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Hurricane Sally to Batter Gulf Coast with Torrential Rain; At Least 36 Dead, Dozens Missing in West Coast Wildfires; Trump Assaults Science as Hurricane, Fires and Pandemic Rage. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired September 15, 2020 - 07:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEW DAY: Torrential rain for days.


It will just park over parts of the Gulf Coast and dump 10, 15, 20 inches of rain there. Storm surge is also a concern. We're going to speak with the director of the National Hurricane Center in just a moment.

Also this morning, nearly 100 wildfires on the west coast burning out of control. As we speak, nearly two dozen people are missing in Oregon. These fires are so enormous that some of the smoke is reaching parts of the east coast today.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN NEW DAY: And the U.S. death toll from coronavirus is nearing 195,000 people. There's new audio out this morning and it reveals the president was well aware in April of how dangerous and deadly this virus is.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: This thing is a killer, if it gets you. If you're the wrong person, you don't have a chance.

BOB WOODWARD, AUTHOR, RAGE: Yes, yes, exactly.

This is a monster. This is a scourge. And --

TRUMP: It is, the plague.


CAMEROTA: But last night, the president pretended that was not true at a political rally in Phoenix, where the Trump supporters in the audience were packed together, mostly without masks. Only one person was worried enough to stay six feet apart and that was President Trump. He suggested to Woodward that the health of the economy is more important than the virus.

Later today, another large crowd is expected at the White House for a signing ceremony where no masks are required.

But let's begin with Chad Myers. He is going to tell us where Hurricane Sally is and where she is headed. Chad?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I think it's probably headed somewhere 50 miles east or west of Biloxi. I think that's probably the most likely landfall. Right now, it's moving at two miles per hour. It has literally stopped in the middle of the water. So we're not getting any real advance to this storm, it's not getting stronger, it's not getting bigger, but it is certainly putting down an awful lot of rainfall with that slow movement.

Also, one more thing I'm looking at here, these big thunderstorms that have developed here just off the shore into parts of Florida, each one of those cells could rotate with a water spout or land-falling tornado today. We have to keep that in mind. This is always the case on the right side of a center of circulation or an eye wall.

This probably doesn't make landfall until tomorrow morning, certainly, after midnight tonight, so another hours and hours and hours of waiting here across parts of the Deep South, waiting for that rain and surge to get there.

Because the wind is going in the same direction for so very long, there will be heavy rainfall washing onshore. There are spots here across parts of South Florida, well in excess of 15 to 20 miles per hour. And then that rain moves all the way up even into Georgia and into the Carolinas.

But there's your focus there, fresh water flooding, rivers out of their banks, and even right to get to the ocean, which is trying to push the water back up the other way, with ocean surge or saltwater surge in the seven to ten feet range. And all of this pushing up into Mobile Bay, into Pensacola, hurricane warnings are posted, where hurricane warnings -- I mean, conditions are expected. And they're going to happen, John.

BERMAN: Right. I know you're watching it very closely, Chad. Please keep us updated. We have another update from the Hurricane Center in just a few minutes.

Let's go to CNN's Ed Lavendera live in Gulfport, Mississippi, with the latest from the ground there, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Well, here across the Gulf Coast, preparations have been well underway for the last two days, getting ready for this storm, which many people anticipated would be arriving this morning.

But as this storm has slowed down to that slow crawl out in the gulf waters, residents here have another day essentially to get everything in order.

We have seen preparations going on. They have across the coastline here, in parking lots, city crews have dumped sand, where people can come and make their own sandbags and take them back to their home.

This is the Marina in Gulfport, although the boats were ordered out of this Marina. So if you go about a mile inland, you can see where all of the boats have been parked in strip mall parking lots.

And this morning, if you look at live pictures of the initial rain bands that are starting to hit the shore, this is a shot from Pensacola Beach, about 130 miles away from where I'm standing. That is some of the initial and most intense storms that we're seeing at this moment.

And just a little bit west of there in Gulf Shores, Alabama, you can see the tidal surge starting to pick up there, as well. And we fully anticipate that all of this will continue to creep its way toward the west throughout the rest of the day.

