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Maria Regains Strength As It Ravages Caribbean; Death Toll Climbing In Mexico; Republicans Plan Health Care Vote. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired September 21, 2017 - 05:30   ET



[05:31:10] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Hurricane Maria regaining strength, back now to a dangerous category three. Conditions worsening in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, now 100 percent without power.

We have reporters live in San Juan and 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. Sleepless nights, anguished parents on the ground, that rescue operation ongoing as the death toll rises to 250.


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. Does this bill have a chance with nine days left to cram it through?

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

A fascinating revelation from Sen. Chuck Grassley on just that in a few moments.

ROMANS: Oh, yes. I'm Christine Romans. Nice to see you all this morning -- this morning at 32 minutes past the hour.

Up first, the devastation and darkness in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. One hundred percent of the island nation without power this morning.

Hurricane Maria's category four winds simply devastating, overwhelming Puerto Rico's power grid. It could be knocked out for months. Power could be out for months.

At least one person killed by debris. Authorities admitting the number of casualties in some areas simply unknown. The government completely disconnected from the southeast part of the island with zero communications.

New images this morning from the island of Dominica. Hurricane Maria hitting that island with category five force, flattening some buildings, wiping away parts of communities.

Fourteen people confirmed dead there, hundreds of homes on the island gone. 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 begin, though, in Puerto Rico where people are waking up this morning to a 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 live from San Juan this morning. Nick, we assume you are on higher ground. What are you seeing this morning?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are on a hotel balcony so it gives us a little better perspective here of the damage and the devastation that came through here with that category four hurricane.

If you're having trouble this morning getting in touch with your family and friends here on the island territory you are not alone. Our social media accounts have been flooded with requests and efforts to try to get in touch with family here. The problem is you may have to wait for months.

The governor here, Ricardo Rossello, saying that the state-run power company was severely damaged -- wrecked, even -- and it may be months before that system is back up.

Meanwhile, weather continues to be an issue here. The rain bands -- the outer rain bands of Hurricane Maria continue to drop down here on us. Overnight, that's caused a flash flood warning to go into effect here in Puerto Rico for the entire island.

We saw just how bad it was yesterday when we drove -- tried to drive outside of San Juan and barely made it more than a few miles. The roads were inundated with water. Some of the highways just swamp-like conditions.

Power lines were down, telephone poles were down, and several trees that we came across were blocking roads that we tried to pass to get out of the city center.

Even still, a curfew is still in effect. That is expected to be lifted in about 30 minutes from now but it will go back into effect at 6:00 p.m.

A lot of people here still in desperate need for help -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Nick Valencia live for us in San Juan. Stay safe. Thank you.

[05:35:00] ROMANS: All right. Hurricane Maria also pummeling the eastern Dominican Republic. The storm still, right now, packing destructive category three winds. Flooding and dangerous storm surge, that's the concern at this hour.

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

And I know your communication has been going in and out because you are experiencing this storm -- the beginning of the storm really, right now. So tell me -- tell me what you see and we'll keep you up here as long as we can keep the link up.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT. Yes, absolutely. Communications are definitely a challenge as we have seen with the last several storms.

Like our colleagues in Puerto Rico, we are also at a hotel balcony. It is providing shelter from these relentless winds that just continue. We've seen them for hours.

You look over my shoulder you see the palm trees that are just being whipped by the wind there. These are those bands. This is what an indirect hit feels like.

Remember, the eye of the storm is well off the coast of the Dominican Republic but those outer bands extend well outward. And that includes here in Punta Cana, a very popular tourist destination, a very popular resort city.

We have seen people from the United States. There was a couple that I spoke to that was trying to get to Philadelphia late yesterday. They only made it as far as the airport.

Once it closed down there were no flights going in or out so the results, many people simply hunkered down and they will be waking up to some potential damage here and also, new hope of trying to make it home.

Authorities say that they would like to keep -- would like to reopen the airport later this afternoon but really, that is all going to be up to the weather.

