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Slow-Moving Hurricane Sally Pummels Gulf Coast with Torrential Rain; Interview with Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier on the Impact of Hurricane Sally; Trump Tells Pennsylvania Voters at a Town Hall He Didn't Downplay Coronavirus; Hurricane Sally Pummels U.S. Gulf Coast with Torrential Rain; Wildfires Burn More Than 3.2 Million Acres Across California. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 16, 2020 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. We begin with the breaking news this morning.

Hurricane Sally is battering the Gulf Coast with torrential rain as we speak. It is a category two hurricane and it's packing winds of over 100 miles an hour. Some areas could see a staggering 30 inches or more of rain. Sally making landfall -- sorry, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No, 2 1/2 feet. Imagine that. It's making landfall just hours ago near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Warnings of catastrophic flooding, life threatening storm surge has forced thousands to evacuate.

We have reporters across the coast. Let's begin with Gary Tuchman, he's in Pensacola Beach, Florida, on the conditions there.

You know, the storm track, Gary, is taking it a little bit more in your direction. Tell us what you're seeing.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim and Poppy, this is the hurricane that feels like it will never end. For 16 hours now, here in Pensacola Beach, which is a barrier island, south of the city of Pensacola, Florida, we've had torrential rain and it hasn't stopped. But the heaviest winds have been over the last couple of hours. Right now you have a sustained wind of 57 miles per hour. We've had gusts up to 92 miles per hour over the last few hours.

But this is not a wind event. The wind is dangerous. There's no question about it. There's a lot of damage, including like this restaurant behind me. Most of the roof is now gone and the scaffolding is flapping right there. But it's the rain. We've had at least 24 inches of rain, that's two feet of rain, here in the Pensacola area since yesterday afternoon.

There's still a flash flood warning and people are being warned now that it's daylight, now that the sun is up, even though we can't see the sun, please do not go out because the fear is -- and we've seen this before in storms we've covered, people drive, they see a puddle, they think it's safer, they go a little further, it gets deeper, and before they know it the water is so deep it just carries the car away, and that's how people die.

In addition to that many power lines are down. We've heard transformers explode and power lines collapsed. And that's a big danger when people go out of their house and they drive over the power lines and they could be live, and they could be electrocute. There's about 150,000 customers here in the Florida panhandle without power. About 70 percent of the people in this county, Escambia County, without power.

But because so many people still do have power including on this area where we are, on this barrier island, those power lines could still be live and that's a concern. So either way at this point, people we hope are staying in their homes because these hurricane force winds are supposed to continue until early this afternoon here in Pensacola Beach.

Jim and Poppy, back to you.

HARLOW: Gary Tuchman, the storm that will never end. We appreciate you being out in it to bring us what's happening. Thanks so much.

SCIUTTO: Let's get now to Ed Lavandera. He's in Mobile, Alabama.

OK, Ed, rain there, wind, tell us what you're seeing.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jim and Poppy, good morning. Well, we are about four or five hours into what seems to be the worst of Hurricane Sally as it has come on shore in these morning hours. And what really stands out in this storm is just how sustained the intensity of the winds have been. Usually in the middle of one of these hurricanes, you get the bands that whip through.

So even within the worse of the storm you've seen -- often feel like you get a little break from time to time. But the way this has been sustained for so long seems rather intense. And I think that is going to be one of things that causes extensive damage here throughout the region. Once all of this dies down we'll get a better chance to survey the situation.

I think that's what we'll begin to see it, because what we have seen for four or five hours is incredibly intense, sustained winds. And we've talked a lot about the rainfall that has fallen. And to give you a sense of this. Just look out here at the Mobile River. This is flowing straight south. We are just on the edge of the bay here. But hopefully you can pick up there on the camera the ferociousness of the current that the winds are blowing this river back in the bay.

It is quite something to see and clearly a sign of just how treacherous the situations are throughout the Gulf Coast area here in Alabama and southwest Florida where the eye of this hurricane has come ashore between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida. And that is the region and the areas that are taking some of the hardest hit areas in this storm and if we're still hours away to really get a sense of just how extensive the damage is going to be in all of this -- Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Listen, that water moves fast, it's powerful. Folks have to respect that.

Ed Lavandera, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Let's go now to Dauphin Island. It's a barrier island on Alabama's coast. The mayor, Jeff Collier, joins me on the phone.


Mayor, thank you for being with me.


HARLOW: You've been mayor there for almost 23 years. So you know what bad storms are like, that's for sure. It is one of those sort of constantly worst hit islands in hurricanes because, you know, what you've got there is you've got a flat island, low-lying topography, and you've got climate change and the impact of that.

