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CNN NEWSROOM

Tornado Causes Devastation in Greensburg, Kansas

Aired May 5, 2007 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We heard the sirens go off. We went down to the basement and just kind of sat huddled in the hallway between the bathroom and the offices down there and listened to the house lifted away above us. But the basement stayed intact, and people were OK, and we came out about an hour later to see that everything across the street was gone.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Everything was gone. A massive tornado nearly wipes out a small town in southeast Kansas. Taking a look now at new pictures coming in as daylight has come up in Greensburg. We're looking at this from our affiliate KSNW, these new pictures of just the sheer devastation. Good morning everybody. It is Cinco de Mayo, May 5th and what a day it's been. It's 10:00 a.m. here in Atlanta, 9:00 a.m. in Greensburg, Kansas, where residents are being evacuated. We're going to have much more for you this morning.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: The picture you're seeing there on the left, we're getting from the helicopter vantage point that we have not seen all morning. This is the first of it. We've been keeping an eye on these the last few minutes as they're just starting to come in, but it is unreal, really the devastation that we are being able to see now. Like we said, we've been waiting on daylight to get a better idea of the damage. We saw some of the ground pictures, but the vantage point from the helicopter now really tells more of the story and maybe the whole story now of just how much this town was hit.

Again, hello to you all. We're going to be covering this all morning here. Much of the central Midwest could be seeing some rough weather today after a certain part saw rough weather last night, of course, Greensburg, as we're mentioning. We have extensive live coverage. Also a news conference we're expecting from Greensburg, it's supposed around the 10:00 hour, we're keeping an eye on that. We will have that for you straight ahead. Meanwhile, you are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

NGUYEN: Well as we've been showing you, a lot of this Kansas town, well it just turned into rubble in a matter of minutes. Daylight is revealing the full extent of the damage after that monster tornado just swept through last night. Here's an aerial view. If you look very closely, you can see nothing but splinters of wood where homes used to be. This is new video. One of the two high schools we're going to be showing you shortly that has just been flattened because of the storm. HOLMES: Witnesses say this storm either destroyed or heavily damaged up to 75 to 90 percent of the community. Reports also of at least one fatality. There's the video on the right, we're talking to you about, the high school we saw just for a moment there. Reports that maybe two schools destroyed there. We do know at least 50 people have been hurt, 16 of them hurt critically. Some survivors said they had some notice before the tornado struck.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had good warning. Our sirens went off for a good 20 minutes before the electricity went out and we heard it coming. So we were in the basement under the pool table. (INAUDIBLE) was in a room with her cat. It sounds just like they tell you, it sounds like loud, like a train coming, glass popping.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your ears, your head --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, your head pounds, the walls shake. It's every bit of scary as you think it's going to be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our house did take a direct hit, but it's still standing for the most part. The houses around us are flat.

JEFFRY ALLRED, STORM SURVIVOR: We heard the sirens go off. We went down to the basement and just kind of sat huddled in the hallway between the bathroom and the offices down there and listened to the house get lifted away above us. But the basement stayed intact, and people were OK, and we came out about an hour later to see that everything across the street was gone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is my mom's house, and she didn't have insurance, and she's a bit hysterical about it. But like I told her, I mean we're all OK and it's all fixable eventually.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: Well, Main Street is usually the heart of small towns like Greensburg, but today is bears witness to just how violent and devastating this tornado was. Here's Megan Strader from our affiliate KWCH.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MEGAN STRADER, KWCH: I'm standing on what was Greenburg's Main Street. The buildings that lined the street, the main street and the road, are now just reduced to bricks and sticks, and it's a very sad scene to be walking or driving down this street and just see the devastation.

Now, crews are still on the scene trying to survey the damage and clean things up. You can see we have Harper County, as well as Buffalo Fire Department. People are coming from all across the state to try and help out and just bring a little stability to this community after what they went through last night. Now as the sun comes up, the devastation is becoming more clear. Homes that literally looked like they exploded, cars on their tops, trees down, metal flying down the street and the wind. But people here for the most part are staying positive, simply that they are alive and they lived through it.

Now just to show the sheer magnitude of this tornado, you can see this tree was completely uprooted and knocked over in the yard. The tree next to it, similar situation, only this person had the unfortunate experience of it landing right on his truck. Now the house next door, kind of an interesting situation. Winds took the entire front wall out but left that front door standing. Now in situations like this, there always seems to be that one building that's left standing after the tornado. In Greensburg, it's the courthouse. Seems to be a little roof damage on it, but it's still standing proud this morning.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

HOLMES: All right, we're going to go to the phones now, and Sharon Watson, spokeswoman with Kansas Emergency Management. Ms. Watson, we spoke to you a little while ago. It was still dark there in Greensburg. The light, sunlight, daylight now on that town. How is that giving you a different perspective of just how massive this destruction is?

