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Destruction in Harvey's Wake; Two Explosions at Houston-Area Chemical Plant; Trump Changes Tone; Japan, U.S. In "Complete Agreement" on North Korea. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2017 - 05:00   ET


[05:00:00] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Corporate America has stepped up its giving in recent business. It's good for business, attracting employees, and the giving often goes beyond money.

For example, Anheuser-Busch halting beer production to make cans of water, donating more than 100,000 cans to the American Red Cross. Bass Pro Shops also providing 80 boats to the rescue efforts there in Houston.

EARLY START continues now with the latest on the flooding conditions throughout the Houston area.

Harvey is moving north, but the scope of damage done in Texas is just beginning to come into focus. New evacuations, climbing death toll, and chemical plant on the verge of exploding. We are live in Texas this morning.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

RENE MARSH, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Rene Marsh. It's Thursday, August 31st. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East, 4:00 a.m. in Houston.

And the skies above southeast Texas are clearing, but as Harvey heads north, it leaves many worries in its wake. The human toll just keeps getting worse. The number killed in the storm jumped overnight to 37, and it is still expected to rise. That number includes the six bodies of the Saldivar family found Wednesday in their white van that had been swept away by floodwaters.

BRIGGS: Just a heartbreaking story, especially when you see those young girls.

At the reservoirs upstream from Houston, a controlled release happening at the Addicks Dam to ease water spilling out around the ends of the reservoir. Now, a mandatory evacuation has been ordered in some areas the Barker Dam.

MARSH: And this morning, officials hold a news conference to discuss the dangerous situation at the Arkema chemical plant, just outside Houston. The company says the most likely outcome is that the plant will explode.

BRIGGS: The last round of the heavy rain taking a hard parting shot at Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas, on the Louisiana border. And we've just learned the city of Beaumont has lost its water supply after pumps failed in the floodwaters. Even official shelters where people have taken refuge started flooding.

Now, workers at the Texas Health Care Emergency Operations Center keeping a close eye on hospitals and nursing homes. Patients at one nursing facility at Port Arthur evacuated yesterday as the hallways flooded.

MARSH: At least 16 hospitals in Texas remain closed. Already- strained medical centers are bracing for an influx of new patients as roadways start to clear. In some cases, that will take some time.

Take a look at this. This is Interstate 10 east. Yes, that is an interstate. You would think that it's the shore or possibly the ocean if it wasn't for that highway sign.

BRIGGS: Impossible to believe that.

Well, we're learning more about the heroic rescue efforts, as well. You're looking at the human chain form to save an elderly man whose SUV had been swept away by the flooding. The man was saved, thanks to this brave act of teamwork.

For the latest now, let's turn to CNN's George Howell live for us in Houston, at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

George, 32,000 people in shelters across Texas this morning. They say somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 homes in the Houston area impacted by the flooding.

Good morning to you.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So many numbers, so many people involved. I mean, you guys were telling these stories, stories that raise the hair on your arms, the stories of survival. How people were able to escape such dangerous situations. Many of them to arrive at shelters like this one.

This is the George R. Brown Convention Center. Dave, as you pointed out, some 8,000 people calling this their temporary home for the night. How long they will be here, anybody's guess frankly.

Again, there's another shelter nearby, another large shelter, the NRG Center. It has the capacity for 10,000 people. We understand they have some 8,000 cots. Again, you get a sense of the scope, how many people are in need of a little extra help as they try to take those steps to recover.

Let's talk about the storm itself, the tropical depression. It's moved on out of this region now. But it's left a great deal of damage. Talk about the city of Houston itself. A third of the city remains under water. And a military official says it's still unclear how many people are still in need of rescue.

We also know in nearby Beaumont, Texas, they're dealing with the same search and rescue situation. The Navy has been conducting that. They airlifted some 25 men, women, and children.

And we know that this storm has set records. It dumped 52 inches of rain in this area from a single storm.

[05:05:04] So, you really understand how big this storm was, how much devastation it left behind. And it will take a long time, frankly, for the region to recovery.

BRIGGS: George Howell, thanks so much for your reporting. And all those aid workers behind you, up and working hard to keep everyone in a good situation, 4:00 there Central Time. Thank you, sir.