You have prepared for storms before. What is this one like compared to those especially given how slowly it's moving and how much rain it is set to dump?

COLLIER: Well, we're just getting out to do our initial survey and what we're seeing is quite a bit of devastation. We've got trees down all over the place. Power lines. Of course electricity has been shut off for the entire over 24 hours now. Also our main road coming to the island -- our only road coming to the island has been closed since yesterday morning also. So we've got a lot of work to get done.

We haven't made it to all the areas of the island yet. The west end is where the most vulnerable places usually are. The beach front areas, we haven't been able to get there yet. So just a lot of damage here on the island.

HARLOW: Flooding and storm surge, and the concern about cars being trapped, we've seen some images of cars also trapped feet in the sand. Is that happening to a great extent?

COLLIER: Well, we had that happen actually a couple of days ago -- you know, the tide came up quicker than some folks realized, I guess. And a couple of them got trapped down there. But yes, that does happen sometimes. We try to get word out to warn people. But, you know, a lot of times just hard to get that information out to everyone. So, yes, we did lose about four or five vehicles this time around.

HARLOW: Right.

COLLIER: Fortunately, as far as I know, we've had no health issues so far. HARLOW: You were one of the first and loudest voices calling on people

to evacuate. Do you know how many people did versus sort of what percentage remained on the island with you and are they getting -- you know, are they putting in rescue calls now to first responders?

COLLIER: Well, when we asked for folks to leave it was particularly for the west end and other low-lying, vulnerable areas, those areas were cleared. So we did get people out of there. Now, there are a lot of people on the island. I would imagine more than 300, 400 or more people that stayed on Dauphin Island.


COLLIER: But they were staying in area that are a little more protected like in the condos and the interior parts of the island. So we haven't had any calls for any rescue support except for one, that was early this morning, I should add.


COLLIER: There's one this morning.

HARLOW: This has already been a very active hurricane season. And we're so early as you know, Sally is now the second named storm to hit near you in just two weeks. Do you feel like these storms are becoming more frequent and more powerful given again how long you have lived on Dauphin Island and how long you've been mayor?

COLLIER: Well, it's certainly been more frequent this year and unfortunately we still got a couple of months or so to go in this hurricane season. So yes, this season has been very hectic just as it was predicted to be. And, you know, hopefully this will be our last one this year because this one has done quite a bit of damage.

HARLOW: We hope so. Good luck to you, Mayor. Thank you very much.

COLLIER: Thank you. Thank you, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: We turn now to meteorologist Chad Myers.

So, Chad, you've been warning about this for the last 24, 48 hours. 30 inches of rain, consistent rainfall, slow-moving storm. So tell us how that's been playing out the last few hours and how it will play out going forward.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, where our Gary Tuchman is right now, over 25 inches already come down at the naval air station there in Pensacola. Dauphin Island where the mayor is right there on the opposite side of the eye, on the downwind or the south wind side of the eye, blowing from the north to the south. Actually blowing the water out of Mobile Bay. Coast Guard Mobile Bay is now down seven feet from where they should be.

It's an inverse surge. The water is blowing out. Ed Lavandera showed us the water blowing downriver, downwind and out, and so we are seeing some backside flooding down there. Not so much for Dauphin Island but points a little bit farther to the east and flash flood warnings everywhere. I mean, we've had over a foot of rain here even into Panama City Beach, winds now for Gary 77 miles per hour. Still gusting right now at this hour.

And there's a potential for tornadoes today because now the storm is on shore and some of these storms, the bigger ones, can actually spin. Everywhere that you see white, now granted 90 percent is offshore. That's where 20 inches of rain has already fallen and it is still raining. It will move to the south of Atlanta, Georgia, and eventually off shore through the Carolinas and it will spread more rainfall as it goes up there. This isn't going to be done. There's still a lot of moisture laden air in the storm.


And as it rolls on by even places like Atlantic can see winds to 40. Mobile, Montgomery, 60 still before it's all done and then finally dying off as it goes offshore. But that's six to 10 inches of rainfall. And then more down here, 10 maybe to 15 still to come. That's why there's all these flash flood warnings going on.

Still the storm surge here, we're talking about 5 1/2 foot surge right where Gary is in Pensacola, and then the opposite surge in Mobile Bay on the other side of the eye. So this has been quite the storm in that red box behind me. That's where the tornado possibility is for today. That's all the way to Apalachicola for that matter, Pensacola, and even for the -- all the way really from Panama City all the way along 30-A, certainly all along 98. So lots of things still to go before this thing finally dies.


