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Oklahoma Disaster Coverage; Interview with a Survivor; A Look into Underground Storm Bunkers; Interview With Rep. Tom Cole

Aired May 22, 2013 - 06:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman here in Moore, Oklahoma. We are in this neighborhood that was flattened by this tornado. This town is some 56,000 people strong.

They are proud. They are working through this recovery this morning after one of the most powerful storms ever to hit this country.

The National Weather Service now confirming that the 1.3-mile-wide funnel cloud that killed 24 people. It was an EF-5 tornado. There's nothing higher on the scale than EF-5.

The twister t packed 210-mile-an-hour winds at the peak. It left 2,400 homes damaged, 10,000 people directly impacted by this. And the insurance claims are expected to top $1 billion.

A lot of damage here. As much damage, so much loss. There are also amazing stories of survival here in Oklahoma. We've also seen many heartbreaking images. But many people want to know, what does it look like to be in the middle of it all as the tornado is going right over your head?

We have stunning video to show you right now.

Oh my goodness. This cloud swirling above, you can hear it passing. You see the debris flying everywhere. What a vision. This was all shot by one guy who is with me right now, 19-year-old Charles Gafford.

He joins me here this morning in Moore, Oklahoma. Explain to me how you got these stunning pictures.

CHARLES GAFFORD III, SURVIVED TORNADO: Well, the storm shelter was completely closed. I was safe and everything. So, I didn't put myself at anymore risk. But there was a perfect hole that I saw that I could fit my camera through.

And the whole tornado passed through exactly where I could see. I was just in complete, utter shock. I have never seen a tornado ever and the first one I'd ever see ends up being an F-4, almost F-5.

BERMAN: Now that you see the tornado, you see it from the inside there, as you said, let's point out. You are in a storm shelter. GAFFORD: Yes.

BERMAN: Even though you're sheltered, did you feel safe the whole time? Was it terrifying?

GAFFORD: It was absolutely terrifying, but I did feel safe, because I could see the houses in front of me were still standing. I was more concerned about the neighborhood my mom was staying in. And, of course, the school that was right across the street. That's where we headed after it ended.

BERMAN: Is your family OK? Your friends are OK?

GAFFORD: All the family is OK, all the friends are OK, but I do have friends that have lost some houses.

BERMAN: As you are sitting there in that storm shelter watching these pictures filming this, as it's happening, what was the most surprising thing? It seemed to last forever.

GAFFORD: Yes. It was probably the length of it. Other times, I've seen videos. It's just like and it's over. This was a grueling two minutes, and just dragging along, sweeping everything in its past.

BERMAN: How many were in there in this storm shelter with you?

GAFFORD: About nine.

BERMAN: What were you doing to keep each other calm?

GAFFORD: We weren't saying a single thing. It was just dead silent, a couple mutters here and there. But there was a sense of safety in this community.

BERMAN: So you take this video, you witnessed the storm from the inside. Again, it ends, then what do you do?

GAFFORD: We ran straight to the school to help out.

BERMAN: You went to Briarwood School to help people out of the rubble?


BERMAN: What was the scene when you arrived there?

GAFFORD: There were kids screaming everywhere. And in this one area, there were a bunch of people trapped. We were trying to lift rubble out of the way to get them out of there. And as far as I heard, everyone was helped to safety.

BERMAN: Yes, everyone was. That is one of the wonderful miracles of this. How are you and your friends coping here now? What's next for Moore, Oklahoma?

GAFFORD: Help and pitch in wherever we can and get this thing done. I mean, obviously, there's stuff everywhere. The town is completely demolished. But we're just stick together and rely on each other.

BERMAN: Don't you want to see another tornado from that view ever again?

GAFFORD: No. That's good enough.

BERMAN: Charles, thank you so much for joining us this morning. I really appreciate it.

GAFFORD: Thank you.

BERMAN: Immediately after Monday's disaster, an Oklahoma shelter business reported a ten-fold increase in phone calls about having a safe room for an underground bunker. Everyone wants those now.

Gary Tuchman spotted one among the ruins of a destroyed home. Look at this.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The people who lived in this house that has destroyed survived. They survived because they left well in advance. But if they did not leave well in advance, they would have survived also because they had this heavy metal storm shelter.

I want to show you how it works. You open the door and you take a look inside. And you see, it's very cramped inside.

There's not much room, but plenty of room to survive. Walk down the steps with your family, you could probably fit seven or eight people and fit important things in here, clothing, pictures, valuables.

You come in and then you just shut the door, and you are safe and sound as a tornado goes above you.

