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Maria Bears Down On Puerto Rico; Hundreds Killed in Mexico Quake; Trump Targets "Rocket Man". Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:19] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A category 5 monster. Puerto Rico's governor calls this the worst hurricane in the island's modern history. Puerto Rico bracing for a direct hit in just hours from Hurricane Maria.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Another natural disaster. This one in Mexico. Death toll of a major earthquake rising dramatically overnight.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.


ROMANS: That's what the White House calls deeply philosophical. The president's speech with blunt warnings to North Korea and in a twist, the reaction from Pyongyang is silent.

We have coverage to all of our top stories from around the world this morning.

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

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. Good morning to you. It is September 20th. It is 4:00 a.m. in San Juan. We'll be live there shortly 3:00 a.m. in Mexico City.

And up first, authorities in Puerto Rico warning everyone to flee the most powerful hurricane to threaten the island nation in 90 years. Hurricane Maria stalking Puerto Rico this hour with maximum sustain winds of 160 miles an hour. The storm expected to make landfall in a matter of hours with category 5 force.

Puerto's governor warning everyone to evacuate before it's too late.


GOV. RICHARD ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: Flooding areas are very vulnerable, very dangerous. The surges will be felt across the island. And vulnerable housing should be evacuated immediately.

And right now, the main focus is getting you out of harm's way, making sure you're in a shelter.


ROMANS: The effects of Hurricane Maria already being felt in Puerto Rico, where residents are still recovering from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma, of course, earlier this month.

We want to go live to San Juan and bring in CNN's Nick Valencia.

You know, a direct hit expected in just a few hours. You are already feeling it there.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was just in the last hour, Christine, that it really started to get bad and we're hours away from the worst of it. If I keep looking behind me, it's only because in the last several minutes, we've heard some loud bangs from debris. We're told here by the local officials that parts of roofs are already being ripped off here in downtown San Juan.

And we're not even on the bad side of the storm. We're being protected by a parking structure. Our camera position behind that is the beach and it was just a few hours ago that the lights went out on the beach there. Those palm trees started bending in a very precarious way and people started to coming out to see from the hotel exactly what all the noise was.

Those windows are starting to whistle inside the hotel room. A lot of the anxious people here on this island territory and some dire warnings from officials. A much different tone from Governor Rossello than Hurricane Irma, which just sideswiped the island. This one, Hurricane Maria, is expected to make direct landfall, and it was yesterday that the governor announced, get out while you can, get out or face the potential of death.

And he reiterated that one of the major concerns is flooding. It's the number one cause of death, he says, after storms like this make landfall. It's a fact not lost in residents here.

We saw many people trying to catch those last flights out last night, about 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m., depending on the airport. You're talking about here locally. American Airlines, we know at least one airline added additional flights to try to get people out of here. But for those that had to stay, though, however, and there were a lot of them, about 10,000 are currently in shelters, a lot more preparing for the worst -- Dave, Alison.

ROMANS: OK. Christine here, I'll talk that. Thank you so much.

VALENCIA: Christine, I'm sorry.

ROMANS: That's right. You've got a lot going on there. Don't worry about that. Stay safe. We'll talk to you again very, very soon.

BRIGGS: All right. Hurricane Maria slammed into St. Croix and the U.S. Virgin Islands overnight.

Let's get right to our meteorologist, Pedram Javaheri, in the CNN weather center.

Good morning to you, Pedram.

How long before the storm is right over Puerto Rico?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, guys, you know, the 4:00 a.m. update, a special update coming in from the National Hurricane Center, they're doing an hourly update at this point, saying this storm system, the eyewall beginning to push over the island just east of Puerto Rico, an island associated with Puerto Rico.

I want to talk about this, of course. When you think about Puerto Rico, we know they're under a significant recession, some $70 billion in debt. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the island is just about as poor as the poorest U.S. state. So, this is the last thing you want to see across the region.

But notice, the outer eyewall beginning to pushing across this island. It will impact eastern Puerto Rico sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, sitting at the category five, the 4:00 a.m. special update continues to keep it as a category 5, although there are slight variations we're seeing on radar imagery, with the eye kind of losing a little bit of steam as it goes what is called a replacement cycle, essentially a new eyewall trying to form around the system.

