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Hurricane Maria Plunges Puerto Rico Into Darkness; Death Toll Climbing in Mexico; Republicans Plan Health Care Vote. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired September 21, 2017 - 04:30   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

[04:30:02] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And in Mexico City, a rush to save a little girl trapped under rubble from Tuesday's devastating earthquake. That rescue operation ongoing, as the death toll rises now to 230.

ROMANS: All right. President Trump pushes Republicans to overhaul Obamacare again, as the Senate plans for a vote as early as next week. Does that bill have a chance?

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs.

They have less than about 10 days now to remake one-sixth of our nation's economy.

But up first, Puerto Rico plunged into darkness and despair by Hurricane Maria. One hundred percent of the island nation now without power this morning. Hurricane Maria's category 4 winds devastating Puerto Rico's power grid, which could be knocked down for months.

At least one person killed by debris, with authorities admitting the number of casualties in some areas remains unknown. The government completely disconnected from 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 5 force. Fourteen people confirmed dead there. Hundreds of homes on the islands flattened. The normally lush landscape, as you can see, stripped bare.

ROMANS: And we're now getting a look at what happened in St. Croix. A grim scene there. President Trump declaring a major disaster ordering federal aid to supplement recovery efforts. Look at these pictures, just utter devastation.

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

CNN's Nick Valencia is there. He is live from San Juan for us this morning. You know, an economy, 11 years in recession, it is just the worst possible time for a once in a generation hurricane like this.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean, they haven't seen this in nearly 100 years, Christine, you know, and it's the Hurricane Felipe that people talked about back in 1928, the last time the island territory felt something like this. Not many people were alive, certainly not many people may not remember that storm.

But this one, they probably will. This category 4 hurricane that landed on Puerto Rico still causing communications problems. Those that do have power from the state-run power company are running -- they don't have access to that, I should say. Those that have do electricity are running out generators.

Communications continues to be a problem, as does the weather. The core of that hurricane has passed over but the outer bands continue to affect us. We're still getting rained on right now. Lightning and thunder were heard in the distance just about an hour ago and flooding is also a major issue.

It was the governor that was very concerned about that after the storm, worry that that would lead to potentially more debts. And we saw first hand yesterday when we ventured out into the elements, roads were blocked, impassable.

We tried to get out of San Juan, only making it a few miles and that took us about an hour and a half. And if it wasn't for the flooding that was causing issues, it was the downed trees, the telephone poles and power lines that were in the road.

But an incredible amount of resilience here among the Puerto Rican people. It was just a few hours after the storm that we saw people already out in front of their homes and business, cleaning up debris. We should also mention, a curfew is in effect. That's expected to be lifted at 6:00 a.m. but will go back into effect at 6:00 p.m. -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. And it could be a long time before there's power to the entire island. Thanks so much for that. Nick Valencia for us in San Juan.

VALENCIA: You bet.

BRIGGS: Hurricane Maria also pummeling the eastern Dominican Republican. The storm is still packing destructive category three winds, flooding and dangerous storm surge a real concern at this hour.

And CNN's Polo Sandoval live on the phone with us from Punta Cana with the very latest.

Polo, what are you seeing there? POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Oh, Dave, you know,

it is still dark here, so it's very difficult to measure the extent of damage that we've seen here and what is a popular resort city, as you mentioned in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic.

However, we had seen these winds continue to increase, particularly in the last couple of hours, Maria hurricane strength and was then a categorized a level, a category 3 storm. What I can tell you, though, is that there are obviously many people that have been hunkering down for the most part from what we have seen, many people are listening to authorities. They are staying indoors. The hotels are serving as a shelter for us, not much of the staff here, called it quits 2:00 p.m. yesterday afternoon and went home. There is obviously a skeleton staff here that's still in place.

As for hotel occupancy, initially was at about 20 percent here with significantly increased, much of that in part due to the tourists. Many people hoping to get out late yesterday, however, only made it as far as the airport. I spoke to one couple that was trying to make it to Philadelphia.

[04:35:01] They didn't -- they are basically hunkering down here in this hotel. And there was another couple that was also made it as far as the airport, saw their plane coming in and was quickly departed.

So, this is the reality for many people that have been waiting out the storm here, and are hoping to make it home hopefully tomorrow, but at this point, though, Christine and Dave, the situation obviously conditions continue to deteriorate and likely will in the coming hours and that's not even assessing the flooding potential we could see in the coming days with torrential rain -- guys.

BRIGGS: Yes, and those people also suffered some impacts from Irma ahead of Maria.

