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Death Toll from the Maui Wildfires Increases to At Least 96 People; Georgia DA Fani Willis Prepares to Face Off Against Trump; More Than 100 Million People Under Severe Storm Threat in Eastern U.S. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 14, 2023 - 05:00   ET



RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START, the death toll from the Maui wildfires has just increased to at least 96 people. It is the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history. What we are learning about a lawsuit that's now been filed.

Plus, the move from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis that could signal yet another indictment for former President Trump. And more than 100 million people are under a severe storm threat this morning. We'll tell you the areas most at risk.

Good morning and welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world, I'm Rahel Solomon, great to be with you. And just the last few minutes, officials in Hawaii raised the death toll from those wildfires in Maui to 96, says more bodies are discovered among the debris. Already, it is the deadliest wildfire in more than a century.

Officials say the Lahaina fire is 85 percent contained. And a lawsuit has now been filed against Hawaii's main power company. The lawsuit claims that the company kept its lines energized despite dangerously high winds. Now, the cause of the fires has not been officially determined, the power company also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

And Hawaii's governor says that the high winds drove the fire to spread at the stunning speed of nearly a mile a minute. In the wake of widespread criticism, the state has now launched a formal review of its emergency response including why a warning siren system wasn't activated. Meantime, residents are being given official placards that allow them back into the devastated area to see what's up with their town or what's up with their homes. More now from CNN's Mike Valerio from Maui.


MIKE VALERIO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Well, this is the only checkpoint for residents to get into Lahaina, and for people who stop here to have their licenses checked so officers can make sure that they are indeed residents, they tell us that this is a profoundly emotional moment. Listen to a woman named Susan who told us everything she's been experiencing just before and after she goes into the disaster zone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I drove through Lahaina for the first time on Friday, OK, I, again, live up north, you know, 7 miles out of Lahaina, and that night of the fires, we were watching the sunset on one side and it seemed like the sunset on the other side from the flames. And we did not know how serious it was.

And when I drove through on Friday, I had no clue what I was going through. I got so -- everything is gone. I worked at the Chart House(ph) in 1991, it is flat to the ground. There's houses that I used to live in, in Lahaina that I don't even know where they were. And you know, I lost friends in there.

You know, they were going back to get their animals, you know, and she died. So, I mean, you know, it's really sad because people come over here, you know, I heard there was a snorkeling boat looking at Lahaina town. Give them respect, you know, it's so bad. This is -- you know, people died here. You know, people -- I mean, it's not just a vacation, it's not just a place for vacation. We --

VALERIO: Right --


VALERIO: So, to give you some perspective, the checkpoint that we're at, it's about a 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, an amazing picture, so much beauty. What a contrast to the moonscape, the ashen, burned, seared landscape of Lahaina as it exists right now. Also of note, once you get a couple yards away from us, this narrows into one lane of traffic.

It's somewhat of a difficult road to navigate. It just shows you how difficult things are to access the area and for people to see what, if anything, has survived. That's the latest here on Maui, I'm Mike Valerio, back to you.


SOLOMON: Maui resident Shaleena Barrios safely escaped the wildfires on Maui with her family, you're looking at her picture here. The video you're about to see was taken from her backyard before conditions got even worse.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lahaina, you're looking at the scene there.


SOLOMON: And Shaleena joins us now from California, Shaleena, good morning. We appreciate you being with us today. I mean, first, just if we could start at the beginning, when did you know something was wrong? Walk us through how quickly it all happened.

SHALEENA BARRIOS, ESCAPED MAUI WILDFIRE: Clearly, we can tell something was wrong in the morning when there's no power and the wind was crazy. My husband came home early from work, and he was helping our neighbors whose roofs were blowing off of their houses. I think what really calyptra(ph) was when we had seen the smoke, you know, maybe a block or two away, and we prepared to evacuate.


And we packed our car and my husband was trying to water the house, to do anything he could, and then someone at the end of the street was yelling, the fire is here, the fire is here, everybody leave. And then at that point, we jumped in the car and left.

