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American Morning

Australia Cyclone; Texas Flooding; 3 Years in Iraq

Aired March 20, 2006 - 06:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Roberts, in this week for Miles O'Brien, good morning.

O'BRIEN: The most powerful cyclone in decades slams into Australia. Damage is extensive. Thousands of people are now feared homeless. We have got a full report ahead this morning.

In Texas, it's now rain replacing those wildfires, leading to flooding and evacuations. We're live on that story, too.

ROBERTS: Back in court this morning at the Moussaoui trial, the first test of just how badly that case could be damaged.

And our special series, "Sleepless in America." More and more of us getting less and less sleep. Are we on the verge of a sleep health crisis? A closer look ahead.

O'BRIEN: We begin with a story out of Australia. Today is, believe it or not, the first day of spring. You wouldn't know it by the severe weather we're having. We're covering a massive snowstorm in The Plains, as well as dangerous flooding in Texas.

But we're beginning with a Category 5 cyclone in Australia. The most powerful storm to hit Australia in decades. No serious injuries reported. Damage, though, is extensive. Storms are called cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons depending on where they are located. Cyclone Larry came ashore at Queensland on Australia's northeastern coast. It's a popular place for tourists because it's so close to the Great Barrier Reef.

Michael Usher of Australia's National Nine News has our report this morning.


MICHAEL USHER, AUSTRALIA'S NATIONAL NINE NEWS-TV REPORTER (voice- over): There had been fair warning, but as Larry hit shore, far north Queensland discovered very quickly the force of a Category 5 storm, the strongest of cyclones. The most destructive winds were measured at 300 kilometers an hour. As Larry hit land, the Queensland government declared the region a disaster zone. They have weathered cyclones before in these tropics, but none like this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You just didn't know what to think. You didn't know what was next or whether the whole lot was going to go. It was just grab everything that meant anything and put it in a safe place.

USHER: And, luckily, locals listened to the warnings and found a safe place for themselves. Despite the cyclone's veracity, so far there have been no reported deaths, but about 50 people have been injured, none serious.

Innisfail seems to have suffered the most damage, with surrounding areas, such as Mission Beach and Babinda, also hard hit. But this cyclone was a giant, relentless in size and force, more than 100 kilometers wide, also striking Cairns as it crossed the coast.

In areas that caught the full force, emergency workers say as many as half the homes have lost roofs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gust of that wind was awesome. The whole house would shake.

USHER: At least 50,000 houses have no power. But one saving grace, the immediate rain was not as heavy as expected, but there is an overnight warning for dangerous storm tides.

The region's greatest casualty, however, may be local agriculture. Bananderan (ph) cane fields have been flattened, wiping out more than $350 million worth of crops. Thousands of workers now have to worry about their jobs, as well as damaged homes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are very emotional at the moment. Excuse, take a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes. It's probably just got to me now, man.

USHER: Cyclone Larry has now been downgraded to a Category 2 storm, moving inland, covering most of far north Queensland. But off the coast, Tropical Cyclone Wattie (ph) is closing in but expected to ease tomorrow. Schools, businesses and airports in today's affected region are expected to remain closed for at least another day.

Michael Usher, National Nine News.


O'BRIEN: One emergency management official is telling folks to beware of snakes and crocodiles, saying those guys are going to have a bad night as well -- John.

ROBERTS: Here in the United States, major flooding is the concern for people across north Texas. More than five inches of rain fell in Dallas on Sunday, triggering flash flooding that caught many drivers off guard and forced several roads and highways to close.

Here's Cynthia Vega of affiliate WFAA in Dallas. She's got the latest for us.


CYNTHIA VEGA, WFAA-TV REPORTER (on camera): We're here in west Dallas, a neighborhood that is shut to traffic at this point simply because of, look behind me. You are looking at a virtual lake that has developed over the last 48 hours as a result of pounding rains flooding out this area. At its deepest, some two feet deep.

It has even stranded the likes of tow truck drivers hauling vehicles, and you know how heavy they are. Experienced drivers getting stranded in this area. Just moments ago, a tow truck having to call for help to be hauled away.

And he's not alone. Take a look at some of the video that News Eight shot overnight. You are now looking at vehicles that have been stranded across the area. High waters and the flash flooding that happens here so typically catches people off guard time and time again. These drivers able to escape, but their vehicles still stranded and waiting to be hauled away.

And back here in west Dallas, again, the risk is not these flooded waters now but the fact that many of the nearby creeks are going to continue overflowing into the Trinity River, again bringing the promise and the fear of more flooding in this area.

But for now, a piece of promising news, take a look. We have placed this marker, and in a matter of about 20 minutes, the waters have receded some two to three feet. Small consolation for the homes already around here flooded out.

