Return to Transcripts main page


Oklahoma Tornadoes; Interview With Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin; They Ran, They Hid and They Prayed: Survivor Stories; No One Killed in Hospital Despite Heavy Damage; Time Lapse: Tornado Growing Into a Monster

Aired May 21, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting here in Moore, Oklahoma. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're watching a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM. Here in MooreThis is a city scarred, scarred and reeling from a massive tornado that we watched a little more than a day ago, as it leveled block after block after block, miles, miles of this community just south of Oklahoma City, one of the major suburbs of Oklahoma City.

The scope of this disaster, it is still unfolding. You're looking at live aerial shots of what's going on right now. Here's some of the latest developments we're following.

The death toll right now, 24 people, including nine children; at least 237 people were injured. Search-and-rescue operations continue. Rescue efforts, they are ongoing, the fire chief hoping that crews can reach every structure by tonight. Each will be searched, he says, three times, before being cleared.

And the National Weather Service now says the damage in at least one area indicates the most powerful category of tornado, an EF-5, says winds reached 210 miles an hour, and the tornado was one-and-a--third- miles wide. Emotional scenes are playing out all across this community, as victims return to find homes reduced to rubble, or in some cases, no homes at all.

CNN's Brian Todd is here. You spoke to some of those people.

And these are heart-wrenching stories, not a dozen, two dozen, not hundreds, but there are thousands of people who went through hell 24 hours ago, many of them still reeling.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It is repeated all over this town.

We saw this after the earthquake in Haiti. We saw this after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We see it right here, right now, residents walking around their homes, picking up remnants, looking like zombies, looking shell-shocked. They still can't believe it.

They have been doing that all day today trying to pick up remnants of their lives. But that's against the advice of public officials.


TODD (voice-over): Many still look dazed as they pick through what's left of their homes, looking for some sign of order, some symbol of what they had. This may be all they can cling to right now, but the police chief of Moore, Oklahoma, says now isn't the time to be doing this.

JERRY STILLINGS, MOORE, OKLAHOMA, POLICE CHIEF: It's too dangerous, too many safety issues, gas leaks, downed power lines.

TODD: A risk many residents are willing to take to look at what they have got left and reflect on close calls.

(on camera): This is Southwest 7th Street, kind of symbolic of what happened in this tornado and so many others. Some houses here, a lot of the structures are still standing. Then you see on the other side total devastation.

PAT CASEY, SURVIVOR: I was right there in that closet, the hall closet.

TODD (voice-over): Seventy-year-old Pat Casey showed us the remnants of her home, the back face of her house torn apart, windows blown out, much of the roof gone. She shows us the small closet where she sat and prayed, she says, with a quilt over her head as the massive twister pulverized her house.

CASEY: You could tell that it was turning and turning and turning, and then I heard everything hitting everywhere. So I knew that I had been hit. So --

TODD (on camera): What was going through your mind?

CASEY: Oh, just, God, if it's my time to go, OK. If not, just look out for me, please. I'm not ready.

TODD (voice-over): Her daughter, who lives with her, luckily wasn't home at the time.

(on camera): Is this your daughter's room?

CASEY: This is my daughter's room. And that was her sink and then the bath and the shower. And the roof and everything is -- everything is completely gone all the way across.

TODD (voice-over): Pat says the house isn't habitable right now and doesn't know if she can rebuild.

(on camera): Pat, do you want to come back and live here after this experience?

CASEY: Well, it's my home, if they can fix it. But I'm 70 years old now, and I probably might consider if there was any way I could sell it eventually. But when things like this happen, it's hard to sell.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: Now, Pat says she has insurance, and she's willing to take a shot at rebuilding.

But the strongest factor keeping her here, a handicapped son who lives in a facility nearby who Pat says she's responsible for. Wolf, she says because of him, she wants to stay here, no matter what the hardships or the risks are.

BLITZER: Because I know you have been speaking to authorities, the mayor, the police chief.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Missing, what are they saying about people who are still missing?

TODD: Missing. That was a huge factor after the Joplin tornado two years ago. A lot of people went missing. We were really concerned that that would be the case here.

One of the police chiefs, I believe the police chief of Oklahoma City, told us today, initially they thought about 48 people had gone missing. That's a pretty large figure. But he said, as of today, they have all been accounted for, with one caveat, he said, except for maybe a few in Moore, in this area, so maybe a few left that people are not quite sure where they are yet.

And of course, you're asked if you're around and you haven't been contacting family, let them know you're OK. Get in touch with them somehow. Find a way.

BLITZER: And that's what they're mostly worried about right now. They want to see. if they are missing, they find them.

Brian, thanks very much.

