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Obama to Warn Americans: Taliban is Stronger Than Ever; Navy Ships in Position for N. Korea Launch; Fargo Evacuating; Charity Helps Injured Iraqi War Vets; U.S. Marshall Found Executed in Mexico Border Town

Aired March 27, 2009 - 07:00   ET


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome to the Most News in the Morning. We're coming up on just about 7:00 here in New York. Thanks for being with us on this Friday, March 27th. I'm Kiran Chetry.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to you. I'm John Roberts. Thanks for being with us.

And here are the big stories topping our agenda right now. We'll break them down for you coming up in the next 15 minutes.

We begin with President Obama. He's set to give the order for one of his top military priorities, beefing up the U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan. He will not reveal details for a few hours' time, but our White House team is standing by with new information about the battle plan.

Could this mean war? U.S. Navy ships are on the move right now with North Korea getting ready to launch a rocket. President Obama could have only minutes to decide what to do once the bird is in the air.

And cracks in the levee forced people in Fargo, North Dakota to get out of bed and out of town this morning. Mandatory evacuations are now in place for parts of the city as record flood predictions get even worse.

But first, President Obama's most critical decision so far as commander-in-chief. CNN's White House team is learning new details of his strategy for Afghanistan. He's also putting al Qaeda on notice saying you're no longer safe in Pakistan.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux got a late-night briefing on all of this. She's first out with details of the plan live from the White House this morning.

What are we learning today, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we're learning quite a bit from three senior administration officials who really paint an ominous picture regarding al Qaeda and Taliban. One of those officials saying, and I'm quoting here that, "the Taliban, by every indication, are stronger today than they were several years ago."

So, President Obama just within hours or so is going to be outlining this new strategy.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): Senior administration officials say President Obama will warn Americans that al Qaeda is now plotting and planning to do the worst against the U.S. It is the central challenge now facing the country.

But the leadership of al Qaeda has now moved from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan at an unknown location.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We cannot allow al Qaeda to operate. We cannot have those safe havens in that region.

MALVEAUX: That's why President Obama is announcing a new strategy, a war against al Qaeda and its allies now focused on two countries, Afghanistan and now Pakistan. The goal, according to one senior administration official, to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and destroy the safe haven that has developed in Pakistan and prevent it from rebuilding in Afghanistan. Also, to reverse the Taliban's momentum by working with Afghans who want another way of life.

President Obama is ordering 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, along with 4,000 military personnel to train the Afghan army and police. The goal, by 2011, Afghanistan's own security will nearly double in size to 135,000 serving in the army and 80,000 acting as police. The president will also call on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill to triple U.S. aid to Pakistan.

As for an exit strategy for U.S. troops, there is no timetable. As one senior administration official put it, this is a strategy, not a straight jacket. Getting out will depend on the progress made on the ground from periodic assessments and consultation with commanders.


MALVEAUX: And senior administration officials say that President Obama did reach out to the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday to brief them about the plan. Now those officials would not give the details in terms of how they reacted to it, but they did say that President Obama, in their words, was gratified by their reception -- John.

ROBERTS: Suzanne Malveaux live at the White House for us this morning. Suzanne, thanks so much for that.

And again, President Obama will unveil his new war strategy for Afghanistan this morning at 9:25 Eastern. You could see it live right here on CNN or online at

CHETRY: Well, forced to -- people living in one North Dakota neighborhood and residents of a nursing home there are being ordered to get out after they found cracks on one of the levees that's now holding back the rising waters of the Red River. The worst of it is in Fargo, North Dakota. That city again on high alert with the river rising even higher and the cresting higher than previously predicted. They say it could hit a record of 43 feet.

Meantime, across the southeast, a slew of powerful thunderstorms crippling airports. In southern Mississippi, a tornado injured dozens, flattened homes and businesses and there's also a major storm dumping more than a foot of snow across Colorado and Wyoming, leading to canceled flights as well as schools being forced to close down.

Our Susan Roesgen is live on the scene in Fargo for the latest this morning.

You know, they keep changing these predictions for just how high the Red River may crest. But either way, they're still sticking with their plan, right? Doing their best to make sure that the levees and dikes are supported and ready to go and continuing to sandbag this morning.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you've got to really appreciate the town of Fargo today, Kiran. I mean, look at this, they're still going at it. They're still working.

This is what they call the spider. It's an automated way of filling the sandbags. You start at the top. The sand is pouring through. It goes down eight different legs of the spider. The guys are hammering at the top to break it up because it's wet sand, because there's been so much snow here. And then each rotation can fill one sandbag.

So that makes a total of eight sandbags about every 60 seconds or so, so it's a lot faster than what we saw yesterday when people were just filling the sandbags by hand.

