Return to Transcripts main page


Tornadoes Hit Indiana and Kentucky; Critical Injuries in Chattanooga Area; Big Turnout for Iran Elections; Tornado Outbreak Ravaging Midwest, South; Tennessee Tornado Warnings; Outrage Over Limbaugh "Slut" Remark

Aired March 2, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: A massive new tornado outbreak, multiple twister touching down in multiple states. New details are coming in of injuries, extensive damage from this ongoing emergency.

Also, CNN is inside Iran for the first parliamentary election in three years. The last votes sparked deadly violence. What will happen this time?

And Rush Limbaugh calls a contraception advocate a prostitute and worse, drawing condemnation from fellow Republicans. Rick Santorum says the comments are absurd. And now the White House is also being drawn into the uproar.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get right to the breaking news, a huge tornado outbreak stretching from Alabama to Indiana and beyond. Millions and millions of Americans are under tornado watches right now, tornado warnings as well. Professional storm chasers have been following these twisters for us all afternoon, providing dramatic images of an unfolding disaster.

New tornado reports are coming in literally by the minute, with Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and other states all seeing multiple touchdowns only in the last hour. We also have this video coming in from Evansville, Indiana. And it's far from over. Storms are on the move. The destruction could go on for hours.

Let's bring in Mayor Jim Coppinger of Hamilton County in Tennessee. That's where Chattanooga is located.

Mayor, set the scene for us. Tell us what's going on in your county.

JIM COPPINGER, MAYOR OF HAMILTON COUNTY, TENNESSEE: Well, we did have a touchdown of a tornado that has been confirmed.

And as a result of that, we do have multiple injuries. Fortunately, to date, we have no fatalities. We do have people that we are currently trying to be able to make contact with. As you can imagine, there's a lot of debris. We have large trees down that are covering over the access roads to get to people. So, you know, we're just working diligently at this hour to try to make sure that everyone is accounted for and that hopefully we will escape without any serious injuries or fatalities.

BLITZER: Did it hit a relatively populated area or more of a rural area, and how far from Chattanooga?

COPPINGER: Well, actually, it's right at the city limits of the city of Chattanooga, just beyond there in an unincorporated area in county, did hit -- originally, it looked like a direct hit at a boat dock arena -- or marina, I should say, and then went up into a populated area. But it's pretty heavily populated, but then again, it is in a rural part of our county.

BLITZER: Were the folks prepared? Did the warnings go out? What was the basic preparation?

COPPINGER: Well, unfortunately, this was a weather systems that just popped up. It wasn't something that was predicted.

Actually, there is a prediction later on this evening and tonight of severe weather, but this was a cell that kind of popped up in the area. And as a result of that, I mean, people were notified to the best of our ability. But then again, there -- this kind of devastation, when you take a direct hit in the line of the tornado, it's really hard to prevent any injuries or certainly not any loss of property. And we had significant loss of property.

BLITZER: We're getting this information in from the chief of emergency management in your county, Bill Tittle, telling us that at least 40 to 50 homes in Hamilton County have significant damage that we know about. It looks like at least 24 reported injuries.

As you point out, at least no reported fatalities right now. Is there any new information beyond that?

COPPINGER: Not at this time.

Of course, obviously, the number of damages to homes and also injuries reported of people, we expect that number to climb, but not significantly. We have been into this event for about three hours now, so hopefully we're making some inroads in terms of being able to account for everyone.

BLITZER: Does it look lie the tornado area, the severe weather in your county is over with, or is it still unfolding?

COPPINGER: Well, it's still unfolding, actually.

And we're just hopeful that there's some weather changes to where it doesn't have as significant an impact as it did earlier today.

BLITZER: If you could stay with us for a few moments, Mayor, I would be grateful.

Rob Marciano, our meteorologist, is in the Chattanooga area right now. I would like him to bring us up to speed on what he's seeing. And, Mayor, I think he probably has a question or two for you as well.

Rob, first of all, tell us where are you and what you are seeing.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, like the mayor described, we are northeast of Chattanooga, in a town called Etowah, which is -- it's a community of about 20,000 people. It's a really nice suburb, basically, of Chattanooga.