I want to show our viewers some aerial shots we're getting in from KFOR, our local affiliate, here. Take a look at this. You see the search-and-rescue operations, they are continuing right now. There are still some folks who are believed to be missing. People have been watching what's going on very, very closely.

We also have some live pictures coming in from our other affiliate here in Oklahoma City, KOCO, both of these affiliates doing excellent work over these days to try to show our viewers here in the United States and around the world what's going on.

And when I say this looks like a war zone, I really do mean it. It looks like a war zone, especially if you look behind me. You see what used to be a bowling alley. And it is complete, complete destruction.

Joining us now, one family, the Verge family, the mom and dad, Melody and Billy, and their son Billy Jr., and their daughter, Mersadie.

Guys, thank you very much for coming in.


BLITZER: You guys went through hell yesterday, didn't you?

B. VERGE SR.: Yes, we did.

BLITZER: Share with our views what happened. I want to bring you all of you into this conversation.

B. VERGE SR.: She was at school. He was over at a friend.

BLITZER: Mersadie, grade are you in?


BLITZER: Sixth grade. So, you were in school at the Plaza Towers Elementary School, right? All right, so go ahead, pick up the story.

B. VERGE SR.: Well, the tornado started at the end the block. Me and her went into the closet.

BLITZER: In your house?

B. VERGE SR.: And the whole house started shaking and rocking and shaking for two, three minutes. After that, everything was calm. Went out, everything was just destroyed and just apart.

BLITZER: And what was going through your mind as you were in that closet?

MELODY VERGE, SURVIVOR: I was hanging on for dear life. I thought -- I really didn't think we were going to make it. I just -- the walls were shaking in the closet.

I really didn't think we were going to make it just hearing it. I have never experienced nothing like this.

BLITZER: That tornado went right over your house?



BLITZER: How loud was the noise?

MELODY VERGE: I just heard it just roaring --


BLITZER: They say it sounds like a train.

MELODY VERGE: Yes. That's what I have heard, and that's exactly what it sounded like.

BLITZER: Really?

MELODY VERGE: Yes. And I just hear stuff banging in the house. So, I was like, any minute it's going to take us up.

And then after everything did quiet down, as soon as we walk out, the first thing I seen was this man running with a child. We asked him if he was fine and OK. He said he was. He was going to run to the hospital, which we didn't know that the hospital has been hit, too.

And then we started going door to door. And the next thing you know, we're freaking out, thinking, oh, God, we have got to go to try and get to the house and get the car and go pick up my daughter. Didn't know where my son was at, because he was going to go to a friend's house. And he said he was driving into it, and had to turn back around and leave and get out of it.

BLITZER: So, you assumed your daughter, who is in sixth grade, you thought everything was fine?


MELODY VERGE: We got in the car to drive over there, by the time we were -- I couldn't see. He jumps out of the car to go run --


BLITZER: So, you drive over to the school.


BLITZER: And, Billy Jr., you're with them, right?

MELODY VERGE: No. No, we didn't know where he was at this time.


BLITZER: Where were you, Billy?

B. VERGE JR., SURVIVOR: I was driving from my house to my friend's house. I was driving to Wyatt Jones' (ph) house.

And at the time, I didn't know there was a tornado -- I knew there was a tornado going on. And I was driving and then I just see this big old just thing in the sky just start coming at me. Like, it was coming. I seen it. It was up in the air. And I just started taking off. And my car started shaking.

I went to 7-Eleven and pulled in. I'm glad I didn't stay there, because it took 7-Eleven in a heartbeat.

BLITZER: So, what did you do after you left the 7-Eleven?

B. VERGE JR.: After that, I took off to my grandma's house. And then my cousin Preston Hayes (ph) called me and said he was running up to the Plaza Towers, because we all thought my sister was gone.

BLITZER: Now, Mercedes, you're in the sixth grade. Tell us where you were when this tornado goes over your elementary school.

MERSADIE VERGE: I had to go in the boys bathroom and duck my head, and I put a backpack over my head.

BLITZER: And the teachers were there with you?


BLITZER: And so all your whole class went into the boys bathroom?

MERSADIE VERGE: Some of them did.


MELODY VERGE: All that could probably fit in.

BLITZER: Yes. And they just said, duck down? And so how scared were you?

MERSADIE VERGE: I was a little bit scared.

BLITZER: You're 13 years old, right? And this is the Plaza Towers. That school was pretty much destroyed, right?

B. VERGE JR.: We seen the roof come over.



B. VERGE JR.: -- the roof come off.


MELODY VERGE: She was hanging on to the stall because her feet lifted off the ground. She was hanging on for dear life.

BLITZER: Are your classmates OK?

MERSADIE VERGE: Yes. I think so.