What does that mean for locals, though? They are the ones who will stay behind. They are the ones who face a serious potential for flooding.

Dave and Christine, we have to remember that the Dominican Republic was hit hard by Irma, by Jose. The ground is saturated, the rivers, the streams are swollen. Any precipitation we've seen and that we will see will definitely pose a serious threat for flooding, guys.

ROMANS: Absolutely. All right.

Polo, thank you. Stay safe, keep us posted on developments there.

Glad we could see -- we could get to you -- not on the phone, but actually see you in that report. Thank you, sir.

BRIGGS: All right. To the latest on Hurricane Maria's path and the potential threat to the eastern United States, let's welcome in Pedram Javaheri, our meteorologist in Atlanta. Good morning to you, Pedram.

All right. What will Polo and the Dominican see?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, you know, it's actually the worst that it is right now. The storm sits about 70 miles away from where Polo is in Punta Cana right now.

You see the convection, the thunderstorm activity on the southern fringe of this storm very impressive. In fact, all quadrants of this storm system extremely healthy right now with the center of the storm measuring almost 50 miles across. That is wider than Puerto Rico at its widest point.

So this storm system beginning to get its act together -- beginning to get more reorganized here over the next couple of hours.

In fact, the National Hurricane Center thinks this could strengthen, potentially, to a strong category three, as it is right now -- a base category three. We think it could up close to a category four inside the next couple of days.

The entire island underneath what is a flash flood warning, meaning flooding is imminent or occurring. Of course, tremendous mountain ranges across this region. A lot of this really enhancing the rainfall.

Up to 35 inches could come down in a 36-hour period, so you do the math. That's about an inch an hour coming down across the region for an extended period.

The storm begins to move away and the threat increases for the Turks and Caicos. Up to 12-foot storm surge. That is 12 feet of water above what is usually dry grounds across that region.

Elevation there, they don't have 10 to 12 feet to give near the coastal communities so that is a complete decimation of some of those islands as the storm nears over the next 24 hours.

But you notice it stays a category three we think sometime until early Sunday morning. And then, cooler waters and a little bit of wind shear begin to bring this storm back down to a two and eventually, a category one.

The latest models coming in here shifting the track a little farther to the east. That is fantastic news if this continues to play out. Model agreement is pretty good as well with the American overlaid on top of the European generally in the same spot going into Monday -- next week.

Notice they kind of meander close to the coastline but want to continue pushing this away from the United States. That would be excellent news if this is, indeed, how it plays out. It's still a ways out but it looks like, at least the latest run, it is a little better news as far as the long-range track, guys.

BRIGGS: Sure. Thank you, Pedram.

ROMANS: All right. Now to the tragedy unfolding in Mexico following Tuesday's deadly 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The death toll has risen now, 250, with the government declaring three days of mourning.

More than 50 people have been rescued alive. You've seen some of those rescues here on television.

Search teams still digging through the rubble of that collapsed elementary school where at least 21 children were killed.

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 the school, bringing all of the supplies that those rescue workers just a block away might need to get through the evening.

[05:40:00] And you also hear moments like this where they urge everybody to be quiet so that rescue workers can continue to 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 what a profound impact and what a horrific scene it must be for those rescue workers who are 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 these stories that has impacted the people of this city and around the world. That search continues, Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Ed Lavandera, thank you so much for that.

BRIGGS: All right. 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 a ping-pong game on health care and the losers in a game like that are the people.



[05:45:20] ROMANS: The latest now on the Republican's last-ditch effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell apparently ready to bring this measure to the Senate floor as early as next week despite pushback from four key colleagues.

Right now, Sen. Rand Paul is a firm no on Graham-Cassidy, and senators John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski have all expressed concerns. If three of those four Republicans vote no this bill is dead.

BRIGGS: All right. Let's go live to Washington and welcome in CNN political reporter Tal Kopan. Good morning to you, Tal.