Then they bring these pallet trucks. We got one coming in now to pick up the sand and get them out. You mentioned the crack in the levee, Kiran. There is a lot of concern for different areas of the dikes around the city, different spots that are vulnerable, different neighborhoods that could be getting more water than anybody hoped to see. But last night they started evacuating, you know, the most sensitive people, the people in the nursing homes, got them out in the area where that one crack in the levee was, and they're trying to shore that up now.

They've also started evacuating one hospital. They moved 150 patients out last night, got them out. You know, the hospital is not flooded but they felt that they needed to get it out just in case -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Susan Roesgen for us. Now we're seeing some of the pictures right now of some of those residents, and you can see the temperatures are frigid. And I'm sure for people that have been told to leave their neighborhood as a precaution, certainly not an easy situation right now.

ROESGEN: No, it's not an easy situation for anybody but you know, the spirit here is incredible. The mayor says now, OK, if we're going to go down, we're going to go down fighting. He does not want to give up and, you know, the guy that actually, Kiran, oversees this whole operation, he's one of the city health inspectors. He said what do I know about sandbagging? He's learning. So are these guys up here.

Nobody here, you know, is trained in this. These are all volunteers who just said we're going to come out until the very bitter end. And let's hope it's a good ending, not a bitter ending -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Oh, absolutely. All right. Our thoughts and prayers are with them this morning. It's going to be a tough road as we wait to see what exactly happens with the Red River.

Susan Roesgen for us this morning, thanks.

ROBERTS: The cycling legend Lance Armstrong says he's taking his recovery "day by day." Armstrong says that everything went smoothly in Wednesday's complex surgery to repair his shoulders, and he showed fans how doctors reconstructed his broken collarbone in a video that was posted on his Web site.


LANCE ARMSTRONG, SEVEN-TIME TOUR DE FRANCE WINNER: As you can see here, we have, due to the multiple pieces of the clavicle, they had to put this plate in with quite a few screws. I think that's 12 screws. I'm not counting as well as I normally do, but that's in there now and that should keep things together and ultimately that will have to come out. But for now, it's necessary.


ROBERTS: A lot of screws being set. The bone was in a lot of pieces.

Armstrong also says he feels very lucky, very blessed because in 20 years in cycling he has rarely crashed and that certainly is the worst injury he's ever received.

CHETRY: Wow. He said it's going to have to come back out again as well but he's still -- I mean, he seems like he's in pretty good shape, undergoing surgery, being able to talk about it, blog about it, twitter, show pictures.

ROBERTS: Yes. Now the question will be how quickly the bone starts to heal, the pain goes away. The pain is really the big thing and whether or not he can get back on the bike in time for the jury to tell you. I like to see that happen. All the best out to Lance there in his recovery.

Time now to take a look at stories new this morning that we're tracking for you. Back from her two-day trip to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling the drug violence there "intolerable." Clinton is signaling that Washington might be rethinking a wall at the border with Mexico.


HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There have been lots of very legitimate concerns raised about the border wall and, you know, in some parts of our border which are so desolate and isolated, it might very well make sense but in many places that it was routed by the Bush administration, we don't think it does. And so we're taking, you know, a hard look at that and trying to figure out what works and what doesn't.


ROBERTS: Federal authorities say former Washington Mayor Marion Barry still owes more than $277,000 in back taxes. "The Washington Post" is also reporting that Barry, now a D.C. city councilman, has not made any payments for six months. The 73-year-old is on three years' probation for tax violations and says health issues prevented him from filing his returns.

North Korea says shooting down their rocket could mean war. The president may have only minutes to make a decision. Should he seek and destroy? We'll find out.

Nine minutes now after the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

President Obama holds his first online town hall meeting, and he answered -- he actually only got to six of the more than 100,000 questions that were submitted online. The question that came up the most was actually about legalizing marijuana.

So what about the tech savvy forum? Did it work and were there glitches? Joining me now is Nicholas Thompson. He's a senior editor for "Wired" magazine.

We had you on yesterday, sort of a preview, so today you can weigh in on what you thought.


CHETRY: In some ways, it's a little bit of be careful what you wish for because we talk about Internet outreach being great because you can communicate with thousands of people, although, unfortunately, it's also easier to hijack the polls.

THOMPSON: Absolutely.

CHETRY: So in the end, the president did not ignore that marijuana question. Let's listen.


OBAMA: I don't know what this says about the online audience. The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.


CHETRY: So anyway, he sort of brushed it aside. How do you think he handled it?

THOMPSON: Well, that particular question I think he did quite well. I mean, he said, you know, there's one question about marijuana that's come up a lot. It wasn't just one question. The forum had a thousand questions about marijuana.

You know, the people who want to legalize pot really took over that forum, so he had to address it in some way. But you also don't want to, you know, address it the same way you would the questions that rose organically. And so, I think he handled that one well.

