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Oklahoma Tornadoes; Emergency Declaration

Aired May 21, 2013 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A massive and deadly tornado, nearly two miles wide at one point, ripped through neighborhoods, destroying homes, and claiming so many lives.

At this hour, search teams are looking for signs of life in all this debris.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: A direct hit. One elementary school in the path of the enormous twister completely flattened. And this morning, seven young students confirmed dead. And there is a desperate search for survivors. It is continuing.

BERMAN: Everything is gone, devastation, desperation, and a lot of despair. Families gathering, searching for their belongings, their pets, their loved ones. It is an unbelievable site to behold here in Moore, Oklahoma.

Welcome to a special edition of EARLY START. I'm John Berman, live on the ground, just a short distance from that school that we've been watching overnight, in the midst of so much rubble and all these houses that particularly have been obliterated.

SAMBOLIN: I'm Zoraida Sambolin in New York. But, of course, we're going to begin with you, John.

BERMAN: Zoraida, as I said, it is a sight to behold this morning. We drove through so much.

We like to welcome our viewers in the United States, also around the world.

This town that looks nothing like it did 24 hours ago because of that monster tornado that was as wide as two miles, as wide as two miles wide at one point, it simply leveled this community. Two elementary schools in its path, both those schools destroyed. One of them within my eyesight right now. We'll get you a picture of it. It is the scene now of a desperate search this morning for survivors.

There are 51 confirmed fatalities so far, including 20 children. That number sadly will rise, with reports of 40 more bodies found overnight. And the medical examiner says, of those 40, about 20 are children.

At least 145 victims are in the hospital right now. The tornado, said to be an EF-4, which is the second-highest strength, it packed winds of 166-mile-per-hour, up to 200-mile-per-hour in some places.

President Obama issuing emergency disaster declaration overnight.

We have this covered from every angle as only CNN can, with reporters fanned out across this wide swath of devastation.

First, we want to show you how this all unfolded, simply terrifying, entire communities.


SAMBOLIN (voice-over): The massive tornado tore across 20 miles of Oklahoma City suburbs in just 40 minutes. From the sky, the mile-wide trail of destruction, hard to comprehend and utterly catastrophic.


SAMBOLIN: The ferocious storm flatten homes and buildings, flailing cars in the air and leaving two homes and a hospital barely recognizable in the hard hit town of Moore.

REPORTER: I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes.

SAMBOLIN: Decimating everything in its path. Homes crushed to piles of debris, what looks like haystacks where houses once stood.

As the injured ported (ph) to hospital, cars tossed like toys from the parking lot of the Moore Medical Center, piled up, blocking the main entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I actually heard it go over us, felt our ears popping. It was something we never experienced. It was really scary.

SAMBOLIN: Nearby, a mother and her 7-month-old found dead, where a 7- Eleven once stood. They try to take cover in a freezer during the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'd just grabbing and throwing debris, trying to get anybody out.

SAMBOLIN: A massive recovery effort at one of two schools for children buried under the rubble, continued into the night. The grim reality is setting in with rescuers and their anxious parents.

Bloody teachers seen here carrying children away from Briarwood Elementary School, destroyed from the monstrous twister, trapping close to 100 students.

Tears of relief for one mother, as she reunites with her first grade son -- and a hug to his teacher.

For miles, entire neighborhoods destroyed. Many describing the horror they faced.

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

SAMBOLIN: Debris turned the powerful, black funnel, as it roared like a freight train. You can hear the piercing winds reaching up to 200 miles per hour.

At a family farm, as many as 100 horses were killed and most of the barns demolished.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Through these stalls like this, they came together, and I was in-between them. And it just -- it just pushed us down the shedrow.

SAMBOLIN: President Obama declared a disaster area late Monday and called the state's governor.

GOV. MARY FALLIN (R), OKLAHOMA: There are families wondering where loved ones are. And, right now, we're doing everything we can.


BERMAN: We are standing amid the mud in the debris right now, as we were driving in here overnight, in the pitch black, we saw people picking through their yards.

At least seven children were killed when the tornado flattened the Tower Plaza Elementary School. That's one of two elementary schools that took a direct hit from this tornado. It is just a short distance from where I'm standing. I can see it right now.

Crews have been busy all night, searching the rubble for more victims.

And CNN's Pamela Brown is with me live right now.

We've been standing outside the remainders of this school.


I mean, just imagine, John, dozens of students and teachers, huddled together inside that school, clinging to the walls because there was no underground shelter, according to authorities. This all happened when the massive tornado swept through. Parents who dropped their children off yesterday, now, are just waiting to learn the fate of their child, while other parents are crying tears of relief this morning.


BROWN (voice-over): Illuminated by floodlights, rescue teams search tirelessly throughout the night. Sifting through mountains of debris where Plaza Towers Elementary School once stood.


BROWN: In some places, the debris was 10 feet high. Underneath, every parent's worst nightmare: the bodies of schoolchildren trying to seek shelter from a ferocious tornado. Many more are still missing. The race to rescue dozens of students and teachers began right after the massive mile-wide tornado ripped through at least two elementary schools directly in its path. At hardest hit, Plaza Towers Elementary, a third grade class huddled in the hallway of their school.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: 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 she -- I don't know what that lady's name was. But she had three kids underneath her. Good job, teacher.

BROWN: Worried parents sent to a staging area at the nearby church and search for answers. At first, several children were pulled from the level school alive. But with each passing hour, the operation tragically went from a rescue to recovery mission, the heart-wrenching reality of the storm's fury hard to comprehend, even for those covering it.

REPORTER: I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is, without question, the most horrific I've ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, Lance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Lance, listen, we need to get this information.

BROWN: Searchers were able to reunite many kids with their families. CNN's Nick Valencia was there.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Was it scary? What was it like?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: It was like a big tornado tore up the whole place.

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


BROWN: What was once a place for learning became an unrecognizable place of horror. A student from Plaza Towers Elementary telling CNN's George Howell how he survived.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: It was scary. And a lot of my friends were still there when I left.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What did your teacher's tell you to do? You showed me a moment ago. This?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go ahead and show him what you did in school.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Like this and you covered your head with your hands.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BROWN: And teachers at both those elementary schools that were hard- hit by yesterday's tornado, being held as heroes. Some of them shielded the students from the tornado. Others pulled walls off the children that were trapped underneath.

And as we talked about earlier, John, rescue teams still out of here, searching for children who may still be trapped under the rubble. But at this point, it's not looking good. As we said, it is a recovery mission.

BERMAN: As a parent, I simply cannot imagine giving up hope, saying that the search is over. And they're still picking through the rubble just behind us right now, Pamela, this morning. This town is simply devastated. Not just the structures that have been tore apart.

And, Zoraida, I know that you -- you know, as a parent, you can just understand what these families are all going through in this community.

SAMBOLIN: I'm with you. I'm with you on this, John. Don't give up hope. You just never know, right? As they continue to search, maybe they'll find more of the children alive.

We'll check back in with you in a moment here.

So, how did this monster tornado form?

Meteorologist Indra Petersons has more on that from the CNN weather center in Atlanta.

Yesterday, Indra, when we were talking to you, you were saying, you know, this is not over yet. Did we know how massive this was going to be?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Now, we did know that the conditions were ripe enough, that it could be this massive. And, unfortunately, we're still talking about those conditions today.

And so, I'll actually walk you through the path first. This is one of the days we talk about the potential for violent, long-live tornados. That's what I want to walk you through. In fact, this path was 22 miles long.

And the unfortunate side of this, as this formed, right before 3:00 p.m., it was in a non-densely-populated area. Then, it went right over New Castle, and there we only saw slight damage, some ripped shingles, maybe some electricity poles went down.

But then as it really became massive, this thing exploded as it went through Moore. And the densely-populated area is where we started to see this thing intensified.

We can clearly see now that we're talking about this minimum, 160- mile-per-hour winds, potentially higher even, as high as 200 miles per hour, we started to see this impressive damage, this catastrophic damage. And then as this thing started to dissipate is when it started to go, once again, into areas that were not as densely populated. So, really, the timing is very unfortunate in a path like this.

Let's take you out a little bit wider and let's also talk about this. Very common, now, it seems in this area, Moore, look at the three tracks that have gone into this area.

One of the ones everyone keeps talking about is the May 3rd of 1999. One of the biggest differences I wanted to point out there was the lead time. Here, by the time we saw the tornado warning when it actually touched in New Castle, it was about a 13-minute warning.

Now, in between New Castle, it's only that EF-0, EF-1 estimated strength. They still had a long path before it went into Moore. So, it really did have as anywhere between 30, 40 minutes of warning time when you put it all together.

Now, when you compare that to May 3rd of 1999, look how much they had. They had 40 minutes, possibly an hour, hour and a half warning time before it hit the area. And that is the reason a lot of people did leave. This is not going to be survivable. And many people were able to escape. So, that being the main difference there.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Indra Peterson, thank you for that. We're going to continue to check in with you to see who is in the path today.

And strangers helping strangers and neighbors helping neighbors. A desperate search for survivors is underway. We have continued coverage of the deadly Oklahoma tornado aftermath.

Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the guys pulled a teacher out. She was on top of three kids. The kids were fine. She was hurt pretty bad. We put her on a door and put her on top of the jeep and wheeled her out to the ambulances because there were so many cars around. Kids everywhere, people running around screaming, there was cars on their sides. School's just gone.



BERMAN: You're looking at live pictures right now from our affiliate KOCO.

I'm looking at this right now. It's lightning in the sky here. It gives you a sense that this severe weather pattern that brought so much destruction to where I'm standing in Moore, Oklahoma, it is not over yet. There still are concerns. It is an eerie, eerie vision to be standing in this debris and see the skies above you sort of on fire like this with the lights flashing. Again, welcome back. We're live in Moore, Oklahoma, where this massive tornado touched down Monday afternoon, leaving dozens killed and a path of destruction in its wake.

These are the latest developments here: the official death toll now stands at 51. Twenty children are among the dead. But those numbers, those numbers are expected to rise sharply. We're told about 40 more bodies have been taken to the medical examiner's office overnight. President Obama has signed a disaster declaration for all of Oklahoma. That means that federal emergency aid is on the way and it is badly needed.

And Texas, it's sending its elite search and rescue team Task Force 1 to assist first responders here. There were so many people on the ground helping.

And overnight, rescuers combing through wreckage of the Tower Plaza Elementary School which was flattened, just flattened by the tornado. I can see the remnants of it here. At least seven students were killed there alone.

Let me give you a sense of why this is so dangerous. I can reach anywhere around me and pick up something like this. This giant, twisted, ugly, sharp piece of corrugated metal, and, again, it's everywhere here.

And just imagine something like this flying through the sky, coming right at you. If you don't have the proper shelter, if you didn't take cover, obviously, so dangerous, potentially deadly.

Patients had to be evacuated from the local hospital here in Moore. The situation was dire everywhere. That was heavily damaged by the tornado, too, the hospital was.

CNN's Nick Valencia is covering that angle for us. He is at the Moore Medical Center.

And, Nick, hospital workers only had minutes to get everyone out. How did they do it?

VALENCIA: The Moore Medical Center, John, took a direct hit, the tornado shredding through this community.

I spoke to the security guard outside guarding the facility this morning. He was on scene about 20 minutes after the tornado hit. He said at that point, that's when patients were getting evacuated. Hospital staff was getting evacuated.

Local news reports that there were at least 30 patients inside this hospital, this 46-bed hospital, at the time. And no one -- no one was injured as a result of the tornado, John. Of course, they were being treated for undisclosed injuries at the time. And it's our understanding they've been transferred to nearby hospitals to recuperate from their injuries -- John.

BERMAN: So, Nick, anyone left in there? And what's the plan for the patients right now? As you said, it's remarkable that no one was injured as a result of the tornado.

VALENCIA: It is remarkable, John. That's the objective word this morning when you look around here. Just as you mentioned, you can reach out and pick up shards of glass, pieces of wood. The debris is just scattered all throughout this community.

You look behind me here. And the second floor of this Moore Medical Center, completely reduced to rubble. The parking lot looks like a junk yard.

As far as the patients and their conditions, that's a great question next. We just don't have the answer to it. We know they're in nearby area hospitals. We just don't know what happens next for them.

A lot of people are having the same questions this morning. A lot of residents are reeling and recovering and just trying to make sense of what happened here yesterday -- John.

BERMAN: Nick Valencia, our thanks to you. You've been here for the last few days as the storms have gone through. So, thank you for your perseverance and really your bravery covering this story. We really appreciate it.

And, Zoraida, there was something I saw on my way here to this location this morning, really kind of struck me. We were driving through these neighborhoods, which have all been destroyed. And outside one of these areas where a house once stood, there was a tent. Someone had put up a tent in their yard, so they had somewhere to sleep overnight, because obviously, their house was just gone. So, that tent, for a while at least, is now their home.

SAMBOLIN: And, you know, John, a lot of people are trying to figure out how they can help. We're going to give folks that information.

If you want to help the victims of the Oklahoma storms, you can visit "Impact Your World" page. That is A lot of people there are needing your help. So, if you're so incline, we ask you to visit that page this morning.

And coming up on EARLY START, help is on the way. Washington springs into action to help those that are devastated by the massive, deadly tornado. We're going to have the very latest on that.


BERMAN: Welcome back to this special edition of EARLY START, live from Moore, Oklahoma, this town of 55,000-some people waking up this morning to a much different situation than they did yesterday.

And this morning, crews racing around the clock here, looking for survivors after this tornado simply blew this town apart.

I'm standing a short distance from where the Plaza Tower Elementary School stood just yesterday. Kids went to school yesterday morning. It was one of two schools right in the path of the monster storm. All right. Official say seven children were killed in that school alone. And amid the heartbreak in Moore, there were tearful reunions. I think we have some emotional video right now, just into CNN overnight, showing students at Briarwood Elementary School, reuniting with their parents. In all, at least 51 people have died, including at least 20 children. That number is expected to rise.

President Obama signing a major disaster declaration, ordering federal aid to this area. Obviously, it is so, so needed here.

I'm in a neighborhood, Zoraida, right next to the school. The school is just, you know, 200 yards away from where I am. It's been flattened. This neighborhood, if you look behind me, as far as you can see, you know, it was a row of houses.

But each house, knocked down, or the roofs have been tore out. The trees twisted. And, again, you can see the lightning flashing, and ominous flashing, repeatedly this morning, hanging over the heads of everyone in this town as they attempt to go on with this rescue and recovery effort -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: John, is there an area where the parents are hanging out, you know, hoping -- I guess we're going to keep hope alive that perhaps their children are found alive today?

BERMAN: I was talking to George Howell, our great reporter who's been here since yesterday. And he said, people have been coming and going, trying to get a sense of what's going on and if loved ones are OK.

But, overnight, even hours after this tornado barreled through here, there were still family members, fathers who didn't know where the mothers were. You know, parents looking for kids, kids looking for brothers and sisters. It's been a horrible, horrible night here, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Let's hope we have good news to report on that front. Thank you very much, John.

And federal help is on its way to Oklahoma. President Obama signed an emergency disaster declaration, which speeds up the process of getting much-needed help, much-needed funds to the devastated area.

CNN's Dan Lothian is live in Washington.

And, Dan, what does this declaration mean for the victims of the tornado?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is critical assistance for the state in general, because they will have to move all of the debris. They also are still conducting search and rescue and recovery operations. So, critical funds for the state in general.

But for those individuals who have been impacted by this storm, this will allow funding for temporary housing or for many of the folks that need to repair their homes or have lost everything and need to replace them. So, this is the kind of money, the federal assistance, as they all, the entire state tries to move forward.

President Obama, who, by the way, has been getting updates on the storm from Lisa Monaco, his adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, promised to help. He did reach out by phone, calling the governor of the state, Mary Fallin, expressing concerns, saying that his thoughts and prayers were with the people of Oklahoma. And again, saying -- reassuring them, saying that no needs will go unmet.

Representative James Lankford of says the federal response so far has been reassuring.


REP. JAMES LANKFORD (R), OKLAHOMA (via telephone): We have from the beginning, the National Weather Service is based in Oklahoma City, as well. And so, for the National Weather Service to be on the ground in Norman, Oklahoma, is an incredible help to us, just in the weather forecasting.

So, even before the storm came, we have federal connection with what happened there. And then, President Obama and the governor have already spoken, and I'm confident they'll continue connection there with FEMA.


LOTHIAN: So, FEMA has a number of teams on the ground. They have those urban search and rescue teams. In addition to that, they have communications technicians and also those doing damage assessment in these early hours.

So, all of this federal assistance, trying to help that state move forward -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: You know, what's interesting, Dan, is yesterday we were talking to the governor. Actually during STARTING POINT, she came out and she chatted with us for a bit. And she was in the middle of this crisis already. There were a lot of areas that were declared disasters. So, maybe that's why they had boots on the ground there.

When might we hear the president speak?

LOTHIAN: Well, nothing yet on the president's schedule, but if you look back when you have these kinds of natural disasters, the president always comes out and will make some kind of statement about the federal -- pledging continued federal help for the people of that particular region that have been hit hard.

But in addition, what we often see is that the president will go and visit FEMA headquarters here in Washington. We'll take a little time before he heads to the zone because there is so much activity going on there. And they don't want to get in the middle of that and interrupt the operations on the ground.

So, the president, we do expect, will say some kind of statement, perhaps later today. And perhaps will make a visit. At least that's what he's done in the past. But nothing yet on the president's schedule.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Dan Lothian, live in Washington for us, thank you very much.

Meantime, let's head back to John. He is live in Oklahoma for us this morning -- John.

BERMAN: Thanks so much, Zoraida.

And as we've been saying, seeing lightning flashing in the sky over Moore, Oklahoma, all night. So, many people here want to know, what is the forecast for today? Is it another dangerous day on the horizon?

We'll have that forecast when we come back.

This special edition of EARLY START continues after the break.