Joining us to talk about rescue efforts, Marty Lancton, the president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association.

Marty, thanks for coming back and joining us again on the program and getting up so early there.

What's the status of the rescue effort?

PATRICK "MARTY" LANCTON, PRESIDENT, HOUSTON PROFESSIONAL FIREFIGHTERS ASSOCIATION: You know, what we're seeing is obviously a little bit of less call volume coming into Houston. But we still have concerns of water that is not only standing in certain parts of Houston.

But I think what you had mentioned earlier in your report, we still have the issues with the reservoirs and dams and the controlled releases. So, that's a concern that we are still having to deal with. I think this is the storm that never seems to end. And so, we're still dealing with those effects or potential effects. And so, that's where we're at now.

MARSH: So, Marty, when you say the calls for help or rescues have gone down, do you feel that that is because most people now have been rescued or possibly does that mean something worse?

LANCTON: Well, you know, that's going to be determined. We are going to be starting what's called grid searches. I assume in the next couple days pending, you know, not only if there's any other issues that come up. But if we have the manpower and resources in which to do it, and we're going to be searching the homes and identifying any of our -- any citizens that are in need or ensuring that people are all out -- we can get to them if they need anything additional.

BRIGGS: You expressed to us the other day that you felt perhaps government officials, rescue workers, were in some cases ill prepared for this. Do you -- do you sense that it is now the time to begin to discuss that, and are you getting all the resources that you need to begin really going door to door to really recover?

LANCTON: Well, that's -- that's a two-part question. I'll try to address both of them.

I do know that the federal teams as this storm has moved east are beginning to move out, phase out, and creating more demand on a fire department. And so, our own units are going to be acting like federal search and rescue teams, because we want to be sure that we have gone door to door to make sure that we have identified any other potential victims or anything else -- anything that we have missed on the initial rescues that didn't call for help or, God forbid, something bad happen.

So, the resources are still something that we're dealing with. Because of the floodwaters, I can tell you, I don't have an accurate count right now because this is ongoing. But we have many apparatus out of service.

The last report that I was given -- and it's unconfirmed, but up to 36 fire trucks and fire apparatus that were taken out of commission for a various number of reasons based on the calls. And so, we're already putting a demand on an already-strained department. And so, there's going to be a lot of challenges with that.

MARSH: What sort of injuries or illnesses are you seeing for people who have been rescued now? Are you seeing specific sort of injuries? And can you explain what?

LANCTON: You know, I haven't seen specific injuries as it relates to the flooding. You know, one of the concerns for the first responders, though, is the aftermath of the storms in identifying not only the things that were in the floodwaters that our first responders have been in such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B. All of those things that we have to think about as first responders.

And so, what we've done here is set up a central command post here at the offices. We have the International Association of Firefighters here on the ground. They got here over 36 hours ago and we're trying to identify and reach out to all 4,000 members, to make sure they're taken care of both, you know, emotionally and medically.

BRIGGS: Really a great deal of gratitude to you and your fellow first responders. And I know you'd never complain, but how exhausted are your colleagues? We understand some working 72-hour shifts.

LANCTON: We have some that have still been on duty since Saturday. And as we said before, Houston firefighters will not give up until we make sure all the citizens of Houston are safe. I go back to that saying -- I mentioned yesterday, come hell or high water, Houston firefighters serve. So, they're going to continue to do what they need do to be there for the Houstonians that we love.

[05:10:05] BRIGGS: Are you amazed not just by your colleagues that are first responders but by the ordinary, everyday Houstonians who are out there volunteering boats and going door to door? What does it say about the spirit of Texas?

LANCTON: Yes, the spirit of Texas, I think the nation is watching. The nation has seen that the spirit of Texans coming together and taking care of one another is something that most people can see, you know, when they're watching the television screen, no matter where you live in the U.S. But when you are here on the ground and you feel it, it's -- it's pretty amazing. Amazing, I know, probably doesn't do it justice. MARSH: All right. Marty, you take care of yourself, too, out there.

Thank you for all that you're doing.

LANCTON: We appreciate it. Thank you very much for checking in with Houston firefighters. We're going to continue to be here.

BRIGGS: Thank you, sir. Try to get some sleep. Try to sneak in a bit.