CHETRY: All right. Ninety-three thousand people, by the way, submitted their questions. More than 100,000 questions were actually submitted online and again, as we said, he was only able to answer six.

Should he try to get to more? How would you have rated that online experience?

THOMPSON: Absolutely, I wish he had to try to get some more. I wish he had gone through them more quickly. I mean, he's asking people to limit themselves to 30 or 40 words. He should have limit himself to, you know, paragraph long answer or page-long answers, and not chapter-length answers. So he should have gone shorter. Maybe the next one they can figure out some way to allow feedback, so he answers and there's a minute pause. People have follow-up questions online, they vote up on those.

There's got to be a way to make it more quickly and more interactive. But overall, did he succeed? No, I was a little disappointed at that bit of the event, but then you go back and you look at all the questions that were submitted, and you look at this as an experiment in civic engagement, and it's actually great.

And are we going to have more of these? You look at the White House blog. They say there are going to be more of these. So these are going to get better. This one went pretty well.

CHETRY: Why the live audience if it was supposed to be sort of an Internet venture?

THOMPSON: I think maybe to distance it a little bit from the Internet and bend to -- maybe there's some risk in the Internet questions you want to have a live audience here. I'm not sure. I don't think they needed to do that. It also made it look a little warmer but, you know, maybe the next one he'll do in front of his laptop.

CHETRY: Right.

THOMPSON: I mean, that's the way he should do it. CHETRY: That's sort of how I pictured it is in front of the laptop clicking away.

THOMPSON: Right, with those little chat messages coming up that are filtered through the White House somehow.

CHETRY: But all in all you think that, you know, this is the first toe in the water for this type of thing and that we'll probably see much more of it with not just the president but other elected officials.

THOMPSON: Right. Because what Obama wants to do is during the campaign it's very easy to engage people, to make them feel that they're connected with you because they can host events. They can go out, invite people that can tell people to go to the polls. When you're president, that's harder.

CHETRY: Right.

THOMPSON: But this is one way you can get people engaged.

CHETRY: Very neat. All right. Nicholas Thompson, senior editor of "Wired" magazine, thanks for being with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you.


ROBERTS: Violence across the border in Mexico. Will it spread across the border here to the United States? And just what can be done about the war on drugs in that area?

We'll talk with an author who spent the last three years on the border there. Find out what the situation is and what solutions there might possibly be.

It's 14 minutes now after the hour.

CHETRY: Working hard or hardly working?


REP. DONNA EDWARDS (D), MARYLAND: Resolution 37 authorizing the use of the Capitol grounds for the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby.


CHETRY: Whether Congress is keeping busy to fix the economy or to get reelected. You're watching the Most News in the Morning.


ROBERTS: CNN has been along the border all week long bringing you a story that affects all of us, the battle to keep drugs out of this country, the undying addictions that keep ruthless drug cartels in business. Mexican authorities found a U.S. marshal murdered execution style in the virtually lawless border town of Ciudad Juarez.

Joining us now is John Gibler. He is the author of "Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt." He's in El Paso, Texas this morning. John, good to talk to you this morning. Thanks for being with us.

You spent so much time along the border area there, going back and forth. The last three years, you've been down there pretty intensely. What is the situation like?

JOHN GIBLER, AUTHOR, "MEXICO UNCONQUERED": Right now, in Ciudad Juarez, as you probably know, more than 7,500 army soldiers have arrived in the city and actually taken over the municipal police force.

And that has obviously dampened the amount of incredible violence related to drug trafficking in the city, but fears on the ground are that simply the warring cartels packed up and left town for the time being or gone underground while the army is out in the streets, and that they will be back.

Meanwhile, the army is doing all of the municipal police force jobs, so they're effectively writing traffic tickets and driving around in cop cars.

ROBERTS: All right, so you know that earlier this week, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, announced this new $700 million program, put more border agents and more DEA agents on the border along with some high-tech surveillance equipment to try to combat the war on drugs there. How effective do you think that plan will be?

GIBLER: Sadly, I do not think it will be effective. We're talking about a $30 billion a year industry just moving the drugs across the border. That is way too powerful for three more helicopters or 400 more border agents to really try and address. I think it is a deeply embedded social and economic problem that will have to be addressed with social and economic policy.

ROBERTS: So, the president has reserved this idea of putting some troops down on the border there. I know that Governor Rick Perry in Texas says that he wants to put 1,000 along the border. However, there in El Paso, where you are this morning, the mayor says, whoa, we don't need any troops. Things are great here. Who's right?

GIBLER: Well, really, the mayor is right in a sense. If you look at 2008, 1,600 people were assassinated in Ciudad Juarez, and there were about 15 homicides that same year in El Paso.

