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Severe Winter Storms; Obama Back to Work; Americans Want Compromise; Newspaper Publishes Gun Permit Holders' Information; Matt Damon Brings Clean Water

Aired December 26, 2012 - 11:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: You know you're going to get a lot of comments when it comes to guns, right?


LEMON: Did you have a good Christmas?

COSTELLO: I did. Thank you.

LEMON: Merry Christmas. In the Villa --

Hello, I'm Don Lemon. Ashleigh is off today. Violent, treacherous storms pounding the eastern U.S. Right now. also take a look at this radar image. Look at that Blizzard conditions from Southern Illinois across Ohio and then to the south, heavy rain in the Carolinas and Virginia.

This is on top of yesterday's mayhem -- which kicked up about 30 tornadoes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God. We need to go. It's right there.


LEMON: This ominous sight was videotaped from the interstate near Mobile, Alabama. The driver wisely stopped and turned around.

I want you to listen to the funnel cloud as it approached the city.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Christmas Day tornado going through Mobile. Oh, my God, look, that's a tornado. Oh, wow. Oh, Jesus, look at that tornado.


LEMON: Yeah, look at that. It caused a lot of damage and knocked out power to more than 20,000 customers. Incredibly, no one was killed, although at least two storm-related deaths were reported elsewhere.

But even nature's most destructive forces can have a beautiful side. The storm generated this end-to-end rainbow as it passed near Jackson, Mississippi.

Much to talk about this morning. Let's get straight to our Alexandra Steele. She's in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Alexandra, let's begin with the blizzard record-snowfall in Arkansas.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the legs on this thing, Don, are insane.

So, certainly one for the record books on myriad fronts on the snow side and on the severe side. So, Mobile, two tornadoes, one yesterday and then one five days before that. It was the greatest Christmas Day tornado outbreak on the records, for the record books since records have been kept.

In Denver, it was actually the first white Christmas in three years. Dallas, the four inches of snow, last time that happened, 1926. And in Little Rock, nine inches. Last time they had any measurable snow of that nature was in 1926, so it must have been a snowy year that year.

All right, so, here's the big picture. The snow side, on the backside and, of course, the severe side. The good news, though, the severe has moved east out of Mobile and out of Birmingham, out of Atlanta. It has pushed east now just to the 95-corridor, even east of that.

So, the areas impacted today with a potential for tornadoes, really the eastern Carolinas, from Raleigh down through Jacksonville and, believe it or not, even Tampa, potentially.

But it doesn't look like the threat will be nearly as severe as what we saw yesterday. But it only takes one, right? So, we know that. So just keep an eye on the sky for traveling.

Then on the north side of it, it's a snowy affair and one for the history books, to boot. All right, here looks like where the axis of the heaviest snow will be, today, tonight and in toward tomorrow.

Cincinnati, it's one of those I-70 corridor, so just south of Indy all the way to Dayton, to Cleveland and then to western New York. We're talking about a swath of potentially 6-to-12 inches, even more than 12 inches potentially in western New York.

So, from Albany westward, that I-90 corridor will be brutal. And of course blizzard warnings, we're seeing that and we have those because it's not just the snow. It's the wind that's such a dynamic factor with this storm.

And the wind impacting travel, not only today but we'll see it tomorrow and through tomorrow night, in the big cities, especially, even traveling now.

So, this is the forecast from tonight through tomorrow. Here's where that heaviest snow will be.

And, Don, all these ski resorts certainly have been beneficial with this snow and we'll see that really maybe a foot in the Green and White Mountains and in western New York.

LEMON: But if you're not skiing then ...

STEELE: That's right.

LEMON: ... if you have power, watch us. We'll get you through it.

Thank you, Alexandra.

So much more of this on current storm conditions, but first, let's get to Alabama, the scene of yesterday's terrifying tornado in Mobile.

Art Faulkner is the director of the state's emergency management agency and he joins me now by phone.

Thank you for speaking with us. I know you've been very business sip. Have you determined how many tornadoes touched down in Alabama yesterday?


Well, we -- I'm currently in Mobile at the request of Governor Bentley, came down to see exactly how much damage occurred here and we got multiple tornado sights across the state.

But I think the one word that could describe this morning for the citizens of Alabama is that we were "blessed." And, fortunately, we know of just a couple of injuries and no fatalities.

LEMON: OK, so, no deaths and you said just a couple of injuries. How serious are those injuries?

FAULKNER: Well, we do know that out of a tornado that hit in Pike County, which is just southwest of Montgomery, we had a couple of injuries and at least one of those individuals remains hospitalized.