Reporting in west Dallas, I'm Cynthia Vega for CNN.


O'BRIEN: They are worried about flooding in Hawaii, as well. Forecasters are calling for several more days of rain. Streets and roads are already swamped. Officials are preparing for the very worst. They are hoping to avoid a disaster like last week's dam break. It's believed that seven people were killed by that. Only three bodies, though, have been recovered.

And welcome spring. Major snowstorm moving across The Great Plains today. The snow and the wind expected to intensify. Look at these pictures. More than a foot of snow is actually expected to pile up. This is the most significant snowstorm they say to hit that region for quite some time.

Brings us right to Chad Myers our severe weather expert.

Today is your day, Chad, severe weather expert.


O'BRIEN: Happy first day of spring, by the way. Good morning.

MYERS: Yes, right. Going to give me six minutes to do a dance up here. Wow, Soledad, this is really going to be a...

O'BRIEN: Begin.

MYERS: ... tough day for us here. There's just so many things going on.


Back to you guys.

O'BRIEN: All right, Chad, thank you very much.

ROBERTS: All right, a lovely welcome to spring. Thanks very much, -- Chad.

MYERS: You're welcome.

ROBERTS: Now to Iraq. Three years since the war began, and today the debate is over the term civil war. The Bush administration says not the case; the situation is far from civil war. But some Iraqi officials disagree.

Meanwhile, new video this morning of a roadside bomb that killed four people. This, as Baghdad police discover nine more people shot to death.

Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is live for us in Baghdad.

Good morning to you, -- Nic.


Well the debate over whether or not Iraq is in a civil war really heated up over the weekend when the former Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, a secular politician here, a bit of a rarity at the moment, made the comment that 50 or 60 people are dying every day. And "if that's not a civil war," he said, "God knows what is."

Well the commanding U.S. general here, General George Casey, says the country is still far away from that civil war.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, COMMANDING GEN. IN IRAQ: We're a long way from there from what I would characterize as a broad civil war here. But I don't want to sugarcoat it either. This is a very fragile time and there are people getting killed.


ROBERTSON: Senior U.S. officials, I'm being told here that they do consider the country to be perhaps a little bit closer to civil war than General George Casey does. They say that they feel that the country is sort of on the outer periphery of slipping, on the outer edge, if you will, of slipping into that civil war -- John.

ROBERTS: Nic, let's put these comments by Ayad Allawi in some context. Obviously he's got political motivations to what he said as well.

ROBERTSON: Absolutely. He got about 1 in 10 of the votes in the elections. He represents a relatively small party, if you will, 25 seats out of 275 in the new Parliament. But right now forming a government is completely stalled. And he would see himself as being a very good candidate to be -- to have one of the central positions in what is hoped to be here a government of national unity.

Why him, because he is viewed as having very strong security credentials. He is seen as a secularist here. Perhaps being able to bridge the gap that's widening between the Sunnis and Shias in the sectarian divide here. He wants to get himself back in the political game. A statement like this very much does that. And this is on a day when the current prime minister, who is also seen as a stumbling block in the process of forming a government, has put his views out in "The Washington Post" -- John.

ROBERTS: All right, Nic Robertson in Baghdad, thanks very much. We'll be talking to you a lot more this morning. Nic, thanks.

CNN will have live coverage of the president's war speech in Cleveland later on today. He's scheduled to speak around 12:20 p.m. Eastern. And he'll also be taking questions from the audience.

O'BRIEN: Well the president's low approval ratings have some folks calling for a White House shake-up. Some people even say that Vice President Dick Cheney should step down. Coming up this morning, we'll tell you what Cheney himself had to say about a potential shake- up.

ROBERTS: Also, FEMA's new message for thousands of people who received hurricane relief, give us back our money. We'll explain that for you.

O'BRIEN: Might be a tough sell.

Also ahead this morning, Dr. Sanjay Gupta's new series. It's called "Sleepless in America." Today, if you're not getting enough sleep, we're going to tell you what it's doing to your body.

That's ahead. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

Nice shot of New York City this morning.


O'BRIEN: Let's get right to Carol. She's got an update for us on the top stories this morning. Hey, Carol, good morning.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: That sounded nice.

Good morning, Soledad. Good morning to all of you.

Riot police on alert in Paris. Crowds of students and union workers are protesting a new jobs law. They say it makes it easier to fire younger workers. And one-and-a-half million people took to the streets throughout the country this weekend. Union leaders say the government has until today to withdrawal the law or face mass labor strikes.

The FBI set to take the stand in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial. The court resumes for the first time since last week's delay when the judge found out a government lawyer had illegally coached some key aviation witnesses. Today, the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui takes the stand. He says Moussaoui sent agents on a wild goose chase in the weeks before 9/11.