And you mentioned 40 to 50 homes damaged, in some cases like the one behind me, completely destroyed. The gentleman who lives in this home thankfully, and his wife were not home when the storm came through. That would have been a tough one to ride out. They have lived here 30 years. There he is, and he is a Navy veteran.

But you see beyond the foundation of that home, across that lake, more damage behind. The path of this thing is about 200 yards wide, Wolf. And not only are we seeing substantial damage to homes, but trees are snapped in half, substantial old growth, decades-old trees torn in two by, my guess, at least an EF-2, if not potentially an EF-3 storm.

And when we came in here, there are basically two ways to get to some of the damaged area. The first road that we -- access road that we encountered, we were not allowed down. And that was a little bit scary, because EMTs were setting up triage units there. At that point, we had heard that there were six to eight critical injuries, 10 not so serious.

And I'm happy to hear from the mayor that he doesn't anticipate many more than that.

But, Mr. Mayor, tell me about your constituents. I have only had a few minutes to talk to just a handful of them, and they're certainly rattled. But there's this urgency to get these roads cleared, and in order to get the vehicles where they need to go. How are your emergency personnel keeping up with all these trees and power lines that are down on the roads?

COPPINGER: Well, in answer to your question, we do have a tremendous amount of response and resources being dedicated to that area.

And we do have a number of people that have reported with the chain saws. It's been obviously our public works crews out there on the scene in order to try to remove some of the heavier trees that are down in that area and clear the debris. And again we asked people to be patient.

It's going to take obviously a while to be able to clear everything to be able to get to everyone. But the main arteries, one of the main arteries up there, I was just told that Snow Hill Road has been opened from start to finish, so that's going to help us significantly.

And then we will just continue to work diligently, as long as it takes, to be able to get back to as close to normalcy as we can, but that will take days, weeks, months and out into the future to be able to do so.

BLITZER: Mayor, this is Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

As you can see, Rob Marciano is on the scene for us. If you have a question for him, I know you're probably not close to where he is, go ahead and ask him a question, because he's our meteorologist, our severe weather expert. He can probably give you some up-to-date information.

COPPINGER: Well, I am in the emergency operations center here in Hamilton County. We do have direct contact with the National Weather Service.

As you can imagine, if you have been in an emergency operating center, there's a number of screens up that are making the predictions for us. Part of his outlet is certainly one of them that we rely on being able to make that determination of predicting what will happen out into the night.

But, again, you know, it's a cooperative and coordinated effort that happens with a number of first-responders and resources such as the National Weather Service helping us to make those decisions.

BLITZER: There you can see Rob Marciano.

Chad Myers is also with us, Mayor, and he's our severe weather expert, our meteorologist at the CNN Center.

Chad, I know you have a question for the mayor as well.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Mr. Mayor, now things that are slightly torn apart in your community will get hit again.

Is there a danger to get people out of the areas that have been hit and not let them clean up? Are you going to stop that process and make them to get to shelters or what's going to happen in the next couple hours?

COPPINGER: Well, as you know, it's very (AUDIO GAP) where these storms -- you know that more so than I do.

Again, these emergency responders, they're accustomed unfortunately to the dangers that arise every day in their day-to-day operation. At the point in when it becomes that they're in imminent danger, when warnings are given, we will certainly put them on notice to be certain to take cover.

But again we're hopeful that the weather does miss us. But in event that we give a warning, we will certainly put them on notice and make certain that they take shelter.


BLITZER: I was going to say, Chad, if you could just give us an update, and if the mayor could hang with us for a couple minutes, just give us where these storms are now, because they're spread over not just in Chattanooga in one state. They are in a whole bunch of states.


BLITZER: Yes, pretty devastating.

I know, Chad, you have another question for the mayor, Jim Coppinger of Hamilton County in Tennessee. Go ahead, Chad.

MYERS: Well, the entire effort this morning -- I know it caught some people by surprise. But are you at all encouraged by the fact that the injuries that you have are relatively minor, or at least there were no fatalities? Because that really did pop up in a matter of just an hour.


