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Gas Explosions Rock Massachusetts; Hurricane Florence Pounds East Coast; New Forecast: Hurricane Florence Strengthening. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 13, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following breaking news. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Hurricane Florence is making its initial assault on the Carolinas and gradually intensifying, as a new forecast shows the storm has slowed down after doubling its size. It's difficult to overstate how much catastrophic damage this storm is fully capable of unleashing tonight and into the weekend, as it churns and churns toward the coast.

The hurricane-force winds now cover an area larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Also breaking, multiple suspected gas explosions have set several structures on fire and forced major evacuations in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts.

We have team coverage of all of, this especially the hurricane emergency. Our correspondents are across the storm zone. We have forecasters standing by at the National Weather Service and in our CNN Severe Weather Center.

But, right now, let's go to CNN's Martin Savidge. He's in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Martin, this storm is about, what, 100 miles from where you are. Update our viewers.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question, Wolf, that we have got tropical-storm-force winds that now are starting to impact the outer barrier islands here, as well as the beach communities that lie along the Atlantic.

On top of that now, the concern is for that storm surge in this area. We're near Wrightsville Beach. There could be six to nine, elsewhere, nine to 13. There's no question the storm that people have waited so long for, well, Florence is here.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): The days of waiting are over.

GOV. ROY COOPER (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Today, the threat becomes a reality.

SAVIDGE: Hurricane Florence is already making its way presence known along the Carolina coast. The window for people to evacuate is closing fast.

BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: This is a very dangerous storm. We're asking citizens to please heed a warning. Your time is running out.

SAVIDGE: Thousands of people are already in shelters across North and South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My first thought was, lord, don't let it flood, because I can't swim. I can't do anything. But the flood, I would really, really panic.

SAVIDGE: For those staying home, the governor has this dire message.

GOV. HENRY MCMASTER (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Once these winds start blowing at that tropical storm rate, it will be virtually impossible for the rescuers to get in to rescue you. So, they will be leaving, just like the others, because it will be highly dangerous to be there.

SAVIDGE: And if you're thinking the storm's category means it's weakened, officials say think again.

LONG: Just because the wind speeds came down, the intensity of this storm came down to a Cat 2, please do not let your guard down. The storm surge forecast associated with this storm has not changed. It's remained the same.

SAVIDGE: North Carolina also comes with some very serious specific concerns. The Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant in North Carolina, only four miles from the ocean, shutting down production and erecting flood barriers today. It's one of six nuclear power sites that could be in or near the storm's path.

Duke Energy and federal regulators say the plants are built to withstand major hurricanes.

ARNIE HEGLER, FORMER REACTOR OPERATOR: I'm not worried about the flooding here. They have plenty of pumps to get rid of the water that comes in.

SAVIDGE: Adding to that concern, thousands of dams in the region that could be inundated with the storm's heavy rain and surge. Some damage to these structures not out of the question.

LONG: Let me set the expectations. This is a very dangerous storm. We call them disasters because they break things. The infrastructure is going to break. The power is going to go out.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SAVIDGE: And the power is going out, Wolf.

In North Carolina alone, it's reported now 68,000 people without electricity. This is going to be a long slog on the part of this hurricane. We talk of storm surge. The other water rising they fear is what will come in a day or so, when all the rain, when it's done, rushes back downriver.

That could trigger an even greater flooding event -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, so, so, so worrisome. Martin Savidge, on the scene, thank you.

Let's go live to the National Hurricane Center right now. We're joined by the deputy director, Ed Rappaport.

Ed, thanks very much for joining us.

So what are your biggest concerns right now about this hurricane?


We will see some strong winds along the coast. In fact, Cedar Island, which is located here just to the north of the center, which is now about 90 miles offshore of Wilmington, Cedar Island recently reported a wind gust of 85 miles per hour. So, that's well into the hurricane range.

And another observation to give you from Cedar Island, this is a graph showing the water level. We have been worried about storm surge, water coming ashore, coming up to as much as maybe seven or 11 -- to 11 feet.

This is the graph of what's going on at Cedar Island. You can see the rapid rise in the last couple hours, now more than four feet above normal. And that occurred actually as one of these bands came through, pushed the water way up, four feet above ground level, normal ground level.


BLITZER: How great, Ed, is the risk from flash flooding and storm surges right now? You have been talking about the surges.

RAPPAPORT: Yes, the storm surge, of course, is the problem right along the coast.