SOLOMON: And did you all leave together? I mean, did you -- your husband and your family, all leave together. Walk me through those moments in terms of leaving the house behind to try to safely escape.

BARRIOS: You know, fires are something that we deal with on Maui, so I naively thought, you know, oh, it's OK, these things I don't necessarily need, that may be important or sentimental, I will come back and I'll clean them later. So there were a lot of things that were lost that I wish weren't, but you know, funny, something that sticks out in my head is, I was so concerned about not locking my back door which, you know, in hindsight is -- doesn't matter.

SOLOMON: Yes. I heard you say that you heard your neighbor say, you know, the fire is coming, it's time to -- time to go. What were the warnings like? I mean, what alerts did you get? What alerts didn't you get?

BARRIOS: You know, unfortunately, you know, I hate to say that there was no alerts. We do have a siren system that's tested every month for tsunamis. We do have other neighbors who were waiting for evacuation because generally that's -- you know, what you're told to do, is to wait until, you know, someone comes to tell you to evacuate. But it was happening so fast, I don't -- I don't think there was time to tell the residents to evacuate.

SOLOMON: You told our producers that your husband is still in Maui. Is that still the case?

BARRIOS: Yes, he is.

SOLOMON: How is he and what is he telling you about what things are like in that region?

BARRIOS: He's doing OK, he's -- you know, he's someone who has to work and has to stay busy, so he was down this morning in Lahaina trying to access our property, and when that didn't work, he decided to go and help any way he could. So he just -- he's in -- he said his heart is just so full with everyone just coming together, the community coming together.

Maui is such a special place, and he said that, you know, everyone just feels so connected and the love is just so huge.

SOLOMON: Can I ask what's next? I mean, you know, Lahaina, it will take a very long road to recover. What's next for you and your family? BARRIOS: I don't know so far. I'm trying to create some normalcy with

my children. I want to do maybe some home school. I'm hoping to -- my kids' birthday is in a couple of weeks, so, I'm hoping to have my husband out here and we can spend it together. I think just trying to heal and just trying to, you know, support those around us who have lost also their homes and their family -- anything we can do.

SOLOMON: Yes, Shaleena Barrios, we so appreciate you being with us this morning. Thank you.

BARRIOS: Thank you so much.

SOLOMON: And for more information on how you can help wildfire victims, go to, or you can text Hawaii to 707070 to donate. In other news this morning, at least two witnesses are set to appear before an Atlanta area grand jury this week. New signs that Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis is nearing possible charges at her probe of the alleged effort by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.

Former Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and independent journalist George Chidi were both notified over the weekend they must appear to testify tomorrow, Tuesday. It's a signal that Willis is moving ahead to seek indictment against more than a dozen people and a conspiracy and racketeering probe. Her wide-ranging investigation is focused on efforts to pressure state election officials, put forward fake electors and also breach voting systems in Coffee County Georgia.

And sources tell CNN that Willis has texts and e-mails directly connecting members of Trump's legal team to the effort to breach Coffee County's voting system. Sources say that among those under investigation are Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and others. And with indictments nearing, security is tightening in Fulton County. CNN's Isabel Rosales has more.


ISABEL ROSALES, CNN REPORTER (on camera): Well, the big question here is, will Fulton County be yet another place where Trump is charged and arrested? Regardless of that answer, it appears that Fulton County is ready. They have an increased police presence around the courthouse right here, you can see that.

And often times, we're seeing law enforcement officers patrolling around the courthouse, and also these barricades, orange and white, that have been set up and they're doing road closures as well to control who goes in and out of this sensitive area.

And it's not just the building, but also the very visual face of this investigation in Fulton County into Donald Trump, and that is Fani Willis; the Fulton County D.A.

According to a source who is familiar with law enforcement movements in Atlanta, she has received additional security protection near her home. [05:10:00]

And Willis has recently urged local officials to stay vigilant about any security threats. In an e-mail obtained by CNN, Willis shared racist and sexualized messages that she has received due to this investigation and also similar threatening voicemails. The sheriff, Patrick Labat, he is the man in charge of security here on the ground in Fulton County. He says that his team is prepared.

