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Two Powerful Twisters, One Familiar Path; Strength In The Face Of Loss; "Sticking It Out"

Aired May 21, 2013 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I'm live in Moore, Oklahoma amid the tornado destruction here. Surrounding me, there are so many amazing stories of survival. I want to bring in chief national correspondent John King. John, you met some folks in the Plaza Towers neighborhood not far from one of the schools that was hit. What did they have to tell you?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Just a remarkable story. Because it looks like this. There are hundreds of them. Home site after home site after home site, and they are devastated. Well, Paul and Rena Phillips were in their home yesterday. Jake, they lost everything in 1999. They call that May 3rd. Already folks are calling this May 20th. And they lost everything in 1999.

One big difference. When they rebuilt this time, they put in one of those little storm basements below the house. And when they heard the storm coming they got down there, eight of them. Eight of them. Rena the grandmother, their two-year-old grandchild. They talked about how loud it was in there and they talked about just how remarkable.

Listen to just a bit of their story about being in there and waiting. We've seen the first responders coming through here. Imagine waiting just after it hit.


KING: Where were you when it happened?

RENA PHILLIPS, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I was in the cellar with my daughter, my daughter-in-law, who is pregnant.

PAUL PHILLIPS, TORNADO SURVIVOR: The cellar full of water now. That's what they came out of. The fire department had to dig them out. The four grand kids, our son, our daughter, our daughter-in-law - our pregnant daughter-in-law.


KING: They dug you out?


KING: What time was that? R. PHILLIPS: Oh, I don't know. What time was it? As soon as the storm was over and we just opened up the cellar door. Got out of the hole about this big where they could get some signals from the phone and called the emergency line. And then they turned around and we just started screaming and they said they had to get people in there because they couldn't get us out. Then they pulled the debris up.

KING: How many of you were down there?


KING: Eight of you? Everyone is okay?


P. PHILLIPS: Everyone is okay. One of our neighbors was killed. They found her. You know, but overall I think, so far that's the only fatality we've had in our neighborhood.

R. PHILLIPS: That we know of.


KING: That's just after daybreak. We got there, went into the neighborhood. They tried to go back last night and couldn't go back. You saw the photo. He showed me on the phone and then he texted it to me. We'll put it on the screen for you. He said the house collapsed on top of their basement. They had this little tiny hole and they were just screaming and screaming. And the first responders came and took them out. Eight of them, a pregnant daughter, a two-year-old grandchild.

And when they went back this morning, Jake, they went back not only to find memorabilia but they had two dogs. Titan was alive -- shaking, trembling, clearly dehydrated and shaken up. But they got one of their dogs and were searching the neighborhood hoping to find the other. We met many people who came back not to try to find just some piece of memorabilia but a pet.

TAPPER: One of the things people don't realize necessarily is that it is very expensive in Oklahoma to build a cellar because of the geology. The dirt is so moist, it is very tough to do so. That is why more people don't have them.

Thank you, John King. Appreciate it.

It's nothing short of a miracle that people caught in the middle of this 17-mile-long monster that tore through Moore lived to tell us about their experience. As we mentioned, the National Weather Service says it found EF-5 damage in at least one area. That's the Enhanced Fujita scale, which measures tornadoes based on their intensity and the amount of damage they leave behind. It does not get more powerful than an EF-5. Those are twisters that cause widespread devastation powerful enough to flatten homes and buildings. They have estimated wind gusts of more than 200 miles an hour. There's a reason why Oklahoma has seen so many of these powerful tornadoes over the years. It sits in the heart of what's called Tornado Alley. It's an area that spans from Texas up through the nation's midsection. What makes this area so vulnerable is that moist air from the Gulf of Mexico gets caught between the warm, dry air from the desert and cold, dry air from the Colorado Rockies. It's a recipe for instability and intense thunderstorms. While it may seem like tornadoes are more frequent now than they were a few decades ago, the reality is people are much more observant when it comes to tornadoes spotting than they used to be.

I want to bring in now Allison , a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. She joins me now.

Allison, first let's talk about the scope of the damage. We know that 24 people have been confirmed dead. More than 200 injured. How is the Red Cross dealing with this tragedy? What is the Red Cross doing for the survivors?

ALLISON KOENIGBAUER, SPOKESWOMAN, RED CROSS: Well, right now what we're doing is assessing the immediate needs of the people which is food, clothing, and shelter. When we can provide that first, and foremost, that is the way to go. Because those are the needs they have right this very moment.

Then after we assess the damage, we can see what other things they need and bring those things in.

TAPPER: How are you providing shelter? Are there cots set up in gyms? Are there vouchers for hotels and motels?

KOENIGBAUER: We have various shelters set up. One in Moore right now. We have three others that are set up outside of the area as well. And we have cots and food and blankets and mental health support. Things that you may need when you go to a shelter to be able to process some of this stuff when evacuated from your home.

TAPPER: What can people do watching right now to help? They can text, obviously. Tell us how to do that. And what else can they do?

KOENIGBAUER: You can text to give. Text Red Cross to 90999 --

TAPPER: That gives $10 to the Red Cross.

KOENIGBAUER: A $10 donation. And you know what? Giving a donation is really a great thing to do right now. It prepares the Red Cross to respond immediately to disasters like this. We don't know when this is going to happen. But if we're prepared, we can respond to things like this quickly.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much. Really appreciate the work that you do.


TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD, the severe weather threat is not over. With tornadoes not out of the question in many areas we'll go to the CNN Weather Center for the latest forecast.

Plus, it followed almost the exact same path. We'll show you the eerie similarities between this storm and what they call around here May 3rd. That's the May 3rd, 1999 tornado that hit this part of Oklahoma. That's next as our special coverage continues.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper in Moore, Oklahoma. You're looking at live pictures of the stars and stripes hanging from a home that has been destroyed. On the other side of that home, the owner spray painted, "We survived 5-20-2013."

The sun is starting to come out here in Moore, Oklahoma, as they're digging through the rubble trying to piece their lives back together. But survivor Justin Stefan, whom I met earlier today, just about a house or two over, says that all that matters is that his family is okay. His home is destroyed. But his wife and his three children are all right. I caught up with him as he was trying to salvage what he could from what was left of his home after the tornado.


TAPPER: Where was your family when this happened?

JUSTIN STEFAN, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I was at work. But my wife and two younger kids were here.

TAPPER: They were here.

STEFAN: Well, not when the storm hit but they were at home when the sirens went off. They went across the street. They have a cellar in their back yard.

TAPPER: To a neighbor's.

STEFAN: Yes. Right across the street.

TAPPER: And everyone survived? Everyone was okay?

STEFAN: My daughter was at Plaza Towers, my oldest, but she just got a little cut on her leg that need a few stitches. Other than that, she did fine.

TAPPER: It's messed up to say that, but you are guys are incredibly blessed considering the horror that's happened here.

STEFAN: Very much.

TAPPER: And where are you going?

STEFAN: Well, I don't think I can get the car out, but I'm just trying to save pictures and like the little Thomas for my son. Little things that mean the most to my family.

TAPPER: Where are you going to stay? STEFAN: I have family that live in Moore -- in Norman and up in Edmond, so we'll probably be rotating back and forth between them.

TAPPER: What do you do? How do you pick up and start again?

STEFAN: I just -- I really don't know. I just know my family is safe, so that's the only thing that really matters to me.

TAPPER: That's right. God bless you, sir. Good luck to you. I'm so glad your family is okay.

STEFAN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.


TAPPER: Amazing thing about Justin Stefan. As we were standing there, he offered me and my producer water. He wanted to know if there was anything we needed. There wasn't anything we needed, and our thanks to him, and we're glad he and his family are okay.

There is science behind the tornado with the size and power of the one that hit this town, but there rarely seems to be any logic to it. So many structures blown away. Others battered but still standing.

I want to bring in Tom Foreman. Tom, can you help us understand how this monster moved across the region?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, really this is one of the great mysteries of tornadoes. When you look at this kind of extraordinary damage, you wonder why does one place last and another does not? After all, when the storm came cutting through here, it was an equal opportunity destroyer, going all the way through the neighborhood, cutting a wide swath and hitting many, many different buildings. So, why did some stand and others not?

A bit of it is chance. It may be that the gust is over 200 miles an hour in one place, and 50 feet away, it may only be 150 miles an hour. If your house gets hit by those strong ones, it makes a difference. But there's also some real physics at work here and the physics of construction.

Let's bring in a model of a house here and talk about this. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has looked at the way wind hits a building like this, the way in a storm like this it hits one side pushing and creates a vacuum on the other side which pulls away. That creates low pressure making the pressure in the house want to burst out and the whole time as wind rushes up over it. It grabs the eaves and tries to open it like a can opener.

They have come up with this standard of what happens to most homes in that case and this is what it is. Basically, up to about 97 miles an hour, most homes can keep their roof on. Once the roof is torn away at about 132 miles an hour you start seeing walls failing and around 200 miles an hour the home is completely wiped out.

So many places where there is no home at all because at some moment in that storm it crested 200 miles an hour in that particular spot and that is what took the home out even though it might not have done it to a house only 50, 60 feet away because the wind may not have been quite that strong there.

What about something like the school? This is a very different type of structure as you can see. It is flat and broad and the standards are different here. In this case, the winds will take the roof at about 101 miles an hour so only slightly more than the house. The walls will go about 139 miles per hour. Overall, the whole building can be taken about 176 miles an hour.

That has to do with the structure. Think about this. This is broad. All of the rooms in a school by and large are bigger than the rooms in your home. So if the roof and the walls start failing, there's less to support it than you would have in your home with smaller rooms and so it goes away.

And finally, let's look at one last class here. Things like the hospital down here. We've all looked at this hospital today. It's huge. It's standing right in the storm's path. It gets hit like a giant sail. You might think this would be the first to collapse but the construction in a building like this is much more robust than you might think.

Look at the standards here. Basically this roof is going to stay on up to about 114 miles an hour. The walls can stay in place up to 148 miles an hour. Even if the roof and walls start failing here, you're probably just talking about the upper layers of it here and maybe the top floor but not all of them.

All of that concrete and steel really does make a genuine difference so the whole building will hold up on average to about 210 miles an hour. I want to make one last point, Jake, about the notion of averages. We are talking about averages here.

There are maximums that have also been calculated by NOAA and they're worth noticing. An average house out there can stand a maximum wind of about 220 and might still be standing. You might still have a chance. The average elementary school out there considerably lower.

Remember what we said about all the big buildings. Then a hospital, big building like that, pushing 270 miles an hour before you're almost certain that it will come down. So, Jake, there is an element of chance that everyone out there is painfully aware of, but there is also pure physics to explain why some places stood and others fell.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Tom Foreman, thank you so much. Still ahead on THE LEAD, a little girl worried she would fly away. A teacher pinned under a car, a man begging God to spare his life, incredible stories of survival in their own words. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We're on southwest 6th Street and Moore. You're looking at our friend Justin Stefan, the one whose home was destroyed. He came back to get items with friends and family with a remarkable attitude. He, his wife, and three children are all OK.

Now they're surveying the damage, recovering more items. He told us his offer to give us water still stands, an incredible guy, Justin Stefan. The people here in Oklahoma are helping each other out, chipping in, bonding together. It's really remarkable to watch.

Many in the path of the tornado must have felt like they were reliving a nightmare because it not only took a nearly identical path as another monster twister, but it left a similar amount of devastation in its wake.


TAPPER (voice-over): These are images of widespread devastation in the aftermath of a ruthless force of nature. Not from Monday's tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, but from a twister that slammed the exact same area, 14 years ago on May 3rd, 1999.

For nearly an hour and a half, the 1999 tornado pummelled a 38-mile path that included the areas of Newcastle and Moore. In a cruel twist of fate, the paths of both storms were nearly identical, at times, even overlapping.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: What you're looking at right now in Moore, Oklahoma is what you could have seen if you had been there in 1999.

TAPPER: The 1999 tornado rated an EF-5 the maximum on the scale causing the fastest wind speed ever recorded on earth. And though yesterday's storm was given a preliminary rating of EF-4 it was no less horrific for a community that thought it had already seen the worst of what Mother Nature has to offer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just hard to believe that something like this could happen again to Moore, itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were equally devastating. I think the fact that what we see so far today is going to be very similar if not exceed what we saw in 1999.

TAPPER: Heather Moore survived both the 1999 and Monday's storms and last night she called in to Piers Morgan.

HEATHER MOORE (via telephone): It was very, very similar. Cars were turned over. Some houses were knocked down, some all gone.

TAPPER: Perhaps lessons learned from that epic 1999 storm saved lives when Monday's tornado tore through town. The people of this community will no doubt show the same resolve and resilience to rebuild just as they did nearly 15 years ago.


TAPPER: Insurance claims for the most recent tornado will likely top more than a billion dollars according to an official with the Oklahoma Insurance Commission. That cost would be higher than the 1999 tornado.

Coming up on THE LEAD, what was it like to live through this devastating tornado? Survivors shared their stories in their own words as our special coverage continues, that's coming up next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper live in Moore, Oklahoma where the sun is only now just beginning to come out, revealing an explicit detail of the devastation here, which is heart breaking. The stories of survival and courage and selflessness are just beginning to come to light as well.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've lost everything. We don't have anything left. My parents, I can't get a hold of them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: My mom told me to pray. I was frightened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we walked out of here it looked like a war zone. I've never experienced anything like it in my life.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I had to hold on to the wall to keep myself safe because I didn't want to fly away in the tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had to pull a car out of the front hallway off a teacher and I don't know what that lady's name is, but she had three little kids underneath her. Good job, Teach.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We grabbed our motorcycle helmets and headed to the closet and prayed like hell and luckily the only room that was spared was the room we were in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was just carnage, you know, but it had to be done. People had to be helped. People were running up and down the streets and I got them hollering out if you can hear me call out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You basically ran from pile to pile and waited for someone to scream.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's painful. Just the sound is pain. You think of what if that was my family member, what if that was me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like a battle zone. There is nothing standing. No trees. No houses anywhere around. No landmarks. You don't know where you are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard the roar. I grabbed my dog and went and lay down and there we are now. I mean, it's destroyed. I was asking god to spare me and he did. He saw fit to see me through to another day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They say it sounds like a freight train but when it got here, it just did a lot of rumbling but the thing that got me was when things started hitting the house hard enough to shake the house. We were in the bath tub and felt the house shake.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no doubt that God -- I mean, they lifted the wall off on these kids, several kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was it scary? What was it like?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It was like a big tornado hit up the whole place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're a tough one for sticking it out.



TAPPER: I'm Jake Tapper. That's all for me here in Moore, Oklahoma. Here's my colleague, Wolf Blitzer, in the SITUATION ROOM.