And that will begin impacting the rest of Alabama, as well as the Mississippi coastline and perhaps even into Southeast Louisiana, where the storm surges in these areas could reach as high as ten feet.

But, John and Alisyn, it's another day of preparation as people sit here and wait and just watch this storm slowly creep forward towards the coastline here and people are fully bracing, knowing this will be major rain event in the coming days.


John and Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: Okay. Ed, thank you very much for the update from the ground.

Joining us now is Ken Graham, he is the director of the National Hurricane Center. Ken, thank you for your time. I know how busy you are. What are you most concerned about at this hour?

KEN GRAHAM, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Alisyn, we're sitting here in operations here at the Hurricane Center talking about a historic rainfall event. We've been talking about the storm surge, but this slow movement. We are now moving at two miles an hour.

And we're going to continue to move with that slow movement with time. That is not a good sign, because the slower the movement, the more time it is to pile up that rainfall and also storm surge, not just on the coast, but well inland into Alabama and eventually into even Georgia.

CAMEROTA: Historic rainfall event, what does that look like? I mean, I covered Hurricane Harvey in Texas, in Houston, a few years ago, and I just remember that even days later, there were still parts of the city that were underwater and waterlogged for weeks. So what do you mean, that you're predicting --

GRAHAM: Yes, just like that, Alisyn. Some of these areas could have water for a long period of time. And these totals, I mean, we're talking 10 to 20 inches of rain for portions of Coastal Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, even getting inland into Alabama. Some areas in here could see 30 inches of rain. But it progresses.

If you think about our track going northward, some of these areas, that orange area right here, that's six to ten inches of rain, and some places could get 12 inches of rain, so, not just on the coast, but inland. But, yes, you start getting 20 to 30 inches of rain, that's flash flooding, it's a very dangerous situation.

CAMEROTA: That's so important for people to hear, Ken, at this hour. Because, obviously, we always look at the coastal cities, but you're saying that this will have possibly deadly consequences inland.

And so Chad was just telling us that he is thinking Biloxi, Mississippi, for landfall? Is that what you're seeing at this hour?

GRAHAM: Yes, it will be close. It will be close to that area. We've been seeing some wobbles. When you're moving that slow, there's not a lot of steering current. It will start wiggling and wobbling a little bit. But either way, I mean, whether it goes left or right a little bit, we're still talking about this massive amount of moisture coming onshore with this rainfall and the storm surge.

We've still got to consider that as well. Because it's so slow, there's just a longer time to push those south winds up. We're talking Dauphin Island over the Florida border, four to seven foot of storm surge, even Mobile Bay, six to nine foot of storm surge. So, rain, storm surge, this is a lot about water. And if we get those winds, hurricane force winds and tropical storm force winds, we're talking trees down, pretty big power outages, as well.

CAMEROTA: In Louisiana, there are still people displaced from Laura, from the last one. So what should people be doing right now in these final hours leading up to this?

GRAHAM: Yes. Any one of these areas, just if you have a safe place, I mean, start looking at -- already, looking at radar. You start to see these rain bands come in. I mean, be in a safe place. We're talking water in these rain bands. You can get tornadoes in these rain bands, as well. So have a safe place.

Be ready to take shelter from these tornados and be in the high ground. You've got to be away from these areas that can flood. Just an incredibly dangerous situation and don't be on the roads. When you start getting these floods, you can't tell what's road, what's not road, if a bridge is washed out. These are the types of things we've got to consider. Travel is going to be just treacherous.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, Ken Graham, very much, for the warning again. You're predicting historic rainfall for that area. We will check back with you. We really appreciate it. John?

BERMAN: All right, from floods to fires, this morning, at least 36 people are dead and 22 missing this morning as wildfires continue to rage out west. Two of the victims missing in Oregon include 13-year- old Wyatt Tofte and his grandmother, Peggy Mosso. Wyatt and his dog were huddled together in a car when they were overtaken by the flames.

Joining me now is Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Senator Merkley, thank you so much for being with us. I know that you spent time over the weekend driving hundreds of miles through your state. Tell me what you saw and what you're hearing from the ground this morning.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR): John, these fires in Oregon, they're apocalyptic, is a reasonable description. I drove over 600 miles, visiting centers for refugees were coming, fire control centers, and going through a couple of towns that had been absolutely incinerated. I've never seen anything like it.

600 miles of travel, never left the smoke. We're talking about thousands of homes lost, enormous, enormous damage, all the consequence of really changing climate across the world, but certainly impacting Oregon right now.

BERMAN: And I do want to talk about climate change in just a minute, but I want to get a little more sense of what we're seeing on the ground here.

One of the things in California we've grown used to is these fires burned. And, yes, people in towns and homes are threatened or destroyed, but a lot of them happen in forestland, which are not populated. That's not what's happening in Oregon. These fires are right along the heavily populated I-5 corridor there. So this is directly impacting thousands of people's lives. You talked about thousands of homes potentially destroyed.


MERKLEY: Yes, we had fires in the western cascades, and then when the winds reversed and blew from the east to the west, they became -- these fires became a blow torch that just descended Santiam Valley, the McKenzie River Valley, the Applegate Valley. They then proceeded to basically burn these towns coming in from the east.

And the fires were so fierce, you couldn't put a line in front of them. They were simply advancing. They would skip over a bulldozer in a flash. The embers would go out half a mile or so and start new fires. So you had really horrific conditions to try to control the fires.

And the teams were really focused on trying to do point defense around homes. And in many places, that simply didn't work. The fire overwhelmed that.

BERMAN: Now, we've heard from Washington Governor Jay Inslee. We've heard from California Governor Gavin Newsom refer to these as climate fires. Why do you think that terminology is appropriate here?

MERKLEY: If we look over the last four decades, what we see is just a steady decrease in the snowpack, a steady warming of the ocean off the coast, a steady increase in how dry the forests are and how long that period is, and it just sets all the conditions for these fires.

The president, I know, visited California and said he just thinks, well, things will just get better on their own. This is, this is willful ignorance. This is putting your hands over your eyes and your ears saying, I see no climate change, I hear no climate change, there is no climate change, everything will get better. Wishful ignorance has resulted on the pandemic front within a week. We'll have 200,000 Americans who have died. And what we're seeing in the west is just a steady scorching of our forests and now the incineration of our towns.

BERMAN: I want to play you, since you brought up the president's visit to California, he had largely not spoken of the fires for several weeks. He did visit California yesterday. But when he got there, in the presence of scientists and people fighting the blaze, this is what he said. Listen.


TRUMP: It will start getting cooler. You just watch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wish science agreed with you.

TRUMP: Well, I don't think science knows, actually.


BERMAN: Science does know. It is 2.5 degrees warmer on the west coast than it was in the 1970s. Science knows, and that last phrase, I don't think science knows, that we heard the president say, for people like you who have been on the frontlines of the climate change battle for some time, that means something very specific. So what do you hear when he says that and what effect does it have?

MERKLEY: Well, I have a president that is so welded to the fossil fuel industry that he is determined to never really look at what's going on. He would probably feel that -- I would like to think that he would feel that he had some responsibility to help lead the nation to attack this problem. But if you never admit that there is a problem, you do nothing to address it.

I would love for the president to have been with me as I sat with families who were in a complete state of shock. Some of them have just barely escaped with their lives. Some of them had family members, they didn't know where they were. And there was this combination of, my goodness, I'm so thankful I survived, and then a recognition that other family members might not have survived, and perhaps their houses had burned down, in which, in many cases, had indeed happened.

So it's just so powerful an impact on people's lives and on the landscape. A president should be leading the effort to respond, not pretending there isn't a problem.

BERMAN: And there's a false choice that some are raising too. They're saying, oh, it's not climate change, it's forest management. There doesn't have to be a choice between believing in climate change and forest management. There are people who say that there needs to be some advances in changed approaches to forest management, but that doesn't mean you don't deal with the underlying conditions that are here, which might very well be the climate change.

MERKLEY: Well, and if the president wants to help with forest management, we need billions of dollars to thin these second growth forests. After you do a clear cut, the trees all grow up very close together, they're all the same height, once a fire is in it, it moves so easily through those stands. And so thinning them, in many situations, can slow down a fire and make it easier for firefighters to get to the front of a fire, but it's expensive to do that. We need federal resources to do that.

So if you feel that forest management is a factor, and it is a factor because of the condition of these second growth forests, well, then, help us get the resources and the crews, put Americans to work thinning these forests in a responsible way.


They're still going to be drier than they were in the past. We're still going to have more fires than in the past, but we can fight them more easily if we have the federal resources to thin the forests and make them more resilient in advance.

BERMAN: Senator Jeff Merkley, thank you for being with us, be well and our best to the people in your state.

MERKLEY: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: All right. We hear President Trump questioning the science of climate change when there is no question. There is also an assault on science from inside the administration on the coronavirus pandemic. That's next.


CAMEROTA: As the Gulf Coast braces for Hurricane Sally and the west coast tries to fight a hundred wildfires, President Trump met with local officials in California Monday.


They urged him to act on climate change, which experts say fuels the tinderbox conditions. But this was his response.


TRUMP: It will start getting cooler.


TRUMP: You just watch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wish science agreed with you.

TRUMP: Well, I don't think science knows, actually.


CAMEROTA: Donald Trump has long been a skeptic on climate science and change. During his 2016 campaign, he called it a hoax, invented by China.

The Washington Post reports that the president just appointed David Legates, a climate science denier to a top position at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That agency is responsible for much to have the government's research on climate science.

President Trump does not believe that record heat waves or droughts are the problem. He thinks it's only fallen branches and leaves on the forest floor causing the wildfires.


TRUMP: With regard to the forest, when trees fall down, after a short period of time, about 18 months, they become very dry. They become really like a matchstick. And they get up -- you know, there's no more water pouring through and they become very, very -- they just explode. They can explode.


CAMEROTA: Exploding trees. The president often makes claims unsupported by science, like this one about windmills.


TRUMP: They say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one, okay?


CAMEROTA: All right. And you'll remember this moment, last September, when he showed off a weather map with the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian drawn in with black sharpie to better fit his version of events. A White House official later told The Washington Post that President Trump himself had made that change.

BERMAN: Importantly, the Trump administration has rolled back many environmental protections, including standards on carbon emissions for coal-fired power plants, scaling back the Endangered Species Act, and repealing Clean Water Act regulations. In 2017, the Trump administration made the largest reduction of protected land in U.S. history, that includes an 85 percent reduction to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

So during the coronavirus pandemic, the president has consistently gone against the advice of experts. Don't forget, the president suggested on national T.V. with millions of people watching that we should inject disinfectant into our bodies.


TRUMP: And I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning.


BERMAN: No, that is not the science.

So, on Sunday, HHS top spokesman, Michael Caputo, attacked the scientists and doctors at the Centers for Disease Control. He said wrongly that there's a resistance unit inside the agency against President Trump. This after a report that Trump appointed communications officials at HHS tried to change the language in crucial weekly CDC documents, a move seen by many as political.

CAMEROTA: Okay. Joining us now is CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, let's just start with the environmental stuff. I know that's not necessarily medical, though, of course, everything is connected. But it's so interesting, President Trump's version of events often have the convenient outcome of seeming to absolve him of any responsibility. You know, if he thinks it's just the forest floor, well, there's nothing he can do about it, except, as Governor Gavin Newsom pointed out to him, he is responsibility for 57 percent of the land, the federal land in California.

So if he truly thinks it's just the forest floor, he should go rake it, which is what he's suggested others do. I mean, he is responsible for a large chunk of that. But, you know, he often washes his hands of all of this.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, it is quite striking when you think about the comments that he makes around climate change and then even trying to correlate them to some of the things about the coronavirus, you know, just having reported on specifically the coronavirus for so many months now, I think what I'm quite struck by is that I don't think that he holds on to any of these beliefs that strongly. That's the amazing thing.

I mean, clearly, with coronavirus, he's doing these things, saying these things that give him an idea that make it clear that he has an idea of how serious this is, right? He's getting tested every day. He's even taken unproven medication himself. He clearly keeps himself safe. He's telling Bob Woodward how dangerous this is, but then seems to reflect what his audience, if he's giving a speech, for example, wants to hear. And it's some of the same sort of thing with climate change.

