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Holiday Travel Mess; Will Balloons Fly at Macy's Parade?; Dodging Delays and Bad Traffic; Police: Three Sisters Freed from Personal Hell

Aired November 27, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The White House never mentions how many of the turkeys it pardons go on to re-offend.

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

The national lead, a miserable storm on the busiest travel day of the year, it might have some of you asking, just how much do I really want to see my alleged loved ones anyway? And could this weather ruin one of our most beloved holiday traditions and the only one with rated-PG inflatable dolls, the Macy's Parade?

The politics lead, President Obama hoping Americans will pardon the Web site the way he pardoned the turkey, but as the administration races to meet a self-imposed deadline to fix the site, new word it's giving up on yet another part of the Affordable Care Act for a whole year.

And the pop lead, when you have run out of things to talk about with the relatives tomorrow, how about going to a place where you can all sit quietly and not look at each other? Your best bets for Thanksgiving at the movies.

Welcome to the lead, everyone. I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper today.

And our national lead is Thanksgiving travel. You may have to spend a lot longer staring at your departure gate than you ever wanted. You may have to endure a few extra hours of the kids yelling in the back seat, but the good news is, besides the fact that they love you, probably, is despite the storms stretching from the Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast causing lengthy delays, many of you should get to your destinations with plenty of time to fall into a tryptophan coma in front of the television.

The bad weather is on its way out, but it does have some nasty parting gifts for some areas. One of our iReporters sent in these shots from a snow-covered Buffalo, New York. Parts of the state got dumped on, though we should say it's nothing these folks haven't seen before.

For most travelers in the region, the real problem is the persistent rain. And, fortunately, we are expecting to see even that move out over the next few hours.

(WEATHER UPDATE) BERMAN: AAA estimates that 43 million people are traveling for Thanksgiving. And most of them, nearly 39 million, are doing it by road, which is a big problem in Western Pennsylvania. That part of the state has been getting lashed by the storm for more than 24 hours.

And our Shannon Travis has been standing outside nearly the entire time.

Shannon, how are the roads doing right now?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, let me answer that question with something that a state transportation official told me earlier.

He essentially said, we dodged a bullet, meaning that the wicked weather that the Pittsburgh area was expecting wasn't so wicked after all. They did get a few inches of snow, but the roads have been pretty much clear. We have been driving along them. We have been looking at the roads behind us. They have been pretty much clear, obviously, thanks in part to a lot of crews that have been out helping to clear the roads.

It seems as if most of the wickedness is really in other parts of Pennsylvania. You mentioned a lashing in other counties, not here in Allegheny where we are in Pittsburgh, but in other counties. I spoke earlier with some officials. Apparently, in Beaver and in Lawrence, they got up to 12 inches of snow. So, the crews, the cleaning crews are out in force there.

A lot of people are getting out of the airport. I have been in contact with a spokesman at the airport Pittsburgh International. She tells me that there haven't been any significant weather cancellations or delays, but that definitely they have seen an increase in the number of flyers, 30,000 today alone, John. I asked her how much that is, how much of an increase that it is from normal. She said about 15 percent to 20 percent -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Shannon Travis, some good news even in the western part of Pennsylvania. Appreciate it.

Moving on now to the politics lead. While most Americans are at home frantically looking turkey brine recipes, which, by the way, you should brine your turkeys, the folks tasked with getting the Web site fixed are staring down an awfully tough deadline.

The White House has promised to have the site 80 percent functional by Sunday morning, but, today, the Obama administration is already throwing in the towel on part of the site for small businesses, at least for now.

I want to bring in senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

And, Jim, the speaker of the House is calling this -- quote -- "another broken promise."


BERMAN: Explain this latest delay.

ACOSTA: Well, John, the administration revealed this latest Obamacare mishap just as the president was about to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey over here at the White House. Republicans pounced and accused the White House of dumping bad news right before the holiday, but, basically, John, here's basically what's going on here.

Small insurance -- excuse me -- small businesses were told today by officials at Health and Human Services that they're delaying the online health enrollment feature at for small businesses one year. What that means is that those companies would have to buy insurance coverage for their employees offline. That means through insurers directly or through insurance agents.

Officials had hoped, John, to get this portion of working this month. But that's now not going to happen. Officials do caution, though, that small businesses with fewer than 50 employee said are not required to purchase insurance under the law. The law just makes that enrollment available.

And, as you mentioned, House Speaker John Boehner seized on the news and said the president should use this opportunity to delay implementation of the entire law altogether until the bugs are worked out. That's obviously not going to happen, John.

BERMAN: Yes, Republicans lining up to comment on this latest delay.

But, Jim, aside from this latest delay, which in fact is a failure to meet a goal, is the White House still confident about this November 30 date, the date that they set to get the Web site up to 80 percent effective?

