Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

U.S. Hits 40 Million COVID Cases; Interview With Paterson, New Jersey, Mayor Andre Sayegh; President Biden Tours Storm Damage in New Jersey. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired September 07, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. I'm Alisyn Camerota. Thanks for joining me on NEWSROOM. Victor is off today.

Any moment, we expect to see President Biden in Manville, New Jersey. That's a city that was devastated by flash floods last week. The president approved federal disaster relief for five New York counties and six New Jersey counties to help families and businesses recover from the storm.

Mr. Biden's visit will also underscore the urgency of climate change and why he says passing his infrastructure plan will better prepare areas for future storms.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For decades, scientists have warned that extreme weather would be more extreme and climate change was here. And we're living through it now. We don't have any more time.


CAMEROTA: CNN's Athena Jones is in Manville, New Jersey. CNN's M.J. Lee is in Queens, New York.

Athena, let me start with you. What will the president see there?


Well, this is what he will see. He will see street after street that looks like this. This scene is repeated on several streets throughout this community, one of the hardest hit in New Jersey. You are seeing mattresses out on the street, kitchen tables, couches, all kinds of appliances, from refrigerators to washing machines.

And in houses like this one where we are now, it is being entirely gutted. You can see these are the walls having been ripped out of this house because of the levels that the flood got to.

We also are seeing the insulation being ripped out, because this is how high (AUDIO GAP) at this house. Come on in, Tom, and you can show them how it is completely gutted inside. So, we are talking about (AUDIO GAP) and this is a family that had to evacuate quickly as the water rose.

We are only about half-a-mile from the Raritan River. And that's why we're seeing this kind of damage. And we know that the president has, again, awarded or approved disaster relief for six counties in New Jersey. We also know that Governor Phil Murphy is speaking with him about getting more relief for more communities (AUDIO GAP) because of this level of damage.

This federal assistance can give you grants for temporary housing and home repairs, also low-cost loans for uninsured property that was lost. So we're talking about a lot of money that they're promising to residents like this one.

But if you talk -- if you speak to residents like this one, they say that, look, we have to get that aid quickly, cut through the red tape. And it has to be long term because this is going to be a long road to rebuilding.

So that is part of the message we are hearing from both Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey and President Biden, that the federal government, the state government is going to be by the side of folks affected like this until the work is done.

The question is, what can they do to make sure that this sort of thing doesn't happen again? And so that's the other part of the conversation, making sure there are improvements to infrastructure, more investments in infrastructure, and also better warning systems so that people understand just how dangerous a flash flood is and just what a flash flood means and the kind of damage and destruction and loss of life it can cause -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Athena, you are so right. The landscape there tells the story and certainly what the president will be seeing.

OK, M.J., what do Queens residents want to hear from the president today?

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, we are standing just a few blocks away from where President Biden is set to be here in just a few hours to survey the damage and also give remarks just a few blocks away, because Queens, New York, this is where we saw some very awful devastation in the last couple of days.

This is where we saw multiple people, unfortunately, tragically, die because they couldn't get out of their basement apartments fast enough as the water just rushed in quickly.

And I will tell you, we have been spending the afternoon just walking up and down the street. And if we could just pan behind us a little bit, the trash, the piles of trash that we see right here, I mean, it sounds very much like what Athena was describing, what she saw in New Jersey. We see piles of trash and furniture.

We hear the construction virtually. At every block, you feel like people are trying to just get their homes in order, are not sure how to do that. We see wet clothing that is hanging out to dry. We spoke to some of the neighbors, and they said what they experienced were really just scenes from a nightmare. They said that the water just rushed into their homes so quickly, it was completely unexpected.

They had never seen flooding of this kind, to go down to their basement and suddenly see large pieces of furniture floating in the rainwater. This is the kind of devastation that we are talking about.

One woman we spoke with who has lived in this area for 38 years, I asked her, can President Biden say anything to make you feel better in just a few hours? And she said, honestly, no. I am so stressed right now trying to figure out how I'm going to move on with my life.

So, again, as Athena pointed out, federal aid has been approved for these areas, but for a lot of these people, they are just worried that that money is not going the reach them fast enough -- Alisyn.


