain in some parts. That number is expected to go up to around 50 in the coming days. Scenes like this of catastrophic flooding all across the city. This is an on-ramp on to Interstate 610. This is an all hands on deck rescue effort across the city. You've got National Guard, Coast Guard, local authorities, all of whom are asking regular people, local Houston residents, specifically people who have boats, to go out and try to help rescue people.

Some of these rescues are very complicated. We just spoke to a fireman who came out to check out that vehicle right there to make sure there was no one inside it. There isn't. We talked to him. He said he was called out on 25 different calls yesterday. He was only able to reach two of them. So that gives you a sense of how complicated many of these rescue efforts are. The major development this morning, as you mentioned, is those two

reservoirs. They're going to do what's called a control release of the water in those reservoirs. They are seeing unprecedented levels of water as well. That is to prevent more catastrophic flooding down here in Houston. But what that also means is that a lot of that water is going down into the Buffalo bayou. They're asking residents along the bayou to evacuate. There is a lot of standing water around here. The administrator of FEMA and the director of the National Weather Service said that it is going to persist. It will be very slow to recede. So as you know, Chris, standing water can create a lot of health and damage issues.

CUOMO: No question. Alex, be safe. You seem to have the right gear on, but we know time is the enemy there. That water is going nowhere. We'll check back with you in a little bit.

Look, we just had the FEMA administrator come out and give us a report and conspicuously absent were numbers of who has lost their lives. How many injured are there? They just don't know yet. What they do know, there have been thousands of rescues. The city's convention center is filling up. It's operating as an emergency shelter for those who have lost their homes. CNN's Rosa Flores is live in Houston with more. We keep hearing about these huge numbers of people who have to be addressed, 2 million, 3 million in Houston proper, 6.5 million overall. One in every five counties affected. What are you seeing on the ground?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: According to the American Red Cross there are 2,500 people seeking shelter right now in the convention center in downtown Houston. So that just gives you an idea. This is just the beginning. I talked to some of those people there and they said sometimes it took them hours to get from their home to the area of high ground and then beyond that to get to the convention center to dry ground, to food and shelter.

Take a look behind me. My colleague, Alex Marquardt, was just mentioning that water is heading towards the Buffalo Bayou. That's the Buffalo Bayou what you're looking at right now. It's already overwhelmed. It is already over its banks. This would normally be an urban landscape. Right now it is a river. All of this water testing the infrastructure of Houston and also testing the decisions made by local and state officials.

The FEMA administrator was just asked about evacuations. Why were people not asked to evacuate when this has been such a monumental natural disaster? And he said that, you know, they always go through and agree with whatever local officials decide. Early on in this disaster, the state governor and the mayor did not agree. The mayor telling people to shelter in place. Now some of those people who have been rescued by boat, by air, now questioning, was the decision correct? But the mayor saying that he stands by his decision. Take a listen.


[08:05:11] SYLVESTER TURNER, MAYOR OF HOUSTON: The decision that we made was a smart one. It was in the best interest of Houstonians. It was the right decision in terms of their safety, and always we must put the interests of the stiff Houston and Houstonians first. That's exactly what we did, absolutely no regrets. We did what was the right thing to do and we are acting according to the plan that we laid out.


FLORES: Now early on, 50 to 60 churches opened their doors as shelters overnight. We also learned that the city of Houston has opened shelters all around this city as we were talking about, as more and more people come to these shelters to get food, to get dry and hopefully to safety with their family.

CAMEROTA: Right. And those shelters are going to need all the help they can get as well. Rosa, thank you very much.

SO FEMA's administrator is asking all Americans to get involved. CNN's Rene Marsh was at the briefing held by federal officials just moments ago. She joins us now live in Washington. Give us the headlines, Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, after listening to FEMA and both the acting secretary of the department of homeland security, it is very clear that this mission here will be overwhelming and it will be a heavy lift. The focus is on some 50 counties throughout Texas. But they just told us that the focus going down to Texas is going to be the search and rescue, those high-water rescues. There are people that are still stranded, and that is their primary focus.

The second focus for them is going to be stabilizing those flood victims. They are estimating that some 30,000 people, they will need assistance as well as some 450,000 people, they say, will be applying for flood assistance as well. But they have a caveat. They say those numbers will change and more than likely go up. We just heard from the head of FEMA just a short time ago, and I want to bring you some of that sound.


BROCK LONG, FEMA DIRECTOR: Helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA coordinating the mission of the entire federal government. We need citizens to be involved. Texas, this is a landmark event. We have not seen an event like this. We have been telling people that this is coming. It's still ongoing. But you couldn't draw this situation up. The bottom line is that it's going to continue on. We need the whole community -- not only the federal government forces, but this is a whole community effort from all levels of government. And it's going to require the citizens getting involved.