BLITZER: All of them were OK? Because we know some of the kids in that school didn't make it.


BLITZER: But the younger kids, right?

MELODY VERGE: Yes, there was a third grade class.

BLITZER: All right. So you drive over to the school. You're worried about your daughter. You don't know what is going on.

And, Billy, you drive over to the school, too, right?

B. VERGE JR.: Yes. I drive over there and they wouldn't let me over so I hopped out of my car and just took off running, took off running to the school. And then after that, I --

BLITZER: What did you see as you were running into the school?


B. VERGE JR.: People hurt, people hurt, houses gone. Got to the school and people hurt severely. School, there wasn't no school. It was --


BLITZER: Because when you got to the school, you didn't even know. You thought that you had -- because it didn't -- there was nothing there.


B. VERGE SR.: Yes, there was nothing. Nothing.

BLITZER: And you knew your daughter was inside.

B. VERGE SR.: Oh, I was in shock. I'm still in shock just from the kids that's there today.

BLITZER: So how did you find her?

B. VERGE SR.: I got to a teacher and they said they had moved her to a church down the street. And that's where she was at, the sixth graders.

It was basically the third graders that were in the trouble.

BLITZER: That's what we had heard.


B. VERGE SR.: -- hurts.

BLITZER: So, you guys run the church. You go to the church, Billy, too, right?

B. VERGE JR.: No, I was actually at the house after that.

I went -- or I parked over there at the church, a little one, and then I like ran all the way to the house to make sure my family was all right. It took me a while to get there, because I was getting stopped every time.

BLITZER: Mersadie, your parents meet you at the church. How did you get to the church? What did your teachers do to get you to the church?

MERSADIE VERGE: We just walked over there.

BLITZER: How far was it?

MERSADIE VERGE: It's really not that far.

BLITZER: And what did you see on the way over there? What was going on?

MERSADIE VERGE: I just seen houses torn down, and that's it.

BLITZER: Did you see people who were injured, too? You didn't? So, you were fortunate that you didn't have to see that.


BLITZER: All right, so then you meet up with your daughter at the church?

B. VERGE SR.: Yes, go back home.

BLITZER: How did that feel?

B. VERGE SR.: Felt great.


B. VERGE SR.: Still feel sad, though, too, for the other kids at school --


B. VERGE SR.: -- her friends, people that she knew. It's sad. It's like losing one of mine still, you know? We're still in shock. We're all in shock. But we are thankful to have what we do have, very thankful.


BLITZER: You have got loving parents. You know that. And you got a nice big brother who loves you very much, too.

Right, Billy?


B. VERGE JR.: Yes, I do.

BLITZER: Tell her you love her very much.

B. VERGE JR.: I love my sister to much.

BLITZER: All right, I want to see that. Good. One big group hug right now. Let's do it. All right. We're happy all of you made it.


MELODY VERGE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

B. VERGE SR.: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're happy. MELODY VERGE: Thank you.

BLITZER: I will give you a hug, too.


BLITZER: Thank you. I'm happy for the whole team.

B. VERGE JR.: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: All right. We're all hugging, one big hug.

B. VERGE SR.: I try.

BLITZER: All right, guys, go for it.

B. VERGE SR.: Thank you.



BLITZER: You will all be stronger for this.

B. VERGE SR.: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: OK. Thank you.

B. VERGE SR.: Thank you.

BLITZER: Another story, just one story. There are so many of these stories that are going on, literally thousands of people. You take a look at Moore, Oklahoma, a suburb, suburb of Oklahoma City, about 50,000 or 60,000 people live in this area. So much of it that was simply devastated. You can go for a walk, and I did throughout this afternoon, and you see block after block after block of devastation.

So happy for this family. But, unfortunately, not all of the families are as happy as they are. They're literally very happy.

Here's important information for you. You can impact your world. You can help victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes. Go to our Web site, There's good recommendations on how you can get involved. The estimate already is $1 billion in damage to this community, $1 billion, because of, what, 20 minutes, what happened in 20 minutes, as this tornado, an EF-5, zipped through this area causing so much destruction.

A massive task ahead for this city and for the state, indeed, for the nation as well.

Up next, I'm going to speak to the mayor of Moore, Oklahoma, also the governor of Oklahoma. They will be both be joining me live. We will talk about what needs to be done now.

Also, a mother and her fifth grade daughter whose school collapsed in on her and her classmates, they will share their emotional reunion with us as well.

Lots more coming. Our special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM continues.


BLITZER: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma, right outside of Oklahoma City, where rescue efforts are continuing after yesterday's massive tornado.

Joining us now, two special guests, the mayor of Moore, Glenn Lewis, and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin.