CAMEROTA: OK, Athena Jones, M.J. Lee, thank you both.

My next guest is the mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, one of the places that will receive federal funding under the president's emergency declaration.

Mayor Andre Sayegh joins us now.

Mayor, thank you very much for being here.

Yesterday, you described the conditions in Paterson, your town, as -- quote -- "almost apocalyptic." Can you describe what you are seeing there?

ANDRE SAYEGH, MAYOR OF PATERSON, NEW JERSEY: And some might think it was an exaggeration, but what we have had to endure for the past 18 months with the pandemic and other storms that are more intense, more frequent and more deadly, yes, it does feel like it is apocalypse now in the city of Paterson.

That's why we're appreciative of the fact that Passaic County was included in the emergency declaration, because we still have an emergency shelter set up for all that were displaced by Tropical Storm Ida.

As a matter of fact, Senator Bob Menendez will be visiting tomorrow to see exactly what is needed and make a further assessment of the situation in our city.

CAMEROTA: How many families are we talking about? How many families in Paterson are still in those shelters right now?

SAYEGH: Right.

Well, there are families that haven't come to the shelter that we have placed in hotels with the help of the American Red Cross. But, right now, there's about 50 families. And they have just lost almost everything, and, quite frankly, they don't want to go back home because they're afraid that the next storm is right around the corner. It's hurricane season.

CAMEROTA: I mean, if they even have a home to go to. Where -- what will happen to those 50 families?

SAYEGH: So, with this emergency declaration, we're helping -- we're hoping that these grants can help them find a new place, apply for assistance, and then just leave their homes.

I mean, climate change is real. This is the clarion call, I believe. And, quite frankly, we have to start taking what we're doing to this planet very seriously, because we are contributing to these storms that are more frequent and more intense and, sadly, more deadly as a result.

And the infrastructure improvement bill that President Biden is espousing, and that's necessary in places like Paterson too, because we have arcane sewer systems that are in dire need of repair.

CAMEROTA: What does Paterson need most right now?

SAYEGH: Right now, I would say we have to assist those families.

Some, like you stated, they may not have a place to go back to. So what do we do? We have to ensure that we get them homes or shelters where they won't have to worry about the next storm, because they're living in fear right now.

CAMEROTA: Do you wish President Biden was coming to Paterson today to see this?

SAYEGH: Of course. I wish he would come to Paterson and see what has transpired over the course of the last week or so.

These are individuals that have not been in their homes for at least six days now.

CAMEROTA: You know, you have talked about, and you just mentioned it again, that these storms are becoming more fierce and more frequent.

But, obviously, climate change is a huge global long-term problem. So what can -- I mean, what's the answer? What is the answer for the infrastructure? You know, I know that you talk about the infrastructure bill. So does President Biden. But is that the answer to global climate change?

SAYEGH: It's not the final answer to -- or the final -- the solution that we ultimately will see help mitigate some of this storm damage. However, it'll help improving our infrastructure with the sewer systems, and also raising awareness relative to climate change and taking serious action to reduce how much we emit into the atmosphere.

CAMEROTA: Schools in Paterson are supposed to reopen tomorrow. Now they will have to do that remotely. How long do you think kids will be out of school?

SAYEGH: Yes, that's been a hardship, because we were one of the last school districts to go back into in person learning.

And now it looks like, for the next week, at the very least, children will still be learning virtually. And it -- quite frankly, I get -- receive a lot of complaints from parents that there's nothing that beats the in person experience. And I'm speaking also from the perspective of a parent of three children.

CAMEROTA: I understand, but you're saying that the schools, what, are too damaged to have kids be in person?

SAYEGH: Yes, there's a few of them are too damaged.

Yes, it is very unfortunate. Obviously, we wouldn't want to put them in harm's way. And it's just the circumstances in which we live in right now. That's why, when I talk about being apocalyptic, like I said before, I'm not really exaggerating, because it affects everything.

CAMEROTA: Mayor Andre Sayegh, thank you for giving us just a snapshot of what's happening in Paterson today.

Obviously, we will be watching closely over the next few weeks.

SAYEGH: Thank you for the opportunity.

CAMEROTA: OK, to Louisiana now, where the state's main energy company says it has restored power, but just to 50 percent of customers. And that leaves more than 415,000 others still in the dark today.

And, again, temperatures expected to once again hit 105 degrees today. So, cooling centers and food and water distribution teams are becoming key for survival.


CNN's Martin Savidge is live in New Orleans.

So, Martin, what's the situation there today?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, the weather continues to torment.

We just went through what was a really powerful thunderstorm. So, yes, it lowered the temperature. That's welcome. But then you have tremendous street flooding. And anybody who had roof damage -- and there are plenty of people who did -- the water just comes pouring in and adds misery on top of what you have been suffering.

Now the sun is back out again. The heat index begins to rise. The humidity is awful, and that's where you get the feeling it is like 100 degrees. And when you don't have power or air conditioning, it is just the suffering continues over a wide, wide swathe of the area that was impacted by the hurricane.

CAMEROTA: Martin, as I understand it, you are outside the Flint Goodridge Apartments. And that's where many senior citizens lived. And two people were found dead after a city inspection.

And, of course, this is part of a multi-death investigation there. So what do you know?

SAVIDGE: Yes, this is really what is now continuing to grow is that tragedy that came after the initial disaster, which was the storm itself.

And that's what happened to senior citizens. In this particular case in New Orleans, they knew that there were a number of apartment buildings that, for the most part, their residents are all senior citizens. So the city decided five days after the storm they better go check on the welfare.

So they put together strike teams and they went building by building and they went room by room. And what they found was just terrible conditions in which many elderly people who relied on machines like oxygen machines to keep them alive or their electric wheelchairs to move were trapped and unable to use those machines, not to mention they were suffering in horrendous heat, lack of food, lack of water, and management in many of the buildings had not shown up for work.

So there were five people now, including the two inside of this building, that were found dead, and they have evacuated hundreds of people to shelters up north. Then there was another circumstance where you had over 800 senior citizens moved from a consortium of nursing homes up to Independence, Louisiana, and they were literally warehoused there.

Conditions quickly deteriorated. You can understand a warehouse is not a nursing facility. There was a shortage of staff, according to witnesses. Seven senior citizens reported to have died there. There wasn't even a toilet, except for a 5-gallon bucket, and people were sleeping on the floor.

So, again, the state is investigating that circumstance. The city is investigating here, but it is senior citizens that have been suffering the most in the aftermath, and it continues, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: These investigations cannot happen soon enough. The conditions sound deplorable in those places.

Martin Savidge, thank you for the reporting.

OK, we have a COVID case status report for you coming up, as health officials warn of the costs tied to the Labor Day weekend.

Also, a major attack on voting rights in America. There are these new restrictions just signed into law. What Democrats in Texas say these will do there.



CAMEROTA: This Thursday, President Biden will lay out his new strategy to fight the Delta variant and to fight vaccine resistance, but a new poll suggests that Americans may not be as receptive as they once were.

For the first time since Biden took office, more Americans think he is not clearly communicating his COVID response compared to those who think he is. The same poll also finds more people do not think the CDC is communicating a clear plan of action.

The U.S. now surpassing 40 million coronavirus cases, with a tenth of those infections happening in just the past month.

CNN's Nick Watt is tracking the latest on the pandemic.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: It could go either way, and it is up to us.

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Four million new COVID-19 cases reported in just the past four weeks. Experts say this is an inflection point, as temperatures drop and millions of kids venture back inside classrooms.

FAUCI: If we do things right, we hope that we don't see much increase at all. We have got to get the school system masked.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fists are now flying.

WATT: But, remember, there are politicians and parents fighting that simple logic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are all demonic entities.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey, ma'am, you...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are going to be taken down.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Excuse me, ma'am. You have already had your first warning. And this is your last.

She cannot speak anymore.

WATT: Meantime, nearly 100,000 Americans are in the hospital fighting this virus, the vast majority unvaccinated.

DR. LANCE VANGUNDY, UNITYPOINT HEALTH: Sad and sometimes demoralizing. I'm not judging patients for making that decision. I really want to empathize, try to understand why they're afraid of the treatment, because what they really need to be afraid of is the virus.

FAUCI: We have about 75 million people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who are not yet vaccinated. If we get the overwhelming majority of those people vaccinated, we

could turn this around.

WATT: In more than half of states, there is a little dip in average daily cases right now. Will that hold? Last year, there was a post- Labor Day bump.

DR. AMY COMPTON-PHILLIPS, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: We are having to prepare ourselves for having yet again another surge.

WATT: This Labor Day weekend, scenes like this, football fans packed in the stands in Alabama, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the land, in South Carolina, which has the highest infection rate in the land, and in Georgia, where near record numbers are already in the hospital.



CAMEROTA: OK, our thanks to Nick Watt there.

Right now, we are watching President Biden. He is touring this storm- damaged neighborhood in Manville, New Jersey. We have seen him speaking to some local officials and comforting people. We have seen him hugging what look like some local residents there as he looks at just the mounds of garbage and debris in the aftermath from all of this flash flooding and the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida.

Let's see if we get a picture. Yes, he is -- I think those are some local residents that he is talking to there. We also see Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey there.

And as we just heard from our own Athena Jones, it is impossible to look around this neighborhood and not see the destruction and the damage caused to so many lives. So many of these homes are uninhabitable now, I mean, just forever destroyed.

And you just saw President Biden hugging someone there that I assume is a resident who is telling the story of what he has lost. This is one of the towns in Manville that is relieving -- I mean, is receiving federal relief, federal funds.

But, at the moment, that's probably cold comfort to the residents there because of how long it will take to restore their neighborhoods and their homes. We just heard from the mayor of Paterson, who said 50 families are still in a shelter and will be for weeks to come.

I mean, unknowable how long it will take families to get back into their homes. And, of course, school is just starting. This changes the entire school start for so many kids. And there you see President Biden and Governor Murphy still just walking around, looking at all of the trash and, again, the debris on the sides of the road.

And this is just one town. Yes. So, yes, Athena Jones has been there for us all morning. Again,

these look like the homeowners here of this house describing to President Biden what happened and all that they have lost.

Athena, tell us what's happening in Manville.

JONES: Well, I can tell you that we are in a neighborhood that's separate from the one where President Biden is touring right now.

It is also close to the Raritan River, which is just about half-a-mile from where I am, but the river kind of curves around in such a way. And where he is, the neighborhood he is in is several blocks away, also near the river.

But it is, as you said, the same kind of damage we are seeing right here in this neighborhood in terms of piles of debris on the street as people begin to clean up and clear out their homes. We are talking about extraordinary damage.

Of course, people are not living in those homes at this moment. And that's one of the things we're hearing from residents, one of the reasons they need aid and they need it very, very quickly.

The man, the gentleman whose house we are standing outside of right now has been staying at a hotel with his family for $169 a night. Of course, that adds up, five days, 10 days, and then you have got to pay for your food when you are not living at home.

So, it is really just massive destruction. And this is why we're hearing so many people talk about the very long road ahead and the importance of having a federal and state commitment to these hard-hit areas, to the people and the businesses in those areas, to help them be able to build back and kind of get back to some semblance of their former life and put their life back together.

But this is a street where down the street you see piles of rubbish and debris. Up the street, there's a house that exploded because of a gas leak. So there are all different kinds of damage caused by these floodwaters. And that is the kind of thing that the president is now seeing.

My guess is that he is hearing similar things from the residents that he is speaking with on that block a short distance away from here, just talking about how horrible it was, how frightening it was, and the kind of help they're going to need going forward to make sure that they can begin to pull things back together.

Think about it. It has been almost a week. I mean, it is Tuesday, and they're in a way just beginning to clean up, to clear out, and there is just so much more work, work to be done here -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Athena, I don't know if you know the answer to this, but we were just speaking to the mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, who talked about the plan for schools.

School is supposed to start, at least in Paterson, maybe across New Jersey, tomorrow. And, of course, kids were looking forward to getting back in the classroom. And this changes all of that.

At least in Paterson, they can't go back into their classrooms because the schools have been, many of them, destroyed or damaged or rendered unsafe. And so they're going to have to start remotely. He hoped it would be a week. Who knows how long it will take to repair these schools?