MARSH: All right, and you know, what was really remarkable and what really stood out, Chris, is because this is something that they have never seen before, they really, truly do need as much help as they can get. So it's not a situation where the federal government is telling people to leave it to them. They're actually asking people to step in, the public, the general public, to help. Back to you, Chris.

CUOMO: All hands on deck right now. This is very real and far from over. Rene, let us know what else we need to know. We'll check back with you in a little bit.

All right, so this historic flooding, it's going to get worse. That's just the reality. We have more rain coming. We're hearing 15 to 25 additional inches of rain. CNN meteorologist Chad Myers is following the storm. We can't use the word "aftermath." We just heard FEMA officials saying they don't expect river levels to crest until later this week.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right, because there's a lot of water upstream that has to get down through Houston, through the Brazos River, down through the Trinity. All of these rivers will be in flood stage for a long time. League City, though, just put these numbers together from the Harris County flood warning says the League City, 34.64, the new top number for this storm so far, and it is still raining. Now the bulk of the rain today will be Beaumont, Port Arthur and Lake Charles. That's where the heaviest rain is right now and that's where it's going to be.

The band that has been sitting over Houston has finally shifted to the east a little bit. That's not good news for Beaumont who has picked up almost eight inches of rain overnight, or Lake Charles. Plus there's still some of those storms that are spinning that could make some tornadoes.

Here is the new map of where the storm is going to go. It's getting it back into the Gulf of Mexico, gain a little bit of strength, and then move right back over to the east of Houston, and then finally getting out of here by Wednesday and Thursday, finally moving away. There's the rainfall totals for today, Houston, two inches, Beaumont, ten. And I know two sounds like a good deal. You don't need two when it's already flooded. Chris?

CUOMO: Fair point. Chad, we'll check back in with you in a little bit.

[08:10:00] Officials are turning to social media to speak directly to Texans to get the word out about where people are trapped, to try to get resources there. Houston's police chief was live streaming on Twitter. What he was saying on real time, take a look. We'll show you what some of the reality was on the streets.

Joining us now is Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. It's good to have you with us, Chief. Are you well? How are your men? What can you tell us about those who are injured and those who are not making it right now?

ART ACEVEDO, HOUSTON POLICE CHIEF: Good morning. Our folks are tired but they're resilient. They're still out here working nonstop to keep this community safe. We've responded to 6,000 calls for service, conducted 2,000 rescue missions and completed them successfully. We have 233 rescue missions still pending that we hope to get done today, and so far we probably have close to 4,000 folks in shelter. I don't have final number on that, an updated number on that yet. But the mission goes on. We're resilient and we'll get through this.

CUOMO: And it's important for people to know, your men and women who are on the job have families of their own, very often they're in harm's way. And yet they dedicate themselves to the service of others, and we respect that. What do we know about people who haven't made it, the injured, those who have lost their lives? Do you have any numbers yet?

ACEVEDO: We know one confirmed death from the storm. We believe there are two more. But when you look at the widespread, just horrific flooding we've experienced up to rooftops, my heart tells me that we're going to end up at some point finding more folks in these homes. And so right now we're still in the rescue mode. As soon as we can recover everybody and rescue everyone that we know that is asking for help, our second job will be to go back into every home because we think some folks may not have been able to call for help and may be stranded in those homes, and then third is going through each home and look to see whether or not we've tragically found people dead inside.

CUOMO: God forbid but that is the reality. We understand that things are still going to be changing and they're going to be some horror stories to come. That's just the nature of these situations. There is good news in terms that we haven't heard of a lot of looting or a lot of illegal activity. Maybe that's because people can't get around even if they did have bad intentions. What are you seeing on the ground in terms of people helping and people in harm's way?

ACEVEDO: Two things. One, we've had only four arrests for looting. We are not going to let people come in here, either that live here but mostly those are people from outside that come in community and try to take advantage. They come here, they're going to go to jail. But we've had a lot of volunteer folks come in from around neighboring states in Texas to help us with the search and rescue mission. We have staged those volunteers, and this morning as soon as the sun comes up and we get some daylight, we're going to finish using them to finish going out and rescuing the rest of the people that are waiting for our help.

CUOMO: And let me ask you this. We know this is very far from over. We know there's more rain. They don't expect the cresting until later this week, so you're going to have ongoing problems. What do you need?

ACEVEDO: First, we need people realize that the danger has not subsided, that the danger, a very clear danger remains from the rising water. We know we have a lot of water that will come our way in the upcoming days. And so don't get a false sense of security, even if the sun is out. The threat is going to be from the water flow between us and the gulf that's coming our way. So please listen to the authorities, to our police departments and our colleagues. Do not come back to the home. Do not come to this area unless you need to because the threat continues and I'm afraid we're going to see many more houses flooding before this is over.