We also have the issue with the rainfall. And we see that here now we have a large area we've been talking about now for several days, big concern. The entire state of North Carolina is going to be receiving close to five to 10 inches or more.

We can see the higher contours here, 15 to 20 locally, 40 inches of rain, and also much of South Carolina is going to see that same rain. So if you had one isolated area with a little bit of that -- with that water, it could all drain off. Unfortunately, we have got a two- to three-state area that's going to receive five to 10 inches or more.

And that's why we fear it's potentially catastrophic.

BLITZER: Catastrophic, indeed.

Ed Rappaport, thanks very much for all the important work you guys are doing over there. We really appreciate it.

And as Florence lashes the coast, we have seen the waves and the winds pick up by in Topsail, North Carolina as well.

The storm chaser Ben McMillan of WeatherNation is on the scene for us.

So what are the conditions like where you are?

BEN MCMILLAN, WEATHERNATION: Yes, Wolf, the winds are picking up significantly, but the storm surge has been the issue here.

And as Ed was talking about, just power of all that water coming up into area homes here, you can see the garage of this house was actually pushed out and smashed forward into the front yard. And all that stand that you see, that was just grass just a few hours ago.

BLITZER: Have people evacuated? Have they boarded up their homes and gotten out, Ben?

MCMILLAN: There's a few that are left.

Most have. Speaking with fire and police officials here on the island, they said they're going door to door and taking names of anyone who stayed, so they can track them down later if the worst-case scenario occurs.

BLITZER: What are the people who are staying, what are they telling you?

MCMILLAN: Most people just are very attached to their property. They want to be there to kind of defend their home against these storms.

But we don't recommend that, obviously. These hurricanes are very strong. All that surge, all that wind, all that water, it is going to leave sites like this. This is a lawn chair that was smashed up earlier today. Damage like that is just going to continue throughout the island.

BLITZER: Well, you have been covering these kinds of hurricanes. You're a storm chaser.

What are the biggest dangers from your perspective right now?

MCMILLAN: Right now, the center of the storm is still about 75 miles out to sea. But as those winds increase, those waves are going to increase with it.

As they were talking earlier, we could see surge over 10 feet. That's the ocean right behind me there, Wolf. If you can imagine another 10 feet of water coming up over the beach, any person standing where I am now could be washed away.

BLITZER: That's an awful situation.

What sort of resources are you seeing in the area? Are the first- responders, for example, ready to help?

MCMILLAN: Yes, Wolf, they have actually pulled all of the fire trucks and the police vehicles out of the island. They have a staging area, an emergency operations center across the Intracoastal Waterway. They're standing by.

But there's a point in the storm, they told me, where they may not be able to respond to 911 calls. That's the reason for the evacuations and why they have been asking people so strongly to abide by them.

BLITZER: I assume you're expecting major power outages in that area.

MCMILLAN: Yes, those kind of winds, 100-mile-an-hour wind or even less, can knock down power poles and leave areas without power for an extended period of time.

That's why we're recommending to either get out or if you're going to stay at home inland, make sure you have things like nonperishables, water supply, and first aid equipment, if need be.

BLITZER: But how expensive do you think these power outages are going to be?

MCMILLAN: It takes weeks for all the power companies to send all their resources in, all the trucks, all the personnel. The cost can go into the millions sometimes, especially if you factor in the property damage.

All that power grid, all the homes last, it can take quite a while for areas in the Carolinas to recover.

BLITZER: As the hurricane comes closer to closer to making landfall, what else are you expecting?

MCMILLAN: Well, right now, the tide is actually at low tide. So that's going to come up as we go towards midnight.

So we're talking about that storm surge of 10 feet. That's on top of that tide. So, as we see the tide levels go up into your Friday morning, early morning hours, we're going to see that surge on top of the time. That's just a lot of water coming in. And we want people to get out of the way of it.

BLITZER: So what are you going to do, Ben? Where do you plan on riding this out?

MCMILLAN: We're watching the center of that storm very closely, Wolf.

When those winds start to switch -- right now, they're blowing the ocean offshore. But when that eye, that center of the storm moves past, we're going to see the winds push the waves back at the shore, the high tide, the surge. It's all going to increase and we're going to probably move back inland for our safety.

And we recommend everyone that lives in this area do that as well, if they haven't left already.

BLITZER: Be safe and good luck.

Ben McMillan from WeatherNation, appreciate it very much.