ACOSTA: Administration officials told me, John, they said the Web site will be working for what they call -- quote -- "the vast majority" -- that's the phrase they have been using -- the vast majority of users this weekend. As much of the country is focused on the traffic on the highways, it is safe to say the Obama administration is worried about the flow of people onto the site.

Earlier this week, a senior White House official confirmed to me that the administration did meet with ally groups, groups that are friendly to the White House, to urge them not to drive traffic to the site for at least a week. They want to see what the demand is going to be like on

They're urging consumers to avoid the site's peak time. That is 2:00 p.m., and instead use in the mornings, evenings, and on weekends. And, John, the Democratic Party sent out an e-mail to Democrats all across the country earlier today, essentially giving talking points to people to, you know, use at the dinner table on Thanksgiving if they're having conversations with their conservative relatives about Obamacare.

Here are some pointers for what you can say in response. Obviously, all of this news that came out today is not going to help. It's yet another mishap for this White House and one that they know is a big problem for them, John.

BERMAN: It's just what everyone wants to talk about at the Thanksgiving table, health insurance.

ACOSTA: Yes. That's right.

BERMAN: It's a fine line they seem to be walking, though. They obviously want this to succeed. They want to be up and running at 80 percent, yet they're telling their allies to be cautious about driving people to it, in fact, talking about so much success.

ACOSTA: It almost sounds like, you know, what the Department of Transportation tells people, advises to people before Memorial Day weekend when they're heading to the Jersey Shore, John. Avoid those peak hours. Drive off-peak hours.

And I suppose that's good advice for people traveling for Thanksgiving. But it's also the advice from this administration for using Just to be frank, this is not the experience that this White House or this president ever imagined for this Web site, and so they're managing expectations because they have got another deadline coming up for November 30, that target date for when they thought the site, after all of these repairs, is going to be working, at least as well as it can be working, they think, at this point.

But no question about it, it's an embarrassment for this administration that this site is not working as well as they wanted originally. So they're trying to lower expectations, manage expectations, and manage traffic as well, John.

BERMAN: Jim Acosta at the White House, happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

ACOSTA: You, too. Thanks.

BERMAN: And if you're traveling this holiday, you are going to want to stick around because there are a few things you can actually do to make things a little bit easier.

Plus, what's the best day after Thanksgiving to make the trek back home?

And later, we have a chilling story. Two young girls run to their neighbor's house in the middle of the night, saying they were held hostage next door for nearly two years. We will tell you what the police found.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

Our national lead is the Thanksgiving travel. There are Some 43 million Americans traveling this holiday weekend. Some 39 million of you are doing it by road. And if you have been following really the best action of the day, the CNN great race, you have known that Brian Todd has been on the highway all day, trying to drive from New York to Washington, D.C.

That's Brian right now live smiling at us. He's a very happy man while he drives, which is nice to see. We appreciate his happiness and his joy, despite the fact that it's not always easy to drive these distances.

We wanted to make it a little bit easier for you. So, we have some expert survival tips for the biggest travel day of the year.

Joining me now is Amy Farley, the news editor for "Travel & Leisure" magazine.

And, Amy, let's make this news you can use for all the people watching us in airports right now. If you are unlucky enough to be stuck at an airport at this moment, what's the best way to get out?

AMY FARLEY, NEWS EDITOR, "TRAVEL & LEISURE": Well, first thing is to be very proactive.

I mean, you should definitely sign up for e-mail and text alerts from your airline to find out about flight delays. But, also, follow them on Twitter. And check the Twitter feed for FlightStats, also is very good about keeping you updated on delays as they unfold.

If you're looking to get out and it looks like your current flight is going to be too delayed to maybe make it to your destination on time or catch your connecting flight. FlightStats the website is also great about telling you about seat availability on alternate routes or carriers.

So, you can take the information, bring it to your airline and see if they can book you on a different flight.

BERMAN: Do they have to help you, these airlines?

FARLEY: They don't have to, but they don't want to keep you stuck at the airport. It's a mess for them, a headache for them. So, they'll do whatever they can to accommodate you at this point.

BERMAN: Do you have favorite tricks if you're stuck in the airport? You know, I'm a parent. I've got young kids. What do you to pass the time? And if you're not in an airport, in a car, any tricks for keeping the young ones entertained?

FARLEY: Well, definitely, my tricks for the airport are, well, two tricks that apply to anybody, not just parents. One is download the app GateGuru, which gives you detailed maps to airports so you can find where the best restaurants are, where the best shopping, even where kids' play areas because a lot of airports recognize that parents are spending a lot of time there, so they set up areas for games for kids. So, that's a great resource.

The other thing I don't think a lot of people know is you don't need to be an elite member of an airline's frequent flyer program to get access to their lounge. You can spend anywhere from $25 to $50 a day to get access to the lounge. And there you find free food, Wi-Fi, a comfortable place to wait it out. So, if you're looking at a long delay, that's a good thing.