There's no doubt the people would've survived if they went inside this shelter. When the storm's over, you open it up and you all come out.

One thing to keep in mind, you may say, wow, if the rubble falls on this, how do you get out? Well, you don't lift it out. You slide it, and you slide it under here. Now, if the rubble falls on top of here, lots of rubble, you may not be able to slide it.

But then you're alive and presumably you've told your relatives you're in there and they told rescuers and they come and they rescue you.

Now, one thing you might wonder, why don't schools in the tornado belt in Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas all have storm shelters, all have basements? Well, you should point out, it's not a law. And the fact is, many school districts say it's just not economically feasible to have these. They cost several thousand dollars, these personal shelters.


BERMAN: Now, Chris, there's a storm shelter like this one on Gary's piece on this tree here. And, yesterday, I saw people taking supplies out of the storm shelter that were dry and in perfect condition, which is important, because so much on the street was ruined yesterday in the rain.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And a lot was lost. That's why we are holding this cat. We just found her here right by the set.

We are on Sixth Street and Telephone in Moore. Sixth Street and Telephone, this little cat, she's just a kitten. She got a pink collar with gray/blue spots.

The Lambert family we met earlier is going to take her to the shelter, OK? So, she's going to be taken to the shelter that's keeping tracking of pets. You see a little kitty cat --

BERMAN: She's shaking this morning.

CUOMO: She's shaking. She's scared. She climbed out of the remains of one of the houses on Sixth and Telephone.

We are going to get her to a shelter, fed her a pork chop. I don't know why we had a pork chop this time in the morning but we did, and she had it and she ate it. But the family is going to take her to the shelter.

So, if this is your kitty cat or know whose it is, please, one more pet who can find their family.

BERMAN: There are a lot of people around this community, this neighborhood looking for pets like that adorable cat there. I know they will get a home.

We want to go right now to Stephanie Elam. She has the story of a woman searching for her dog.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is the roughest thing to hear about, people being separated from their loved ones, John and Chris. We hear so much about this.

But we do know that pets are like family. How awesome you found that kitty cat there. But for this one family, they came back to their home and lots of things were gone. They just got married in August. Her wedding dress was long gone, but their clothes were still standing. So, they do have clothes.

But that's not what they came back to the house to look for. What they were looking for their dog, Sugar. Take a listen.


DANA ULEPICH, TORNADO VICTIM: Heart breaking. Just want to find her. She's our little baby. Everything was gone. She was in a crate. And it's all gone.

We searched at Home Depot, we went to the Warren, we went to all these shelters. No one had seen her. We have posted him on different Facebook sites already trying to just get it out there that, you know, she's missing.


ELAM: So hard to see the pain in her face as she was talking about her dog Sugar. Here is a picture I had her text to me. If you see the dog, help her get back to her family. They have been looking all over the place to find their loved one.

They want the same kind of reunion that hopefully, Chris and John, you are able to help somebody else with, with that little cat.

BERMAN: It would be great to see another reunion just like that one. Stephanie Elam, thank you so much. That is an adorable dog as well.

The devastation around here is simply massive. There's so many needs. Those needs are growing. A lot of people here want to help.

Coming up, we will tell you all the best ways to get the help to people that need it. Stay with us.


CUOMO: Now, it's all about relief, recovery, people trying to get going again. That's the story of Moore, Oklahoma. City officials are recommending financial donations outside the immediate area who want to help. We keep telling you, to find a way to make a difference in this --

BERMAN: There's also requests for things like flashlights and batteries, even tetanus shots, very specific needs here. The tetanus shots with all the rusty nails and exposed metal that you get from storm damage like this.

Pamela Brown has been tracking the relief effort here. She joins us now.

Tell us what people need, Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, people need a lot, there's no doubt about it. The need is great. We have been talking to survivors who really don't have much more than the clothes they have on their back after the tornado and their loved ones.

In fact, we talked to a woman yesterday. She's a new mother with a six-day-old baby. And she says she never expected to have this experience as a new mother.


BROWN (voice-over): Candace Phillips cradles her six-day-old Conner baby in her arms, overcome we motion and gratitude for this moment.

CANDACE PHILLIPS, ESCAPED DEADLY TORNADO: I was wondering if I was going to be able to, you know, see him grow up. You know, if the tornado was going to turn and come for us next or if we were going to make it to the hospital at all.

BROWN: Candace only had moments to grab her newborn baby boy and jump in her car when Monday's mammoth tornado carved a path of catastrophic destruction in Moore, Oklahoma.

PHILLIPS: Fight or flight instinct. You either stand there and stare at it in fear, or you get in the car and go. And that's what we did. We were literally throwing things in the truck and jumping in, which was not easy five days after having a C-section.

BROWN: Packed in the truck with her brother, mother, and little Conner sleeping in her arms, all she could see out the back window was this image captured on her brother's cell phone -- a monster twister headed right for them.

PHILLIPS: This massive, dark, gray, just swirling tornado just barreling down behind us.

BROWN (on camera): And it looked at one point it was right on the path to you.

PHILLIPS: Yes, it did. It did.

BROWN (voice-over): Candy Knight (ph) and her boyfriend say they missed the tornado by mere seconds and watched as a 7-Eleven was leveled.

CANDY KNIGHT, ESCAPED DEADLY TORNADO: If I would have been ten seconds slower, we would have been gone. I had my little 5-year-old between my legs on the floor. We just barely missed it.

BROWN: With so many left without homes, their resilience strengthened by their survival.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to be OK. We're going to get back. We're definitely Okies. That's what we're known for. We come back arms swinging.

BROWN: Oklahoma's governor echoed that spirit with her own resolve.

GOV. MARY FALLIN (R), OKLAHOMA: We will rebuild. We have seen time and time again the strength of our people, the courage, the perseverance and we have come back much stronger after the tragedies we've been through.

BROWN: As for Candace, her life uprooted, her home destroyed. She'll now be staying at temporary housing at the University of Oklahoma. Incredibly, though, she says, she has no complaints.

PHILLIPS: I'm just thankful I'm here and there's like volunteers helping with everything. And that, you know, we have a place to go.


BROWN: And amazingly, she said that Conner slept through the entire ordeal. You know, you can imagine how difficult this must be raising a newborn baby without having a home.

BERMAN: It's really hard. She's lost so much. But in some ways, Pamela, she has everything still and was holding it in her arms.

BROWN: Yes. And also, I want to touch on the relief efforts. We were there at the university yesterday. It was amazing to see how they were inundated with donations from people here locally.

And then, also, you are seeing so many step up and donate. We've been hearing about Kevin Durant, of course, the star basketball player from the Oklahoma City Thunder. He donated $1 million through his foundation to the Red Cross.

Also, baseball player Matt Kemp --

BERMAN: L.A. Dodgers.

BROWN: L.A. Dodgers, Chris?

CUOMO: Very well known.

BROWN: Yes. He tweeted out last night, "I'm giving a thousand dollars for tonight's home run and every home run until the All-Star break for the victims of my hometown in Oklahoma City." And Toby Keith also is going to have a benefit concert. So, we're really just seeing an outpouring of support from so many people.

BERMAN: Big and small. And, they need them all here in Moore.

CUOMO: And for a long time to come. You know, just not now, the need is going to be great for months to come.


BERMAN: Up next, we're going to speak to a man who called Moore his hometown for a long, long time. Now, he spends a lot of time in Washington, too, Congressman Tom Cole. He grew up here, and he is now taking action to help his friends who are also his constituents.


BERMAN: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma, everyone. Officials here now assessing the damage in the wake of Monday's deadly tornado and what it will cost now to make this town whole once again. I'm joined by Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole. He not only grew up in Moore, these people here now his constituents.

Congressman, thank you so much for being with us right now. You've lived through a lot of tornadoes since you've been here for over 50 years. What's it like to see your hometown, you know, in rubble around us?

REP. TOM COLE, (R) OKLAHOMA: Yes, it's always devastating. You know, each house represents a life, a family that's been uprooted. You know, sometimes, obviously, having lost children or lost loved ones. So, it's always extraordinarily difficult, but what's always amazing, honestly, is the resilience and toughness. People, you know, they grieve and they worry, but at the end of the day, they get back up and put their lives together again.

BERMAN: They sure do. And you know, it is important to know, we're standing in this driveway here with this house that's crumbled around us. And people grew up here. These are lives right now that have been displaced, and they have to rebuild. What's your experience been here in Moore, Oklahoma, 1999, that devastating tornado? How does this compare to that and does that give you hope that rebuilding here, you know, will be quick?

COLE: This one is worse, honestly, within the city limits. I mean, 1999 was on the ground longer, more damage from a state standpoint. But inside the city, I think, this looks unquestionably worse. Larger loss of life. But I don't have any doubt we'll rebuild up here. We're really -- this is a very special place to the people that live here. They love their friends and neighbors.

Honestly, we get wonderful help from our surrounding communities. We get great help from our Oklahomans, and honestly, our fellow Americans. I mean, people really step up and help. So, they're pretty tough. They'll be back. And we come back here in a couple years, you'll be pretty amazed of what you're seeing.

BERMAN: What kind of help do you want from people around the country right now? What can people do?

COLE: Well, first thing they can do, I tell you this community -- pray for us, if you're so inclined. It matters. And, second, we've got a range of reputable charities from the salvation army, Oklahoma Red Cross, all sorts of things. You know, again, if you're inclined, that kind of immediate help is important. Longer term, obviously, we have something like this.

It will be a state and federal role in the rebuilding effort along with locality here. They had the good fortune to visit with the president about that a couple of nights ago. It couldn't have been nicer. Same thing with Speaker Boehner. So, I know we'll get the kind of bipartisan support that we need to be successful.

BERMAN: There's been a lot of politics surrounding disaster relief in the U.S. over the last year with Sandy. There was a fight against that. You voted for --

COLE: I said at the time, somebody asked me, why are you doing this? And I said, you know, in Oklahoma, you're only one tornado away from being Joplin, Missouri. And, I had no idea it would be this quick, obviously. But I feel strongly about that. Look, I think you can do these things prudently, but you got to make sure that they're clean bills in Congress and you don't waste money.

But once a disaster happens, the people in the middle of the disasters don't need to watch a big debate over funding. We can deal with that in Washington, D.C. They need to know the help is coming and is coming now. And, we had a vote on Sandy relief to try and offset some of that expenditure, so people had an opportunity, but once that vote failed, it seemed to me you move on and do the right thing for the people in disaster and vote for it. That's what I've always done.

And honestly, again, we've gotten help when we needed it here. I feel an obligation to extend help back to other parts of the country.

BERMAN: Now, you need that help once again.

COLE: We do. Sadly, we do.

BERMAN: And I'm asking you this next question not as if, you know, a legislator or someone in government right now, but as someone who's lived here for a long time with experience here. We know seven kids died in the Plaza Towers Elementary School. We've also learned there's no specific shelter that was in that school. Is that something, you think, that should be part of school building here?

COLE: It really should be and it is now. I mean, most of the newer buildings, that's an older building. Sadly, that building is like me, it's really old. I used to be the groundskeeper there when I was putting myself through college and that several other school, but, you know, it's still the strongest building in the area.

I mean, you're talking about, you now, thick ground walls and interior. It was the safest place to be. But when you're aboveground, an F-4 or F-5, and now, it looks like it's an F-5 rolled through, there's just no safe place.

BERMAN: You said you were the groundskeeper at the Plaza Towers Elementary School. Now, you know, we're standing where we are right now. It's got to be hard to see all this around you.

COLE: I went there yesterday with the governor and the Congressional delegation. And I -- It's also a local polling place. So, I've been there, I don't know, dozens of times over the years. Knocked the doors in the neighborhoods as a local candidate or from my mom who was mayor here. And I tell you, I couldn't recognize where I was at.

I mean, just literally, there's no reference from the wreckage just like -- I looked at the building and couldn't tell it'd been the school. Just looked at it. So, that kind of destruction, even for here and we're used to it, it is really unusual.

BERMAN: And as you said, Congressman, come back in a year, this place will look completely different.

COLE: It will.

BERMAN: Congressman Tom Cole, your strength is infectious. And the strength of this town is so incredibly impressive. Thanks for being with us.

COLE: John, thank you.

BERMAN: We really appreciate it.

COLE: Appreciate it. BERMAN: Coming up, the heroes amid this devastation. There are so many. You'll meet a teacher who made just the right move to save her elementary school students. Stay with us.


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to EARLY START. We are hearing lots of stories of heroes amidst all the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma. Many teachers at Briarwood Elementary risked their own lives shielding kids with their bodies in order to keep them safe. And others like Tammy Glasgow guided students to bathrooms for cover seconds before that twister hit.


TAMMY GLASGOW, BRIARWOOD ELEMENTARY TEACHER: Before I shut the doors, because the bathrooms had doors, I said "I'm going to shut the doors," and I said, "I love you." The boys looked to me a little strange. I locked in the girls and said, "I love you," and they all said, "I love you back." I just told them to pray, and then, that's what we did the whole time in the closet, just pray.


SAMBOLIN: I love that they kept on hearing "I love you." The only rooms at the school that were left somewhat intact were those bathrooms. Everyone at Briarwood Elementary School survived.

So, if you want to help the victims by giving blood or helping with food or shelter or donating money, you can go to There was a woman on earlier that said gift cards are welcome because she simply cannot all take the stuff that she's given. She doesn't have a home.

That's it for EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. A special edition of "STARTING POINT" live from Moore, Oklahoma starts right now.