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Winter Storms Threaten Parts of U.S.; U.S. Marine Released from Mexican Jail; Fiscal Cliff Talks may Resume; Interview with Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Aired December 26, 2012 - 07:00   ET


ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: A winter beating; Christmas tornadoes and an extreme white Christmas for millions. Thousands cleaning up and holiday travelers stuck this morning.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: We have new information on that sniper who set a trap for firefighters by burning his own house down. His chilling words left behind in a note.

CHO: And "aloha" means good-bye. President Obama cuts his Hawaiian vacation short to deal with the fiscal cliff. But is it already too late?

Good morning, 7:00 in the east. I'm Alina Cho.

GRIFFIN: And I'm Drew Griffin. Soledad is of today. It's Wednesday, December 26, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Our starting point, a cruel one. A one-two Christmas punch from mother nature, tornadoes and blizzards tearing through the south and Midwest.


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


GRIFFIN: Mobile, Alabama, took a real beating, a twister blowing out transformers, leaving more than 25,000 customers without power. We're getting reports of damage to homes, a high school, and a church.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It came in behind the church right there, and then all green fluorescent lighting and popping transformers left and right. And we heard the crashing and everything and the power went out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I prayed to god as loud as I could, and I was just praying for my safety, and I knew the church was shaking. I just prayed that the church stayed put.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GRIFFIN: Here is the other half of this story -- blizzard conditions blanketing much of the Midwest and the northeast is going to get hit next. We have meteorologist Bonnie Schneider and Correspondent George Howell monitoring these two weather threats. George, let's begin with you. A lot of tornado sightings in the south overnight.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Drew, good morning. We are talking about a storm system that left two people dead on Christmas Day and some 200,000 people waking up this morning without power. A storm system came in throughout the night and some 30 tornadoes reported, according to the national weather service. You can see it from the video and from pictures that people took of frightful scenes throughout the night. Strong winds and tornado touchdowns from Texas, Alabama, and knocked down trees and power lines.

And on the ground, damage is extensive. Several homes and businesses are damaged. When you look at these pictures, you get a sense of how powerful winds were last night. Just take a listen to this woman who was keeping a close eye on a tornado she saw just outside her window.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Christmas Day tornado going through Mobile, oh, my god, look. That's a tornado. Oh, wow. Oh, Jesus. Look at that tornado. Oh, my good. That's cool. Jesus, please keep your hands on whoever is over there.


HOWELL: So, again, as I mentioned, some 200,000 people without power this morning, and when you take down the list state by state, what it means, 186,000 people without power in Arkansas, 27,000 people in the dark in Alabama. More than 4,000 affected in Mississippi, and more than 3,000 people in Louisiana, Drew without power. So a very strong storm system that affected a lot of people and still parking a punch.

GRIFFIN: Thank you, George.

CHO: And turning to snowstorms that are threatening the northeast right now, heavy snow and driving winds expected to create blizzard conditions today in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. We have already seen snow as far south as Texas. Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider tracking a storm in the CNN weather center in Atlanta. Bonnie, good morning

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Alina, good morning. This snow is so unusual to have so much so far south on Christmas day. We have more to show you what it's been looking like across Arkansas, and incredible amounts of snowfall accumulating. How do you drive in conditions like that? A lot of accidents, unfortunately, because visibility when you have blowing and drifting snow. And you have 10 inches of snow on the ground right now in Arkansas. So, wow. It's not getting any better any time soon.

You have a large storm system bringing heavy snow through lower sections of Indiana to Ohio and snowing heavy and hard in southern Illinois in Carbondale, the Boot Hills of Missouri, Cape Girardeau. We're looking at Paducah, Kentucky, this area, up to a foot of snow, and blizzard warnings in place blowing and drifting snow in place, and working toward Cincinnati and Pennsylvania later on.

As I slide further to the east, notice the snow hitting the city of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Burlington, a lot of snow in interior New England. We're looking at over a foot of snow, a couple of inches for New York City and Boston.