CNN has a team of weather experts, and they're tracking this hurricane moment by moment.


BLITZER: Let's head over to the South Carolina right now, where one of the state's most popular tourist spots is feeling the approach of Florence.

CNN's Nick Watt is joining us from North Myrtle Beach.

And, Nick, what are you seeing and experiencing there?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are on the so called Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of beautiful Carolina beach run, as you mentioned, a tourist destination, also home to nearly half-a- million people.

Now, we were expecting to have wind and rain by now. But, as you have been reporting, the storm has stalled. But if you look behind me, those are the outer banks of Florence right now swirling above our heads, that storm that is twice the size of Massachusetts, those heavy winds, more than nearly 400 miles across.

Now, about 85 percent of the people who live here in North Myrtle have apparently evacuated. But I got to tell you, the beach was busy today, swimmers, surfers, golfers tourists. I spoke to a few people who have decided not to evacuate.

One guy said he was planning to move out of time this morning. Then, when the storm was downgraded to a Category 2, he decided to stay. But as we keep on telling people, Category 2 just means the wind. It does not mean the rain.

And most people who died in hurricanes die from the water. Now, if you look here, we're expecting a storm surge. This is normal high tide, which is about here. We had a high tide this off afternoon. Next is about 2:00 in the morning.

And if you look over here, there's no real dune to speak of. That's the house that we're staying. And if you see, they have experience of hurricanes in these parts. That is built up on stilts so that the water can pass through.

Now, another woman I spoke to today who was also not evacuating, she said, listen, maybe we're safer here on the coast than we would be in land.


And I'm not saying I agree with her, but her rationale is that last time there was a hurricane through here, Matthew in 2016, the River Lumber rose to 24 feet 40 miles inland. So she's saying, listen, I'm going to take my chances here.

Other people are saying they have evacuated in the past and it's taking them so long to get back home, maybe two weeks, that they just don't want to go. So they're going to hunker down and wait out this storm here, which, as you have been reporting, there could be rain for days and days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nick, be careful yourself over there. Thank you very much.

Just ahead, more of our breaking news coverage of Hurricane Florence, the flooding already beginning in some locations. We will go there live.

And we're also following a very dangerous situation unfolding right now in Massachusetts, where gas explosions have triggered fires and forced major evacuations.



We're following breaking news on a slow-moving monster that's hovering off the southeastern coast. Hurricane Florence is just beginning to slam the Carolinas, before it strikes land with full force.

We just learned that the storm has strengthened.

Our national correspondent, Miguel Marquez, is in Carolina Beach in North Carolina for us.

So, Miguel, what's happening there?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're already seeing some flooding on the north part of Carolina Beach here. And they are just getting ready for what is to come.

I want to show you what the conditions are like here at the ocean. Wind is picking up, probably sustained winds in the 40-mile-hour mark or so. The waves, though, are just getting impressively big and more consistent, coming in much, much faster throughout the afternoon and the day.

And the rain is starting to pick up as well. They are looking at 10, 20, perhaps 30 inches of rain. There are some areas that they're forecasting as much as 40 inches of rain in the hours ahead, and that storm surge. As the tide comes in around midnight tonight, and the -- you have the surge coming in at the same time, the concern is, is that a wide swathe of this town, as much as a third of this town, could be underwater.

And they certainly expect it to get cut off as well. There's a there's a cut through town that floods even on a regular rain day. And they expect for the next five to seven days that people who are here are going to be on their own -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, awful situation, indeed. Miguel, thank you, Miguel Marquez on the scene.

Chief Ralph Evangelous of the Wilmington, North Carolina, police department is joining us right now on the phone.

Chief, thanks so much for joining us. I know you got a lot going on.

What sort of resources do you have to respond to this hurricane?

RALPH EVANGELOUS, WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA, POLICE CHIEF: Well, we have, of course, our local resources.

We have right now over 300 essential personnel who are stationed both here at headquarters and other essential buildings around the city. Days off have been canceled, vacations canceled, and they're on 12- hour shifts.

We also have our regional partners who are assisting here, our county, state, federal. FEMA is here. National Guard are called up and on standby. We have got resources. We're just waiting for the storm to get through here. And then we will start damage assessments.

BLITZER: Tell us about the type of operations you expect to be dealing with over the next 24 to 48 hours.

EVANGELOUS: Well, we hope not to be able to have to do any rescue, because we have asked people to leave the area.

