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Tornado Threat from La. to NC; Blizzard Conditions Hit Midwest; Fallout From Scathing Benghazi Review; Fiscal Cliff Talks Hit Low Point; Intercontinental Exchange to Buy NYSE; New Details About Nancy Lanza; Bulletproofing Your Kids

Aired December 20, 2012 - 10:00   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: The next hour of CNN NEWSROOM begins right now.

Happening now in the NEWSROOM, blizzard warnings in the north, tornado threats in the south, and the worst of this massive storm is yet to come. Plus this --

You're watching bulletproof backpacks in action. You heard that right. One company says sales are up 500 percent and now they're releasing more bullet proof products to keep your kids safe.

And no chance these seat mates will ever talk your ear off. These are potatoes.

Boeing doing a bit of tuber testing on its onboard Wi-Fi, not kidding.

NEWSROOM starts now.


Good morning. Thank you so much for being with me. I'm Carol Costello. If your holiday plans include traveling through the heart of the country, buckle up, it's going to get rough.

Blizzard warnings blanketing much of the central United States from Colorado to Wisconsin. The massive storm has already dumped more than a foot of snow in the Rockies, and for the eastern half of the country, be warned, it is heading your way. In Des Moines, Iowa, winds hit speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, airport there already reporting nearly a foot of snow.

In Omaha, Nebraska, blizzard-like conditions overnight made driving there nearly impossible. I-80 was closed yesterday in Central Nebraska. That's a 150-mile stretch. Storms also reaching into the southern United States, we're getting a first look at damage there.

Trees mangled, trucks overturned, and a number of buildings damaged in Mobile, Alabama. The tornado warning has expired there now, but the threat now stretches from Louisiana to North Carolina.

So let's get the latest on the damage. Joining me by phone is Ronnie Adair. She is the director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. He, I apologize, sir, because I know a Ronnie and she's a she. But welcome, we're glad you're here with us this morning because I know you're busy.

RONNIE ADAIR, MOBILE COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (via telephone): No problem, thank you very much.

COSTELLO: Tell us -- well, tell us what it's like there now where you are in Mobile.

ADAIR: Well, it's clearing up right now. We've still got some, you know, rain patches coming through and so forth. But it should clear up by noon or a little after. The weather service has just deployed a team to go out and look at the damage to see if, in fact, it was a tornado or straight line winds or just severe weather.

The front came through around 4:30, between 4:30 and 5:00 this morning and major damage along the corridor on I-65 between the city of Mobile and Pritchard, up that area.

COSTELLO: We're just looking at pictures of the damage. The winds were so strong that cars overturned at car dealerships?

ADAIR: Right. The Mercedes Benz dealership here right by the interstate. I haven't seen any cars overturned, but I noticed a lot of the light poles and stuff have fallen on several of the vehicles. Luckily, a lot of the companies, the industry in the area hadn't gone to work yet.

So you know, some of the panel trucks and those kinds of things were turned over with the high-profile and winds pushing on them, and a lot of roof damage, some of the houses had roof damage.

First responders had to go in and help some people out, you know, that took refuge in their bathrooms and that kind of stuff. But as of this point, we've had no reported fatalities or major injuries.

COSTELLO: And that's the best news of all. Ronnie Adair, thank you so much. We'll let you get back to work. We appreciate you being with us this morning.

Now to Chicago, here's a live look outside of Chicago right now. As you can see, no snow yet, but high winds are already impacting flights at O'Hare Airport. In fact, that's where Ted Rowlands is now. He joins us by phone. So, Ted, have flights been canceled?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes. Several flights have been canceled, a lot of delays here, as well, Carol, it's not so much the weather here in Chicago. That's coming in a few hours and it's going to make what is already a difficult situation worse.

It's the weather in other areas, destinations in Iowa, Wisconsin, all canceled then there are delays from airplanes trying to come in here from Denver and other places out west as this monster storm moves across the country.

So we're seeing a handful of cancellations, a lot of delays and a lot of people scurrying to try to get on flights now while they can. United has waved their change fees for anybody wanting to alter their travel plans because as this system moves forward, we're expecting it to hit around 4:00 this afternoon.