If that's not enough, we have severe storms right now sweeping across the southeast. These are the same storms that brought the tornado you saw pictures of earlier to mobile, Alabama. We're not done yet. Frequent lightning strikes, in Georgia. Luckily, today, a smaller geographic area, but a busy day, people heading back to the stores and traveling today. Right here across parts of South Carolina and parts of North Carolina, are you seeing the threat of severe weather and the eastern half of Georgia, Jacksonville, Florida. If you are driving in the region, please make sure you are aware of damage. We have mountain snow out west, a really unsettled weather pattern and unusual for this holiday week. Alina.

CHO: You have been very busy, Bonnie Schneider, thank you very much.

GRIFFIN: Other top stories this morning, we're learning more about that guy who killed two firefighters on Christmas Eve morning, and it is disturbing. According to police 62-year-old William Spengler left behind a note before embarking on his killing spree. This is what it said, "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best, killing people."

Police say early Monday morning, that guy set fire to his suburban Rochester home, luring firefighters and began shooting at them as they arrived on the scene. He killed himself Monday morning after shooting four firefighters. The town of Webster, New York, paying tribute to the victims at a memorial service last night.

CHO: In Afghanistan, three people are dead, seven civilians injured after a car bombing targeted a U.S. base. The Taliban is claiming responsibility. Police say a minibus exploded during a security check at the gate of Camp Chapman. That base was also the target of a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA contractors and a Jordanian intelligence official back in 2009 when a double agent loyal to extremists blew himself up.

Syria's military police chief has defected. Major General Abdul Aziz al Shalat recording a video that aired on Arab TV Network, announcing he is defecting because the Syrian army is no locker acting in the best interest of the people. The decision follows two brutal attacks on hungry civilians standing in bread lines and comes at a time when rebel forces are said to be making gains over government troops over control of major cities.

CHO: Former Braves all-star Andruw Jones free on bond this morning after being arrested outside Atlanta on Christmas on a battery charge. The Gwinnett County detention center tells us there was a domestic dispute with his wife. The center fielder won 10 straight gold gloves with the braves. Played with the New York Yankees last year and recently signed with a team in Japan.

GRIFFIN: Japan's parliament has elected Shinzo Abe has been elected prime minister. He held the same position six years ago but resigned back then because of health problems. He says he is OK to go now. Abe helped his conservative party dominate nationwide elections earlier this month. He has promised to revive the economy, address Japan's debt, and create a recovery plan for last year's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.

CHO: Six days to go before the fiscal cliff deadline and tomorrow could be make-or-break in determining if we steer clear or go over the edge. President Obama is cutting his Hawaiian vacation short and is leaving tonight and will be back tomorrow. That is when the House and Senate is expected to reconvene.

GRIFFIN: There are signs this morning, Alina, that it's all going to over. That's why Starbucks is now weighing in with the own fiscal cliff campaign. CEO Howard Schultz is asking workers at its 120 D.C. area stores to write this on their cup, "Come together." Yes, he says it's a way to "send our elected official as a respectful but potent message, urging them to come together to find common ground." Not grounds, ground.


CHO: All of the bickering in Washington, all it will take is a cup at Starbucks, I think it will push everybody over the edge. Get a deal.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, a U.S. marine veteran who languished in a Mexican prison for months gets to spend the holidays at home with his family.

GRIFFIN: Coming up, we'll talk to one of the lawmaker who's helped win his release. You are watching STARTING POINT.


GRIFFIN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Let's hope our lawmakers return to Washington this week with a little bit of that leftover Christmas spirit because they only have six days to avoid the fiscal cliff. The president will leave Hawaii very late tonight to come back to D.C. As for the Senate and the House, let's speak to Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida. Congressman, I know you played a big role in getting a marine veteran out of a nightmarish prison in Mexico and back to his family for Christmas. We want to talk about that in a second. But first, I got to ask you about the fiscal cliff and what you think is going to be happening in the next couple of days. First of all, do you think it's possible we'll get anything other than a Band-Aid between now and six days from now when the triggers kick in?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, (R) FLORIDA: I'm very optimistic if all of us pull our weight and do some serious conversations we'll have a bipartisan solution, because nobody wants to go over this fiscal cliff. It will damage our economy. It will hurt every taxpayer, the largest tax increase in history. It will affect everybody. And anyone who is watching who thinks, oh, this isn't going to impact me, you will find out it will.

And we know the problem is a lot of spending. Not that we're not taxing people more, we're just spending too much. We hope that the president understands that as for as Republicans are concerned, we're willing to negotiate and have a civil conversation, but also he's got to bring in some spending cuts and tax reform, because Americans want tax reform and we don't want to hurt the economy.

And, look there, are not enough millionaires in the United States to tax them all to be able to spend our way out of this problem. So let's give up a little bit -- each side can concede a little. And I think we can find that middle ground. I'm optimistic.

GRIFFIN: When we had your colleague Nan Hayworth last hour, she was expecting work to be done in the Senate. The House did its best, Boehner did his best, now it's up to the Senate to come up with something. Is that your position now, your understanding of how your house leadership is handling this, that it's now basically the ball is in the Senate's court?

ROS-LEHTINEN: All you have to do is look at what Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate has been saying from day one. Every time that Speaker Boehner put forth a common-sense plan to fix this problem, Harry Reid would say, right off the bat it is DOA, dead on arrival. There wasn't one thing that Speaker Boehner proposed that Reid said, oh, we can work with that.

It's all about scoring political points. I know the American people are tired of all of us, I understand that. We just make used car salesmen look good. That's the only group is below us. But we've got to get our act together and prove to the American people that we can regain the trust that they once had in us and get the job done and, as you say, not kick the can down the road. They want to us work this out. I hope we do.

GRIFFIN: Let's talk about something a little more bright, and that is this former marine stuck in Mexico. If you don't know the story, Jon Hammar was basically trying to go on a surfing trip. He had an old Winnebago and a bunch of surf boards, and some sort of antique, torn apart gun that he wanted to use to hunt rabbits and birds. He got caught up in the judicial system and was languishing in prison, a pretty rough prison across the border, and nobody from the United States seemed to be caring much about him. Isn't that what was going on, congresswoman?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Absolutely. This is a feel-good Christmas story with a wonderful, happy ending. I had an e-mail from Olivia, Jon Hammar's mom, about what a wonderful Christmas they spent together. Mike Thompson, a congressman from California, he's a Democrat, he's the congressman who has the -- whose clinic for post-traumatic stress syndrome, Jon Hammar was a patient in because Jon served our nation in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in a fierce fire fight in Fallujah.

And then remember, this rifle that he was taking into Mexico, he actually went to U.S. custom border patrol and registered it with them. They waited, they photographed it. They told him, sure, you can bring it into Mexico, just register it. And it was when John was registering the firearm that he was arrested for his trouble. And he had been there since August, chained to his bed. It was a nightmare scenario. So if a bipartisan group of legislators were able to get together to bring Jon Hammar home, maybe we can fix the fiscal cliff problem. Here is what we can.

GRIFFIN: Here is what Jon Hammar's mom had to say about the homecoming, which was really a Christmas gift to them. Take a listen.


OLIVIA HAMMAR, MOTHER OF FREED MARINE VETERAN: It was like my first night that I slept all night long without getting up, and it was just the thought of not wondering what's going on with him, can anyone hurt him tonight? That's my thought. He's eating. He's able to have a meal.


GRIFFIN: You know, congresswoman, I have to ask you one pointed question. Why did it take you guys to get involved? Where was the state department? Where was anyone trying to take care of this U.S. citizen stuck since August in a Mexican prison?

ROS-LEHTINEN: First of all, I don't want to blame our officials more than I blame the Mexican authorities for putting him in custody. He was facing 12 years in jail for doing the right thing, registering the firearm, which is not really a killer machine. It was to shoot birds and something that had been in the family years and years and years. But anyway, U.S. officials kept getting us a status report, how John is doing. We said status report? Why aren't you actively lobbying to get Jon Hammar home. So we had to shake up the democracy.

