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Oklahoma Disaster Coverage; The Ultimate Loss; Severe Weather Passing through Moore

Aired May 23, 2013 - 08:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. And welcome to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans.

We begin in Moore, Oklahoma, where it's less than 72 hours where a tornado of epic proportions tore apart that town. This morning, the search for survivors is officially over, and emergency crews are now shifting into full recovery mode.

Here's the latest: we've now learned that 13,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in this storm. Thousands of people are waking up this morning, homeless. State insurance officials tell us claims are now expected to top $2 billion.

Plus, today was supposed to be the last day of school in Moore, Oklahoma. Today, the kids at Plaza Elementary -- Plaza Towers Elementary were supposed to attend an end of the year talent show. Instead, students will say good-bye to their teachers for the summer.

The funeral for the little Antonia Candelaria scheduled for today. She is survived by her mom, her dad, and her two sisters. She was 9 years old.

More bad weather hitting Oklahoma.

We have John Berman back. He's on the ground with the very latest on the conditions there. Good morning again, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Christine. I'm standing under this tent right now, which isn't doing much to protect us from the rain -- frankly, torrential, torrential downpours here, and the wind is kicking up, and the water is just streaming down the streets behind me. I think you just saw a flash of lightning, too. The storms here are really bad.

It was forecast, people knew this was coming. A severe front is moving through here. This is not what people need here in Moore, Oklahoma, this morning. They are trying to pick through the pieces, clear the rubble, find anything they can in these broken down homes that are all around me right now. And now, everything is just getting soaked.

It's not even really safe for people to be out in cars driving around right now until this storm passes through. You can hear the thunder behind me also, and the kind of constant reminder of the severe types of weather that people in Oklahoma deal with every day, but then also get quite, quite dangerous.

Indra Peterson has been telling us that this storm front is going to move through all morning. She was 1,000 percent right in this case.

Let's go now to Indra to tell us what I'm feeling all around me right now -- Indra.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, unfortunately, our worst concerns have already been verified. We're talking about flood warnings in the area of Oklahoma City, including Moore.

Reports of one to two inches of rain have already fallen in the area. Another one to three inches of rain still possible. And we really want to stress, you do not want to be trying to drive through these floodwaters.

Again, six inches of rain, that is all it takes, or six inches of floodwaters to sweep a person off their feet, and could cause them their life. One foot of water, small vehicle, two feet of water, a large SUV can be taken. More people die from this than anything else.

And, unfortunately, we are looking at these ripe conditions, really a bull's-eye right over Oklahoma City and Moore.

Look at all of the lightning in the area as one cell moves through, currently about 15 to 30 miles per hour. Another cell moves in right behind it. So, just one after the next. Really inundating the area with rain and it looks like the ground is already inundated with so much rain, it would not be able to hold to anymore of it.

You can see here this flash -- or excuse me -- the severe thunderstorm warnings continuing to build up for another 45 minutes or so. These are warnings out there. But again, you can tell, more cells continue to build in behind me.

So, this is a situation we are going to be dealing with here for at least the next hour or so. And look at this rain, as we take a look at the radar, the heavy amounts of rain. When you're talking about anywhere from one to three inches of rain already on the ground, that is an impressive, as you already saw John standing in there, that is very, very heavy rainfall out there, and people don't have any protection.

And on top of that, the threat, of course, for hail. We've heard of pebble sized hail, even some half dollar sized possible and the strong winds are all out there as well. So, really, a lot for them to be dealing with.

And, unfortunately, John, it looks like you're going to be having it for some time, even a slight risk area just south of you today -- John.

BERMAN: All right. That's not the news that people would like to hear in Moore, Oklahoma. I'm standing here under the small tent. Uncomfortably close to John King, but we need to both be under here right now. If we took two steps out, we'd be soaked. The winds are starting to kick up.

John, you heard a piece of debris flying through here.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You can see what's left to these homes. It's already a very dangerous situation. You have a lot of this debris, you see this lighting as Indra just noted, you do not want to be out in this, you don't want to be driving around and it just adds to the challenge here.

We've seen over the last 24 hours, people trying to get back to their properties, trying to find what's left. And we have to remember, as people were displaced, you mentioned, they're somewhat used to this kind of violent weather, but they don't have their things. I mean, most of them have equipment, have better clothing, have better boots and everything, but that stuff is gone.

