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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Tornadoes Devastate Parts of Oklahoma; Interview with Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb

Aired May 21, 2013 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma. I'm Chris Cuomo here. The situation far from over on the ground. Search and rescue is desperate here. Government authorities are calling in help from the federal government, from surrounding communities to help find those who may still be alive.

What happened here, obvious, a massive tornado ripped through an area several blocks wide, 20 miles long. You're taking a look at what hit Moore, Oklahoma yesterday. The power was undisputable. Where there were homes, there are now what appear to be piles of straw. The loss was complete. And across all categories. Homes obvious, business, of course, human loss of life, as well. The numbers are very low. Just got off the phone with an official, he says although, although, although, Chris, we don't know, we don't know about the dead, we don't know about the injured.

But we do measure these situations in terms of casualties. So I will tell you, at this point, 51 confirmed dead, 20 of those kids, 145 injured. But there are so many walking wounded. Look at the pictures before you. Families took to their own before they took care of themselves, they went looking for their kids, and you'll see people bloodied. They're injured, but they wanted to find their kids. Plaza tower, Briarwood, two elementary schools hit just at dismissal time, 3:00 p.m., Plaza Towers, very bad. Hand-to-hand search going through there now. Carrying key bring through, listening for sounds, bringing in dogs with their acute sense of hearing. Lots of reunions, lots of lives saved here, but the loss is just devastating. We'll hear so much more about it throughout the day.

I'm joined here in Moore with John Berman, you've seen him throughout the morning. He had to leave his shot because authorities wanted to be able to hear the community as well as possible, the satellite truck, the generators.

Now a word of caution at home. You're going to see things behind us, you're going to see lightning. You're going to see flashes, it looks scary. We're told by those who know better than we do, that the front is moving, it is not a danger to us, not a risk to our truck, so we can stay up and broadcast. It looks much more significant than it is to us. And to be honest, it is a little bit of a scary scene.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: There is weather. You will the lightning through the morning. The other thing you will see in these areas is the dust being blown around and debris, little particles being blown through the air. It will get in your eyes and the recovery crews that are working, the power of the storm lifted everything up into the air.

Let me give you a since of what I've seen over the last couple of hours, a couple of images seared into my head. In one neighborhood, I already saw a tent up in a front lawn, someone whose home is destroyed, has no home to go back to. That tent in their front lawn, that tent is their home. I can't tell how many dogs I saw walking around the neighborhoods, lonely dogs probably looking for their homes, again those homes gone. The people who own those dogs probably looking for them right now. Animal rescue a big part of tragedies like this.

And the solitary flashlights looking through some of the rubble and debris of these homes. It is a sight to behold in the school. And that Plaza Towers school, we are right up next to it, simply flattened like so many of the neighborhoods here.

The last 20 hours here, in this town of Moore, population 55,000, it's a day that the area will anywhere forget. Let's look back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: 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, the ferocious storm flattening homes and buildings, flinging cars in the air and leaving two schools and a hospital barely recognizable in the hard-hit town of Moore.

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

BERMAN: Decimating everything in its path. Homes crushed to piles of debris, what looks like haystacks where houses once stood. As the injured poured into hospitals, 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. I felt our ears popping. It was something that we never experienced, it was really scary.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Grabbing and throwing debris, trying to get anybody out.

BERMAN: A massive recovery effort at one of two schools for children buried under the rubble continued into the night, the grim reality 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. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was so brave. He was so brave.

BERMAN: 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 that we were in.

BERMAN: Debris churned through the powerful black funnel as this storm roared. 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: Two of these stalls like this, they came together, and I was in between them. And this just pushed us down, pushed us down the shed row.

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

GOV. MARY FALLIN, (R) OKLAHOMA: I know there are families wondering where their loved ones are and right now we're doing everything we can.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: You saw the filth covering that one man. The debris just everywhere and you saw the hugs, those reunions, Chris, you know this as a parent. These are the moments you simply cannot hug your kids tightly enough.

CUOMO: Not being able to get a cell signal or know where your kids are, unimaginable. The picture on the cover of the "Oklahoman" this morning, a daddy hugging his kid, the mom. We'll show you the picture in a better way. It was in John's piece, her face is bloodied her eye is closed, but she has a smile on her face because she found her kids.

At the end of the day that's all that matters to this community as they're trying to get back up on their feet. They've recovered. May 2003 was devastating, may 1999 was devastating, they'll get their homes and businesses back, but when you lose a loved one, it's over forever. That's why when they tell us to move because they want to be able to hear everything they can. We get up and move to better location, everybody on the ground is here to help.

