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Heartland Gets Hammered; Interview with Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma; Obama's Trifecta of Trouble

Aired May 20, 2013 - 08:00   ET



ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. Our STARTING POINT this morning, at least one person killed as dozens of tornadoes tear apart the heartland. We'll go live to the ground of one of the hardest hit areas with a look at the destruction and what we can expect today.

SAMBOLIN: And then a firefighter is trapped inside a condo building, it is on fire right now. We'll have all the details ahead.

BERMAN: Absolutely crazy pictures. Inside the jaws of a grizzly bear, one wildlife photographer was able to capture the moment when he chomped down on his camera inside the mouth of a grizzly bear, all by accident. We'll meet the photographer live coming up. It is Monday, May 20th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

SAMBOLIN: And we begin with breaking news this morning. We're getting initial estimates that a rash of violent storms damaged or destroyed some 300 homes in Oklahoma. The tornado hit Central Oklahoma bearing down on the city of Shawnee. We know that one man who lived in a trailer park in that area has died, about a dozen others are injured, and the twisters tearing roofs off of home, downing power lines. Trees are down.

The National Weather Service says tornado reports stretched through the country's midsection. Take a look at that map, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois. Nick Valencia is in hard hit Shawnee, Oklahoma. It's finally daylight. What are you seeing this morning, Nick?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Zoraida. And with daylight comes a new perspective. We're able to see some of the houses in fact that were hit and it really gives you a sense of the power and the magnitude of this storm.


VALENCIA (voice-over): You can hear the roar as this half-mile wide tornado tears across the land headed straight toward Shawnee, Oklahoma. A total of 26 twisters plowed through four states in the Midwest Sunday, over 45 homes damaged, one person killed, and at least a dozen injured.

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

VALENCIA: The hardest hit, a trailer park near Shawnee, Oklahoma. Mobile homes toppled over, houses demolished.

Our affiliate KFOR pilot Jon Welsh says 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?

JON WELSH, KFOR PILOT: Yes, just the -- I mean, I'm used to seeing trees ripped up. But the houses are usually there. This, it was gone. Everything was just -- it was just gone like you took the house, you put it in a gigantic blender, you turned it on pulse for a couple of minutes, and then you just dumped it out.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Electricity went out and then it was hit (INAUDIBLE) was like because there were tree limbs flying, we just kind of hunkered down and hope for the best.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My brother-in-law called me and I was at home and he said that a tree had fallen on my mother's house and I needed to pick her up. She's 79 years old. She's diabetic. She's blind.

VALENCIA: Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency in 16 counties. The residents fortunate enough to get under ground were in utter 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's 13 people living in hour house, and it ripped off the top storm shelter. It sounds 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 were going to 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. It was very dark. The sky got very dark. We went to the cellar and we were so thankful that we also had our brains and we knew to go.

VALENCIA: A sigh of relief as two missing residents from Shawnee trailer park have been found. But Oklahoma isn't out of the woods yet as more storms are expected throughout the rest of the day.


VALENCIA: And behind me, you can see one of the homes that suffered damage, its roof completely gone.

Just a short time ago, I spoke to resident Kimberly Graham who really put a human face on this tragedy here. Her home, lost, just wiped away -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Nick Valencia live for us, thank you for that.

BERMAN: And thing is the threat not fading in that region.

CNN meteorologist and the newest edition to our team here in the morning, Indra Petersons joins us live now.

And, Indra, where are these storms headed next?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, unfortunately, today, it could be potentially as dangerous as yesterday.

Look at this huge swathe of area. We're talking about 500 square miles under the gun for severe weather, about 55 million of you today. And look how the threat has spread to large metropolitan areas. So, we're talking Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, even all the way down once again towards Shawnee. It looks like they are once again in a moderate risk area.

So, it looks like that has shifted farther to the east now including portions of Missouri today. It looks like unfortunately, this is going to last with us for another couple more days. I mean, as we go in towards Tuesday, still another huge swathe. We're talking about 70 million people affected by the severe weather and even lingering pushing a little bit farther east and getting a little bit small, into portions of New York as the time we go through Wednesday.

Now, keep in mind we have all the ingredients out there that we need. That is what's going on. We're seeing that warm moist air baking up against the dry air. So, it's just enough to give us that lift out there, we have all the perfect ingredients. We have the low in place and then on top of it, we have the strong winds at the very high upper levels.

So, what does that mean, it allows the storms to get rotation in there and with that of course, we have the risk for tornadoes. But keep in mind, that's not the only risk out there. We have reports of large hail, downpours, potential for flooding is out there. And that's something people don't always think about.

A lot of people actually die from flooding. They try and go for these floodwaters. So, please be careful. Only six inches of water, that's all it takes to take a person out. Also, about two feet of water, that's enough to really take a large vehicle downstream. So please don't be trying to cross any of the waters out there. What we're going to looking at again is the severe weather continues throughout the week. So, please everyone, pay attention out there, have a plan and, of course, look around. Make sure you know what's going on around you.

BERMAN: That's right. Please be careful out there and stay with CNN all day because we will bring you the latest on these storms. Indra Petersons, thank you so much.

SAMBOLIN: Five minutes past the hour.

Oklahoma is one of five states hard hit by an outbreak of violent tornadoes, at least four of them touching down in the central part of the state. This is a live look at Little Axe, Oklahoma. One person has died, and anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people have been reported injured, as well.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin will be touring the state today to survey all of the damage and she joins me now over the phone.

Governor Fallin, I really appreciate you taking some time. I know that you're very busy. Last night you declared a state of emergency for 16 counties.

What is the extent of the damage that you're seeing?

GOV. MARY FALLIN, OKLAHOMA (via telephone): Well, the extent of the damage so far is that we know we have somewhere around 123 homes and businesses that have been destroyed that once again we're still in the rescue and recovery state, trying to get through the various community. We had so many different tornadoes throughout the state.

It was difficult to keep up with all that was going on because it was all happening within an hour to three-hour time span. We have unfortunately lost one person. And certainly have people that have been injured.

And let me make a correction: it's 23 people that were injured, excuse me, not homes. We know we had more homes than that.

We have declared a state of emergency throughout the state and we have 16 counties that have received damage. We're working to get local jurisdictions, their phones and equipment to be able to do the cleanup and recovery and to allow us to move forward to seek federal aid. And right now, I'll be going out in a couple hours to survey all the damage and to work with all of our emergency personnel and our various state agencies to make sure we're getting everything people need on the ground.

SAMBOLIN: So, Governor, what sort of resources are you needing in those areas?

FALLIN: Well, right now, we're still in the recovery stage to make sure that we have all the people located. People are still reporting some damage in the various areas, and to give equipment, back hoes, electricity back on. At one point last night, we had 23,000 businesses and homes without electricity. And now I think we're down to about 7,000 or so that are without electricity.

We're trying to get the highways cleaned up. We had the semi-truck overturned on a major interstate, and that highway was blocked for many, many hours. And certainly traffic was stopped in that immediate area, and trying to help people locate places to stay.

A lot of people of course when you go through a disaster like this, they want to stay as close to their property to see if they can find items to be able to recover. In fact, I've had one of my staff members totally lost her home last night, the lady that does all the scheduling for the governor's office. And several friends that lost their homes.

So, we certainly send our thoughts and prayers out to those that have suffered so much through the storm.

SAMBOLIN: And we do, as well, Governor Fallin. I know you're busy. I don't want to keep you any longer. Good luck to you.

And we'll continue to check in with you throughout the day. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Happening right now: a firefighter is trapped in a six alarm condo fire in northeast Dallas. This is a live look at the scene. You can see them trying to get the fire out.

At least five residents had to be rescued from there. One was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation. We will continue to monitor this scene and bring you updates throughout the morning.

There is a commuting nightmare ahead for many Northeast rail passengers and sure will affect people on the roads as well. A key section of track remains closed following Friday's collision between two Metro North trains in Connecticut.

NTSB investigators are now focusing on a broken rail as a possible cause for this crash which injured at least 70 people. Five of those remain hospitalized this morning, one in serious condition. A long stretch of track in Connecticut remains shut down indefinitely affecting Metro North and Amtrak service from New York to Boston, which is an extremely busy stretch of track.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of people affected there. And ahead, the White House conditions shake questions about the IRS scandal and the biggest one, when did the White House really find out about it?


BERMAN: Three scandals have the White House playing defense this morning. According to the last CNN/ORC poll, voters believe the altering of Benghazi talking points, the tapping of reporters' phone records and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS are all very serious matters, but not serious enough apparently to erode the president's job approval rating.

CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta live now from Washington. What's the latest, Jim?


Yes, the president has taken his lumps, but it's not showing up in the latest CNN/ORC poll which shows approval numbers are holding up, despite this triple-trouble facing the Obama administration. But how long that lasts depends on how long all of this goes on.



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

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: There is a culture of intimidation throughout the administration.

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

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: Who knew, when did they know, why did they do this, how high up in government did it go?

DAN PFEIFFER, W.H. SENIOR ADVISOR: What they want to do in their lacking of positive agenda is try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions.

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

PFEIFFER: When it came out on the news a week ago Friday, I think. Here's why, because here's the cardinal rule when you deal with situations like, not for just this White House but for all White Houses, is you do not interfere in an independent investigation.

ACOSTA: The IRS scandal hasn't damaged the president's approval numbers according to a new CNN/ORC poll. But a deeper look at the numbers finds the public remains concerned about the IRS, along with the 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.

OBAMA: Sometimes you feel as if Washington is impeding rather than advancing the possibilities that these young people represent.


ACOSTA: Now, as to who knew what when, the White House is now acknowledging the Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel, did find out about this IRS audit that was looking into these allegations that Tea Party groups were being targeted by the IRS during the week of April 22n.

But the president will have the chance to change the conversation later this afternoon when he meets with the president of Myanmar. No news conference on the schedule, John, but it's possible we may hear from the president on everything that's going on right now, John.

BERMAN: All right. Jim at the White House, thanks so much.

I want to pick up on what scrim was talking about now with part of the best political team on television. John King is CNN's chief national correspondent. He joins me now from Washington.

And, John, you just heard Jim talking about the fact that the White House counsel knew about the IRS investigation some three weeks ago. We're not talking years ago, we're talking three weeks right now.

What significance of the counsel knowing that when she knew it?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, what it does is it gives Republicans more opening to say, ah-ha. What else is going on at the White House?

And they will continue to do. You're right, the most important point is we have zero evidence -- zero evidence -- the White House was tipped off this was happening during the campaign, that they knew the investigation was this full throttle.

There were some public notices at I.G. of the Treasury Department and the IRS was looking in to it generally, but did the White House know of the findings during the campaign? No.

But this is a key point. You just heard Dan Pfeiffer, the White House adviser, saying, you don't get meddle in an inquiry.

Well, that's not the issue. The White House counsel and were told the treasury secretary as well were told a few weeks ago of the findings, not meddling in the investigation, but of the findings. And the White House is saying, nobody pass that on to the president. That is going to cause some question internally, saying, hey, a minute, somebody, a little tone deaf here, some should have known this was going to blow up and someone should have told the president. So, a lot of questions about who did know inside the White House.

And trust me, John, you know this well, the Republicans see that smoke and they're going to keep after it.

BERMAN: They sure do. Well, obviously, John, the questions are: is the president keyed in into what is going on in his administration?

A lot of Republicans saying no, and a lot of Republicans are going on TV over the last few and on the weekend, you know, pushing very, very hard here. And Democrats are suggesting it could be overreach.

What do you think?

KING: It could possibly be overreach. The Republicans need to be very careful here. If you look at our new poll, American people think so far, a majority of the American people think so far, the Republicans are acting appropriately when it comes to asking questions about Benghazi, asking about the IRS.

But if you go too far, it can backfire. We saw this in the Clinton administration, during the whole impeachment saga. And so, for Republicans, the Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor met with some of the key chair men on their side last week when it comes to Benghazi saying, keep going, keep pushing, but keep the conspiracy theory rhetoric to a minimum.

Competing pressures on the Republicans here because their base, John, loves this issue. The base loves going after Obama on Benghazi, going after Hillary Clinton on Benghazi, now going after the president, targeting the Tea Party groups. So heading into 2014 and the midterms, the Republican base loves the confrontation, but if you want to do legitimate oversight and not essentially go too far, they need to be careful.

BERMAN: You see the White House trying to play offense now. Dan Pfeiffer was out over the weekend on five top shoes, I'm sure it would have been more if he could. You have the chief of staff Denis McDonough saying that he wants the White House staff to focus no more than 10 percent of their energy, 10 percent of their time on the scandals right now.

What message are they trying to send with that?

KING: It's wishful thinking, but what he's trying to do -- remember, when in a second term, we have some turnover in the White House staff, a lot of the more experienced people have moved on. And what you're trying to say is don't get rattled. Don't get rattled. Let's keep doing our business. Let's keep focusing on the economy, let's keep focusing on immigration reform, let's keep focusing on other issues.

But, John, again, so in a second term, the time is ticking. Any president, any president, life and politics aren't fair. The first year of a second term is critical and we've seen this president lose some precious time. That's an effort by the chief of staff to try to tell the staff, look, we're going to have to answer questions from Congress, going to answer these from the media. But we can't forget the other things that are important to the president.

BERMAN: And there's a lot still on the plate, a lot still on the plate of Congress here. You know, there are major issues at play, here, including immigration reform. How do these scandals affect the ability to get something like that through?

KING: That's a fascinating question to watch here, because we know some conservative groups don't want an immigration bill that gives even a path to legal status, let alone a path to citizenship for the millions who enter this country illegally.

So far both in the Senate and to a degree in the House, a lesser degree, but also to a degree in the House, you have some momentum for a bill that would at least have legal status and perhaps some path to citizenship. Conservatives will see a weak in the president and they will go after their leadership saying don't give him this, go after this.

The question for the Republicans politically is, do they think they can go through 2014 and 2016 without doing something on this big issue. And I'll tell you something, a lot of people are waiting to see if the Republicans decide to be more stubborn, if you will with the president.

I sat down last with Bob Goodlatte, John. He's the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, someone who in the past labeled amnesty any path to citizenship. He said to me he's going to do everything in his power to make sure that Benghazi, IRS, these other issues don't distract from trying to get immigration done. We'll see how that plays in the weeks ahead.

But the Republicans realize they need that issue politically, too. So there may be despite this kind of sour mood in Washington in the moment, there might be a shared interest there.

BERMAN: It would be interesting to see. John King in Washington for us today, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

SAMBOLIN: Nineteen minutes past the hour.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, she never thought that he would show up. We'll meet the high school senior who got the shock of a lifetime when her favorite NBA player surprised her at prom. And there she is.

Nicole Muxo joins us live right here on CNN, right after this quick break.



I love this story. It all started with a YouTube video. High school senior Nicole Muxo sent a pretty creative invitation to Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade over Twitter asking him to her senior prom.


NICOLE MUXO, INVITED DWYANE WADE TO PROM: Hey, Dwayne Wade. My name is Nicole. My senior prom is coming up and I have everything set for a perfect night except for one thing, a perfect date. So, since you're my favorite basketball player, I was wondering --


SAMBOLIN: All right. Well, Nicole got the surprise of her lifetime when Dwyane Wade actually showed up. Look at this. She was in complete shock. What a moment.

Joining us is the lucky girl herself.

Nicole, thanks for being with us this morning. We really appreciate it.

So did you have no idea that he was going to show up to your prom?

MUXO: No idea at all. I was super shocked when he showed up. I was so excited and happy that he was there.

SAMBOLIN: So tell me how you asked him because this was in the middle of the playoff, wasn't it?

MUXO: Yes. I figured he wouldn't show up because, you know, his busy schedule and everything. But I made a video because it's worth a shot. And he ended up showing up.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, Wade tweeted on Friday, "I had a blast at prom with Nicole. Never be scared to ask. They might just say yes."

Did he tell you that? What did he first tell you when you are in his arms there?

MUXO: He was -- well, when he called me on the phone, he was like, oh, I'm sorry I can't be there. And then he ended up walking in. And he said he had a great time. So it was fun.

SAMBOLIN: So we see you dancing with him. So, A, how are his dancing skills and did he ever mention that he has an injury?

MUXO: He was dancing pretty good, but at the end, he was like I have to go ice my knee now.

SAMBOLIN: So did you have another date to prom also other than Dwyane Wade?

MUXO: I did. I had another date. He was my friend. But he had no problem with Dwyane Wade being there. He was super happy and excited, too.

SAMBOLIN: I bet he was a really good sport about it because who gets to hang out with Dwyane Wade. Did he get to hang out with him, too?

MUXO: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: How long did he spend at prom with you?

MUXO: He was there for about 45 minutes to an hour. We danced for a while and then we went to take pictures and do interviews.

SAMBOLIN: As I understand it, you have actually reached out to him in the past, is that true, for a homecoming?

MUXO: Yes, I have. At his book signing, I had written on a book mark will you be my date to my senior homecoming. But he was busy with practice for the season that was about to start. So he couldn't make it. So I tried again for prom and he ended up coming.

SAMBOLIN: You are one tenacious young lady. Good for you.

Nicole Muxo, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

MUXO: No problem.

SAMBOLIN: A great story she has to tell.

BERMAN: Let me say, you better play well against the Pacers because if he's not good in game 1, people are going to be saying like, Dwayne Wade, you went to the prom.


SAMBOLIN: You have to ice your knee. I know, I know.

BERMAN: That knee better be OK.

SAMBOLIN: And ahead on STARTING POINT: Jodi Arias expected to take the stand today in her own defense. How could her testimony affect the jury's decision to give her life or death?

BERMAN: And then check out the most amazing picture you will ever see. A grizzly bear decides to take the bite out of a camera and lucky for us, the camera was rolling. We'll take you inside the mouth of a grizzly bear.


SAMBOLIN: You're way too excited about this.

BERMAN: I've never seen anything like this. This is amazing.

SAMBOLIN: Neither have I, but I'm grossed out by it.

BERMAN: And we'll gross you out even more, later.

Stay with us.