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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Oklahoma in Recovery Mode after Devastating Tornadoes; Interview with Mayor of Moore, OK; Interview with Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma; Interview with Sen. James Inhofe

Aired May 21, 2013 - 08:30   ET

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


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What are you told about the death toll and overall casualties? Is it expected to go up significantly?

MAYOR GLENN LEWIS, MOORE, OKLAHOMA: That's what they tell me, that it's possible. Of course, we're very optimistic. We hope that most of it has already passed on that part. Our hearts go out to the families and it's just a devastating day. I'm sorry, I haven't had much sleep so -- haven't had any sleep since yesterday.

And we're going to out and do our best. Right now, we're starting our recover efforts at City Hall. We've already issued traffic signs; they're having them made. Which sounds odd, but we do the traffic signs because when you're in one of those areas, you can't tell where you at, so we have to put those up first so even the rescue vehicles will know where they're at.

TODD: What is your biggest concern right now as far as overall danger to people trying to get back to their homes and things like that?

LEWIS: Yes, right now we have the National Guard out. The biggest danger is natural gas and electricity that's still on in certain places. We don't want anybody -- as have you seen this morning, it's sprinkling out. We don't want anybody stepping on those lines and getting electrocuted. Anybody out there that doesn't need to be here, we want them to stay home, stay away from the site and let the professional rescue people do their job.

TODD: Do you know if the elementary school that was hardest hit, that was leveled, Plaza Towers, did that have a shelter in it?

LEWIS: No, sir.

TODD: Can you tell us why it didn't?

LEWIS: Most of the places around here don't. It's because of the cost. I don't think most -- most of the schools in Oklahoma do not have one. The new ones that were hit in the '99 tornado, they do have built-in storm shelters.

TODD: Do you think that's something that will change after this?

LEWIS: I'm sure it will. That's something that we're definitely going to look at it. I know the school system and the city are two separate entities but I'm sure we'll talking to them and trying to get them FEMA monies to help rebuild these schools.

TODD: All right, Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining us. John, that was Mayor Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore, Oklahoma. The rescue effort, he says, continuing. The mayor told me a short time ago. As of now, what he's been briefed by the fire chief, only four people, four people listed at missing at the moment in the entire town of Moore. Of course, that equation could change as well, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Very interesting to hear, Todd. They have been working throughout the night here and one of the hopeful numbers we've reported is that since the storms hit, some 101 people -- 101 people -- have been pulled from the rubble by first responders, by the firefighters, by the police, by the EMTs, by the countless scores of rescue workers that descended on this town to help out the best they can.

The mayor saying he has all the help he needs right now. He's actually asking people, if they can, to stay off the streets to let the people do their jobs. The media has been respecting their request as well; we've been trying to leave those areas. We do not want to be in the way as they do those jobs. Those jobs do continue today.

Again, 101 people pulled from the rubble alive, that's the good news. There is some tragic news here -- 51 people killed so far from this devastating tornado. That number will go up. 145 people injured. We expect that number to go up as well. But the number that Brian Todd just reported there from the mayor here in Moore, right now he believes only four people unaccounted for.

We'll learn more about that as our coverage here from Moore, Oklahoma, continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma, the scene of devastating tornado, the EF-4 tornado with wind speeds excess of 200 miles per hour. At times, this tornado was some two miles wide and you can see the devastation here this morning in Moore as the sun comes up over this town of 55,000. They're picking through pieces here this morning.

I'm joined now by the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, who's been dealing with tornadoes now for 48 hours in the state. Governor Fallin, you have to be simply exhausted. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

GOV. MARY FALLIN (R), OKLAHOMA: Well, I think we're all running on adrenaline right now but we want to do everything we can to make sure we're getting the resources out, that we're certainly in the rescue and recovery stage. We're going to uncover ever single thing we can to make sure we have everyone rescued from this terrible tragedy that's hit our state.

BERMAN: Governor Fallin, you were at the Plaza Towers Elementary School overnight well past midnight last night. Give me a sense of what it was like on the scene there at that elementary school? Are they still looking for possible survivors?

