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San Juan Mayor: "Damn it, This is not a Good News Story"; Millions of Puerto Ricans still Lack Power, Water or Gas; HHS Secretary under Fire for Private Flights. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 29, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.


Nine horrible days after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. The government's response is increasing but it is not enough if you ask anyone on the island of Puerto Rico. The need is colossal, almost indescribable. Yesterday, the acting head of Homeland Security told a reporter she is, quote, "very satisfied" with relief operations in Puerto Rico so far and went as far as to call the efforts, quote, "a good news story."

BERMAN: And those words came as a shock to the mayor of San Juan.


MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: Maybe from where she's standing it's a good news story. When you're drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it's not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from their buildings because -

I'm sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me. You know, get -- I would ask her to come down here and visit the towns and then make a statement like that, which frankly, it is an irresponsible statement and it contracts with the statements of support that I have been getting since yesterday when I got that call from the White House. This is - dammit this is not a good news story. This is a people are dying story.


BERMAN: We'll have a chance to speak to the mayor again in just a moment. The secretary of Homeland Security will arrive in Puerto Rico and wonder how she will be received after her good news comments, also headed to Puerto Rico, heavy rain, possible flash floods that could last throughout the weekend.

We have reporters across the island. Let's begin with CNN's Rafael Romo. Rafael, what are you seeing? RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDIT: Hey, John and Poppy, just in the last hour we heard from Governor Ricardo Rossello who gave an explanation as to why all of these thousands and thousands of containers are stuck here at the port of San Juan where we are this morning. And he was saying that earlier reports that there were 10,000 containers with aid for people affected by the hurricane. That is not just the case. He said that none of these containers belong to the federal government, do not contain aid, they belong to private companies, and he said we are working to have these companies move the containers swiftly or we're offering to buy the supplies from them so that we can distribute that to the people who are in need right now after the hurricane.

The governor, this is the verbatim, he said, "We will not allow that our food and water just remain there due to lack of executing." Also, I wanted to give you guys an update, 90 branches, bank branches, have reopened on the island, although with some restrictions. Cash is beginning to be a problem because many merchants are not taking credit cards. They're only taking cash, precisely because of lack of power. 36 hospitals, according to the governor, are now operational out of a total of 69. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: Rafael Romo, thank you for your reporting. And keep an eye, of course, on the port of San Juan and when these containers with this aid actually get out to the people. Thank you so much.

So much could happen so fast if Puerto Rico had the fuel and the resources necessary. Boris Sanchez is at a gas station where this morning folks that were lined up all night are finally getting some.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Poppy. Yes, the line is truly impressive. We're going to swing around and show it to you quickly. I counted more than 100 cars, I stopped counting after 100, goes more than a quarter mile down the block and then turns around and continues. These people have been waiting in line for hours. Those at the front of the line now have been here for about six or seven hours.

I actually spoke to the guy that was here first. He was the first in line early this morning when the police showed up and helped open up this gas station. He told me that he got here about 9:00 p.m. last night. They ran out of gas at that point so he decided just to park his car and go to sleep. Just like him, many have camped out hoping to get their hands on some fuel.

I heard you mention cash shortages earlier. There's no credit at this gas station so you have to have cash. The ATM here is also broken. I want to show you very quickly what people are also filling up aside from their cars. You see all these canisters. People are using not just gas canisters, some have brought laundry detergent bottles that were empty, paint canisters that are empty, anything they can use to put gas in it they are using. Not just for the cars, obviously for generators at home because they lack electricity.

[10:05:05] And it's not just gasoline that they're running short of. I spoke to a woman that was here in line who told me she waited several hours in line outside a grocery store yesterday and was immensely disappointed when she finally got inside because there was no water there. The shelves were bare.

The worst news, there's more rain on the way. For the next at least two or three days, there's the danger of possible flash flooding in some areas, including a neighborhood that we were in yesterday. It's called Kano Martin Pena and there's a channel that goes through it and on a typical rainy day, it floods. During Hurricane Maria, there was sewage getting into homes. You can imagine that in that area where we saw dozens of roofs come off of people's houses, getting that rain over the next few days is going to be crippling. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: Yes. Boris Sanchez for us at the gas station. Let's talk more about the weather forecast and that rain that is coming. Chad Myers at our Weather Center right now. Chad, what can they expect?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know a typical summer day shower, but this is the problem, they can't even afford that. The ground is completely saturated with flash flood watches posted everywhere. Behind me is kind of a colorful map but it tells the story. Everywhere that you see purple, which is almost the entire map, there was 10 inches of rain or more and there's gray in here somewhere between 30 and 40 inches of rain fell.

Now, I would love to show you the radar, but I can't. Because this is what the radar looks like in Puerto Rico. There should be a nice beautiful white ball on top and on the inside there should be a horn, kind of a satellite dish that would spin around and pick up where it is raining. It doesn't exist. It was completely blown away in the storm.

There is no even way for them to know how much rain is falling or for that matter, where it's falling, other than the satellite. Not a really good indicator of what's going on. Not an organized tropical storm heading back there. It is just a typical day in the tropics, but one, two, three inches of rainfall when you have ground that's already a bunch of mud, is not going to soak in. And that's the problem they're anticipating here. So the BVI, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix, Vieques, even into Puerto Rico itself on the east side of the island. That's where the heaviest rain will be and that's where the flood threat is going to be the highest. John and Poppy?

HARLOW: All right. We'll be watching all weekend. Chad Myers, thank you so much. Of course this is going to add to the difficulty that they are having as hopefully new supplies are arriving. I believe we have the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz. Can she hear us? Madam Mayor, can you hear us?

CRUZ: Yes, ma'am. How are you doing?

HARLOW: OK. Great, we are fine.

CRUZ: Yes, ma'am, I can hear you.

HARLOW: We are fine. The question for you, really, is how are you doing? We heard you this morning, the exasperation so clear. This is not a good news story. This is a life and death story. People are drinking out of rivers, people are dying, you said. What is it, do you think, that the administration does not get, because these images are all over the place?

CRIUZ: Well, you know, I don't think it's that they don't get it. They do get it. I've had multiple meetings and conversations with members of the administration and they do get the dire situation. Somebody this morning said that the logistics to get things to people were overwhelming. Well, maybe we're thinking advanced logistics and we should just think go back to basics.

I said this morning, if the ports don't have enough energy to pull down the containers. You just open the doors and you do it the old- fashioned way. Whatever you can carry, right? You move from one place to another. The distribution centers need to be much closer and need to provide a lot more.

I was asked yesterday for the first time to go to a distribution center about 30 miles from San Juan. Now, that's 30 miles from San Juan to get three pallets of water and three pallets of food. Of course, anything is important. But it wouldn't let me notch more logical in terms of logistical support to get 21 pallets of water and 21 pallets of food, whatever you're going to give me, give me for a week's work. So that way, I can have my people working where they're supposed and I don't have to use the diesel.

Now, that's San Juan metropolitan area. Just think about the small town of Comaria which is almost in the center of Puerto Rico. Yesterday, I hosted the mayor of that town that came. Literally crying, saying, look, I have no food. I have no water. I have no doctors in my facility. I have no way of getting though. I have spoken loud and clear. I don't know what else to do.

So, I want to thank the White House. I got a call yesterday from staffer at the White House. And they sort of deputize two members of FEMA into San Juan. So I walked to them and said, look, I have this mayor here, whatever I get today, can I share with them and then you will replace it. And they said yes.

[10:10:04] So the FEMA people are hard-working people and a conversation that I had with Mr. Bossert yesterday was a very good conversation. So I think they do get it. I think the intentions are there. We just need to find a way around the logistics that seem to be getting in the way of literally saving lives.

BERMAN: Right.

The president was writing this morning about Puerto Rico and one of the things he wrote is, "The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes." And then he wrote, "Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding."

Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding. How do you read that? What decisions have to be made about the cost of this rebuilding? Is it going to cost what it's going to cost?

CRUZ: Well, first of all, first thing's first, let's not talk about rebuilding. Let's not talk about the depth. Let's talk about the emergency, the humanitarian crises and saving lives. Then we can sit down and say, look, how do we want to rebuild? To what purpose do we want to rebuild? What are the objectives?

I will tell you one thing, I have given an executive order saying hey, everything that is bought from now on at the municipality in terms of street lights have to be solar panel. Nothing can be electric. Anything that we're going to rebuild, from the municipality's standpoint in terms of housing cannot be houses made out of wood and zinc tops because we are going to be repeating the same thing.

People also know that they have to go back to work. So people have to stop looking at the government for everything and each one of their needs and here we see a clear example. These are the business people in the Condado area, which is our tourist area, that have joined the clamor for cleaning.

We are doing everything we can. We're two streets down working from the municipality's standpoint. So what I would urge everybody is just to talk about the task in hand. What lives can we save today? Once we stabilize it, then, let's talk about the depth. You know what -- there aren't going to be anybody to pay the debt.

HARLOW: And Mayor on that point -

CRUZ: If they die nobody is going to pay the debt.

HARLOW: And Mayor on that point of saving people right now, you earlier called some of these nursing homes, elderly care centers -- you said they're becoming human cages. What do you mean?

CRUZ: Yes. Well, there's no diesel and they have no way of getting more diesel because diesel has been funneled initially to the hospitals because we have a dire situation there. So what is happening is that most of our nursing homes have people that have inability to move. So they're stuck in the 14th floor. They have no water. They have no food. They -- most of them are insulin dependent.

And if you allow me just for one second, we have been told that there are these little canisters that run on a nine volt battery that keep things cold. If anyone can contact me at the municipality for that because we have thousands of people that are insulin dependent and they're going crazy looking for ice in order to keep their insulin. So if anybody out there is listening please contact me so that through your station, of course, Poppy, I'm sure if you make a call they'll listen to you. I'm a big fan of this show. I tape it and watch it later on.

But what is happening is that they're dying, literally, we have a task force of people, doctors, medics, that are volunteers that are going canvassing each one of the retirement homes. Out of one retirement home a few days ago we took 11 elderly, severely dehydrated. We have taken people that need their chemotherapy, that haven't had dialysis for seven or eight days.

And you're right -- President Trump is right, it is two hurricanes. We are concentrated on Maria, but Irma sort of set the setting for the outstanding devastation that we're seeing.

BERMAN: Mayor, thank you so much for being with us. And again, keep us posted as to what we can do and how we can help. We appreciate it.

CRUZ: Thank you very much. And if anyone can hear us about those little canisters, please it will help us save lives.

BERMAN: You got it.

BERMAN: All right. About a quarter past the hour right now, price check on Tarmac 3. The health secretary's travel controversy goes beyond private jets in the U.S. He's now going international. Plus -


LT. GEN. JAY SILVERIA, HEAD, AIR FORCE ACADEMY: You can't treat someone from another race or different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.


HARLOW: That powerful message from leadership at the Air Force Academy, after racial slurs were found on the door of five African- American cadets.


[10:19:10] HARLOW: Tom Price says taxpayers will not, quote, "pay a dime for his travel on private jets," vowing to reimburse part of the cost, but sources tell CNN that may not be enough to soothe the concerns of his boss, the president. This morning, the controversy widens.

BERMAN: We're talking about other trips taken by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, overseas trips on military jets this time with his wife. When it's all said and done the total cost for Price's travel could add up to more than a million dollars. We should note that military travel is very different than travel on charter jets.

Here to discuss, CNN political commentators Ben Ferguson, Marc Lamont Hill. Ben, I want to start with the secretary's claim that taxpayers won't pay a dime for his seat but the secretary might not know is that the seat doesn't fly itself, right? The seat needs the plane and the crew.



BERMAN: Right? So he's not paying for the flights. He's paying for his seat on the flights. Is this the right message to send?

[10:20:05] FERGUSON: Yes. Well one, I think there needs to be overall government reform on this one. It's been that way for a long time where, for example, if someone in the government flies and they have a position and their family members fly with them they reimburse the government for usually what is the equivalent of a first-class ticket. I think that rule needs to change. That's something that's been in place for multiple administrations. - So this brings light to that which is a good thing.


BERMAN: But Ben -- aside -- he took the flights when he could have driven a car or taken a train. So again, I was asking specifically about his response. --

FERGUSON: That's the second point. This was a stupid move. It was a Bush League move by someone that is smart enough and intelligent enough to know better than to do this. I do think that he paying back the money and claiming, quote, "It's unprecedented" was also a stupid comment to say. When you're stupid, just say you're stupid, say you're sorry, but don't act like you're doing some great thing by reimbursing and claiming it's unprecedented to reimburse $50 or $60 or even $70,000. The only reason why you're reimbursing is because you got busted doing something that you shouldn't have been doing and you knew better. And he got caught and he deserves to take this criticism.

HARLOW: It's also, Mark, not a full reimbursement. $51,000 does not equate to the about $400,000 it cost to actually fly these private jets because unfortunately the seats don't fly themselves. And it's not just him, I mean, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, took some private flights.

This morning, reporting about Interior Secretary Zinke flying on some corporate jets of oil and gas, you know big wigs when he regulates them. This defines the swamp, right? But this is the anti-swamp administration. So what sort of PR predicament does it put the administration in, especially with voters who love Donald Trump because he was the antithesis of the swamp?

MARC LAMONT HILL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And that's why this is a unique and particular challenge for Donald Trump. I think Ben's right, this is not the first time someone has abused taxpayer dollars.

But when you run on a platform of we're going to drain the swamp. We're going to get rid of government waste. We're going to get rid of excess. We're going to stop people from exploiting taxpayer dollars. And then you have a guy taking a flight from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for $25,000. There's absolutely no way to justify that. So Trump can't turn a blind eye.

The people who voted for Donald Trump, one of the things they liked was the fact that he was the tough leader who would say you're fired. We need Trump to demonstrate that he's willing to say you're fired not to just people who are investigating him, not just the people who are trying to hold him accountable but also to people who are violating the spirit of the relationship between the taxpayers and him.

And yes, finally that $51,000 is even more dishonest, as Ben said it's a Bush League move. You don't account for $400,000 of damage and then pay $51,000. You know, if I'm cooking on your stove and I set your house on fire, I can't just replace the stove and say look, I made you whole again, then work that way. BERMAN: I want to shift gears from seats that fly to Puerto Rico. Ben, how would you assess the administration response here? What is the fairest way, Ben, in your mind, to gauge their words and their actions?

FERGUSON: Well, I think one of the comments talking about it being a good news story was a terrible choice of words, talking about the government's response. I also think if you look at how many planes we have flown in and out of Puerto Rico, even while the runways there and the airports were virtually shut down and tough situations for the pilots to get into, has been incredible to show the power of the government and how much we've been able to get in there.

I mean, this island had zero percent power. This is an island that's been completely devastated. There is no response that's going to be good enough, just in logistics, to deal with the devastation. You do the best you can and I think so far, we're doing a pretty good job. But ultimately, optics matter and I think having more people down there on the ground, bringing in as many flights as we can get in there, if you look at the flight manifold, the flight logs they've been putting up there. I mean, they're running these planes in and out on a consistent basis.

HARLOW: Yes. No, no, I hear that.

FERGUSON: And the safest way possible.

HARLOW: I hear that. But very quickly, Mark. I mean, we just had the CEO of a big power company say, we got 4,000 workers here. There were 20,000 power workers in Florida the day after Irma. I mean, he says we need more. You just look at the numbers in Haiti. U.S. response, the days after the Haiti earthquake, was so much more there than in Puerto Rico.

HILL: Right. And some of that, obviously, people will say, well it's a different presidential administration. And that's part of it. It's also a different understanding of what's needed.

Again, I think FEMA is doing a strong -- I think early on FEMA was trying to do a strong PR push to say they were doing everything they could. President Trump when he found time after the NFL controversy to talk about this was making a strong PR push to say they're doing the right thing.

But again, we don't have the number of bodies on the ground. We don't -- the amount of resources on the ground and we haven't directed enough attention to the issue, particularly from the Trump administration, in the midst of a crisis.

[10:25:06] There are people who are homeless. There are people who - many people who are homeless, many people who are literally standing in water right now who need a level of relief that we simply haven't offered and when you juxtapose that to what happened in Haiti which wasn't a perfect response - when you just oppose that in Florida, we see it.


HARLOW: All right. We got to leave it there, guys - we just have a lot of news, Ben.

BERMAN: -- I'm so sorry. We have to get back to Puerto Rico. We can't leave our reporters hanging there because the communications do go up and down. Ben Ferguson, Mark Lamont Hill, thanks so much.

HARLOW: All right. Puerto Ricans returning home to find nothing left. Their devastation is next.


[10:30:05] BERMAN: All right. For nine days, Puerto Ricans have struggled within the wake of Hurricane Maria. - food, water, I should say, gas in short supply, buildings destroyed.