Governor, Mayor, thanks very much. First of all, our hearts go out to both of you, your communities, your state. What a heart-wrenching story.

Let's get through some of the specifics first. Are there still people missing?

GOV. MARY FALLIN (R), OKLAHOMA: Well, we are waiting to get further information from our search-and-rescue squads.

We don't -- I don't have any current information right now.


BLITZER: You do not have additional information or you don't know?

LEWIS: No, we don't have anybody missing.

BLITZER: So, there's no one missing?

LEWIS: According to the reports that I just got.

BLITZER: The search-and-rescue operation -- so we don't think, you tell me if I'm right or wrong, Mayor, there are still people trapped under rubble?

LEWIS: No, sir. Anywhere there's an orange mark, like on that car right over there, that means that has been searched twice and a thermal imager has gone over that car.

BLITZER: And the thermal imager can detect if there's a human inside.

LEWIS: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: We were talking. The last time I came to Oklahoma City for an awful, awful story, was 1995, during the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building. That building was -- you were there at the time, too. You were the mayor.

LEWIS: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: Compare and contrast then and now.

FALLIN: Well, the damage is -- pretty much looks the same.

BLITZER: Yes. That's what I thought.

FALLIN: At the time, it was just total devastation. And it's remarkable that anyone could survive anything like this, and especially a major tornado that came through of that magnitude and caused such destruction.

It's remarkable that we have had not more loss of life at a time when something's been so widespread.

And we're devastated by the people that have been lost, by the children that have been lost. It's been very hard on this community. But we're also very thankful for the response of our emergency personnel. Certainly, our law enforcement, firemen, police, they have done a tremendous job.

BLITZER: They certainly have.

Was there anything looking back, Mayor, this is -- 50,000, 60,000 people live here in Moore, is that right? Could you have done anything to prevent the destruction, the damage that occurred? You have gone through a lot of tornadoes here.

LEWIS: No, sir, I don't think there's anything else that we as a city could have done and -- or state. Unfortunately, there's just natural occurrences.

BLITZER: The warnings went out. People had some notice of what was going on.

LEWIS: They did.

BLITZER: You have spoken to the president, right?


BLITZER: And he's made a commitment to you that whatever is necessary, whatever is necessary you will get?

FALLIN: Absolutely. And we appreciate the president calling. And several of the Cabinet secretaries have called, along with probably over 25 governors have called and offered their assistance.

And what we have to understand about this situation, and they do, is that people are in need now. And we had to first make sure that there were no bodies, no people that were injured, that is within this rubble, and hopefully we have been able to find everybody. We have had rescue teams out. We have had dogs out. The heat imaging equipment has been out. So we're getting comfortable with that. But it's still concerning when you see something like this to wonder if there might be somebody.

But we appreciate their fast action on our emergency declaration. We need services now. We need money now. And we need to get the help on the ground to help these families that are suffering so much. BLITZER: I'm sure you will be getting that.

What's the saddest thing you have seen over the past 24 hours?

LEWIS: Oh, it's been incredible.

The president has called us. He offered us complete assistance. We get our money from FEMA, through the governor's office. She's been excellent. She's been here since the thing occurred. So she's been Johnny-on-the-spot, I'm telling you.


LEWIS: And everything has been -- I mean, the response has been incredible. It really has.

FALLIN: I will tell you two sad things.

One was late last night, as I made my tours around this community, I went down to the school, the Plaza Towers that was lost. And it just took my breath away to see that, and to think about parents that have dropped their children off at school in the morning, and as a mother, and thinking how I would feel if that were my child and if I were the parent who had lost someone, and just knowing that -- the heartbreak.


BLITZER: And have you met with some of these families?

FALLIN: I have met with some of the families that have had children that survived. I have tried to give distance to those that have lost someone.


BLITZER: Nine children are dead.

FALLIN: But I have actually been in a facility that was a reunification facility at a church.

And at the time I had gone in there to talk to some of the Red Cross, I heard several wailing crying very, very loud. And it was very disturbing to hear people crying of that magnitude because they just found out that they had lost someone.

BLITZER: A lot of people have asked me on e-mail and Twitter, can't more be done in these elementary schools, to have shelters, concrete bunkers, underground facilities in case of a tornado?

LEWIS: Ever since the '99 tornado, all the new schools that have been here have safe rooms in there. So, we're doing that. Unfortunately, Plaza Towers was one of the older rooms.

Briarwood was a newer model. And there was no casualties there. And it is very much damaged as much as Plaza Towers.


BLITZER: So, Governor, you're going to have to make sure all schools have these safe rooms. You get a lot of tornadoes here. And God knows, this could happen again.