Well, any time that you get this kind of severe weather in the area and those kinds of wind speeds that -- I don't know what they're estimated at yet -- and you have got the devastation that you're seeing there, then obviously we're saddened by any injuries that any citizen sustained, but then again, I think we really are fortunate that we didn't have any loss of life to this point.

And so the short answer is that sometimes when you see these weather events occur, obviously there's just miracles and God shines upon us sometimes. And I think we avoided some of the serious fatalities today when you look at the devastation that occurred as a result of the tornado.


BLITZER: I'm going to let you get back to your work.


MYERS: That was probably 150 miles per hour. So they're very lucky that they didn't have the damage or at least the injuries and the fatalities they could have, because people took their tornado precautions properly, they did the right things and they got in safe places. We have to do that same thing tonight for all these other places as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Chad, hold for a moment.

Mr. Mayor, I'm going to let you go, but one quick question, because the other day, there were tornadoes, as you know, in Illinois. And it happened in the middle of the night around 4:30 in the morning.

These tornadoes that hit your community today, it was already daylight, it was already morning, people were awake, they were not in their beds. Is that right?

COPPINGER: That is correct.

We did night last night -- or the 27th, we had a number of tornadoes that touched down in our county that was devastating that did occur right after dark. And again we had fatalities as a result of that here. And so we are accustomed to that. The citizens here take it extremely serious when there's weather advisories that go out.

So, again, I think that because people do practice for this and train for this, our emergency responders and our citizens are aware of it. I think that as a result of that, today, we didn't sustain any fatalities to this point.

BLITZER: Mayor, thanks so much for updating us. Appreciate it very much.

COPPINGER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Jim Coppinger is the mayor of Hamilton County, Tennessee. That includes Chattanooga as well.

Good luck to all the folks out there. We will stay in close touch with you.

I want to go back to Rob Marciano. He's on the scene for us in the Chattanooga area.

Rob, you took some still photos, you and your crew, earlier in the day. And I want to show some of those photos to our viewers. Tell us what we're seeing. I don't know if you can see what we're putting on the air right now.

MARCIANO: No, I can't, but I saw it firsthand.

It just depends on the photo. Some of these homes are one- and two-story homes. Some of them are two and three-story homes with substantial garages and brick facades that have been built to withstand storms. And some of those homes have been torn up very, very badly.

So I would suspect -- just in the subdivision that we're in, and I can see across the lake to another neighborhood. And I went up and over this hill. They call it Snow Hill. And you can see as far as the eye could see more damage. So this was at least a mile-long. And it was in areas that are well-built.

How often do you see this in tornado zones? You know, a 12 by 4 right through a door. This is just part of a carport.

Now, Mr. Benting (ph) who lives here, again, he's 78-year-old Navy veteran, he will talk to us on camera, but right now he wanted to kind of gather his emotion and kin of take stock of the situation. His wife, God bless her, was out of work when the storm came, she wasn't in the house and he was down having a bite at Crystal's Hamburgers.

So, he's grateful he wasn't in the home because obviously it didn't fare well at all. He's been living there for 30 years. And folks who live in this community and probably across the lake have lived here for quite a while as well.

So, the buzz of chainsaw certainly has been prevalent, the scream of sirens and emergency vehicles has also been that way. That actually just in the last few minutes has somewhat calmed down, so maybe the urgency of getting the injured out, searching through homes, maybe that's beginning to ease up. We certainly got some comfort when you spoke to the mayor about what he anticipates as far as further injuries coming out of this area. But it is -- it is hard to imagine what this storm was like when it came through just three hours ago, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, you just think about a family, their whole life inside that house, ripped apart by this tornado. How sad is that. But at least they're OK. That's the good news.

Rob, we're going to get back to you. We're not going to leave this story. A lot more going on not just in Chattanooga, in that area, but throughout the Midwest and the South. We've got reporters and crews picking up, including some storm chasers as well. Stay with us for the breaking news coverage.

