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Heartland Gets Hammered; Storm Threat Isn't Over; Tornadoes Hit Kansas Hard; Hot Air Balloons Collide; Obama's Three-Headed Beast; Golden Ticket

Aired May 20, 2013 - 06:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Showing no mercy, dozens of tornadoes tear through the Midwest and plains leaving a path of destruction. The big question is the threat over?

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama getting heat over three wide ranging scandals but how is he doing? New results reveal the president's approval rating.

BERMAN: Gas prices going up, and up, and up just in time for your holiday road trip. How will this affect you and your wallet?

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It's nice to have you. It's 6:00 a.m. in the east. We're going to begin with breaking news this morning, town after town in America's heartland ravaged by tornadoes. The latest a tornado touched down in Golden City, Missouri. So at this moment, emergency crews are assessing all of the damage. They are assessing all the possible injuries there.

Meanwhile look at this, this is Central Oklahoma. It's a massive tornado. It's bearing down on the city of Shawnee. One man who lived in a trailer park in that area has died. About a dozen others are injured. The twister is tearing roofs off of homes. It downed a lot of power lines, trees, even streetlights.

The National Weather Service said tornado reports stretched through the country's mid-section, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois all affected. Nick Valencia is in hard hit Shawnee, Oklahoma with the very latest. Good morning to you, Nick.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Zoraida. That severe weather system spreading across hundreds of miles of the nation's mid- section in Oklahoma. Shawnee was hit the hardest. And sometimes it's really difficult to understand the significant damage that caused by the tornadoes until you look at something like this. This is nearly a 20-foot tall tree completely ripped from the ground, roots and all and that really is indicative of the power of the storm that moved through here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) VALENCIA (voice-over): You can hear the roar as this half mile wide tornado tears across the land headed straight towards Shawnee, Oklahoma. There were more than two dozen reports of tornadoes from Oklahoma to Iowa Sunday. More than 45 homes damaged at least one person killed and a dozen injured.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's coming up on a row of houses here.

VALENCIA: The hardest hit a trailer park near Shawnee, Oklahoma. Mobile homes toppled over, houses demolished. Our affiliate KFOR pilot, John Welsh, said he's never seen anything like it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you came over the Shawnee trailer park to begin with were you not a bit astounded at the amount of devastation there?

JOHN WELSH, KFOR CHOPPER PILOT: Yes. I'm used to seeing trees ripped up, but the house usually there. This, everything was gone. It was just gone like you took the house. You put it in a gigantic blender, turn it on pulse for a couple of minutes and then dump it out.

VALENCIA: The massive amount of rain dumped in the area had rescue workers scrambling to the devastation to reach the injured before sun down.

VITA SMITH, TORNADO SURVIVOR: The electricity went out and then it was hitting. Then tree limbs were flying we just kind of hunkered down and hoped for the best.

VALENCIA: I-40 was littered with debris as two semis were overturned. This 18-wheeler blew off the overpass and flattened. Overnight, video of the rescue crowd tossing debris around trying to find victims.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was at home and my brother-in-law said a tree fell on my mother's house and I need to pick her up. She's 79 years old, she's diabetic and blind.

VALENCIA: The Oklahoma Governor, Mary Fallon, declared a state of emergency. Residents fortunate enough to get underground were in disbelief when they surfaced.

CATHY TALBOTT, TORNADO SURVIVOR: We were in the storm shelter and it was like a water pressure in our ears and the top came off. There are 13 people living in our house and it ripped off the top of the storm shelter. It sound like a train and after all the noise and then when we came out the house and everything, the trees and the electric, we thought we would be trapped there all night.

VALENCIA: Tornadoes also ripped through three other states, Illinois, Kansas and Iowa. In Kansas, downed power lines and hail the size of golf balls cover the ground as this tornado blew through Wichita.

DARLA BRAUN, SURVIVED OKLAHOMA STORMS: It was very eerie, very dark. The sky got very dark. We went to the cellar and we were so thankful. We also had our brains and we knew to go. VALENCIA: A sigh of relief as two missing resident from Shawnee Trailer Park had been found, but Oklahoma is not out of the woods yet as more storms are expected throughout the rest of the day.


VALENCIA: At this hour authorities continue to canvas the area behind me. That's that trailer park that was devastated by that tornado that ripped through here. Zoraida, new information to report, I just spoke to the American Red Cross. They tell me at least 200 homes damaged or destroyed here. Overall, throughout the state of Oklahoma at least 300 homes damaged. Also last night, 28 people spent the night in shelters -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Got a lot of work on their hand. Thanks so much. Nick Valencia live for us.

BERMAN: You heard Nick say the threat of tornadoes is not over yet. We're going to bring in our brand new CNN meteorologist and the newest addition to our team here in the morning. Indra Petersons joins us live. Indra, where are these storms headed next?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, unfortunately. Today can be as bad as yesterday. We're seeing a little bit of the break in the action currently, but look at the last 24 hours. Look how quickly when these storms start to develop. They really blow up. Over two dozen reports of tornadoes quickly spread throughout the plains.

And today that severe weather threat is huge, 55 million of you under this slight risk, another 5 million under a risk for severe weather. We're taking a look at maybe they are concentrated over Wichita all the way up through now a little bit kind of towards Missouri. But again, this will be a slow system.

It is going to stay with us really for the next few days. The severe weather threat is huge. In fact, it will spread about 70 million of you over the next several days as it slowly progresses off to the east. So what is going on? We have all these perfect elements really combining here.

We have that warm moist air filling in out of the gulf. We have dry air. So right along that dry land. We are starting to see the list. We have the low and we have the jet stream, which is allowing turning and seeing the rotation in these clouds and that, course, is what's producing the severe weather. It will be here with us again today. So please everyone stay vigilante.

BERMAN: Stay vigilant, indeed. Indra Petersons for us at the Weather Center. Thank you so much. Again, it could be a busy and dangerous day out there.

SAMBOLI: In Sedgwick County in Kansas faced at least four tornadoes. Two reportedly touched down in the same town. Randy Duncan is the director of Emergency Management for that county and he joins us now over the phone. Thank you so much, sir, for joining us. Really appreciate it. Can you tell us what the latest is in Sedgwick County? RANDY DUNCAN, DIRECTOR, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, SEDGWICK, KANSAS (via telephone): You bet that the latest is really unchanged from yesterday afternoon. We had no fatalities, no injuries and a relatively small amount of property damage. I think somewhere in the neighborhood of 22 structures, a combination of residences, businesses, and rural areas. Given the scope of the storm yesterday, I find it remarkable that I'm able to tell you that today.

SAMBOLIN: We're happy to hear it. How does it compare to what you've experienced in the past in that area?

DUNCAN: Well, as you are aware this is a fairly active area for tornadoes. Our most recent one prior to this one was in April of 2012. We had two rather large ones one back in 1991 in April and another in May of 1999. So, we certainly experience these and I like to think our experience combined with getting the warning out on a very timely basis also contributed to nobody being hurt or killed.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely that warning seems to be incredibly significant here. Also as of last night there were thousands of people without power. Has that changed at all?

DUNCAN: Yes. The numbers are slowly dwindling on that as the utility companies restore power, things are returning to normal. We'll, of course, know a great deal more after sun up today and hopefully everybody will be back online in terms of power.

SAMBOLIN: You know, we're really shocked here. We're seeing the size of this tornado and it looks like you really dodged a bullet. This could have been far worse than it is. Look, it's really incredible. I don't know if you're watching what we're watching. So the CNN Weather Center is saying that Kansas could see a lot of showers thunderstorms today that could actually lead to flooding as well. Do you think you have all the support you need?

DUNCAN: At this point in time, yes. The National Weather Service has taken a look at the tornado damage path from yesterday and officially rated the one tornado as an EF-1. I think that you are correct. We did dodge a bullet because of the heavy precipitation outflow associated with the thunderstorm. It managed to cut the intake off. Otherwise, I think we could have seen a much larger tornado.

SAMBOLIN: Unbelievable. Randy Duncan, we really appreciate your time this morning. Good luck to you. We'll check back in with you.

BERMAN: Still amazing pictures. They are lucky. That is great news this morning.

New this morning we have dramatic new video to show you at least one person was killed early this morning when two hot air balloons collided mid-air. This happened in Turkey. The balloons were flying above several volcanoes. At least 18 people were injured in that crash.

SAMBOLIN: And the White House is struggling to move past a trio of scandals. It's a three-headed beast and despite the apparent altering of Benghazi talking points, tapping of reporter phone records and targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, the president's approval rate is holding steady for now. Here's CNN national political correspondent, Jim Acosta.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As President Obama escaped the White House to deliver a commencement speech in a steady rain at Moorehouse College in Atlanta Republicans were still pouring it on.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: There's a culture of intimidation.

ACOSTA: Top GOP leaders fanned out on the Sunday talk shows vowing to get to the bottom of the IRS targeting scandal involving Tea Party and conservative groups.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R), BUDGET CHAIRMAN: Who knew, when did they know, why did they do this, how high up in the government did it go?

DAN PFEIFFER, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: They are trying to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expedition.

ACOSTA: A feisty senior White House adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, was asked time and again when did the president find out about it?

PFEIFFER: When it came out in the news -- here's why because here's the cardinal rule when you do situation like these. You do not interfere with an independent investigation.

ACOSTA: The IRS scandal hasn't damaged the president's approval numbers according to a new CNN/ORC poll. A deeper look at the numbers finds the public remains concerned about IRS along with questions about Benghazi and the government seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists. After his address to college graduates on Sunday, the president told a Democratic fundraiser it's him versus Washington.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Sometimes you feel as if Washington is impeding rather than advancing of the possibilities that these young people represent.

ACOSTA: But with four hearings featuring top IRS officials coming this week, it is a feeling the president may need to get used to. Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.


SAMBOLIN: President Obama getting very personal while delivering that commencement address yesterday at Moorehouse College in Atlanta. The president focusing on the subject of race and responsibility at the all male, historically black alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, his speech was short, but it did not lack emotion.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs and have been due to that sense of connection and empathy, the special obligation I felt as a black man like you to help those who need it most, people who didn't have the opportunities that I had. Because there but for the grace of God go I might have been in their shoes, I might have been in prison, I might have been unemployed, I might not have been able to support a family and that motivates me.


SAMBOLIN: Powerful words there. The president also called on the Moorehouse graduates to be responsible family men and extend a hand to those less privileged.

BERMAN: Coming up --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the best tornado video of my life.


BERMAN: Look at that. Listen to that. A terrifying twister caught on tape. The two brave storm chasers that took that video will join us.

SAMBOLIN: Plus, who are they and will they come forward? Is it a they? One winner in the record half billion dollar jackpot and Florida residents are eager to find out who among them is the luckiest person in America this morning. We're going to live to Florida.

BERMAN: And then internet celebrity Kai, the Hitchhike, is asking for your help to fight a murder rap. Are you ready to cut him a check? That story next.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. So, there's just one winning ticket in that largest Powerball drawing ever, $590 million, going to a winner in Zephyrhills, Florida. So, the ticket was sold at this grocery store. But so far, no one has come forward to claim the half billion dollar prize.

CNN's John Zarrella is in Zephyrhills, Florida -- where speculation is running wild this morning, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. You know, it was really quite comical out here, pretty much all day yesterday. A lot of people showing up here at Publix with their tickets in hand, going inside to check to see if they had the number.

And, of course, all of us the collective media, running around and asking all of them, hey, did you have the ticket? Did you have the ticket? And, of course, no one has come forward.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): This is the Zephyrhills, Florida Publix. This is where someone, we don't know who yet, bought the single winning ticket in the richest Powerball ever, $590.5 million.

Some of the Sunday shoppers we spoke with either had no idea the ticket was purchased here or already had relatives calling. Some long lost.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm hearing from relatives all over the country.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Wanting to know if you have the winning ticket.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolutely, that I haven't heard from in years. I told them, but you have to buy a ticket.

ZARRELLA: And you didn't?


ZARRELLA: Did you happen to buy the Powerball?


ZARRELLA: Let's see, check the ticket. No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it wasn't me.

ZARRELLA: Wasn't you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's all I got.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Now, the winner has 60 days to claim the cash pay out prize and show up at Florida lottery headquarters in Tallahassee to collect. The winner can take an immediate cash pay out of $377 million after taxes or a smaller pay out now, followed by yearly pay outs over the next 29 years.

In a statement, Publix made it clear it was letting the media drive who won it speculation. Publix said, quote, "We offered the lottery as a service to our customers. However, we do not promote the lottery nor do we participate in lottery stories. We're excited for the winner and respect their privacy as well."

Privacy for the winner, that won't last long. By Florida law once he, she or they come forward, the name is public.


ZARRELLA: You know, this Publix back here is quite clearly is the most famous supermarket in the world yesterday and today and certainly going forward. But, you know, John, it's hard to believe and fathom with all those millions and millions of tickets bought only one winning ticket. That's amazing. BERMAN: It is. That person, he, she or they when they come forward, if they need a new best friend, John, I am available.


BERMAN: All right. John Zarrella for us --

ZARRELLA: Yes, get in line.

BERMAN: Exactly. In Zephyrhills, thanks a lot, John.

SAMBOLIN: It is 18 minutes past the hour. Jodi Arias could find out as soon as today if she will receive the death penalty for the brutal murder of her boyfriend Travis Alexander. Arias is set to take the stand today, along with her ex-boyfriend Darryl Brewer and her friend Patricia Wilmack (ph), as the sentencing phase of her trial continues.

Once testimony is wrapped up, prosecution and defense teams will offer their final statement and the case will go the jury who must decide life in prison and the death penalty for Arias.

Kai the hitchhiker is establishing an online legal defense fund. Yes, he is. The 24-year-old viral video star is facing murder charges in New Jersey. He's accused of fatally bludgeoning a 73-year-old lawyer Joseph Galfy, Jr. at Galfy's home in Clark, New Jersey.

Excuse me. A check this morning of his Go Fund Me legal defense Web site shows $247 in donations. That's far short of his $3 million goal.

BERMAN: Long way to go.

All right. Coming up this morning, listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bret, it's back here. We got to go, dude!




BERMAN: Just listen to that. The incredible footage inside one of the tornadoes that ripped apart the Midwest and Plains. We're going to talk to the two brave men who chased down this twister, next.

SAMBOLIN: Did you hear him say we got to go soon? Oh, my gosh.

And then, a firsthand account of what was happening aboard this aircraft as passengers prepared for a crash landing. One woman's fateful tale of the flight she was never supposed to take.


SAMBOLIN: Twenty-three minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

Prices at the pump are creeping up. So, right now, the average price of a gallon of unleaded gas is $3.65 a gallon. That's up over 11 cents in the past two weeks. In the summer driving season, straight ahead. So, you know that that's -- that's what happens every year, right?

Zain Asher is live from Richfield, New Jersey, this morning. What's driving up these prices?

ZAIN ASHER, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Zoraida. Well, much of the price hikes are actually coming from the Midwest. Out there, gas prices have risen by more than 43 cents a gallon in the past week alone. Out there, a lot of refineries are closing for scheduled maintenance, so things like inspections and repairs, that kind of thing. It is normal, it does happen this time of the year, right before the summer driving season.

Also, a lot of refineries are switching over to summer blend of gasoline. It is more eco-friendly, but also slightly more expensive as well.

All of this is putting pressure on supplies, and that is sending prices higher. Let me give you and example of what the Midwest states are dealing with right now in terms of rising gas prices. Minnesota, $4.28 a gallon. North Dakota, $4.20 a gallon. Also in Nebraska, $4.05 a gallon.

I'm here in New Jersey. The average price of gas is slightly less, $3.40 a gallon, but they have risen in the last week. Here's what drivers are saying.


SOR PEREZ, NEW YORK RESIDENT: It's really hurting a lot of people's pockets. The economy is bad. There's no work out here. You can't even spend nothing, because you if you do spend something, you got to know what you got to budget on. It's difficult to surviving out here, especially with these gas prices. You can't take your kids anywhere.


ASHER: And one analyst I spoke to said he expects gas prices to continue rising through Memorial Day weekend. Of course, demands of gasoline surges, and everyone sort of driving across the country for the holiday. But he says that after that in early June, he does expect prices to start to decline -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Let's hold him to that, how about that, Zain? Hold them accountable in June.


BERMAN: -- guy in jail if gas prices don't go down? Are you threatening the gas price guy now?

SAMBOLIN: No, no. No, no.

Thank you, Zain. Thank you.

Maybe Zain will join me on that. Apparently you won't.

Coming up --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the best tornado video of my life.


SAMBOLIN: So they are a force majeure that pulverizes everything in their path. We're going to talk to the men who actually take down these tornadoes. They film the fury of this particular storm and live to tell about it.

BERMAN: And then a crash landing caught on tape. This is an unbelievable story. We're going to have a firsthand account of what was happening aboard this aircraft as passengers prepared for the worst.