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Hurricane Sally Pummels Gulf Coast with Torrential Rain; Trump Falsely Claims He Didn't Downplay Virus. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 16, 2020 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, September 16, 6 a.m. here in New York.

We do have breaking news. Life-threatening conditions along the Gulf Coast. We just got word that the outer eye wall of Hurricane Sally is about to make landfall. The situation getting worse by the minute.

The storm strengthened to a Category 2 hurricane overnight and has been getting stronger. It is moving so slowly. And that's the problem, inching toward the Alabama/Florida border with torrential rain that won't let up. Flooding is a major concern. Storm surge is a major concern. We have reporters right in the middle of it.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So we'll get to all of that in a second, but we're also following coronavirus developments. More than 1,400 new deaths reported in the U.S. on Tuesday. That's the highest single-day total in more than a month.

Last night, President Trump falsely claimed that he did not downplay the threat of the virus, contradicting his own recorded words to Bob Woodward, in which he admitted he likes downplaying it.

The president also trying to blame Joe Biden for not instituting a national mask mandate, which would be difficult for Joe Biden to do, because Biden is not the president.

But let's begin with the breaking news on Hurricane Sally. CNN's Gary Tuchman is live in Pensacola Beach, Florida, in the middle of all of the torrential rain.

What's happening, Gary?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn and John, you'll have to excuse people here in the town of Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island, a barrier island, if they feel it may be time to start building an ark, because a torrential rain has been continuing now for 15 straight hours, since yesterday afternoon. And as you mentioned, that is the story of this hurricane. It's a lot different than Laura, two and a half weeks ago, where we had 145-mile-per-hour winds, but we ended up with a very negligible storm surge and not that much flooding.

I know there's a lot of flooding. I've taken a walk around this morning and seen it on this barrier island. I should tell you right now, the island is closed. The bridges to the mainland are closed. So anyone who decided to stay and people like us are stuck here until this hurricane is over.

Yes, the winds are very strong, too. This is the strongest we've seen the winds. They're now at 65 miles per hour sustained and 83-mile-an- hour gusts, the last gust we got, which is hurricane-force.

But it is the rain. The possibility exists of up to 2 feet of rain. Yes, that's feet. And that's a big problem. Roads underwater, storm surge coming in. And there's great concern what this island, population about 4,000 year-round residents, will like when it's all over.

One thing I want to point out to you, Alisyn and John. There was no mandatory evacuation in effect. It's a voluntary evacuation. Part of the reason for that is the concern, like we talked about two and a half weeks ago, of going into shelters during a pandemic. People are taking it very seriously. We see absolutely no one walking around this morning, and even during daylight yesterday when we were on the beach, just a couple of people. People are taking it seriously, and what we certainly hope for are no casualties when this is all over.

BERMAN: Gary Tuchman --

TUCHMAN: Alisyn, John, back to you.

BERMAN: Gary, you know, I know the flooding is a concern there, but not for nothing, 86-mile-an-hour gusts, difficult to stand up in. So -- so we applaud you for your efforts out there.

You talk about the flooding concerns, how much rain there's been. How high could the water get where you're standing?

TUCHMAN: OK, so the talk is the possibility of a storm surge of up to nine feet. People always ask me, why are you out in the wind and the rain and the possible storm surge? We carefully select where we're at. We're at an elevation of about 25 feet, so we're not particularly worried about that.

There is some sheet metal rolling around and some roofs that have come off, but we're in an area where it's not coming. We've scientifically evaluated that. But there could be a huge storm surge, and once the daylight starts, once the sun comes up, we will take a look around and see what kind of damage from this water that we're talking about.

CAMEROTA: I'm so glad that Gary pointed that out. Because, you know, those shards from signs and from roofs do become projectiles and really dangerous.

Gary, please be careful. Thank you very much. We'll check back with you throughout the program.

BERMAN: All right. Let's get to CNN's Ed Lavandera, who's live in Mobile, Alabama. I can see it raining. Ed, give us the latest.