FALLIN: Well, we're certainly going to be having a discussion about that. And we have already been talking about how can we make sure our schools are as safe as possible.

We do have requirements that schools have to have drills. They have to have a plan of action. They have rehearse those things. The schools did respond appropriately. They took their children to safety. Some schools were actually able to move the children out of the schools before it hit. And so we are fortunate that we didn't have more loss of life.

BLITZER: Any new information coming out of the Plaza Towers Elementary School? It's a pre-K through sixth grade. About 500 kids normally would be attending Plaza Towers Elementary School. And that's -- it was literally leveled.


Unfortunately, or fortunately, I guess I should say, a lot of parents came and got their kids out of school early. Unfortunately, not everyone did. So --

FALLIN: They do have a big crane on the site right now actually picking up huge pieces of debris, trying to lift that up. It's a massive site, as you have seen on the news. And so it's going to take a lot of effort to be able to get down to the bottom of the ground.

BLITZER: I assume there will be a memorial service at some point?


BLITZER: And the president will probably come. Did he say he wanted to come to attend that?

LEWIS: We haven't talked to the president about coming to a memorial service yet, because this just literally happened. But he has called several times and expressed anything that he would do anything it took.

We are in the process of planning a memorial right now.

BLITZER: What day?

FALLIN: And we haven't decided on the day yet.

We want to make sure that we give families the opportunities to find their loved ones and make sure everyone's accounted for. And we know it's going to take families a while to find a place to live, to get clothes on their back and to get the medical care that they need. BLITZER: The three of us were at that memorial service in 1995, when President Clinton came after the Murrah Federal Office Building was destroyed.

That was by terrorists. That was manmade destruction. This was a natural disaster.

FALLIN: And a memorial service is very important to the healing of the community, the healing of those that have lost so much.

I think it's important for the nation, too, and even for those around the world that are expressing their sympathy, their concern, that are worried about the people of Oklahoma, and just for the sake of humanity, to know that people can pull together in such a time of need, and especially with prayer.

BLITZER: We're -- we're with you, Governor.

Mayor, good luck to both of you.


LEWIS: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Good luck to your communities.


FALLIN: Thank you for coming.

BLITZER: You have got a beautiful, a beautiful state, beautiful community.


FALLIN: We have got great people.

BLITZER: You certainly do.

All right, don't leave yet. A fifth grader talks about the roof of her school caving in, caving in, and the relief she felt when she was reunited with her family. That's coming up.

Also, the long road to recovery. The head of FEMA, he is here as well. The president sent him here. Craig Fugate, we're going to speak about what the federal government can do right now to help these survivors on the ground.


BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer here in Moore, Oklahoma, right outside of Oklahoma City.

We're watching this disaster unfold. It's still a disaster. It's been a little over 24 hours since a massive tornado tore a 17-mile- wide-long gash through Oklahoma. And we're just beginning to learn the full scope of the destruction. It is enormous.

The state insurance commissioner says the tornado damage will probably top $1 billion. It now appears the storm was even more powerful than we originally thought. The National Weather Service now saying damage assessments show winds reached 200 miles an hour, or even higher. And that would make it an EF-5 tornado, the highest level of intensity.

Emergency crews have been searching board by board through the rubble. More than 100 people were rescued after the tornado hit. At least 24 people were killed; 237 people were injured.

This disaster is hard on everyone here in Moore, Oklahoma, especially the kids. Many of them huddled in their schools. They were terrified, as the winds howled and the roof and the walls came down.

Jake Tapper is here. He's covering the story for all of us as well.

You spoke to a fifth grader who had an amazing story.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, what's so remarkable is, and we have seen this with all the individuals here in Moore, is how much this community has come together and how brave they are this the face of this.

But what's really even more remarkable is how brave these kids are. We met one of them. Her name is Lauryn Fugate. She was walking with her parents.

And we talked to her about her horrific experience. And, really, I don't think I have met very many people as brave as this young girl.


LAURYN FUGATE, SURVIVOR: The roof caved in on all of us while we were in the school.

TAPPER: And where were you? Did you go to the basement?

FUGATE: Well, the fifth and the sixth graders were all huddled in the bathrooms.

And all we heard was a lot of rumbling, and then stuff falling on our heads.

TAPPER: Did something fall on your head?


TAPPER: What fell, just parts of the ceiling?


FUGATE: -- the roof and stuff. So, I know that the vent fell on my best friend, McKenzie (ph), so --

TAPPER: Is she OK?


TAPPER: How did -- what grade are you in?

L. FUGATE: I'm in fifth grade.

TAPPER: And how did the 5th graders do?

L. FUGATE: A lot of them were scared crazy. But some of them were bleeding worse than others. But yes.

TAPPER: Did everybody make it?