So, this whole idea of the violence spilling over is really, I think, kind of malformed or a bit sensationalizing the violence in Mexico, which is very real but the violence already exists in the United States, even though there isn't a national kind of political understanding or consciousness, if you will, about how that violence is related to drug trafficking and drug distribution. ROBERTS: You know, we had Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron earlier this week. And he was talking about this idea of legalizing all drugs as a way to combat the drug war there in Mexico. What do you think of that idea?

GIBLER: I think it's time to consider all options, and I think it's evident -- more than evident that the "war on drugs" approach has been an absolute failure. It hasn't in any way stopped the amount of drugs being consumed in the United States or the drugs flowing over the border or the violence related to the illegal drug-trafficking industry.

Thus, now, even -- it's not that radical of a proposal. Even "The Economist" magazine led with an editorial about a week and a half ago about legislating or regulating drugs. Three former presidents of Latin American countries, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, recently released a report arguing also for really taking on the debate of legalization.

ROBERTS: Yes. Certainly a controversial idea, and one that I don't know would ever see the light of day in the United States. But a lot of people talking about it. John Gibler for us this morning in El Paso. John, it's good to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

GIBLER: Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: And stay with CNN for the latest in the drug cartel violence in Mexico. Our Anderson Cooper will be back at the Mexican border again tonight with more in-depth coverage. "THE WAR NEXT DOOR" live at 10:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Well, this is no test. President Obama will have minutes to make a critical decision if North Korea launches a missile. Should the U.S. shoot it down and risk war? Critical questions and the former director of the Missile Defense Agency is here to answer them for us.

Also breaking news, blizzards, floods, tornadoes -- millions in the path of extreme weather this morning in many, many parts of our country. We'll tell you where this weather is and where it could be heading next.

Twenty-one minutes after the hour.


ROBERTS: Twenty-three minutes after the hour now and welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

We're going retro with some "Schoolhouse Rock" and there are a whole lot of bills and measures getting passed on Capitol Hill. Congress has been busy since the president took office, but is everything on up and up?

Our Carol Costello is tracking the story. She's live in Washington this morning. Good morning to you, Carol.


You know, many companies are asking employees to take pay cuts, cut back on travel, do more with less. It's a time to get mean and lean. So some are asking why Congress is working on legislation celebrating pie.


COSTELLO (voice-over): At a time when our country teeters on the brink of a deepening recession, our leaders know what you want.

OBAMA: We, as a nation, have already begun the critical work that will lead to our economic recovery.


COSTELLO: There are certainly signs it has. Lawmakers have grilled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in nine congressional hearings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On motions to ...

COSTELLO: And lawmakers are making laws, lots of them -- 175 measures since January 6th, 19 of them in the last three days. You might think, wow, the often tagged do-nothing Congress is hard at work, and it is, passing some 14 economic issues, but passing many more of a different sort.

EDWARDS: Current Resolution 37 authorizing the use of the Capitol grounds for the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby.

COSTELLO: That's just one of the many vanity bills Congress is passing on the House floor.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bill names the (INAUDIBLE) courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The naming of this federal courthouse.

EDWARDS: He has received numerous awards and honors from the Jaycees, the Boy Scouts.


EDWARDS: To designate the courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This specific courthouse.

COSTELLO: And just a single day in March, members voted on bill after bill to name buildings after their friends and constituents -- this courthouse in Davenport, Iowa. REP. DAVID LOEBSACK (D), IOWA: I would like to take a few minutes today to honor the many accomplishments of my predecessor, former Congressman Jim Leach.

COSTELLO: And this federal building in Manhattan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As the Ronald H. Brown United States mission to the United Nations buildings.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Members of Congress have become very skilled at building up their personal favorability ratings. That's how they stay elected. The question is, is it overwhelming of their business?

COSTELLO: No one is accusing them of that. It's just that this particular time, some say it's unseemly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think sometimes it seems out of touch.

COSTELLO: Alan counted 72 of the 175 bills and resolutions passed had to do with things like designating tie day, not that pie but pi, naming a federal building after the late commerce secretary Ron Brown, or honoring the life of the Apache leader Geronimo.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would they be doing if they weren't meeting on the House? They might be meeting with special interest lobbyists.


COSTELLO: Of course, he's joke about that. But all joking aside, lawmakers are not spending the majority of their time on these small bills and resolutions but some wonder, given the time, should they be spending any time at all on these matters, when so many are afraid for their future? - John.

ROBERTS: How does that saying go, don't sweat the small stuff?


ROBERTS: It kind of seems like it's a time for big stuff right now, doesn't it?

COSTELLO: Right. you know, I guess some constituents would rather see Congress working just on economic issues or just on jobs issues, or something like that, instead of the small things that are getting a lot of attention in Congress.

ROBERTS: Yes. Well, they've all got to stand for re-election at some point, don't they?

Carol Costello for us this morning. Carol, thanks so much.