Well, here the Mobile, the most fierce winds we have seen throughout this entire storm have kicked up here in the last hour. And that is because the closest edge of this wall is starting to come inland. It is starting to approach that area between Mobile and Pensacola. So this should be the region hardest hit by Hurricane Sally.

And it will be catastrophic to see, when you consider the amount of rainfall, the intensity of these winds, that in and of by itself, if this were a quick-moving hurricane, probably might not be causing that much damage.

But because this storm is moving so slowly, it's going to extend the amount of time that this region is exposed to these intense winds, and they are relentless at this point. So we are seeing a great deal of intense rainfall, some of the fiercest winds we've seen all night, and that will continue here for the next several hours.

If anyone is sleeping in this region, this is what they will be waking up to, if they haven't already been up throughout most of the night, considering what we're experiencing and hearing here in the Mobile area.


We're on the edge, on the northern edge of Mobile Bay, and this is one of the Mobile rivers that empties out into the bay. And it is raging straight south into Mobile Bay. It gives you -- it's fascinating to see the intensity of these storms to kind of give you a sense of why forecasters talk about the intense flooding and the danger of the flooding inland, because this storm can control all of these rivers, tributaries, all these bayous that empty out into these bays.

And that's why, even though you're not close to the coast, there's going to be a great deal of concern about what this storm does to inland communities here over the next few hours -- John and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Ed, be careful. We'll check back with you very soon.

All right. Just moments ago, Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, so let's get right to CNN meteorologist Chad Myers with the latest track and all the rainfall projection.

So what are you seeing, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Gulf Shores, Louisiana, right in the middle of the eye right now. The winds are almost calm. And that was a far cry from where they were about 30 or 40 minutes ago when the northern eye wall was onshore.

Now that eye wall has moved closer to Orange Beach and very close to our Gary Tuchman right now, where the worst of the winds are still to come, winds like you said, somewhere between 83 and 86 miles per hour. We'll kind of zoom you in here and tell you what's going on. There's been an awful lot of rain. There are flash flood warnings,

even flash flood emergencies, which means it's an emergency. Yes, it's flooding, but this is the next step up from there, across this area. Some spots already about 18 inches, radar indicated.

And here is the center of the storm, right there, and this would be right there. Gulf Shores and that's your "X." That is right in the middle of the eye. So that's where the landfall came.

Pensacola, you are really in the worst of it now, about to get worse for maybe about another 30 or 40 minutes. And then all along 98, all along 38, all along this area, this is where the winds are going to continue to be very strong for the next few hours.

The rains are going to be very heavy for the next few hours, maybe the next 12 hours. In some spots here -- look at the white. Now, most of this offshore, but there are white areas here from Pensacola toward Destin that have already picked up the 20 inches that was predicted.

So the storm is moving to the north/northeast, somewhere around 3 miles per hour, maybe 5 miles per hour at this point. It travels across parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and into Georgia.

And then this, although the wind will begin to go down, maybe 60 or 50 miles per hour, this is where the rainfall is going to, again, be very, very heavy from Atlanta and southward, from Montgomery and southward. We're going to see 6 to 10 in places that can't handle 6 to 10 at all. Not that anybody can handle 20 like they have at the Gulf Coast, guys.

BERMAN: All right, Chad, keep us posted. Obviously, the hurricane has now made landfall. We're watching its path. We're following how much rain is falling.

Joining us now, Mike Evans, deputy director of emergency management from Mobile County, Alabama. Director, thank you very much for being with us. What are you seeing? How are things going at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time?

MIKE EVANS, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, MOBILE COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: It's -- it's pretty hectic around here. The storms just made landfall, and so it did do an eastward shift starting yesterday evening on into tonight and last night. And so that shift, as it -- as it shifted eastward towards the Alabama/Florida line, it gave us some relief.

Now, we're still having problems. Our sustained winds here overall in the county are probably about 50 miles per hour with gusts up to 70 and 80 miles per hour right now.

BERMAN: I know the major concern is the rain. The amount of rain that's falling. Where do things stand right now?