L. FUGATE: Most of us did.

TAPPER: And what was it like when you guys found her? I want to get you in here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They were searching for her. And then one of the teachers, one of the moms had her. And brought her out to me. She was covered -- covered in dirt.

TAPPER: Where were you? Had you run to the school?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had run to her friend's house. That's where she was supposed to be at school. So I was just going to the house, which was gone, and looking for her.

TAPPER: And tell me about the moment when you saw her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, it was very emotional. Kind of in shock. And seeing her all wet and dirty. But yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She kept it together.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, we kept it together. Yes.

TAPPER: What was it like to see your mommy?

L. FUGATE: I started crying and I, like, hugged her, and I was like, "I love you, Mom." And yes.

TAPPER: It must have been a pretty good hug.


TAPPER: A remarkable story from a remarkable young girl. This whole community is full of stories like that. There has been obviously way too much death and destruction. But many, many more survivors and stories like that about people who did survive and were able to be reunited today.

BLITZER: Yes, this is an area, this is a community, as I said, 50,000 or 60,000 people, this is a major suburb of Oklahoma City, a city of about 600,000. So, you know, normally we hear these tornadoes go through rural areas. But this is almost like Bethesda is to Washington, D.C., or Arlington is to Washington, D.C., areas that you and I know well. This is the same thing.

TAPPER: Absolutely. And we've been driving around now just to make it to this live shot. And the destruction, you know, a lot of it we haven't even seen. A lot of people at home haven't seen. Because certain -- a lot of areas are cordoned off by police because of downed power lines and other -- other dangers, or they're just trying to keep the media out of certain neighborhoods. It is really, really horrific.

BLITZER: This used to be a bowling alley.

TAPPER: I know. I know.

BLITZER: See that bowling ball?

TAPPER: Are those bowling balls?

BLITZER: Yes. Cars were thrown around.

TAPPER: That's the thing. The shrapnel, this type of thing is very dangerous.

BLITZER: Jake will be reporting tomorrow from here as well on "THE LEAD." Thanks very much.

Many Americans have watched the tornado disaster play out in real time on television. Now we've seen gripping pictures of the twister itself and the damage it left behind. Our Mary Snow has been going through all of the video that's been coming in to CNN.



MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is what it looked like coming face to face with the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please, dear God, please keep these people safe. Lots of debris in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that a vortice (ph) on the outside?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole roof just came off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houses are completely leveled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's unrecognizable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houses are leveled.

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

SNOW: For those in its path, a frantic race for cover.

LANDO HITE, TORNADO SURVIVOR: It was just unbearably loud, and -- and you could see stuff flying everywhere. Just about like on the movie "Twister."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They said it was coming. So I was like, "Well, what do we do? Do we have time to get in the vehicle to outrun it? We have pets. Or do we just hunker down?" So 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.

SNOW: Caught outside with nowhere to go, this couple hid in a storm ditch.

KATIE RATLIFF, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I just kept saying over and over again, "Please, God, you know, let us be safe. Just protect us." And then, you know, while we were down under there, you know, I honestly felt like it was just going to kind of just suck us up in there. Like I didn't -- because there was like -- it was too open. It was open on one side, open on the other. It was just like a bridge. So I was just scared that it was going to take us, so I just kept praying to God.

SNOW: For some parents whose prayers were answered after the Briarwood Elementary School took a direct hit, words fail to describe their relief. Brenda Turcell (ph) seeing her son Camden says it all.

Communities wiped out in a matter of minutes. Miles and miles of destruction. Those who made it say they feel lucky just to be alive. And within the rubble, there is resilience.

LARRY WHITMORE, TORNADO SURVIVOR: Just phenomenal. Not a good phenomenal at all. We're going to be OK. We're going to get back. We are -- we're definitely Okies, and that's what we're known for. We come back, and arms a-swinging, so --


BLITZER: Mary Snow reporting. Thousands of people, thousands of stories like that. Not just dozens, or even hundreds; thousands of powerful stories that we're going to get up -- catch up with over the next several days.

Up next, dozens who survived the tornado, they bear physical scars right now. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here. He'll join us live. We'll talk about the kind of injuries he's seeing. And weather experts take us inside the massive twister. A dangerous swirl of wind and debris.


BLITZER: Joining us now, Craig Fugate, from Federal Emergency Management Agency. The president sent him here to help out.

How does this compare, Mr. Fugate, to other destruction you've seen in recent years? CRAIG FUGATE, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, unfortunately, tornado damage is pretty intense. Joplin, Tuscaloosa, again here in Oklahoma, similar. Very devastating. Houses taken down to the slabs. Schools destroyed, hospital destroyed. Cars just -- just no way that you could think people could survive this.