Our responses will be very limited in the height of this storm. We're expecting this not to just blow through like a normal hurricane. This is going to linger through probably beginning of Sunday, with 30, 40, maybe more inches of rain, winds at 80, 90 miles an hour sustained for a good two days.

So our work will really start when these winds get down to about 40, 45 miles an hour and we can really get out there and start looking at damage and assessments.

BLITZER: What do you anticipate, Chief, the biggest challenges facing your officers right now?

EVANGELOUS: Well, it's keeping morale up. It's tough being confined to air mattresses and cots throughout the facilities, because we have done a total recall of all of our resources.

So we have actually some family members here with them, because we felt this is just such a dangerous situation, that we really haven't -- haven't had to handle at this magnitude before. This is an epic rainfall. Flooding will be something we have never seen with this 10- or 13-foot surge, on top of 30, 40, 50 inches of rain. It's just unprecedented.

BLITZER: Yes. Wilmington is a major city also.

Did people -- have people who chose not to evacuate put themselves and potentially, Chief, first-responders in danger?

EVANGELOUS: Yes, they do.

And they have to understand our responses are limited in the height of these storms, which means they're on their own. And I sure hope no one pays the ultimate price for not heeding our warnings and leaving the area.

BLITZER: Yes, I know it's a problem all the time.

Are you getting enough support, Chief, from state and federal authorities?


I have to say that we have got -- FEMA has got assets station out at Fort Bragg military base. We have got -- our National Guard's called up. They're on -- all on standby waiting to deploy. We have got -- we have got the assets.


We just need to get through the storm, which will come -- should hit the shoreline around midnight, 1:00 this morning, and then linger.

BLITZER: How do you think this will compare to other hurricanes your community, unfortunately, over the years has lived through?

EVANGELOUS: This could be historic.

This could be one of the worst ones we have had, at least in this century, but, again, depending on that rainfall number.

Rainfall and surge could have catastrophic damage. Beach communities will be really, really affected. But upriver, inland, multiple miles, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 miles upriver, we're going to see water pushed up.

BLITZER: What advice you have, Chief, for those people who decided not to evacuate, who are about to experience this hurricane as it makes landfall?

And what always these worries me a lot are the elderly who simply haven't been able to get out.

EVANGELOUS: Call us right now. We will get you to a shelter, OK? We have got shelters. We have got room. Just call us. We will come get you if we have to. But don't wait any longer. BLITZER: What do you say to those people, though, who are afraid of

leaving their home, their possessions, they're worried about abandoning their possessions?

EVANGELOUS: Possessions can be replaced. Your life cannot.

So put things in perspective. Get out if you can, especially if you're in a flooded -- a flood zone, an area that has flooded in the past. It will definitely flood like you haven't seen before.

BLITZER: And what about those people who say that they're not leaving because they don't want to abandon their animals, the dogs and cats?

EVANGELOUS: We have shelters that are accepting animals also. We will take them. We will get you to where you need to go.

BLITZER: Well, that's good to hear.

Chief, thank you so much doing this. We really appreciate it, Chief Ralph Evangelous of The Wilmington Police Department.

They're doing important work for all the folks there.

We're going to have a lot more on the hurricane story coming up.

But there's another breaking story that we're following right now, a very significant story that's unfolding in Massachusetts, where multiple gas explosions have caused major fires and evacuations.

I want to go to our national correspondent, Jason Carroll.

Jason, tell us more about this.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, you saw just some of the pictures there, plumes of smoke and fire coming from several buildings there.

We want to get those pictures up, so our viewers can see them. Apparently, this is from the result of a natural gas line explosion, the explosion possibly related to a spike in gas pressure.

Massachusetts State Police telling us -- telling us that at least 20 to 25 fires have been reported in the area, across the area, affecting dozens of blocks. The evacuations are now under way in Andover and North Andover.

This is an area just about an hour north of Boston, Lawrence affected in the area as well. The town of Andover actually sent out a bulletin, Wolf, not too long ago on Facebook, asking if residents knew how to safely turn off their gas, repeat, if they knew how to safely do that, to do it immediately, and then evacuate the area.

A number of folks there being evacuated. We are told that there are some 35,000 residents in the town of Andover. And right now state officials are asking all -- I repeat -- all residents there in the area to evacuate. Massachusetts State Police say Columbia Gas is depressing the gas lines to try to get a handle on the situation. Also just got word from Lawrence General Hospital saying that they have received five patients there, Wolf, their conditions unknown -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jason, I want you to stand by. I know you're collecting more information.