Polo Sandoval with us on the phone from Punta Cana, thanks. Stay safe. We'll check in with you at 5:00.

ROMANS: All right. Now, this thing is still out there. It's a category 3.

For the latest on the path of Maria and potential threat to the eastern United States, let's go live to the CNN weather center and bring in meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.

Where is the thing go from here?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hey, guys, the storm system is moving to the north and west right now. Look at the symmetry and the organization around the eye, even after spending so much time over Puerto Rico and becoming very well organized. And we know there is very little shear above the storm to weaken it in the immediate future. There is very little in the way of cooler waters in the immediate path of it as well.

So, heavy rainfall and thunderstorm being reported across portions of western areas of Puerto Rico, even on the northern portions, out towards San Juan seeing some very strong thunderstorm, even at this hour. The storm system keeps pushing to the north and west over the next couple of days. We know the flood threats, the flash flood warning, meaning flooding is imminent or occurring island-wide right now.

The officials at the National Weather Service which are not anymore in San Juan because the power is out, they're actually reporting and forecasting the whether from Miami's National Weather Service office for San Juan.

And you take a look at this region, of course, it is tremendous mountains in this region and officials are saying, if you can get into higher elevations to get out of the water's path, do so. And, of course, it is just a dangerous goal when you consider the 13 river gauges here, ten of them reporting major flood terms at this hour. The storm surge threats remain extreme, in particular for the Turks and Caicos where water levels above dry ground could be as much as 10, 11 or even 12 feet high. And that is a remarkable for an island that doesn't have 12 feet to give.

The track beyond this, guys, takes it up towards the eastern coast line. Still is a major hurricane by Friday and to Saturday, gradual weakening into cooler waters Sunday and Monday but at that point, we could be in a place where Jose has been, essentially stuck between an area of high pressure to its east and also to its west. If that's the case, the storm could be with us for the next week or so meandering off the eastern seaboard, guys.

ROMANS: All right. Pedram, thank you for keeping an eye out for us. Certainly, just an ugly looking satellite.

BRIGGS: And a tough couple of weeks. And now to the other national disaster, the tragedy unfolding Mexico following Tuesday's 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The death toll climbing to 230, with the government declaring three days of mourning. Over 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 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: All right, Ed Lavandera. You wonder how the rain is factoring into all of that, too.


ROMANS: Just surreal. A lot of hard work going on in the ground right now.

All right. Republicans moving full steam ahead on their plan to overhaul Obamacare, but this bill is 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.




[04:43:51] 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.


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

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.

ROMANS: President Trump firing up the Twitter account, targets Senator Rand Paul, the most vocal Republican critic of this Graham- Cassidy plan. The president says, quote: 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 with each tick of the clock, opposition to Graham-Cassidy intensifies. 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, the very groups that provide health care and represent seniors.

And check out this comment, though, from Iowa's Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. He said this to Iowa reporters yesterday. He said, you know, I could maybe give you ten reason why this bill shouldn't be considered. But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That's pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the 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.


BRIGGS: Phil Mattingly all over it.

Meanwhile, Bill Cassidy fighting back against talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who accuses the Louisiana senator of lying to his face. Kimmel skewered Cassidy earlier this week, claiming the senator promised him that a Republican health care overhaul would include protections for patients with preexisting conditions.

Cassidy telling CNN Kimmel just doesn't get it.


SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: I'm sorry he does not understand. Under Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson, more people will have coverage and we protect those with preexisting conditions. States like Maine, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, there will be billions more dollars to provide health insurance coverage for those states who have been passed by, by Obamacare and we protect those with preexisting conditions.


BRIGGS: All right. Kimmel, who has a five-month old son with congenital heart disease refusing to let the matter rest. He fired back at Senator Cassidy last night.


JIMMY KIMMEL, LATE NIGHT HOST: I get it. I don't understand because I'm a talk show host, right? Well, then help me out. Which part don't I understand? Is it the part you cut $243 billions from federal health care assistance?

Am I not understanding the part where states would be allowed to let insurance companies price you out of coverage for having preexisting conditions? Maybe I don't understand the part of your bill in which federal funding disappears completely after 2026. Or maybe it was the part where the plans are no longer required to pay for essential health benefits like maternity care or pediatric visits?


BRIGGS: Kimmel went on to say there's no way President Trump read the Graham/Cassidy bill if he's calling it, quote, great.

ROMANS: All right. President Trump has a jam-packed schedule today, meting with the leaders of Turkey, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Japan, and South Korea 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 replace. BRIGGS: Here's the problem. The president may not be entirely

accurate. This plan would let states wave several key Obamacare protections for Americans with preexisting conditions, 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.