BERMAN: And an open bar also, a lot of these lounges, which is important for any parent. It's never too early to talk about getting home.

Let's talk about the exit strategies from Thanksgiving. What do you do to make sure that the trip home is better than the trip there?

FARLEY: I can give you my exit strategy in two words, which is "leave early". To expand on that, you know, it's Sunday. Primarily, most people will be traveling back on Sunday. Airports are going to be very crowded, even without weather problems. And it looks like it may not be a problem with weather. But still, you've got to get there early.

There's also a great app called My TSA, which lets you -- gives you crowd source information about the wait times at security checks at airports. So, that's also a great way to figure out how long it's going to actually take you to get to your gate.

BERMAN: Amy Farley, thank you so much for joining us. I know this is like your Super Bowl, joining us on the busiest travel day of the year. Appreciate it.

FARLEY: Happy to be here.

BERMAN: Let's check in with our political panel now.

Happy Thanksgiving Eve, everyone. You know, this is sort of a holiday in itself from cooking. You know, apparently tomorrow is the second most popular day of the year to order pizza. That's according to trade magazine, "Pizza Today", which I get for the articles.

My question to you, Kevin Madden, is, what do you guys do? What is served at the Madden household the day before Thanksgiving?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, yesterday was the big pizza party today in the Madden house. So, today is leftover pizza party day in the Madden household. We can't have mama Madden cooking tonight and tomorrow.

BERMAN: That's astounding.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing says togetherness like pizza.

BERMAN: Three rounds of leftovers before Thanksgiving.

All right. Mind blowing. Stick around for the politics lead. That's next.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

In national news, it may be hard to fathom what three young sisters in Tucson, Arizona, are telling police. This could be the first Thanksgiving in years they have spent outside a personal prison. The girls, ages 12, 13, and 17, say they were held captive in filthy conditions inside this home for several months, maybe as long as two years. Police believe their mother and stepfather kept them prisoner inside. Both suspects appeared in court earlier today.

Our Paul Vercammen is in Los Angeles following the story for us.

And, Paul, explain what's going on here.

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, in talking to a veteran police officer, he said just absolutely horrible. He described what you alluded to, a prison of sorts inside. They found alarms, they found that vents had been sealed off, towels under a door. Music blaring, anything to keep sound from coming out and keeping these three girls inside.

So, after police responded to reports of a man wielding a knife and chasing these girls at this house, they found, they say the girls had escaped through a window and they were filthy and unkempt.

Now, a rumor circulated that the grandmother told a local affiliate that perhaps the girls were kept inside because they were home schooled and the parent didn't want them in the neighborhood, but earlier today, the police chief shot down that idea.


CHIEF ROBERTO VILLASENOR, TUCSON, ARIZONA POLICE: They were imprisoned. Their movements were controlled. There was evidence found in the bedrooms which supports their story, particularly issues about when and how and where they went to the bathroom, how they were fed, what they were fed. There's a lot of evidentiary items that supports the story that the children are giving to us.


VERCAMMEN: And the charges against Fernando Richter and his wife Sophia are mounting. Against him, 10 charges, three kidnapping, six cases of abuse including emotional and physical and one charge of abuse, sexual abuse, with a person under 15. The wife has nine of those charges, not the sexual abuse charge.

But police almost seem to be guaranteeing or promising that there will be more charges filed in this bizarre case, and also perhaps a key and critical piece of evidence, the eldest of the daughters, 17 years old, apparently, according to police, kept a journal that spans for more than a year and a half. Undoubtedly, that could be bone-chilling reading and again, a key piece of evidence in court, John.

BERMAN: Paul, some of the details you're listing here, awfully tough to hear. Just to be clear, you say police responded to a call of a man wielding a knife chasing these girls. I mean, what are the neighbors saying about all this?

VERCAMMEN: Well, apparently, the neighbors must have stepped in and made the call. What the neighbors say is, one group of neighbors said they had no idea that any girls even lived at that house. And, of course, the neighbors came to the rescue and also relayed these stories that the girls were absolutely filthy. And at that point, when the girls were with a neighbor, they said they had not bathed for four to 6 months and they said they were fed just once a day, John.

BERMAN: Paul, like I said, these details tough to hear. Hopefully, these girls get some kind of justice.

Paul Vercammen, thank you so much in Los Angeles for us.

Coming up for us next on THE LEAD, three of our correspondents racing from New York to Washington, D.C. Now, it's a contest really for second place. Which was faster? Was it train, was it car? We'll have the definitive answer next.

And it is touch and go right now for your favorite Thanksgiving Day parade floats. Which ones could be grounded tomorrow if Mother Nature does not cooperate?