Now, we keep being told, John, that the casualty numbers are low, that will be complicated by the fact that area hospitals got hit as well. This is a picture, so you can remember -- if you're going to capture an image, every time you see that one, let it hit home for you. We want to go to Pam Brown, now. She is at one of the area hospitals surveying the situation there. This is the picture we want to you keep in your mind and in your heart. That mother is happy despite everything that's happened to her, because she has her kids. Here's pam. It's good to see you, pam. What do you understand from the situation from where you are? PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Chris, right behind me is a hospital one of two hospitals here in Moore, Oklahoma damaged from the tornado. This is Moore medical center. And just look at it. It's obliterated. Obviously this created a big challenge for first responders trying to bring patients to the hospital for treatment. Across town where we just were, at Plaza Towers elementary school, only a couple walls are standing there.

With no underground shelter to go to, dozens of students had to do what they practiced during drills, they crouched down on the ground in the hallways with their hands over their heads as the tornado bulldozed through there. This morning rescuers are searching the rubble at the school site, trying to find more survivors as parents anxiously await.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Illuminated by flood lights, rescue teams searched throughout the night, sifting through mountains of debris where Plaza Towers Elementary school once stood. In some places the debris was 10 feet high, underneath every parent's worst nightmare, the bodies of school children who tried to seek shelter from a ferocious tornado, many more still missing.

The race to rescue dozens of students and teachers began right after the massive two-mile-wide tornado ripped through two elementary schools directly in its path. At hardest-hit Plaza Towers elementary, a third grade class huddled in a hallway of their school.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had to hold onto the walls 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 is, she had three little kids underneath her. Good job, teach.

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

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

BROWN: This new video shows raw emotional moments from parents reunited with their kids from Briarwood Elementary in the minutes after the tornado hit. 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 MALE: It was like a big tornado hit up the whole place.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

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

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What did your teachers tell you to do? You showed me a moment ago? Show them what you did at school.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You ducked and you covered your head with your hands.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And parents this morning are hailing the teachers at two of the elementary schools as heroes. Several of the teachers actually shielded the children, laying on top of them as the tornado came through. Other teachers pulled walls off of children trapped underneath.

And this morning as we mentioned, it is a recovery mission at Plaza Towers elementary school, several children is been killed there and rescuers looking for more children there.

And also, Chris and John, just quickly want to pan over to Moore medical center and show you the scene one more time. It's kind of incredible to look at this FedEx truck here with the lights still on. And you look at the hospital, as we said, it is, it is obliterated. We've learned that the patients were evacuated from here. After the hospital sustained damages from the tornado. And the patients were evacuated to a couple medical centers here in the area. But just an unbelievable sight here to look at this hospital and to look at the damages it sustained from the massive tornado.

BERMAN: Pamela, the sun is coming up behind you, we see the lightning above us. The weather here is something that everyone has their eyes on. Everyone concerned. They want to make sure there aren't going to be more storms coming this way. We want to get a look at the forecast right now. If there are more storms, if the system will continue, let's go to the CNN weather center right now, Indra Petersons has more.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hey, I wish I had better news. Unfortunately I do now. We're still looking at this weekend flash outbreak of severe weather. We have severe thunderstorm warnings just south of the area. In fact we've actually kind of zoomed in a little closer, and we've seen hail cores potentially high as two and a half inches just south of you. So cell after cell continuing to develop out there. There's still plenty of instability out here. But keep in mind usually we see a little break as some of it starts to wind down, and as we go through the afternoon we start to see the activity develop again. As far as today, in fact we've actually enhanced the risk out there in comparison to what we saw yesterday. What we're looking at is 50 million, 48 million seeing the slight risk area. But the difference between today and yesterday is that yesterday we did not have a moderate risk area. But today as we mentioned we have upped that. So from Dallas going in towards Shreveport and portions of Arkansas, now we have the higher threshold for the threat for tornadoes. So that's the dangerous situation we're watching again today.

But I also want to stress, just because you're not in this moderate area, by no means does that mean you don't need to be vigilant in this widespread area. I keep pointing out, Granbury Texas, barely in the risk area and still a EF-4 tornado went right through that town. Please keep an eye out. You need to look around everywhere today. As long as you're in this risk area, potential danger still going to be with you.

