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Death Toll Keeps Rising After Fierce Storms and Tornadoes

Aired November 11, 2002 - 08:01   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, back to that awful story out of Tennessee this morning. The death toll just keeps on rising. There are now at least 32 people dead, hundreds homeless, thousands without power after fierce storms and tornadoes struck the Southeast. A report from Tennessee says one remote town was wiped out from the face of the earth. The line of destruction was worst in Alabama, Tennessee and Ohio.
Van Wert, Ohio was one of the hardest hit areas.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And when I pulled in here, I'll be straight up, this whole place was gone. There was no cops here or nothing. Trees were falling down. There was, it was nuts. It was nothing I ever, ever seen ever in Van Wert before, ever.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right at the end of my road there was a humongous tornado right in the field up at the end of my road.


ZAHN: And in Nashville, many are dead. Many more than 100 missing.

We are now joined on the phone by Cecil Whaley, public information officer from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. He joins us from Nashville this morning.

Sir, thank you very much for being with us.

I know you are up against some incredible challenges there.

What do you think you're looking at in terms of the death toll and the number of injured this morning?

CECIL WHALEY, TENNESSEE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well, Paula, this morning we have 16 confirmed dead and we've got about 15 counties that have been involved. But certainly the worst is the Mossy Grove community in Morgan County, where we've had a mile and a half wide by a mile and a half long strip where the tornado touched down and just really literally wiped out everything in its path -- schools, homes, churches.

We still have about 140 to 150 people missing in that community and we've been working diligently through the night, a number of emergency services and rescue squads, working hard together to find those missing folks. There are some that we found trapped. The heavy fog and rain has hindered us. But we want to be very careful, much like they were at the World Trade Center site, to lift the debris as carefully as possible so we won't have any crush victims.

ZAHN: How much hope do you have that you will find victims alive?

WHALEY: We feel like we will find some. We also, because we have a complete loss of power and phones in that area, I know some of those folks are going to be traced to some hospitals. We've had five or six counties taking them to different hospitals around the surrounding communities.

So we're going to find some of them there. We're going to find some of them in American Red Cross shelters and in Salvation Army areas. But we are going to find some, I think, that we're not going to be able to revive.

ZAHN: Well, we're so sorry to hear that.

Now when you, we haven't heard the statistics so far. It's alarming when you hear that 140 people are missing. Help us understand the geography you're talking about. Earlier this morning, you suspected at least 45 people were missing from the Mossy Grove area, which is a tiny remote town in eastern Tennessee. Is that where you suspect most of the missing people are in or does it move to the Nashville area, as well?

WHALEY: Paula, we've got probably a hundred of those missing, to 125, in that Mossy Grove area. That's about 25 miles northwest of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area. It is the most remote area possibly in the state, a very rural area, very heavily, densely wooded and it's very difficult to get in and out of there. And that, of course, we've had to seal that off now because of the possibility of a lot of power lines being across the highway.

So, but we also have as close as 20 miles to Nashville, in Little Tens (ph), who had two deaths and millions of dollars worth of damage in Coffee County and Cumberland County, also. And we've gone all the way in west Tennessee to the Mississippi River with deaths and damages through at least a whole series of storms that swept through the state.

ZAHN: Now, there was an earlier report that suggested some massive damage in Nashville. Can you confirm that or are those reports incorrect?

WHALEY: Those are incorrect. We have two dead in Coffee County, four in Cumberland County. For our statewide total now is at 16. And we feel like we'll be revising that as the day goes on. And we're looking at 60 to 65 who have been seriously treated at hospitals and four or five of those very seriously still in operations.

ZAHN: What kind of help do you need now?

WHALEY: Right now we need help to the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, especially disaster relief funds. The next three or four days will be critical that we get money into those funds because we're still in the response phase. Our emergency search and rescue teams are going to be still finding victims and those are the quickest ways we can get help to them.

Now, of course, we will be forming with FEMA to get preliminary disaster assessment teams out in the field before we can take a look at maybe possibly receiving some further aid from the government.

ZAHN: Cecil, I know you're in the business of tracking crises. Just a personal reflection on what you've witnessed overnight.

WHALEY: Absolutely devastating in the Mossy Grove community and also the New Union community and Lake Tancy (ph) community in Cumberland County and in Coffee County. Just absolutely devastation. In my 25 years, it's the worst we've had.

ZAHN: Wow, we are so sorry to hear that. And once again, the best role the public can play is to write checks to the Red Cross -- food, sending food and clothing is not really what you need at this hour. You need the check to do that yourself, right?

WHALEY: That's right, Paula, and we appreciate you asking that because we do not want any volunteers or donations at this time other than to those sources, because of the criticality of reaching those victims and making sure we find them alive.

ZAHN: A final question, because I know you've got to get back to your job. Just give us an idea of how much help you're getting in terms of search and rescue. When you talk about the prospect of 100 to 120 people missing in Mossy Grove and then another 20 in addition to that in other parts of the state, you've got a big job on your hands.

WHALEY: We do, but we have a tremendous amount of volunteers and also state employees working together on this through the emergency management local directors and team at the state level. And we've got a lot of veterans out there that, from the military, that have joined with us over the years to be trained by a team to work on these special missions.

ZAHN: Cecil Whaley, we wish you the best of luck and thank you very much for taking time out of the dreadful duties that you have to carry on with today. We wish you tremendous luck. Our thoughts are with you.

We lost Cecil there.


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