I assume that's the same -- the same is true in Manville.

JONES: I'm not certain. You're right, Alisyn. I don't know the answer to that question. But it makes sense that, just like homes -- the one behind me had to suffer through 10 feet of water, if these -- if the school was in a low-lying area in one of these harder-hit sections of the city, then it is going -- they're going to have to deal with the aftermath and the remnants of that.

Obviously, you have to worry about mildew and mold and also the electricity and dirt and just making sure there's a safe environment for children. You know, it is so sad if you think about it, so much that schoolchildren have been through over the last 18 months or so. This is just yet another tragedy on top of the tragedy and confusion and concern when it comes to being able to teach children through this pandemic.

So much of this remote learning has already happened, and we know that children have suffered from it. So I don't know precisely what is going on with Manville schools, but certainly it makes sense schools in general should be facing challenges if they were inundated with water the way some of these homes were.

I mean, imagine. You are seeing furniture, couches, desks, kitchen tables out on the sidewalk here on the edge of the road. So, if a school was inundated, you are going to have the same situation, desks and all sorts of items that need to be replaced. So it is not surprising, in a way, to hear that about Paterson, New Jersey, schools, that they are going to have to start without the kids back in a classroom, and the hope being, of course, that they can allow the children to come back in as soon as possible.

But everything is about the safety of the children and of the community. So...


The mayor there was also telling us about the families who are stranded in shelters because they don't know when they will ever be able to get back into their homes, if their homes are even repairable.

And so I, again, assume the same is true in Manville. And do you have a sense of what the federal funds will go to first in Manville, what their biggest need is?

JONES: Sure. Well, certainly, the residents on a street like this, their biggest

need is help in terms of temporary housing. That is certainly one of the things that federal disaster assistance can be used for. And we are talking about grants, not loans, but grants, to pay the cost of temporary housing.

So I spoke to you about the gentleman who lives in the house behind me. They have been -- he and his family escaped in a very dramatic manner on Wednesday night and ended up -- they're now at a hotel that is costing him out of pocket, plus the food. This is day after day and so much uncertainty.

These grants would pay for temporary housing. They can also pay for home repairs. And, of course, we are talking about a lot of repair, extensive repairs. This house has been gutted. I don't know the technicals, but there's no more insulation. There's no more -- all this wood has been pulled out of this house. So there's a great deal of work to be done. So home repairs will be covered.

There are also low-cost loans. I don't know the interest rates, but low-cost loans to help replace other kinds of property that was damaged and that may not have been insured.

And what is so important is that people want to know not only that this money is coming, but they want to know, how quickly is it coming? Not everyone can afford to spend out of pocket hundreds and hundreds of dollars day after day, week after week, and these are not -- this is not a week's job repairing a home like this.

And so that is the real concern. You know, you are hearing the governor of the state of New Jersey, the president of the United States say the right things, that we know this is going to be a long road to recovery and that we're going to be there every step of the way, we are going to help you, you often hear the phrase, after the cameras are gone.

But people definitely want that assurance and that commitment, but they also want to know that they're going to be able to get this help quickly. And cutting through the red tape is so key.

And, so, for instance, yesterday, I was reporting from Queens after Mayor Bill de Blasio said that in New York, they are going to have teams from the city going door to door in all storm-affected areas to make sure that people are able to sign up and to apply for this federal disaster relief, everyone who is eligible.

They want to make sure they can break down any barriers for folks who may not have ease getting online to fill forms out, to people who may have language barriers. And so we don't know what the plan is here in New Jersey, but that's kind of the general -- the general concern of people who are waiting for this help.

I mean, imagine how desperate you would be if you -- your home was destroyed, unlivable, you escape with your life, but you don't really know what is next, how long it is going to take and when the help is coming. CAMEROTA: I know.


JONES: So, I believe residents want to hear more about that.


JONES: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Living with that level of anxiety and uncertainty is really, really hard.

Athena, we were just watching there President Biden. Again, he is just touring around this street in Manville. We saw him talking to, I think, some state police there. Now he is talking to, looks like a little boy there who has come out to see the president and I -- it looks like show him something.