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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Tornado Claims To Top $2 Billion; Coping With Tornado Tragedy; Gravel Slide Kills 4th Grader; Sergeant Accused Of Videotaping Female Cadets; Voting To End Ban On Gay Boy Scouts; Chicago School Closures; "I Felt Like I Was In A Blender"; The Ultimate Loss; Arias Awaits Her Fate; Severe Weather In Oklahoma; Pritzker Set For Confirmation Hearing

Aired May 23, 2013 - 07:30   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Thirteen thousand homes have been damaged or destroyed, 10,000 people are without a place to live this morning. And on Sunday President Obama will be here to witness the devastation firsthand and provide comfort to a grieving community. For many here that grief is almost impossible to shake.

Our Pamela Brown spoke to a tornado survivor who rushed to Plaza Towers Elementary School to help with the rescue, but wasn't prepared for what he saw there. Pamela Brown has that part of the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Moore resident, Adam Baker is giving a hand to a close friend whose home was flattened by Monday's catastrophic tornado. It's helping him cope after he found himself helpless in the face of tragedy at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

ADAM BAKER, SEARCED FOR SCHOOL SURVIVORS: It's just devastation. I don't know if there's really a way to describe it.

BROWN: Right after the storm hit, he was one of many who rushed to Plaza Towers to find loved ones. He desperately searched for his nephew and any other survivors.

(on camera): And you went there to -- in hopes of rescuing people.

BAKER: Yes. I didn't really get to, I guess. I -- I tried, though. I mean, that's all I can do.

BROWN (voice-over): Instead, he encountered unspeakable horror. Four children buried under the massive debris of the collapsed school, suffocated by its sheer weight.

BAKER: They probably would have made it if they weren't pinned.

BROWN (on camera): How were they pinned?

BAKER: Pinned by different debris, desks, two by fours, pieces of metal.

BROWN (voice-over): The students were not found in a basement as officials initially believed.

(on camera): Do you think had there been an underground shelter these lives could have been saved?

BAKER: Yes, most definitely. I mean, underground shelters are some of the best things to have in a tornado.

BROWN (voice-over): Still, there are not enough of them even in tornado stricken Oklahoma. Schools aren't required to have underground shelters, the main reasons, the high cost of retrofitting the schools and porous soil.

MAYOR GLENN LEWIS, MOORE, OKLAHOMA: It's about the money and the statistics. An F-5 tornado is very rare, 1 percent to 2 percent of the tornadoes. They don't happen very often. It's the very reason they don't have safe rooms for earthquakes, they don't work all the time.

BROWN: A painful truth for Mikki Dixon-Davis who lost her son Kyle at Plaza Towers.

MIKKI DIXON-DAVIS, VICTIM'S MOTHER: With us living in Oklahoma, tornado shelters should be in every school. It should be -- you know, there should be a place that if this ever happened again during school that kids can get to a safe place, that we don't have to sit there and go through rubble and rubble and rubble and may not ever find what we're looking for.

BROWN: A feeling that Adam Baker knows all too well.

BAKER: I pulled them out and basically just tried to put him in a room as respectfully as I could.

BROWN (on camera): What was that like for you?

BAKER: It's terrible for me, but it's my duty as an American. It's a hole in your heart just to see these little broken bodies.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: I want to remind you if you want to help the victims here in Oklahoma, go to cnn.com/impact. Of course, our John Berman, is there this morning reporting live, continuing to follow this story. We've lost his live shot, I should say, because severe weather moving through the area.

That will be a complication, of course, for rescue workers who are still trying to get back in, start to move some of the stuff off the roads, try to get into some of these homes and begin the slow, slow process of rebuilding. So we are closely monitoring that severe weather moving through the region.

New this morning, rescue workers in St. Paul, Minnesota, desperately searching for a missing fourth grader after a school field trip to a park took a tragic turn. Gravel saturated by heavy rain suddenly gave way yesterday, killing one child and injuring two others in the slide and a fourth child is still missing.

A sergeant at West Point accused of secretly videotaping female cadets in the shower and bathroom, Michael McClendon is charged with indecent misconduct. Army investigators are trying to contact about a dozen women who might have been recorded. McClendon helped train and mentor cadets at the academy.

A 103-year-old ban on gay boy scouts could come to an end today. The 1,400 members of the Boy Scouts National Council will vote in Texas in a few hours with the outcome expected to be announced this afternoon. Regardless of the outcome, the organization still plans to keep a ban on openly gay scout leaders.

