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American Morning

Severe Weather in Texas; Australia Cyclone; Iraq: 3 Years Later

Aired March 20, 2006 - 09:00   ET


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

O'BRIEN: In Texas, they've seen fire. Now they're seeing rain, and a lot of it. Floodwaters pouring into homes, drowning cars, taking at least one life.

We've got a live report just ahead.

Also, a little to the north there's snow, more than a foot of snow, in fact. Danger on hundreds of roads to tell you about. Oh, by the way, it's the first day of spring.

ROBERTS: Welcome to it.

A terrifying experience in Australia. The most powerful cyclone in decades rips homes apart. Now thousands may be homeless.

Plus this...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say that I average about six hours of sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm tired every day. Every -- every night I'm tired.


ROBERTS: ... "Sleepless in America." Our new series looks at a chronic problem, lack of sleep. How longer days could be shortening our lives.

Good news for you on this AMERICAN MORNING.

O'BRIEN: Let's begin by talking about the weather. Severe weather to tell you about in north Texas, especially around Dallas, where torrential rains, flash flooding and swollen waters. One death is being blamed on the heavy rain, a woman whose car washed right into a creek.

Let's get live now to reporter Cynthia Vega of CNN affiliate WFAA. She's in Dallas this morning. Hey, Cynthia. Good morning. How is it looking this morning?

CYNTHIA VEGA, REPORTER, WFAA: Good morning to you Soledad.

Finally, the skies are clearing and the flash flooding that you mentioned finally subsiding. But take a look at what's been left behind.

Neighborhoods like this one now facing flooded-out conditions. The homeowners here still wondering if these waters are going to rise into their home, because a flood warning still in effect. With nearby creeks so full, they are still overflowing into this area. And the roadways out right in front of their homes just as challenging.

Take a look earlier this morning. Those waters knee deep. And a tow truck driver who had been working all weekend long hauling a vehicle himself, trying to rescue it, he ended up getting stranded in these waters because the problem we experienced, so much debris.

It comes in from these storms, then that's what he hit. It caused a snag and he got stranded, needing to call for help. This, after working two days straight trying to haul many stranded vehicles, because what we experienced here in Texas is this: many drivers come upon these high-rising waters in low-lying areas and the next thing you know, they try to go through it, their cars stall, they get stranded.

These drivers have been able to get to safety, but their cars and trucks are left behind. And believe me, there is a long line waiting to return home this morning.

And back here, these conditions still very difficult. Drivers are actually braving those waters as we speak. We've watched the waters recede some 20 feet, and still you saw they are up to their headlights in water.

Reporting live in Dallas, I'm Cynthia Vega.

O'BRIEN: All right. Cynthia Vega of our affiliate WFAA, which is in Dallas.

Thanks, Cynthia. Appreciate it.

They're keeping an eye on flooding in Hawaii as well. Forecasters calling for several more days of rain.

Streets and roads are already swamped. Officials are preparing for the very worst, and they're hoping to avoid a disaster like last week's dam break. It's believed that seven people have been killed by that. Only three bodies, though, have been recovered so far.

And welcome to spring. A major snowstorm now moving across the Great Plains today. You heard that from Chad.

The snow and wind expected to intensify. More than a foot of snow expected to pile up in some places. This is the most significant snowstorm to hit the region for quite some time.

And this just in to CNN. Take a look at these pictures. They're coming to us from Idyllwild in California. That's just west of Palm Springs. Live pictures courtesy of our affiliate KTLA.

Eight people were stranded in the snows there overnight. It appears that two family members who went looking for those eight people are missing as well. Live pictures from our affiliate this morning. Going to update you on that story throughout the morning as well as we follow it.

Let's get right to Chad Myers. He's our severe weather expert.

We're seeing lots of severe weather, Chad.


O'BRIEN: So today is your day, my man.

MYERS: I know. Just hand me the keys and I'll drive the bus here.

O'BRIEN: Run. Run with it. Run with it.

MYERS: Exactly.