EVANS: Yes, so, we've probably already had a good 15 inches in the large majority of Mobile County. The coastal areas probably even higher than that, well into the 20s. So the concern there is this storm is moving so slow that, you know, if it would move on and get out of here, it would be one thing. But as it moves very slowly, it continually dumps that rain.

And so, I mean, we're looking at maybe many, many hours of this type of rainfall. And that's very concerning, because what will happen, you know, the ground's already saturated, so the water has nowhere to go. And that causes all kind of problems with saturated ground. Tree roots start having issues and trees start going down. It affects roads. It affects our power grids. It's just a -- it's going to be a long process.

BERMAN: What are you hearing in terms of people who may be trapped, stranded? What situations have people found themselves in this morning?

EVANS: So far, over on our side of Mobile Bay, we haven't been getting a lot of calls. We put out -- we put out a recommended evacuation Monday afternoon for our coastal areas, Zones 1 and Zone 2, evacuation, which are surge-affected areas. And we opened some shelters. We do have people in both shelters right now.


We encourage people that, you know, because of COVID-19 and the shelter environment, if they didn't feel comfortable, if they had friends, family, or relatives in the central and northern parts of Mobile County, to please go stay with them.

So it appears a lot of people took advantage of the opportunity to go inland and go to the shelter. So we've been getting minimal calls right now.

But, you know, the sun is going to be coming up here in a little bit. And -- and as the storm continues to move and the winds die down, you know, we have historically started getting calls from people.

You know, right now for us with the weather, the time would be to hunker down. Wherever you're at, you stay inside unless you have to get out to the water. So, you know, within the next hour or two, we'll start seeing a much clearer picture down here of what we're going to be facing.

BERMAN: All right. Mike Evans, we'll let you get back to work. Please stay safe. Keep us posted if we can do anything to help. Obviously, we'll check back in with our reporters. Gary Tuchman right in the middle of it, in the worst of it for the next hour or so.

Also overnight, President Trump, in a town hall setting, facing questions from voters, questions that didn't seem like he was expecting. We'll tell you next.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, well, I didn't downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action. My action was very strong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you not admit to it yourself? Are you saying that you --

TRUMP: Yes, because what I did was, with China, I put a ban on; with Europe, I put a ban on. And we would have lost thousands of more people, had I not put the ban on. So that was called action, not with the mouth, but in actual fact. We did a very, very good job.


CAMEROTA: All right. That was President Trump falsely claiming he did not downplay the threat of coronavirus, directly contradicting his own recorded words to Bob Woodward, in which he says he did downplay it and that he's still doing so.

President Trump said a lot of questionable things at a town hall with undecided voters in Pennsylvania last night, and CNN's Jeremy Diamond is live at the White House with more.

Hi, Jeremy.


When President Trump hits the campaign trail, it's usually to bask in the glow of adoring crowds of Trump supporters, but not last night. Last night, the president faced tough questions for about 90 minutes from undecided voters in Pennsylvania. They challenged his handling of the coronavirus pandemic on numerous fronts.

But the president, in typical fashion, responding with a series of falsehoods and contradictions and insisting he has no regrets about his handling of the pandemic.


DIAMOND (voice-over): President Trump denying he minimized the threat of the coronavirus as he came face-to-face with undecided voters at a socially distanced town hall in Philadelphia.

TRUMP: Well, I didn't downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up- played it in terms of action. My action was very strong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you not admit to it yourself? Are you saying that you --

TRUMP: Yes, because what I did was, with China, I put a ban on; with Europe, I put a ban on. And we would have lost thousands of more people, had I not put the ban on.

DIAMOND: But that's not what Trump privately told journalist Bob Woodward in March.

TRUMP (via phone): I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.


TRUMP: Because I don't want to create a panic.

DIAMOND: As the U.S. hit 195,000 coronavirus deaths, the president once again taking no responsibility for the U.S.'s excessively high death toll and case count.

TRUMP: I think we could have had two million deaths if we didn't close out the country.


TRUMP: No, I think we did a great job.