Jon is pretty sick right now. You can imagine he was not eating well and dehydrated, had the stomach flu. He hasn't made any public appearances, he's got to chill out a little bit and get better and we're just praying hard and worked hard and this is a very religious family. I think their faith carried them through this ordeal.

They tried to do it the right way, quietly. And month after month, John was still stuck in a Mexican jail. And so we went to bat for him, and thanks to so many people praying and working hard for him, he's finally home. They are constituents of my congressional district, so I'm very glad this has a feel-good ending. But there are a lot of these kinds of difficult situations. When people go abroad, they've got to remember there, is no place like this wonderful country that has this wonderful judicial system. Mistakes happen here, but there's nothing like home.

GRIFFIN: Congresswoman, thank you so much. We hope you give us another feel-good story in six days or less we hope. Take care.

ROS-LEHTINEN: We're hoping, praying, and working too.

GRIFFIN: There you go.

ROS-LEHTINEN: What a great gift for that family to have their son back in time for the holidays.

CHO: Ahead on STARTING POINT, the decision just made thousands of miles away that could affect couple who are trying to adopt children right here in the U.S.

GRIFFIN: Plus, the numbers are in, and they are not good. Find out what might to be blame for disappointing holiday shopping season.


CHO: It's 22 minutes after the hour. Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Blizzard and winter storm warnings from the deep south all the way to New England this morning. One place where the snow begun to fall quite heavily is Seymour, Indiana. We want to go live to our reporter Lexy Scheen from our affiliate WLKY. Lexy, what is it like where are you this morning?

LEXY SCHEEN, REPORTER, WLKY: Good morning to you. We definitely are seeing conditions not changing. The big thing here is the wind, really blustery out here, almost knocked me over a few times.

Let me give you a live look. We pulled into this parking lot at 5:45. Our tire marks are completely gone. The roads completing snow covered. A number of snow plows through here. They are preparing cars for these conditions. Overall, if you don't have to drive or go to school or anything this is the good weather. This is the snowball, snowman making weather. I started my snowman out here earlier, not coming along very well. The wind, like I said, been kind of painful plowing into my face and things like that. But overall kind of that nice, wintry mix in see more. Alina, now, back to you.

CHO: Let's hope it's over. Lexy Scheen, thank you very much.

GRIFFIN: Kids are off. Have fun.

It's 24 minutes after the hour. Let's get you up to speed on the rest of the morning's stories.

That female police officer who killed a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan is described as an Iranian national whose Afghan husband helped her get citizenship there illegally. An Afghan interior ministry spokesman says he has no evidence linking her to terror groups with ties to Iran. More than 50 people have been killed this year in so- called insider attacks by Afghan soldiers and police officers or attackers that have been dressed like them.

CHO: Also new this morning, Russia's parliament has just approved a controversial measure that will ban American families from adopting Russian children. That's according to Russian media reports. That legislation now goes to President Putin to be signed into law. The move is seen as retaliation for a new U.S. law that imposes travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia.

GRIFFIN: Minding your business this morning, was it a black Christmas? Initial holiday sale numbers not very good. A report from MasterCard said holiday sales growth slowed by more than half this year, and it was the weakest holiday shopping season since 2008. The report said shoppers were not in a spending mood because of the fiscal cliff threat and hurricane Sandy.

CHO: Box office gold for the producers of "Les Miserables." It blew away all expectations, raking in $18 million on opening day, a strong number one. Coming in second Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" starring Jamie Fox and Leo DiCaprio. And rounding out the top five, "The Hobbit," "Parental Guidance," and "Jack Reacher" came in fifth.

A lot of new, exciting films are set to debut after the new year. In the next half hour we will preview some of the top picks with Christopher John Farley, the senator editor of "Speak Easy," that's the "Wall Street Journal's" culture website. We'll look ahead to 2013.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, we just showed you the blizzard conditions in parts of the country. The other danger this morning is tornadoes. We will talk to a man who was rolling the camera as he tried to steer his family away from a twister. That's next.