All right. Ahead, the president with a big shift in tone -- good luck with that now, Marty -- after coming under fire for forgetting victims, some say, during his visit to Texas. We'll show you what the president has to say now.


[05:15:20] BRIGGS: All right. Some breaking news this morning for you.

We're hearing about some explosions and black smoke reported at the Arkema chemical plant. That's in Crosby, Texas, approximately 2:00 a.m. Houston Time. Arkema was notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center of two explosions and black smoke coming from the Arkema plant. That's again in Crosby, according to a statement from Arkema.

One deputy taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes from the plant. Nine others drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution. This is all according to the Harris County sheriff's office. We have reported earlier an evacuation was ordered a mile and a half surrounding this Arkema chemical plant.

This is a live picture of the roadblock. So no one can get near this chemical plant. They had expected to explode. Officials from the chemical plant said there was really no way to prevent that.

In other news, the president quickly changing his tone after coming under fire for failing to focus on storm victims during his Texas visit. He tweeted yesterday: After witnessing firsthand the horrors and devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, my heart goes out to even -- more so to the great people of Texas.

MARSH: And later in Missouri, for a speech on tax reform, the president kept his focus on people hit by the storm.

Vice President Mike Pence is set to visit Texas to view Harvey's devastation today.

BRIGGS: Let's bring in CNN politics reporter Tal Kopan live in Washington.

Good morning to you, Tal.


BRIGGS: OK. So, teleprompter Trump, he does show empathy. Look, I don't know. Maybe we made too much of this in the first place. I think as I said yesterday, if you voted for Trump, you didn't expect someone to speak like President Obama, nor President George W. Bush. Empathy is not the reason you vote for him. If you're critical of the president, well, then you did expect it.

What's the impact of all this?

KOPAN: Well, keep in mind that disasters are always one of the biggest pitfalls that a president can face. You know, you talk about Katrina with George W. Bush. You talk about, you know, Sandy with President Obama.

This is always a moment in which presidents are under the microscope and are looked at to lead. In fact, President Trump really wanted to quickly visit Texas because he wanted to show that he was engaged and paying attention to what was on the ground. Typically, presidents don't visit that quickly because when a situation is unfolding, you need emergency personnel to focus on the situation at hand which is why President Trump didn't go to Houston.

So, it was sort of a trap of his own making in that he went to Texas but didn't go to the place that was actively engaged, so he couldn't go to the convention center and meet with victims. But at the same time, it's something his advance team could have considered. So, it was a little bit of a miss on that trip to not put more focus on victims. It looked like the White House was really moving to recognize and correct with the statements.

BRIGGS: Yes. It was that construction that made it look like they made a mistake, not just what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said to the reporters, but that the president did then change. Look, if you're in Houston and in flooding, do you want empathy or do you want --

MARSH: Money --

BRIGGS: -- this? They need federal aid and they need it desperately. Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, said we need the red tape to be cleared and we need it now.

How easy will it be to get the federal funding considering the stalemate in Congress?

KOPAN: It certainly looks like Congress is gearing up to do everything it can when it gets back to give Houston the money it needs.

Also keep in mind, this is going to be something that's going to unfold over weeks and months. The floodwaters have not receded. In fact, some places, they're still rising. We still don't know the full toll of the storm. It certainly looks to be devastating.

And, yes, you have lawmakers from New York who are already needling their colleagues saying, hey, you or the state, a lot of your delegation opposed aid for Sandy. But no one is saying that that means they're going to oppose aid in this case. This is one of those rare instances where it seems that Congress is lining up on the same page. The only question is the details of how they go about passing it. But certainly looks like FEMA will be getting a lot of money in September.

MARSH: So, you don't think that this is going to become a thing where this will come back to bite them? Because you remember, many Texas Republicans actually said no to a lot of the funding for Sandy.

[05:20:05] You think people are going to take the high road in Washington and say, look, we've got to get funding for these people, even if they voted for my state during Sandy?

KOPAN: Yes, Rene, I think the answer is yes on both accounts. In the sense that I do get the sense that lawmakers recognize that this is a potential tragic situation of epic proportions and it is their job to do the right here and make sure Texas and Houston have the resources they need move forward.