BERMAN: You see people everywhere in t-shirts, in sweatpants handed out here. Imagine just having that as you are trying to pick through the pieces of your home right now. The street behind us, streams -- streams of water flowing now. That would be the risk if you are trying to drive around. You shouldn't be driving through water, that's got to be very deep in some places.

KING: If you're trying to drive around, if you're trying to get to your things, if your things are in this mess, now, it's going to be muck and (AUDIO GAP).

Yesterday, John, when they turned on the power in the most devastated areas. They turned on the electricity, put the gas back on. This is one of the things they were worried about. You know, they think they turned everything off they needed to turn off, but underneath all this devastation, there's still a risk.

They were worried about fires, obviously, the rain, and any -- but anything like this just adds to what is already the steepest of challenges.

BERMAN: And we should add, it also adds a challenge to making television. That's not a priority for anyone really right now. But if you hear our microphones dropping in and out, if you see our signal jumping in and out, it's because when there is such thick cloud cover and heavy rain, it does tend to mix with the communication systems and make it difficult.

I don't know if you just heard the thunder clapping right behind us. That was something.

KING: And you can tell, we're in the middle of it. As we've been listening, as it come to starts off in the distance, you hear it, and you see it, and now, you can tell from the violence of it, we're just beneath it as it goes. (AUDIO GAP)

We're in this (AUDIO GAP) showing these houses here, all devastated. This is as the town is trying to recover.

I was just yesterday at the Plaza Towers Elementary School. And to go there is to see 24 people died and in some ways it's a miracle -- but not to those 24 families. And this is a place where seven of Moore's next generation lost their lives.

And it's a place I can tell you from being there, if you are a parent of one of these children who survived, if and when they see this school, and what's left of it, what little is left of it, they will realize how lucky they are.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In terms of when people first responded here, I mean, where did everybody go?

SGT. JEREMY LEWIS, MOORE POLICE DEPARTMENT: We basically just surrounded the school and started running into different areas. Some of this has been cleaned out due to the search and rescue efforts. They're literally just climbing over debris.

People were yelling for help, so just pulling people out as quickly as possible. And that went on literally for hours.

KING: This was a hall of classrooms that led to --

LEWIS: There's classrooms on each side.

KING: That was connected, though. There was nothing?

LEWIS: That was a wall there. That was a classroom straight ahead.

KING: Right.

LEWIS: There was classrooms out here. You can see there's still tile.

KING: Right. This is gone.

LEWIS: This classroom is gone. These classrooms are all gone.

KING: There are more on the front side here, too. Anywhere we see there's tile a classroom.

LEWIS: Well, you can see the door leading into what was the classroom.

KING: That was the back wall of the classroom there, yes. With the board. That's the front wall of the school there.

LEWIS: Front wall would have been right there, yes.

KING: Is there a place in the school where people fared better, for a lack of a better way to put it?

LEWIS: Well, you can see just kind of see where there are still walls standing up. Obviously, that corner, the main part of the tornado came through this way. So this is the area that took the most as it went through this part here. So, that's -- you can just kind of see where the walls are standing and where they're not.

A lot of 460-something students. Unfortunately, we did lose seven. But by looking at the damage, it's a miracle that we didn't lose a lot more.

And none of this has been touched. This is what it looked like. There hasn't been tractors moving anything. This is how it landed.

KING: The people have been through and that region will be certain there's nobody left --

LEWIS: Yes. This has all been searched. This is what has taken so long. We had to go through all of this. And this goes for 15 miles the other way.

KING: Just 15 miles?

LEWIS: Of just like this.

KING: Fifteen miles just like this.

LEWIS: Fifteen miles, yes.


KING: And you see the devastation stretching from where the school, unfortunately, sadly -- this is an evil monster of a torn. Hit where people were, the youngest were, when you watched that, it just numbs you. The parent who lost children and even the parents of children who survives are going to be part of this debate about rebuilding and whether there should have been -- even though it's an older school if there should have been a safer shelter there.

And, John, the community is in the middle of mourning, trying to turn the corner to clean up and recovery, and a day like this, just not going to be easy.