ROBERTS: Hey, Chad. That's just some terrific news. Thanks very much.

MYERS: One piece. That's all I got.

ROBERTS: In Australia, a Category 5 cyclone has destroyed thousands of people's homes. It's the most powerful storm to hit Australia in decades. Storms are called cyclones; hurricanes are typhoons, depending on where they are in the world. 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 9 News reports.


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 9 News.


ROBERTS: The Iraq war hits an anniversary: three years, one day, and counting. Iraq's former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, says his country is in the throes of a civil war. The White House is denying that assessment.

So who's right?

Live now to CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson in Baghdad.

Good morning to you, Nic.


New information from Iraq's government. Thirty-seven hundred families, they say, pushed out of their homes by sectarian violence. Nine more bodies turned up in Baghdad today. That's 186 in the past week, all believed to be as a result of sectarian violence, an indication possibly about a civil war.

That issue ignited this weekend by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. He said in an interview that if -- that 50 to 60 people a day were dying in Ira, and if that wasn't a civil war, then god knows what a civil war was, he said.

Now, Ayad Allawi is trying to muscle his way back into politics here. He got -- he got 10 percent of the votes in the past election. He is in a small political party, but he'd like to be back in the center of the government that's being formed right now.

He is seen by some people as a possible moderator. He's a secular politician at a time when the sectarian divides getting much bigger -- John.

ROBERTS: General George Casey, the commander of ground troops there in Iraq, disputed Allawi's claim, but you've talked to military commanders off the record. What are they saying privately about this idea of civil war?

ROBERTSON: Well, they're saying to me, look, you know, don't call this a civil war because it's not really a civil war yet. And I know I've said to them, "Well, there's a sectarian violence, one faction against another faction within a country. In the dictionary, that is a definition of a civil war."

And they say, "OK, I'd characterize it this way: that we're perhaps on the edges of a downward tilt towards civil war." They seem to be more willing to put the country closer to civil war than perhaps General Casey, as who says -- as you say, that it's not at that stage yet -- John.

ROBERTS: All right. Nic Robertson in Baghdad for us this morning.

Nic, thanks, as always.

President Bush will continue to push his war strategy in an address today in Cleveland. CNN is going to have live coverage of the president's speech. That will begin around 12:30 p.m. Eastern. He is also expected after the address to take some questions from the audience.

Now for a look at what else is making news, let's go over to the newsroom. And here's Carol Costello.

Good morning, Carol.


Good morning to all of you.

This just coming in to CNN. Police in Florida desperately searching for a missing boy, well, they say he has been found. An Amber Alert was issued earlier this morning for 9-year-old William Hunter. The boy was reportedly found unharmed. His father is said to be in custody.

Guess what, folks? FEMA wants its money back. The agency is now sending out letters asking people to return funds they received by mistake. That could be up to 51,000 people. FEMA says some of the claims were fraudulent and also owns up to paying some people twice.

A countdown to a deadline in France. Union leaders say the government has until the end of today to suspend a new labor law or face mass strikes. Critics say the new measure makes it easier to fire younger workers. There were protests throughout France over the weekend and we will likely see more today.

Can you say "outsourcing"? The computer maker Dell says it plans to double the number of employees not in the United States, but in India. Dell says it wants to expand its offices in India to 20,000 workers over the next three years.

No marriage for Brangelina. We heard rumors about a secret wedding ceremony between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but it was apparently not so secret, not even -- actually, it was apparently so secret not even Brad and Angelina knew about it.

Lake Como in Italy was the place where it was supposed to be. The area around George Clooney's villa had been placed on high alert. People were actually camping out there, waiting for some kind of we wedding to take place. But no vows were exchanged.

O'BRIEN: Oh, and such a beautiful setting.

COSTELLO: As far as we know -- it's a beautiful setting, but as far as we know, they are still single parents.

ROBERTS: It's a shame, isn't it, when reality intercedes on the fantasy?