And you can read more about all of our stories online. Just head to AMERICAN MORNING's new blog. The address is -- Kiran. CHETRY: All right, 28 minutes past the hour. Here's a look at the stories we're going to be breaking down for you in the next 15 minutes. We're updating a developing story right now.

At least 48 people killed and 80 wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up inside of a mosque in Pakistan. Here are some new pictures coming in now of the aftermath. Officials say that the blast destroyed the two-story building and that more people could be trapped underneath the rubble.

Also developing right now, U.S. Navy ships are on the move with North Korea getting set to launch a rocket. President Obama could have only minutes to decide what to do once it's in the air.

And millions in the path of extreme weather this morning, a levee breach forcing people living in one neighborhood along the rising Red River in Fargo, North Dakota to get out, that includes a neighborhood nursing home. There are blizzard warnings also across the plains and the Rockies. More than a foot of snow piling up along the Colorado/Wyoming state line and severe storms moving across the southeast with new tornado watches in effect.

And back to our developing story, U.S. Navy ships are on the move to the Sea of Japan right now and they could be called upon to shoot down missile launched by North Korea. It's a call that President Obama will have near minutes to make once it's in the air, and it could start a war.

Joining us now is the former director of the Missile Defense Agency, retired Lieutenant General Henry Obering.

General, thank you so much for being with us this morning.


CHETRY: Give us your assessment right now of exactly what we're thinking in terms of the worst case scenario with what North Korea is doing. Right now, they're claiming it's a satellite launch and, of course, we have intelligence to indicate perhaps they're not telling the truth, so what now?

OBERING: Oh, well, first of all, there is evidence that it is a multistage missile that they are erecting on the launch pad, which could attain the speeds for either a satellite launch or a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile launch. The concern there would be that if it is a satellite launch, of course, it would not pose an immediate threat to the United States or our population or allies because they would put that satellite into orbit around the Earth, but it could pose a longer-term threat. If it is a long-range ballistic missile though that could impact either the U.S. or our allied territory, that would be a grave concern. And especially if it was predicted to come down into our territory, we would have the ability to destroy that.

CHETRY: All right. So we're working on some of the information that we have from their past attempts and what they've done before, most recently in 2006, I believe. Tell us where this missile is capable of going, and how big of a risk it poses to the United States.

OBERING: Well, first of all, if it is a two-stage missile and they've already indicated closure zones, meaning that there will be more than one stage the North Koreans have, a two-stage missile could reach certainly the northwestern part of the United States if the range of Alaska and Hawaii.

Certainly, if it is a three-stage version of the missile, and we don't know that, it could range about half of the United States with the current what we call a legacy propellant so that they've used to date. If it has more advanced propellants that are reported that the North Koreans possess, it could range all of the United States in a three stage version.

CHETRY: All right. So you mentioned again there's no way for us to know yet what exactly we're dealing with, what kind of missile it is until after it's launched. After it's launched, what is our plan of action? How do we determine that and what is our ability to respond?

OBERING: The first thing that will happen is, we will have on orbit satellites that will detect the launch and that will give us an initial indication of the direction of the speed and if it's going to be a space launch or a ballistic missile launch. That information will be transmitted to a series of land-based and sea-based radars that will begin to look for that missile.

That in turn will then provide the commanders with the information as to whether or not it poses a threat or not to our allies or to the United States territory. If it does propose - pose a threat, the system will go on alert. It is designed to do that. And then the decision would have to be made in a matter of minutes as to whether or not to use the interceptors that we have in Alaska and in California...

CHETRY: Right.

OBERING: ... against the long-range threat.

CHETRY: OK. So quickly then, North Korea is saying that it would go to war if this is shot down, if it's destroyed by hostile fire. Is this just rhetoric or do they have military capabilities that we need to be immediately concerned about?

OBERING: Well, certainly North Korea has military capabilities that we need to be concerned about. But this missile would not be, in my opinion, be shot down unless it directly threatened the United States or our allies. And therefore, the provocative act is not shooting it down but it is the launching of the missile that would threaten our territory or allies.

CHETRY: Lieutenant General Henry Obering, thanks for putting this into perspective for us and giving us information this morning on the situation. We're going to continue to follow it, of course, and get the latest as well from the Pentagon. Thanks, this morning.

OBERING: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Weather is causing traffic mayhem across the nation this morning from tornadoes and blizzards, plus the latest on flooding in North Dakota. Levee breach forces an entire neighborhood to evacuate. Our volunteers losing the fight to beat back the floodwaters. We're live in Fargo with the breaking details.

Plus, one charity is making a huge difference for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving them a place to go home to. We'll show you how it's changing lives one by one. It's coming up now on 33 minutes after the hour.


ROBERTS: We're back with the Most News in the Morning.

