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Talk with Cecil Whaley of Tennessee Emergency Management

Aired November 11, 2002 - 09:15   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Joining us right now is the public information officer for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, Cecil Whaley. He joins us from Nashville.
Good morning, again, sir.


ZAHN: Can you give us an update how many people you believe are missing at this hour?

WHALEY: We think we're probably around 150 persons missing right now, Paula. The reason for this is because we've had no electricity in this very isolated area of upper east Tennessee. They are about 20 miles southwest of Knoxville, Oak Ridge area, a very densely wooded remote area. We had lack of land lines, communications, and difficultly to get in and out of the area. So we're going to find most of those people, we feel like, but we have had just in the last few minutes another fatality from the crews that are working among the debris to free some of the victims. We had a fireman added to our fatalities. That makes 17 for the state last night.

ZAHN: We are so sorry to hear that. Now you talked about some of the difficulties to get into the area, do you have search crews that successfully made it into Mossy Grove yet?

WHALEY: Yes, we have, the Department of Transportation force cleared roads so we can get our search-and-rescue teams in there. They are very delicately going through the debris, much like we saw at ground zero in Washington, so that we don't hurt the crushed victims who are buried. And we have freed a number of those victims as the night went on. Heavy fog and heavy rain have hampered them. But now as the sunlight's up, we expect to make some great advancements in the next hour or so.

ZAHN: So, sir, I know this is a very difficult question to try to answer, but of the 150 people you believe are missing at this hour, how many do you think will be found alive?

WHALEY: Most of them, Paula. I feel for sure that we're going to find a lot of the folks being sheltered in homes that we have no communication with. We only have radio communications to most of the disaster services people in the area. Some of the hospitals have treated people, we know, that have not been listed, because they've been released. We're checking with a number of other areas now to make sure we get a good count before we release any more injured total. So we have a few that we feel like will not absolutely be able to find.

ZAHN: What kind of help do you need?

WHALEY: Right now, we have very well-trained individuals from a number of rescue squads from the Anderson, Rone (ph) and Morgan County areas that are working there. We don't really need any outside assistant at this time. CVA's is doing a good job of getting the power back up for us. We do have Army National Guard helicopters ferrying individuals in and out of the area for life-saving services, so all we really need from the outside is American Red Cross Disaster Fund contributions, so we can get money to the folk for temporary housing and food for the next four, five days.

ZAHN: What is that situation like? Are there enough places in the area that will accommodate the numbers of people you're talking about who are homeless today?

WHALEY: Absolutely. American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and our volunteer organizations active in disasters are doing a great job. They have a number of facilities open. They've treated folks, they are feeding folks, they found warm places for them to go that have been safe and secure, so we're doing -- seeing a great amount of cooperation between both the survivors and the victims.

ZAHN: I know you are trained to confront crises. But when you look back at number of years have you had this job or have been similar work, how bad is this one?

WHALEY: This is the worst we've had in one evening in the last 20 years or so. Most of the time, it's spread out, it' not as quick- hitting as this is. And we're getting reports we may have seen a f-5 hit that Mossy Grove area, and normally, that is a once in a hundred year type of storm. So if it was that, and we do get confirmation from the weather service of that, then we're seeing a once-in-a- lifetime event.

ZAHN: How heartbreaking is it for you to witness this stuff firsthand? We're looking at these pictures. and it's just very difficult to take.

WHALEY: Paula, it is tragic, and of course, we hate to lose a responder at scene, too. But we will have crisis intervention teams that are well trained, that will be in there working with responders, as well as the victims. They are have well coordinated. So there will be counseling available to all the folks there, and we'll make sure everybody gets taken care of.

ZAHN: I think you've made it clear how tremendous the human toll is here. In terms of what your communities are going to have to face financially, what kind of dollar amounts are we talking about here?

WHALEY: Multimillions of dollars. We have about 15 counties that are going to be involved in damages, hundreds and hundreds of homes, dozens of businesses, many infrastructure facilities, bridges, schools, almost two, three, four schools completely destroyed, a large number of churches. So we're going to be working closely with FEMA on damage assessment over the next three to four days, and probably by Friday, we will get a good handle on the property totals.

ZAHN: I know everybody needs you right now. We really appreciate you're taking the time to talk to us. Boy, our hearts go out to you. Good luck to you as you try to find the missing. I hope you're right. I hope you find most of them alive, and we'll be continuing to follow your very heroic efforts there, as you try to help out your various communities pummeled by this thing.

WHALEY: Thank you, Paula.


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