LEMON: OK, are you going to seek any federal assistance? Do you need help?

FAULKNER: Well, you know, our emergency managers are, this morning, -- and first-responders are looking at the damage. I think it's a little bit early for us to tell exactly what the extent of that is, so we'll take our time throughout the evening and the night.

The first responders were focused on the individuals and their safety and making sure that we didn't have people trapped in homes. Then that will turn today to looking at exactly what kind of damage we have and whether or not we'll have enough to ask the federal government to come in and help.

But, certainly, we've been in this situation before and our local governments and the state will step up and do what we need to do for our citizens.

LEMON: Art Faulkner is the director of the state's emergency management in Alabama. We thank you for joining us.

We want to get to now to Robert Latham, the director of the Mississippi emergency management agency.

Mississippi's governor has declared a state of emergency. What's the latest there, sir?


Well, it looks like we've got 10 counties that have been impacted from the storms last night. More than 25 injuries have been recorded in those counties. Looks like we've got more than 40 homes that have sustained some type of damage, anything from minor to destroyed. Several businesses have been impacted, but none of the injuries are serious or life-threatening at this time.

But, right now, we're trying to complete our damage assessments to make sure that we're meeting the needs of the citizens with the first priority being to make sure those that have been impacted have safe and secure shelter with the cold weather that's now entered the state.

LEMON: All right, 10 counties, 25 injuries, you said none serious, so no deaths, no fatalities. Forty homes or so destroyed, either minor or completely destroyed or damaged -- 40 homes damaged, minor or completely destroyed.

What are you doing for -- how are you doing with power right now?

LATHAM: So far, we haven't had a lot of power outages. Some isolated power outages in those areas. Power is starting to be restored.

I think the biggest concern for us right now with the cold weather is that citizens will start doing things to try to keep warm. We encourage them to watch for downed power lines and be careful about heating sources and what they do, like space heaters or certainly, don't burn open fires in the building like with charcoal to try to heat.

So, we want to make sure that they have safe shelter for the cold weather that's entered the state.

LEMON: Robert Latham with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, thank you and best of luck.

Want to turn now to other news that we're following here, chilling new details emerging about the sniper who ambushed and killed two firefighters in upstate New York before shooting himself.

Police say 62-year-old William Spengler left behind a note saying he hoped to burn down his neighborhood and murder as many people as possible. Well, authorities say Spengler set fire to his suburban Rochester home and fired at firefighters as they arrived at the scene on Monday.

A charred body believed to be his sister's was found in the house she shared with him. Spengler was an ex-con who was convicted of beating his grandmother to death with a hammer in 1981.

Russia is one step away from banning Americans from adopting Russian children. Protesters gathered outside Russia's upper house of parliament before unanimously approving a bill to ban the adoptions.

The move is widely seen as retaliation for a law signed by President Obama imposing travel restrictions on Russians accused of violating human rights. The measure now goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin who's expected to sign it into law.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has signed the country's newly approved constitution into law. The upper house of parliament has convened its first session under the new charter.

The new constitution was approved with more than 63 percent of the vote in two rounds of voting, but turnout was low. The Islamist- backed charter has polarized the country and resulted in sometimes violent protests. Critics say it doesn't represent women, minorities and other groups.

There's a familiar face in the Japanese prime minister's office. The parliament elected outspoken nationalist Shinzo Abe to lead the country five years after he abruptly resigned.

Abe says his first mission is turning the country's economy around. He says he'll move to strengthen control of a group of small islands that both Japan and China claim. And he's calling for safety tests on all nuclear plants.

Abe is the leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. He's Japan's seventh prime minister in six years.


LEMON: Anytime you leave Hawaii, it is too soon.

But six days before the fiscal cliff, President Obama cutting short his Christmas vacation on the off chance he and Congress might be able to cut some kind of deal

He left, but Brianna Keilar is still there in Honolulu.

So, Brianna, when's the president leaving and why does he really expect to avoid the cliff?

He hasn't left yet. He's leaving, but you're still there.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right and I will be leaving, as well, when the president leaves, Don.

He is expected, we are -- he will be leaving tonight. That's local time. So, he'll be traveling overnight and arriving back in the D.C.- area late Thursday morning.

As you know, the Senate reconvenes tomorrow. so he'll be going back as that is happening. We heard from him last week as he was heading out to Hawaii. He said, see you next week, so we had a thought that this was probably going to happen, but he is officially now going back.

He said last week, Don, that he is still optimistic that something can get done. The other issue here, though, is you can imagine how bad it would look if he go over the cliff and there's a lot of work to make sure that doesn't happen and he's here in Hawaii on vacation. That would look just really terrible for him.