Also other important news we're following today in THE SITUATION ROOM: Rick Santorum, he weighs in on the controversy swirling around Rush Limbaugh and his remarks about a contraception advocate. My interview with the presidential front-runner, that's coming up in our next hour. You're going to hear what he has to say, and a whole range of issues.

Also, CNN is inside Iran for the first parliamentary elections in three years. Our own Ivan Watson is there. We'll go there.

And we're following, as I said, the breaking news, the huge tornado outbreak that's happening right now. We're going to stay on top of this unfolding disaster.


BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the huge breaking news of the tornado touching across the southern part of the United States. We've got a storm chaser that we're going to be speaking to momentarily. He's just west of Nashville. Dramatic developments under way right there.

But there's other important news we're following right now, including what's going on in Iran right now. Iranians are headed to the polls on this day.

And CNN's Ivan Watson is joining us from Tehran right now.

Remember three years ago, Ivan, they had elections, the aftermath turned deadly, turned ugly. What's the latest in Iran right now?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And the polls closed nearly two hours ago, Wolf. And already top Iranian officials are applauding what they say was a massive voters turnout, the interior minister saying this turnout shows you that Iran has infuriated and disappointed its Western enemies.


WATSON (voice-over): Election day in Iran. Lines of voters casting their ballots in the ornate mosques that serve as polling stations. More that 3,400 candidates are competing for some 290 seats in parliament.

BEHZAD, VOTER: No, I'm just going to vote out of chance. They're all good. It doesn't make any difference. They're all the same, all Hezbollah, religious, very nice, kind people.

WATSON (on camera): Which group do you think will win this election?

NASSER AHADI, VOTER: I think a group that know how to govern this country will win the election.

WATSON: Elections are a chance for the government to show that it enjoys the support the population in Iran. So, as people line up into polling stations, into mosques like this, they file past banners that have slogans celebrating the accomplishments of Iran's 33-year Islamic revolution.

(voice-over): For days, top Iranian officials have urged voters to flock to the polls. Candidates from the ruling establishment are calling this election vital.

"During the 2009 elections, we faced a great plot perpetrated against us by Western countries," says this lawmaker who's running for reelection. "They tried to sideline our system of government. So these elections are very important to show the people's support for this system."

After the last presidential election, street protests erupted when opposition candidates accused of government of rigging the results. Security forces crushed the demonstrations, and the candidates themselves are still under house arrest.

The opposition Green Movement is boycotting this election, as are some ordinary Iranians.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to take part in this election.

WATSON (on camera): Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say everyone has his own viewpoint. For example, someone says, OK, I like, you know, the system or someone says, no, I don't like, I'm opposite of the system.

WATSON (voice-over): Political analysts say the election field is dominated by conservative candidates known as principalists, which is fine for voters Leyla Khandan. She is a supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his political allies.

"I want to elect politicians who will create more jobs for young people and improve the economy," she says.

Rival governments may be beating the war drums in the Middle East, but this Iranian woman says she just wants more jobs.


WATSON: Wolf, Iranian state media is already claiming record turnouts of 64 percent of voters eligible participating. You're hearing a very different line from activists from that Green Movement crushed by the security forces in 2009.

We spoke with one art student from Shiraz (ph), doesn't want his name published, of course, for his own safety. And he said, quote, "What you see on Iranian TV is all propaganda. I'm not voting today, because my vote doesn't count and never has counted."

An engineer here in Tehran, he lamented that the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, are still under house arrest. He went on to say, "I feel like a coward that I can't go on TV and tell the world what is happening in Iran. I am ashamed" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch, Ivan. Thanks very, very much, Ivan Watson, in Tehran for us.

Breaking news here in the United States, a massive tornado outbreak, multiple twisters touching down in multiple states. New details are coming in of injuries, extensive damage from this ongoing emergency. I'll talk to a man who survived the storm.


BLITZER: Breaking news, I just want to update or viewers on what's going on in the Chattanooga area. You saw our own Rob Marciano do reporting for us from one area that's been pretty much leveled as a result of these tornadoes.

