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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Tornadoes Tear Across Louisiana, Killing At Least Three People; Biden Administration Prepares For Flood Of Migrants At Mexico Border; Today: New JFK Assassination Documents Set To Be released; U.S. Charges Seven For Shipping Equipment Worth Millions To Russia; Aired 5-5:30p ET

Aired December 15, 2022 - 05:00   ET





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got inside, and like five minutes later, all hell broke loose. It just sounded like -- it sounded like a bomb went off.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START, firsthand stories from people who survived close encounters with killer tornadoes.

Anxious hours near the southern U.S. border, a surge of new migrants just as the old rules are about to expire.

And the secret files of JFK's assassination. What could we learn later today when a new batch of documents are released?

Here we go. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans.

Violent tornadoes cut a path of destruction across Louisiana, killing at least three people, including a mother and her little boy. Dozens more were hurt.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, that's a tornado heading our way. Again.


ROMANS: It is the same major storm that has been thundering across the U.S., flattening homes in Louisiana, rocketing debris into cars and buildings and knocking out power, 50,000 customers in Louisiana, Mississippi without power at the storms peak. And that's down to about 10,000 right now. Dozens of twisters have been reported across the region including at least one in New Orleans. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency. Tornado winds damaged as many as 5,000 buildings in the hard hit city of Gretna.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've seen catastrophic destruction from both ends of the cities starting from the municipality right next to us, Jefferson Parish, all the way over to Orleans to the entire -- one strip to the entire city.


ROMANS: CNN's Nick Valencia is in Gretna. He's got the latest for us this morning.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The damage here is extensive with this neighborhood in Gretna, Louisiana among the hardest hit in the area. Emergency crews are still going door-to-door canvassing this area, looking for anyone unaccounted.

But as it stands right now, even though this extensive damage, you can see behind me, it's believed that this time everyone is accounted for and there was no loss of life. You could see the path that this tornado took just coming down this street ripping through these neighbor's backyards.

It was earlier, I spoke to these neighbors and they told me that while they were expecting severe weather, they had no idea that they were going to take a direct hit. They said it lasted between 10 and 15 seconds and was able to cause all of this damage.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As soon as she tried to call it, it was coming up the street. She said the debris and, you know, just whipping.

VALENCIA: That's what she saw?


VALENCIA: She's all right though?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She'll be, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So when I heard -- I thought it was an explosion. And then my mama told me to get down.

VALENCIA: And then what did you do? Did you get down? Did you listen to your mom?


VALENCIA: It wasn't lost on that little boy that we spoke to that this tornado hit and damaged his home right before Christmas. He told us that he hoped Santa is still able to find his home to deliver him gifts.

Meanwhile, at first light here later today, crews will be back out here assessing the damage and have more of an indication of exactly what they're dealing with. Back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks for that, Nick.

The threat moves eastward. Today, more than 15 million people could face severe weather in parts of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Meteorologist Britley Ritz is live in the CNN Weather Center for us this morning. Britley, what should people in that region be prepared for here?

BRITLEY RITZ, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Much of the same, although the threats aren't as likely today as they were on Wednesday. We still have more threats of tornadoes, strong damaging winds and hail.

Right now, 49 reports of tornadoes over the past few days. We'll likely add to that today. We also have strong damaging wind threats continuing on. And we notice that line pushing through the panhandle of Florida this morning, moving down into places like Tampa on up into Charleston, late morning and into the afternoon.

You'll see this area highlighted in red, that's a tornado watch, meaning, there's still that potential. The greatest risk at this point will be as this line comes on to the Florida Panhandle, where we get those little spin ups as we like to call waterspouts moving on to shore and then turning into tornadoes.

So we'll watch that closely for you throughout the morning. And that line, of course, again, pushes further off the coast by Thursday evening. And then finally winding down all together by the time we roll into the weekend for all of us, including those who are dealing with the snow.

So there's that threat highlighted in yellow from Fort Myers, on up into Charleston where we have that isolated threat for tornadoes, again, more of a wind and small hail threat today.


Knoxville down into Mobile, highlighted in yellow here for that excessive rainfall risk. And this is a slight risk for flooding with an additional one to two inches of rain on top of already saturated ground. We've been under drought. We need the rain, so we'll take it. Lake Charles, Louisiana, picked up a daily record rainfall on Wednesday nearing two and a half inches.

And there's the winter weather side of things, moving into New England and the Mid-Atlantic, ice storm warnings in effect for parts of West Virginia in Northern Virginia and Maryland. We've already had reports of picking up nearly a quarter of an inch of ice. We could pick up to a half an inch of ice in some of these locations that's crippling power outages, trees down. Travel, not advised in these locations over the next two days.