PATRICK LABAT, SHERIFF, FULTON COUNTY, GEORGIA: So we are leveraging technology. All right, we want to make sure we focus on the latest and the greatest, what that looks like, how it can really create a force multiplier for us. But then we have as many as four or five other sheriff's offices that are coming in to help across those particular parameters and making sure holistically, we are safe. So we're ready.

ROSALES: And Trump has been over the past couple of months been attacking Willis on campaign events, and on Truth Social with what he's been saying against her. Willis has previously said that due to Trump's rhetoric, security concerns have escalated. Isabel Rosales, CNN, Atlanta.


SOLOMON: All right, let's bring in now CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson. Joey, good morning, I feel like I just talked to you yesterday. Good to have you back. All right, I'm going to start with this, our newest development, that according to CNN's sources, Georgia prosecutors have these messages linking Trump's legal team to a 2021 voting system breach in Coffee County. Joey, how significant is that, if at all?

JOEY JACKSON, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes, good morning to you, Rahel. It's very significant because indications are that the district attorney is going to charge -- it's called RICO, Racketeering Influence Corrupt Organization Act. And so, ultimately, what happens is, is that, in order to do that, you need two-patterned felonies. What does all of that mean?

It means that there are two felonies that she's looking at in order to charge that, right? Which is basically a fraud statute in Georgia. And many states throughout the country, you need those two things, one of which she's expected to charge relates to this tampering of these voting machines in order to find these votes.

Another, of course, is expected to deal with witness tampering. And so, the significance of that is that we now have an indication of what felony she's looking to pursue. You need at least two felonies that could potentially be much more, but it could be damning evidence when you have e-mails and other information which connect the dots between the parties you're investigating and the parties, Rahel, you wish to indict.

SOLOMON: Joey, if, in fact, some of Trump's legal team are tied up into this, I mean, does that signal to you how far up this alleged scheme went? JACKSON: Yes, it certainly would. So what the expectation is -- and

remember, Rahel, there was a special purpose grand jury that was convened, and that happened last year. It was from May of 2022 until January of 2023. What does that mean? A special purpose grand jury is a grand jury convened for a special purpose.

That purpose is specific to whether there was election interference and what specifically people may have done. Now, that grand jury that heard from 75 witnesses did not have the ability to indict. And so, we know that they did their job and made recommendations. Now we move here to another grand jury which consists of 23 people, a majority of which, right, 12, will have to vote out an indictment, and they're hearing all of this evidence and information.

And so, again, to the last point, they're connecting the dots between what, if any involvement Mr. Trump had himself, the former president, in addition to what his allies may or may not have done, may or may not have directed, so, absolutely, it seems to me that those indications are that not only was the former president allegedly involved, but many people surrounding him involved to the highest of levels. We'll see specifically what that means when or if an indictment is issued, that process is secretive on purpose.

SOLOMON: Right, for sure. The expectation is that we will learn something new this week. But of course, we will wait to see. Joey, before I let you go, I want to switch to another story with legal developments. Hunter Biden's lawyer speaking about the possibility of a trial after that plea deal fell apart in what was a pretty dramatic court hearing. I mean, here's part of what he said to his attorney, what his attorney said on Sunday. Take a listen.


ABBE LOWELL, HUNTER BIDEN'S LAWYER: It's not inevitable, and I think what --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you're trying to avoid one?

LOWELL: Yes, we were trying to avoid one all along, and so were the prosecutors who came forward to us, and were the ones to say, can there be a resolution short of a prosecution? So they wanted it, and maybe they still do want it.


SOLOMON: Right, so essentially, they're talking about trying to avoid a trial because this was supposed to be a plea deal. I mean, Joey, does the appointment of a special counsel change the odds of a plea deal still happening or could it happen still?


JACKSON: Yes, I think that's certainly bad news from a defense perspective. See, the distinction, Rahel, is as follows, when you have a plea deal, you can control the future, you could control what you're pleading to, you can control the issues as it relates to, you know, exactly what's going to happen moving forward, you get some finality.

Now that you have that having been blown up, and there are indications that it could be put back together, now you have a special counsel which will examine every shred of evidence, will probe for charges consistent with that evidence, those charges could be very serious. And now, either you're going to plead to those charges or you're going to take the case to trial to fight them.

And so, I think the ante has raised significantly for Hunter Biden in terms of what he faces, in terms of the consequences, in terms and the prospect of losing the control that I just alluded to.

SOLOMON: Joey Jackson, so much to watch these days, great to have your expertise to help us sort through it all, thank you.

JACKSON: Well, thanks.

SOLOMON: Now, this week is set to start with another round of rough weather. More than 90 million people are under heat alerts across the south and Pacific northwest, and more than 100 million easterners are under a severe storm threat today. Let's bring in meteorologist Derek Van Dam live in the CNN Weather Center. So, Derek, what are you watching? What are expected to be the trouble spots today?

DEREK VAN DAM, METEOROLOGIST: Yes, good morning, Rahel. You know, this is a severe weather that's going to march eastward and impact the mid-Atlantic states today. You saw about a 100 reports of severe weather yesterday in the past 24 hours. Now, we start to focus our attention across the mid Tennessee River Valley all the way to the mid-Atlantic, including the nation's capital.

And look what the storm picture set here is highlighting, damaging winds, large hail and a tornado or two, that specific wording coming out of their discussions. So we've kind of narrowed this down for you. We have a 5 percent probability of a tornado occurring anywhere between Philadelphia to Washington today.

So, definitely want to keep an eye to the sky, if you're in the nation's capital, anywhere across the I-95 Corridor, because thunderstorms will move through this afternoon and evening during those peak daytime heating hours. And then, of course, any time we get these thunderstorms moving across the same areas, we get the potential for flash flooding.

We do have a level 2 of 4 across the Eastern Seaboard for many of the larger cities, Philadelphia including New York City. So, overall we have a 100 million Americans impacted by the potential of severe weather today. So severe storms, record heat, that's other big story, it's all in advance of this cold front.

This is the 90 million Americans that have our heat alerts, excessive heat warnings including here in Atlanta, Georgia, just incredible to see what's happened over this longstanding heat-wave since the middle of July right through the middle of August, we have broken over 7,800 heat alerts or heat records, I should say, and then we'll add another 230 to that just through Tuesday. We have overnight max minimums and overnight or daytime highs that

will be potentially broken. And just to kind of put this into further perspective, places like Austin, Texas, 37 consecutive days of that mercury in a thermometer climbing above 100 degrees. Today, we'll do another 100 degree-day, plus, Phoenix, Arizona, for instance hitting 119 degrees three times this year, we've already had 19 days above 115 degrees. That's not even when you factor in heat indexes. So all in all, Rahel, the heat continues and the storm continue.

SOLOMON: Yes, it's been a hot --

VAN DAM: Back to you --

SOLOMON: Hot and muggy Summer. Derek Van Dam, thank you --

VAN DAM: Right, OK --

SOLOMON: Still ahead here on EARLY START, the jabs thrown between DeSantis and Trump at an important stop on the presidential campaign trail. And see the moment two pilots ejected from a plane in Michigan. Plus, this --




SOLOMON: That is a home in Pennsylvania exploding over the weekend, we're going to have the new details coming up next.



SOLOMON: Welcome back. Five people have died and three people were hurt when a home exploded in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh this weekend. The neighborhood left unrecognizable, three homes were destroyed and at least a dozen more were damaged. CNN's Polo Sandoval has the latest.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Rahel, good morning. That explosion was absolutely ferocious. It took place in Plum Borough, Pennsylvania, a suburb just northeast of the city of Pittsburgh. It destroyed at least three homes, left five people dead, among them, an adolescent. A ring camera from a nearby neighbor actually captured this explosion. I want you to see it and hear it yourself. Though it's slightly off camera, you can't miss it.




SANDOVAL: The aerial images are also quite telling at the site of the blast, even looks like a tornado tore through this neighborhood. Local authorities said over the weekend that they are not in a position yet to determine a cause when it comes to this explosion here. They're saying that this investigation may likely last for months, if not longer.