Andrea Yates is pleading insanity for a second time. She is set to be retried today for drowning her children back in 2001. Yates' original conviction was overturned because one of the prosecution witnesses lied on the stand. The trial resumes just two days after Yates' ex-husband, Rusty, remarried. He could be called to testify in the retrial.

Vice President Dick Cheney says he's not going to step down. The vice president downplaying suggestions the White House needs a shake- up given criticism over the response to Katrina and slumping poll numbers. He appeared Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Who's got the rights to "The Da Vinci Code?" We could have a decision within weeks. Closing arguments expected today in Britain's High Court. The film version of the book set to be released in May, pending the outcome of that court decision though.

And flooding in parts of Texas and the rain is still coming down. More than five inches fell Sunday in Dallas. At least one person has been killed. Floodwaters sweeping a woman's car off the road. The floodwaters could hit five feet. We're also hearing snow could hit some parts of Texas.

Let's head to the Forecast Center.

And isn't this spring into the equinox and all that kind of stuff?

MYERS: Yes, we're supposed to get that today. But, Carol, this is exactly spring weather, spring-type thunderstorms on one side and heavy, heavy, backbreaking snowman snow across parts of Kansas and Nebraska.


ROBERTS: All right, thanks very much. Wal-Mart is planning a major expansion and rural Oklahoma will soon be on the cutting edge of wireless technology.

Carrie Lee is here with a "Financial News Update" for us for Andy who is in the rain in Hawaii, fortunately.

O'BRIEN: Poor Andy.

CARRIE LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Probably watching right now, not.

O'BRIEN: Probably not.

LEE: We're talking about Wal-Mart. Everyone knows Wal-Mart here. Of course it's the world's biggest retailer. Not all that big in China, yet. Wal-Mart has some serious expansion plans. The idea to hire 150,000 people in China there over the next five years versus the 30,000 workers today.

Also, Wal-Mart plans to open 20 stores in China this year alone and is ramping up for many more. The company says that within 20 years it could have as many stores in China as it does in the U.S. That would be about 3,700. Wal-Mart of course huge but getting 80 percent of its sales from the U.S.

And obviously, Soledad and John, that's something that they want to branch out on to continue to grow. So a lot more Wal-Mart stores popping up in the eastern part of the world.

O'BRIEN: It'll be interesting, too, to see if they get some of the same opposition that, you know now they're small,...

LEE: Yes.

O'BRIEN: ... but here in the United States they get a lot of opposition...

LEE: That's a very good point.

O'BRIEN: ... when a Wal-Mart store is coming in.

LEE: That's a very good point. Chinese government obviously different than here. China did relax some of its rules concerning non-Chinese retailers coming in in 2004. So the doors are opening. Wal-Mart coming in and some other companies are too.

ROBERTS: Yes, a huge market that is...


ROBERTS: ... still barely tapped...

LEE: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: ... for American companies. Yes.

LEE: Yes. Yes. O'BRIEN: What's happening in Oklahoma?

LEE: Oklahoma, a rural phone company in Oklahoma, it's called Pioneer, is rolling out a new technology that connects television service wirelessly through the Internet. So a little bit different here. You can get television through the Net now, but it requires wires or watching it on the computer.

Well, this company, Pioneer Telephone Cooperative, doing things a little bit differently. Obviously big names like AT&T are working on service like this, too. But you might be surprised to hear small companies in this telephone space are more profitable, they're nimbler, so it allows them to be a little bit more innovative in coming out with service like this.

But wireless Internet service on your television at home, pretty cool, and saves the company money because they don't have to have somebody come in and spend three hours installing all of those wires.

ROBERTS: Right. That's right.

O'BRIEN: Right and cabling all that area.

LEE: Yes. Yes.

O'BRIEN: All right. Carrie, thank you very much.

LEE: Sure. My pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate it. We'll see you all week for Andy.


O'BRIEN: Thank you very much for that, too.

Let's get right to Carol. She's got a look at what's happening in "Morning Coffee" this morning.


COSTELLO: I sure do.


Coming up, Cindy Sheehan's story is heading to the big screen. Yes, a big movie about Cindy Sheehan. And talk about your perfect casting. Wait until you hear who is in talks to play her. And of course what would a Monday morning be without some naked people? Your cup of Joe is coming your way next.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Time for "Morning Coffee." These are our "Glory Days," right? This is what we're going to be talking about later.

COSTELLO: That's right, they've only begun.

OK, I've got some stuff for you this morning. How's this for your perfect casting, Susan Sarandon is in talks to play Cindy Sheehan, Susan Sarandon. You know she's an anti-war activist and well known for her left-leaning politics. And she has been meeting with Cindy Sheehan.

