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Oklahoma Tornadoes; Devastating Tornado Hits Oklahoma; Interviews with Storm Chasers

Aired May 21, 2013 - 06:30   ET




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All I remember is hitting my head. And trying to get into the bathtub and it just -- I got picked up, threw down to the ground and all I can remember after I hit my head, I was landing on top of the dog and I could hear her just whimpering, and I just cannot believe we actually survived this thing.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: While you're hearing this young woman talked there. She's lucky to have found her dog. Many families have lost so much more. They can be explained at this point.

Looking at "The Oklahoman" here, a great, venerable paper, a headline sometimes does say it all, "Worse Than May 3rd", if you can see it over the banner. One family lucky to be reunite here on the cover, many not.

This is what they call an emergent situation when it comes to weather catastrophes of this kind. That's simply means, they just don't know. You're going to hear things throughout the day. You never want to go too far down the road of speculation in situations that are developing. But be especially careful with what you allow yourself to absorb today.

This is the worst of all the different things that a tornado can bring to a community and nothing destroys like a tornado. Hurricanes are terrible. Fires terrible. But there's something about the violence of a tornado.

So here's what we know about the situation: unlike what happened here in May of 2003, which was devastating, that was a multi-tornadic effect. There were different spots down. There were different tornadoes that they had to deal with.

This seems to be the work so far here in Moore of one massive tornado. We'll leave the numbers to the experts, what we know is that it was about several blocks wide and 20 miles long of damage.

Things in that path just destroyed. Where there were houses, there are now piles of ha seems to be straw, hay. These are stick homes. When they fall on top of each other. They are especially heavy.

An emergent situation meaning what? Well, if it's heavy. It's tough to move. They can't get a lot of earth-moving equipment into these areas right now. They're trying very hard.

There's a massive response on the ground, surrounding areas are helping, surrounding states. It's a federal emergency. The assets will be provided, but it will be hard to get them there.

Low, low, low, is what we're told by search and rescue officials -- meaning they don't know the number of dead. They don't know the number of injured.

And, frankly, that's not important right now. The actual numbers, what is important is the urgency of getting to these areas.

We know about the two schools: Briarwood, which was damaged, but they believe that the situation was highly sustainable there. That they don't believe that it was catastrophic there.

Plaza Towers, was a much worse situation. We've seen pictures last night. We'll show them to you today. They're doing a lot of search by hand here. It reminds me of the earthquake in China several years ago, where they couldn't get earth-moving equipment. But the asset they had there was million of people available to come and search by hand.

That's what they're doing right now. As we develop a picture of this situation, this is what they call emergent. It's still going on, it's low. George Howell is with me right now. He's been here thought the night.

George, you've been living the experience with people. Obviously the fear is the unknown, they can't get help yet, low numbers at the hospitals, what were you hearing and seeing about how we're coping with what's going on, on the ground?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, you know, the one thing that I want to stress, and as you mentioned, very important that we, you know, we say exactly what we're hearing with this, it's still a search and rescue, and until we hear otherwise from investigators, it's still a search and rescue.

There are parents who are waking up to watch the broadcast, to watch the local affiliates. It's a search and rescue. They want to know that those officials, they are still looking through the rubble, debris, looking for children, looking for people who could still be there.

CUOMO: And absolutely the right thing to do, because as we learned in other experiences, as they've learned here on the ground and in tornado alley in general, people can sustain under that debris. It's heavy. It's tough to get through.

You have to be careful because these sticks can then fall on top of each other -- (CROSSTALK)

HOWELL: Absolutely.

CUOMO: But search and rescue, certainly tons of possibility for life sustaining, correct?

HOWELL: And that's the thing. So through the night, we have been here really since like, I would say like, I would say, 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. right there across from the school. And parents only had a certain amount of daylight you know to go in and look for relatives, look for their children. That happened until the police said look we need to start a curfew, you need to move out of this area. They started that curfew.

CUOMO: Important to point out as we're seeing in the picture, George, this started at just before 3:00 p.m.


CUOMO: The asset there was daylight, that people would have time to look.

HOWELL: Daylight.

CUOMO: However the middle of the school day, school about to get out, a lot of kids in flux. That created a difficult situation, a lot of kids were pulled back into schools, parents went out looking for them, exposed themselves to the tornado.