CUOMO: Many people can't control this but if you can, stay out of the water. It's not just water anymore. It's sewage and a lot of other chemicals. You're going to hear of health issues going forward. And unfortunately if people are in place, they're told to shelter in place for now because the roads are too difficult to exit those areas. We know you're going to get to them as best you can. And social media is actually being a help here. It's getting the word out, it's coordinating efforts and getting attention to situations that need it. So Chief, if we can help, we're here for you. You know how to get us.

ACEVEDO: Thanks, guys. Thanks for what you do.

CUOMO: Be well and God bless. Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: OK, Chris, so Houston, of course, known to be one of America's most known flood-prone cities. Our next guest was part of a team of journalists who looked into Houston's storm readiness. Their award winning report detailed Houston's vulnerability. Joining us now is Kiah Collier. She is a reporter for "The Texas Tribune." She is live in Houston for us. Kiah, a year ago you and your colleagues did this report. You feared a day like this would come. And so when you looked into Houston's vulnerability and preparedness, what did you all find?

KIAH COLLIER, REPORTER, "TEXAS TRIBUNE": We basically found that local officials have allowed developers to build in flood plains and not install adequate flood mitigation measures. Even if they do, they're allowed to release more water, you know, per hour, per minute than other municipalities closer to Houston.

And there have been -- every time local officials have proposed stricter development rules, developers have sued and they've largely won. You know, Houston is being paved over at an alarming rate as people move here. Scientists say stricter development rules are absolutely necessary but they're not happening.

CAMEROTA: So, that's fascinating. Basically, what you've learned is that development in Houston, commercial development trumped what to do about the inevitable flooding? And that they were pouring concrete over prairie lands. And what happened? When you found this out, what happened when you went to city officials and the mayor to try to alert them?

COLLIER: I mean, they said that they're doing everything that they can, but one county official in particular oversees flooding mitigation for all of the county kind of denied our findings and said that scientists are wrong when they argue that Houston should, you know, leave green space to absorb these floodwaters.

He said, you know, this argument about the prairie grasses are magic sponges is absurd and, yes, he denied scientists' findings, which are pretty overwhelming. All the scientists we talked to said Houston needs to incorporate green space more. They need to develop smarter and they're unwilling to do so, largely, and they have been for decades. CAMEROTA: I mean, we should mention you won a Peabody award for all of this, along with your colleague from "Pro Publica." So, given what you knew from your reporting, when you heard last week that a possible Category 4 hurricane was headed in your direction, what went through your head?

COLLIER: Well, we did a hurricane project last year and flooding focus project. The hurricane project was about a very specific storm that if it hits Houston in the right spot, it will send a massive storm surge into super populated areas and also into the nation's largest refining and petrochemical complex.

As you've been discussing this morning, several refineries have already shut down. Gas prices will, you know, sky rocket and a lot of petrochemical facilities could be affected if a storm like that hit.

So, we were, of course, watching to see where Harvey would go and if it would turn into that storm. It was never projected to do that and, thankfully, it didn't happen because Houston is woefully unprepared for that kind of storm.

CAMEROTA: Well, Kiah Collier, for people who want to read your reporting from 2016 about what might happen and what this day may look like, your report is called "Hell and High Water." Go to the "Texas Tribune" for more. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

COLLIER: Thanks for having me.

CAMEROTA: So, the catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm, Hurricane Harvey, posing a major test for President Trump. How is he handling it? That's next.



CUOMO: The president's been talking about the hurricane a lot. How is the administration standing up to this challenge as Texas is just under water and it is only going to get worse after Hurricane Harvey?

The White House says the president is planning to travel to Texas tomorrow. What's the plus/minus on that?

Let's discuss. We have CNN political analysts, Karoun Demirjian and Alex Burns, and Washington bureau chief of the "Dallas Morning News," Todd Gilman. Todd, what's your take on that?

We like to see our presidents be present, but there's a big distraction also because of the footprint and the security needs when a president have to be on the ground. What do you think serves the state best right now?

TODD GILLMAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": The federal response is, by far, the most important thing. It is important for a president to project the national sense of caring about a disaster. And it also highlights the priority that his government, that his administration is putting on the response.

It bolsters the confidence that the state and locals can have, that they are not alone in this ongoing disaster. And the real test, of course, is the follow through in the days and weeks and really even years to come.