It's going to be nasty with blizzards -- a blizzard, high winds, and also heavy, heavy snow. So the calm before the storm here in Chicago, but it's already starting to take effect in terms of travel delays.

COSTELLO: It's interesting how public officials have been reacting to this coming storm. In Wisconsin, there's already a state of emergency there and the weather's not even, you know, all that bad yet.

ROWLANDS: Yes, well, Wisconsin's been getting hit. We've been getting rain. They've been getting snow all night and the high winds. So they're already feeling the effect up there, places like Green Bay, just north of Madison.

They are getting heavy, heavy snow, and it's the winds, and it's the whiteout conditions, traveling, especially on the roads is very dicey right now in Wisconsin.

And again, we're expecting that to transfer down to the Chicago area in the next few hours. Iowa had a horrible night. It was a tough storm and it's going to put a damper on a lot of holiday travel.

COSTELLO: You got that right, sadly. Ted Rowlands, thanks so much. Let's head to our meteorologist, Alexandra Steele now because the storm is going to affect a whole lot of people and a whole of lot of states.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely. At least six states were in blizzard warnings. And Ted talks about Iowa and Wisconsin, this is the big picture. But you can see, all ensconced in white for the most part. Near blizzard conditions, meaning the snow's coming down, winds gusting between 40 and 50 miles per hour.

And Ted was at the airport in Chicago. For Chicago, the worst is yet to come. We are going to see a changeover from rain to snow at about 7:00 tonight. And then the winds kick on in. Here's the big picture, an energetic powerful robust storm, pretty classic in nature.

The northern tier, it's snow, of course, but severe weather, of course, we talked to Ronnie in mobile, when you look at that damage, looked like an EF-1 tornado ran through. We still do have tornado warnings posted for Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.

These storms moving northeast at 50 miles per hour so these very strong storms capable of producing a tornado when you look at the video, it certainly looks like they have, but again, emergency management heading out there to assess the damage.

And you look at the damage and then you determine if it was a tornado that moved through. All right, so when is it going to end? That's what you want to know. Here's the forecast model this morning. Chicago is still in the rain. Tonight at 7:00, Chicago changes over from rain to snow. Believe it or not, Carol, it will be their first snow of the season, the latest on record, 290 days since the last snowfall.

So by tomorrow night you can see, there we go, during the early morning Friday, there's the 95 Corridor, New York, Washington, Baltimore, tomorrow morning is your rain, not snow, and then it moves all out for tomorrow afternoon, gets into Boston and a done deal by tomorrow evening.

COSTELLO: All right, just amazing that it hits just in time for Christmas travel.

STEELE: I know it. Can you imagine?

COSTELLO: Thanks, Alexandra.

Two State Department officials, employees of Hillary Clinton testified this morning before House and Senate committees after that blistering report on exactly what went wrong in Benghazi. The U.S. deputy Secretary of State for management and resources said this earlier this morning.


THOMAS NIDES, U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE, MANAGEMENT AND RESOURCES: We accept every one of them, all 29 recommendations. Secretary Clinton has charged my office with leading a task force that will ensure that all 29 are implemented quickly and completely. And to pursue steps above and beyond the board's report.

Task forces already met to translate the recommendation into actual 60 specific action items. We've assigned every single one to the responsible bureau for immediate implementation and several will be completed by the end of this calendar year.


COSTELLO: Total of four senior State Department officials have either resigned or placed on administrative leave in the wake of the investigation that looked into what led to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador, Christopher Stevens.

Also on Capitol Hill today, the fiscal cliff negotiations are, well, at best rumbling along. The House is set to vote on Plan B, that's the backup plan. House Speaker John Boehner is proposing as a safety net if the fiscal cliff negotiations don't work out.

Boehner's Plan B, though, has little support among Republicans and even less support among Democrats and if it does manage to pass the House, President Obama has said he would veto it if it came to his desk.

Joining me now, senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. And just to explain to our viewers what Plan B is, John Boehner's plan would what? Raise the taxes on millionaires but protect tax cuts for everyone else.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. In the way that the speaker and the Republican leaders have written it and framed it is to keep tax cuts in place for everybody making up to $1 million, which the speaker says over and over in public and private conversations that means that 99 percent of Americans would still have their tax cuts in place.