I just don't know how strongly he holds on to the beliefs that he is actually projecting.


That seems to be what I've heard from lots of people who have now spent time, you know, creating these briefs at the CDC, even at the FDA that they create these, these are scientific briefs. it's not that someone says, we totally disagree with you on this, it's just that they get changed because they better reflect what he wants to project, if that makes sense. It's just -- it's a strange time.

BERMAN: Well, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, you are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be. The bottom line here is the message the president is sending to the United States with his words and actions, and we saw it yesterday. We saw it yesterday at this event in Arizona when he was in a packed room.

I know we have the photo somewhere of this. He's in a packed room. Everyone else in the room, including older people, clearly seniors there, they're packed, cheek-to-jowl, as Alisyn likes to say, not wearing masks in the audience there. And in the back, you can see the lead table there and you can see that there's one lone person who is social distanced on that lead rostrum there. Who is it? It's the president of the United States.

So someone is concerned enough to keep the president safer, but not the hundreds and hundreds of people in the audience. To me, this is a very revealing picture, Sanjay.

GUPTA: Yes. And I think that that one person who really wants -- and besides Secret Service and, I'm sure, the planners, you know, is the president again. Because, you know, you listen to these tapes and you hear a significant concern that he has. You know, just -- you don't know who's going to be affected by this. It could just affect somebody and they could die from this. We're hearing it's five times more deadly than the flu. All of those things that he's saying back in early February, he's getting briefings from people all over the world. He's got a sense that this is really quite dangerous, right?

So then, the question, I think, and I've been listening to lots of different conversations between people on this at the scientific level and other places, what's the disconnect then? He knows this is serious. He clearly is protecting himself. Again, getting tested every day, even took hydroxychloroquine, an unproven medication, a guy who has known heart disease and he's told that this could potential cause heart problems, I'm going to take it anyway, he says he's taking it. He clearly knows how serious this is, and yet, is somehow projecting this, it's a hoax, it's not that serious, for the people who are listening to him.

I mean, it's got to be one of the great sort of paradoxes, I think. I don't know. I've spent way too much time thinking about this. And in medicine, oftentimes, it's not the motivations or the root cause that we really focus on enough. We usually focus on trying to improve the outcome. How do we actually treat the cancer? How do we treat the disease? But what actually caused this in the first place, I think, I don't know. I've spent a lot of times over the past several days talking to very high-level officials within these various organizations. It's confusing.

They paint this picture for me. It's remarkable, like, you go back to the CDC, the way a document comes in typically, you know the CDC is reviewing it, there's an assistant director of science, there's fact checkers, cross checkers, there's people who really go through this with a fine-toothed comb, they send changes back and forth. It is a process.

So when a document comes out of the CDC, it is one of the most vetted documents really that we have in our scientific community. They would wake up in the morning and tell me that a document just ended up on their website, having never gone through any of those processes, just totally just placed there, a totally different way. So, you know, how is this happening right now?

And we talk about the assault on science, yes, but the manifestations of this and what it means overall for doctors like me, for the scientific community as a whole is really, really remarkable. I mean, it's really fundamentally changed, even over just the last several months.

CAMEROTA: And, I mean, Sanjay, just on a last point, what it means for patients and for regular people. it's not only crazy-making, as you have pointed out, it's cruel. It's cruel. I mean, Latinos are 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized with coronavirus than other demographics. And that was a Latinos for Trump event last night. And the president packed them in, shoulder to shoulder, because he didn't care.

I mean, that's the only thing we can conclude. He cares enough for himself to be separated from everybody, but everybody else can sit chair by chair, packed in together. And we'll see. I mean, as you've so often told us, we'll see two weeks from now what the situation is there in Phoenix. And we pray that somehow everybody escapes with their lives after that.

Sanjay, we have to go. Thank you very much for your perspective, as always.

GUPTA: Yes. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: We want to take some time right now to remember some of the nearly 195,000 Americans lost to coronavirus.

Captain Tommy Searcy was a highly-decorated 18-year veteran with the Houston Fire Department. He's a father of three and he has a twin brother who's also a Houston firefighter.


Houston's fire chief called Seacy an exceptional firefighter, a selfless teammate and tireless public servant.