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Hurricane Maria Strengthens to Category 3; Death Toll Climbing in Mexico; Republicans Plan Health Care Vote. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired September 21, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:15] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Hurricane Maria regaining strength, back now to dangerous category 3. Conditions worsening in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico now 100 percent without power. We have reporters live in San Juan and in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: In Mexico City, a rush to save a little girl trapped under rubble from Tuesday's devastating earthquake. Her school flattened. That rescue operation going on right now as the death toll rises to 230.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obamacare is a disaster. It's a wreck. It's a train wreck, and it's only getting worse.


BRIGGS: President Trump pushing Republicans to overhaul Obamacare again as the Senate plans for a vote as early as next week on this Cassidy-Graham bill. But does it have a chance? It appears it just may.

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

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Thursday, September 21st, 4:00 in the East. It is 4:00 a.m. in San Juan, and 3:00 a.m. in Mexico City.

Up first, devastation and darkness in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. One hundred percent of that island without power this morning. Hurricane Maria's category four winds devastating Puerto Rico's power grid. That power grid could be knocked out for months. Officials say it could be months without power.

At least one person killed by debris. Authorities admitting the number of casualties in some areas simply unknown. The government completely disconnected with the southeast part of the island with no communications.

New images this morning from the island of Dominica, Hurricane Maria hitting that island with category five force. Look at that, 14 people confirmed dead. Hundreds of homes on the island simply flattened. The normally lush landscape, stripped bare. BRIGGS: A grim scene as well in St. Croix. President Trump declaring

a major disaster, ordering federal aid to supplement recovery efforts there.

We'll begin in Puerto Rico where people are waking up this morning from the National Weather Service. Quote, Puerto Rico is now completely under a flash flood warning. If possible, move to higher ground now.

CNN's Nick Valencia live from San Juan this morning.

Good morning to you, Nick. What are the conditions there?


Communication is still a major issue in Puerto Rico, with the governor saying the state-run power company was heavily affected and that could potentially leave Puerto Ricans without power for months. Meanwhile, the weather is still a factor, though the core of that hurricane has passed us, weather continues to be an issue here. You could see behind me, rain is falling, flash flood warning is still in effect.

And one of the things the governor was worried about, leading up to the storm and afterwards was a potential for flooding. Our news crew found out exactly why yesterday when we ventured into the elements, to try to get a better understanding of just how devastated San Juan was. We didn't make it very far. It took us about a mile and a half, or an hour and a half to go about three or so miles, and much of that had to do with the flooding on the highways.

The interstate here, 26, to get out of San Juan, was blocked, swamp- like conditions. We saw lots of downed trees, downed power lines and telephone poles, making some roads just completely impassable. There's also a curfew in effect from 6:00 p.m. That curfew is expected to be lifted today at 6:00 a.m., but will go back into effect tonight at 6:00 again -- Dave, Christine.

BRIGGS: Nick Valencia live for us in San Juan.

Let's go now to our meteorologist Pedram Javaheri from CNN weather center in Atlanta.

Pedram, this thing is still a monster, gaining strength and now has the Dominican set in its sights?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. You know, it's an incredible to see this storm system what it's been able to do five hours over the mountains of Puerto Rico, guys, and it comes out right back out unscathed and gets up to a major hurricane, category 3 this region.

You know, the storm comes ashore and we know of the 22 weather stations in Puerto Rico, 21 knocked out of commission because of the ferocity of the storm. But on the back side of it right now, we're seeing tremendous storm surge into the Dominican Republic. We're seeing heavy rainfall come on from the southern periphery, right over the island that is made up of about 60 percent of the land area being mountains in Puerto Rico.

Moving about 10 miles an hour, but again, 115 miles per hour sustained winds. Model guidance on this takes it very close to places such as Turks and Caicos, storm surge threat there, meaning water above dry ground, as high as 12 feet is what is expected across that region. It could skirt just to the east of the island, but again, the reverse flow on that does bring the storm surge into the islands and then the models take this pretty high confidence initially to the north and then still beginning kind of veering away from the eastern coast of the United States.

But I want to talk about something, because we know with Jose, it is one of the longest living systems we've seen since 1980.

[04:05:02] Now, we're talking, going on 16 days, this storm has kept its tropical characteristics. It's still parked off of the northeastern coastline. The reason I touch on this is because Maria has the same sort of a track in mind potentially parking off the eastern coast by early next week to the middle of the next week, as a category one hurricane, basically falling into the same trap which are the steering environments and the atmosphere that are so weak across this region.

So, European model in blue, American in red. Note, confidence is high on where it's headed, but it still just goes and meanders off the east coast line, and that could bring in the same threat we've seen with the storm system with Jose, where it's sitting there, it's keeping it unsettled, keeping the shoreline dangerous, and, of course, producing some heavy rainfall at times as well, on the coast.

