Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Huge Seaweed Blob Headed To Florida Beaches; Pentagon: Russian Jet His U.S. Drone, Forces It Down; Ohio Sues Norfolk Southern Over East Palestine Derailment. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired March 15, 2023 - 02:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello, and welcome to our viewers joining us here in the United States and all around the world. I'm Rosemary Church. Just ahead on CNN NEWSROOM. Russian warplanes are accused of taking down a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. It's a potentially dangerous escalation at a critical moment in Moscow's war against Ukraine.

We're tracking two major coastal storms in the U.S. More flooding in California and a nor-easter dumping feet of snow in New England.

Plus, coming soon to Florida beaches, a giant blob of stinky seaweed around twice the width of the United States and visible from space. I'll speak to a leading researcher about the dangers it poses at sea and on land, the impact it could have on tourism and what it will take to clean up the mess.

ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Center. This is CNN NEWSROOM with Rosemary Church.

CHURCH: Good to have you with us. Well, the U.S. Air Force says American and allied jets will continue to operate in international airspace after a confrontation with Russia over the Black Sea near Ukraine. The U.S. military says Russian fighter jets intercepted an American surveillance drone on Tuesday hitting its propeller and forcing it to crash. The Air Force reports the drone was a complete loss.

U.S. European command says the drone was conducting routine operations over international waters. And the White House calls the actions of the Russian pilots reckless.


JOHN KIRBY, ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS: I mean, somebody could have gotten hurt. Nobody wants to see that happen. And it could -- it could lead to miscalculations between, you know, two militaries that are operating not obviously in Ukraine together but certainly in proximity in the region. And we don't want to see this war escalate beyond what it already has done to the Ukrainian people.

And so, this is -- this is clearly this was inappropriate, unsafe, unprofessional conduct by the Russian pilots.


CHURCH: Russia's Defense Ministry denies its jet ever came into contact with the MQ-9 Reaper drone. Moscow's ambassador to the U.S. says the drone was flying with its transponders off and had been warned not to enter what Russia calls its special military operations zone.


ANATOLY ANTONOV, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED STATES: This drone can carry 1700 kilos of explosives. This drone can carry a few bombs. You say that what will be the action of United States if you see such Russian drone very close for example to San Francisco or New York? What will be the reaction of United States? For me, it's clear.


CHURCH: More now from CNN's Oren Lieberman at the Pentagon.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: All of this plays out early Tuesday morning in international airspace over the Black Sea when the U.S. says its MQ-9 Reaper drone was intercepted by two Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets. That part is not that uncommon. These sorts of intercepts have happened in the past. What is extremely rare is what happened as this played out over the course of 30 to 40 minutes.

The Russian fighter jets according to the Pentagon repeatedly flew around and in front of the U.S. drone, dumped jet fuel in front of it and even collided with it damaging the propeller and forcing the U.S. to take down its own drone in international waters in the Black Sea. Now, the National Security Council's coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told CNN that the U.S. took steps to protect its equities but it's unclear exactly what that is.

Whether that was some sort of self-destruct or some other step to protect it. Now the drone has not been recovered partially because at least there is no U.S. naval assets in the Black Sea to have carried out such a recovery. So, the U.S. took some steps to protect its own equities, this MQ-9 Reaper drone, but again, unclear what that is. Much of the response so far has been in the diplomatic lane.

The U.S. summoning the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and carrying out at least a 30-minute conversation at the State Department. Russia giving an entirely different version of events saying there was no collision, there was Russian jets firing at that U.S. drone. But Russia saying it does not want confrontation. So, at least, it looks as if the response to this right now will be in the diplomatic lane.

[02:05:09] The National Security Council saying it will repeatedly and again continue continually as it sees fit fly surveillance drones and other assets in international airspace as it has the right to do as the Russians have the right to do so. The U.S. saying it will continue to do what it has done and will do which is fly in international airspace in the Black Sea. We will see how this develops at such a sensitive time.

Oren Liebermann, CNN in the Pentagon.

CHURCH: Joining me now from Canberra, Australia, Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst of defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Always a pleasure to have you with us.


CHURCH: So, two Russian fighter jets take down a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. How potentially dangerous is this?

DAVIS: Look, it is dangerous. It's provocative. Essentially what happened was that you had an MQ-9 Reaper drone flying in international airspace. Two Su-27 flankers intercepted it in a very unprofessional and dangerous manner. They flew in front of it, releasing jet fuel against the drone, which could have ignited the drone's engines, causing an explosion. And when nothing happened, there then interfered with the drone's engine, its propeller.

And that generated damage from my understanding on the drone and the U.S. military decided to ditch the drone rather than have an air safety incident. Certainly, the Russians were behaving in an incredibly provocative and dangerous way.

CHURCH: And so far, the United States is dealing with this matter through diplomatic channels calling in the Russian ambassador for talks, but what might the U.S. do next do you think in relation to this dangerous escalation?

DAVIS: Look, they're not going to use military force. I don't think anyone really wants to risk World War III over an unarmed drone. If it had been a crewed aircraft, I think we might have been having a different conversation. But I think what you will see is essentially strong (INAUDIBLE) from the U.S. diplomatically against the Russians. You also may see greater military presence in terms of potential for some sort of monitoring of the Black Sea airspace from a distance.

Obviously, as you noted in your initial report, we can't send ships into the Bosphorus because the Turkish Government have closed Bosphorus. So, that does limit our reach to a degree. But we are now aware that the Russians are prepared to behave provocatively. So, we'll be more cautious, but we're not going to stop flying reconnaissance flights either by crewed aircraft, or by unmanned drones.

CHURCH: And Russia will of course, likely retrieve this downed U.S. drone from the Black Sea. How big an Intelligence coup will that be for Moscow?

DAVIS: It largely depends on where the drone came down. The Black Sea is fairly deep, in places over 2000 meters in places. So, if the drone was ditched in those depths, then I think even the Russians won't be able to get to it. But if it was drip, ditched in shallow waters, then the Russians could get to it. There are certainly technologies there, which would be useful to them. In terms of advanced drone technologies, command and control.

There's no real self-destruct mechanism per se on these things. So, the U.S. can't press a button and wipe out all the critical technologies on board. So, that is a risk that we have to be worried about that the Russians would be eager to get hold of one of these drones.

CHURCH: Yes, indeed. And of course, it is worth noting that Russia denies these events took place. But what do you think was going on with this Russian fighter jet? Well, both of them I should say they were dumping fuel. They were flying ahead of this. And then of course, one of those fighter jets clipped the propeller and the U.S. drone went down. I mean, what was their strategy here? Would have -- would they have been working alone or do you think they were told to be aggressive in this instance?

DAVIS: Well, that's the key question, I think. Two possibilities, either these were two fighter pilots that decided, let's -- shall we say, try and challenge this drone in a fairly hazardous way. In other words, they are behaving recklessly, they were ordered not -- they weren't ordered to do that. They just did it. And so, probably, they are in trouble back at their base. The other more than likely possibility is that the Russians were basically told to go and take the strain down somehow interfere with it.

In other words, that would be certainly telling me that Moscow is trying to send a message to the Americans to back off In the Black Sea.


The worst thing we could do would be to accept that warning and back off. I think that it's important for the U.S. to maintain its presence in the Black Sea using these sorts of assets such as drones to monitor Russian activities against the Ukrainians.

DAVIS: Yes. Certainly, at a dangerous juncture here. Malcolm Davis, thank you so much. Always great to get your analysis. Joining us live from Canberra.

DAVIS: Thanks, Rosemary.

CHURCH: Well, two storms are battering opposite sides of the United States. The latest atmospheric river event is bringing hurricane force wind gusts and rainfall of up to three inches to parts of central California. But although the rain will linger across Southern California Wednesday, the overall threat of flooding is expected to diminish. Meantime, in the northeast, more than 270,000 customers are without power in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. And more snow wind and widespread power outages are expected Wednesday before the storm exits out into the Atlantic.

So, let's turn to our meteorologist Britley Ritz who's been looking at this very closely and a lot to cover briefly. What are you seeing?

BRITLEY RITZ, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. There is a lot, Rosemary. Winter is not over yet and it's letting us know what this nor'easter that's really brought in quite a bit of snow, feet exact and this is that sharp cut off. Paxton to Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, a 20-inch difference within a 14-mile range. That's not much. That's just shows how difficult it is to forecast and nor'easter the size.

And there it is spinning right over the Northeast bringing in quite a bit of snow yet to parts of New England. Some of the heavier snow expected to fall across northern New England, Northern Massachusetts and or northern Vermont and New Hampshire rather through Wednesday morning and into the afternoon. So, higher elevations of Northern Massachusetts and Vermont, New Hampshire picking up quite a bit.

We range to about two to four inches but higher elevations here where we're seeing the prinks. Another foot of snow expected just today and then when we tie in that wet heavy snow with the strong gusty winds of 40 to 65 miles per hour. And we're still dealing with widespread power outages. So, keep that in mind, an inch of snow per hour in some of these instances here.

And on the other side of the country. It's not over yet with the atmospheric river. Seeing areas highlighted in red from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada down on into the southern coastline of California that moderate risk for flash flooding. We have areas about 5000 feet and below where we're still getting a lot of rain and then that snow melt tapping into that we wind up with catastrophic flooding conditions hence the flood watches that are still in effect through early Wednesday.

Heavy rain now pushing into the southern coastlines. Los Angeles as well as San Diego talking about rainfall rates of a quarter of an inch per hour. And that heavy rain really starting to ramp up throughout the early morning hours and coming into the latter part of the morning as well, Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right. Meteorologist Britley Ritz, many thanks for that detail. Appreciate it.

Well, the California storms winds were on full display on Tuesday when a tree fell on a house in Redwood City.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I started to tell him it looks like it's leaning. There it goes. There it goes. Oh my god. Oh. Anyway, there goes my neighbor's house.


CHURCH: And thankfully no one was inside that house at the time and no injuries were reported. The ground was already saturated by a string of rainstorms. That means the root structures of many trees have been loosened in recent weeks.

U.S. federal authorities are opening investigations into the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. Sources say the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are in preliminary stages of their probe. They're looking into the bank's failure and the actions of senior executives.

Meanwhile, the mood on Wall Street was cheerier on Tuesday as markets surged and bank stocks rebounded. First Republic Bank was up by more than 20 points, while Pacwest was up by more than 30 points.

CNN's Rahel Solomon has been tracking developments.

RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: You can perhaps call it the calm after the storm after a brutal session for regional bank stocks on Monday. On Tuesday, many of these same banks were sharply higher. This all in the wake of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. SVB and as it's called failed after many of its depositors rushed to withdraw their money on fears about the bank's financial stability.

That fear that appear to spread to other regional banks that investors worried might face some of the same risk factors that led to SVB's demise.


Those fears of contagion likely why we saw the U.S. government intervene so quickly to not only ensure that all depositors are made whole, but to also create a lending facility to other banks that may need it over the next year. Although it's too soon to know if this is the beginning of a real stabilization in the banking sector. It does suggest that perhaps the U.S. government's efforts to restore confidence in the banking system have worked, at least for now.

Also sparking some of the market enthusiasm on Tuesday. New U.S. inflation data showed a further moderation and prices, headline inflation growing six percent on an annual basis. That is the lowest level we've seen since September of 2021. Although still much higher than the Federal Reserve's target of two percent.

Rahel Solomon, CNN, New York.

CHURCH: And still to come. With gun violence in the United States reaching staggering levels, President Biden is calling on Congress to do more to keep people safe, while police across the country are preparing for the inevitable next attack.

Plus, an enormous patch of seaweed is threatening beaches from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico. The floating mass is so large, it's visible from space. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. U.S. President Joe Biden is calling on lawmakers to quote do something big and ban assault weapons now. He made the comments in Monterey Park, California on Tuesday where one of the state's worst mass shootings took place in late January. But as calls grow from police leaders for new gun restrictions aimed at making people safer, officers across the U.S. are preparing for what seems to have become inevitable.

CNN's Josh Campbell reports.


JOSH CAMPELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Shots fired midday on a California college campus. The start of a rampage by an active shooter as students and teachers flee for safety. Responding officers engaged the gunman, following him into the school library. Police resources flood the campus by air and ground specially trained SWAT officers begin arriving on scene.

Then the tactical teams move in. An officer radio set the threat has been neutralized but the work is far from over. A cavalry of firefighters and paramedics staging nearby rush in to triage and administer first aid. This is only an exercise, an empty college campus on spring break turned into a simulated warzone. As police and first responders hone their life-saving skills. This type of training has become the new normal in an age of endless mass shootings in the United States.

ROBERT LUNA, LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF: We study them, we read about them and we learn what went well. And what didn't.

CAMPBELL: L.A. Sheriff Robert Luna says continually planning for a mass attack is a reality for law enforcement, in part due to inaction in Washington to regulate dangerous weapons.

LUNA: We do challenge our leaders at a national level to do more about guns, to do more about mental health so that we don't have to do this over and over.

CAMPBELL: It's a sentiment that has been heard from police leaders across the country.

JERI WILLIAMS, THEN-CHIEF OF POLICE FOR PHEONIX, ARIZONA: We're outgunned, we're outmanned, we're out staffed. We do need responsible gun legislation.

CAMPBELL: A rare moment of bipartisan action did follow the tragic shootings last year at a supermarket in Buffalo and at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas when 15 Senate Republicans and 14 in the House voted to support legislation expanding some gun background checks and dedicating millions to public safety programs. But other measures pressed for by gun safety advocates remain perpetually stalled, including national Red Flag laws, universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. Many in law enforcement have long been advocating for the ban, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police who say the criminal use of semi- automatic assault weapons pose a grave risk to our officers and the communities they're sworn to protect.

A group representing college campus officers also supports a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for civilian use.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The irony is not lost on law enforcement. The very politicians who say they support the police and are against crime are the same politicians who deny us responsible gun reform legislation.

CAMPBELL: President Joe Biden reiterated his calls for gun reform during a visit Tuesday near the scene of January's mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, where a gunman slaughtered 11 before taking his own life.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm determined once again to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazine. Let's finish the job. Ban assault weapons, ban them again. Do it now. Enough. Do something

CAMPBELL: With major reform legislation on hold, it remains up to the police to continually prepare for the day. They may have to risk their own lives to stop a gunman.

LUNA: We don't want it to happen. Statistics tell us it will happen. But here we sit, ready to respond to anything that may come our way anywhere we're called.

CAMPBELL: Josh Campbell, CNN, Los Angeles.


CHURCH: The U.S. state of Ohio has filed a lawsuit in federal court against railroad company Norfolk Southern. The lawsuit alleges the company violated state environmental laws when one of its trains derailed in East Palestine last month, unleashing toxic chemicals into the community. The State's Attorney General says the lawsuit will hold the company accountable. The complaint claims $75,000 in preliminary federal damages but notes the damages will far exceed that minimum as the situation in East Palestine continues to unfold.

Still to come. Scientists are worried about the environmental impact from a gigantic patch of seaweed in the Atlantic. The cluster is about twice as wide as the U.S. and it's heading toward the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.


[02:29:04] CHURCH: An enormous massive seaweed has grown to a staggering size in the Atlantic Ocean raising concerns from scientists. Researchers say this year's bloom of Sargassum seaweed is much larger than previous seasons and it's roughly twice the width of the continental U.S. Scientists are worried about the environmental and health impact as the seaweed invades coastal ecosystems and covers beaches in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers have found that human activity and climate change are fueling these massive blooms of seaweed.

Brian Lapointe is a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. And he joins me now from Fort Pierce in Florida. Appreciate you being with us.



CHURCH: So, a massive blob of seaweed spanning 5,000 miles is heading straight for the Florida Gulf Coast, so vast in fact, that it can be seen from space. When do you expect it to hit the coast? And what might this signal for the critical spring break and of course, the summer months ahead?

LAPOINTE: Well, this the so-called blob of seaweed is this seaweed floating Sargassum in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. And that is what we call the Great Atlantic Sargassum belt. And that that Sargassum seaweed is moving towards the west, and will proceed to move through the Caribbean and up into the Gulf of Mexico and South Florida area in the coming months. And we typically get the peak of that seaweed arriving in Florida around mid-summer July is usually when it peaks.

CHURCH: Yes, I think I've been there when it's arrived. So, why are we seeing such a massive blob of seaweed at this time? What's causing it? And how big a threat does it pose to residents and to sea life?

LAPOINTE: Well, this is an unusual year and that this Sargassum bloom in the Great Atlantic Sargassum belt, started early it doubled in size between December and January. In one month, it doubled in size and was larger in January than it has ever been since this new region of Sargassum growth began in 2011. So, this is an entirely new oceanographic phenomenon. Previously, the Sargasso was -- in the Sargasso Sea to the north, that is the central gyre of the North Atlantic Ocean. And was circulated in the currents around that as well as to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

So, this is a whole new thing. And this is the source of this Sargassum seaweed, that is creating such a problem, really a catastrophic problem for tourism in the Caribbean region, where it piles up on beaches, up to five or six feet deep on the beaches in some places. In fact, in Barbados, just last week, they reported they need 1600 dump trucks a day to clean the beaches of this seaweed to make it suitable for tourists and recreation on the beaches. And, you know, where it comes ashore and the mangroves, it comes in, in such large quantities that it basically sucks the oxygen out of the water and creates what we refer to as dead zones.

These are normally nursery habitats for fisheries and, you know, once they're devoid of oxygen, we have lost that habitat. They are also harmful to seagrasses and coral reefs, and obviously, to human health, as well, because when they rot, they release toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. They have a high concentration of arsenic in the tissue. So, you have to be very careful when you clean the beaches and try to reuse this for fertilizers or some other beneficial use.

CHURCH: So, what solutions are available to stop these massive seaweed invasions? Is there anything that can be done to disperse or break it up? Or do we just need to do what you've suggested basically taking away truckloads of this seaweed?

LAPOINTE: Well, at this point, that's all we can do. Efforts are being made in the Caribbean to construct booms, to hold it off the beach. And to get harvesting boats to run along those booms and harvested into barges where then it could be taken either to land, to a suitable disposal site and dry them perhaps used for some purpose. Or a new project is looking at actually harvesting at sea and sinking it to the bottom of the ocean. And in that way, sequestering carbon, that is, you know, used by photosynthesis in the seaweed, sending it to the bottom of the sea where it will be buried and, in that way, sequester that carbon to kind of chip away at the CO2 buildup in the atmosphere.

CHURCH: Brian Lapointe, thank you so much, for joining us, appreciate it.

LAPOINTE: You're welcome. Thank you.


CHURCH: Up next clashes and tear gas outside the home of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who police have been trying to arrest is speaking out about why they're up to him.


CHURCH: Welcome back. A standoff is underway in Pakistan where police have tried and so far, failed to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan. His supporters and authorities have been clashing outside his home in Lahore. And not long ago tear gas was fired onto Khan's roof and on the grounds of his property. A police official says nearly 70 people have been injured and authorities have reportedly cut off electricity to the house.


Khan is accused of illegally buying and selling gifts from foreign dignitaries, but says the charges are politically motivated and meant to keep him out of the general election. He was ousted in a no- confidence vote last April. Khan tells CNN's Sophia Safi he's convinced he'll be arrested.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) IMRAN KHAN, FORMER PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm all mentally prepared to spend the night in a cell or I don't know how many nights. I'm getting my reading material, I hope I get a chance to read in the cell because normally I don't get that bunch of time to read. I'm convinced they're going to arrest me because of the number of police you would think it is the biggest terrorist hiding in this house.


CHURCH: The Islamabad High Court has issued an arrest warrant for Khan to be presented before the court on Saturday. I'm Rosemary Church, for our international viewers, "WORLD SPORT" is next. And for those of you here in North America, I'll be back with more CNN NEWSROOM in just a moment. Do stay with us.