And as for the snowfall within the winter storm warnings, we could pick up in the higher elevations nearing two feet. Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Britley, thank you so much for that. A busy day for you. Keep us posted.

RITZ: Yes.

ROMANS: All right. The U.S. government suing Arizona governor, Doug Ducey, over the border wall he ordered built out of shipping containers on federal land without permission. The Justice Department says the makeshift wall is getting in the Forest Service's way, claiming scores of trees were cut down, harming the habitat of certain endangered animals.

Ducey's office pushback in a letter to the DOJ before the suit was filed saying, the number one public safety risk and environmental harm has come from inaction by the federal government to secure our border.

The Biden administration bracing right now for a surge of migrants at the southern border. Title 42 is set to expire next week. It is a Trump era policy that allowed the U.S. to turn away migrants as a pandemic control measure.

Right now, El Paso was coping with more than 2,000 migrants arriving every day. That number is expected to increase dramatically next week. CNN's Ed Lavandera on the ground for us this morning in El Paso.


JOHN MARTIN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, OPPORTUNITY CENTER FOR THE HOMELESS: We can get the women over to the rescue mission.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a frigid El Paso night and John Martin is coordinating an outreach team trying to figure out where newly arrived migrants have been released on the city's downtown streets.

MARTIN: They are working with the new arrivals that came in just within the past hour.

LAVANDERA: So there's a lot of confusion right now.

MARTIN: To a great extent, I'll probably get myself into trouble. I think confusion is an understatement.

LAVANDERA: Martin helps run a homeless shelter program in El Paso. Three of its shelters are open to migrants. This family welcome center can fit about 80 people, but in recent days, they've taken in as many as 125 per night.

MARTIN: The concern that we have is, at some point, you just simply run out of physical space. And we don't want to be in a position to say no, but I think the reality is very close.

LAVANDERA: In recent days, the El Paso area has seen a major wave of migrants crossing into the United States. The average number of migrants arriving here in El Paso has been about 2,500 day. And because of that, many people here, city leaders in El Paso, are concerned about what this could look like if Title 42 is lifted next week.

The public health policy known as Title 42, which was used during the pandemic to remove some 2.5 million migrants from the U.S., is set to expire next week.

But for many migrants, the talk of Title 42 isn't on their minds. Noel and Reyna Velasquez [ph] left Nicaragua six weeks ago with their 9- year-old girl.

He said, they came, they were unaware of Title 42, and the Title 42 could be lifted. So they really just want to come here to work for a couple of years and go back home to Nicaragua.

The family is headed to Georgia to await immigration court proceedings. But El Paso leaders say the humanitarian safety net that has long existed in this border city is stretched too thin already.

PETER SVARZBEIN, EL PASO COUNCIL: We need people to step up. We need to stop pointing fingers, we need to work together, we need to collaborate, and we need to make sure that we keep folks that are passing through our neighborhoods safe while also keeping our communities safe as well.

LAVANDERA: These are the scenes on the streets of Downtown El Paso that officials are starting to become much more alarmed about. Now, these are migrants who have been processed through Border Patrol. They have paper work to be able to enter the country and move, but really, they have nowhere to go right now. As they're either awaiting a bus ride out of town or they're waiting for other family members to get released from custody as well and they're trying to get reunited here.

But this is the growing concern, nightfall is coming, it'll be another frigid night. These people will be here on the streets sleeping unless they are able to get on a bus out of town, but this is the concern. This is what many people are very concerned about and are worried that this is a sight and a scene that will only continue to worsen in the days to come.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, El Paso.


ROMANS: All right, Ed. Thanks for that.

The man accused of attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband also planned to target Hunter Biden, California Governor Gavin Newsom, and the actor, Tom Hanks.


A San Francisco police official testifying the suspect, David DePape, claimed he was taking on, quote, evil in Washington. Evil that he believed originated with Hillary Clinton. DePape allegedly planned to kidnap President Biden's son to discuss, quote, all the corruption in D.C. A state judge ruled there was enough evidence to advance DePape's case to trial.

Nine House Republicans joining Democrats to pass a stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On this vote, the yeas are 224 and the nays are 201.

The motion is adopted. Without objection, a motion to --


ROMANS: Current funding expires Friday at midnight. The bill now goes to the Senate for approval before President Biden can sign it. The Senate could vote as soon as next Thursday. The stopgap measure will extend funding until Friday, December 23. That will hopefully give lawmakers time to finalize a broader full year spending deal.