You're right that the big scramble right now is for the speaker to get his own Republicans onboard to get those magic 218 votes to pass even Plan "B." I was just e-mailing with a Republican leadership source who said it's looking better for him to get that.

And in part, it's because they've added another vote today, Carol, which is on spending cuts, which from the perspective of many Republicans, that really is the key, of course, to shrink government by cutting spending.

COSTELLO: OK, so everybody says, these fiscal cliff negotiations, they're dead as a door nail and many people think it was because of those dueling press conference held by Speaker Boehner and the president.

BASH: You know, those talks were already stalled by the time the president and the speaker spoke one after the other. We should listen to some of what they said to remind our viewers just how the blame game is going.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, at some point, there's got to be, I think a recognition on the part of my Republican friends that take the deal.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: The president will have a decision to make. He can call on the Senate Democrats to pass that bill or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history.


BASH: Now, Carol, I am told there were no discussions, not even an e- mail yesterday all day long between anybody on the president's staff and anybody on the speaker staff and very little done the day before even the day before that. These talks really are at an impasse.

There's hope, a little bit of hope that after the Republicans sort of get this tax rate vote out of their system, that's actually a term that a Republican lawmaker used with me that maybe that will open up the discussions once again on a broader level.

But there is increasing pessimism about those bigger talks and more kind of feeling that they're just not going to go anywhere now.

COSTELLO: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays, everyone. That's terrible. Dana Bash, thanks so much. The company that operates Wall Street's landmark, the New York Stock Exchange, may have a brand new owner. The Intercontinental Exchange will buy the New York Stock Exchange for $8.2 billion in cash and stock. The deal announced earlier this morning. Shares of New York Stock Exchange, NYSE Euronext are surging in today's trade, but the deal still needs regulatory approval.

Forget snakes on a plane, we're talking potatoes on a plane. Yes, these are potatoes, rows and rows of potatoes and they're sitting on a Boeing jet. Why, you ask? Well, let's answer the question how many potatoes, 20,000 pounds to be precise.

The airline, this is the why, the airline is using them to test the onboard Wi-Fi. A what? Alison Kosik, you're here to explain it all the science behind bag of potatoes on a plane.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: How humbling is this that we're just like potatoes, that I could put a sack of potatoes here and be at home watching the potatoes do their thing, right?

COSTELLO: People might like that.

KOSIK: That's a good one. I'm sure they'll appreciate that. The reason you're seeing these potatoes sitting in these airline seats is because these potatoes actually mimic the way the human body responds to electronic signals.

In fact, Boeing is going so far to call it an advance method and a breakthrough in testing wireless signals on a plane. So what you see what it was doing, using 20,000 pounds of potatoes as sit-ins, as stand-ins as humans.

And the point they were trying to make here is to make sure that the signal, the wireless signal is consistent and reliable because what happens, when people are in a plane and move around, the wireless signal can change and it can weaken.

If they didn't have the potatoes in the seats, Boeing would have to get dozens of people to sit there and you know how that is, sitting on a grounded plane for hours, nobody likes that, even if they're being paid to do that.

So, yes, instead of having people sitting there for hours, they brought in the spuds. In fact, they called this testing method spuds because it does actually stand for something, synthetic personnel using dielectric substitution. The potatoes, Carol, they were donated to a food bank.

COSTELLO: That warms my heart.

KOSIK: I'm glad it does.

COSTELLO: Thank you, Alison, for explaining that because I was wondering.

Using backpacks to protect your children -- yes, a demonstration of how state of the art material could help save lives and look at other bullet proof products that could soon be in a school in your neighborhood.


COSTELLO: You're looking at live pictures now obviously of Joe Biden. He's speaking in honor of Senator Daniel Inouye. He is lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda today. Inouye, the second longest serving member of the Senate. He died Monday at the age of 88.

He served Hawaii as a senator for half a century and as a congressman for three years before that. Earlier this morning, Republican House Speaker John Boehner made some remarks in honor of him.

By the way, only 31 people have lain in the capitol rotunda, the last was former president, Gerald R. Ford, that was nearly six years ago. And the last senator so honored was Democrat Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

As you know, Senator Inouye was a war hero and served his country for a very long time. And you see his casket being placed on the stand there in the U.S. capitol.

This morning, more grief and new details in Newtown, Connecticut, friends of the killer's mother says she spent her final days at a luxury resort in New Hampshire. She returned on Thursday night, just hours later her son killed her and then launched the deadly rampage at the school there.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, parents are thinking differently about how to protect their children. It may seem like an extreme measure, but some parents are even trying to bulletproof their children. Here's CNN's Miguel Marquez in Salt Lake City.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a disturbing sign of the times.

(on camera): You guys make inserts for children's backpacks?


MARQUEZ: Bullet-resistant inserts.

BRAND: That's correct.

MARQUEZ: This is one of them?

BRAND: That's correct.

MARQUEZ: Show us how they work.

BRAND: All right, so this is our military grade product.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): COO, Rich Brand, says in the last week, sales have jumped 500 percent and they're still climbing. Desperate parents seeking ways to protect their kids in the most extreme situations. The material will not stop high-velocity rounds like the ones used in Newtown, the three shots with a 9-millimeter at point-blank range.

BRAND: All the kinetic energy and penetration was actually absorbed with our armor.

MARQUEZ (on camera): Three small holes, the armor's a little stiffer, and the rounds are inside here?

BRAND: That's correct.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): And Amendment II is not alone. In Boston, Bullet Blocker promises your peace of mind is our business. In Austin, Texas, says sales are up 50 percent, new customers, schools and day care facilities.

Even the Columbian designer has a request for bullet-resistant garments for a toddler.

(on camera): People say you're profiting off of terror and horror.

BRAND: And that's the last thing that we wanted to do. I mean, this was something that we put out there at the request of parents trying to meet the needs.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Amendment II says its proprietary material lends itself to a product some teachers have asked for, a protective blanket.

(on camera): Because of the lightweight nature of the material that the company uses, they say it could be used as a mat in a school, for instance, and in an emergency, for protection.

(voice-over): At Salt Lake City's "Get Some Guns and Ammo" owners say protective gear won't stop a killer, only another gun will.

STUART WALLIN, OWNER, GET SOME GUNS AMMO: If you knew every teacher in the school had a gun, I think you would think differently about your little plan.

MARQUEZ: Since 1995, Utah has allowed teachers to carry concealed weapons, the law is yet to be tested, but after Newtown, anything seems possible. Miguel Marquez, CNN, Salt Lake City.


COSTELLO: Our talk back question for you this morning: How should Nancy Lanza be remembered? Back after a break.


COSTELLO: Now it's your chance to talk back on one of the big stories of the day. The question for you this morning: How should Nancy Lanza be remembered? The memorials, the makeshift vigils always the same, 26 victims.


OBAMA: We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children, and six remarkable adults.


COSTELLO: Twenty six Christmas trees, 26 candles for the 26 innocents who died needlessly never in the same breath do we hear mention of Adam Lanza's first victim, his mother, Nancy Lanza. She was shot four times in the head while sleeping, and by most accounts she was a caring woman.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was a great friend, very sincere, very, very giving person. Give you the shirt off of her back if you needed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've seen a lot of things in the media about her being this survivalist wacko. That was not her at all. She taught the boys how to use the guns responsively. Safety was paramount always.


COSTELLO: We don't know how Nancy Lanza dealt with her troubled son. But yet, what if as some reports suggest she was frightened by what he might do. He was an adult. She had no legal power over him. There are people who sympathize like Liza Long who wrote a blog, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," details her struggle with her own 13-year-old son.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sometimes for no apparent reason, he will just turn into this absolute raging -- I -- I don't know how to describe it. You'd have to see it to believe it. I stopped and said to myself, you know, this isn't normal. This isn't the way that my younger children should have to live. And, I have to face up to the fact that I have a sick son and we need help.


COSTELLO: Some in Newtown consider Nancy Lanza a victim. Should she be included in the many memorials being held in that town? After all, she may have been a wonderful person, but she did enable her troubled son to get a hold of a semiautomatic assault rifle. And we all know what happened next.

Talk back today. How should Nancy Lanza be remembered? Your comments later this hour.

Everyone would likely agree if we could do something to stop the shootings inside our schools, we should. But does that mean we need to arm teachers inside the classroom? Ten states now considering that. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)