DIAMOND: As the president holds crowded indoor campaign events without requiring masks, Trump deflecting and baselessly questioning the effectiveness of masks.

TRUMP: They said at the Democrat convention, they're going to do a national mandate. They never did it, because they've checked out, and they didn't do it.

And a good question is, you ask like Joe Biden. They said, we're going to do a national mandate on masks.

Now, there is, by the way, a lot of people don't want to wear masks. There are a lot of people that think that masks are not good.

DIAMOND: While Joe Biden has called for a national mask mandate, he doesn't have the authority to put one in place. The Democratic presidential nominee tweeting, "To be clear, I am not currently president."

Trump focused on wishful thinking, falsely claiming the coronavirus will just disappear.

TRUMP: It's going to disappear. I still say it.

You'll develop herd -- 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. But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly.

DIAMOND: But health experts say a vaccine doesn't mean the pandemic will immediately end.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Everyone is sort of banking on the idea of the vaccine, which you know, there's optimism around that. It's not going to flip a switch somehow, and we still have to do things in this country to -- to save as many lives as we can. I mean, you know, we keep talking about this as if it were in the past, in the past tense. We're still very much in this.


DIAMOND: And yesterday, President Trump also hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers from the UAE and Bahrain. They signed historic normalization agreements that could really shift the fundamental dynamics of the region.

But what was also striking, Alisyn, was the crowd. The crowd yesterday. No social distancing at the White House, very few masks being worn. And of course, so notable, also, because not only of what is happening here in the United States, but in Israel. They're recording record new numbers of cases this week and about to enter a second lockdown -- Alisyn.


CAMEROTA: OK, Jeremy, thank you very much for all of that.

Joining us now to talk about it, we have CNN political analyst Toluse Olorunnipa. He's a White House reporter for "The Washington Post." And Dr. Peter Hotez. He's the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Great to have both of you.

OK. So Dr. Hotez, President Trump seems to still be pushing for a herd immunity strategy.

BERMAN: If only he knew how to say it.


BERMAN: He doesn't know what he's pushing for.

CAMEROTA: I -- I'm not sure what "herd-developed" is, which is what he just said it's going -- is going to happen. He also said it's "herd mentality," which is a completely different thing.

I mean, Dr. Hotez, I will spare you having to opine what if Joe Biden had said those things, the field day that the Trump campaign would have with him getting words wrong. But just the notion that he still thinks that herd immunity is the way to go. And George Stephanopoulos had to point out, except that, you know, hundreds of thousands would be killed with that.

DR. PETER HOTEZ, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Well, he's actually -- when he said "herd mentality," that was actually more accurate. He's trying to create a herd mentality by trying to make statements that COVID-19 is not a real problem, that it should just go away. You know, pay no attention to what's behind the curtain, which is this, one of the worst public health nightmares that's ever affected our nation, a catastrophe now leading to 200,000 deaths and many times more with long-haul injuries now from COVID-19, and we're starting to realize that.

Look, this idea of herd immunity is still very much an ethereal concept. It's -- it's still very much theoretical. Some say it requires 50 to 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, which of course, would lead to catastrophic numbers of deaths, many times more than the 200,000 we're currently looking at. A million or more, although others say herd mentality -- herd mentality, there you go. Herd immunity may actually be a far lower rate.

The bottom line is he refused to launch a national strategy to control this virus. He had multiple opportunities. He had access to the best scientific and epidemiologic minds the world has ever seen to help him through this, and he absolutely refused to want to, one, acknowledge that the -- the scope of the problem and acknowledge that we could have taken steps to block this.

And at least 80 percent of the deaths probably could have been prevented, had he acted not only quickly to prevent the virus introduction into Europe, well before the travel ban from Europe, but also then advocate very strongly, use the full power of the presidency, the full power of the Centers for Disease Control to -- to -- to make this go away, to make this stop. He refused.

BERMAN: What was really interesting to me about what we saw overnight, there's been a lot of talk the last few days about what the president knew and said in February to Bob Woodward, in April to Bob Woodward.

Now we know what he thinks at this minute and what he plans to do going forward. So he's leaning into this idea of herd something, the three-syllable word that he can't pronounce or remember.

And Toluse, also on masks, which at this point, we know save lives. And you have doctors, and you have local leaders leaning into masks as much as they can. And the president of the United States cast new doubt on it, on TV, in front of millions of people last night.

Let's listen to that moment one more time.


TRUMP: Now there is -- by the way, a lot of people don't want to wear masks. A lot of people think that masks are not good. And there are a lot of people that, as an example, you have --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Who are those people?

TRUMP: I'll tell you who those people are. Waiters. They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me. And they're playing with the mask -- I'm not blaming them. I'm just saying what happens. They're playing with the mask, so the mask is over, and they're touching it. And then they're touching the plate. That can't be good.


BERMAN: Waiters, Toluse. Waiters. Again, this is where we are at this minute. This isn't a discussion in February. This is the president on TV last night. How do you assess that as a moment of leadership?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The president is really sort of disassembling in front of the American public in which he was facing questions directly from voters. This isn't four years ago where he could just sort of boast about what he's going to do and talk about his great history as a businessman and how he's going to use those skills as president. Now he has a record.

The record is that we have almost 200,000 Americans who have died, millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, millions of parents who can't send their kids to school, all because of what's happening under his leadership.

And I think facing those voters and hearing those direct questions, he really struggled to provide any kind of answer. This is not an answer that you can sort of spin your way out of or boast your way out of. You have to be able to provide answers to the American people about your record of leadership.


And from the questions that we heard, from the experiences that so many different Americans have had, there's a lot of concern that the president's record is not being the presidential test that he faces as a leader of the country and as we have seen the United States have the worst number of deaths in the world, responsible for more than 20 percent of the deaths, even though we only make up less than 5 percent of the global population.

I think people get that. People understand that. And the president just did not have an answer for it. And that's why he continues to sort of flail about, trying to find an answer for what is his biggest test as president and could be his downfall when it comes to what voters -- what voters are considering and what they're focusing on, just about seven weeks before they cast their ballots.

CAMEROTA: Dr. Hotez, sometimes it's just so absurd, that I struggle with whether we should even waste your time dissecting it, but what he told voters last night directly -- I mean, that was where the voters got to see his actual thinking and logic -- was that he's taking his policy cue from waiters.

HOTEZ: Yes. And -- and I think that the important point to also make is, we're not out of this yet, Alisyn. The predictions are that there's going to be a rebound this fall for our third big peak. So we had that first big peak, April, March and April, when you heard sirens day and night throughout New York City. And then it went down to around 20,000 new cases a day. Then it spiked up to this horrible number of 70,000 new cases a day, massive surge across the south.

Now it's slowly coming down to back around 35,000 new cases a day. But guess what? In the last couple of days, I noticed a bit of an uptick, both in cases and deaths. We're watching that? Are we starting to see that fall rise now?

And we need leadership to help us through this. We need a national strategy. We already know that putting the states out in front and still debating masks is not helping anybody.

I'm -- I'm really worried about how we're going to get through the rest of the year without a huge surge in deaths. I don't want to get to 200,000 deaths by the end of this month. I don't want to get to 300,000 deaths by December 1. I don't want to get to 400,000 deaths by the -- by January 2021, but that's where we're heading.

And at what point do the American people say, Enough. We need to implement that strategy?

And how do you get to the White House? How do you get to the White House coronavirus task force to do something for a change? This is just beyond belief.

BERMAN: I don't want to disappoint you, Dr. Hotez, but we're going to get to 200,000 deaths in the next week at the rate we're going. We have 1,400 new deaths reported overnight, which is higher than we've seen. Now, it might be some reporting issues there, but the bottom line is this number is not going down nearly as quickly as it has to.

So Professor, we thank you for being with us.

Toluse, stick around. A lot more to discuss, coming up.

CAMEROTA: All right. So what does Bob Woodward think now, after a dozen conversations with Donald Trump? His eye-opening takeaway, next.