BLITZER: So what are you doing now? What is FEMA, the federal government doing to help?

C. FUGATE: Well, first thing we did was we sent additional teams, urban search-and-rescue teams to support the state. They had a lot of area to cover.

The other thing is, the president last night did declare these areas disaster areas. So we can start registering people for assistance and getting them some financial assistance if they didn't have insurance, getting them a place to stay. That process started last night. And we're encouraging people to register. Call 1-800-FEMA [SIC], 1-800- 621-FEMA if you're in this area to register to start that assistance.

BLITZER: And FEMA will be able to help out.

You know, a lot of us have been really shaken by what we saw at that Plaza Towers Elementary School. Pre-K through 6th grade. Literally leveled. What could be done to avoid this down the road? Because kids were killed in that school.

C. FUGATE: Well, there's a lot of things that we'll do in the assessment part of it, from the weather services. This was an F-5 tornado. This is potentially, you know, one of the most devastating things. So looking at how you build safe rooms in school construction is one of the things that has to be taken a look at in the aftermath of this storm.

BLITZER: Did you go over to that elementary school, Mr. Fugate, Plaza Towers?

C. FUGATE: Yes, we just left there. I was with the governor. We went there, several of the other areas in the neighborhoods, as well as the hospital. And when you go there, you can see that literally, the walls are gone; roofs are gone. A lot of structural damage. And you can just imagine what it was like there.

BLITZER: Give us a comparison. Because you've been through this your whole career, whether in Florida or Katrina, all sorts of disasters. You walk through a school like that. What goes through your mind?

C. FUGATE: You know, you look at all this damage, Wolf, and you just wonder how people survived, and the fact that the death toll wasn't even higher.

And then you think about the children in that school and what it was like when the storm was hitting. Again, it had to be terrifying. And so even though you see it, it's a constant, you know -- you just don't believe what can happen and what nature can do. So again, it's just a reminder: we always have to be prepared. BLITZER: People are watching us right now here in the United States and around the world, and they are moved. Is there one specific piece of advice you have? If people want to help, what should they do?

C. FUGATE: Again, this is going to be long-term, and it may sound callous, but I'm going to tell you. The best thing people could do is be generous with their dollars and give to those charitable organizations that are here not only for the initial response, but they're going to be here for the weeks and months it's going to take to rebuild this community.

They're not going to need more stuff; they're going to need your generous donations. A lot of these volunteer groups are going to help folks. We all have a role to play. But that's the best way to help with this type of disaster: give generously to those volunteer organizations that do disaster work so they can help the folks here that have been impacted by this disaster.

BLITZER: And folks, you can go to our Web site,, if you want to impact your world. There's some good recommendations, right there.

Good advice, Mr. Fugate. Thanks very much for coming here to Oklahoma. We'll touch base with you tomorrow, as well. Thank you.

And up next, tons and tons of debris carried in a giant ball by the tornado. What was inside? We'll take a closer look.


BLITZER: We're here in Moore, Oklahoma, right outside of Oklahoma City, right over next to me, the Moore Medical Center, which took a direct hit from this massive tornado. Amazingly -- amazingly, not one fatality inside.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is here.

It's hard to believe. When we look at the destruction, the cars just flying all over the place. The roof's destroyed. And everybody survived.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Cars literally going into the building. This is the second time. Remember in Joplin, the hospital was also in the path of the storm. Here, again, the second floor literally torn off.

I just talked to the doctor who was sort of in charge of the hospital during that time. They didn't get a lot of notice. They had some notice but not a lot of notice. As she said to me, this is Oklahoma. They have a pretty good idea of how to do things. They sort of got everyone, just as you would predict, into the center of the hospital. And they literally were taking mattresses, Wolf, and throwing them over them, blankets, anything to protect their heads from shrapnel injuries. And they walked out without a scratch. I mean, staff and patients alike.

BLITZER: Speaking of shrapnel injuries, do you find -- I mean, the danger, the disaster, stuff flying around. Just like this.

GUPTA: You know, in a tornado, a lot of these storms have a primary wave of injuries, which is from the wind itself. The secondary wave, just as you say, Wolf, shrapnel. Feel that. This is wrought iron. This is flying around at 200 miles an hour.

And that's exactly the types of injuries they saw. They saw lots of injuries that were essentially impalements from shrapnel. Over at the trauma center, crush injuries as a result of that. One thing they didn't see very much of, which I think is good news is not many brain or head injuries.

BLITZER: Why is that?

GUPTA: I think it's because, in part, people knew enough to protect their heads. They were in their homes, to throw mattresses or something over their heads, anything to try and just protect their heads. I guess it's something -- again, I was just asking the doctor the same thing. They're not sure. But it's so ingrained in a part of the country where tornados are so common. That's what they do.