VOICE OF SHARON WATSON, KANSAS EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well the (INAUDIBLE) general of Kansas just flew over the city of Greensburg, and the destruction is evident in just -- there's very few buildings that are still standing. Tremendous amounts of rubble, farms that have been destroyed as well on the outskirts of Greensburg. At this time, just massive destruction. The 911 communications have been restored. We were able to get a mobile communications in overnight and bring those systems back in order. There are efforts right now to get land lines and cell towers back in order as well. We have more than 300 in shelters, in Red Cross shelters in Havilland at the high school and also at the Barkley College. We have another 300 en route to take advantage of the shelters there, and we expect those numbers to grow as the day continues.

HOLMES: Ma'am, what is your level of confidence right now that you have located all survivors and that you don't have people that are still stuck in rubble in some of these horrible pictures we're seeing? And like you said, it looks like everything -- the place has been leveled. But again, your level of confidence that you have identified survivors and you don't have people stuck under there?

WATSON: There is still a possibility that we do not have all of the people accounted for in the town, and that's something that we'll be working feverishly to do over the next several hours. The local crews on scene, all of the different agencies that are involved in this response, and the National Guard has also arrived to help support the effort with security in the area.

HOLMES: Can you give us an update on the injury numbers that you have and also we've been hearing all morning one fatality. Is that still the case and still the information you have?

WATSON: The numbers have been changing on that. At this time the sheriff's department is reporting four fatalities, and we do have numbers of injured, but nothing concrete on that to give you at this time.

HOLMES: OK. And ma'am, what other resources are you trying to get there right now? The Red Cross is there, shelters are set up. I know the hospital there has pretty much been taken out. Do you have the emergency, the ambulances, the paramedics, are you still trying to rush resources to the scene?

WATSON: We have an incident command set up here in Greensburg and all of the different agencies from local, other counties and also the state level are here working those details to see if any additional resources are needed, and we will bring them in as soon as possible, at the moment's notice as soon as anything else is identified that needs to be brought in.

HOLMES: All right. Again, Sharon Watson from the Kansas Emergency Management, a big job, a tough job ahead. Ma'am, thank you again, for continuing to update us. I know it's been a long night and certainly going to be a long day for a lot of folks there in Kansas.

Again, these new pictures are just unbelievable. Taking a look here at what we've been talking about this morning and the word we've been getting from emergency officials, saying that 75 percent to 90 percent of that town has been touched in some way by this tornado. Buildings either damaged or destroyed by this tornado. This is the best perspective we have seen of it so far this morning, these daylight shots from above, but you can see that this town went through it last night.

NGUYEN: Absolutely. So far we're hearing one dead, but there is possible word that number being increased. In fact, I'm just getting word now that four people have been confirmed dead in this tornado. Some 63 injured at this point, that according to local affiliates. The death toll, in fact, has risen from one to four at this hour.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: -- tipped over by these winds. I think there's no question whatsoever that these storms -- that this was definitely a tornado. No question about it. I mean, just unbelievable power. Think about this, folks. The strongest tornado, which would have winds of 318 miles per hour, is nearly twice as strong as the strongest hurricane. Granted, not as big as a hurricane, but, my goodness, the power is just awful. And, of course, you see the effects here in this community. They're going to be certainly taking quite a while to sift through the damage and to recover. No question about it, it is an awful thing to see.

Now, this happened last night. Some of the stories we've been presenting to you regarding this awful event, there is one great ray out of this story, ray of light, and that would be that you hear people say over and over again that there was, indeed, some warning. I've heard some people say that they were able to tune in and listen to their local meteorologist. Some people heard sirens. Either way that is a wonderful thing. Any time you get any kind of warning, it can make a tremendous difference. Even a few seconds to take cover and mean the difference obviously between life and death.

Now as we go from these incredible images which show the power of the storms, you see some combines there, camera work a little shaky, granted they're up in the chopper -- not always the most steady platform to take this video. They're going to be seeing this rough activity not just in parts of Kansas or, say Nebraska, but there's the potential of that activity to pop up in other spots, maybe into, say, the corn belt of Iowa.