BERMAN: I think you can probably see, everyone, the lightning flashing behind us, thunder blaring and rain pouring down on us. I think one of the big problems people will have right now, is the water, the amount of rain coming down the last few minutes here is a lot simply flowing down the streets behind us right now. Not particularly safe to be driving through puddles and streams of this size and also the wind is picking up and we're starting to he see some of the small pieces of debris everywhere, that are everywhere in Moore.


KING: Remember, the people who are, quote-unquote, "lucky," not displaced from their homes, did have damage their homes. Some structural damage to their homes. (AUDIO GAP) Now we have falling on -- PETERSONS: -- heavy rain out there, starting to lose their signal, for good reason.

Unfortunately, if you look at the zoom out wide, all of the lightning, heavy rain, narrowing like a bull's-eye in Oklahoma City and Moore, and, unfortunately, looks like cell after cell continues to develop right in this area.

What does this mean? This means severe thunderstorm warnings have already put out. We're talking another 45 minutes worth of these heavy conditions. We're talking heavy rain, one to three inches of rain has already been reported in just a short period of time.

And additional several inches of rain, by no means out of the question, as you continue to see cell after cell develops like this. We were talking about all the debris on the ground. When you have a severe thunderstorm warning, we're not just talking about heavy rain. We've heard golf ball sized hail.

Just imagine, these people don't have shelter. Golf ball sized hail now falling about 10 miles south of the area. So, definitely something that could move into the Moore area and also heavy winds. You have all of the debris out there and now, we're starting to see winds pick up.

So, all that debris could become a missile again. Unfortunately, a lot we continue to deal with here. As far as the next hour, we're going to be talking about cell after cell continue to develop.

Take a look at the radar. You can see the swath of heavy rain. And when you see rain like this, flooding becomes the concern. Flash- flood warnings in the area. That's how much rain they have received.

What does that mean? People are trying to seek shelter in their cars, as they drive around in their vehicle, six inches, that is enough to take people off their feet. One foot of water could sweep your car away. That could sweep your car away. Two feet of water, even those large SUVs, very important, people missed this all the time, and it costs us the most lives here in the U.S. every single day.

So, Christine, hopefully, people are understanding that. I know they're trying to seek shelter in their cars, such a dangerous situation, just move from one to the next, unfortunately, at this point.

ROMANS: Thanks, Indra. We're not going to be far away from the severe weather this Oklahoma.

We're going to go back to John Berman as soon as we can get his live shot up. And we're going to continue to talk about the recovery effort, the rebuilding effort really now in Moore, Oklahoma, as severe weather moves in this morning. Severe weather on top of all of this town has gone through over the past few days. Now, thunder, lightning, certainly some fear among the littlest survivors of this -- of this devastating weather.

We'll be right back after the break.


BERMAN: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma, everyone where the weather this morning has taken a severe turn for the worst. We've had severe thunderstorms passing through the area. Torrential rain all around us right now. You can see I'm fairly well soaked right now. The entire area around me, water streaming down the street for the time being.

About the last minute or so, the rain seemed to have let up a little bit, but the system seems to be moving through and there are more cells that could be passing through here. So, everyone in this town needs to be aware, probably best to stay inside and stay safe. We're being careful. Our signal may go out. But for the time being, we're going to keep on moving on here.

This weather is making the recovery effort here all that much more difficult, all that much more painful, particularly, for people who have lost their homes, and in some cases, lost even more. I had a chance to sit down with the parents of one of those students who was killed at the Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Nine-year-old Emily Conatzer, she was killed when the tornado tore through that school, and I got to meet her parents yesterday shortly after they spent the day planning their daughter's funeral. Let's listen.


BERMAN: How are you guys doing right now?

KRISTI CONATZER, NINE-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER KILLED BY TORNADO: We're trying to stay as strong as we can, as much as we can for something like this.

BERMAN: Tell me about your daughter.


CHRISTOPHER CONATZER, NINE-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER KILLED BY TORNADO: She was a fashion diva. She -- she was beautiful. She always twirled around and she had little ballerina dresses and she loved Lady Gaga. So, that inspired her to be a fashion designer, and she'd make stuff like this hat for me and she made her own skirt. Nine years old.

BERMAN: I wish i had a chance to meet her.