So, obviously, he has a lot of work to do. The way the White House sees it, talking to sources, he needs to go back and also shore up some support.

The big issues that are outstanding here with trying to figure out a way to avert the fiscal cliff are how to stop these tax hikes on the middle class as the White House sees it, but there's also a number of smaller tax measures that are set to expire.

And they sort of create their own set of problems, even for some Democrats, so he may really need to do some lobbying on a few of them, Don.

LEMON: Brianna, and so how did he spend Christmas?

KEILAR: Christmas, you know, we talked about this yesterday. We said we wouldn't be surprised if he went to visit troops as he's done in past years. Indeed, he did end up doing that.

He went a short distance from where he and the first family rent a home to a military station here an Oahu. And he visited with troops, thanking them for their service and also thanking their families for their service.

One of the things he said to them was we know the sacrifice that our military men and women make in defending our country, but sometimes it gets lost, just how much of a sacrifice the families make, as well.

And as you know, Don, First Lady Michelle Obama has been really active with military families along with Jill Biden, so that was something also that was really important to her.

LEMON: Brianna Keilar in Honolulu, thank you, Brianna.

A brand-new Gallup poll shows half the country still thinks a fiscal cliff compromise is likely. That's down about nine points from earlier this month.


LEMON: Some gun owners in New York City -- in the New York City-area say they are being unfairly targeted and they're blaming a local newspaper.

Here's why. "The Journal News" published an interactive map on its website showing the names and addresses of all handgun permit owners in Westchester and Rockland Counties. You can see them here represented by red dots.

The response has been overwhelmingly angry and some residents who don't have guns say it lets potential robbers know who isn't armed.

"The Journal News" says it made the decision to put up the map in response to the Connecticut school massacre.

If you live in Los Angeles and own a gun, today is the day to exchange it for a gift card. The buyback is being conducted by the L.A. police department.

It's usually held in may, but this year, it's being held ahead of schedule in response to the massacre at the elementary school in Connecticut.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told us that many people want things to change.


MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, LOS ANGELES: This is a great opportunity for people to get involved themselves and not wait on Washington.

I'm supporting Senator Feinstein's assault weapons ban. We have one in California.

For those of us who got to watch the NRA commercial last week, the notion that more guns in the hands of good people will prevent gun crimes just isn't borne out by the facts.


LEMON: $100 gift cards are being offered for handguns, rifles and shotguns and up to $200 in gift cards for assault weapons.

Paul Vercammen, live in Los Angeles. So, Paul, our latest CNN/ORC poll shows that 37 percent of Americans want major restrictions on guns.

Does this mean today's buyback may see more than the usual response after the recent school shooting?

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: We'll have to see about that, Don. Certainly the city of Los Angeles is hoping so, but I can tell you this, Don.

I counted up the cars behind me. This event is still 45 minutes away from starting and there are well over a dozen cars in this gun-trade or buyback line and this is what they will receive. It's for Ralph's grocery store, as you said, a hundred dollars for a pistol or rifle and $200 for an assault weapon.

Over about the last four years, these gun buyback programs have had people turn in more than 8,000 guns and this is how it's going to work this morning. It's all about the anonymity. The drivers come in. They want the guns in the trunk. They want the guns unloaded, but just in case they are loaded, they will the guns and the bullets into the trash cans behind me.

There will be no photographs and no taking down of license plates, so they will preserve that anonymity and then they can walk right over there in that tent behind me and begin to receive their gift cards for the guns that they turn in, Don.

LEMON: Any limit to how many guns may be turned in?

VERCAMMEN: No, none whatsoever and, in fact, we've had interesting moments where they started haggling. They want the guns to be operational. They don't want to just pull an antique off the shelf that would never work again.

But one of the LAPD officers was telling me off-camera they had an incident where someone came up with more than a dozen guns, including some assault rifles and they wound up leaving here with more than $1,000 worth of these Ralph's grocery store cards, Don.

LEMON: We -- Paul, we heard that there have been other gun buybacks in California. Tell us about the San Diego records -- San Diego's record.

VERCAMMEN: Yeah, San Diego, also getting aggressive with this and also offering up these grocery store gift cards.

And just the other day when they put on their gun buyback, they set that record more than about 350 guns. So, between Los Angeles and San Diego, two cities now trying to get out on the forefront and get people to trade in their guns.

It remains to be seen just how successful this will be the day after Christmas, but the LAPD likes to cite a statistic and they say, in the last four years, they've seen violent crime drop by 33 percent in the city, once they started this gun trade-in program.