(WEATHER REPORT)

NGUYEN: To recap briefly, more than 50 injured. Four deaths reported so far. CNN's Josh Levs joins us now with a look at some of the worst storms. Because when we see this kind of devastation, we often think back to, well, I remember the storm back then when it caused so much destruction. Something maybe on the similar magnitude.

JOSHUA LEVS: It sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? You know why? Because it turns out folks, we have some facts for you here about tornadoes in the United States. Turns out this is the tornado capital of the world. There are more tornadoes in the United States than there are any where else in the world. That's why often you're hearing these reports right here, domestically. And interestingly enough, second after us is all the way on the other side of the world. It's Australia.

All right here are the figures, each year there are about 1,000 tornadoes in the United States, claiming about 80 lives and injuring generally more than 1500 people. Usually they take place in what's called tornado alley, which includes a large swath as you know of the Midwest and also the south. Now, as Betty was saying, let's take a look back at history, let's see what some of the deadliest tornadoes ever were. You have to go pretty far back, fortunately. 1925, the deadliest tornado in all of U.S. history when nearly 700 people were killed in three states, it was Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. After that, 1840 in Natchez, Mississippi and then up to 1896, St. Louis, Missouri.

Now you're looking at those dead numbers. Keep in mind, a major reason for that is that society has changed. Houses are stronger now. Structures are stronger, the society is different. More people used to be killed by these types of storms. Still, obviously, 80 a year is a lot of people. Also keep in mind, it's not just deaths, but every time there are storms, there's a major cost.

So we're going to show you now some of the costliest tornadoes in U.S. history. And I want to tell you, as you look at these numbers, these are adjusted for inflation, which means if you look at all of U.S. history, the costliest one ever was just seven years ago in 19 -- or eight years ago now, in 1999, over a billion dollars. And before that, you have to go back to the 70's, one cost more than a billion, another one 840 million. So guys, you know, every time something like this happens, you're talking ultimately obviously large numbers of death, but you're also talking ultimately about a lot of people being affected. They lose their homes, they lose the places where they --

NGUYEN: And cars, they lose their businesses.

LEVS: They lose their livelihoods. Sometimes it can take two, three, five, 10 years for them to recover from something like that.

NGUYEN: It is definitely long-term recovery and something that's very costly. And speaking of long-term recovery, the folks who live in those homes, they're going to need it today. For a large portion of the rest of this year, just look at this new video coming into CNN from our affiliate KSNW. This is in Greensburg, Kansas ad if you are just joining us, a very large, what they're calling a wedge tornado, tore through that town last night and this is what's left. We're hearing somewhere between 75 to 90 percent of this town has been heavily damaged or just flattened as you've seen much of the area right now. Word is coming through to us that at least four people have been killed in this tornado.

HOLMES: We're going to continue to keep an eye on this and the new pictures that continue to come in to us. That's what we've been talking about right there. Areas just flattened. Can't even tell what did stand right there. You can certainly make out how this is building somewhere in there. But you can tell so much of this town has been flattened. We'll continue to update you with the latest video, the latest developments. Also going to hear from a storm chaser who watched this devastation unfold.

Also, we are expecting a news conference from Greensburg, from officials there on the ground in Kansas to give an update about the devastation there, the injury count and also now the death count. We're hearing that possibly four dead now, according to the sheriff's department. So please stick here with us, we have continuing coverage of this devastation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: Take a look at the radar and more importantly, just look at these pictures. Severe weather threatening the plains today. Meteorologist Reynolds Wolf says the highest risk is in central Kansas and central Nebraska, there's also the threat of intense storms including possible tornadoes. So we are keep you updated on all of this.