That doesn't mean it's not going to come back to bite the politicians. And already, you see Ted Cruz and Chris Christie getting into a bit of a war here, where Chris Christie wants to remind people every day that Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, was one of the outspoken opponents of the Sandy bill, which Ted Cruz claims had too much pork in it for him to support. So, I do think politically, it will be difficult for the Texas delegation, but it does not seem like lawmakers are prepared to sort of hold the money hostage in that regard.

BRIGGS: Yes, there was a nasty cable news spat between Cruz and Christie yesterday. "The Washington Post" reporting there is a meeting between Trump and both Democratic and Republican leadership regarding federal funding for Harvey victims. That is September 6th, after they're back.

Let's turn our attention to the deadline, though. You are all over the immigration issue. What is the future for the some 800,000 DREAMers in this country? Where are we headed?

KOPAN: Right now, that future is incredibly uncertain and it's causing a lot of an anxiety for folks who support this deferred action program that protects young undocumented immigrants who are brought to the U.S. as children, so that they work and study and contribute to, in many cases, the only home they have ever known. The problem is an ultimatum issued by some conservative state attorneys general who are pushing the administration to sunset the program or they will make it difficult for the administration in court or at least try to.

So, it's not necessarily a hard and fast deadline. The White House, though, has to decide how it wants to proceed. Remember, Trump pledged to end the program on the campaign trail and then preserved it once he got into office and spoke about, you know, how sympathetic he is to these young people who really grew up as Americans and he's grappling with the way forward. They may buy themselves some more time. But, certainly, they feel the squeeze at this point.

And depending what they do, that could dump on to Congress' plate this September in an already-busy session.


BRIGGS: Twelve legislative days to get things done like funding the government, the debt ceiling, pile on top of it DACA and now, federal funding for a massive devastating storm.

Tal Kopan, boy, do you and Congress have their hands full. Thank you.

OK. Ahead, President Trump and two of his top cabinet officials not on the same page on the North Korea issue. CNN, the only Western news organization reporting from North Korea. Will Ripley live in Pyongyang, next.


[05:27:31] MARSH: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that he and President Trump have a plan for responding to North Korea's provocative nuclear and missile tests. They're just not saying what the plan is yet. Abe told reporters he and the U.S. president have, quote, completely agreed on their forthcoming response to Pyongyang.

BRIGGS: This comes after President Trump tweeted Wednesday that talking is not the answer to reining in North Korea -- a remark that seems to contradict statements by top cabinet officials.

CNN's Will Ripley, the only Western broadcast journalist in North Korea, joins us live from Pyongyang. Just about 6:00 p.m. there in Pyongyang.

Good to see you, Will.

Now, any response to those comments from the Japanese prime minister?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No response yet, Dave. And it likely won't come at least until tomorrow morning when the paper comes out. The "Rodong" newspaper of North Korea. It's delayed in their responses. They don't have social media here. And any response has to go up the ladder for approval before they put it out.

But, look, it's not necessarily surprising for the North Koreans that Japan and the United States say that have some kind of plan. This is the second phone call this week between President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And while they're saying they're not going to reveal the details, we know what the U.S. and Japanese objectives are. The objective is not to start a military confrontation with North Korea, certainly from the Japanese perspective. They just had North Korea launch a ballistic missile over their northern island. And North Korea launches many missiles in the direction of Japan.

What the U.S. and Japan want is to economically cut off and isolate North Korea, create such a dire situation economically in this country that they come to the diplomatic table essentially desperate and willing to do anything to ease the economic pressure.

The only problem with that the -- there's only so much the U.S. and its allies can do without the full cooperation of China. China has given no hints that they're willing to go beyond the seventh round of U.N. Security Council sanctions. That they voted to enforce which would roughly if the sanctions work, would cut about $1 billion a year off of North Korean exports eventually. Sanctions take a long time to work. Clearly the sanctions haven't slowed the North Koreans' missile development.

You can hear the alarm behind me. It's that time of day where the hourly music plays around the city.

So, moving toward, what North Korea is going to do is to continue to push forward on their path as officials stated to us repeatedly. They say they won't back down. They're not going to buckle to financial pressure. There's actually a bunch of new propaganda posters up over the city, ripping up the latest -