Winter storms causing havoc from coast to coast, a possible tornado touching down during the early morning in Louisiana and the town of Fargo, North Dakota, is under siege by the Red River.

Our Rob Marciano tracking everything from the severe weather center for us this morning. How bad was it in Louisiana, Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: We're still waiting to see that, John. Looks, at this point, not as bad as it was across parts of Mississippi, just south of Jackson yesterday. Large tornado, an EF3 rolling through McGee, Mississippi, yesterday, damaging over 60 homes and injuring upwards of 28 people. So some of those video pretty dramatic stuff and thus very strong storm with winds of around 150 miles an hour which is ripping the houses off foundations in some parts.

We do have thunderstorms that are creating similar weather today, a tornado watch in effect for this chunk of Alabama and Florida, until 11:00 or 10:00 local time today and we do have a number of tornado warnings in this particular area that have been issued by the National Weather Service. So right now, all radar-indicated tornadoes, meaning, we're not quite sure if they're touching the ground just yet.

Meanwhile, Denver, across parts of western Oklahoma and Kansas, heavy snow. Check out some of the video coming in from yesterday. Pile-ups along interstate 25, so travel on the roadways is nasty with whiteout conditions. Hundreds of flights canceled at Denver Airport yesterday and still more canceled today even though the weather is improving.

Here's what you can expect delays today in Atlanta and Memphis with thunderstorms. D.C., Denver still getting out of that light snow and wind as far south as Miami. We will be seeing dry weather across parts of the north. That is good news for folks who are dealing with the floods up there in Fargo, forecasted to crest at 43 feet.

Just getting word now, John, that parts of Fargo itself being evacuated around Fourth Street, because of a breach in the levee there. And I'm just worried, John, that even though they've been building these levees as high as they think the floodwaters are going to go, that doesn't guarantee that there aren't going to be breaches in weak parts of these levees. And it's going to be a long time coming before they can breathe a sigh of relief even after this river crests and that's not even expected to happen until later on this weekend.

John, back up to you.

ROBERTS: Yes. They've been doing an incredible job there, Rob, holding back mother nature as tough as the best of times.

Rob, thanks so much.

MARCIANO: You got it.

Thirty-eight minutes now after the hour. Let's fast forward to stories that will be making news later on today.

President Obama will be laying out his strategy to take on al Qaeda and the Taliban in war torn Afghanistan. Not expected to lay out any sort of timeline for troop withdrawal, though. The president's announcement scheduled at 9:25 a.m. Eastern. You can see it live coverage here on CNN or online at

Then at noon Eastern the president will meet with bank bosses from across the country. They are expected to talk about new financial regulations. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says the president knows the economic recovery is not possible without healthy banks.

In the next hour at 8:30 Eastern, the Commerce Department will release the latest economic numbers on personal income and spending for the month of February. Wall Street appears anxious over the news with Dow futures pointing down right now. It looks like it could be a bad finish to the week, Kiran.

CHETRY: Yes, hopefully not but we'll see.

Also, still ahead you've been looking for a job and you can't find one, what do you do when your unemployment benefits run out? Our CNN Money Team is here taking your financial questions and trying to help out with some answers.

It's 39 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

Some stunning remarks from the president of Brazil this morning on the cause behind the world's financial crisis. Brazil's leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, isn't blaming any particular country. Instead, pointing a finger at people of a particular skin color and eye color.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA, PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL (through translator): This crisis was not created by blacks nor Indians nor poor people. It was a crisis that was created and spread throughout the world due to the irresponsible behavior of white people, blue-eyed people that thought they knew everything but are now showing they knew nothing.


CHETRY: Brazil's president made those comments standing next to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a joint news conference. All right.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: That was an uncomfortable moment, I think.

CHETRY: What do you say to that?

Christine Romans and Gerri Willis are here right now. Our personal finance editor Gerri Willis and Christine, as well, from our business unit.

What the heck? Why would he say that?

ROMANS: Well, as John was saying earlier, it's for his own domestic consumption. You know, I mean it's a shocking comment from our point of view but I've heard a lot of fiery rhetoric out of Latin American leaders, Hugo Chavez, that's Venezuela, of course.

GERRI WILLIS, CNN PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR: They love to have the controversy. Some people are just like that. They want to say incendiary things that will get people up in arms.

CHETRY: All right. Let's talk about some real life problems going on right now.

Dolores from Georgia has a question for Christine about unemployment benefits. So let's listen.


DOLORES, GEORGIA: I was laid off last year, and I was wondering what is the president going to do for those of us who run out of unemployment benefits and don't know what we're going to do next?


ROMANS: Dolores, President Bush signed an extension of unemployment benefits last November that should have helped some 90,000 people from Georgia. And there's also - in the stimulus there's more money, $25 extra per check. And also your unemployment benefits for this year will be tax free up to $2,400.