HOWELL: We will see more of that today. You know, when we get daylight, many of those parents will return to that neighborhood looking for their kids. There are neighbors that are looking for neighbors. Relatives looking for relatives. That will continue today.

But what I can tell you is about yesterday. We saw plenty of things, we saw a woman looking for her niece, we saw, and here's the thing. I want to play the sound byte. I spoke to three parents who went to that school, and found their children. Found their children crouched down you know in this position that you take, you take this you know, safety position in these schools when a storm comes through.

That's how they found their kids. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thank God that I got there in time to pick up my nieces, my nephews, my son. Because I don't know what I would have done if he would have been one of -- I mean, I can't -- I'm speechless how did this happen. Why did this happen.


CUOMO: We're out of the sound bite now. They were able to find their kids, right? HOWELL: Amazing.

CUOMO: Beautiful, fortunate ending. However, there are also, they're finding a lot of casualties of parents trying to get there, and responding to that, instead of the danger of tornado itself. So, we're going to hear a lot of mixed stories, about where people found their fate in trying to rescue their kids, is that true?

HOWELL: There's a search for children, there's a search for relatives.

There's another person who came up to me. She was frantic. She was looking for her mother, her daughter looking to her grandmother. They found them.

Listen to this sound bite.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We drove all the way here and we got a text. He said, grandma is fine, she is at my house, mom, everything is gone. There's nothing left anywhere. All the pictures, all grandma's stuff, all my pictures, my leather jacket, my college degree from O.U. There's nothing left.


CUOMO: And, George, they're telling there about the loss of personal items and goods. It's so horrible. People have to start over.

But when you value things that can be lost, it's hard to have perspective what you've lost everything you own. But there's so much more, the kids that they're searching for, trying to find each other it gives people such sharp perspective on what matters in life when they lost all of the things we tend to overvalue.

And, again, as George was saying, very early in the process of knowing who can be found and who cannot. That's what you're hearing?

HOWELL: Absolutely. And I want to make this point: we've been here through the night. One thing that I've noticed is that these search and rescue teams, they were going through the neighborhood with flashlights, going to homes, pulling over wood, pulling over debris, looking for people, all night, all night long.

So you know, there's always that hope, we know that when we get daylight, that will continue. We know that people will come back into the neighborhood, looking, you know, to see if they can find anyone, just account for as many people as possible.

CUOMO: We hear about these storms, it happens, May is the month. It had been a relatively light month until this happened.

But be very clear: this is not hype. This is a very, very bad situation that we're dealing with here.

HOWELL: Absolutely.

CUOMO: This community has been rocked by this. The devastation is complete where this tornado went through. The families there have lost everything.

As we give you information about how you can help, please take it very seriously. This is about the weather, this is how a tornado comes. It comes from the Spanish word to turn, tronar, and then you get a tornado.

And that's the twisting that makes is so devastating.

We're going to bring a couple of storm chasers we have who understand this much better. You will see flashes of lightning. You will hear (AUDIO GAP), we're not in any particular threat. Not like what they saw yesterday.

It's -- there are storms in the area. There's a lot of energy in the air. But the good news is, there is no real threat of more tornadoes.

Nobody knows that better than the chasers, it's great to have you guys here, give me your names so everybody knows them.



COUMO: All right. Lauren, Colt, what do we know about the situation yesterday? What was the situation that they had to deal with her, in terms of the tornado? What do you know?

FORNEY: Just complete devastation. It was incredible. I still don't know what to think about it.

They early in the day looked like it would be a pretty decent day for tornadoes, the parameters were there, plenty of shear, just never expected something this violent.

CUOMO: You've seen a lot of this stuff, right? You come around, you see natural disaster. You see tornadoes, how did this one stand out for you?

LAUREN HILL, STORM CHASER: This one from the very beginning, you could just tell where the hook was on radar, as soon as the tornado dropped down southwest of town, you could it will and look where it was going, and you just knew it was going to be the worst possible spot to hit.

CUOMO: Because why? Why was it so bad? So much built up there?

HILL: The energy was huge. You had a lot of inflow coming into the storm. The updraft was really cranking and right through Moore, right across highway I-35. When we crossed 35, there were people already stopped on the interstate ahead of us to the north.

And it just -- it was horrifying. CUOMO: We have a clip of what was there. Let's play what the storm chasers were facing yesterday, take a look and a listen at this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houses are completely leveled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leveled. It's unrecognizable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houses are leveled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This doesn't look like it was ever a development.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This, oh, my God, guys.


CUOMO: Now, we've been hearing the word, it looks like the tsunami, for those of us who had to cover that. What is it that happens as this passes over a home, cars, what is its ability to do to things?

HILL: It's like a bomb went off. The field we came up to we realized later was a subdivision, used to be. And there were people crawling out of the mud. When we first came upon it we were one of the first on the scene.

From the west, there was a day care center and at first they thought three children were missing, but thankfully they were reported found.

They were crawling out of boards, the day care did not exist any more. And there was a horse from a nearby pasture? The day care, still alive, bleeding. And just trying to get people out there have as quickly as possible. Shortly after we noticed, this huge rushing sound, you could smell the natural gas.

And so, just to our north, everyone was trying to get as many people as possible with any vehicles there, just to get them south.

CUOMO: One of the things we're dealing with here is how difficult it is to get search and rescue in, to get big equipment in. What did you see that substantiates that kind of claim? It's going to take a while to clear these areas?

FORNEY: The power line, power poles debris strewn all across the road. I mean, some of them were completely impassable. You'd have to bring in heavy equipment just to plow the road to get through. Nails, flat tires. A lot of it was impassable.

CUOMO: Now, a lot of this stuff sounds routine. Yes, we understand, weather can do this. But a tornado, there's just something unique about it, not just in the bizarre nature of how it looks, and touches down and the fascination. We're going to play for you some sound now, just so you can understand the violence of the energy at play with one of these things touches down of this magnitude. Let's play it, can we?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going, I know we're not. It's going to go just to our north.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Listen to it. You can hear it. Listen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look at that collar cloud.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Listen to the roar.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not good. Please, dear God, please keep these people safe. Lots of debris in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that a vortex on the side?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big, there's a whole roof that just came off.

No, not yet.


CUOMO: The debris that looks small you have to remember it's to scale. There are walls in those things. There are car doors that are circling around on the outer wall of these tornadoes.

That sound is testament to the violence of the energy that's being brought there, right? I mean, this is your realm much more than it is mine. What does the sound represent?

HILL: It's a constant thunder. In fact, probably the scariest thing beside the rush, you could feel the vibration from the tornado as it was approaching. Even once we had gotten further west of it, you could feel as it was moving away. It's coming at you kind of like shock waves.

We still have (INAUDIBLE) especially in the town, when you're seeing -- when you're trying to position, it was weird getting away from traffic. You know the people that went north of you just a bit ago, it's devastating.

CUOMO: Because a car is not a safe shelter.


CUOMO: With this type of energy coming at you?

HILL: Right. And unfortunately on the interstate, you'll have people like abandoning their vehicles into a ditch. Especially on an underpass, that can be completely fatal. They can flip on you and it's just --

CUOMO: Now, one of the things that we're dealing here with the remnants of the storm that we're going to have to deal with in a real way, not a theoretical way is there's still a lot of energy in the air right now. A lot of lightning is touching down. It's a problem for search and rescue. It's a problem because the natural gas, and frankly, it's going to be a problem for us.

Lightning is touching down on high points like a sat rack (ph). We're going to have to take a break, take the shot down, figure out what the safest route is to get a shot back up, and then we will. So, we're going to take a break right now. You guys are free to stay here as the rain starting to come down here.

And we'll get the shot back up, but we've got to safety in mind first for the lives of the people on the ground. So, let's take a break here. I'll go back to you in New York. We'll get the shot back up when we can. OK?

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you very much, Chris. I also want to mention that at eight o'clock eastern, we are expecting a news conference from the police department there. And I know Chris doesn't want to talk about numbers, but we are going to have some of the latest numbers here. There were some bodies that were headed to the morgue. So, the police will update that and also the search and rescue efforts as well.

You know, it's pure devastation, Many people in Moore, Oklahoma, still in a state of disbelief. Look at this. Their homes destroyed and some desperately searching for their loved ones. We're going to continue our coverage live from the scene of the deadly tornado aftermath right after this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we came out, the house and everything. The trees and the electric, we thought we were going to be trapped there all night because it was sparking around us. And my sister-in-law is pregnant and I've got all my kids. And you know, it was a lot of people to be trapped there.



CUOMO: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma. I'm Chris Cuomo. We're here on the ground in a very developing situation. Here's what we know. Obviously, a massive potentially historic tornado ripped through this area. Usually, it's multiple tornados that they deal with here in tornado alley. This was believed to be the work of largely one massive tornado. They'll measure the damage to figure out the strength effect of this tornado. But we know is that a section of this community, several blocks wide and some 20 miles long, was completely disintegrated by this tornado. Houses, where there were once these homes, now, there are just bundles of what appear to be straw, tinder boxes, natural gas leaks, potential for fire. You do often have to measure these things in terms of human loss. The property loss is obviously.

I must tell you, these numbers are early. They are low. This is an emergent situation. Search and rescue is still very active here. They're not able to get a lot of information from the ground. For instance, a 145 people is their estimate of who's been treated at area hospitals. There are walking wounded all over this area. So, that number is low. And it's also about what you take into consideration as an injury.

There a lot of people who just won't leave their homes, who are bleeding, who have broken limbs, who are dealing with this situation close to home. Why? Because they're looking for loved ones. They're trying to find out if they still have anything intact that they can salvage from their home. Fifty-one are confirmed dead at this time, 20 of those are children.

You're looking at a picture of what was on the cover of the "Oklahoman" this morning. We can deal with homes, we can deal with our businesses. You cannot replace life. We know that. It is something that's brought sharply into focus when you can't find your kid, and there are so many families right now that are desperate to find their children, because this tornado struck just before 3:00 p.m.

And as we all know here in America, that's when school gets out for so many kids. Parents went rushing out. It was dangerous to do so. Some of them paid a price for that move, but many wound up finding their kids, two schools in particular, Briarwood and Plaza Tower. Plaza Tower was devastated by the tornado. You've seen pictures. Search and rescue there has to be by hand.

Why? It's difficult to get earth-moving equipment and roads are blocked. They are strewn with debris, power lines are down, gas leaks are abundant. Now, they're dealing with that here on governmental side. They have experience with this, often tragic experience, but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with the obstacles of practicality.

So, they're wrestling with that here. So, again, 51 confirmed dead, 20 children. It's a low number. It's an estimate just to gauge what's going on here. Hopefully, it stays at that. The goal here, of course, is search and rescue. We're told by government officials, very much still about search and rescue. Not recovery, which is where you don't expect to find people alive any more. The best-case scenario is what we're about to show you now.

Families who went out into the unknown of not understanding where the rest of their loved ones were, but they wound up finding them. Take a look at some of the reunions we were able to capture.






CUOMO: So, we're hoping that this is a scene a lot of other families get to have today. It's still very early in the situation. When you look at a situation like that, we have John Berman here. It seems chaotic, but that's the best you can do in a situation where the school is blown to shreds and there are no services on the ground. Cell signal went down very quickly, right?

BERMAN: And they are doing the best they can do, Chris. I can tell you, I've been driving around for the last several hours here. Hundreds, hundreds of law enforcement officials out working the streets right now. They have road blocks up in place so that the rescue crews can get where they need to go, also because there are telephone poles down everywhere. Just debris strewn across the road and if you try to drive over this, you're going to pop your tires.

It's going to be more problems if you try to do that right now. So, there's enormous law enforcement presence out right now. And as you drive through some neighborhoods that have been affected like this one you're looking at right now, this was from yesterday, but overnight, you could still see flashlights, you know, glaring, looking in every nook and cranny.

CUOMO: And that's why you're here, right, because they get you to move so that they didn't have to hear the trucks and the generator so they could use literally their ears toed find people.

BERMAN: One of the things they asked us, they asked us to move from our location. We were much closer to the plaza tower school, we were in the debris field as it were, and they asked us very kindly to move because our truck was making a lot of noise and they wanted to be able to hear the sounds that were coming from inside these buildings if, in fact, there are any sounds coming from inside the building.

CUOMO: Search and rescue still very active. We're going to get what we can on the ground. We're going to go to break now. We will start getting information from officials. There's a press conference at 8:00 a.m. local. The president is going to round up information, have his own press, 10 or so local. We'll bring that to you. For now, we'll take a break here from Moore, Oklahoma.