But joining us on the phone right now is the town manager of Andover, Massachusetts, Andrew Flanagan.

Thanks so much, Andrew, for joining us. Tell us more about this decision to evacuate, what, more than 33,000 people from Andover?

ANDREW FLANAGAN, TOWN MANAGER, ANDOVER, MASSACHUSETTS: So, upon receiving a number of reports across the community, reports of structure fires, fires in our local businesses, we encouraged or asked our residents to, one, evacuate if they have gas service, if they know to how to shut their gas service off, to please do so, providing you know how to do it.

BLITZER: So, basically, the whole -- the whole area Andover over has been evacuated? Is that what I'm hearing?

FLANAGAN: Any resident or business who has gas surface, yes, we have asked to evacuate.

BLITZER: What about casualties? Have there been any?

FLANAGAN: There are no reports of casualties.

BLITZER: Do you know why exactly what's causing these gas explosions?

FLANAGAN: It's our understanding that it has to do with gas pressure.

We're working with the local utilities to evaluate that now and get a better understanding. Here in Andover, we have fully activated our emergency operations center. We're mobilizing our assets and assets from across the state to support our response.

BLITZER: Do you know the cause? Are these explosions accidental, or is there some sort of sabotage

FLANAGAN: We have no idea at this time.

BLITZER: Do you expect neighboring towns like North Andover, Lawrence to evacuate, as well?

FLANAGAN: They're both implementing evacuation plans, as well. And we're in close contact with our neighbors in Lawrence and North Andover as we manage the regional response.

BLITZER: So in other words, there could be tens and tens of thousands of additional people who are being forced to evacuate their homes right now. If you have 30, 40,000 in your area, another 30 or 40,000 in neighboring communities, we're talking about a lot of people. FLANAGAN: That is correct.

BLITZER: And you're doing this out of an abundance of caution. Or how many fires, how many explosions have actually occurred already?

FLANAGAN: We're responding to between -- somewhere between 20 and 25 fires currently. Until we have a better handle on the situation, evaluate and have a better understanding of the cause, we're proceeding on the side of caution and asking, again, all residents with gas service to evacuate their homes.

BLITZER: When do you think people will be able to return to their homes?

FLANAGAN: At this time, we don't have a set time for them to return. We ask them to follow service. Certainly, our media channels and we'll keep them updated on the situation.

BLITZER: Have you seen anything like this before, Andrew?

FLANAGAN: This is historic.

BLITZER: You've never seen anything like this in your community or neighboring communities, of major gas explosions, tens of thousands of people now forced to evacuate their homes?

FLANAGAN: We have not.

BLITZER: And you expect more of these explosions in the next few hours?

FLANAGAN: As people return home from work, we expect to receive additional calls for service. At this time we can't quantify that. But we're working to get the resources available so we have an adequate response.

BLITZER: All right. Well, good luck to you. Good luck to all the folks there in Massachusetts. A very, very worrisome development indeed. Andrew Flanagan, the Andover town manager. Thank you very much for joining us.

I want to get back to the other breaking story we're following, the hurricane. The hurricane, Florence, it's approaching the Carolina coast now.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is in New Bern, North Carolina, for us. Dianne, you've been wading through these flood waters all day. What are you seeing now?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, NEW BERN, NORTH CAROLINA: So Wolf, we actually had to move our location a few moments ago from where we had been all day.

Right now, if we look all the way back here, past those blinking red lights, that is the park where I was doing live shots throughout day today. Some of you may have seen it if you were watching CNN. The water slowly rose from around my ankles to up to where we had to leave, because it was no longer safe enough for us to be here.

Now again, we want to point out: Florence hasn't actually arrived yet here in New Bern. Now part of this is because we're on the Neuse River, but we're also on the Pamlico Sound. They have the Intercoastal Waterway. They have Atlantic Ocean that this all feeds that -- feeds into this area here, Wolf. So they're used to flooding. They're used to hurricanes.

A guy just walked by here and said this is a little extreme because we haven't even had the storm yet. It's sort of a perfect situation for them.

Now, we watched these barriers throughout the day float on by. We are asking people as we see them, because they're all coming out; they're taking pictures. People are riding their bicycles through this.