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: She was beautiful. She would love you. She loved everybody. She prayed for everybody every night, all the mommies, daddies, sisters, brothers, not singularly, plural.

BERMAN: Do you remember Monday morning before she went to school, on her way to school?

KRISTI CONATZER: We were always in a hurry, because she was always late, trying to pick out the clothes she wanted to wear. We were late and we actually went up there and had lunch with her every Monday. We would come and have lunch with them, and we got to have lunch with her.


CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: And that's what we think about. What if we just took them home? She'd still be here.

BERMAN: And after the storm, you looked close to the school.


BERMAN: You ran right to the school.

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: The wind was still blowing. I ran out there. I couldn't recognize -- we walked her to school so much. I mean, I knew it -- I have to close my eyes and walk. I didn't recognize it. I just started screaming and running and screaming saying no.

BERMAN: How did you fin d out about Emily?

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: Well, we knew we couldn't find about -- we couldn't find her at all. She wasn't -- any of the kids that got pulled out, and we waited until two o'clock in the morning, and that's when they came and told us that she could possibly be a child that's dead.

BERMAN: It's something I don't think any parent every wants to think about. Today, you had to plan her funeral. Tell me about that.

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: It was the most hardest, but most beautiful thing in the world because we couldn't afford it. And the Westhaven Funeral, they -- oh, my GOD. They paid for everything. A beautiful casket. They got her right by the lake with some ducks.

KRISTI CONATZER: Right next to her friend that died with her.

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: And some friends that died with her.

BERMAN: I want to ask you a hard question, because it's something a lot of people are asking right now is about the school. A lot of people not from Oklahoma, not from tornado-prone area is here, that there was no storm shelter in the school?.

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: Just the basement.

BERMAN: How does it make you feel, there was no storm shelter in the school?

KRISTI CONATZER: It bothers me. It surprises me that you could live in a place, and especially in Moore after the May 3rd tornado several years back. It leveled neighborhoods. It was a big tornado. I figured, you know, as new as those back buildings were that my two daughters were in, that they would have something like that in place. And, that's why I chose to leave them at the school, because I thought they were safe. BERMAN: And these nails, did she pain -- she painted your nails blue.

KRISTI CONATZER: She painted my nails.


KRISTI CONATZER: She had on matching nail polish. It was the night before, and she had it -- she had it all over the place And i had to clean it up, but, you know, I don't want to take it off.

CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: I would leave those nails on as long as I possibly could.


CHRISTOPHER CONATZER: She sounds like a remarkable, remarkable girl and I wish I had a chance to meet her. And we are so sorry for everything you've been through.

Thank you.

BERMAN: Thank you.


BERMAN: The Conatzers grieving so much right now. You know, they told me after they planned her funeral, at the end of the service, they're going to have a standing ovation. They said that's what Emily would have wanted. She was such a diva, they said, such a performer, that she would have wanted everyone to stand up and applaud for her and applaud her for her life. And our hearts do go out to that family and the families of all of the people lost here.

We are in Moore, Oklahoma right now, a city that's trying to pick through the pieces of the storm here and recover, and it's not been made easier by the weather this morning. There are severe, severe thunderstorms passing through the area. There are warnings for flash floods. There are severe thunderstorm warnings as i said. There was hail, there was fear of hail passing through this area.

The hail warnings we're being told right now have diminished. That's some good news. And I can tell you, the rain is falling a little bit less hard right now. That is also good news. This town needs all the help it can get to recover to go through the debris here and try to get their lives back in order again.

When we come back, we're going to be talking more about the school system here, the Plaza Towers Elementary School. The idea of storm shelters, should be there -- should be shelters placed in the schools? What more can be done in the future? We're going to speak with the assistant superintendent of schools from this area when we come back.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. Bad weather continues to plague Moore, Oklahoma where I'm standing right now. This severe thunderstorm system is passing through the area right now. We see torrential rains, there are heavy winds in some parts of Oklahoma, not where we are right now, it had wind gusts up to about 55 miles an hour. And this all happening while this town tries to rebuild and put the pieces back together.

I'm joined here by Robert Romines. He's currently the assistant superintendent of schools here in Moore. He'll become superintendent in July.


BERMAN: July 1, so congratulations on that, sir.