HARLOW: Yes. For sure. Chad, we appreciate you. Thanks very much for keeping us posted.

Still to come, could rain on the West Coast bring relief to millions suffering from these deadly wildfires? We'll take you live to California.

SCIUTTO: Also ahead, down is up, despite being on tape saying he wanted to downplay concerns over the coronavirus deliberately, President Trump now says he tried to up-play the seriousness of the situation. You can listen to the president in his words, make your own judgment.

And a bipartisan group of lawmakers reached a rare consensus, pushing House leadership for a stimulus agreement. What's the reality? How close are they to making a deal? Will it happen before the election? We'll give you an update.



HARLOW: Welcome back. The president is contradicting his own administration's health advisors, casting doubt on a key public health measure aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Listen to this from the president last night in the town hall.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are a lot of people who think that masks are not good. And there are a lot of people that -- as an example --


TRUMP: I'll tell you who those people are. Waiters. They come over and they serve you, the mask is over -- and they're touching it and then they're touching the plate. That can't be good.


SCIUTTO: Well, folks, the science is pretty clear on this. Joining us now to discuss, CNN medical analyst Elizabeth Cohen and CNN White House correspondent John Harwood. Elizabeth, I know, you know that early on, folks such as Dr. Fauci were reluctant to recommend masks nationally. At the time there was a real concern about shortage of PPE for front line health care workers. Tell us what the data and the science show on what a difference masks make in stopping or helping stop the spread of the virus.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: So, Jim, before I do, I just want to make a note that I think we've hit a new low point when the president of the United States is quoting waiters. Actually, he's quoting --


COHEN: Fictitious waiters. What waiters said this and why is he quoting waiters when we have --


COHEN: Dr. Fauci, an actual scientist to quote. It makes no sense, it is a low point. Masks are --

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, on the issue of waiters --

COHEN: We know that masks cut down --

SCIUTTO: If you've been to an outdoor restaurant, my experience has been waiters are the first to tell you, put your masks on, right? Because they're having interruptions with most of the people --

COHEN: Right.

SCIUTTO: But anyway, sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt.

COHEN: No, I completely agree with you. If I were a waiter, I would want to be wearing a mask and I would want other people to be wearing a mask because you're coming -- you know, you're serving them at the table. Anyhow, masks do serve a purpose.

They have been shown to reduce the transmission. You don't need to have a PHD to understand why? The way -- one of the ways that this virus spreads is that when people talk, they spit a little bit. I mean, sometimes, you can see it, it just happens and the masks goes towards containing that spit or any particles that might come out when you're coughing or when you're sneezing. Masks work.

And I know that there were some comments in the beginning of this pandemic about not using masks. That was really mostly based on the fact that we didn't have enough masks, and so we wanted to save them for the front line workers. So it's important to remember that was then, this is now. Now we have plenty of masks.

HARLOW: John Harwood, the president also said last night -- I mean, there were so many claims that my jaw was just on the floor, like saying that, you know, we'd have a vaccine in three to four weeks. I mean, we're so far from mass vaccination. Anyway, he's also saying that he up-played the virus when he was asked why he downplayed the virus. What is the White House pointing to this morning in terms of concrete evidence of the president up-playing the virus outside of him saying that he limited some travel from China and Europe?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They don't have anything beyond what President Trump said last night. What we saw, Poppy, was a president who's unable to process contrary facts and information, who's unable to cope psychologically or politically with his failures on this subject. So what he talked about was, well, if I had done nothing, millions would have died.

Of course, that's not the question. He gave a public version of the private statement he gave to Bob Woodward which we heard yesterday, nothing more could have been done. He downplayed mask-wearing which of course, science says you should encourage as Elizabeth just outlined.

And then incredibly he outlined a stance of hoping the thing will just go away eventually. Herd immunity which if we simply let the virus spread to the point that we get herd immunity, millions more would have died. And I think we have to look at this in the context of the broader portrait the administration is presenting to the American people.

You've got the top public relations executive at the Department of Health and Human Services talking about armed insurrection and sedition at the CDC. What that tells you is that the administration is not offering -- and the fact that the Republican Party is standing with the president, they're not offering rational argument.


This is the purest kind of tribalism because the president has gotten in so deep with his culture war on the response to the -- to the --


HARWOOD: Pandemic, and what the town hall did was expose that. When the president got harsh questions, he simply replayed these lines and we saw the result.