HOLMES: Risk still in Kansas, but that risk became a reality for a lot of folks. Now this is our breaking news, we've been following this morning. Kansas town of Greensburg pummeled by a powerful tornado last night. Emergency officials reporting four people have been killed in this town of Greensburg. Dozens of people injured as well. The daylight pictures that we're getting, starting to reveal more of this devastation and the extent of it. Emergency officials saying between 75 and 90 percent of the town has been damaged or destroyed. Crews have been going house to house, possibly trying to find people who have been trapped under a lot of that rubble. But again, the picture you're seeing these on the firs, those are the first pictures we have gotten this morning from on high and as the sunlight revealed just how devastating this storm was. NGUYEN: We're going to take you on the ground right now as our local affiliates are interviewing folks who are going door to door in this search and rescue operation. Those who are checking on the people of this town who survived. This is one of the state troopers. Let's take a listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- you know you've got to be able to give them a little bit of time because in most cases, they're in shock themselves. So, you know, we have to consider those people as well. We're trying to be with those people so that hey can get a little bit of time and we've got a lot of people that are coming in to help, and, you know, the biggest thing that we're trying to do now is get that effort organized and see exactly where we can go with it. OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is your latest count on fatalities?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no changes on the last things that we released. They released them in the night. I know because I saw it on some of you folks' station. That's still the current numbers that we have. As far as minor things, I'm sure that there's a lot of people that's got different types of injuries, but as far as the serious and the fatalities, that -- as far as we know now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any idea on how long that search and rescue effort will take? Are we looking at the entire day?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the thing is, it's very, very difficult to say until everybody is accounted for, you know they'll keep looking. The other thing is, in a lot of cases those people might already be someplace and be safe and we don't know it yet until we can establish where they are and get them accounted for, that is a very, very difficult thing. Like we said, the cellular service right now, as you guys know, it's very sketchy at best, so you're not going to have that. The other thing is, you've got to keep in mind, most of these people lost everything that they had. They don't have a cellular phone that these people can call. So, they're just going to have to be patient. That's the only thing that we can ask. They just keep trying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since day break have we found anybody that may have been trapped?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We haven't found anybody additional, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With these search and rescues, do you concentrate in one particular area?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What they've done is they've established sectors and they have groups that are in each of these sectors, and they're just going location at a time, sifting through and seeing if they can find people. And then also trying to keep track in this area, that particular area, who's already been accounted for. They concentrate their efforts on the places that nobody's been accounted for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see these police cars from just all over, counties, cities from all over. Can you even begin how many agencies are here and how many --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I have no idea. There's people here from all over the state. So, you know, we've had an extreme outpouring, it's greatly appreciated because you've got to consider, there's been several, quite a bit of the law enforcement equipment here was destroyed. So, you know it's very, very difficult for them to be able to get around and do things. So, you know, you've got to keep those things in mind as well. You know, we've got so many people that came in. You know, a lot of the local folks were here almost immediately. Several of the counties were here very quickly after it happened last night to give assistance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you kind of see people drifting in and out. Are people allowed to come in and even drift through their homes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the thing is, is what we're kind of holding it down is just the people that live here, you know, just the people that are established here. You know, because those are the only people that should be here in the first place because, obviously, we have things scattered everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you guys worried because this part of the state, also under the gun for severe weather today?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a huge concern. The one thing that has been brought to our attention is some of the equipment that could be brought in for the communications site, if it's put in and it gets wet, it's destroyed. So that's one of the problems that we have with the land lines. And there really is no place to put it because a lot of that has been destroyed as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How about supplies? Do you have enough food, enough water, how is that --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Red Cross is here and they're taking very ample care of everything. Like we said, for those people that are in need, all they have to do is get in contact and go to one of the central areas here, Dylan's parking lot would be the best, and they will provide you assistance. They'll take care of you, so that's what we're trying to do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We obviously have a lot of people who are calling in to the various TV stations, newspapers, wanting to get in touch with a family member they're concerned about. What would be your advice to do at this time?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Patience. Because right now we just do not have communication enough established for that to be done. There's just no way to do it. You folks, you can look at the devastation, and you realize why. There's just nothing left in a lot of these areas here. You know, this is one of the better areas, and you can see there's pretty heavy damage even here. This is kind of the outside of the path.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there some assistance from the National Guard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, there is. They're on scene now. Also we have several, several different units that are here. We've got a lot of major units from Topeka. They brought over several from the area National Guard, and they're here, and they're helping already and they're establishing. They're going to help on the checkpoints and also with recovery efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is FEMA here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe they are as well, yeah. I'll tell you honestly folks, I'll have to go back and I'll have to check a little bit further because people -- as soon as the sun came up, a lot more people started arriving. I know the Kansas National Guard, they brought in a command vehicle that's parked over at the K-Dot lot right now. Also, the general is here, they came down on a helicopter and I know that they're going to go ahead and establish. I believe that they took some of the city staff up to try to get a little bit better idea from the air. So, that's where we're at right now. OK? Like I said, some of the others, it's a little bit sketchy. I have no idea of the whole list, and I don't want to start naming names of people that are here because I'll miss somebody, and that's not fair to them. That is not fair to them. OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you keeping track of additional fatalities in other counties here? Is this a central area? Because we're hearing as many as four at this point. Can you confirm that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the thing is, is I'll have to get with my captain and with our folks and see exactly. All I'm familiar with is just what's happened here. I know that some of the troopers that were here, they're going to return to some of the other areas and help with some of the other devastation that's taken place.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have three confirmed at this point?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. All I knew about was the one here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you're still on that one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just know about the one here. You know that's the thing, and I don't, we haven't had an update because, ma'am, the problem is, we don't get anything in. The only thing we know is what happens right here. And it's very difficult for us to get information coming in. We don't have phone service, we don't have contact. You guys probably have better contact right now in some of the instances. We've got a lot of people scattered. We're trying to get that a little bit more established.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's the problem with the communications among the agencies? I thought part of this whole terrorism preparedness was so that different agencies could talk to each other. Are we not there yet?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, look at the devastation, ma'am. A lot of that has been destroyed. Some of the towers that are key to the communication, they went with the storm. So, you know, you've got to cut us a little slack on that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was just asking, just asking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. Because you know the thing is, when the equipment is destroyed, it's not going to work. It's not going to function. So, that's the concern we have there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So as for fatalities here in Greensburg --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, the king is, just before I left, I talked to this administrator and he said there's been no change. So, whatever numbers you have, that's what we established. I knew of the one at the time, I don't know if there's been any more recently. I don't know. OK, and with the rest of the storm, I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would the National Guard people know that are here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll make contact and like I said, we're --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is Sharon here, do you k now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sharon Watson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well I'll try to make more contact and see if I can get some more information. The thing is, when I came over today or this morning right now for, is just to try to establish patience. We're doing the best we can and as we get in numbers, we're going to bring the command van over here and as soon as we get stuff, we're going to have a little bit more available to you, OK.