The movie is a biopic about Sheehan. Of course you know her son was killed in Iraq, and she's protested the war outside the president's ranch in Crawford, as well as in Washington. So perfecting casting, wouldn't you say?

O'BRIEN: Yes. How's it going to end, the movie? What happens at the end?

COSTELLO: Who cares, it's a movie. They'll make a lot of money on it, maybe. I don't know, you think a lot of people will watch a movie about Cindy Sheehan?

O'BRIEN: Something they see every night on TV.

ROBERTS: I think that there's a certain segment of the populous that will.

COSTELLO: And a certain set that won't. That's right.

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

COSTELLO: Venezuela, naked people, Hugo Chavez. Let's start with the naked people.

ROBERTS: Let's hope that he's not one of them, please.

COSTELLO: Well, no, he wasn't, exactly. But anyway, 1,500 people threw their inhibitions and their clothes to the wind to pose nude. Yes, American photographer Spencer Tunick was at it again. You know when he gets all these people together and they're all naked and he takes a picture. Does anyone buy those photos?

O'BRIEN: No, but the paparazzi shows up. Look at that.

COSTELLO: Yes, but we had to obscure all the people.

But let's move on to a man who has no inhibitions when it comes to America and President Bush, of course, Hugo Chavez. This time he called our president a drunkard and a donkey. This in response to the U.S. labeling him a demagogue who uses oil to destabilize democracy in the region. The danger here of course, Chavez is now very, very cozy with Iran. Need I say more?

ROBERTS: Yes, he definitely wants to try to be a thorn in the side of this administration.

COSTELLO: And he has become one.

O'BRIEN: Fairly competing. COSTELLO: Can't control him, seemingly, but they're trying.

Imagine you come into the airport after a very long flight and you head into the restroom. You get your luggage into that tiny stall. You turn around, look into the toilet and see a python. It happened in Australia. A smuggler abandoned that three-foot long python in the airport ladies bathroom.

O'BRIEN: My gosh.

COSTELLO: The Green Tree Python is native to Southeast Asia. It's none venomous, but it's still pretty shocking to see it. Actually, a cleaning woman found it in the bathroom. Customs officials don't have any suspects but say it is a sign their rigorous customs check is working.

ROBERTS: There you are. It wasn't flushed down the toilet.

O'BRIEN: My gosh, the cleaning woman was like I so don't get paid enough money to deal with this at all.

COSTELLO: Yes, definitely.

O'BRIEN: All right, Carol, weird but true.

A look at the morning's top stories straight ahead, including another headache for FEMA. We're going to tell you why the agency is now trying to take back millions of dollars they have given out in hurricane relief.

Then later, not getting enough sleep at night, Dr. Sanjay -- yes.


O'BRIEN: Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a look at the toll it's taking on your body. It's not good news. He's got a new series. It's called "Sleepless in America," just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Get the latest news every morning in your e-mail. Sign up for AMERICAN MORNING Quick News at

Still to come this morning, guess how much sleep you're supposed to get? I know you didn't get a lot last night.

ROBERTS: Not -- I think a little more than I got last night.

O'BRIEN: Eight-and-a-half hours.

ROBERTS: You're supposed to get eight-and-a-half hours.

O'BRIEN: Supposed to get eight-and-a-half hours.


O'BRIEN: Show of hands, anybody, anybody? No. Nobody.

ROBERTS: So I'm about three shy of that at night.

O'BRIEN: Yes, exactly, and I'm sure it only gets worse for some folks. And the less you sleep, the more likely you are to die of all causes of death. We're going to tell you in Sanjay Gupta's series...

ROBERTS: Great, so how much longer do you have left?

O'BRIEN: We'll take a closer look at that coming up this morning in Sanjay Gupta's series.

We're back in just a moment. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: A powerful cyclone smashes into Australia in an area where about 250,000 live. It's devastated. We'll bring you those pictures this morning.

Also, the clock is ticking before the next confrontation on the streets of France. Protesters issue an ultimatum, but the government is not backing off a new controversial law.

And a new sleep series, "Sleepless in America." Too little sleep could be leading this country into a health crisis. We'll explain.

A beautiful picture of Central Park.

Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

ROBERTS: Yes, a lovely spring morning.

O'BRIEN: John Roberts is joining us.

ROBERTS: Good morning.

O'BRIEN: He's filling in for Miles. He's on a little vaca.

Thank you. Nice to have you.

ROBERTS: It's good to be here. I always...

O'BRIEN: You lie. It's so early.

ROBERTS: I always love digging into my sleep cycle and coming up a little shy in the morning.

O'BRIEN: Who needs more than four hours, John, come on.

ROBERTS: Exactly. Yes.

O'BRIEN: We're going to get to that story and Sanjay's report in just a few moments.