[04:05:03] But anywhere you see the white indication, 100-mile-per- hour winds. This is pushing it right through this region. It will make landfall into the early morning hours across eastern Puerto Rico, which is home to about half of Puerto Rico's population is on the eastern periphery. So, certainly one of the worst scenarios as far as seeing a significant storm move across this region on approach across this region as well.

But storm surge, one of the main concerns with this system, up to 11 feet across the Leeward Islands. That is water 11 feet above what is normally dry ground. Six to nine feet for parts of Puerto Rico. So, again, you get the six to nine feet. We're talking about a lot of homes within a few miles of the ocean there, it could have water up to their first story with the storm system coming ashore in Puerto Rico, and models continue to indicate a remarkable amount of waters as much as 10 to 15 inches of rainfall. Some areas could see two feet.

Guys, I would not be surprised if the vast majority of the island was left in the dark here with power outages, with the storm of this magnitude coming ashore.

BRIGGS: Yes, they lost -- a million people lost power as a result of Irma. So, hard to imagine what this one would do.

Pedram, thanks.


ROMANS: You heard Pedram mentioned the financial aspect of this storm, for heavily indebted Puerto Rico. As Hurricane Maria heads for the island, the storm poses a new threat. Hurricane Irma already racked up a billion dollars in damage there, but Irma skirted the island. Maria will make a direct hit, likely costing billions more.

Puerto Rico is years into an economic crisis. It is ill-equipped to deal with the financial cost of rebuilding. In May, Puerto Rico filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. It owes creditors $74 billion. That's more than four times the cost of Detroit's bankruptcy.

Another problem, Puerto Rico doesn't have enough skilled workers to help rebuild. High unemployment drove many residents to the mainland U.S. to find work. In fact, there has been a main drain. The best and brightest of Puerto Rico have been flooding into America's cities for better jobs. Puerto Rico's jobless rate is more than double the national average on the mainland.

The U.S. territory will need federal assistance to recover from both Irma and Maria. But the island doesn't have any voting power in Congress for leverage.

BRIGGS: All right. Another natural disaster -- Mexico's president declaring his country facing a national disaster following an earthquake. At least 216 people were killed and that number is expected to rise.

Among the dead, 22 people at an elementary school in Mexico City, 30 others still missing there.

ROMANS: Most of the deaths reported in Morelos, Mexico, a city in Puebla. Rescue crews in the country now facing a very grim task, digging through the rubble looking for signs of life. Hauling off buckets full of debris, calling out the names of those possibly trapped beneath those collapsed buildings. Look at the piles of rubble there, Dave.

BRIGGS: Trapped beneath that devastating scene there across Mexico.

President Enrique Pena Nieto urging people to stay indoors while rescue efforts are underway. The quake buckled buildings, windows and concrete plunging to the ground.

ROMANS: Do we know what these buildings are?

BRIGGS: (AUDIO GAP) says 27 buildings collapsed in the capital alone. That's about 75 miles from the quake's epicenter.

ROMANS: Pena Nieto instructing his cabinet to team up with medical centers across the country to make sure everyone is receiving proper medical attention. Mexico's defense ministry deploying 3,400 soldiers to the affected areas. The earthquake cutting power to nearly 5 million customers. By one estimate 40 percent of Mexico City is in the dark.

The deadly quake hitting just hours after drills and memorials honoring the devastating earthquake that killed thousands in Mexico City in 1985.

All right. The Republican's last-ditch health care plan gaining opposition in Congress, from governors and the late night hosts with a stake in the bill.


JIMMY KIMMEL, LATE NIGHT HOST: My family has health insurance. We don't have to worry about this. But other people do. So, you can shove your disgusting comments where your doctor won't be giving a prostate exam once they take your health care benefits away.


ROMANS: More of Jimmy Kimmel's passionate plea for affordable health care, next.


[04:13:33] BRIGGS: Only ten days to get a bill passed and Republicans are stepping up their final push to repeal and replace Obamacare. An administration official telling CNN, President Trump will sign the Graham-Cassidy bill if it reaches his desk, and another source adds the president quietly encouraged Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy to take one last shot at health care reform.