NGUYEN: All right, well we do have some new numbers for you. CNN has spoken, again, with Sharon Watson, who is the Kansas Emergency Management spokesperson, and she now says there are seven confirmed deaths in this tornado. Two different counties in Kiowa and Stafford county. Six in Kiowa county, one in Stafford county. But all of this is near the Greensburg, Kansas area.

As we were listening to that state trooper, one of the key elements that he was telling us is that communication is pretty much nonexistent in this town and you can see why. A lot of the town, somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of it has been just devastated by this storm. Everyone is being told to evacuate, if they haven't already. But search teams are going door to door at this hour, still trying to make sure that everyone is OK, that everyone is accounted for. If they do need some medical assistance, to get them to the nearby facilities. There is no electricity in this town, there is no water in this town. Right now it's really a search and recovery operation.

HOLMES: And the word from him, his direct quote was there's just nothing left, talking about several areas of this town, a town of around 1500 people that has just been devastated, is the word we've been using. And certainly seems appropriate after we've seen these new pictures from the air today. So a lot more developing in this story. And again as we say now, seven deaths being confirmed to us from Sharon Watson from the emergency management there. We are continuing to follow this story, and that coverage will continue right after we take a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you rebuild? All of Main Street is gone, both of our schools are gone. So, I guess that's what we're thinking, where do we go from here?

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: That is a big question today.

HOLMES: That is the big question. That is certainly on a lot of people's minds in Greensburg, Kansas. How do you go on? But more immediate needs right now, just trying to make sure everybody has been accounted for, everybody is safe and everybody who has been injured has been attended to. That is the immediate need in Greensburg where this is some of the newest video we are getting out of there. The daylight pictures of the devastation in this town, some 75 to 90 percent are the estimates of how much of this town has been damaged. We'll say hello to you all again here from Atlanta, Georgia, where we've been covering this all morning long. I'm T.J. Holmes.

NGUYEN: And I'm Betty Nguyen. We have a lot to tell you about, because just ruin and rubble, that is everywhere you look in Greensburg, Kansas. This video coming in to CNN. At least seven people were killed after a monster tornado swept through the town, that is according to the Kansas City emergency management office. Want to give you some new video now of one of the two high schools in the area, just flattened. The storm also destroyed city hall, the water tower and most of the commercial district. The city administrator says he does not think there is a business left downtown. Can you imagine? Well the mandatory evacuation is in effect, which means many residents will end up in shelters. And just moments ago we heard from a representative of the Kansas State Police.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go ahead and we're trying to sift through everything and clear everything as we go. So that's where we're at right now. Like we said, it's very difficult, a very difficult situation because communications, they're just nonexistent. You know, it's impossible right at the moment. That's kind of where we're at now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about missing persons? Are you guys aware that there are some people missing and may be trapped?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What they're trying to do now is - (END OF VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: All right, well, our Reynolds Wolf has been taking a look at these pictures for us this morning, the newest ones we're getting from the sky. Reynolds you were chasing tornadoes not long ago. You study this stuff. What can you tell, or what are your impressions just from looking at the devastation?