FALLIN: As far as I know, they're still looking for possible survivors. It's a tremendous debris field. It is massive. It was surreal just to walk up on that last night. There were hundreds of people that were there, they had jack hammers, they had saws, cutting through metal. They had sledgehammers. They were desperately trying to get under debris.

We know walls fell over and there were some children found under the walls itself at that school. But we had all hands on deck to do everything we can to look through the debris itself and certainly throughout the community. And my heart broke last night for the parents that didn't know the current condition of their children and where they were.

BERMAN: I think our hearts are collectively breaking for all of these parents out there. Governor Fallin, the latest number we have is 51 people killed in this storm, including 20 children. Is there an updated number you can tell us this morning?

FALLIN: There is not an updated number at this point in time. This is a big area of destruction and so we have a lot of different moving parts. We have all hands on deck but we hope to have a briefing about noon to give some better numbers.

We are working through medical examiner's office and one thing we want to be careful about is not giving out numbers we're not sure about. And so we're working very diligently to gather information from various sources.

We had a huge issue yesterday and it's still sort of an issue today with cell phone towers. As you can imagine, there are so many people trying to use telephones, the powerlines have been down, the telephone line -- there's no power, there's no water in this community. And as you stated, it's about two miles wide for about 20 miles long. So this is a big, big area of destruction.

BERMAN: Governor, what do you need today? As the sun rises here, there are probably so many needs. What's at the top of the list?

FALLIN: Well, the biggest thing we need is probably just donations at this point in time. There are families, they have lost their homes. There are certainly businesses that have been destroyed. But not only the tornado here in Moore and Oklahoma City, but we also had tornadoes on Sunday. And just yesterday morning, I was going throughout other areas of the state, walking through the debris areas and talking to families and businesses that had homes destroyed on Sunday afternoon. And of course to have this happen again on Monday has created a lot of extra need in our state for services.

We've had a tremendous amount of people that called, governors from other states. I did call out the National Guard early yesterday, right about the time the tornado coming down, bearing down on Moore, because I wanted to make sure we had all type of personnel and security of the perimeter itself, and to make sure that through dangerous situation, especially with all the debris scattered throughout the highways that were closed, that we could keep people safe -- not only people in those communities but also the emergency personnel and law enforcement and first responders.

BERMAN: Governor, you carefully called this still a rescue operation and we all so dearly want to hold on to hope. No one wants to give up that hope as the sun dose rise here, as it is morning now the day after the devastating storm. The rescue crews you have talked to, have they found any signs of life recently?

FALLIN: I haven't heard of any signs of life at this point in time. Once again, everybody is just really busy right now, trying to do what we can to get the right resources at the right places, get the right personnel at the different locations. But we're going to be having a briefing about noon to get updated numbers and be able to have more numbers for people.

We have a great system of coordination. I was in many of our different command centers last night. They have big maps in different areas and they are staffing up and treating different personnel out, emergency personnel. There are have been people who have been on the scene for long period of time and we have to be careful to protect those and to shift out the people as they are coming in and out working in this area.

But we don't have any updated numbers at this time. We know it's going to be big.

BERMAN: It is. It's too much, whatever that number is.

Governor Fallin, you are from Oklahoma obviously. This area knows tornadoes, has seen them before, including one in 1999, a simply devastating tornado here, an EF-5 that tore through this region. I'm standing in front of a church that was wrecked in that tornado, now been completely rebuilt. What's the message you want to send to people about how this area will rebuild?

FALLIN: Well, we will rebuild. We have seen time and time again the strength of our people, the courage, the perseverance. We have come back much stronger after tragedies we've been through, whether it's the May 3rd tornado that struck through this area of Moore. It was rebuilt. The communities have done very well. We're actually in a great period of time for our state with a very strong economy and low unemployment. This has certainly thrown us back a long ways, but we'll regain our strength and I know our people.

And, you know, one thing we became famous for in 1995 during the bombing of the federal building when we had 167 loss of lives, is our people can pull together. They will find the inner courage, their strength, through prayer. And neighbors are out helping fellow neighbors and we'll take care of our people, and we certainly have the best first responders and emergency personnel I think in the nation to handle a crisis like this.

BERMAN: All right. Governor Mary Fallin, thank you so much for being with us today. Our heart out to you, the entire country is pulling for you here in Oklahoma. We appreciate you being with us. FALLIN: Thank you for your prayers too. We appreciate it.

BERMAN: Thank you, Governor. This was an EF-4 storm with winds in excess of 200 miles an hour. We've been saying this was some two miles wide at some point. Its swath some 20 miles long. The destruction, as the sun comes up, is now apparent to the naked eye here.

And our Pamela Brown is standing in what can only be described as a pile of rubble this morning. Pamela, what was this place you're standing in?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hard to believe, John, but this was a bowling alley. I'm holding a child's bowling ball. These are scattered throughout the area where I am. You can see here, this is carpet. This is presumably where people would walk in, buy their bowling shoes. And then you look at the infrastructure, just ripped apart, hard to believe this was ever a bowling alley. This is where people would have gone to -- this is the bowling kiosk right here, the bowling alleys where you see metal beams over there. It's just obliterated.

This just shows the strength, the power, of that tornado. This was in the direct path of the tornado yesterday afternoon and it just shows the gravity of it all. And you see over here this emergency exit door stripped apart, and then over here, aluminum side panel, we think, hugging this hole right here. So everywhere you look, you see this all over Moore, Oklahoma.

In fact, right next to this bowling alley there's Moore Medical Center and you can see this is destroyed as well. These cars are flattened like pancakes, they're turned upside down, they're actually on top of the -- the hospital there. And the FedEx truck over here actually had its lights on this morning so this is -- this really just paints the picture of what it looks like and how powerful that tornado was yesterday afternoon.

Really just chilling to see this, I actually -- it reminds me -- when I covered the earthquake in Haiti a couple of years ago, and the scene that I'm seeing right here with these mountains of rubble really reminds me of what I saw there. It's just absolutely horrific. It's a ghost town here, it's desolate. People are just shell shocked.

BERMAN: That bowling alley, there's simply nothing left looking at that. Really, really eerie, Pamela, especially the carpeted -- the rug there and the bowling balls just scattered around.

BROWN: Yes.

BERMAN: And then to see that hospital. I should tell people one thing about that medical center there were no injuries. All the doctors, all of the medical personnel they were evacuated safely and the patients as well were moved to a safer location. Pamela, I'm wondering if you can show us some more of the Moore Medical Center behind you right now. BROWN: Yes it's unbelievable, John. You point out, there were no injuries. We've learned this morning, that the patients and the staff were actually evacuated after the tornado came through and the damage sustained.

So let's take a look again here. I just think -- I don't even have to talk, you just look at the pictures and it really tells the story. You look at the cars overturned on top of the building, it's -- there's really nothing left. It's hard to believe this was ever a hospital.

But we know that the patients were taken to nearby medical centers and they are being treated there so, a bit of good news that there were no fatalities here at this hospital.

But again just looking at it shows the sheer strength, the sheer power of that tornado that swept through here yesterday afternoon -- John.

BERMAN: You see that car with that red "X" simply turned over now laying on its roof. Pamela Brown standing in the floor of a bowling alley right now next to a medical center that's been destroyed. Pamela Brown our thanks to you.

I want to show you now some live pictures right now from Moore, Oklahoma, where I'm standing right now to give you a sense of the scope of the devastation. These are new live aerials right now. One of the words that you hear again and again in a storm like this is "haystack" that homes end up looking like, just haystacks. And it's a pretty apt description in this case, you can see whatever that structure was has now simply been torn to pieces. You also saw a fire truck near that, which is a sign of the first responders that have descended on this scene, hundreds of people now involved in the recovery and the rescue operation here. And again the good news, some 101 people have been pulled from the rubble since yesterday.

Our coverage here of this devastating tornado in Moore, Oklahoma continues right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma -- CNN's live coverage of the aftermath of this devastating tornado. You are looking at live aerial pictures of this scene, of these buildings that have simply been flattened.

By the numbers here again preliminary numbers right now, we're saying 51 people have been killed, that number is likely to rise. 145 people have been injured, that number as well likely to rise. And the number of killed we know at this point that 20 of them are children.

One number we do not have yet is an estimate of the number of buildings, structures, homes destroyed but by looking at this, you get a sense of why we don't have that number yet. There's simply so much destruction, it's hard to count right now.

I want to bring in Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He joins us now from Washington. Senator, thank you so much for being with us right now. I know it must be difficult for you not to be here with your constituents in Oklahoma. But I am sure you've been speaking to them all night.

Give me a sense about what you have heard of the recovery effort, the rescue effort going on right now, right here in Moore?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: Yes well, Chris, first of all, there are several of us who were there in 1999. The thing that's amazing is if you look at the map as to where this thing came through it's same thing as 1999. The devastation was about the same, but it's a smaller area.

I talked this morning to Albert Ashworth who is the head of the emergency management person in Oklahoma. He says one of the biggest problems was matching up the missing parents with the missing kids. And that's such a tragic thing to think about.

But that is what's going on, right now there are still a lot of uncertainty. I would like to mention one thing. We're talking about this -- the -- the -- what happened yesterday. The day before that with Shawnee, Oklahoma another one, Sunday night, we are actually -- I was there in Tulsa, my son looked up and he saw something floating down from the sky, it was this picture right here of a small child, in a car seat. That came all the way from Shawnee, Oklahoma 80 miles away and landed in our -- in our neighbor's yard.

So many things happened that are so hard to explain. All of the tornadoes are just devastating at the site. We had Smallwood, Picher, Oklahoma; that was one of the very small areas that it dropped in. This thing was huge. This is one of the largest ones that we've had.

BERMAN: As you say the force of these storms is really hard to comprehend and as you do point out this was not the first storm they've had in the last few days, they've been having days of tornadoes here. As you said in Shawnee, we were covering the tornado there as well.

Senator, what are you hearing from the ground here? What's your sense of what they need in terms of assistance?

INHOFE: Well first of all, we have everything that we need. We have individual assistance. We have public assistance so that came immediately. I know that Mary Fallin was in contact with the President, so that's behind us now, that kind of assistance.

But there are little things you can do, the -- let's see -- the Salvation Army and the Red Cross have a number where you can make small contributions. It's going to be necessary to raise a lot of money. We had to do this in 1999 down there.

One thing about 1999 is so many people, Chris, ended up building shelters, building basement safe areas and there have been a lot more people killed we believe if they had not had that warning some 14 years ago. BERMAN: We understand they had 16 minutes, which is actually a fair amount of time. It might not sound like much. But in tornado country, that's a fair amount of time to try to take cover. They had 16 minutes to get to safety. A lot of people did, Senator. One of the things we've been reporting over the past few minutes is 101 people have been pulled from the rubble alive since this storm first hit.

As an Oklahoman, I'm wondering if you can just describe to me what it's like to look at these pictures of the devastation here in Moore?

INHOFE: Well, we've seen them before. And we -- you know they say tornado alley and I could remember so many times being there when this has happened. We've actually been -- I don't know many people who have been raised in Oklahoma who haven't actually been in a tornado one time or another.

Some are very small. Up in Picher, Oklahoma just a couple of years ago, that was one that -- where it only hit a very small area of ground, however, the level of devastation is always the same.

And what you're looking at right now in Moore, Oklahoma, is what you could have seen if you had been there in 1999 or in some parts of Shawnee. Devastation is devastation. And it's just -- this makes it, this is so much worse, because you're talking about a two-mile by 20- mile area. That's very unusual.

BERMAN: And it's hard to look at this morning. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma joining us now from Washington; I appreciate you being with us. And our thoughts are with you and the entire population of your state. We really appreciate it, sir.

IHHOFE: Thanks.

BERMAN: Our coverage here of the devastating storm in Moore, Oklahoma will continue, right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)