So the IRS trying to do something so two administrations of the IRS but they don't last forever. That's quite clear. I mean they're lasting much, much longer but they don't last forever so people have to...

WILLIS: They're only $300 a week. So at the end of the day, you're not really covering your cost. And that's the disconnect people feel. You know, it's hard to cover your basic monthly bills on unemployment.

ROMANS: But on the policy front, be very clear. They have done a lot to try to keep the unemployment insurance going for as many people as they possibly can. There's been a vast expansion of that and also a vast expansion of the food stamps. So...

WILLIS: That's what I was going to say. There are other programs out there for people really in trouble right now. Medical coverage benefits expansion as well with Cobra.

CHETRY: Right. You need to get a little creative and see if you qualify for some other things, the WIC program, other things along those lines.

ROMANS: Georgia in particular at the time they had told people that they would be alerted, that the state would alert them, saying we were going to get these extensions. So I don't know if she fit into that category or not but for a lot of other states there are extensions of those benefits right now.

WILLIS: Typically, you got to find out on your own. Go to the Labor Department's website.

CHETRY: You got to do some digging there.

Let's get one more question in for Gerri. This is about mortgage insurance.


RUDY, MISSOURI: I want to know what happens to all the mortgage insurance premiums that people pay that don't have a 20 percent down. It seems to me that the banks should have just taken this and ran off with it.


CHETRY: That's Rudy, by the way, from Missouri.

WILLIS: Yes, what he's talking about here is private mortgage insurance. What used to happen is if you didn't put 20 percent down for your house, your lender would force to you pay private mortgage insurance to cover the bank's risk essentially. And it's everybody's favorite theory now that the banks pocketed all this money.

If you believe the lunar landing, the Apollo lunar landing, was faked, you believe they pocketed all of this money. It's really a controversial theory. What happened in reality is that these insurers didn't require insurance on all these loans.

In fact loans that had only three percent down, five percent down were not required to have private mortgage insurance. What's more, a lot of people did 80/20 loans, you remember that? They would break these loans into smaller bites so they wouldn't have to pay private mortgage insurance.

You know, it's easier to believe for many people that the banks took money than that they just did things that were stupid and that's what happened here.

CHETRY: Thanks to both of you.

We're going to try to take some more questions in the next hour. And we also want to hear from you, the economy, all the big stories. Call our show's 877-MY-AMFIX and ask a question again and you can follow us on twitter at AMFix and we'll keep trying to get you some answers - John.

ROBERTS: How worried is the United States about a potential long range missile on the launch pad in North Korea? Worried enough to be moving U.S. warships into position to possibly respond. A live report from the Pentagon coming up in our next hour.

Plus, one charity is helping injured soldiers returning home from war, giving them much more than a place to live. We'll have that story for you as well.

It's 47 minutes after the hour.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

Injured soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan face huge obstacles, both physical and emotional. But one charity is working to make life in the home a little bit easier.

Our Jason Carroll joins us this morning with that story.

Hi, Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's an absolutely terrific charity. You're about to meet an incredible young man. An organization called Building Homes for Heroes is now seeing less charitable donations coming in but that has not stopped them from helping soldiers in need, especially one 26-year-old veteran.


CHRIS LEVI, IRAQI WAR VETERAN: I paid the infantry. I just - I'm all...

CARROLL (voice-over): Chris Levy always wanted to be a soldier. He went to military school at 14 and knew the risks of joining the Army.

LEVI: I knew going in that I would be going into harm's way eventually. CARROLL: Last year, in Iraq, Levy's Humvee hit an IED. He ended up losing both legs and severely damaged his right arm but that was not his biggest disappointment.

LEVI: I was a little bit more upset that I wouldn't be able to rejoin my brothers and this deployment.

CARROLL: Levy's independence obvious to doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center. He started walking on two prosthetic legs in record time. His real worry - going home.

LEVI: I thought I might kind of be a burden on the house.

KIM LEVI, CHRIS LEVI'S SISTER: My greatest fear was that we're going to bring him to this house where there is stairs up and stairs down and we're going to stick him in a back room and he's going to be playing video games for the rest of his life. This is a kid who he's just a proud amazing kid. He doesn't deserve that. This will be Chris' private entrance to his apartment.

CARROLL: In all more than 100,000 dollars was needed to retrofit the Levi family Long Island home to make it wheelchair accessible. His sister looked for help and found a group called Building Homes for Heroes.

ANDY PUJOL, PRESIDENT, BUILDING HOMES FOR HEROES: The mission statement is one home, one dream.

CARROLL: Andy Pujol founded the organization in 2004 raising money through charity events and donations to help severely injured soldiers buy new homes or retrofit old ones.

PUJOL: If we could leave an imprint, our imprint on one family's life, we thought that was extraordinary.

CARROLL: The group raised $50,000 and presented the honorary check to Levi and his family.

LEVI: They told me you can't crash a cardboard check. I'll wait for the real one.

CARROLL: The money did more than just restore Levi's home.

LEVI: It also gave me the emotional motivation to say people really do care for each other and people took from theirs and gave to me just to help me out even though they didn't have to. I can't let those people down.


CARROLL: Well, the initial donation of $50,000 was not enough to cover the cost to building homes for heroes used their network of contacts to get local organizations to donate more materials, labor and a little bit more money to help meet their need.

You know, Chris actually hasn't been to the house yet to see all these upgrades. I know he is watching so I know he has seen some of it now. His family wanted it to be a surprise.

But you really get a sense there, after listening to that story, about what kind of guy this is and how these people were able to help him. It's incredible.

ROBERTS: You know, it's really remarkable about Chris is he's got two legs that are gone below the knee. You were saying he could still lose the right arm and he is saying these people have done so much for me, I can't let them down.

CARROLL: Exactly. I mean, he is a soldier, you know, through and through. You know, the minute he was injured, the first thing he thought was when he woke up, how can I get back? And now that he has recovered, what was his initial thought? I don't want to be a burden on my family.

ROBERTS: That's amazing. Brave young man. Great story, Jason. Thanks for bring that to us.

By the way, you can read more about Chris Levi's story on our show web page. Log on to when you get to work.

It's 53 1/2 minutes now after the hour.

Breaking news. North Korea ready to launch. Navy ships on the move.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know we're ready to defend our territory and our allies.


ROBERTS: President Obama with five minutes to make a decision. Could this mean war?

Plus, extreme spring. Tornadoes, floods, more than a foot of snow. Millions in nature's path right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it the wrath of God? What is it?


ROBERTS: You're watching the Most News in the Morning.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

Here is what we're following for you right now. Gas prices are back above the $2.00 mark overnight for the first time since November. AAA says that the average price of a gallon of regular is now $2.03. It's up $11 cents a gallon in the past 10 days. And the Obama administration us set to announce tougher fuel- efficiency rules for cars and trucks. The standard will be raised two miles per gallon to 27.3 for the model year 2011. Struggling automakers say they expect to easily meet the new goal.

And right now, White House officials are making great efforts to have President Obama bypass what they call the traditional media and speak directly to the American people. Yesterday's virtual town hall where the president answered questions online was just the latest example.

So how did it go? Here is CNN's Jim Acosta.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Kiran, the president made history, but he also made some news saying he is days away from revealing his plans for the struggling auto industry.


ACOSTA (voice-over): This White House chat session shows how Washington has come a long way since former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens referred to the Internet as a series of tubes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Barack Obama.

ACOSTA: President Obama got digital. Fielding a small sample of the tens of thousands of questions sent to the White House website. The submissions range from why can't the U.S. have European style universal health care.

OBAMA: I don't think the best way to fix our health care system is to suddenly completely scrap what everybody is accustomed to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What proposals do you have...

ACOSTA: To video messages on student loans all of it watched by a small audience inside the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Mr. President!

ACOSTA: Where one woman got the president to make some news about what is in store for the struggling car companies. The automakers make drastic cuts, Mr. Obama said.

OBAMA: We will provide them some help.

JAMES KOTECKI, ONLINE POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Mostly, the president was able to kind of just go back to his talking points.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congressman Ron Paul, thank you so much for joining me.

ACOSTA: But James Kotecki, a young online political commentator complains most of the questions were too general.

(on camera): Sort of predictable? KOTECKI: It was predictable. And it's kind of a shame because you want to think new media spontaneity. I would say the best and most spontaneous moment of the town hall was when he addressed the marijuana issue.

ACOSTA (voice-over): As in legalizing marijuana help the economy?

OBAMA: I don't know what this says about the online audience, the answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.

KOTECKI: That was probably the most interesting moment of the day.

ACOSTA: And unlike the CNN YouTube debate during the campaign in which CNN and YouTube selected the questions asked...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next we have a video question. The White House was in control this time with Mr. Obama taking several minutes to answer each submission. So one reporter used the White House daily press briefing to raise questions that did make the cut.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will we ever see any CEOs go to jail?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think there are executives that were a part of a accounting scandals that are currently serving time in jail.

ACOSTA: But it was message accomplished for president seeking young voters swimming in a new media outlets. A world where the new administration already has been turned into a cartoon.

OBAMA: Our financial system is a phony, baloney carnival run by blood-sucking clowns. Is that correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's pretty much it.

ACOSTA (on-camera): The White House says the president will do more virtual town halls and why not when you consider the response? In the end, more than 90,000 people submitted questions. Just part of an audience that rival some of the largest crowds from the campaign.

Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.