WOLF: Well the fellows that are working with the National Weather Service that are actually going to go and survey all of this footage from high above, just like you saw from the video there, are far more intelligent than I'll ever be. But just from what I can garner from those views, I would definitely say we have a tornado there. The strength of it, enhanced fujita, F5, is it an F4, is it an F3? It's hard to say at this point. Someone else is going to make that determination, but the bottom line is people are suffering today. I mean this community has been -- much of it has just been wiped off the face of the earth. And they're going to have a very tough time and our hearts go out to them.

One great aspect of this story is that there was at least some warning, so people were able to take shelter, they were able to take cover. Again, we've heard the number of fatalities this morning, I think we started off with just one or two. Now, obviously, that has grown and may even continue to grow a bit more, that number. But it could have been far worse. It could have been far, far worse. One thing about these storms when they do develop, they develop so quickly. They also dissipate very quickly. They're highly unpredictable. Although we can tell when we have a super cell thunderstorm that may spawn a tornado, there's still a lot of mystery shrouding these storms and there's no mystery though that this area was certainly hit by something big definitely, that tornado.

(WEATHER REPORT)

NGUYEN: We're going to get some more information on that devastation. CNN.com's Nicole Lapin has been checking the Web sites for the latest information. In fact, a lot of these local affiliates have been streaming their news via the web and I'm sure that you're learning a lot more.

NICOLE LAPIN: That's exactly what they're doing, they're streaming it for us, so we've been listening in. The story right now on the ground is helping. Strangers helping strangers, family helping family. There's actually this one story I want to tell you about really quickly of this convenience store owner who actually brought in a group of people who were all scattered around his store, brought them into the freezer to seek coverage. So let's listen in really quickly to what their live streaming pictures are right now from KWCH.

(BEGIN STREAMING VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- early morning hour, relatively speaking when it comes to severe weather for parts of western Kansas. We're taking you back to 8:45 now and we'll of course get that new watch to you when it comes out. That was the storm that raced through Greensburg and moved off to the north and northeast. We'll see where those additional fatalities, unfortunately, have come from. But I would suspect they've been from the northeast of Greensburg as that long-track tornado and long-lived tornado moved in that direction. Here's the path and here's what happened last night. You'll see the characteristic hook echo on the radar. The tornado right now affecting --

(END STREAMING VIDEO)

LAPIN: On the ground right there in Greensburg bracing for more wicked weather. And as we were listening in to their live streaming coverage, we picked up an interesting fact. Josh Levs was talking about the reality check of tornadoes around the world really, but Kansas is actually ranked third for frequency in tornadoes and eighth in frequency of deaths, so this is a hub, and as we keep hearing the death toll rise, this clearly makes sense, and it resonates directly for all of the people there on the ground. So we continue to hear their stories and we continue to bring those anecdotes to you from our affiliates. Betty and T.J.?

NGUYEN: Well that it is right there in tornado alley and gosh, just looking at the damage there, we're going to have so much more on what is not standing and just looking at this, much of the town is in that category. Some 75 to 90 percent of that town just simply devastated, receiving heavy damage because of this tornado. So we're going to get much more on that coming up.

HOLMES: We're also going to be talking to someone who was chasing this storm, who was there last night, a storm chaser. We'll have him on the phone with us and get his impression and his firsthand account of what was happening on the ground last night. Stay here with CNN for continuing coverage of the storm that struck Kansas. And again, the word is from emergency management officials there, that seven people have been killed. Stay here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLMES: We continue to follow this devastation out of Greensburg, Kansas, and we want to get a firsthand account now of what it was like when that tornado hit in Greensburg. Allan Detrich is a storm chaser who witnessed that storm, he's on the phone now with us from Dodge City, Kansas. Sir, thank you for being with us again. Have you been able to see these daylight pictures?

ALLAN DETRICH, STORM CHASER: No, we haven't -- actually, we were just trying to catch up on a little sleep. We pretty much spent the whole night up.

HOLMES: Well I appreciate your time here. Give us an idea of what you were able to see last night. Did you have a sense -- I know you all carry your radars. And so you're trying to chase these things, did you see a bull's eye, essentially, on Greensburg, Kansas, and is that why you're headed that way?