So, still long ways to go before Maria is out of the picture, guys.

ROMANS: It sure is. And when you think about those folks in Puerto Rico, just devastating for those Americans there. That's an economy that has been in recession for 11 years. It's a government with $70 billion in debt, the largest bankruptcy in history just earlier this year. It will be very, very difficult for them to recover. So, our thoughts and prayers with everyone in Puerto Rico right now.

Let's talk about -- thanks, Pedram. Hurricane Maria is also pummeling the eastern Dominican Republic. The storm is still packing destructive category three winds, flooding and dangerous storm surge, a real concern at this hour.

CNN's Polo Sandoval live for us from Punta Cana with the very, very latest.

What are you seeing there?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, just because we're close to its structure, that's the reason we're not being whipped around by the winds. But even though the storm is off the coast of the Dominican Republican, we certainly are feeling Maria's wrath here.

You can see really the palm trees have been splaying here all night. Winds certainly picked up when Maria regained its category three status, and we do expect those winds to continue.

Right now, the real threat are those wicked winds and (VIDEO GAP) rain will be a massive issue here according to authorities that have been keeping us --


ROMANS: All right. You see it's difficult with communications there, as you can see from the pictures. But we'll go back to Paulo Sandoval when we have a sort of better connection.

Now to the tragedy in Mexico following Tuesday's deadly 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The death toll climbing to 230, with the government declaring three days of mourning. More than 50 people have been rescued alive. Search teams still digging through the rubble of a collapsed elementary school where at least 21 children lost their lives.

Let's get the latest from CNN's Ed Lavandera. He is in Mexico City.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, the frantic search for survivors inside that collapsed school building here in the heart of Mexico City continues. You can see the legion of volunteers that have shown up here on the streets, just surrounding this school, bringing supplies that those rescue workers just a block away might need to get through the evening. Also here moments like this when they urge everybody to be quiet so they can hear what is going on inside that rubble.

I was up close to that building several hours ago, earlier in the day, and it was amazing just to be that close. It really gives you the sense of just a profound impact and what a horrific scene it must be for those rescue workers crawling and channeling their way, trying to make some sort of tunnel, some sort of path to get to those people they believe are still trapped alive inside of that building.

If they can pull somebody out alive, it will be one of these few bright spots in this horrific tragedy that has hit this country of Mexico so strongly, a glimmer of hope to pull out a young child from here. This is definitely one of the stories that has impacted the people of the city and around the world.

That search continues -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: Right, that rescue. Ed Lavandera, thank you for that. The rescue is ongoing this hour. We're going to keep you up-to-date on exactly what's happening there on the scene.

Breaking overnight, another huge cyber attack on the U.S. financial system. The SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, America's top markets regulator, says its corporate filing system was breached and the criminals may have profited from the stolen information. SEC chairman Jay Clayton revealed the hack in a lengthy statement.

He provided few details, but did disclose the target, something called the EDGAR System. It's a huge database of documents filed by publicly traded companies and a flaw let hackers access inside that information. Clayton says that may have allowed elicit gains through trading. The hack was in 2016 but the SEC only discovered the trading connection last month. It is now working with authorities.

This breach fuels concern over cybersecurity at financial institutions, and top government agencies. Remember the credit agency Equifax that recently announced its own breach? That exposed the data of more than 140 million Americans.

BRIGGS: Cyber security, the industry of the future.

ROMANS: It is really -- it is the Wild West.

[04:10:01] It really is. Your information is everywhere.

That SEC hack, what is so troubling is that, you know, company to be public, to be traded on the stock exchange, they have to report every quarter to the SEC. And EDGAR is a filing system for that. To imagine playing around inside EDGAR, hackers for elicit insider trading for gains. That goes to the core of the capitalist democracy.

BRIGGS: Nothing is safe at this point.

Ahead, Republicans moving full steam ahead on their plan to overhaul Obamacare, but the bill already facing fierce bipartisan criticism.


GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: This is like the ping pong game on health care, and the losers in a game like that are the people.




BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: It's certainly frustrating to have to mobilize every couple of months to keep our leaders from inflicting real human suffering on our constituents.


ROMANS: President Obama speaking out against the Republicans' last- ditch effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Of course, his signature legislative achievement.

[04:15:02] But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is apparently ready to bring the measure to the Senate floor as early as next week, despite push-backs from four key colleagues. Right now, Senator Rand Paul is a firm no on what is Graham-Cassidy. Senators John McCain, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, have all expressed concerns. If three of those four Republicans vote no, the bill is dead.

BRIGG: President Trump, meanwhile, firing up the Twitter account, targets Senator Rand Paul. He's most vocal Republican critic of this Graham-Cassidy plan. The president tweeting: Rand Paul is a friend of mine but he is such a negative force when it comes to fixing health care. Graham-Cassidy bill is great, ends Obamacare.

The White House is hoping Senator Graham's close relationship with Senator McCain will help get the measure passed. But this tick of the clock, opposition to Graham-Cassidy intensifies. The latest, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the American Medical Association, AARP, and the American Cancer Society Action Network, among the latest advocacy groups to reject this bill.

CNN's Phil Mattingly has more from Capitol Hill.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dave and Christine, here's what we know just nine days out now from when Senate Republicans have to pass a health care bill if they want to be able to do it with a simple majority vote. They don't have the votes yet, but that doesn't mean they're not slightly ambitious.

Take a listen to what Senator Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: And we're at a point of going to take the bill up next week and to my Republican colleagues, if you got a better idea, now is the time to come forward.

MATTINGLY: Now, guys, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't go that far, but did say it is his intention to hold a vote next week. And that makes sense. Next is about all the time they have left to actually do this.

Now, the big question is, can they get those senators who are undecided or lean no votes or firmly no on board? At least no more than two of them at this point. Their primary targets: Senator John McCain, Senator Lisa Murkowski.

For John McCain, it's always been the same thing. It's process. Now, Senate Republicans kind of went out of their way to schedule a hearing for him next week, be able to check that box. But spoke to McCain on Wednesday, and he made clear that's not the process he's talking about. He's talking about hearings, markups, floor action, a conference, the House having an opportunity to amend this.

When it comes to Lisa Murkowski, again, it's all about the data. They want to make sure she knows they're willing to do whatever they can do get her on board. Whatever the state of Alaska needs, in terms of percentages, in terms of formula, in terms of how that money would be paid out and that block grant, whether or not any can answer the concerns of those two senators, guys, that will dictate whether or not there's a vote and whether or not this passes next week -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Phil Mattingly, thank you for that.

President Trump has a jam-packed schedule today, meting with the leaders of Turkey, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Japan, and South Carolina on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. But he appears to be more focused on health care. The president tweeting, I would not sign Graham/Cassidy if it did not include coverage of preexisting conditions. It does, a great bill, repeal and repeal.

BRIGGS: Here's the problem. The president just might be wrong. This plan lets states wave several key Barack Obama protections for Americans with preexisting conditions. And even though insurers would still have to cover everyone, states could allow carriers to charge people more based on their medical history.

Here's the latest from CNN's Jim Acosta.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, President Trump has wrapped up his first official visit to the United Nations. The president dropped more hints that he is seriously considering withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, but he was also asked about a pressing domestic concern and that is whether the Republicans will succeed in repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Here's what the president had to say about that.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We think this has a very big chance, but Obamacare's only getting worse. It's dysfunctional now. It's totally dysfunctional. And at some point, the Senate is going to force and make a deal. They're just about at that point right now, because Obamacare is so bad.

ACOSTA: Later today, the president returns to his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he's likely to keep tabs on health care negotiations up on Capitol Hill -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. A lot going on for him. Thanks so much for that, Jim Acosta.

And there are major developments in the Russia probe. Special counsel Robert Mueller is now turning sights on President Trump. We have the details, next.


[04:23:48] BRIGGS: All right. Some significant new developments in the Russia investigation. Today, CNN has learned special counsel Robert Mueller's probe is homing in on the president's own actions as president. We're told Mueller is seeking White House documents regarding the dismissals of Michael Flynn and James Comey. Mueller's team also wants to talk to staffers about that initial statement drafted on Air Force One regarding Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer. And they're looking for more details about the meeting the president had with Russian officials where he reportedly bragged about firing Comey, saying, quote, I just fired the head of the FBI, he was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.

ROMANS: A White House attorney says the administration cannot comment on its communications with the special counsel.

Meantime, new developments with President Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort. "The Washington Post" reports Manafort offered to brief a Russian billionaire on the election just two weeks before Donald Trump accepted the nomination. In an e-mail obtained by "The Post" dated July 7th, 2016, Manafort writes this: If he needs private briefings -- plural, by the way -- private briefings, we can accommodate.

[04:25:03] The e-mail is just one of many that are being reviewed, amid multiple investigations into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

BRIGGS: Yes, and that Russian oligarch, one of the richest men in Russian and one of the people that they say that Putin directly talks to in a regular basis. But Paul Manafort clearly the focus of this investigation.

ROMANS: Absolutely.

BRIGGS: All right. Hurricane Maria has strengthened again, now a dangerous category 3 storm. We'll go live to the Dominican Republic and to Puerto Rico, next.


ROMANS: Hurricane Maria regaining strength, back to a dangerous category 3. Conditions right now are deteriorating in the Dominican Republic. And Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico is now 100 percent without power. We have reporters live in San Juan and Dominican Republican.