[04:50:01] 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, Jim Acosta. Thanks, Jim.

The Graham/Cassidy bill gives states more control over health care but could leave millions of Americans paying more. Basically, it lets states choose how they provide health care. For example, through subsidies or high risk pools.

The catch: it shrinks federal funding and some states will be harder hit than others, particular those participating in that Medicaid expansion. The bill eliminates that expansion and subsidies. Instead distributing funding through block grants. Twenty states would lose up to 60 percent of their current funding by 2026 and less money means states will probably cut enrollment to Medicaid and Medicare or offer fewer benefits.

Replay of the tape, many industry groups already oppose this thing, including the AARP, American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and two major health insurance groups. BlueCross BlueShield Association fears the bill will increase uncertainty in the marketplace, therefore jeopardizing Americans' choice of health plans.

And BlueCross BlueShield disagrees with the president who says this protects anybody with a preexisting condition. They say no, it doesn't.

BRIGGS: Well, it's interesting, the states that are getting help, the states that are getting hurt, some of the states that are getting less money include Arizona, where John McCain is from, Maine, this is according to one independent analysis. Some of the key states where the senators on the fence come from will do worse under Graham/Cassidy. So, this debate far from over indeed.

ROMANS: All right. Facebook once again criticized for its advertisements, this time for allowing ads to target anti-Semitic users. Details next.


[04:56:16] BRIGGS: Democrats are vowing to look into report that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price used a private jet for five work-related trips, costing taxpayers some big bucks. Price flew on a private jet last week when he went on business trips to Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. The travel ultimately costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, more than if he had flown commercial. The spokesperson telling CNN Price flew on private jets because he had a, quote, packed schedule.

ROMANS: All right. First Lady Melania Trump condemning bullying. In her first ever U.N. speech, she called on world leaders to take responsibility for guiding the next generation.


MELANIA TRUMP, U.S. FIRST LADY: By, our own example, we must teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit. We must remember that they are watching and listening. So, we must never miss an opportunity to teach life's many ethical lessons along the way. As adults we are not merely responsible. We are accountable.


ROMANS: The first lady's mission to curb cyberbullying raising a few eyebrows because of her husband's aggressive attacks on Twitter.

Let's get a check on CNN "Money Stream" this morning. Global stocks mixed after more records on Wall Street. The Dow and the S&P, fresh highs driven by bank stocks. That's because of what happened at the Federal Reserve. The Central Bank plans to start unwinding its balance sheet next month and the Fed hinted at another rate hike this year.

The Dow is now up more than 13 percent this year. But how high can it go? Warren Buffet predicts is could reach over a million in 100 years. That's roughly 45 times its current level.

And when it gets there, let's have a party, Dave Briggs, in 100 years.

BRIGGS: Let's do that. I'm in.

ROMANS: In the wake of huge Equifax security fail, Janet Yellen, the Fed chief, has a warning, monitor your credit report. The Fed chair urging consumers to monitor their credit reports. The Equifax breach exposed the financial data of 143 million of you.

Yellen added that cyber attacks are the most significant threat to the financial sector. In many cases, folks, you don't have to pay to monitor. You can go to By law, you should be able to see them for free once a year. Check very, very closely.

Sheryl Sandberg is disgusted, disgusted, her word, that Facebook helped ads target anti-Semitic users. Facebook's COO weighing in on last week's revelation that advertisers can target users with terms like "Jew hater" in their profiles. Writing this: We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way and that is on us.

Facebook immediately removed the anti-Semitic categories after news outlet "ProPublica" discovered it on Friday.

Sandberg added, the company will add more human reviewers to oversee its ad system.

That "ProPublica" report got an awful lot of attention just for how easy it was for really bad characters to be able to manipulate Facebook to target their bad content.

BRIGGS: We still need to see some of the things that were used though.

ROMANS: Oh, in the 2016 campaign.

BRIGGS: See the 2016 campaign --

ROMANS: You can see -- you can see the anti-Semitic stuff. It's all right there.

BRIGGS: That is available, on the Russian troll farm


BRIGGS: All right. EARLY START continues right now with the latest on hurricane Maria headed towards the Dominican Republic.


ROMANS: Hurricane Maria regaining strength, now back to a dangerous category 3. Conditions deteriorating right now at this hour in Dominican Republic. And Puerto Rico wakes up 100 percent without power. We have reporters in San Juan and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

BRIGGS: In Mexico City, a rush to save a little girl trapped under rubble from Tuesday's devastating earthquake.