CAMEROTA: And Karoun, if President Trump were a traditional, conventional president, we could expect all that tomorrow. Of course, he's not and doesn't often speak from the same script that we've heard over the decades in situations like this so what are we expecting to hear from him tomorrow?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We'll see if he speaks. We'll see what he does in terms of his actions and how close he can even get to the flooding we've seen, pictures you've been showing of Houston and other parts of Texas.

If he speaks off the cuff, we may hear him say various pithy things. I think he will keep the subject matter to the flooding, to the hurricane while he is there. As we've seen on Twitter the last few days it's not the only thing on his mind right now.

He has other events scheduled where he will be talking about other issues. When he speaks about things like the wall in Mexico or, you know, mocking a book of one his campaign supporters, it makes it look less focused and he needs to maintain the focus on this issue, especially while he's there.

All eyes will be on him and what he's going to do and say and it's a serious moment for any president but especially, you know, Trump at this moment, who has just emerged from a period of a little bit of a political crisis in terms of the comments he has been making. Everybody is looking to see if he can summon the muster to be presidential in the moment in Houston because of this disaster.

CUOMO: Alex, the ugly truth is that the president will get a lot of opportunities to handle Texas because the problem is only going to get worse and will continue weeks and months to come in terms of needing help. We'll hear from him on that ongoing basis.

[08:25:02] Now it was not a -- to Karoun's point, it was not a coincidence that we heard on Friday we heard about, you know, Gorka step into the exit and the Arpaio pardon. You don't get the Friday pass the way you used to.

It was also not that clever a move. He was trying to hide that. How large does it loom that he pardoned Joe Arpaio, who was, according to the court, according to the prosecutor, engaging in a pattern of discriminatory practices in the name of immigration?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's a really, really big deal, and I think we've not heard the end of it. Arizona is one of the sort of central political battlefields of the 2018 election.

The president has already been feuding with both senators from that state who both feuded with Joe Arpaio in the past. Arpaio himself is a hugely controversial figure and deeply disliked figure, particularly among Latino voters.

The fact that the president did this on a Friday evening with a storm bearing down on Houston, I think (inaudible) the political impact at this point. I do think over time you will hear more and more people and have already begun to hear Democrats raising as an objection to the pardon.

The fact that it was done undercover of darkness, so to speak. Whenever a president does something that voters think is unseemly, the political opposition will try to twist the knife further by adding anything to the picture that makes it seem, you know, like (inaudible) sometimes.

CAMEROTA: But I mean, of course, look, this is a rapid-fire news cycle. So, already, you know, whatever happened on Friday has already been eclipsed by all the devastation in Texas. Todd, how do you think the Arpaio thing plays in Texas?

And do you think that what now is more important to Texans is this whatever the feud is between the local mayors and whether or not they chose to evacuate versus the governor, it seems there's a political battle brewing there as well.

GILLMAN: Well, obviously, for many millions of people who are coping with the immediate crisis of trying to get out of their homes or getting out of Houston, that's their top priority and probably are not too worried about the Arpaio thing.

It plays in Texas the way it plays across most of America. It is deeply polarizing event for the president to have pardoned this controversial sheriff. It sends a message to Latinos that he puts a much higher priority on hard line against immigration than what he says that he is a law and order kind of president.

It has already proven to be kind of a touchstone event politically in Texas and in Arizona and across the country. This is not going to go away. People aren't going to forget about it, as much as they won't forget about Harvey.

We have to see, I know that there are speculations that maybe the president is signaling to friends in the Russia investigation don't worry I'm going to use the power of pardon. Maybe that's the case. Maybe not.

He clearly is willing to multitask and use the cover of darkness, to use the cover of Harvey to do things that will be politically unsavory.

BURNS: I think Todd is right there. I would add that right now the storm may be a useful distraction for other things the president wants to do politically as we get past Labor Day, Congress goes back into town, the White House and Republicans want to push an agenda that they've been working on for months on taxes and other issues.

The storm could be a distraction of the not-so-helpful kind. There will be a push of some kind to get emergency funding to that state. Big delegation from Texas, mostly Republican, two senators from Texas, both Republicans. This will be their highest priority, in all likelihood. Perhaps more so than some of those issues that the president has been planning to talk about.

CUOMO: Their reality is the one that we're seeing on the screen right now, Karoun. Live picture of Mireland, Texas. All those homes, once you're seeing there, once the water is gone, all the damage will remain. Everything has to be rebuilt, including these people's lives, assuming they make it out.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much. We do need to get to updates on what's happening in Texas because the floodwaters are posing life- threatening risks to millions of people. Texas land commissioner, George P. Bush, will join us next to discuss the situation on the ground.

CUOMO: If you want to help, please go to Look for ways that you can help the people on the ground today, tomorrow. We'll be reminding you for weeks to come. Stay with CNN.