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Puerto Rico Bracing for Hurricane Maria; Hundreds Killed in Mexico Quake; Trump Targets "Rocket Man"; Republicans Race Clock to Repeal Obamacare. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2017 - 05:00   ET


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Puerto Rico's governor calls this the worst hurricane in the island's modern history.

[05:00:03] Puerto Rico bracing for a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. A new update from the National Hurricane Center just moments away.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Another national disaster, this one in Mexico. The death toll from 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.


BRIGGS: That's what the White House calls deeply philosophical. The president with blunt warnings to North Korea and a twist, the reaction from Pyongyang this morning, thus far silence. We have coverage on all our top stories this morning, including a live report from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they are awaiting this deadly monster storm, and we have multiple natural disasters unfortunately this morning.

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

ROMANS: That's right. I'm Christine Romans. It is Wednesday, September 28th, it is 5:00 a.m. in the East, and it's 5:00 in San Juan and 4:00 a.m. in Mexico City.

Let's begin in Puerto Rico. Authorities of Puerto Rico warning everyone to flee the most powerful hurricane the island nation has seen in 90 years. Hurricane Maria starting to hit Puerto Rico at this hour. It's now a category 4, a dangerous strong category 4 downgraded slightly from a category 5 at the 5:00 update from the National Hurricane Center. It is expected to make landfall in a matter of hours.

Puerto Rico'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.


BRIGGS: The effects of Hurricane Maria already being felt in Puerto Rico where residents are still recovering from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma earlier this month. A million people there lost power as a result of Irma.

Let's go live to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and bring in CNN's Nick Valencia, where it was getting a little ugly there. The last time we checked with you. How are things now, Nick?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the winds are as worse as ever, Dave. You know, there's tornado type atmosphere being created by these wind gusts coming through here, circular type winds coming right by our hotel. Tree limbs are starting to rip off some of these trees.

We're also very worried about a roof in a small building, part of the hotel that is precariously dangling. Last hour, we heard some loud bangs and they sounded so close because they were.

There's some lights positioned on the side wall of this hotel building. One of them we noticed just ripped off and landed pretty close to our live shot location. And we're on the weak side of the storm, we can't stress that enough. We're being protected by a parking structure just behind our camera position is where the beach is and it was a couple of hours ago where that street leading up to the beach lost light completely.

Those light poles are swaying in a way they shouldn't be. Palm trees are bent in a precarious position. Those dire warnings being stressed by government officials here. Now, we hear and now we see with our own eyes what they were expecting.

Governor Rossello was stressing to residents, evacuate while you can and the last flights left out of depending on which airport you're talking about here on the island, either 6:00 or 7:00 last night. We saw residents here at the hotel trying to get on some of those flights. We know at least one airline added additional flights to try to accommodate those people.

Right now, at least 10,000 people are still in shelters. Our hotel briefly lost power but thankfully for a generator we still have power right now. We can only imagine how many hundreds if not thousands of others are without power right now, and, guys, the worst of the storm is already hours away, about four to six hours, and we're already feeling what we're feeling here -- Dave, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Be careful out there. The images are pretty but we know you know how to get safe when you need to. Thank you so much.

Joining us in the phone from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, right now, storm chaser Mike Theiss. He's also a photographer for "National Geographic" and has a whole lot of experience riding through these storms and photographing them.

Where you are, we're showing right there, far north eastern corner of Puerto Rico that's going to be slammed. Tell us, Mike, what are you seeing now?

MIKE THEISS, STORM CHASER (via telephone): Yes, we're taking on the chin right now. We're getting extreme winds ripping through there. They've moved all the hotel guests to the safe room. A lot of the windows are starting to bend and any minute now we're going to have windows breaking in. This is starting to get serious and it cranked up in the last 30 minutes to an hour and I think we're going to get into that northern eye wall and I do suspect that winds will increase even more.

BRIGGS: Yes, where our Nick Valencia is, on the backside of the storm. It looks like you will take the worst part of Maria. You've been through 42 hurricanes and from what you've seen, how does this one compare?

THEISS: Well, this is actually the first category 5 that I've documented while it's making landfall so this is the kind of wind I haven't even seen but I'm going to tell you what, it is screaming outside. It sounds like a woman is outside screaming at the top of her lungs, high pitch, very loud noise, and it's very eerie.

The guests are a little shaken up and we're just going to ride it out. I know we're safe here and everything. It's just a very scary situation.

ROMANS: Yes, and this is just the very early hours, quite frankly. You ride through this and then you see the back end of the storm. You've got hours and hours of that ahead of you.

Talk to us a little bit -- we're watching video from last night. Talk to us how this compares to other hurricanes. You've never been in a category five. We know it's been downgraded to a category 4. It could pick up speed here again. But, you know, the smallest item, even tropical storm force winds can be a deadly projectile.

THEISS: Oh, yes. Anything flying through the air is a deadly projectile and now we're dealing with storm surge along the coastline and major rain which will bring flash floods so we have every danger element that a hurricane can possess, we are experiencing it right now in Puerto Rico.

BRIGGS: As we mentioned, a million people in Puerto Rico lost power as a result of Irma. You've been through enough of these to judge what type of preparations have been made, how prepared is Puerto Rico for Maria?

THEISS: I arrived hoar yesterday morning so I didn't have a lot of time to scope things out like that too much but just on the ride to where I am now, I saw lots of businesses boarded up, I saw people putting things away. You know, I saw preparations happening, and but to be honest, how much can you possibly prepare for a category 5? I mean, it's going to be total destruction where that eyewall is coming through.

So, they are prepared. They do know about hurricane in Puerto. They've had their fair share of them, but they've never had one this strong. This is going to go down in the history books and this is definitely something that older generations have never seen here.

ROMANS: It's so interesting, 2017 might be one of those years of the storms that linger for generations. Household names, Hugo, Andrew, Irma and now Maria.

You know, you like to film palm trees during these storms, you know, the way they just can bend almost 90 degrees, there was already a storm that ripped through here, Mike. So, this is -- the palm trees in some cases have already been snapped in half.

THEISS: That's right. I've never seen palm trees pop like these. Normally, palm trees bend and stretch with the wind so they can handle the wind, but in this case when I arrived, I noticed everywhere I was looking, the palm trees, the prawns were gone, they were ripped off from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Irma did not even make the direct hit.

So, now, we're experiencing a direct hit from a strong, you know, 4/5 hurricane and it's going to be a lot more damage when we get out there today. I expect most of the trees will be completely shredded now.

BRIGGS: All right. Maria just a few hours away from Puerto Rico, where you are.

Mike Theiss, thanks so much for joining us and stay safe.

ROMANS: Good to know he's inside an interior location that they say is a safe side of that hotel. But you're looking at video he's taking for us there.

All right. Overnight, the storm slammed into St. Croix and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I want to get right to our meteorologist Pedram Javaheri in the CNN weather center.

My heart is breaking for St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, and now, those folks in Puerto Rico that are really going to get hit hard here.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, it's one of those nights and one of those mornings for folks here that even if they've lived there the entire lives, they certainly haven't felt anything like this and bringing this down to a category 4.

I really want to emphasize this. The 155-mile-per-hour winds, anything above 156 is a category 5. So, you're splitting hairs if you're thinking this has weakened, or it's not a menacing storm system. Think about it this way, with a commercial jet takeoff speed of a jet is 150 miles an hour. This comes in at 155. So, imagine the speed you're taking off as being stronger here.

Now, the outer eye wall here, what is becoming the new eyewall of the storm that has formed beginning to push ashore across mainland Puerto Rico. That's where the winds are sustained at about 155 miles per hour. This storm system pushes in we think somewhere over San Juan around say noon to 1:00 p.m. by this afternoon with those well over 100 miles per hour winds in the forecast.

And then by this evening, it pushes offshore. You get some storm surge threat, that pushes in towards the Dominican Republican. Of course, we think this will quickly move out of here but the rainfall could linger into at least tonight and tomorrow morning before it is all said and done.

[05:10:03] Now, with a storm of this magnitude, whether it's a four or five, coming over an island that frankly their population has tripled since the last time we had a category 4 make landfall here which is back in 1932, we know the devastation could be significant. Notice, it goes directly over San Juan before it moves offshore, and the widespread power outage here could linger.

You know, we're talking about the Puerto Rico area, the island itself being among the poorest, even compared to the poorest U.S. states. This is even poorer than that and we know 46 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. In general, they have one of the most expensive electricity rates in the United States as well. So, electricity is hard to come by for a lot of people. It's not reliable and it's going to be nonexistent for weeks to come.

ROMANS: They're going to need a lot of help. They're going to need a lot of help, no question, and that financial background is important to consider when the federal aid is going to have to come back in on the back end of this.

BRIGGS: Yes, debt crisis already crippling.


All right. Pedram, thank you so much.

JAVAHERI: Thank you.

BRIGGS: All right. Ahead, hundreds now dead after a strong earthquake that rocked Mexico. Mexico's president asking people to stay home while rescuers search for survivors. We'll have more from Mexico City next.


[05:15:19] BRIGGS: Mexico's president declaring his country facing a national emergency, following a deadly 7.1 magnitude earthquake. At least 217 people were killed. Among the dead 22 at an elementary school in Mexico City; 30 others still missing there.

ROMANS: This is just one of the terrifying scenes that played out across Mexico. Most of the deaths reported in Morelos, Mexico City, and Puebla. Rescue crews in the country now facing a grim task there, digging through the rubble. They're looking for any signs of life, hauling off buckets of debris while calling out names of people possibly trapped beneath collapsed buildings.

BRIGGS: President Enrique Pena Nieto urging people to stay indoors. The quake buckled buildings, windows and concrete plunging to the ground.

President Pena Nieto 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 affected areas. The earthquake cutting power to nearly 5 million customers.

The deadly quake hit just hours after drills and memorials commemorating the anniversary of another devastating earthquake that killed thousands in Mexico City back in 1985.

All right. The Republicans last ditch health care plan gains opposition in Congress from governors and a late night host 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 problems where your doctor won't be giving a prostate exam once they take your benefits away.


ROMANS: More on the Republican's 11th hour health care effort, next.



[05:21:49] TRUMP: Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.


ROMANS: President Trump taking one of his twitter phrases and putting it into a U.N. speech, mocking Kim Jong-un in his big address before United Nations, cautioning other nations not to become, quote, bystanders to history as North Korea merges as a nuclear power. Listen to the president's 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.


BRIGGS: Now, surprisingly, no reaction on all this from North Korea. Not yet.

Let's bring in Zach Wolf, CNN politics digital director.

ROMANS: Hey, Zach.

BRIGGS: Good morning, Zach.


BRIGGS: It's being described as defiant, combative, bombastic. If there's a word the Trump administration wanted us to take away, it's sovereignty.

But what's the impact of all the bluster yesterday?

WOLF: Well, it certainly has people sort of viewing the U.S. in a different way, I think, if they weren't already with Donald Trump as president. It was not the kind of speech you expect an American leader to give at a gathering, you know, of nations from around the world to be talking about -- to bring essentially what is a nationalist message about U.S. sovereignty and putting America first, but also to present this, you know, very direct threat against another country.

It's not Teddy Roosevelt speak softly and carry a big stick. It's talk about your big stick I think is the way I would put it.

ROMANS: It's the Trump doctrine. I mean, we're seeing that nationalist doctrine that he was elected -- that nationalist agenda that he was elected on, coming through here on the global stage. Some people have likened to George W. Bush's axis of evil speech, that powerful, that kind of remarkable in terms of his language.

You know, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, said this was a great speech. You had Mitt Romney praising him for his appearance there. And others who said, look, this is just antagonizing the rogue regime.

WOLF: Yes, and there will be those opinions. The Romney reaction I think was a little surprising to some people, but it definitely carries through and drives home that the Trump administration is going to be more U.S. focused and still at the same time have this agenda outside, you know, where it's going to talk about potentially using U.S. force to destroy other nations. It's a departure.

BRIGGS: The other big take away from the speech is it sounds like the president wants again, wants to pull out of the Iran deal, has until October 15th to do it. If they do that, one, do you think they will, how does that impact any diplomatic effort with North Korea? If you tell the world we're pulling out of an international agreement, how do you make an agreement to cut back on nuclear ambitions? [05:25:06] WOLF: Well, I mean, those are -- they're very different

creatures, I think.


WOLF: You know, part of it is the U.S. which has precedence, the new president doesn't like the Iran deal. You know, he ran on that essentially that it was a bad deal. So, the idea that he would pull out of it shouldn't be surprising and that's something that we've always had to deal with, is the peaceful transfer of power in this country, you know? But with North Korea, I think it's so different, you know, because of the way they're led that I'm not sure I'd make the comparison.

ROMANS: Let's talk about health care, something that will affect millions of Americans. "The New York Times" in an op-ed this morning, the Republican health care zombie is back. Republican lawmakers are wasting much of the year trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a move that would deprive millions of people of health care insurance.

They're back at it. The rush job proposed by Cassidy and Graham and endorsed by the president, deeply unfairly as other lawmakers with less time to understand what's in the bill or its true costs.

What's in the bill and its true cost? We really don't know here, right? I mean, we know the politics. I can see very clear the politics of repeal or replace.

What's in it? What it's it going to mean for the average person getting Obamacare right now?

WOLF: I think -- you know, we're still learning that. We're not going to have a final CBO score that tell us what the coverage implications are of this -- you know, how many people would lose coverage before they vote on it if they're to meet the September 30th deadline.

So, we won't know I think is one answer and that's troubling probably to a lot of people, particularly John McCain who ended up being a decisive vote last time. He wanted regular order. It's hard to see how he can turn around and vote for this, and then it totally changes Medicaid in a way that would give states a lot more power and some people would be happy with that.

But some of the Republicans who opposed the last bill, that was their problem with it. So, it's hard to see how this changes anything. In a lot of ways, it goes further to dismantling Obamacare than the last version that failed. So, I'm not sure from a policy perspective how this is much different. In some ways, it's worse or goes further, but it is a last, last, last ditch effort for Republicans who have said for so long that they would repeal this bill.

BRIGGS: Essentially blocks grants to the state, which the governors say is crucial. Fifteen Republican governors have come out and said, we do support this bill, including Kentucky's governor, but there's a bipartisan group of governors made up some very influential ones, like John Kasich, Brian Sandoval, Bill Walker, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, most popular in the country, how much sway influence will they carry?

WOLF: I think they'll carry quite a bit of sway in part because they represent part of the states where some of these swing votes, particularly I believe Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, and it will come down to these individual senators and how it will affect their individual states. You know, these senators, they're not representing all people, they're representing people in their states. If they think this is going to hurt their state, then they will probably vote against it.

ROMANS: Those governors -- you know, the governors like to have control over the money --

BRIGGS: And flexibility.

ROMANS: And flexibility, but not if it means less money.

BRIGGS: Which it appears it will, right?

ROMANS: If you have fewer dollars to work with. I mean, I love to see a CBO score, will you?


ROMANS: I would love to see --

BRIGGS: Which we will not.

ROMANS: All right. Zach, nice to see you. Thanks, Zach.

WOLF: You too. Thanks.

ROMANS: The effects of Hurricane Maria being felt right now in Puerto Rico. It's a dangerous category four storm, millions bracing for landfall. Landfall in just hours.

We're going to go live to San Juan.