BLITZER: I spoke to several people who said they put helmets on, even football helmets, just as a sort of protective device.

GUPTA: Right. And they do anything. And they also have third wave, so after the shrapnel injuries, bodies actually moving against a hard surface, you know, the wall of a house or something.

BLITZER: I see this destruction, and I'm amazed that 24 people died. It could have been so many. You think of 50,000, 60,000 people, in this community.

GUPTA: I cannot -- it's -- the images, it's hard to do justice on television to what we're seeing over here. But I can't believe it either. I really thought it would be much worse, just based on the images alone. And in many places that aren't prepared for this sort of thing, I think it would have been.

But you know, again, give credit where credit is due. They -- a lot of people knew what to do in this situation. They got into a safe place.

BLITZER: This was a bowling alley, and now it's -- it's rubble.

GUPTA: That's right.

BLITZER: It's happened around us, all over the place.

GUPTA: I know.

BLITZER: Sanjay, thanks very much.

Sanjay is going to have an exclusive interview later on tonight with the doctor who was in command of the E.R. unit at one of the hospitals here. That's going to be airing later tonight, "AC 360," 8 p.m. Eastern. Sanjay, thanks very much.

GUPTA: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Up next, objects big and small, sucked up into this tornado that ravaged the town. We're going to get an inside look at the massive twister.


BLITZER: The destruction here stretches for 17 miles. A lot of it caused by massive, massive debris. We sent a team to analyze video of the twister to learn more about those flying killer objects. Here's CNN's Joe Johns.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're here with Paul Schlatter of the National Weather Service. And Paul, if you would, just give us a sense of what this video tells us about the tornado, as you look at it.

PAUL SCHLATTER, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE: So we're looking at a -- what looks like a really wide tornado, and violent just based on being able to pick out individual chunks of debris swirling around. These are large chunks of debris. Two-by-fours, chunks of trees. In a minute we'll see the roof of a house.

JOHNS: That's the roof of a house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole roof just came off.

SCHLATTER: Getting lifted off the house and then smashed into other structures. That flash right there was another transformer popping. It's taking out a power line and exploding the transformer.

JOHNS: How far up does this funnel cloud go?

SCHLATTER: So the tornado itself could well be well over 10,000 feet deep. So up here you see where it's rotating this way. That's what we call a mesocyclone. It's what spawns tornados. The tornado usually is within that larger rotation.

This is a much broader rotation. Whereas the tornado is a smaller feature within that mesocyclone rotating much more rapidly. And that's what does all the damage at the ground is that tornado.

JOHNS: The stuff out here obviously is going to be the first stuff to hit the ground. It will stay up in the air. Any estimation of how long before it comes down, how long it will travel?

SCHLATTER: Larger chunks of debris tend to fall, you know, within hundreds of yards, you know: the cars, the large pieces of buildings tend to fall within a hundred yards, up to a half mile or a mile from where, you know -- where it's picked up. The smaller pieces of debris -- insulation, postcards, checks -- things of that nature are so light, they can be lifted into the middle of the thunderstorm, carried over 30,000 feet and then slowly once the storm moves away and starts to wind down, hundreds of miles later these checks and the small bits of debris can fall to the ground, and people can pick them up and find that -- they trace it back to the original tornado.

JOHNS: Where are we in the stage of the tornado right now? Is it at its height when you're looking at that? Or is it sort of winding down?

SCHLATTER: There -- this is a mature tornado, where I mean, the whole -- the whole screen is filled with the tornado. And you can just tell how quickly it's rotating around.


BLITZER: It's powerful. It's amazing. That report from Joe Johns.

Still ahead, extraordinary tornado video from a storm chaser. You're going to want to see this. It's coming up right at the top of the hour.


BLITZER: Here in Oklahoma, people woke up this morning to hard realities and very, very painful headlines.

"The Oklahoman" newspaper declared this tornado was worse than the one that struck this community on May 3, 1999.

And "The Norman Transcript" in Norman, Oklahoma, summed up this disaster in two words: "A Nightmare."

But there was -- yes, there was also a show of the American spirit. Only hours after the tornado disaster U.S. Navy reservists deployed from Tulsa raised the American flag on top of the wreckage. A reminder that the town and the people will, of course, carry on.

If you'd like to help, you can impact your world. Here's what you can do, and I think you should. Go to a link to the American Red Cross, other organizations helping here on the ground in Oklahoma. Go to our Web site, And you can impact your world. I hope you do that.

As I say, this area, it was so peaceful and beautiful just more than 24 hours ago. Now areas look like war zones. Our coverage continues with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT."