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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Fiona Now a Major Hurricane, Much of Puerto Rico Powerless; Texas Sheriff Investigating Migrant Flights to Martha's Vineyard; President Biden: "The Pandemic is Over". Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2022 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go. It is Tuesday, September 20th, 5:00 a.m. exactly here in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Christine Romans.

We begin this morning with Fiona, now a major hurricane, slamming Turks and Caicos at this hour after bringing torrential rain and damaging winds to the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico still reeling after Fiona caused a power outage too much of that island, it could last for days. At least two people in Puerto Rico have been killed. Well over 1,000 people have already been rescued by emergency crews, and thousands more might need rescuing. Countless homes have been destroyed, rain just will not let up.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has been catastrophic rain, that just will not stop. We have seen that last tale of the storm, linger over the island and continue to dump excessive amounts of rain. The first responders, the local responders, the government of Puerto Rico are not able to get out and help those who needed or assess the damage.


ROMANS: Now, parts of Puerto Rico are still recovering from the damage of course inflicted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. And it appears Fiona could be even more destructive.

Pedram Javaheri is tracking the storm for us from the CNN weather center in Atlanta.

What's the new update on this storm, Pedram?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, Christine, still looking at a major hurricane, category three, sitting there with 150 per mile winds. The storm itself, about 20 miles away from Grand Turk Island, not far away from Cockburn Town, which is the capital of Turks and Caicos, home to about 5,000 people.

It is passing across this region right now. You will notice very symmetrical, very organized storm system with a wind field that expands about 150 miles away from the center, where tropical storm force winds are still going to be felt. So, really, a menacing storm system impacting Turks and Caicos, where, of course, it is very much a low lying landscape compared to what we saw in the south across Hispaniola, and certainly, elevations can get up to its highest 10,000 feet. Over here, highest elevation is about 150 feet. So we know the coastal flooding concern, the storm surge concern remains very high.

On the southern tier, still running through a few thunderstorms and showers across western Puerto Rico that have led to additional flooding here. You have flood alerts in place, gradually beginning to expire. But we do have concerns for the amount of rainfall that's already come down, as much as 30 plus inches coming down in the past 24 to 36 hours. This is equivalent to what Seattle gets in an entire year, they have seen in the past day and a half. So, really, it speaks to the intensity of the storm, the amount of rainfall across portions of Puerto Rico and nearly 90 percent of the island still in the dark as a result of this storm system.

So what are we looking at moving forward? Well, strengthening into this afternoon, this evening, we could see the storm system eventually get to category four. Set to remain over open waters in the next couple of days, with the next potential impact area being around Bermuda, sometime Thursday evening, maybe into Friday morning. So, several days over open waters.

And some of the models do want to push this towards the vast majority of the models keep this away from making landfall in Bermuda, a couple of them bring you close to Bermuda. Certainly, a story we're following here over the coming days. But at least once it gets past areas of the Turks and Caicos here, Christine, we do expect the storm to remain over open waters for the next several days. Maybe even for the entire life cycle as well.

ROMANS: Thirty-some inches of rain in Puerto Rico, unbelievable.

All right. Keep us posted, thank you. Puerto Rico's governors are hoping to have power restored on the island in a matter of days, well over 1 million people in the dark right now, because of the massive flooding, no one's been able to expect these power lines -- by the time Fiona finally moves out, of the damage from all of that rain will almost certainly be catastrophic.


GOV. PEDRO PIERLUISI, PUERTO RICO: The damage that we have suffered because of this hurricane is rain related, mostly. By the time the tail leaves Puerto Rico, we will have gotten roughly 35 inches of rain. That is a huge amount of rain.


ROMANS: CNN's Leyla Santiago has more on the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Fiona.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Almost the entire island of Puerto Rico remains in the dark after Hurricane Fiona slam into the southwestern coast of the island Sunday afternoon, pounding rainfall causing catastrophic mudslides and flooding. The storm coming just as parts of the island were finally recovering from Hurricane Maria's destruction five years ago.


JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ, RESIDENT AND BUSINESS OWNER: It's been rough. We've been struggling to get this neighborhood back from Maria. Everything was destroyed, restaurants, houses, everything was destroyed. And we just -- we just -- not all the way back, but we just halfway back. A lot of people more than Maria lost their houses now. Lost everything on their houses because the flooding.

SANTIAGO: This is the barrio, the neighborhood where the National Guard had to come and rescue people. Still a lot of flooding. I can hear generators powering the home.

And it is still pouring down with rain. Neighbors looking out, wondering exactly what will come next, as hurricane Fiona, the remnants of it, continue to demolish this area.

The family rescued overnight now safely in a shelter.

She says this was worse than Maria.

She's pointing out that they've already been under water for 24 hours and the rain is still coming down, so, she's concerned about the 2,500 families that she says are impacted by this here.

About 1,000 people rescued from flood waters. Hundreds more rescue efforts still under way, as emergency responders try to navigate through difficult to reach areas. The interior part of the island saw this bridge wash down the river.

On the west side of the island, rainfall swelling a river, the Guanajibo River in Hormigueros, surpassing its previous record high at 28.59 feet, set during Hurricane Maria, now gouging to over 29 feet, the National Weather Service said. While a few hospitals have regained power, emergency workers are racing to get electricity back to the island.

THOMAS VAN ESSEN, FORMER FEMA ADMINISTRATOR FOR PUERTO RICO: It takes so long to get things back up because so many of the systems are connected, and some of the main lines go through the hills there and if those main lines get damaged, they don't have the ability to get the other sections up and running.

SANTIAGO: Sunday morning, President Biden approving an emergency declaration from Puerto Rico that authorizes all emergency measures needed, including FEMA.

ANNE BINK, FEMA ASSOCIATE ADMINISTRATOR FOR RESPONSE AND RECOVERY: There's 300 responders on the ground for FEMA, working hand and glove with the commonwealth and their emergency management structure.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SANTIAGO (on camera): It's not just the flooding, the mudslides or the power outages. Also, a lot of folks are dealing with not having water right now either. So the big question will be how quickly can crews get into work on the power lines to restore that power, and open up some of the roads that have been damaged by the flooding?

Now, another big thing to mention, it has now been five years since Hurricane Maria struck the island. A lot of folks who are seeing these images that are seeing it right before them unfold, we'll have flashback to hurricane Maria, the disaster that really decimated this island five years ago.

Leyla Santiago, CNN, San Juan, Puerto Rico.


ROMANS: All right. Thank you for that, Leyla.

President Biden promising federal support for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. The White House spoke with the islands governor, they say the head of FEMA will go to meet with state, local officials as well as citizens to assess urgent needs.

All right. A Texas sheriff just opened investigations into those one- way migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard.

Plus, a judge in Maryland ordering the release of a convicted murderer featured on the serial podcast.

The Federal Reserve getting ready to raise interest rates, big time.



ROMANS: The sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, says he plans to investigate whether laws were broken when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard last week.

Sheriff Javier Salazar says he believes local and federal laws were violated and that asylum seekers were promised work in Florida, but instead they were dumped to Massachusetts two days later.


SHERIFF JAVIER SALAZAR, BEXAR COUNTY: I believe that they were preyed upon, somebody came from out of state preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life which is what they were absolutely looking for, and then hoodwinked into making this trip to Florida, and then onward to Martha's Vineyard for what I believe to be nothing more than political posturing.


ROMANS: The Republican governors of Texas, Florida and Arizona have sent thousands of migrants to other states in recent weeks. Border Patrol stopped, already topping 2 million this fiscal year. Migration from Central and South America driving those numbers up.

In August, migrants stops jumped almost 204,000, 22 percent of them involving people who had cross into the U.S. more than once, more than 55,000 were from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. That's a 175 percent increase from last August.

Let's bring an immigration attorney, Andy Semotiuk.

Andy, so nice to have your expertise this morning. You have practiced immigration law in the United States and Canada as well. You saw those border patrol stopped so far this year.

What is -- what is the problem we have at the southern border right now?

ANDY SEMOTIUK, IMMIGRATION ATTORNEY: Well, as you mentioned, there are 2 million encounters this year in the southern border. And that's a record.

And the question is how do we prevent or stem the flow of people coming into the United States in an unauthorized manner? And we have to deal with this issue, it is a concrete issue, but everybody, everyone in the United States really has to consider themselves with it.

And the matter of shifting a problem from your state over to someone else's state is what is at the top of the news right now, because there is the issue of consent, whether these people wanted to go where they were sent, also if they wanted these people to arrive there. Was there any pre-shipment discussion about what went on there?

ROMANS: Yeah. We -- I mean, our reporters have been in Martha's Vineyard.


Our Miguel Marquez talking to people -- I mean, he talked to one who -- he's got an asylum hearing in San Antonio in the days ahead, but found himself in Martha's Vineyard. It just doesn't sort of -- doesn't makes any sense to shuttle a problem around, you point out.

Now this Texas sheriff says he wants to investigate whether any laws were broken. What do you think about that?

SEMOTIUK: Well, human trafficking comes to mind as a potential problem for these people who are shipping these immigrants around. It is something to look into, definitely. If you are making false promises and shipping people by plane to other places where there are big surprises when they arrive, that is a major problem.

Let's consider that for a moment. Where is that going? Suppose, for example, the governor of New York wants to ship some homeless people from New York, and he arranges for a flight for them to fly to Florida, or for example, a mayor of a city, say New Jersey wants to ship welfare recipients to higher income levels somewhere in New York City.

It is endless. It has to stop. It's not in the national interest. Everyone says you can't ship your problem to someone else has jurisdiction, neither for you nor for the person who is receiving this.

ROMANS: It feels like there is zero chance of comprehensive immigration reform. Every time you try to do that it just ends in a lot of suffering and anger, right? They can't seem to get their act together in immigration reforms. I guess, what is the solution?

SEMOTIUK: Well, the solution is complicated. It takes a lot of effort, thinking and cooperation between parties who might not be seeing eye to eye at the moment.

The solution requires a Marshall Plan for these countries, for more the immigrants are coming, from Cuba, Nicaragua, from Venezuela. These are political problems that must be resolved. And economic issues are involved. So part of the solution is trying to help countries abroad, to stem the flow of those citizens, to the United States.

Another part of the problem is the reform of American immigration laws, to match problems such as, for example, Fiona, the hurricane as an example. Climate change, environmental issues are forcing large populations to shift, and we're going to have to deal with those issues, in terms of reformed immigration policy in the United States.

We have to basically wake up. Things are moving at such a fast pace, we are not keeping up with them. We have to do some contingency plan, contingency planning along the lines of this meeting thousands hundreds of thousands, even millions of people at the border as a result of such crises, as climate change or you know, some kind of earthquake or whatever.

ROMANS: And political and economic unrest and all the other things happening around the world.

Andy Semotiuk, thank you so much, thoughtful conversation. Thank you.

SEMOTIUK: Thanks a lot.

ROMANS: All right. It's a big week for President Biden on the world stage. Today, he heads to New York where he will address the U.N. General Assembly, meet with the new British prime minister, and host a reception for world leaders.

Ahead of that, the president is catching some heat for saying this, to CBS's "60 Minutes".


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID, still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: All right. Let's bring in CNN's Jasmine Wright.

What's going to be the impact of the president's comment there?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christine, the president's recent ramifications, both inside and outside of the White House for this comment. For inside, of course, this comment was not planned, so sources say it took some administration officials by surprise. And because of that it is leading them to try to downplay his comments and say to CNN that U.S. policy regarding COVID-19 has not changed.

Remember, the U.S. still designates COVID-19 as a public health emergency, and that goes until October 13th when it can be renewed.

Now, outside, it's also cause problems because the White House has requested $22.5 billion from Congress for things like testing and more vaccine development and other therapeutics, among things like that. And they want the added to the continuing resolution that it needs to be passed by September 30th, to continue to fund government agencies.

But, of course, listen, Republicans were already skeptical before he made the comment about providing this money.


Now, virtually there's no chance, a lot came out yesterday and said, if the pandemic is over, why do we need to give the White House this funding? Which jeopardizes what they say they need to do to continue making sure people have access to testing, to make sure people have access to vaccines, and more. So, certainly, because of this comment, things are harder.

Now, of course, the White House in the past few months has taken steps to move that pandemic response into the commercial market. That is something, of course, that they will likely have to accelerate if there is no funding. But, of course, this morning is something the White House is looking forward to, pressing senators on. Now it is something that the senators, especially Republican senators are saying, I'm not sure we need it.

ROMANS: All right. Thank you so much for that. Nice to see you this morning.

Now, just ahead, what Congress now want to do to prevent another January 6.

And CNN on the ground in Ukraine where bodies of children are now being exhumed from a mass grave.



ROMANS: Forensic police in Ukraine exhuming 146 bodies so far from the site of a mass grave in Izium. Both of them civilians, at least two of them, children. Officials report discovering two more bodies in the town of Bucha, the scene of mass atrocities at the start of this war.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is live in Kharkiv.

Ben, what else are you seeing in these areas, these areas just liberated from Russians, what are you hearing from people about what life was like with the Russians there?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Christine, we were in the town of Izium itself where that mass burial site is located. And what we saw were people sort of slowly trying to get accustomed to life -- it doesn't approach normal, but a different sort of life.

Keep in mind, four months, their town was a frontline town. There is a river that runs through it. That was the frontline between Russia and Ukrainian forces. So there is massive destruction there.

Now during the Russian occupation, basically, they were on their own. Most people just stayed inside or in the basements to try to avoid any contact with the Russians. We did speak to one elderly woman who had a stroke during the Russian occupation, but was unable to get any medical assistance. For the most part, the people in that town are simply trying to get the basics of life.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Help arrives in Izium, bags of barley meal, tins of food.

Waiting her turn, Inessa shrugs off the tribulations of late. She's seen worse.

We survived World War II when I was little, she tells me.

Surgeon Oksana Karapetian hands out medicine. Sedatives are in high demand.

OKSANA KARAPETIAN, SURGEON & KYIV RESIDENT: Half of a year, six months, without any help. You can understand what do they -- just imagine what do they feel?

WEDEMAN: Liberation from Russian isn't the end of Izium's troubles. Much of the city was severely bombarded before falling to Russia in spring. There's no running water, no electricity, no heat.

Crowds gather to charge cell phones off an army generator and make calls. Ten minutes per person, using internet provided by a satellite connection.

Lubov (ph) and her daughter Anzhela are calling relatives. They want to leave. Winter is coming.

People will freeze, Anzhela warns. Older people won't survive.

They also fear the Russians could return.

Nearby, the signs of their hasty retreat. Helmets strewn outside a house Russian soldiers commandeered. Bread crumbs still on the table. Insects make a meal of fruit half eaten.

On the edge of town, the remains of Russia's once vaunted army, before a monument harking back to a different time, which now seems like the distant past.

Natasha shows me a newspaper distributed during the occupation.

What does she think of him?

I haven't thought anything good about him since 2000, she says. He destroyed everything in Russia.

The paper does, however, come in handy.


WEDEMAN (on camera): Now, President Zelenskyy has said the government will do all it can to restore basic services as soon as possible, reconstructing Izium is going to take much, much longer -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Ben. Thank you so much for that.

All right. Could American made tanks, when they roll into battle in Ukraine?

What the Pentagon says ahead on new day.

And the next, the murder conviction thrown out for the subject of the first "Serial" podcast.