ROMINES: Thank you.

BERMAN: Thank you so much for being with us right now. We've heard so many tales of heroism, of the teachers in these schools. There were ten children who died and one child is too many, but there were also many lives saved. You have to be proud of the faculty.

ROMINES: Very proud of our faculty and staffs across the district. It wasn't only two elementaries and a junior high that we had children at that time. We have 23 sites where the faculties and staff just went above and beyond to protect 23,000 plus children in our district. So they -- they -- it was a miracle in how they handled things and did a great job.

BERMAN: We've all seen the pictures of the devastation at the Plaza Towers Elementary school.

ROMINES: Yes, sir.

BERMAN: Also Briarwood. There's virtually nothing left, in some cases, of these two schools. What's the plan? Do you plan to rebuild those schools or are those sites now too painful for the community?

ROMINES: Our plan is to rebuild. That's the beginning of our healing process. We've been faced with this before back in 1999, and the first thing we did was start our rebuilding process. We will be doing that with these two elementaries. We're committed to doing that. And, again, that's how we begin the rebuilding and the healing process. And so, yes, we are committed to rebuilding those sites.

BERMAN: There's been a lot of discussion over the last few days about storm shelters. The Plaza Towers Elementary School did not have a storm shelter. I have the opportunity to talk to the parents of one of the little girls who died at that school. A lot of the parents right now are saying there should have been a shelter at that school. There needs to be a shelter at that school. Going forward, would it be something you would support to have storm shelters place in every school in the community?

ROMINES: Absolutely would support that endeavor. Our hope is on these two sites, both Briarwood and Plaza Towers, that in the rebuilding process, that there'll be additional dollars there from FEMA to help us with that. Fortunately, on the May 3, 1999 tornado, we had sustained severe damage at Westmoore High School, lost another elementary, Kelly Elementary, and FEMA was able -- when we rebuilt those, FEMA was able to attach money to that as soon as we could to put in safe rooms.

BERMAN: I don't know if you're left with older schools that weren't knocked out in the storm here, but would you go through, would you support going through the older schools and making sure there are shelters there?

ROMINES: We currently do that year by year with our -- with the city of Moore. We've got safety management crisis management that comes in and tells us exactly where we need to put students in the safest environment. We will continue to do that. And, as funds become available, we will look at that as well.

BERMAN: The money seems to be the biggest obstacle.

ROMINES: Money is an obstacle. It is.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the positive side here and the training. How did these teachers, how did this staff, what do you do for them, how do you work with them to prepare them for these storms?

ROMINES: We prepare them -- they do semester drills and those types of things. Again, we have safety management that comes in and works with them. They establish perimeters in areas where we need to take all of our students in in those type of situations or scenarios. So, there's a lot of training and preparation that goes into that, and, again, city of Moore and the Oklahoma City help us with that and help us manage those efforts.

BERMAN: So, school year was supposed to end, what, tomorrow?

ROMINES: Actually today.

BERMAN: Today is supposed to be the last day of school. There's no classes here right now today. Graduation for so many of the school planned for Saturday.

ROMINES: Yes, sir.

BERMAN: This weekend. What are the plans for graduation to commemorate what's happened here?

ROMINES: We're going to continue with our commencement ceremonies on Saturday downtown Oklahoma City for all three of our high schools. We need to make sure that our seniors are taken care of, and they leave their senior year in an appropriate manner, and we're going to continue on and move forward with that for them.

BERMAN: You were thinking about this last week as you sit up there on commencement day?

ROMINES: It has been an emotional week and, again, moving forward and doing what we need to do for our students, as it's the beginning of a healing process, and this community needs to begin the process. And we're going to do that and do the best we can and make sure that our students are all taken care of.

BERMAN: Robert Romines, assistant superintendent of schools here in Moore, Oklahoma, soon to be superintendent of schools here in Moore, Oklahoma. Thank you so much for coming; appreciate your being with us today. I really appreciate it.

ROMINES: You bet.

BERMAN: We're standing under a tent here together because there have been severe thunderstorms passing through here, no doubt getting in the way of the recovery efforts here. When we come back, we will tell you more about the reports of 65 mile an hour winds, the reports of hail. We are monitoring the situation going on all around us right now. We'll have more when we come back.