All right. Three new episodes of Harry and Meghan released on Netflix just moments ago. The royal couple claiming they were gaslit by Buckingham Palace.

Plus, a big city police department moves to solve a dangerous problems guns that just go off.

And new facts or more conspiracy theories, the JFK files about to be released.



ROMANS: Today, the federal government is set to release thousands of previously undisclosed documents related to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Historians and conspiracy theorists still have many questions about the forces responsible for JFK's shocking death.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst, Julian Zelizer, who's also a historian and a professor at Princeton University.

Good morning there. You know, there's so many conspiracy theories, Julian, and unanswered questions about JFK's assassination. What do you think today's release of these files could reveal?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, based on the revelations we've had already in previous years, there hasn't been any dramatic reveal. We learn more about the basic story that we know. We might know more about what the government was hearing about potential threats to the president, and later to Lee Oswald, after he was captured. We might learn more about this trip that Lee Oswald took to Mexico a few months before the assassination. But at this point, I would still be surprised if we learn anything. The challenge is the fundamentals of the story we know.

How did the CIA, the FBI justify delaying the release of these documents all these years? I mean, historians have, of course, love to come over this stuff for the sake of the historical record conspiracy theories -- theorists, when you don't release all the information, say that means they're hiding something.

ZELIZER: Right, they do. And I think the justification has primarily been to protect informants that were used at the time, some of whom might still be alive. But I think historians in general, advocate opening records, allowing historians, journalists and others to learn more about the story transparency. And daylight is always the best that, not only to understand the history, but actually to rebut the kind of conspiracy theories which have surrounded the death of JFK since it happened.

ROMANS: This poll is interesting. It says that more than 70 percent of Americans last month said President Biden should release these documents. That's a pretty big majority.

Is it surprising to you that so many people still want to know what, quote-unquote, really happened?

ZELIZER: It is. I mean, there's not a lot of historical moments that people are so fascinated, but this was a moment that traumatized the nation. Everyone living through it remembers where they were the moment they happen. And I think it's just -- it's a -- it's a tragedy that in some ways still defines the nation, and still unites us in our thirst to understand more. So it's not totally surprising.

ROMANS I guess when you look at the conspiracy theory, nature of, you know, modern American society right now, you can almost reach all the way back to that time, you know, you think then you had the Vietnam War, and American public started to really mistrust the media and their government and lawmakers and leaders, right? And then that almost seems like the beginning of the of the moment we're in now.

ZELIZER: It's true. This is, in some ways, a story that's not about JFK's assassination. It's about other things that people think or worry about with government. And this has always been a source for conspiracy theories.

And I worry that in our current age, when conspiracy theory is everywhere, and there's no filter on information that as these files come out, they won't be handled carefully. And we're going to hear speculation about things that aren't actually in the material. So we have to have caution as we look through it.

ROMANS: Yes. And you'll certainly find people who'll find a little thread and blow it into something that it doesn't fit into the rest of the historical record as well. That's why guys like you read the history books.

Julian Zelizer, CNN political analyst. Thank you so much. Nice to see you, Julian.

ZELIZER: Thanks for having me.

ROMANS: All right. Quick hits across America right now. A Los Angeles jury will meet for a 10th day on Monday in the second sexual assault trial of Harvey Weinstein. The disgraced Hollywood producer faces two counts of forcible rape, five counts of sexual assault.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, calling on state lawmakers to eliminate general election runoffs. His plea coming a little more than a week after Georgia's third Senate runoff election in two years.

And Milwaukee's Police Department transitioning to new firearms after a lawsuit over unexplained discharges from the weapons they've been using. Officers will now be armed with nine millimeter Glock G45 guns.

All right. Coming up, a quiet New Hampshire neighborhood now at the center of a Russian smuggling ring.

And Harry and Meghan accusing the royal palace of gas-lighting, as new episodes of their documentary dropped moments ago.




MEGHAN MARKLE, DUCHESS OF SUSSEX: You just see a play out, like a story about someone in the family would pop up for a minute and they'd go, we got to make that go away. But there's real estate on a website homepage. There's real estate there on a newspaper front cover and something has to be filled in there about someone royal.


ROMANS: That's Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, speaking, as new episodes from the Netflix documentary, "Harry and Meghan" dropped today.

The couple saying the palace fed negative stories about them to the media to deflect attention from other Royals.

Let's go to Anna Stewart live in London. Anna, I know we've just gotten these just in the last hour or so. You've been watching them. What else are you learning from these new episodes?