The Chicago Board of Education has voted to shut down 50 schools around the city. Officials say the closures will consolidate many underutilized schools. The Chicago Teacher's Union is blasting this plan saying that the changes could expose students to turf wars and gang violence.

There are many families in Moore coping with unimaginable grief and loss. Jherri Bhonde's story is particularly wrenching. She's hospitalized this morning, coming to grips with the death of her husband. She tells CNN's Anderson Cooper they were holding on to one another in the bathroom in their home when the twister came grinding through.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JHERRI BHONDE, HUSBAND KILLED BY TORNADO: I felt like I was in a blender.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, CNN'S "AC 360": Felt like you were in a blender?

BHONDE: That's the best way to describe it. The wall just kind of hanged down on me and it just kind of swirled, and I held on to my husband as long as I could. And he just flew into space.

COOPER: You actually felt him flying away?

BHONDE: Yes. And I don't know where he went.

COOPER: Were you speaking to each other during this storm?

BHONDE: Yes.

COOPER: What were you saying?

BHONDE: Well, we -- he was telling me how much he loved me and I said I love you. And the whole house just went.

COOPER: The whole house all around you?

BHONDE: It's gone.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: Remarkable. John had a chance to speak to a family who lost their 9-year-old daughter in the disaster. Emily Conatzer was one of seven children who died when the twister flattened the Plaza Towers Elementary School.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: How did you find out about Emily?

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER, DAUGHTER KILLED BY TORNADO: Well, with knew -- we couldn't find her at all. She wasn't one -- any of the kids that got pulled out and we waited until 2:00 in the morning. And that's when they came and told us that she could possibly be a child that's dead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: You can hear John's entire emotional interview with the Conatzers coming at the top of the hour here on STARTING POINT.

Ahead, the jury is still deadlocked. Do we have any indication which way they will go in deciding Jodi Arias' fate? We'll talk with Vinnie Politan next. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back to STARTING POINT. This morning Jodi Arias is still awaiting her punishment. The Arizona jury resumes deliberations in just a few hours. Arias was convicted, of course, of first degree murder two weeks ago, but jurors have been unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether she should get the death penalty or life in prison.

In the event of a hung jury, a new panel would be seated for the penalty phase and the trial could drag on for many more months. Vinnie Politan has been following the Arias trial closely. He's host of HLN "After Dark." Vinnie joins me this morning from Atlanta.

You know, Vinnie, the deliberations resume today at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The jury indicates it hasn't reached a consensus. This is the third day of deliberations. Where are we into this? Does it bode well that they will spare her life if they can't -- they haven't decided so far?

VINNIE POLITAN, HOST, "HLN AFTER DARK": No, here's the thing. In Arizona it's got to be unanimous for life or unanimous for death. It's one of the few states that do it that way. There is some sort of an impasse. They said they couldn't all agree. No idea what the split is, if it's one holdout or if it's 6-6 and we don't know which way they're going.

But the bottom line here now is if they all cannot agree one way or the other, then what happens, believe it or not, is a new jury gets empanelled and they will determine that single issue, the guilty verdict stands, premeditated murder. The aggravating factor stands of extreme cruelty. But then a new jury would come in to decide the single issue of life or death.

ROMANS: Now until then we know the judge is giving them the Allen charge. He's ordered them to go back and continue deliberating. He can keep pushing this jury.

POLITAN: Well, but you have to be careful because it can't be perceived that you're compelling a verdict. What the judge basically did is she sent them back in and said if you need any help, if there's anything we can do that would, you know, help you in your deliberations, please let us know.

If you need to hear any testimony back, some evidence, more argument, whatever it is. So right now we're at the point though, if they send another note saying that they're deadlocked, it's questionable whether or not the judge would send them back to deliberate again. She could try to. I'm sure the defense would object.

But the bottom line is we're either very close to the end or very far away because if they come back and they're deadlocked and have to do a new jury, it's going to take some time to get another jury.

ROMANS: Does the new jury have to hear all the evidence again?

POLITAN: Yes, they do, because if you're the prosecutor, you don't want to just sentence someone life or death without them knowing all the details that you brought out during the trial. But the good news there is that the prosecutor's case was only a couple of weeks. It was the defense case that took months in this trial.

So if they got a new jury in, probably within a few weeks they would be back deliberating life or death. But let's hope that this jury that has invested so much time will come to a consensus one way or the other and bring this to finality for everyone involved, including the victim's family.

ROMANS: Right. To be a fly on the wall, I mean, imagine what they're talking about. Meanwhile, her demeanor yesterday, she was smiling, she looked relaxed, just a day after a 19-minute, you know, essay on why she should get life in prison and then a whole round of interviews. What do you make of her demeanor yesterday?

POLITAN: Well, yes, I don't know if I can drop the "f" word here on CNN, but I think she was flirting here in court in that video we're looking at because she's speaking with one of the deputies over there and smiling ear to ear. And then this media junket she went on was absolutely amazing.

Interview after interview with demands like she's, you know, a rock star or something, you know. Listen, you can only shoot me from the waist up. Don't show the stripes. If you're going to interview me you have to bring makeup and you can't videotape me when I putting my makeup on and make sure you bring lip gloss, too, unbelievable.

ROMANS: It's almost as if she's the star in her own drama. It's almost as if she's enjoying all of this attention. POLITAN: I think she does. You know, she says one thing in court and looks one way and then she gets out of court and it's a whole different deal outside of the presence of the jury. And you know, she's been doing interviews since the beginning. When she was first arrested for murder, she comes back to the jail and holds a press conference. It's unbelievable. And I knew it from the time of her arrest until now that this was going to be a trial like no other, but I never, never imagined what is happening now would have happened.

ROMANS: Maybe she knows her time in the spotlight is coming quickly to a close.

POLITAN: It is.

ROMANS: You know, I mean, she's being removed from society. She's a convicted murderer. The question now is how long she lives out her life in, you know, behind bars. All right, Vinnie Politan, nice to see you this morning.

POLITAN: Great to see you.

ROMANS: All right, you can catch Vinnie on HLN "After Dark" live at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on HLN.

Severe weather is sweeping back into Oklahoma. Our own John Berman was live on the ground, but we lost his shot because of the bad weather. We're going to talk to him on the phone in a minute, but first, the latest on the storm. Meteorologist Indra Petersons is here.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's so unfortunate. Almost breaks my heart this morning. Look at this. Look at Oklahoma and the radar here. All of these cells seem to be taking aim just for the Oklahoma City and Moore area. Look at all the lightning out there. When you see a lot of lightning you know we're talking about the severe thunderstorm cells developing.

In fact, for that reason, you can actually see the severe thunderstorm warnings. As one of these expires, another one shows up. Notice here look in the distance as one cell builds right behind the other. That's what we're starting to see this morning. So it looks like it's not letting up just yet.

Currently these warning boxes not expire for at least another hour. What happens when you have a severe thunderstorm warning? Well, we're talking about strong winds. So keep in mind all the debris that's out there this morning, all of that is going to be blowing around. Hail, they reported pebble-size hail.

But certainly in a system like this, we're going to be talking about golf ball size hail and some of those strong winds. We could see gusts really kind of picking up. Now a lot of these systems 20 to 30 miles per hour unless, of course, don't forget the heavy rain with that.

Of course, a lot of people don't have shelter this morning so a very tough situation for them. Not the only thing we're looking at. You can really tell the heavy amounts of rain out there. One of the things that I like to mention, people really underestimate the power of flooding. A lot of flooding could occur, six inches of water. That's all it takes to take a human life.

Try and cross that flood water, that's all it takes. Two feet of water even a large SUV can be swept away. Number one reason for deaths in this country when it comes to weather is the flooding. When we see cells like this, we're very concerned.

I want to show you also it not the only risk area today. Original low, the one that produced all of that mess over in the plains, that same low has made its way to the northeast. We do have a slight risk area for us as well. We're going to talk about strong winds, hail, and the heavy rain for us, isolated tornadoes.

Not really the major threat here in the northeast, but once we go right back in towards Oklahoma and panhandle of Texas, not in the forecast. Not as high of a risk as what we saw a few days ago but still, like we're already seeing, the large hail, strong winds and heavy rain, in the forecast and here the threat is higher than in the northeast for certainly potential here for an isolated tornado.

Unfortunately, this forecast from mere is not just for today. As we go through Memorial Day weekend, showers will remain in the forecast. So hard, everyone is trying to get their lives together.

ROMANS: The flooding and how it doesn't take as much t water as you think to cause trouble. Thanks, Indra.

More bad weather hitting Oklahoma. We lost John Berman's live shot for the moment, but he's calling in to give us the latest of the conditions on the ground. Hi, there, John.

BERMAN (via telephone): Hi, Christine. How are you? Let me serve as a second source for the forecast that Indra just gave. The situation on the ground here, it is just pouring, torrential, torrential rain right now. We can see the water just blowing down the street here.

Under that tent right there that you may be seeing right now, shooting it off the iPad right now. They rode out the tornado in a bank vault together. Now they're all huddled together once again under a tarp to stay dry. As you mentioned, it knocked our satellite signature not out.

It's heavy, heavy rain here that just soaked all of the recovery efforts here this morning, making it very difficult for anyone to work, anyone to get around. In the forecast, I don't feel extreme winds yet. I don't see debris flying around anywhere. Right now it's really just nasty, nasty amounts of rain, extremely uncomfortable here.

You know, frankly, just not what people need here this morning in Moore, Oklahoma. So 72 hours after that tornado struck. People want to be doing here is keeping their lives back together again and they're waking just one nuisance, Christine, that they didn't need here.

ROMANS: Yes, John, you know, I think of the kids too. I was in a tornado when I was a little kid and I remember for how long after that when there was severe weather, how really afraid I would get, lightning, rain, thunder. Those kids, a fresh, scary memory what they have gone through, and many don't have homes to be hunkering in right now.

BERMAN: No doubt. No doubt and we talked to a lot of children right now. The parents are taking extra measures with kids. I spoke to one mother yesterday who was taking her -- take the child's mind off everything that is going on here. It's so difficult for so many people.

Before I told you those folks huddled in a bank vault during the tornado, and they are now huddled under a tent. There they are. A picture of what's going on here. It's a mess, but it's good, when the rain stops, and it will stop today, the recovery in Moore, Oklahoma, will continue.

ROMANS: All right, John Berman, thank you so much. We'll check in with you in a few minutes, hopefully some of the weather might have passed and we'll get a proper live shot. Nice work on the fly. We'll be back, right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker is about to be grilled at a Senate confirmation hearing today. She has been nominated by the president to be the next commerce secretary, but the selection of the Hyatt Hotel heiress has been coming under fire right from the start.

National political correspondent, Jim Acosta, live from our Washington bureau this morning. You know, Jim, she is a long time friend and early supporter of this president and a very successful businesswoman, a billionaire in her own right, but she is going to face some real scrutiny there today.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Christine. In a month that's been filled with headaches for the Obama administration, the last thing the White House officials want is a controversial cabinet nominee. But later this morning, they'll find out if that's what they're getting when a Senate committee hearing gets underway on the nomination of Penny Pritzker for commerce secretary.

Take a look at this, a corporate executive and key Obama campaign fundraiser, Pritzker would become one of the richest cabinet members in U.S. history. She is worth $1.85 billion according to "Forbes" magazine. Much of her wealth comes from her family, which as you said founded the Hyatt Hotel chain.

Earlier this month, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley raised questions about Pritzker's finances and whether she moved her money offshore at times to reduce the amount of money she owed in taxes. Grassley noted the Obama campaign hammered Mitt Romney for doing the same thing and Grassley said in a recent statement, here it is.

This is the second nominee in a row, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew being the first who is associated with this kind of tax avoidance activity. The president dismisses as fat cat Shenanigans for others. It is hypocritical to overlook tax avoidance when it's convenient. President Obama hinted that Pritzker's confirmation hearing could get bumpy when he announced her nomination on her birthday just a few weeks ago. Here's what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Today is her birthday so happy birthday, Penny. For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It's going to be great.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Not exactly a birthday wish. Now, there will be other questions about Pritzker's finances. She had to amend her financial disclosure form just two days ago. Here it is right here because she underreported her income by $80 million. An attorney for Ms. Pritzker said that was an omission that was a clerical error on their fault.

And labor groups, Christine, are also upset about Pritzker's nomination because of the Hyatt Hotel chain's relationship with its unions, but those issues aside, even Senator Grassley acknowledges she is likely to be confirmed.

ROMANS: Yes, there was some grumbling among the labor groups early on who thought that that was -- they weren't pleased that the president made that decision, but you know, maybe then they will line up with the president on this. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you so much.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, parents of one of the young victims of the disaster, recall the moment they knew their daughter was gone forever.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just started screaming and running and screaming and saying no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The full, heart-breaking interview, top of the hour.

And a crime so horrific, hard to describe, on the streets of London, a man butchered in broad daylight on a public road. What we're learning about the attack and motive, top of the hour. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)