SCIUTTO: I want to bring up for you, Elizabeth, just because John brought it up there, the president talking about coronavirus going away with the prospect of herd immunity -- he actually said herd mentality. But let's play that sound and then I want to get to the science on that.


TRUMP: It would go away without the vaccine, George. But it's going to go away a lot faster --

STEPHANOPOULOS: It would go away without the vaccine?

TRUMP: Sure, over a period of time. Sure, with time, it goes away --

STEPHANOPOULOS: And many deaths.

TRUMP: And you'll develop -- you'll develop like a herd mentality. It's going to be -- it's going to be herd developed, and that's going to happen. That will all happen.


SCIUTTO: So science and facts, Elizabeth Cohen, which is what you stick to and what we stick to. How many millions -- hundreds of millions of Americans would have to be infected to reach herd immunity, not herd mentality, and how many deaths would a current rate come with that?

COHEN: It's impossible to put a number on it, Jim, but we would see many deaths. And I'm just going to be frank here. I've heard some people say basically, well, it's all old people, you know, they're at the end of their life so -- that is not -- first of all, that's a terrible thing to say and violates every ethical standard, but second of all, it is not just going to be 95-year-olds. It is going to be lots of people who would die if we just let this virus rip and didn't wear masks, and didn't do social distancing and didn't do anything. It would be our --


COHEN: Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and friends and children who would be dying. Why would you want that? Why does the president of the United States want Americans to die in large numbers? Why does he want that? Why does he want his own people to die? It makes no sense whatsoever.


HARLOW: Elizabeth Cohen, John Harwood, thank you both for being with us this morning. People should watch that entire town hall if they have time --


HARLOW: There's a lot there.

SCIUTTO: Listen, and these are the hard facts of this, right? I mean, we've learned a lot about this virus over time and its deadliness. It's what the science shows. Well, the West Coast wildfires, another story we're covering closely, have killed dozens of people so far. That's just what is confirmed because many dozens are missing. It's destroyed entire towns. Could a weather change help firefighters get the upper hand? That's what folks are hoping for.



SCIUTTO: Other news we're following this morning. Hurricane Sally is now a Category 1 storm, still very powerful as it moves slowly over the Gulf Coast. And that's key because as it moves slowly, it's pummeling the area with torrential rain, gusts up to 90 miles per hour right now slamming parts of the southeast.

HARLOW: Some areas are already seeing around 2 feet of rain with more than 3 feet predicted for some parts of the coast before the storm is over. More on Sally in just a moment. Also, rain this week could bring much needed relief to firefighters all up and down the West Coast battling those wildfires that have burned millions of acres. But right now, it is still a dire situation.

Red flag wind warnings are still in place from northern California to southern Oregon. In California alone, those fires have burned an area nearly the size of Connecticut, and at least 25 people there have been killed.

SCIUTTO: Let's get to CNN's Stephanie Elam, she's in Monrovia, near the Bobcat Fire as it's known. That one has burned more than 41,000 acres. Here, Stephanie, I think we were talking yesterday about one of the fires being 3 percent controlled, I mean, that's a tiny fraction when you think of the scale of these things. What's the latest there? Is there hope to firefighters getting these fires under control?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, you know, you're talking about that precipitation I wish you could take some of that from Sally. Some of that, what's going to go to Oregon and bring it here to California because there is no precipitation on the horizon here.

Those red flag warnings are in effect for today and tomorrow, it's also going to be really hot, which makes it very difficult to fight this fire. This is the fire that is at 3 percent containment. It was at 6 percent, but it grew outside of that range a bit. We know that throughout California, there are some 16,600 -- it's actually more than that, firefighters that are battling these blazes across the state.

We also know that they're using all kinds of ways to defend property. For one thing overnight, they were out here behind here, and you probably can't tell because there's so much smoke today. But there's a really huge mountain right here behind me, but you can't really see it through the smoke. But what they're doing is bulldozing lines, break up some of that bush and shrubbery to make sure that there's room to stop the fire before it can just run up the hill and into say Mount Wilson which has an observatory there.

And also, there's a lot of broadcasting equipment for the local stations there as well. So they've been working to protect that. Looks like it got about 500 feet within the observatory, but they've been able to protect that overnight. It did jump over a freeway overnight, but they've been working to contain it. And I could see before the sun came up, that they were out there continuing to bulldoze those lines. All of this work is very taxing.

It's a lot of work. They've burned this area behind me to make sure it's protected the homes that are all up and along this side of the canyon. All of this as they're just -- all the firefighters are all throughout the state working to battle these blazes. They're tired, but they can't stop, and they're working very long shifts.