Authorities now have evacuated him and our crew and other journalists from that area. Apparently, it's still too dangerous for them to be there right now. They're afraid of more storms on the sway. So stand by, we'll reconnect with Rob Marciano and get some of what's happening in the Chattanooga area.

But joining us on the phone is Eric Fox. He's a storm chaser. He's driving down on -- correct me if I'm wrong, Eric, I-40. You're just west of Nashville, Tennessee, is that correct?


BLITZER: Eric, hold on a second, our cell connection is not so good right now. Maybe if you keep on driving, it will get a little bit better. Let me just update our viewers who maybe just be tuning in on what's going on.

A whole series of tornadoes, a lot of severe weather today in not in just one state or two, but at least half a dozen states.

Chad Myers, update our viewers right now on the what the latest information is because it looks like at least for certain parts of the country, the disaster is only just beginning.

MYERS: Certainly just beginning in many spots, haven't even seeing a cloud yet today, and the sun's out. That's a problem. The sun makes the ground warm. The warm air wants to bubble up, making bigger storms.

So, when we get back to Eric, I'll tell you where he is. Here's Nashville, Tennessee. Here's I-40. And that's the cell with that pink box, that pink box does mean tornado warning on it.

I have checked the rotation, it is not that impressive, but these storms come and go. They have been coming and going all day long.

So, let's start from the top and go on down. Columbus, Ohio, here, Dayton, Ohio, here --you had a storm with a tornado on it very close to Richmond, Indiana, a little bit ago. Now getting into Cincinnati, Ohio, that would be moving to Hamilton.

Every sometime you see a pink box, that's a tornado warning, which means that the storm is actually rotating enough that the Weather Service believes a tornado could get on the ground, or a tornado has already been spotted.

When you hear the word "watch" that's a small word, only five letters, not a significant as "warning," which is about eight letters. So if you take that warning and think about that's the biggest word, it's the more important word as well.

And the warning means that a storm is happening right now that could put a tornado on the ground at anytime. There's Louisville right there. Storm down just to your south. You did have some wind come through, but the tornado is now down to the south in the southern suburbs here of Louisville.

And then Elizabethtown, this is impressive, and I say that, Wolf, because it's all about itself. See how that one has a couple of other storms to fight against. When they have to fight all against them, they're not getting as big.

But when you're all by yourself right there like that one. That is going to be a monster. Bowling Green, not a tornado yet, but that one will just by the shape of it, I can tell.

Now up towards Nashville, this is the same storm we talked about before. There are more storms on the west I-40 as well. Down to the south into parts of Louisville into Louisiana and also into Mississippi and Alabama and then into Huntsville, another storm just your northwest on the ground with a tornado right there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Chad, stay with me because I want both of us to talk to Eric Fox. I think we have reconnected with him. He's a storm chaser just heading towards Nashville. I guess, you're just west of Nashville, Eric. Set the scene for us because I know you're streaming live video for us as well. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?

Unfortunately, I think we have lost our connection with Eric Fox. We're going to try to reconnect. He's a storm chaser near Nashville, Tennessee. It's an ugly situation not only in the Nashville area, the Chattanooga area.

We're going to continue to follow this story. Chad, stay with us. We're going to take a quick break. Much more on the breaking news, the tornadoes all across the south, the Midwest, much more when we come back.


BLITZER: Severe weather throughout the south and the Midwest. Tornadoes ripping apart areas in several states. Joining us on the phone right now, Mayor Mike Moore, he's the mayor of Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Mayor, thanks very much for coming in. Tell us what's happening in your community.

MIKE MOORE, MAYOR, JEFFERSONVILLE, INDIANA (via telephone): Well, we've had some pretty severe weather for the last several hours, and I had some devastating tornadoes come through a couple of the towns here right around Jeffersonville.

Henryville, a little community, about 12 to 13 miles north of here, had serious tornado damage. My understanding is the high school has been heavily hit, the community around there as well.

Also have the little town of Marysville around us that probably a community somewhere in the ball park of 500, 600. I understand from a county police officer, the term he used when he described Marysville was that town is gone.


MOORE: So we're -- there's sirens going as we speak, a lot of dark, angry skies looking out the window. You know, we are assisting where we can. I talked with my fire chief.

We have sent a couple trucks up to the Henryville area to offer help. We are on high alert with police, fire, and want to make sure that Jeffersonville stays intact.

BLITZER: It's a community, a city of about 45,000 you were telling me earlier. So you're not out of the woods yet. It looks like, the pictures we are seeing. It looks like the horrible weather. The severe weather is still a huge problem.

MOORE: Yes. It's dark. The wind is still out there. We're under severe conditions here. I've got my kids in the basement. We're trying to stay alert to anything going on around us, but yes, we've got severe weather ahead for the next couple of hours I believe.

BLITZER: So what advice are you giving the people in your area, in Jeffersonville and the other communities that surround it?

MOORE: I'm sorry. Say again.

BLITZER: What is the advice you're giving everyone? Stay put? Stay inside? Find a secure location?

MOORE: People need to get into their basements. Actually, the schools were afraid when school let out today, it was right when the storms were coming through. The schools were not letting the kids out of school to catch the buses.

I went to the junior high and got my two kids out of there, but anybody whose parents didn't went to pick them up, the kids were lined up in the halls with their hands between knees and you know, praying the storm didn't come through the schools.

BLITZER: Well, our heart goes out to all the folks there. Mayor, be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch with you. Mike Moore is the mayor of Jeffersonville, Indiana, the southern part of the state. Appreciate it very much.

I want to go back to Rob Marciano right now, our meteorologist and severe weather expert. He's in the Chattanooga area. Rob, I understand you have a survivor of this tornado with you?

MARCIANO: Yes, we just -- the last report was right in front of this home that was completely destroyed. The gentleman that owns this home, Mr. Don Benton, he's lived here for 30 years.

Mr. Benton, you're telling me that you're a former Navy veteran. You've been here 30 years retired, but you weren't here when the storm came through thankfully nor was your wife.

DON BENTON: That's right. My wife was working. I was down having lunch at Crystal's, thank the Lord.

MARCIANO: Thank the Lord for lunch, but you come back to your home and I noticed you just kind of taking stock of the situation to see what memorabilia you can find. What's going through your mind right now?

BENTON: A bit of everything. I'm grateful for some of the things we have to bring back some good memories, that sort of thing, but it is harder to clean up than the usual place. You know, but we're not by ourselves. We have so many others here.

MARCIANO: You're 70 years old. You've seen a lot in your full life. Have you ever experienced a storm like this?

BENTON: Not one this mean. But you know, in the Navy, we've seen a few, but, no, this is real-life stuff here.

MARCIANO: How is your wife doing emotionally, where is she now? BENTON: She's made arrangements for us, a place tonight, I think. I don't know how she's going to feel when she sees it. But, you know how women are about clothes and things. It's going to be tough.

MARCIANO: Don't get all sexist on me. What kinds of things have meant a lot to you?

BENTON: The things when I was in the service and some of the cups and things we used to have. You know, that that's when you had a happy hour.

MARCIANO: Well, you certainly seem to be in good spirits, obviously happy to have your health and your wife. What's going through your mind as far as what you do next?

BENTON: Definitely thank the Lord for sparing me as many people as he has, and I know that these things can all be replaced. But like everyone else here, it's going to take a while, take a lot of people in construction to help out, you know.

MARCIANO: Well, we wish you the best of luck, and your attitude is certainly inspiring. I'm glad you and your wife have a place to stay tonight. I hope you find the things that meet so much. Good luck and I'm sorry for your loss.

BENTON: Thank you for coming over. I hope everybody are not hurting anywhere and just it's startling.

MARCIANO: But you are in good spirits. Again, thank you.

BENTON: Thank you. Appreciate it.

MARCIANO: Amazing spirit, Wolf, as you're seeing right there. Mr. Benton and I talked about. He's the same age as my father, and a Navy aviator like my father was.

There are certainly fortitude and spirit there for the men who have gone through that. Anyway, the skies are getting dark north and west of my position, Wolf. It's going to be a long night.

We're not done with this yet. They're trying to clean up as much as possible and obviously get the folks who have lost homes into safe haven before the next round of storms comes through.

BLITZER: And more tornado warnings are on the way in other parts of Tennessee as well. Rob, thank you very much. Thanks for that interview. He's a remarkable man indeed. We wish him and his family only the best.

Much more on the breaking news coming up. Also my interview with Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate. That's coming up in the next hour as well. Lots of news happening today right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: A number of tornadoes ripping apart several areas in several states right now. I want to bring in Tommy Self. He's a storm chaser. He is joining us from Limestone County, Alabama, that's not far from Huntsville. Is that right, Tommy? Where exactly are you? Show our viewers what we're seeing?

TOMMY SELF, STORM CHASER (via telephone): Right now, I'm located just in north Limestone County, just northeast of Hathins, near the town of Elkmont.

The storm that we were on produced the tornado warning for Limestone County has raced off to the northeast and is actually outrunning me.

So for safety reasons, I'm not going to try to chase it down. I'm going to concentrate on the storm that's coming into Limestone County now out of Lawrence County, Alabama.

BLITZER: That looks pretty ominous. How worried are you because this is a dangerous line of work you're in being a storm chaser?

SELF: It is very dangerous. I've been doing this for 14 years. So I try to get myself safe, but I try to get as close as I can to get the most extreme footage possible. But I do stay at a safe distance because I don't want to put myself or anyone else in harm's way.

BLITZER: It looks like it's going from bad to worse, as bad as these tornadoes, the severe weather, the storms were earlier in the day. It looks like it's even getting worse right now. Is that your impression?

SELF: It is. I think the actual strength of this whole system may have been underplayed a bit, not thought through. We weren't thinking it was going to get this bad here.

They were really expecting the storms to come through, the stronger stuff to come through with the (inaudible) line as it push through later in the cold front through the region.

These super cells that are firing right now, I honestly did not expect this many tornado warnings today. I intercepted two large tornadoes earlier this morning when we weren't expecting tornadoes.

BLITZER: You've been chasing storms for a long time. Compare what's happening today with other storms over the years.

SELF: This one today, this system today compares to me basically April 8th, '98 the way that it was setup. It's hard to really put a comparison on any of them. A lot of people has talked about the comparison with this system from the original super outbreak in 1974 by the way it was set up.

Some have talked about it being as bad as this outbreak we had last year and it's hard to put a comparison on two events this close together. You really have to wait until it's over. Compare your damage with events of the past and input a word on it.

BLITZER: Tommy Self is a storm chaser. He's joining us from Limestone County in Alabama. Tommy, be careful over there. Stay in touch with us because we want to know what's going on.

But as I say, just be careful. Don't do anything overly reckless as I'm sure you won't. Thank you.

SELF: Thank you, guys.

BLITZER: All right, Tommy Self reporting. We'll take on top of the breaking news. Other news we're following as well. Much more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, a new warning for the Nashville area. Chad Myers is standing by. What's going on, Chad?

MYERS: Yes, this is the first one really for a major city like Nashville for today. The storm to your west, right along the interstate is rotating and is moving into Nashville proper.

Here's the downtown Nashville area right there and here's the interstate that goes off to your west and there is the cell right there. It was spinning for a while. We had the storm chaser on it. We couldn't get a hold of him. We kind of lost his signal.

Now we know and it wasn't really rotating that much then. Now we know, Wolf, that the storm is rotating significantly enough that a tornado warning has been issued for all of Nashville proper. There is the storm right there, very close to Kingston Springs.

And here's the tail or the kind of the hook of the cell right there, that's the most dangerous part of the storm. I bring you over here to the different colors. We do have red next to green. That means the storm is still spinning like this. That means the wind is going away from the storm, away from the radar site.

And into the storm here toward the radar site that's why the colors are different. That's why we know it's rotating and that's why we know that this is now a dangerous storm moving into Nashville at 50 miles per hour.

You're not really wants to be outside when this comes. You probably have another 15 minutes, but it's time to get you, the pets and the kids inside.

BLITZER: All right, good advice, excellent advice. Thanks very much, Chad. Don't go too far away. We'll stay on top of the breaking news.

We're also following other news, including a huge uproar over very controversial comments made by Rush Limbaugh. Now Rick Santorum is weighing in. He's calling Limbaugh's comments absurd. My interview with Rick Santorum in the next hour. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Here's the latest information coming in from the Storm Prediction Center, 22 active tornado warnings for 48 counties across the south and Midwest, 24 severe thunderstorm warnings, five tornado watches covering, get this, 12 states. We'll get back to the breaking news in a moment.

But there's some other extraordinarily important news going on right now and one involves a little bit of information involving Rush Limbaugh. It's not unusual for Democrats to be outraged by Limbaugh.

But now even some Republican leaders are condemning the crude remarks he made about a woman who spoke out in support of a health reform requiring free contraception.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash is here with details of what's going on in this pretty extraordinary, Dana. Update our viewers who perhaps have not been following it.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the update is that Rush Limbaugh spent a lot of time at his radio show today talking about this.

He is not backing down and neither is the very politically sophisticated Georgetown University student who has been become the face and Democrats unofficial spokeswoman for what they call the GOP war on women.


BASH (voice-over): Explosive comments even for Rush Limbaugh.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK RADIO HOST: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

BASH: Sandra Fluke is Georgetown University law student who appeared at a democratic event last week, arguing the Obama administration rule requiring free contraception is critical for women's health. We played Limbaugh's comments for Fluke --

SANDRA FLUKE, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW STUDENT: I think he was confused about what my testimony said, for starters. I didn't say that I should be paid for anything. What we were talking about was private insurance covering a medical need. It has nothing to do with the government paying for anything or taxpayers or anyone like that.

BASH (on camera): To hear someone like Rush Limbaugh with millions of viewers, call you a slut?

FLUKE: I think I probably felt, well, I know that I felt probably the way many women do when they are called those types of names. Initially hurt and then very quickly upset and just outraged because someone is trying to silence you. BASH (voice-over): Politically Limbaugh played right into the Democrats' playbook called GOP opposition to free contraception a war on women.

REPRESENTATIVE JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: I rise this morning to say to Rush Limbaugh, shame on you. Shame you on for being the hate monger that you are. Shame on you for being misogynistic. Shame you on for calling the women of this country sluts and prostitutes. I say to the women in this country, do something about this.

BASH: The House Democrats Campaign Committee tried to raise money from the issues, and Democrats circulated a letter demanding GOP leaders repudiate Limbaugh.

Friday morning, House Speaker John Boehner did just that, a rare slap at a powerful Republican mouth piece, with a dig at Democrats, too.

A spokesman saying the speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money of the situation. But Limbaugh is hardly backing down.

LIMBAUGH: The woman comes forth with this frankly hilarious claim that she's having so much sex and her buddies with her that she can't afford it, and not one person says, well, did you ever think about maybe backing off the amount of sex that you have? Did you ever think maybe it's your responsibility for your own birth control now everybody else's?

FLUKE: I would say that I don't think the women of America find it hilarious.

BASH: It's in the Democrats' political interest to keep this story going. She even got a call from President Obama.

(on camera): Were you surprised to get a call from the president of the United States?

FLUKE: Yes, it certainly wasn't on my calendar for the day, but I was happy to add that to the schedule. He thanked me for speaking out and being willing to do this, and for helping to magnify the voices of women around the country.


BASH: Now it's not just the House speaker calling Limbaugh's slut comment inappropriate, Wolf. The chairman of the committee that she was supposed to testify in front of, Darrell Issa, he said it is inappropriate.

But also hit back on Democrats saying that they are also attacking the witnesses he had. People who are from religious organizations saying that he -- that they were denigrating them.

So this is definitely not going to end on a presidential campaign trail. Mitt Romney walked right by our Jim Acosta when he asked him about, but I know you have an interview coming up with Rick Santorum. And he said that he believes that Limbaugh is being absurd.

BLITZER: Yes, he was very blunt and that interview is coming up in a few minutes. Dana, thanks very much.