ROMANS: Good morning.


BRIGGS: Let's talk about those three with concerns. Their states, according to Avalere Health, would lose money from where we are now under Obamacare. Avalere Health says Maine, Arizona, Alaska, where those three senators are from, will get less money.

But that's not where the debate is being framed. Of course, it really comes down to late-night comedy right now because Sen. Bill Cassidy is in this battle with Jimmy Kimmel over preexisting conditions and how this bill takes care of the vulnerable.

Here's the back and forth. Cassidy, who is a physician, as well, on "NEW DAY" and Kimmel, last night.


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 -- they'll be billions of more -- billions more dollars to provide -- to provide health insurance coverage for those in those states who have been passed by, by Obamacare, and we protect those with preexisting conditions.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, ABC "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!": 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 where you cut $243 billion 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: Call him the late-night comedian. I think he's grasped that bill more than probably a few senators at the moment.

But, affordable is the word that is in the bill. It is adequate and affordable. Where are we headed on this discussion?

KOPAN: Yes, that's right, Dave.

And keep in mind when you actually read legislation, which some of us have to do and those on the folks write it, it can be extremely confusing and you can have words in there like states must prove they can provide affordable and adequate coverage.

But just because that means something to the average American, it doesn't mean that's how the government or the courts or the states are going to interpret it.

And so, that actually leaves a lot more leeway than it might seem like to the states and that's sort of what this bill boils down to. It gives states incredible flexibility to determine how they want to approach health care.

And, in fact, one Republican, at first, was concerned about the bill because he was worried that blue states would go too far to the left with their health care policies, which gives you an indication of just how wide the latitude is for states.

And, Jimmy Kimmel is right about one other thing which is many of those states will end up with less money over the long-term to do it. And so that is really where the dispute is, is how much authority states have and how little money some of them may have to do that.

ROMANS: You know -- and the conventional wisdom -- the operating assumption -- the theory here from Republicans is that they promised this and they've got to deliver or they are going to face -- they're going to face a reckoning down the road in 2018 and beyond.

And you heard from my home state senator Chuck Grassley yesterday who really put this in starkly political terms when he was talking to Iowa reporters yesterday about this.

He said, "You know, I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn't be considered. The 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."

So, critics immediately said wait a minute, you're admitting that this is bad but it's more important to -- for political reasons than policy reasons? What do you make of that comment?

KOPAN: Well look, you hear all the time don't let perfect be the enemy of good, and there may be some Republicans who see this --

ROMANS: You also hear you could put lipstick on a pig and it's still a pig.

KOPAN: Sure, there's an idiom for everything.

But, you know, there's certainly Republicans who see this as their last best shot to fulfill a campaign promise. And while that is certainly a political calculation, it's also understandable if you feel that voters sent you to Washington with a mandate. You want to live up to that mandate.

But admitting that the policy of the bill and the substance of the bill is factoring less into the calculation doesn't look good. It's attack ad material. Chuck Grassley may want that one back.

[05:50:09] And it certainly undercuts the idea that this bill is gaining momentum because of what it does. And, in fact, everything is pointing to the fact that the authority to do this with only 50 votes runs out at the end of the month and Republicans are just racing the clock at this point to try to get it done that way.

BRIGGS: And no one's mentioning the House. We don't know if that bill would sail through the House. That's a tough sell at this point.

But all right, we've got to talk about this Russia investigation. I want your papers. That's Bob Mueller there, the special counsel, because this "New York Times" reporting that it submitted documents from the White House on 13 different areas. In particular, focused on a couple of things.

The firing of James Comey, the former FBI director. The firing of national -- of Michael Flynn.

And that meeting in the Oval Office with the Russians -- Sergey Kislyak, where President Trump allegedly said -- you know, called him a nut job -- James Comey. Said that firing him relieves some great stress and tension on that Russia investigation.

ROMANS: And you remember that meeting, how the pictures even came out from the Russian media.

BRIGGS: Right, with the big smile and the shaking hands.


BRIGGS: How does this tell us this investigation has changed or, at least, not solely focused on Russian interference in the election?

KOPAN: Well, this is what special counsels do and Bob Mueller was hired and lauded as the type of person to go where the facts lead him and if he smells crimes, if he smells issues he's going to hunt them up. This is exactly what the White House feared. What they've tried to block with Trump tweeting, you know, stay away from my finances or speaking about that. So, in fact, this is exactly what the White House was concerned about and they're absolutely feeling the heat from this.

ROMANS: All right. Tal Kopan, nice to see you this Thursday morning. Thank you.

A lot going on in your neighborhood there. Thanks.

KOPAN: Thanks.

ROMANS: It's time for a look at what's coming up on "NEW DAY."

BRIGGS: Alisyn Camerota joining us.

We understand H.R. McMaster may be joining you.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: In fact, that is going to happen.

So we're going to be talking all about what you guys just have, that the clock is ticking on all of these urgent deadlines. Of course, health care. So we're going to find out where Republicans are on this new Cassidy-Graham plan, so that's one.

Then the Iran nuclear deal. As you guys have been discussing, the president says he's made a decision. What is that?

So, H.R. McMaster is going to be here live with us and obviously, we're going to get him to shed light on what the thinking is inside the White House on the Iran nuclear deal.

And then, the clock, of course, is urgently ticking for the 3.5 million people in Puerto Rico. They are trapped without power on that island. There are flash flood warnings.

It is as bad as you can imagine in the wake of Maria. So how are they going to help -- get help, when are they going to get help? We have our reporters there.

ROMANS: It's so fascinating, you know.

On the Iran nuke deal, you know, if this president pulls out of that what kind of authority does he have to make a deal with North Korea, you know, if the United States doesn't abide by the agreements made by the American administration --

BRIGGS: Right, yes.

CAMEROTA: These are the questions --

ROMANS: Yes, all right.

CAMEROTA: -- that we will put to H.R. McMaster.

ROMANS: Thank you very much. Nice to see you.

BRIGGS: See you in a bit.

ROMANS: Facebook being criticized -- sharply criticized for its advertisements. This time it's for allowing ads to target anti- Semitic users.

"CNN Money Stream," next.


[05:57:45] ROMANS: All right, let's get a check on "CNN Money Stream" this morning.

You can see here how global stocks are following up on another record day on Wall Street. We have futures here down a little bit.

But yesterday, bank stocks were the star, encouraged by the words of Fed Chief Janet Yellen. She said the U.S. economy is strong. She hinted at another interest rate hike later this year.

And even more historic, Yellen says the Fed can now begin unwinding a decade of emergency stimulus, a signal that that crisis is officially over and the Fed thinks the economy will remain strong and unemployment low.

Investors liked it. The Dow is now up more than 13 percent this year.

And, Warren Buffett predicts the Dow could reach over a million in 100 years. That's roughly 45 times its current level. And I won't be around to see that.

Sheryl Sandberg says she is disgusted that Facebook helped ads target anti-Semitic users.

Facebook's CEO weighing on the revelation that advertisers can direct their ads toward users with terms like "Jew hater" in their profiles, writing, "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 them last week.

Sandberg says Facebook will add more human reviewers to oversee its ad system.

Just a real fail there.

All right, thanks for joining us. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs.

"NEW DAY" starts right now with the latest from the Dominican and Puerto Rico.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: This is the most devastating storm in modern history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're looking at four to six months without electricity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This hurricane, sadly, lived up to its epic expectations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Mexico, rescuers are racing against the clock to find earthquake survivors trapped beneath the rubble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rescue workers have made contact with a young girl who they believe is still alive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mueller's team requesting information surrounding the dismissals of Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're doing everything they can to see what evidence there is of obstruction of justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly, Mr. Manafort had a series of relationships with the folks in Russia. At some appropriate point we're going to want to bring him in.