DETRICH: Well we were following the storm. We were coming back kind of from Great Bend. We had ventured out there earlier in the afternoon and we were coming back and we just saw this immense, immense storm blow up. We were coming back, and we headed towards the south, and it was just too intense to get that close to, but even though we didn't try to get close to it, we ended up, you know, skirting the tornado pretty much. We ended up two or three miles from the town and ended up going in to help, you know, search and rescue and things like that.

HOLMES: As you watched it and you were talking about just how intense it was, did you have an eerie feeling or a bad feeling, could you tell that a town was getting hit or, did it just give you a bad feeling when you saw how intense the storm was?

DETRICH: It wasn't hard to tell that bad things were happening when we were coming south down 183. Alls we saw was insulation, you know, tree limbs and all kinds of things blowing across the road there, about 120 miles an hour. So you knew something bad had happened.

HOLMES: How wide of a storm, were you able to make a determination at all how wide this storm may have been, this tornado?

DETRICH: Well the town is pretty much totally gone so I would assume it's probably half to three-quarters of a mile or could be even more, it's hard to tell. Like I said, it was dark when we went through, but most of the town is gone.

HOLMES: You said it was dark, but were you able to see at times a funnel? Could you see that tornado itself, a wedge tornado as it's being described to us? We've seen different pictures of it now from our different i-Reporters and things, but were you able to actually get a visual of this tornado?

DETRICH: When we went back and recalled where we were that night, we were pretty much almost too close to get a vision, see what that whole thing looked like in the lightning. It was just a horribly big storm.

HOLMES: You're a storm chaser. You've seen one like this before or is this one of the bigger ones you've covered?

DETRICH: Yeah, the devastation is on par with the May 3, 1999 tornado that hit Oklahoma City. It's just, there was nothing left of that Main Street in Greensburg.

HOLMES: Allan Detrich, a storm chaser who was on this storm last night, that we now know has devastated Greensburg, Kansas. Mr. Detrich, like I said, like you said, it's been a long night for you all and try to get some sleep, but I appreciate you giving us a minute and sharing your thoughts and your experience with us and our viewers. Thank you so much.

DETRICH: We're back out on the road again in another hour.

HOLMES: All right, well hopefully we won't have to be talking to you again bout more devastation tomorrow sir, but you all be safe.

DETRICH: All right, thanks a lot.

NGUYEN: But he does have a good point because storms are still rolling through the mid section of the U.S. There are some watch boxes out there and we'll talk to Reynolds Wolf about that. In fact, I think we have him up right now. Talk to us about these storms because they have rolled through this area. You've been on the hunt for these tornadoes. You know what they can do, the devastation, and how close they can come to just ripping lives apart and apparently looking at this video, they have done that in Greensburg, Kansas.

WOLF: Oh no question about it. Today, again, a very busy day for storm chasers. And coming up, I'm going to let you know exactly what it takes to go out there and chase these huge storms. At the same time, we're going to take a look at the weather outbreak for today, what you can expect into the central plains. That's all moments away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: All right, check it out. Starting this week and continuing through the rest of the year, CNN is shining a spotlight on some very special people. Each one has a remarkable story and each is an example of how a single person can turn their personal vision into a world for better. We are calling them the CNN heroes.

HOLMES: Yes, and one of them, James Burgett was once homeless and once a drug addict. Today, he's helping others on the road to recovery. And what's remarkable is how he's doing it, by helping to save the environment. He is today's CNN hero.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, this is take two.

JAMES BURGETT: The corporate motto is obsolescence is a lack of imagination. If we don't reuse our waste now, it's all that future generations will have. My name is James Burgett, I've been collecting electronic waste and giving away computers for the last 13 years. I hire people that are outside of the normal employment stream. I teach them how to build the computers. I've been pretty much on my own since the age of 14. I slept on people's floors. I've slept in various places. I started pulling computers out of dumpsters, refurbishing them and trying to sell them. The objective was to fund my drug habits. Every time I made any money I admittedly stuck it up my nose or in my arm. I quit doing drugs because I found that giving away computers gave me a self-image that made it so I didn't need to do so.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's very adamant to give them away for free. This is one of the things that he wants to do and he can do and he will do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're not going to ruin it. This is your computer. If you ruin it, we'll give you another one.