LEMON: Let's go back to Los Angeles now because we understand the massive Los Angeles -- the unified school district may be making security changes after the Newtown shooting.

What changes can we expect?

VERCAMMEN: That district has about 1,000 schools. The high schools, about 400 of them, already have armed police officers on duty, but the middle schools and the elementary schools do not have armed guards.

They will not be getting an armed guard for 24 hours, but they say they may have enough officers to make sure that at least once a day, somebody at least stops by an elementary school, a member of the police department, so there's just sort of that further layer of, you know, possible enforcement there and we'll have to explore other possibilities later.

LEMON: Paul Vercammen. Thank you, Paul.

If you live in L.A. and would like to exchange your gun for a gift card, you can hand in your weapon at the L.A. Sports Arena and the Van Nuys Masonic Temple. Both sites will be open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. today. Details are on the --


LEMON: Each year in our special series, "Big Stars, Big Giving," CNN profiles big-name celebrities who give back in a big way.

Well, this week, we share the stories of three stars putting the spotlight on giving. Actor Matt Damon is working to bring clean water to people in developing countries. Alina Cho asked him about his work.


MATT DAMON, CO-FOUNDER, WATER.ORG: It's very hard for us to understand. You wake up in the morning, if you're thirsty, there's a faucet right there. There's one in the bathroom. There's one in the kitchen and clean water comes out of all of them.

ALINA CHO: But for nearly a billion people around the world, a billion, there is no affordable access to clean water.

More than double that number lack proper sanitation.

DAMON: Every 20 seconds, a kid under the age of 5 is dying, losing their life because they do not have access to clean water and it just doesn't have to be that way.

CHO: So in 2009, Damon and world-renowned water expert Gary White founded

DAMON: We're approaching it differently than many other organizations.

CHO: Their mantra? "Wells are great but charity can't help everyone." So White pioneered a concept called water credit.

GARY WHITE, CO-FOUNDER, WATER.ORG: So, we knew that women in India, for instance, were going and paying 125 percent interest on loans to loan sharks so they could build a toilet.

And so we said, let's take microfinance and layer it in here and give people access to affordable loans so they can get buy that toilet, so that they can get that water connection.

CHO: Depending on where you are, that could mean a faucet in our own home or a toilet with clean running water.

Water credit is working. White says loans are being repaid at a rate of 98 percent in places like Haiti.

DAMON: That was my first grass runway.

CHO: What Damon and White are trying to eliminate is the need to walk for water, taking time away from work or school.

The water's there. DAMON: Yeah. All that time that you're wasting going and standing in the line, you now have to go to your job.

It's the difference between hope and looking forward to a better day and an existence that just basically is about scavenging for water.

CHO: But how do you get people in the Western world where water is plentiful to care?

DAMON: You know, we've talked about different ways to do that, maybe involving humor.

CHO: Take Ben Stiller. He gets attention for his foundation, Stillerstrong by producing hilarious videos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Matt Damon, he claimed water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you claim water?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What, is he Aqua Man?

CHO: Consider this. Damon talks about water on YouTube, 4,000 hits. This video with Sarah Silverman, viral.

Damon says his strong suit is getting people to care.

DAMON: Because there's a lot of kind of low-hanging fruit, so to speak. There are so many people that we can help.

CHO: Do you see a solution in your lifetime?

DAMON: Yes, we do. In fact, that's why we're here.


LEMON: Alina Cho joins me now from New York.

Alina, how many people in countries as been able to help?

CHO: You know, it's pretty extraordinary., Don, actually has active programs in 11 countries.

Matt Damon tells me they've helped a million people so far around the world get affordable loans and he says this whole idea of water credit -- so, giving people affordable loans so they can get a faucet, they can get a toilet -- is really working.

They don't have to go to a loan shark. They don't have to do that type of thing and they're getting access to clean water, which, as you know, is fundamental for survival.

And so this is really a cause that he has taken on as his own. He actually plans to travel again to Haiti some time next year, so we'll be looking forward to that.

LEMON: And, Alina, Damon talked about the possibility of using humor to get attention for his foundation, like Ben Stiller does.

Is there any chance we'll see any funny videos talking about the water issue anytime soon?

CHO: Don, funny you should ask that because Matt Damon and his producers are working on one right now. In fact, we were hoping -- we were begging really -- that get a little clip of that so we could run it in our piece around the holidays.

But it turns out, they're not ready. They are working on it. But look for it. It could very well go viral after the first of the year when they release it. That would bring a lot of attention to and that would be great.

LEMON: No doubt. No doubt. Thank you Alina Cho.

For more on Matt Damon's efforts to provide clean water to people around the world and how you can help, go to