ANNA STEWART, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think and I've only watched the first episode so far, Christine. But if we were to sort of see what four, five, and six of these episodes really mean, I'd say four is the turning point of the narrative in terms of it starts on the day of their wedding and explains how the media, they say, turned against them. Episode five, what really led to their exit from the U.K. and their time in Canada before, of course, they moved to L.A. I'm going to say episode six is very much the fallout.

Now, I'm still going through it. It is quite tough to watch in parts. The first episode that we saw today, episode four starts in such a positive note. The big wedding day, Meghan said she felt calm. It's beautiful moments, unseen footage again, like we saw in some of the episodes released last week.

But very quickly, it moves to the couple saying that there was jealousy within the royal family, particularly on a Royal Tour, which I think is a turning point, they say. They say that in the royal family, they don't like people marrying in and meant to be Paris as a sporting act, then stealing the limelight. They say that is what changed the narrative and it moves on to Meghan talking more and we heard this in Oprah, but expanding much more and how she felt suicidal and how difficult that was. And we hear from her mom on how difficult it was to know that about your daughter, Doria Ragland is very tearful, wipes away tears and says she couldn't protect her. Harry couldn't protect her.

And, actually, Harry goes on to say that he actually didn't deal with that situation very well. Meghan says that she sought help. She wanted help for her depression. And she was told she wouldn't be able to get that. It wouldn't look good.

It moves on to the royal comms and how they work against each other. Harry says the different royal households, he says, that they do brief against each other. They plant stories to ensure that one comms team from one households principle isn't in the press. They might throw negative stories somewhere else.

This is what they are saying. Of course, we don't have a response at this stage from the palace. I'm not sure we will, but I will keep watching. There was a lot more to come the next couple of episodes I'll be watching.

I think about the fallout between Prince Harry and Prince William. I think that'll be a big focus of five and six.

ROMANS: And already, Anna, this is what the most watched documentary on Netflix and on any streaming service ever in a debut week. Three -- six of these episodes all together.

Nice to see you, Anna Stewart. Thank you.

All right. Like a plot from a John le Carre's spy novel. The Justice Department has charged an American and Israeli and five Russians with smuggling millions of dollars of U.S. made prohibited equipment to the Russian military.

Court documents also claimed the defendants are linked to a Russian intelligence agency, the FSB.

CNN's Alex Marquardt has more. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This house on a quiet street in Southern New Hampshire home, according to federal officials, to a man accused of belonging to a Russian covert smuggling ring, charged with trafficking sensitive military grade components to Russia, including for developing nuclear weapons.

The DOJ alleges that the resident, Alexey Brayman, was working alongside American citizen, Vadim Yermolenko, from New Jersey, both were arrested. The ring included five others, all Russians. Among them, Vadim Konoshenok, a colonel in Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, he was stopped at the Estonian border, attempting to cross into Russia. His car packed with thousands of U.S. made bullets used in sniper rifles, as well as around 35 kinds of semiconductors and other electronics parts.

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Given the sanctions and the impact that that's having on the Russian military, I think Moscow has reached out through its intelligence services and said, look, we have to redouble our efforts to get these electronics. Let the other stuff go by the wayside. The priority right now is trying to get back on track in Ukraine.

MARQUARDT: Prosecutors say the smuggling ring unlawfully sourced purchased and shipped millions of dollars in military and sensitive dual-use technologies from U.S. manufacturers, including advanced electronics and sophisticated testing equipment used in quantum computing, hypersonic, and nuclear weapons development, and other military and space-based military applications.

HALL: When you see something like this happen, it's good evidence that the sanctions are indeed working because the Russians would be doing it in a much easier way if they could, but they simply can't.

MARQUARDT: The Eastern District of New York unsealed a 16-count indictment, alleging that the seven were affiliated with Moscow-based companies directed by Russian intelligence, which were sanctioned after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The network, the U.S. Treasury Department says is instrumental to the Russian Federation's war machine. What was being smuggled FBI director, Chris Wray, said, poses great danger in the hands of our adversaries.

MARQUARDT: U.S. officials say that the proceedings to extradite that FSB colonel from Estonia to the United States will begin soon. Russia has said that his detention by Estonia on behalf of the United States is unacceptable. They have vowed a response.

And as for the two men who were arrested here in the United States, they have been released on bail, but their passports have been taken. Their travel has been restricted. They are expected in court in Brooklyn on February 7th.

Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Like an episode of "The Americans." All right. Alex, thank you for that.

Quick hits around.