ROMANS: Any chance for a bipartisan agreement dashed by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. He chaired a set of bipartisan health committee hearings and just called off further attempts to craft a limited bipartisan plan. He claims talks were at a standstill there.

A Democratic senator, Patty Murray, of Washington, co-chaired those health chair committee hearings. She says she regrets Senator Alexander's decision, insisting significant common ground had been found.

BRIGGS: The plan now being discussed repeals Obamacare mandates and subsidies, loosens protections for people with preexisting conditions, also gives states more authority on how to spend revenue from Obamacare taxes. Flexibility, these Republican senators say.

All right. So, your Senate leaders forging ahead with the proposal despite the fact that these bipartisan group of governors and several influential interest groups came out against it.

We get more now from CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dave and Christine, it became even more clear on Tuesday what had started to percolate over the 48 hours prior. Republicans -- they're all in for one final repeal and replace effort.

[04:15:03] But it remains also very clear that they're senators. The 52 Republican senators are just trying to get their head around what this proposal would actually do. In a closed door lunch, a very important one, where the vice president attended, also several senators spoke, trying to make the case, that it's more than policy at this point. It's about what you promised campaign after campaign after campaign. That was Vice President Mike Pence's message.

So, how do they get to 50 votes? Well, There's really a couple senators that they're focused on right now. They assume Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, are hard no votes. It means they're targeting Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator John McCain.

Obviously, John McCain, the same individual who sank the effort in July. John McCain is upset about the process and those concerns certainly are being assuaged by how fast this is all moving right now. He hasn't committed one way or the other, but Senate leadership aides are saying, hey, he's really good friends with Lindsey Graham. Maybe he'll be able to pull him around at some point.

As for Lisa Murkowski, she's made very clear, this is about what the numbers mean for her state. Senate leadership aides telling me that they are making a very, very clear effort, sending administration officials to her, trying to get her all the information she can get, all the information she needs, and perhaps more importantly, offering changes to the bill as it currently stands to benefit Alaska.

Will those changes be enough? Well, certainly, a heavy hill to climb, a lot to go forward on in a limited amount of time. As of now, they're short, but they are certainly pushing hard -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Thanks for that, Phil. You're going to have a long day today again.

Also coming out against the new GOP health care bill, basically every single health organization, the AARP, the doctors, the hospitals, but also a comedian, Jimmy Kimmel. Back in May, the late night host revealed his newborn son needed multiple open heart surgeries, and he made an impassioned plea to lawmakers to protect parents who can't afford such costly care.

BRIGGS: All right. Senator Bill Cassidy sponsored the new Obamacare repeal bill told Jimmy Kimmel then that any new plan would have to pass what he called the Jimmy Kimmel test. In other words, no family would be denied medical care, emergency or otherwise because they can't afford it. So, Kimmel says the bill now has Cassidy's name on it does not.


KIMMEL: A few months ago, after my sign had open heart surgery, which was something I poke about on the air, a politician, a senator named Bill Cassidy from Louisiana was on my show and he wasn't very honest. It seemed like he was being honest.

I don't know what happened to Bill Cassidy, but when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health care bill very clearly. These were his words. He said he wants coverage for all, no discrimination based on preexisting conditions, lower premiums for middle class families and no lifetime caps. And guess what? The new bill does none of those things.

These other guys who claim they want Americans to have better health care, even though eight years ago they didn't want anyone to have health care at all, they're trying to sneak this scam of a bill they cooked up in without an analysis from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office. They don't want you to see it.

Health care is complicated. It's boring. I don't want to talk about it. The details are confusing and that's what these guys are relying on.

They're counting on you to be so overwhelmed with all the information, you just trust them to take care of you, but they're not taking care of you. They're taking care of the people who give the money like insurance companies, and we're all just looking at our Instagram accounts, liking things while they're voting on whether the people can afford to keep their children alive or not.