O'BRIEN: Oh, absolutely. Brad, Angelina, it was meant to be. Perfect. Maybe they'll just have to be single together.

ROBERTS: It will be one of these days.

But what about Jennifer?

O'BRIEN: What about...



O'BRIEN: This morning, let's talk about Iraq, in all seriousness, because, of course, it has been three years and one day since the war in Iraq started. When will Iraqi troops be able to take over for U.S. forces? We're going to check in with a commander who helped train the Iraqis.

ROBERTS: Also coming up, prosecutors try to recover after an apparently huge mistake in the Moussaoui sentencing trial. We'll go live to the federal courthouse in Virginia.

O'BRIEN: And our new series "Sleepless in America." Today, why not getting enough sleep could be deadly. We'll explain ahead.


O'BRIEN: Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years ago, 2,316 U.S. troops have died. An estimated 30,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.

When that invasion began, the Army's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division led the charge to Baghdad. A good friend and my former co- anchor at NBC News, David Bloom, was embedded with that unit. David, as you know, died from deep vein thrombosis while he was on assignment in Iraq.

Well, since then, his friend, Lieutenant Colonel Knapp, and I have become good pen pals.

The lieutenant colonel joins us from Ft. Stewart in Georgia.

Nice to see you, Lieutenant Colonel Knapp. How are you?

LT. COL. DENTON KNAPP, U.S. ARMY: Great, Soledad. How are you?

O'BRIEN: I'm well, thank you.

Let's go back to that day three years ago. You guys, as we mentioned, all on the front lines, really the first among the first to cross the Iraqi border. Give me your assessment of what progress has been made in the west last three years.

KNAPP: Just incredible progress has been made. Like you said, three years ago, we were just attacking the city and wouldn't have thought it would have taken 21 days to go from the Iraqi border all the way up into Baghdad. And just the time since then, I stayed there that year and we started immediate progress as far as repairing infrastructure and helping the people.

And coming back a year after that, for the past year, just incredible progress. Both Iraqi security forces, getting them stood up.

I know when we left Baghdad we started with one battalion of Iraq's security forces and had 22 stood up before we left. And they had actually taken over about 60 percent of the security operations in the city by the time we left. Infrastructure has gotten great also.

So just vast improvement. I was amazed just in the year I was gone how much had been done. And then when we left, that much more. O'BRIEN: So the Iraqi troops you'd highlight as one of the big areas of progress.

Many people would say, you know, but we see these reports of violence. And now, certainly in the last month or so, the sectarian violence that's clearly increasing. And you know this big debate going on over whether it's civil war or not civil war.

How is it possible to have progress on one hand, and then at the same time, this large number of dead every day to talk about?

KNAPP: Well, Soledad, I've returned, so I talked a little bit about it while I was there. I know we had out of 18 provinces about 15 that there were actually six or less deaths from violence in those areas. So we're talking about three provinces that really haven't had an increase.

While I was there, we had some areas that had 20 civilians killed that time from possible sectarian or criminal actions, but I know there's been an increase reported in the news. I'll tell you that the security forces are also increasing, and at a key to the security there is the trust of the Iraqi people in their security forces.

They have build a standup additional forces to control the areas. And, of course, unifying the government, which democracy is established. They voted on a constitution, and as well as their parliament. And if they can get the Iraqi government stood up to unify all the different sects, which have been fighting since before we got there, that will be a major, major push towards getting the country secured and the Iraqi people believing in the security forces.

O'BRIEN: Yes. That's certainly one tall order.

You know, yesterday, Bob Schieffer was talking to the vice president, Dick Cheney, and he was asking him about whether he thought optimistic statements about whether, for example, the insurgency was in its last throes or if he felt that they would be greeted as liberators, U.S. troops when they came in, you know, if that seemed to make the voting public more skeptical about how far we've come three years later.

Let's listen first to what the vice president had to say.


RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it has less to do with statements we've made, which I think were basically accurate and reflect reality, than it does the fact that there's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.


O'BRIEN: He's saying perception is the real problem, not the reality on the ground. Do you agree with the vice president? Is the problem that the media is covering the bad stories, or is the problem that three years ago, we were told that in fact the troops would be greeted as liberators and 10 months ago we were told that in fact there was going to be an insurgency that was in its last throes?

KNAPP: Well, perception is a reality for a lot. I've had both opportunities with good press and bad press reporting on what we're doing over in Iraq, a lot on the infrastructure and training the soldiers there and Iraqi police, and as well the violence that's going on. And I will tell you that things are improving every day. And you can look at it as a pessimist or optimist, but I've seen improvement, especially with the last three years. And as we continue to get the Iraqi government independent, stood up, they get the parliament voted in, and the Iraq security forces continue to increase, it will be better.

O'BRIEN: And I know you're an optimist because I know you well.

Denton Knapp, lieutenant colonel, talking with us this morning.

Thanks for your insight, as always. Appreciate it.

KNAPP: You're welcome. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: John.

ROBERTS: Coming up on AMERICAN MORNING, our new series, "Sleepless in America." Today, we'll look at why not getting enough sleep could actually shorten your life.

Stay with us for that little piece of good news.


ROBERTS: Still trying to wake up? Maybe it's because you went to bed too late or didn't get enough sleep, or maybe it's a combination of the two. In fact, more Americans than ever are not getting enough sleep. And it is affecting us big-time.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a look at our restless nation.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): We live in a world where day and night no longer matter. We can work, play, eat, pretty much do anything we want around the clock. What we don't do enough of is sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say I average about six hours of sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About four to six hours maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably get four or five hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Four or five hours. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm tired every day. Every -- every night I'm tired.

GUPTA: As a society, we are chronically sleep deprived, researchers say. Most of us need seven and a half to eight hours of sleep, but we're only getting an average of about six and a half during the week, a little more on weekends.

The shortfall doesn't go away. In fact, it builds. Researchers call this our sleep debt.

DAVID DINGES, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: Day after day living on reduced amounts of sleep you become more impaired, more dependent on caffeine, have more difficulty concentrating, at greater risk for falling asleep, more difficulty remembering, but you think you are doing fine.

The facility is set up to control those factors that typically influence sleep-wake behavior.

GUPTA: David Dinges runs the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. His lab deprives healthy people of sleep to see how they do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The baby cried and upset her...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: George cannot believe his son stole a...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Blue, red, green...

GUPTA: Stay up for 24 hours like this test subject and you are likely to perform as well as someone who has had a couple drinks.

Here's something else. Experiments show for the vast majority of people, sleeping six hours a night for a week will result in mental lapses and sleepiness as severe as if you had stayed up all night long. Long term, lack of sleep can have serious consequences on our health.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The less you sleep, the more likely you are to die of all causes or to have a heart attack or a stroke or have diabetes or to have weight gain.

GUPTA: Eye-opening problems that should make us all want to get a good night's sleep.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN reporting.


ROBERTS: And all this week we'll be examining America's changing sleep habits. Tomorrow, AMERICAN MORNING'S Dan Lothian looks at 24-7 America and the effect that schedule is having on the way that we sleep.

A 9:00 to 5:00 lifestyle is a thing of the past for some, but is it a welcome change? We'll find out.

Anderson Cooper is also taking a look at the issue of sleep tonight on 360.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, 360: John, it's terrifying, potentially deadly and it's probably happened to you: falling asleep at the wheel. A car crash every 30 seconds, every day. How to stop it? Part of our weeklong series on sleep.

You'll want to stay up for this one. That's tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern -- John.

ROBERTS: All right. We'll see you then.

In a moment, we'll have the latest on the Moussaoui sentencing trial. Prosecutors try to regroup after what may have been a huge mistake by a government attorney. We'll go live to the federal courthouse in Virginia.

O'BRIEN: And later, New Orleans gets its head (ph) turn on the big screen. We're going to show you how Hollywood is helping out with the city's recovery.

That's ahead. Stay with us.