BERMAN: Thanks, Indra Petersons in Atlanta. Please, everyone be careful. There are millions of people who should be on the watch for potential danger as the storms continue to move across the country.

CUOMO: Our meteorologists are able to see things, give us a little bit of a heads up. Sometimes it's not enough, but you have to take that word immediately. Here again you're seeing scary-looking weather front over us, but not the threat of tornado at this time, so search and rescue can continue.

Throughout the morning we're going to tell you what matters most here, which is that you should try to help if you can. CNN.com/impact, you can go on our website. You'll see the different organizations that are trying to pass the hat and finding out specific needs for this area.

We really want to show you this one image that pretty much captures what we've seen on the ground so far. It's on the cover of the "Oklahoman" today. Put up the picture of this one family. This was the best-case scenario. Daddy's got his little girl in his arms. His face is banged up. His wife is behind him. She's visibly bloodied from the experience. But they have their family, they have ha matters most. And as rough a scene as that looks, there's so many families that are praying that that is their ending to what happened here yesterday.

BERMAN: The girl just melting into the father's arms. We have so many questions this morning here. What is the status of the search, the recovery, the rescue operation? How many homes were destroyed? When we come back we're going to speak with the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma and put these questions to him and find out as the sun comes up there what is the exact situation in Moore, Oklahoma. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CUOMO: We're here in Moore, Oklahoma, I'm joined by Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb. Let's get right to it. First of all, Governor, I'm sorry to have to meet you this way, but I'm glad to be with you here, glad to know you're safe. Let's know what matters most. What do you know about the situation on the ground?

LT. GOV. TODD LAMB, (R ) OKLAHOMA: We still have confirmed 51 deaths, 20 of those children, and not to be pessimistic as we start this morning and the sun is rising, but we think the death toll will continue to climb as we find more bodies. The rescue workers worked all through the night with the generators and the lights, we're a tough state, this is a very tough community. Behind us is the First Baptist Church of Moore. This church was wiped out in the '99 tornado. You can see that's rebuilt and that's what the state will do.

CUOMO: '99, 2003, and now, it's almost impossible to believe, but you're telling me before we came on camera, the same route that the tornadoes went through?

LAMB: That's exactly right. Almost the exact same route from '99, '03 and yesterday. And the '99 tornado was the worst tornado in the history of the planet as far as destruction and property damage. And our death toll is already above and greater loss of life than the '99 tornado.

CUOMO: Now you were using the word search, rescue, this is -- I keep being told an emergent situation, it's a fluid situation, it's hard to get in earth-moving equipment. It's hard to do it in earnest yet. This is still very developing, right? There is hope.

LAMB: Right. There is hope and I don't want to fall into the semantics trap of what -- is it rescue, is it recovery. We always have hope, we always have faith. We're a praying community, and we'll continue to hope that we find life this morning and throughout the day and will continue to recover at the same time.

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: You know that people can be under there. They have been in the past?

LAMB: Absolutely they can. Absolutely. Well, there's April 19th, the bombing that occurred here in 1995, the May 3rd tornado we've already talked about. You continue to find life for some time. So I have hope as a lieutenant governor, I have a hope as a neighbor, and as a citizen of Oklahoma, but that also we're going to find those bodies that are lifeless, and that's unfortunate, but we're going to continue to do that as well.

CUOMO: Do you have what you need on the ground? How can people help?

LAMB: They can help by going to OKDisasterHelp.com. OKDisasterHelp.com. And if they're watching this and they need help, they can call 1-800-621-FEMA, F-E-M-A -- 1-800-621-FEMA, or log on to DisasterAssistance.gov. That's dot G-O-V. DisasterAssistance.gov. If they need help they can go that direction or donate through the other website.

CUOMO: All right. A lot of addresses and numbers coming at you, we'll put it on CNN.com/impact so you can go there and we'll have the information that the governor has given us right now to put it there. Because helping people here is the first priority. We know people are organizing, First Baptist for many it is, like five different in the area right now that's set up. If you're in the area they have water, they have power. Which is scarce right now. There's a lot of water pressure is down in a lot of the parts of the community in Moore.

And as you see, know we're going to have a press conference at 8. The hospitals are banged up. The one a few minutes away here. What does that mean as the casualty numbers go up? What is the planning in place for where people can go. How you get them there.

LAMB: Well for example, because the Moore hospital was dinged up significantly last night. They had to evacuate every patient, put them in the basement or the first floors, they put the doctors in the freezers last night because that was the most secure area of the hospital. You want to evacuate to a hospital when you're hurt. You couldn't go to the hospital in Moore yesterday afternoon. Some went north to Oklahoma City. There were 85 trauma patients last night at OU Medical center, 60-65 of those were children -- trauma victims that were at the hospital. And they're scattered all throughout the metropolitan area right now.

CUOMO: 3:00 it hit, what was the warning?

LAMB: The warning was, I want to be very sensitive here. My understanding is that the warning system was good. It was adequate. Of course if you lost your life, if you lost your child, if you lost your home, you may not think so. But the tornado sirens were activated, they went off very loudly, very audibly. There were shelters available. Maybe the shelters weren't as strong as they needed to be in some parts. But also our meteorologists in Oklahoma second to none, first rate, top-notch. And we were talking about the storms yesterday and the potential for the storms yesterday as much as three to four days ago. We knew yesterday we had the potential for tornadic activity because of the fair warning we had with our meteorologists.

CUOMO: Help me understand how it works in terms of where houses are built, what they're built on. Because as an east coaster, to me I would think you must have a shelter in your house, you must have a basement. A lot of the homes don't have basements because of what they're built on? Is that true?

LAMB: I heard some reports yesterday that said you couldn't build a basement in Oklahoma or couldn't get a shelter in Oklahoma unless you use dynamite. That's not accurate.

CUOMO: That' not true?

LAMB: No. Our neighbors right next to us had a shelter put in their home in the last month. They dug it out in their garage. They hired a company to do that. Many homes have basements. But not every home does. It's just a matter of what the homeowner wanted to do, what the builder wanted to do.

CUOMO: Do the schools have shelters in them?

LAMB: Some schools do have shelters, the old fallout shelters or basements. In my understanding, this school that we're so concerned about, Plaza Towers, they had a basement. Quite frankly, don't mean to be graphic, but that's why some of the children drowned, they were in the basement area. Water came in. And it was what it was. With the tragedy yesterday afternoon. But there are basements, there are shelters, but unfortunately not everybody has one.

CUOMO: And obviously the focus right now, is in that type of analysis, to figure out how to get help on the ground right now. We're telling you to go to CNN.com/impact to do that. Here on the ground you have surrounding communities helping out, so you can -- because right now you're doing a lot of it through hand.

LAMB: Right.

CUOMO: Right, it's human to get through there, because you can't get the earth moving equipment in yet.

LAMB: Right and the Moore a fire chief said yesterday afternoon, or yesterday evening, at the press conference, thank you, volunteers, but we have enough volunteers and unfortunately Oklahoma has a lot of practice at helping each other and we respond and we help one another, we hug one another, we love one another and we have people outside of the state already arriving in Oklahoma, either to report -- thank you for doing that -- and others just offering to help.

CUOMO: We're being told that from a search and rescue perspective, they're not through even half of it yet. That communities are helping themselves, but you haven't gotten officials on the ground. You have tons of manpower, it just takes time.

LAMB: It does take time. This tornado, to put it in perspective, it would be like a two-mile-wide lawnmower blade going over a community. So when the schools leveled, neighborhoods are wiped out, businesses are flattened. It's significant and the clean-up will be for some time.

CUOMO: It's terrible to think about it, but that's what it looks like. Governor, thank you very much. I know you've got important work to do. Thank you for joining us. We'll be in contact, you let us know anything we can do to help to get the resources here.

We'll take a quick break from Moore, Oklahoma. Again, this is a community in need, this is a story that is just beginning for them to find out who is still around, what families can reunite and how they start to get their lives back together, it will be a lot of information today coming at you, we take a break right now there's a press conference coming up at 8:00 a.m. Local time. We'll get more official word of what's going on from Moore, Oklahoma.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our coverage of this terrible tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. I'm John Berman here in Moore, I'm standing in front of the First Baptist Church, which to give you a sense, just in 1999, that church was simply destroyed in a tornado. Now it's been completely rebuilt. I'm standing here with Kevin Rolls (ph) and Jimmy Story (ph), they're with Base Hunters, they're tornado chasers, they are storm chasers and they shot some pretty incredible footage of this storm. Before I talk to them, want to give you a glimpse of what they saw and heard from this devastating storm.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh my God.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that a vorticy (ph) on the side?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big, there's a whole roof that just came off. No, not yet. Oh my gosh. Look it's already starting to --

(CROSSTALK)