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Trump Disputes Puerto Rico Hurricane Deaths; Hurricane Florence Begins Battering East Coast. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 13, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: For viewers in the United States and around the world, welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to start with the national lead.

Just as warned, Hurricane Florence is moving into the East Coast of the United States with a vengeance. The power of this storm is already pushing ocean waves into coastal towns, and we're not even in the thick of it yet, hardly.

The size of the storm is what it so dangerous, experts say. In just 48 hours, Florence doubled in size, and the storm is slowing down, which presents even bigger problems, such as the wind. For instance, take a listen to this. These kind gusts are getting quite intense. Some people are going to feel hurricane-force winds for 24 hours. Tropical-storm-force winds could last for three whole days.

And then, of course, there's the rain. Take Wilmington, North Carolina. It could get eight months' worth of rain over the next three days and shatter its all-time rainfall record.

As Hurricane Florence starts to make landfall, we have teams along on the Carolina coast and in the CNN Severe Weather Center to show every angle of the storm.

I'm going to start with CNN's Dianne Gallagher in New Bern, North Carolina, where waters are already starting to rise.

Dianne, how fast, how quickly are conditions escalating?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we're actually starting to get some pretty severe weather now.

At this point, we have mostly been dealing with flooding for the past few hours, but the wind and rain is starting to kick up. To give you an idea of how fast the water has been rising, where I'm standing now, it was up to around my ankles or so before. I was initially, around 1:00 p.m., out there where those gates are.

It's actually a park. We're in a park. It's Union Point Park in New Bern, North Carolina. There are benches which you can no longer see that you could sit on. They are now underwater, as the Neuse River has risen.

It has gone all the way through this park, all the different things. You can still see the swing set. But there are benches that are now gone. Through here, you can see the wind starting to come here, blowing the trees around, into downtown New Bern, which is flooding into the city at this point.

It has gone across the road through the park and now flooding the city where certain businesses are located. Now, Jake, this is an area that has a lot of experience with hurricanes and flooding. Even on the boards on those businesses, it has a list of names of hurricanes that are very familiar to North Carolinians, like myself, like Bertha and Floyd and Fran, that they have survived before.

So they're prepared here in this county, in Craven County. But they have the Neuse River. They have the Pamlico Sound. They have got the Atlantic Ocean. And then they have the Intracoastal Waterway, all those creeks and rivers. And so they're going to experience a significant amount of flooding. Again, is this not an ocean here.

This is the river. You can see the wind pushing those whitecaps off. We have seen people out here. The National Guard has come and gotten people who brought their children out, Jake, to play on this area here, bring them out to that gazebo, which is now taking on water as well.

We have also noticed in some of these marinas people who couldn't get up. It's a vacation area for a lot of people in different states. They couldn't get their boats out. So they're going to see if they can ride the storm out there. The dockmaster is keeping an eye on it.

But in this area here, the problem is not going to be wind. It is going to be the water. And, again, I'm almost 6 feet tall. I'm a little more than 5'10''. I am standing here in the grass. Over there, that park there, that's a road. I'm not going to go out there anymore because it's not safe for me to be there.

But it was going up to my hips just about an hour ago. And so as we're seeing this water get a little bit rougher, it's coming in, it's going into the city now, Jake, the people here have got to pay attention to the authorities, who are asking them not to come and take pictures, not to come and say, hey, look at me out in the water. I'm surviving Hurricane Florence.

They have about 700 emergency officials stationed around Craven County. They have divers from Indiana and the National Guard ready to act after the storm. If something happens during the storm, you're on your own, though.

TAPPER: All right, Dianne Gallagher, thank you so much. Stay save yourself.

I want to bring in CNN's Ed Lavandera, who's in Morehead City, North Carolina, where Hurricane Florence has just hit.

Ed, it looks as though conditions are deteriorating rapidly where you are.


And we're in the middle of those bands where the winds have intensified, yet we're not getting a lot of rain at the moment. Of course, that will change any second. And the winds of intensified to the point where we're starting to see, although the rather light pieces of structure begin to come up -- this flew over our location and landed here on this pier just a short while ago.

And you can see the whitecaps out in the sound here. Out there in the distance, Jake, that is the barrier island, Atlantic (INAUDIBLE) island. All of that has been -- access to that has all been shut down. The bridges, they are impassable here at this point.


Local authorities have really shut that down, because the winds have now reached a point where there's concern for people's safety. So, people who chose to stay back are essentially trapped there on that island, Jake.

And we have been speaking with the (INAUDIBLE) directors here on this -- in this area. And they say what they're most concerned about, because this a low-lying county here around Morehead City,that they're worried about the flooding.

And right now, the winds are pushing the water toward the south. But that is expected to change here as this hurricane continues to move in the direction that it's moving.

And we're really on the top side of this storm ,Jake, which has really brought the strongest winds and the most intense rain that we have seen so far -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Ed, thank you so much. Stay safe.


TAPPER: Joining me now is Everette Newton, the mayor of Beaufort, North Carolina, which is right on the Carolina coast and is surrounded by water.

Mr. Mayor, I know the winds are ramping up where you are. Have most residents of Beaufort evacuated at this point?

EVERETTE NEWTON, MAYOR OF BEAUFORT, NORTH CAROLINA: We did have a great response to the evacuation. But we did also have people that stayed behind, Jake.

We -- the winds really ramped up this morning around 9:00. We started having power outages around 11:00. Our high tide was at 11:30. We only had some minor flooding during that stage, but we are keeping a really close eye on the storm surge right now.

TAPPER: What is the reason anybody would stay behind when so many people, including yourself, the governor, et cetera, everyone is saying get out of harm's way?

NEWTON: Well, it's complex, Jake. Some people don't feel comfortable leaving their home. Some people don't want to leave their pets. Some people don't feel like they have enough money.

Other people feel like they're going to get stuck with the -- with the flooding that we have seen before. We tried to educate people. We tried to get them to evacuate as well. But, realistically, some people just stay behind.

TAPPER: Tell us about conditions where you are.

NEWTON: Right.

We have got winds of the north right now gusting up to about 60 miles per hour. Lots of limbs down right now. Lots of rain as well. We just had a major band roll through. But, unfortunately, there's lots of bands right behind that as well.


So we're just sheltering in place, hunkering down.

TAPPER: And what is your biggest concern right now as Hurricane Florence approaches your town?

NEWTON: Well, the extreme winds and the storm surge.

The storm surge in particular is a big unknown. As your colleague up a New Bern noted, it's significant. Not exactly sure how that will impact our community. But we're watching it very closely.

TAPPER: For those in your town who have not left, can they leave? Is it too late? What is your message to them?

NEWTON: No, it's too late. They need to go ahead and shelter in place right now, hunker down. It's really dangerous out right now with lots of limbs coming down, lots of debris that kind of going around with a 60-mile-per hour wind.

So they need to shelter in place.

TAPPER: All right, Mayor Everette Newton, good luck to you and your city. Stay safe.

NEWTON: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Instead of reassuring Americans that the federal government is ready for the storm, President Trump spent much of the morning falsely claiming that the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans was a political conspiracy theory. Yes, that happened.

Plus, we're just moments away from an update on Hurricane Florence, as the Carolina coastline starts to feel the impact of this monster storm. How much worse will it get?

Stay with us.


[16:15:32] TAPPER: Welcome back.

A shocking and disturbing false claim from President Trump today tweeting, quote, 3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the island after the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by, it did not go up by month. Then a long time later, they started to report really large numbers like 3,000. This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible, unquote.

The president of the United States there with no evidence, denying the official government death toll of approximately 2,975 dead Americans from the hurricanes of 2017 and their aftermath, and casting blame again with zero evidence for this conspiracy theory on his political rivals supposedly plotting against him.

Some facts here. People die in the wake of storms. They die because of the loss of electricity, because of downed pour lines, because of contaminated water, falling debris. The governor of Puerto Rico raised the death toll after commissioning an independent study by George Washington University working with the University of Puerto Rico, one that analyzed statistical death patterns.

Three thousand people did not die, the president said, suggesting the number is really closer to 18. That must be a great relief to the Puerto Ricans who earlier this year put in front of their capital thousands of pairs of shoes bearing the names of those who had died as a result of the storm and its aftermath, a sight that is heartbreaking, to most us, I should say. The president, of course, suggesting that this is all bogus.

Even Republican allies of President Trump took issue with his comments. Florida Governor Rick Scott tweeting, I disagree with the president. And independent studies said thousands were lost and Governor Rossello agreed.

The campaign of Florida's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ron DeSantis, a major Trump supporter, said, DeSantis, quote, doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated.

Let's get right to CNN's Leyla Santiago in San Juan.

And, Leyla, how are folks on the ground reacting to President Trump's comments?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, the words I've heard today, shocking, appalling. One gentleman told me that it ruined his day, and the head of the funeral homes association told me President Trump should accept what government numbers and studies prove.


SANTIAGO (voice-over): Three thousand people did not die here. That number just bad politics, false claims from President Trump that are hard to hear for Puerto Ricans still recovering from Hurricane Maria last year.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: The victims nor the people of Puerto Rico deserve to have their pain questioned, you know. This has been a long process. As you know, we didn't have a lot of the resources.