A local gas provider said that they immediately dispatched crews, they conducted testing in the area looking for any possible leaks, but officials over the weekend said that, that gas system was, quote, "operating as expected". So, certainly, it will be interesting to see where the investigation takes them. We also are told by officials that 57 firefighters had to be treated on scene for minor things like heat- related injuries. Rahel?

SOLOMON: OK, thank you, Polo. And time for quick hits across America now. Take a look at this video, it shows the moment a group of people stole up to $100,000 worth of merchandise from a Los Angeles mall. You can see them rip the items from shelves and racks and then just ran out the door. The LAPD is currently looking for those involved.

Sixteen people were hurt in a boat explosion at a Marina in the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Officials say that the explosion was set off by a spark and gas fumes that built up in the engine area, most of those injured were on the boat plus this.





SOLOMON: Video shows the moment two people ejected themselves from a jet at a Michigan Air Show. They parachuted and landed uninjured in a lake. The jet crashed in an apartment complex's parking lot, and thankfully, no one was there hurt either.

All right, turning to 2024. The 2024 Republican primary race playing out at the Iowa State fairgrounds where a leading candidate Donald Trump and his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made the rounds this weekend, each vying for the goodwill, potential caucus attendees. CNN's Steve Contorno has more.


STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER (on camera): The campaigns of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump clashed over the weekend at the Iowa state fair where both Republican candidates tried to build support on what is going to be one of the most important GOP contest on the nominating calendar.

California Governor DeSantis, this was an opportunity to turn the page after a difficult distraction to his campaign. He has cut staff, he has cut spending, and he has now refocused his efforts on some of these early nominating contests, trying to win back support and convince Republican voters that he will be a better nominee for the party to take on Joe Biden in November, 2024.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We need to leave this country better off than we found it, and we are in danger of being the first generation that turns over less opportunities to our kids than the opportunities we've inherited, and that is unacceptable.

CONTORNO: DeSantis spent most of Saturday at the fair where he was flipping pork chops and playing fair games with his family. Meanwhile, Trump reminded people why he is the Republican frontrunner. He showed up for just a few short hours, but still brought a huge crowd and many people were there to hear him speak.

And when he spoke, he talked a lot about the legal troubles that have dogged his campaign, but continue to make him popular among Republican voters.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The whole thing is a fake news put out by Biden. And they put it out because they can't win an election the fair way. It's all called election interference.


TRUMP: Biden put it out because he can't win the fair way. He's way down in the polls.

CONTORNO: Trump while in Iowa also took the opportunity to troll DeSantis a little bit. He brought with him several members of Florida's Republican congressional delegation who have endorsed Trump over their home state governor. Just another example of how these two men are clashing with each other in this GOP contest so far. Steve Contorno, CNN, St. Petersburg, Florida.


SOLOMON: President Biden, meantime, also trying to build more momentum heading into next year's presidential race with his economic agenda front and center this week. CNN White House reporter Priscilla Alvarez has details.


PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER (on camera): President Biden hits the road again this week to tout his domestic agenda and his legislative achievement. On Tuesday, he heads to Wisconsin where he'll talk about the Inflation Reduction Act a day before its anniversary. It's a bill that the White House has credited for lowering costs for families as well as investing in climate action.

It's also a key part of Bidenomics which the president has been leaning into as he gains momentum in re-election bid. Now, by the end of the week, the president will be meeting with Japanese Prime Minister and the South Korean president to bring those key Asian allies closer. It's the first visit to Camp David of a foreign leader since Biden took office. And it's one that the White House announced that this visit would

happen. They said it was for the three leaders to discuss, quote, "expanding trilateral cooperation across the Indo-Pacific and beyond." Priscilla Alvarez, CNN, the White House.


SOLOMON: All right, coming up for us, Russia strikes Ukraine's south causing devastating fires overnight. And CNN speaks to the running mate of a slain Ecuadorian presidential candidate. We have an exclusive interview just ahead.