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Tornadoes Tear Up South; Back to Tackle Fiscal Cliff; Bus Bomb Targets U.S. Base

Aired December 26, 2012 - 08:00   ET


ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. Glad you're with us. I'm Alina Cho. Soledad is off today. It's Wednesday, December 26th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

It's 8:00 in the east, our STARTING POINT, a Christmas to forget for millions of Americans in the south and Midwest, battling blizzard conditions and tornadoes.


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


CHO: Mobile, Alabama, took a real beating overnight. A twister blowing transformers, and there are reports of extensive damage to homes, a high school, and a church. Two hundred thousand people across the South are without power this morning.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It came in behind the church right there, and then all green fluorescent lighting, and it was like popping transformers left and right and didn't hear the crash and everything, and then 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 truck was shaking. I just prayed that the truck stayed put.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, here's the other half of Mother Nature's one-two punch. Blizzard conditions, blanket much of the Midwest. We're going to give you a live look of Seymour, Indiana -- the snow coming down hard still in much of the city. These conditions going down as far as Texas, and the Northeast is next.

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider is monitoring the events from the CNN weather center in Atlanta -- Bonnie.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Drew. We are looking at record-breaking snowfall in Arkansas, so unusual to see snow on Christmas. But when you're talking about Little Rock, nine inches of snow, that hasn't happened in 86 years. So, this is a monumental storm that by no means is over yet.

In fact, in the wake of the storm, the temperatures are so cold in Oklahoma and Little Rock that the snow isn't going anywhere, it will stick and many places still watching for it to fall and continue to do so.

Here's a look at the radar now, and you can see the snow is exiting Memphis, Tennessee, but still continues to hammer areas of Indiana and Illinois, the snow band stretching all the way eastward into areas north of Cincinnati, coming into Cleveland right now and, Erie, Pennsylvania. And in advance of it, some very strong thunderstorms are hitting the Carolinas hard. You see the same storms that work their way through Mobile, Alabama, and brought tornadic damage there.

Here's a look at the snowfall totals that we're anticipating. These are blizzard warnings, and remember, blizzard means we're going to see strong winds. So, we will have blowing and drifting snow throughout the day today. This will be dangerous driving on I-64, I-55, all the way to I-65 in Ohio.

And then sliding to the East, you could see the blizzard warnings are also in Ohio, we'll see winter storm warnings and a lot of this in the New York City metropolitan area will impact you, because you will get freezing rain and some lighter snowfall, possibly a couple of inches. However, if you head north and west of the city, the suburbs, we'll se more measurable snowfall that you'll have to shovel out.

The same thing holds true for Boston. In the city itself, you have that ocean influence, so you'll see just about an inch or two. But then you head further to the west, and into Worcester, Mass, oh, boy, it's going to get heavy and hard, and you can see heavy amounts of snow. We're measuring it by the foot-plus.

And Upstate New York and interior New England, our snowfall models show areas darker purple, Drew and Alina, that's where we're seeing some of the heaviest of snow, unusual again for this time of year.

CHO: Never a good idea when you're measuring by the foot.

GRIFFIN: Bonnie, thanks.

CHO: Bonnie Schneider, thank you.

As we told you, the area around Mobile, Alabama, was hit especially hard. Tens of thousands of people there still in the dark.

On the phone with us now is John Kilcullen. He's the director of operations at Mobile County Emergency Management.

Mr. Kilcullen, good morning. Glad you're with us. Tell us -- as the sun comes up there, what is the main challenge as you try to clean up?

JOHN KILCULLEN, MOBILE COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT (via telephone): Yes. Our main priority today is focus on recovery actions. Some of those include the power restoration, as you've mentioned. Just a recent update from our Alabama power, we have about 7,300 customers that are currently out of power. That's down from a high of about 23,000 last night. So there's been progress in that area.

Debris removal, there's a lot of storm debris that will need to be cleaned up that's blocking some roads and then, we will continue with our damage assessment, and then provide whatever assistance we can do with businesses and homeowners that are doing emergency repairs to damaged structured.

GRIFFIN: Do you have any idea of how many people are actually out of a home this morning? Have you been able to do any surveys yet?

KILCULLEN: You know, damage to some residences is fairly extensive in certain portions of the city. We did have one shelter available, only about four people took advantage of that overnight. So I think most people were able to find accommodations either with friends or relatives or in local motels.

CHO: You know, I think we need to remind our viewers that this tornado came through on Christmas Day. You know, when you talk about the lights going out, that also means the Christmas lights.

And though nobody was hurt, I'm just wondering if spirits were damaged there in Mobile.

KILCULLEN: I think very briefly during the immediate aftermath of the storm, but I think relief quickly set in, when we realized that there wasn't any personal injuries, or like the property damage can be fixed relatively quickly. So I think it transitioned rapidly to a spirit of "let's get things back together."

CHO: That's great.

Mr. Kilcullen, director of operations at the Mobile County Emergency Management team -- we thank you for joining us and best of luck to everyone in Mobile with the cleanup today.

KILCULLEN: Thank you very much.

GRIFFIN: Meanwhile, President Obama's cutting his vacation short and heading back to D.C. to tackle the fiscal cliff. He's returning tomorrow just as the House and Senate are expected to reconvene. But with the way things work in Washington, can anything be done before year's end?

White House correspondent Brianna Keilar following the cliffhanger from Honolulu. Brianna, what's the latest on all of this?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's honestly very unclear, Drew, if something is going to happen. Obviously, we will see some actions to try to avert the fiscal cliff. First off, President Obama cutting his vacation here in Hawaii, almost two weeks short, to head back as the Senate and the House reconvene.

And we really are looking to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be trying to put together a bill that can get some Republican support in the Senate, but also and more importantly, some Republican support in the House, where obviously we saw negotiations fall apart with President Obama last week. So we're waiting for this proposal to see kind of what shape it takes.

The White House wants those Bush era tax cuts on the first quarter million dollars of earnings to be preserved. That's what the White House has been pushing. It's unclear if that is going to be the proposal that Harry Reid puts out, if maybe it will go higher in order to get some Republican support.

We don't know at this point, and we understand talking to sources, to Democratic sources, Drew, that even though the Senate is reconvening on Thursday, it may be a couple more days before we see proposal as they try to not only get Republican support, but as they also try to build pressure on the House.

They will move the unveiling of their proposal kind of as close to the New Year as possible to essentially say, here's our proposal, here's -- assuming they get it through the Senate -- here is our proposal, here's what we passed, now you have to take it up or the fiscal cliff that we're about to go over we're going to blame you for it, Drew.

GRIFFIN: And, Brianna, do you know -- I mean, do you know how closely Senator Reid and his staff are working with the White House so they come up with a plan that not only the Senate will pass but that the president will actually sign, so they can just, you know, two branches of the government will present it to the House I guess is the strategy here?

KEILAR: That's right. There's a very good working relationship between the White House and Senator Reid. So, there's been an open line of communication for the last few days. They've been discussing a proposal very much in the works.

The issue here, Drew, is that so far, there's no discussion between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans, or the White House and Senate Republicans, or the White House and Senate Democrats and House Republicans. And there needs to be agreement because the expectation, if something passes I will say this, if something manages to get through Congress, it is going to require Democratic and Republican votes. So at some point, they all have to be talking and that still isn't happening at this point.

GRIFFIN: Brianna, thanks. It seems like they should go to Hawaii, and sit around on a beach and talk about it, cool off.


GRIFFIN: Brianna, appreciate you following the story, where it takes you. I guess you're coming back to D.C. Thanks a lot.

KEILAR: I am. Thanks.

CHO: That's the solution. That's the solution.

GRIFFIN: Could be.

CHO: Nine minutes after the hour. Other top stories this morning:

We're learning more this morning about that sniper who killed two volunteer firefighters on Christmas Eve morning. According to police, 62-year-old William Spangler left behind a note before embarking on his killing spree. According to police, it read in part, quote, "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, Spangler set fire to his suburban Rochester home to lure firefighter there. And then he began shooting at them as they arrived at the scene. He killed himself after shooting four firefighters -- again, killing two of them Christmas Eve.

The town of Webster, New York, is paying tribute to the victims at a memorial service and that happened last night.

GRIFFIN: Syria's military police chief has defected. That has dealt a blow to the Assad regime. Major General Abdulaziz Al-Shalal, there in a video airing on Arab TV network, announcing he is defecting because the Syrian army is no longer acting in the best interests of the people.

It came after this: two deadly attacks on civilians who were waiting in bread lines. His decision comes at a time when rebel forces are making gains over government troops for control of Syria's major cities.

CHO: Japan's parliament has elected Shinzo Abe as prime minister. He actually held the position six years ago, but he had to resign because of health problems. He says he's OK health-wise now. Abe has promised to revive the economy, address Japan's debt, and create a recovery plan for last year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

GRIFFIN: I hope you've got a gift receipt for that. Shoppers expected to flood stores again to return or exchange gifts they don't fit, don't want. An analyst tells "The Wall Street Journal", about 10 percent to 15 percent of holiday sales come back as returns or exchanges.

CHO: All right. Coming up ahead on STARTING POINT: a bus bomb targeting a U.S. base in Afghanistan, the very same sight of one of the deadliest attacks on the CIA ever. We are live from the Pentagon with details.

GRIFFIN: And his time has come again. The man behind one of the biggest hits in the '60s is getting a chance, thanks to a bunch of folks online. Lester Chambers from the Chambers Brothers joins us live.


GRIFFIN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. We've been talking about the blizzard and storm warnings from the Deep South, all the way to New England this morning. We're going to get a firsthand look from Seymour, Indiana.

Lexy Scheen has drawn the short straw. She's with our affiliate WLKY and getting just hammered there -- Lexy.

LEXY SCHEEN, WLKY: Yes, that's right, Drew. Things have actually calmed down a little bit over the past hour. We've seen just tons of snow falling here. Let me give you a look behind me.

You can't even see the tire tracks from where we came in around 5:30 this morning. But the roadways are snow covered, probably about two, two and a half inches that have fallen since 4:00 this morning when the snow started. We just barely missed having a white Christmas in Seymour, Indiana.

But if you don't have to travel the roadways, Indiana State Police are advising people to stay off and they say these conditions are just hazardous and slippery that they want even people driving on them today. So, they are urging everyone to stay home if it is at all possible.

And it's kind of a good day to do that. We were pointing out earlier -- this is the good snow. This is the stuff that the kids like to play with -- you know, snowballs, snowmen, all of that good stuff.

But, of course, it is still dangerous. Like I said, the roadway is slippery, slushy. We are having a hard time kind of seeing those center lines here on the roadways in Seymour, Indiana, where, again, about two to two and a half inches have fallen -- Drew.

GRIFFIN: Where is Seymour in relation to, you know, the big cities in Indiana?

SCHEEN: Well, our station is actually based in Louisville, Kentucky, so we just drove 65 straight north for about an hour, so about an hour outside Louisville and hour and a half or so from Indianapolis.

GRIFFIN: So, it's pretty far south, all that snow. They're not used to it there on Christmas, I imagine?

SCHEEN: You know, not too used to it. We've seen a lot of the snowplows and salt trucks out, but, of course, it's kind of intimidating to drive through all the snow.

GRIFFIN: Lexy, we appreciate you driving through it and not us. Isn't that right, Alina? Thanks. Take care.

CHO: Although, we are going to get a little bit of snow, maybe a little dusting here in New York City today.


CHO: So, our Bonnie Schneider says. Fifteen minutes after the hour. Here are some of the other top stories. George H.W. Bush spent Christmas day in a Houston hospital with his wife, Barbara, and other relatives at his side. The 88-year-old former president has been there for about a month with a lingering cough. Doctors were hoping to have him home by now at least by Christmas, but they do say they are cautiously optimistic about a full recovery.

All is calm so far in Cairo, Egypt this morning after Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, signed the country's new constitution into law. Egypt's electoral commission announced that voters did, indeed, improve -- approve the nation's new constitution which was drafted by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood allies by a margin of 64 percent that happened yesterday.

Cairo was gripped by violent protests that turned deadly before the vote with critics fearing an era of Islamic rule and fewer personal freedoms.

GRIFFIN: China has launched this. It's the longest bullet train line in the world. The first one that left Beijing this morning is zipping down to Guangzhou at nearly 200 miles an hour. That's about a 1,400- mile trip, about the distance from New York to Key West. The train is going to cover that in eight hours, we're told. So, it should be nice.

CHO: Nice to have that here.

GRIFFIN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, American soldiers targeted in a bomb attack overseas. We're going to go live to the Pentagon with the latest on this.


GRIFFIN: We welcome you back. An update to a developing story out of Afghanistan. The Taliban claiming responsibility for a car bomb attack at a U.S. base and coast. Three people were killed. Police say a mini-bus exploded during a security check at the gate of Camp Chapman. That is the same base where a double agent blew himself up in 2009. It was a big story then, killed seven CIA contractors and a Jordanian intelligence official.

CHO: We're also learning about that female police officer who killed a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, following those developments for us. She is working her sources.

Good morning, Barbara, what do you know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning Alina. Good morning, Drew. The Afghans are now saying that this woman was an Iranian citizen, a member of the Afghan police forces, they say, and they had a press conference showing what they say is her Iranian passport. They believe that she came from that country. She was a citizen, married an Afghan.

Now, we've not had official confirmation from NATO about this. They showed the passport, but they also showed other documents they said were fake identity documents. So, some of this is still fairly murky. The Afghans say the woman hid a weapon under her clothing, went to a restroom, got the weapon out, and was looking for someone to shoot, someone that she felt was important and she came across this American contractor.

This man has now been identified as 49-year-old Joseph Griffin of Mansfield, Georgia. He worked for DynCorps International, that's a major contractor in Afghanistan, dealing with training the Afghan police. He also was a veteran of the U.S. military -- Alina, Drew.

CHO: And what about this car bomb attack, Barbara? Do you have any more information on that?

STARR: Well, this is still emerging. Apparently, several people injured. This area, as Drew said, has seen plenty of attacks in the past, most notably, the one where a number of CIA people were killed. This is an area -- I've been there many times in this area. This is quite close to the Pakistan border.

So, many times what the Afghans will tell you is the people who attack here are Taliban or people coming in from Pakistan, insurgents coming across the border, and I would say that this is one of the constant themes in both of these attacks.

We've heard again and again from the Afghans over the years, they believe that many of the attacks in their country are from Pakistani agents or outsiders from Iran. A lot of this still remains always to be under investigation -- Alina, Drew.

CHO: All right. Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, the worst may be yet to come, the latest on blizzard and storm warnings now in effect from many of you and how it could affect your post Christmas travel plans.

GRIFFIN: And free condoms for high schoolers. Dispensers are being put up in nearly two dozen high schools in Philadelphia, but some say this is really crossing the line. We're going to talk to one of the people who's supporting the plan.


CHO: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. It's 27 minutes after the hour. I'm Alina Cho.

GRIFFIN: I'm Drew Griffin. Soledad has the day off.

CHO: And our top story this morning, Christmas week chaos for millions of Americans. A blizzard blankets the Midwest and tornadoes tear up parts of the south.


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


CHO: We're getting reports of extensive damage in places like Mobile, Alabama. This video from CNN affiliate, WALA, that you see there, you can actually see the twister blowing up transformers and knocking out power to more than 23,000 customers in that area alone. 7,000 of those are still in the dark this morning. More than 200,000 are without power across the extended region.

GRIFFIN: And on top of the tornadoes, snow piling on by the hour, some places could see a foot. Blizzard conditions expected in the northeast but also much further south they're already dealing with this kind of snow that they're not used to. Meteorologist, Bonnie Schneider, has been tracking what's happened and what's coming -- Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: That's right, Drew. Right now, we are looking at heavy bands of snow. You can look at our radar picture and see the brighter white, that indicates the snow falling heavy and hard, and we are seeing that across Kentucky, Indiana as well as Illinois.

Let's show you Indiana, because that's one region that's getting hit hard right now. We have video to show you pictures of how hard the snow is falling. Look at those big flakes. Accumulation will be very heavy, and it's not letting up any time soon. So, if you have to travel, this is in southern Indiana and Seymour, if you have to travel, I would say, wait until the storm is over because it's going to be a slow moving storm system impacting interstates like I-55 and I-70.

Now, ahead of the system, we have some really strong thunderstorms and we're watching that across the Carolinas. It's coming down heavy and hard in the triangle area. We'll look for that to continue and looking at the snowfall that's accumulated. I want to point out how unusual this is. On Christmas Day, we all talk about white Christmas, but it just doesn't happen in Littlerock, Arkansas very often.

How often? Well, nine inches of snow. We haven't seen that much snow on Christmas Day. They are in 86 years. So, we're going back in 1926 and unusual Christmas storm. The temperatures this morning are so cold in Amarillo, Oklahoma, and Littlerock. The snow is not going anywhere. It's not going to melt. It's just too cold. It's only 22 degrees in Dallas, Texas right now. Big changes from yesterday.

So, in terms of what's ahead, we've got six to eight inches across lower sections of Illinois still to come and then accumulations of a foot or more. This is on the way for tonight and tomorrow. New York City, you'll be impacted by the storm as well. You may get some freezing rain and lighter snow, but north and west of the city, it will be coming down heavy and hard.

That holds true for Boston as well. Huge storm, Alina and Drew, impacting millions of Americans this holiday week.

CHO: Yes. Not what we want to be hearing. All right. Bonnie Schneider, thank you so much.

Twenty-nine minutes after the hour. The rest of your top stories now.