SANTIAGO: After the storm, Chef Jose Andres served hundreds of thousands of meals to shell-shocked communities. He says the president should be ashamed.

JOSE ANDRES, CELEBRITY CHEF: History only shows you his lack of empathy. I don't think he can spoke because he didn't walk around the streets of Puerto Rico. Showing up in San Juan and going to the places that were OK. This is not trying to understand the reality.


SANTIAGO: True, two weeks after the storm, the death toll was low.

TRUMP: Sixteen people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands.

SANTIAGO: But a new study out of George Washington University found that 2,975 people in Puerto Rico died after Hurricane Maria, a number acknowledged by the Puerto Rican government.

MIRIAM RODRIGUEZ: I saw him like get on the floor and I could not do nothing to help him.

SANTIAGO: Miriam Rodriguez's husband Natalio (ph) relied on this machine to breathe. When they lost power, he lost air.

RODRIGUEZ: It wasn't a normal death, it wasn't.

SANTIAGO: Natalio's family is just one of many who believe Hurricane Irma contributed to their loss, the kind of losses Trump now says has been fabricated for political gain.


SANTIAGO: And, Jake, this week, I was in Utuado, the interior part of the island really hit hard by Hurricane Maria. The emergency management director there told me he believed at leave 95 deaths came out of that municipality, and he said that is what President Trump should have seen, the interior part of the island, the area where still today roads are not suffice for the buses to get to children and take them to school, the conditions that many believe lead to these deaths.

[16:20:01] TAPPER: All right. Leyla Santiago, as always, on the story in Puerto Rico, thank you so much.

Let's talk about this with our experts.

Ana Navarro, your reaction to President Trump's tweet?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: How stupid, how tone deaf, how surreal, how insensitive, how offensive, how offensive to the relatives of the 3,000 people who died in Puerto Rico. Just, you know, how wrong in every single wrong, morally, politically. I mean, how can this be coming from the president of the United States?

Now, frankly, he's doing so much harmed not only to, you know, we're in the midst of hurricane preparation and dealing with a hurricane, he's doing harm to even his political allies in Florida. There is a reason why two people who are very close to Donald Trump, Rick Scott who is running for U.S. Senate and Ron DeSantis who is running for governor came out immediately today to distance themselves from this.

There are Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida, who could actually make or break statewide elections in Florida in 2018 and I hope all those Puerto Ricans and all those people who know Puerto Ricans in Florida or who like Puerto Ricans, who are mad as hell at this tweet, remember that the deadline to register to Florida if you moved is October 9th. Just do it.

TAPPER: What do you make of this?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. So, look, 3,000 people are clearly dead, right? And what they are dead from I think is what the president is taking issue from.

So people -- I think people for political gain and for whatever reason, look, I've read the Milken report, I read the GAO reports on this -- on this tragedy, and it was a disaster of epic scale, so the people died. When the president was there, I think the disconnect in his mind is when he left, you know, 20, 30, 40 people dead. The Milken report takes a longitudinal study and looks six months.

The GAO report, interestingly, if I was the president, what he should have tweeted out, let me just read this to you because it's very interesting. He can stand on this alone. The GAO report on this -- on Maria says FEMA efforts in Puerto Rico alone were the largest and longest single response in the history of FEMA. FEMA's response to Puerto Rico is almost three times bigger than of Harvey, Irma and the wildfires combined.

So the president should have said despite our doing our best efforts, we can do better and we will do better.

TAPPER: But that's not what he said, of course.

URBAN: No, but he should -- I mean, he's got the facts behind here to say we did our best, we responded as hard as we could and yet it still wasn't enough. We'll do better.

TAPPER: I don't know how much he's interested in facts to be honest. He tweeted if a person died for any reason like old age, just add them on to the list, the idea being that these numbers were inflated. If somebody died of old age, they were just put on the list. But the study accounted for that, as you know you read it and to put the study in a simplified version, they would normally expect to see 13,633 deaths during that time period for any region -- any reason including old age from September to February if Hurricane Irma had never hit, but over that time span, there were 16,601 deaths, the difference approximately 3,000 deaths. So, he doesn't know what he's talking about. He's misrepresenting the science here.

PERRY BACON, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT.COM: He's wrong on the facts. He's also wrong. The studies are done by academics, not the Democratic Party, so that's another problem with what he tweeted today as well, the question for me is like why? Like this is a day where we should be focused on the people who are going to be affected by the hurricanes today, and it's him talking about himself a lot, and a lack of empathy and sort of a self-absorption we've seen a lot of the last two years.

TAPPER: But, you know, and let's remind people the president's -- what his message is to his base voters about facts and what they are supposed to believe when this comes to what we represent in terms of our reports on the government of Puerto Rico, commissioning the study and their numbers versus what he says. Take a listen.


TRUMP: Stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. I mean, I saw a piece on NBC today, NBC --


TAPPER: So, here's the thing -- because he's attacking this number, now we're talking about the death toll in Puerto Rico, and that death toll is higher than Hurricane Katrina. So he can say whatever he wants to say and his base will believe whatever they want to believe, but at the end of the day, the people watching the show right now will hear for the second time the death toll from Hurricane Maria during President Trump's reign was higher than the death toll from Hurricane Katrina during President Bush's reign, and I'll come to you in a second.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, because his only focus, and this has been this way since the day he took office, is on his base. That's all he seems to care about is what his base thinks about him, and he knows that his base is not watching us right now. They are watching Fox News, and -- and over at Fox News, Puerto Rico never happened. I mean, it's an alternative universe.

So they are never going to hear about this. They get all their information from Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Donald Trump's Twitter feed, that's literally it. It's an alternative reality. Now, how that is going to help him electorally because there are actually other people that vote beyond his base, I think that that's going to end up being a problem for him.

[16:25:09] URBAN: I mean, look, I'm not making an apology, but I'm trying to explain what's happening here, right? TAPPER: I get it.

URBAN: The president's a counterpuncher, we know that. He sees these fact and see people blaming him for the 3,000 deaths and I think what he's trying to get across is the fact that, and Ana knows this and you all know this to be true, that Puerto Rico was not in great shape before this, right?


URBAN: The Puerto Rican Electric Authority was bankrupt. They had lost 30 percent of the workforce from 2012 to 2015. They are down 30,000 employees. Seventy percent of Puerto Ricans didn't have clean drinking water, according to 1974 clean drinking water standards. The hurricane before this knocked out 80,000 households, didn't have electricity when Maria showed up, and when this hurricane came knocked down 80 percent of telephone polls and electricity was out, it was a catastrophic scale no one had seen.

NAVARRO: David, precisely, because everything you just said is true, precisely because we knew Puerto Rico was in such bad shape, financially, infrastructure, electric grid-wise, it needed, it required more preparation. It required more help and that is where the federal government and the Puerto Ricans failed.

URBAN: It's a failure on multiple levels.

NAVARRO: The Puerto Rican people were failed by all levels of government, not just the federal government. But you cannot compare. The facts are facts.

When you take a look at the way the federal government, FEMA, reacted to Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, and I was in Florida, and then you see within the same nine days, it is -- it was millions and millions and millions more meals in the first nine days to Texas and Irma.


NAVARRO: Let me finish.

URBAN: I'm basing this on the GAO report.

NAVARRO: It was millions and millions more tarps.

URBAN: Not according to the GAO report.

TAPPER: Right, FEMA did acknowledge in their after action report that they were underprepared, that they could have done things better.

URBAN: This is GAO --

TAPPER: I get it.


URBAN: -- almost three times.

TAPPER: No one doubts that there was an effort.

NAVARRO: Let me give you the numbers, but -- I came with receipts today. First nine days after Harvey, immediate response. After Harvey, 5.1 million meals. After Irma, 10.9 million meals, after Maria, 1.6 million meals.

URBAN: Within what time frame, though?


NAVARRO: Nine days, that's when people were dying. They were without electricity, they were without (INAUDIBLE), they couldn't hook up their oxygen machines, they couldn't refrigerate their insulin.

Listen, in Florida, we had 12 old people die in a nursing home because there was no air conditioning in Florida. So, the amount of people that died in Puerto Rico because there wasn't preparation, because we didn't help immediately, because we didn't evacuate people. We couldn't get the military hospitals there to get people out.

URBAN: Listen, I talked to folks who were on the ground, who are still on the ground there. The ports were crushed, roads were down. You couldn't get things in. Airports are closed. It was a catastrophic disaster like no one has ever seen.

NAVARRO: Pitbull was sending his airplane in to evacuate people.

TAPPER: No one is doubting that the recovery effort was incredibly difficult. What's going on is the president is doubting the death toll? That's really what the people are objecting to.

I got to take a quick break.

A massive rescue effort is prepped and ready to go as soon as Hurricane Florence passes. Our next guest is a commandant of the Coast Guard and is heading to the Carolinas in just a minutes, this as Florence is already battering the coast of the Carolinas.

Stay with us.