BURGETT: We hire convicts, we hire people with psychiatric histories, we hire people with drug histories. All you really need to do is give them something that they can say, hey, I'm not a parasite today. These are the best feelings we've had since we did drugs. Just checking in Aaron. Do you have anything I need to know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's all gravy.

BURGETT: It's all gravy. OK. We take things that are considered broken and we then repurpose, refurbish. This applies to me, this applies to my staff, this applies to every computer we give away. Every single thing you see here, somebody somewhere decided it no longer had value, and they were wrong.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

NGUYEN: Quite a story there.

HOLMES: If you'd like to learn more about James Burgett's recycling program and how you can get involved, you can check out our Web site, cnn.com/heroes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: Well, if you are just getting up this morning, take a good look. CNN is keeping a close watch on the weather in the Midwest, where there is a high risk of storm activity today. Last night tornadoes swept through southwest Kansas, killing at least seven people and causing extensive damage to Greensburg and surrounding communities.

HOLMES: That storm chaser, images of Greensburg tornado was shot by Allan Detrich. We just talked to this storm chaser a short time ago and have been showing some of his video this morning. He described the scene as something out of a horror movie is what we've been hearing this morning. Our Reynolds Wolf chases storms. You know a thing or two about chasing storms in Kansas. You were doing this not too long ago actually.

WOLF: Absolutely. I was lucky enough to chase storms in both Kansas as well as Oklahoma. Here's a look at the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WOLF: I think he wants to get us closer but is afraid of getting us right in the direct path of the tornado.

I wish I could say that I magically drove to this very spot in rural Kansas and saw this funnel cloud, but it didn't happen that way. It was the end of a long day of driving and guessing and not knowing if we'd be successful. They don't call it storm chasing for nothing. It all began about 9:30 in the morning in Oklahoma City, where I joined up with storm chaser Scott Ganson and Andrew Oldeger. The weather was sunny, and it looked like there could be a little bit of activity later in the day. The trick was figuring out where.

(on camera): Well, the way things stand right now, it's early morning. The chase hasn't even begun yet. Outside we've got skies that are mostly sunny. That's important because the sunshine helps destabilize the atmosphere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're looking for where the storms are going to fire first, number one. And then you're looking for a combination of where the better sheer will be and where the better instability will be.

SCOTT GANSON, STORM CHASER: Which will give us really our best chance for severe weather really to ride along this I-35 corridor.

WOLF: So things could get pretty loud pretty quickly.

GANSON: Absolutely.

WOLF: So we headed towards Kansas. Well right now we're in Blackwell, Oklahoma. We've been driving north from Oklahoma City right along I-35. As you can tell the skies above, still very cloudy. What we're hoping for is a little bit of a break in the cloud cover. We're hoping to get some sunshine.

It was still early. Our best guess was to keep heading north. A few hours drive put us in Kansas and it was obvious that we were on the right path.

Now we're in Wichita, Kansas. We've just stopped for a bit of a pit stop to recharge the batteries and also take some promising observations. For example, look up in the sky. We're seeing a few places where blue skies are showing through. Sunshine is going to filter down to the earth, and what that is going to do is actually good in terms of storm chasing.

Our radar indicated that things were beginning to pop over the prairie. Now, sensing that we were about to get what we came for, we got off the interstate and drove northwest towards the town of Nickerson. Then at about 5:30 in the afternoon, pay dirt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it on the ground?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Woo! Yes!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well done. Oh, I love it!

WOLF: Turns out, this was just the beginning. We drove down the road a short distance to get a better view.

We want to get close, we don't want to get that close.

For the next hour, we watched the swirling black clouds as they poked towards the ground, pulled back and then dropped down again. It was incredible.

We're seeing the wall cloud then right out of the bottom we're seeing that funnel coming down. Contact has been made. Even though you don't see the funnel itself making that contact with the ground, you can see the debris being picked up, so that's your tornado.

(END OF VIDEOTAPE)

WOLF: And we may see more of those today as we make our way through the midday hours into the afternoon, perhaps into the evening. We have very similar conditions over much of the central plains and we'll keep you posted on the very latest right here on CNN. Back to you.

NGUYEN: Oh, what a busy day it's going to be.

WOLF: No question.

NGUYEN: Not just for us, but especially for the folks on the ground who really have lost so much in this tornado. We'll talk to you soon. Here's just another look, an aerial view of the damage. If you look very closely, many of those homes just flattened in the tornado that ripped through Greensburg, Kansas.

HOLMES: And we are keeping an eye on the situation there. CNN NEWSROOM continues in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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