I never imagined I would get involved to something like this. This is not my area of expertise. My area of expertise is eating pizza and that's really about it. But we can't let them do this to our children and our senior citizens and our veterans or to any of us, and, by the way, before you post a nasty Facebook message saying I'm politicizing my son's health problems, I want you to know I'm politicizing my son's health care problems because I have to.


ROMANS: He's really made this sort of a mission, not funny mission. Of course, critics would say for a comedian. What I would like to see is I would like to see a CBO score. I'd like to see how many I'd like to know how many people will be uninsured, and I'd like to know exactly how much less flexibility or less money governors would have for Medicaid patients and what the plans are state by state to fix that.

BRIGGS: Can't get a score to use budget reconciliation to the end of the month.

Just to one of those accusations, Bill Cassidy tweeted back, under the bill, states must ensure that individuals with preexisting conditions have access to adequate and affordable insurance, but this debate will continue in the days ahead. Indeed.

ROMANS: All right. Nineteen minutes past the hour.

President Trump's past bluster with North Korea has been met with bluster from Pyongyang. So, why is it so quiet in North Korea after the president threatened to destroy that country? We're live next.



[04:24:11] TRUMP: Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: President Trump taking a page from his own Twitter account, mocking Kim Jong-un in his big address to the United Nations General Assembly, while cautioning other nations not to become bystanders to history, as North Korea emerges as a nuclear power.

Listen to the president's chilling warning to the North Korean leader.


TRUMP: No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles. The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.


[04:25:03] ROMANS: Totally destroy North Korea?


TRUMP: Rocket man is on a suicide mission.


ROMANS: Totally destroy North Korea. Rocket man is on a suicide mission. You heard that yesterday. President also signaling that he may be ready to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Sources tell CNN he is still weighing his options and will announce a decision next month.

Today, the president meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May and leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. He also has a working lunch planned with African leaders.

BRIGGS: And Melania Trump will also deliver a speech at a luncheon at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. Just after that, former President Obama will be at an event with Bill and Melinda Gates to fight disease and poverty. Not clear if the former president will address comments by his successor. We shall see.

All right. Reaction to the Trump speech has been mixed so far. There's been no direct response from North Korea.

Let's bring in CNN's Ian Lee. He is live in Seoul, South Korea, with more.

Good morning, Ian.


And that is what we are watching right now, waiting for North Korea to come up with any sort of reaction to the speech yesterday. When President Trump threatened the destruction of the country, also called Kim Jong-un "rocket man", you would think that they've come up with something, but they haven't so far.

You know, in the region, we have South Korea and Japan both praise the speech. The spokesman of the South Korean president praised it as being unprecedentedly long and that it showed how serious the United States was when it came to North Korea, also saying that the denuclearization of North Korea and the only path forward is through strong sanctions and pressure on the country. And they also said they both agreed that close cooperation was the way forward as well.

But, you know, the one thing that was interesting in the South Korean statement that we didn't hear is any mention of a military option, and that's been the prime talking points of the South Koreans all along. They say dialogue, diplomacy is going to save the day, not any sort of military option. They don't want to see another war on the Korean peninsula. And so, they're urging a cooler heads to prevail.

But, really, the big question is, how is Pyongyang going to respond, is it going to be with words or is it going to be, as some have suspect, with action, another test -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Yes, it's not clear what that "rocket man" nickname has any impact on Kim Jong-un. Does he like it?

Ian Lee, thanks so much.

As for the nuclear -- military option, there's 10 million people right where Ian is, 35 miles from the border. Certainly, they don't like the optics of that.

ROMANS: Interesting, South Korea, Japan and Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate, all praised this speech.


ROMANS: But you wonder how it plays inside North Korea where the information campaign and honestly the brainwashing campaign has been under way for years, that the United States is on its doorstep, waiting to invade, once you destroyed North Korea, and then you have the president of the United States saying, we will destroy you. You're on the suicide.

BRIGGS: Bombastic speech indeed.

ROMANS: All right. Twenty-eight minutes past the hour.

The effects of hurricane Maria starting to be felt right now in Puerto Rico. Millions are already dealing with the damage of Hurricane Irma and now, they have another major storm on their doorstep, landfall in just hours. We go live to San Juan.