The Craven County curfew is in effect starting at 8 p.m. for the entire county, Wolf, even unincorporated areas. The city of New Bern has had a curfew since Monday, trying to get people ready for this.

They've had people in shelters. We had a hard time getting a hotel coming here. So they are leaving their homes. And you can probably see now, the wind is picking up again right. They are leaving their homes. But some of them started coming back, actually, when they heard that this was just a Category 2 storm, or it's turning south, thinking that they were going to dodge a bullet of sorts.

Obviously, we're seeing here they're going to be dealing with a serious flooding situation. Over here to my right, you can see we've got stores and businesses. Most of them have sandbags going on right now. But they'll likely experience some sort of flooding inside, because we haven't -- we have not received those big bands of rain just yet. In fact, Wolf, we've only had a couple moments of intense rain so far. That's on the way. It's starting to pick up again right now. But once that happens, we're likely going to have to find higher ground once again.

BLITZER: Be careful over there. Dianne, thank you very much. Dianne Gallagher reporting for us.

We're going to have much more on Hurricane Florence. That's coming up.

[18:35:00] On top of all of this, tonight, we're getting some major breaking news on Paul Manafort, the convicted Trump campaign chairman. Stand by. We'll update you on that, as well. We'll be right back.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We have some major breaking news coming into CNN right now in the Russia investigation and the special counsel, Robert Mueller's case against the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Evan, what are you and your team learning right now?

[18:40:06] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're told by a source familiar that Paul Manafort and his legal team are very close to an agreement with the special counsel's office that would resolve some of the charges that he's facing.

You know, he's about to go on trial. Jury selection is set to begin on Monday. He's going on trial here in Washington, D.C., on seven charges that he's facing. We expect -- according to the source, we expect that there is going to be a plea agreement; and the -- this plea agreement would be -- would resolve not only the charges here in Washington but also the charges that remain outstanding in Virginia. If you remember, last month he was convicted of eight -- on eight of 18 charges. So there were ten that are still remaining, and he could be tried -- retried there in Virginia.

And so we expect, according to the sources that we've been talking to, that this agreement would resolve both cases in Washington and in Virginia.

Now, there's plenty of incentive for Paul Manafort to reach an agreement here. He obviously spares the expense of going through another three-week trial, with all of the expenses that come with that. And we also know that, in fact, obviously, that the jury selection is beginning on Monday. You would want to reach an agreement before a jury is seated in that trial.

And there's also -- all indications today was that the teams were working to try to reach some kind of agreement. We saw our teams posted outside the special counsel's office, saw the members of the Paul Manafort legal team there. They spent several hours.

We saw some of the prosecutors involved in the Virginia case actually showed up at the special counsel's office, showed up today. And so they were there for several hours. They actually sent someone out to go get lunch. So there were all kinds of signs that were happening today that there was something afoot there among those teams. They were spending several hours there at the special counsel's office here in Washington.

And we also saw the judge move a hearing that was scheduled for tomorrow. It was a status hearing that was scheduled for tomorrow. She's now delayed it a couple of hours.

So we expect that, certainly, by tomorrow morning, there's going to be a completed agreement if an agreement is to be reached. Now, we -- the people we've been talking to have cautioned us, Wolf, that these two sides have been talking. And they've come close to agreement before. So it may well be a final agreement is not reached.

So at this point, what we can say is that an agreement appears very, very close. And this would prevent, or this would resolve these charges that Paul Manafort is facing and avoid having the expense of getting a second trial here in Washington beginning next week. BLITZER: What the key question, though, would be, as part of such a

plea deal -- and presumably a guilty plea deal would result in a reduced prison sentence for Paul Manafort -- would he be forced to cooperate with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the overall Russia investigation?

PEREZ: Right. That's the big question that we cannot answer at this point. No plea has actually been entered. There's been no filing from the federal prosecutors here. The Mueller team certainly has not filed anything in court to indicate what the terms of this agreement or the outlines of this agreement would be.

Obviously, that's been a sticking point in this negotiation that now have been going on for some time. According to the people we've been talking to, Wolf, one of the things that Paul Manafort was trying to do was certainly not cooperate with the Mueller team to plead guilty and have the charges be resolved. But also, not do anything that could harm or to implicate the president. That's one of the things that they were trying the avoid. Obviously, the Mueller team wants -- would want some kind of cooperation agreement as part of any -- as part of any deal.

So we don't know where the two sides have -- have come down on this. Again, what we're told is this is a very -- they're very close to a deal, and the final -- the final agreement has not yet been done. But certainly, that's one of the things we're all looking for, to see what kind of terms are reached and whether or not he's going to cooperate with the special counsel's investigation, perhaps against the president or perhaps against other people who may be implicated in that investigation.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a critically important element. Evan, stand by. I want to get some more on this major breaking story that's unfolding.

Joining us on the phone is our chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. So we don't know whether or not Paul Manafort, as part of a plea agreement, will cooperate with federal investigators. But usually that's the case, isn't it?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST (via phone): Cooperation usually is the case. And frankly, given Manafort's lack of leverage at this point, I think prosecutors would almost certainly insist on it.

He has been convicted once. He is looking at likely being convicted again, both in the retrial in Virginia and in the first -- in the other trial in the District of Columbia. So he is looking at a disastrous scenario, plus, of course, the legal fees and stress involved in going to trial again.

The prosecutors are there. They are ready to try this case. They'll try it. It's not going to cost them anything extra. So, all the leverage is on the prosecutors' side.

To give him any sort of deal, they're going to have to get something in return. The only thing he could really offer at this point is cooperation. And whether he's had a proffer session with them, meaning telling them what he would say if he did cooperate. That's something, you know, we don't know but it's very important question.

It would be some -- a cooperation deal at this point would serve both sides. It would not serve Donald Trump and it would hurt Paul Manafort's chances of getting a pardon if he cooperates. But, you know, we don't know if he's online for a pardon.

BLITZER: Well, and just to give our viewers some perspective, some background, Paul Manafort, he was the campaign chairman for the Trump campaign. He's 69 years old. He was a long time Washington political operative and lobbyist and he's now in jail right now because of witness tampering going into the first trial in northern Virginia. He is still in jail as we speak right now.

He would gain enormously if he were to fully cooperate with the special counsel and his team, right?

TOOBIN: Well, the federal court system rewards cooperators enormously. There's federal sentencing guidelines that will very strict that where a defendant has to serve 85 percent of whatever he is sentenced to. Manafort is looking at, at least ten years I think, given the magnitude of the crime convicted of. So, you're talking about eight, eight and a half years for man who will be 70 years old by time he goes to prison. This is an enormous risk.

If he cooperates, that means he gets a letter from the prosecutors, assuming it's truthful cooperation, and that gets him out of guidelines. And that could reduce his sentence dramatically. That is something that defendants in the federal system are very, very aware of. It's why so many cases end in plea bargains.

BLITZER: You know, which raises the question, I don't understand why he hasn't cooperated from the very beginning, knowing the charges, not only the perjury charges, the charges he was convicted of already eight out of 18. Another ten could be retried but failing to register as a foreign agent in the upcoming trial.

Why didn't he cooperate from the beginning?

TOOBIN: Wolf, that is a question that I have been asking from the beginning. That trial in Virginia was a slam dunk. It was a tax evasion case where he didn't pay his taxes. It was a bank fraud case where he lied on his bank application.

There was essentially no defense. Now, he did manage to get a hung juror because of a hold out juror. But given the magnitude of the evidence, I don't know why he didn't plead guilty from the start. It may be that he was hoping for a pardon. It may be he's afraid of what his Russian friends would think of him if he pled guilty.

It may be that he is simply constitutionally incapable of admitting his wrongdoing. You know, defendants act in peculiar, sometimes self- defeating ways. But it certainly will not get him the benefit, cooperating now that it would have if he cooperated from beginning. But that train has left the station and he's got to make the best of a bad situation.

BLITZER: I want to bring Evan back in a second.

But, quickly, if there's a plea agreement announced as early as tomorrow, does that automatically mean he might be out of jail awaiting the sentencing? Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: You're asking me.


BLITZER: Does he get out of jail right away as he awaits formal sentencing?

TOOBIN: That would be part of the negotiation. It would not happen automatically. One point of negotiation would be prosecutors perhaps recommending that he could get bail pending sentencing.

Now, ultimately, that would be up to the judge. Judges tend to defer to prosecutors on that. So, that's one of many forms of negotiation. One that you point out would be of great interest to Mr. Manafort, whether he gets out or not.

BLITZER: Yes, he would have a huge incentive to do that. Evan, you're getting some more information, what else are you learning?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one of the things that happened early in this case and during the -- before the prosecutor even brought charges, we know that Paul Manafort's legal team went to the special counsel's office and tried to present information and tried to see if there could be a deal that would be had, and they were rebuffed essentially.

[18:50:12] The special counsel was not interested in offering any kind of deal. They wanted to charge Paul Manafort. So, one of the things that happened early on, I think Jeffrey was saying the puzzling thing, the number of charges he was facing and the fact that really it was an uphill climb from the beginning in this case, why didn't he come to some kind of deal early on?

And the answer is his first legal team did try and there was no deal to be had. It was clear that the special counsel was intending to charge him.

And so that happens in some of these cases where the evidence, the prosecutors believe is so overwhelming that they would rather charge the person and then use that kind of leverage against that person.

So in this case that's what ended up happening. In this case also, we know that some of the talks began even during the Virginia trial and they seemed to not go anywhere partly because Paul Manafort was trying to resist doing any kind of cooperation. You know, that happens once in a while, but in this case clearly as Jeffrey points out, the leverage that the prosecutors have is so great that it's hard to see that they don't get something from Paul Manafort in return for any agreement that they might be able to reach. Again, we're going to know a lot more about this in the coming hours

if we see a court filing from the prosecutors, if we see any kind of paperwork that is filed before tomorrow's hearing or certainly before Monday's jury selection begins in the trial here in District of Columbia.

BLITZER: I want to go back to Jeffrey for a moment. Jeffrey, as you know, the president and his allies, they've complained that the charges brought against Manafort in the earlier trial in northern Virginia were totally unrelated to Russia. But the upcoming trial does deal with Manafort's foreign lobbying work on behalf of pro- Russian Ukrainian clients.

Do you think that could have been on Manafort's mind?

TOOBIN: I think there are a lot of things at play here. You know, it is -- it is not true that the first case had nothing to do with Russia. It was about his being paid and then not being paid by pro- Russian Ukrainian politicians.

So, Manafort's connections to that part of the world were at the heart of the Virginia case. Just one other possibility to consider here is that, you know, Paul Manafort can simply just plead guilty and avoid a trial. The other prosecutors can do if he simply pleads guilty to the remaining charges that Virginia and the charges in D.C. he could do that and not cooperate. I'm not sure what benefit he would get. He would get some reduction in the sentencing guidelines by accepting responsibility.

It's certainly not as much benefit as he would get if he cooperated, but it's just another possibility to keep in mind.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to stay on top of this story, obviously a huge story indeed.

We're also watching Hurricane Florence as it moves closer and closer making landfall in the Carolinas. We'll update you on that right after this.


[18:57:56] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now. The outer bands of Hurricane Florence, they are lashing the Carolina coast. A new forecast shows the storm has strengthened.

Let's check in with CNN's Brian Todd. He's joining us from Hempstead, North Carolina.

Brian, life threatening storm surges. They are in a forecast, clearly, and that's a huge concern where you are.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely it is, Wolf. We're entering a very dangerous period right now.

I'm standing on old landing road right by the intercoastal waterway, but at this moment, they're becoming one and the same. The intercoastal waterway is coming right on to old landing road here with the storm surge pushing it and it's going to only get worse in the hours. This is low tide. In a few hours, it's going to get much worse as another band of rain starts to just relentlessly pour on this area.

You can see some white caps whipping up and the currents starting to get pretty strong on the intercoastal. This is a dangerous period we're entering right now, and I'll take you over there to these marshy areas that normally residents and businesses here count on these marshlands. They're good at absorbing storm surge.

But right now, they're not able to do it. The storm surge is starting to inundate this marsh. Homes and businesses are on the other side of these trees. Water is going to have nowhere to go in a few hours.

When the tide comes in, that will be when the heaviest rain is going to come in. These areas are starting to be inundated right now and it's only going to get worse, Wolf. We've talked to a lot of local residents who have elected to stay and a lot of them have the rationale that, you know, I don't want to leave because I'm afraid it's going to be too hard to get back to my house, tend to my house if there's damage.

From the governor on down to all of these local officials we've talked to, they say, you just cannot think like that. You have got to get out. The people who have elected to stay right now, it's obviously too late. This is the kind of storm surge that they're starting to be faced with. As I said, Wolf, this is starting to get dangerous as the storm really starts to whip into this area in earnest.

BLITZER: Yes, Brian, I want you, our team, all of our correspondent, producers, camera crews, everyone to be safe right now. This is an extremely dangerous situation.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Our breaking news coverage continues right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT".